Healthy eating on a budget

You don’t have to spend more to eat well. Try these tips from our dietitian.
A man shops at a supermarket.

COVID-19 has changed the way many people access, store, cook and think about food. Some people find they have more time to cook nourishing meals at home, while others are struggling.

Your overall health will benefit if you can stick with healthy basics during this trying time. That means filling half your plate with vegetables and fruit, a quarter with protein-rich foods, and a quarter with whole grains, as described by Canada’s Food Guide. Of course, that’s not always possible, so give yourself a break. This pandemic won’t last forever, so do your best for now.

You may be stocking your kitchen with more canned and frozen food than you normally would, so you may be curious: how healthy are these items?

The good news is that some canned or frozen items can be just as nutritious – and sometimes even more nutritious – than the fresh foods that you usually buy. This is especially true for canned and frozen vegetables and fruit, beans and fish. When you have the choice, choose canned foods made with less sodium and sugar, which is better for heart health.

More good news is that healthy eating doesn’t need to be expensive, since there are many foods that are both nutritious and well-priced. For example, a meal of pasta, canned tomatoes, chickpeas and frozen spinach is affordable, nutritious and enjoyable.

These tips will help you shop, prep, cook and make recipe substitutions with lower-priced foods.

Get set to shop: Most grocery stores have kept their prices the same during the pandemic, as governments frown upon (and in Ontario even outlaw) price-gouging. Stores are still offering sale items and two-for-one deals, so you can find nutritious items at fair prices. There’s also some new advice about how to clean and store your purchases. Get more grocery shopping tips here.

Choose wisely: Plan your meals ahead of time, so you can shop once and get groceries for the next week or two. When you plan your meals, make sure to use your perishable vegetables, fruit and protein options first, and save the canned, frozen and shelf-stable food for later.  Here are some affordable buys:

  • Vegetables and fruit: Economical choices include cabbage, potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, squash, broccoli, apples, bananas, oranges, plus canned or frozen options. Most of the time, local and in-season produce is more affordable than imported vegetables and fruits.
    • Tip: Produce can be stored in your freezer for up to a year.
  • Grains: Choose oats, pot barley, whole grain pasta, brown rice, whole wheat flour.
  • Protein: Try eggs, canned or dry beans and lentils, tofu, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, canned fish, peanut butter, chicken thighs, flank steak, ground beef, stewing meat, white fish, evaporated skim milk, store-brand plain yogurt in large tubs.

Peel it yourself: Buying foods in their close-to-natural state will always save you money. A one kilogram bag of whole unpeeled carrots costs about one-third the price of the same size bag of pre-cut baby carrots. Convenience comes with a higher price tag.

Be label smart: Savvy grocery shoppers also know this secret: store brands are usually made by the big food manufacturers, and are the same quality as the name brands but cost less.

Get cooking: If your kitchen is stocked with some of the staples mentioned above, here are budget-friendly meal ideas to try:

Use smart substitutes: Let’s say you find a new recipe in a magazine, on an app or a cooking show. You want to make it, but perhaps you are out of one of the ingredients, or just simply can’t afford a pricey item. Here are some ideas for substitutions:

  • Instead of quinoa, choose brown rice.
  • Instead of acai or goji berries, choose raisins or dried cranberries.
  • Instead of canned albacore tuna, choose canned skipjack or yellowfin tuna or pink salmon.
  • Instead of almond butter or cashew butter, choose peanut butter.
  • Instead of hemp seeds, walnuts or pine nuts, choose sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds.
  • Instead of halibut, choose haddock.
  • Instead of omega-3 eggs, choose regular eggs.
  • Instead of granola, choose oats.
  • Instead of meat, choose tofu or lentils.
  • Instead of ricotta cheese, choose cottage cheese.
  • Instead of chicken breasts, choose chicken thighs.
  • Instead of fresh plum tomatoes, choose canned plum tomatoes.