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.

If you’ve noticed that your groceries cost more than usual, you’re not alone. All across North America, food prices have increased during the pandemic due to supply chain disruption, and shortages with transportation, food supply and labour.

In late 2021, the largest price increases were seen in chicken, pork and seafood, while the cost of vegetables went down. With meat prices going up, it’s a good time to add more plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts, or tofu to your diet – for your wallet and for your heart health. Studies suggest that eating more plants can help improve cardiovascular health.

New research by Oxford University in the UK found that choosing more plant-based foods can reduce food costs by up to one-third in high-income countries, including Canada. Even a flexitarian plan – where you eat meat, fish or poultry occasionally – can cut costs by 14%.

An affordable plant-based diet

Canada’s Food Guide outlines an example of a plant-based diet, which can be entirely made up of plants, or can include some animal-based foods (that’s your choice). The food guide recommends filling half your plate with vegetables and fruit (plants), a quarter with whole grains (plants) and the remaining quarter with protein-rich foods (from plants or animals). By following this plate, your diet is at least 75% plant-based, and more affordable.

Here are some tips to help you shop for an affordable plant-based diet:

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.

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.  

Know what’s affordable: There are “best buys” in every food category. Here are some affordable options:

  • 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, cornmeal and whole wheat flour.
  • Plant-based protein: Try canned or dry beans and lentils, tofu, edamame, peanut butter, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
  • Animal-based protein: Choose eggs, 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.

Stock your pantry and freezer: Canned and frozen foods can be just as nutritious – and sometimes even more nutritious – than the fresh foods that you usually buy – and they usually cost less. 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.

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. Look on the top and bottom shelves for good quality and affordable no-name brands.

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.

Browse our recipes for hundreds of heart-healthy choices.

Get tips on smart produce buys across Canada.