As a fitness coach, I've heard it all.
And of all the things I hear on a daily basis, the struggle to consistently eat healthy is at the top of the list.
I get it. You're busy. You barely have time to get all the things done you need to, let alone shop, prep, and cook all the meals you need to eat every day.
So what happens?
You eat whatever you can, whenever you can. And that might be fine if you want to maintain your current fitness level, but if you are serious about shedding some of that belly fat and start looking and feeling better, you need to eat high quality foods.
And buying healthy food isn't cheap. And when you’re committed to getting fit, healthy food isn't an option, it's a must.
But paying your mortgage, credit cards, and car payment comes before buying grass fed beef and organic apples and I completely understand. But if you’re committed to trading your fat dad bod in for a fit dad bod, you have to find a way to make it work.
And that's exactly why I created this guide; to show you how eating healthy on a budget is not only realistic but also pretty simple if you know how to shop smart.
And I've spent a great deal of time learning how to save my hard earned money at the grocery store.
Why? Because I was on a very tight budget for many years and not being fit wasn't an option for me..it's my livelihood and my business. So I made it work and have been able to save a ton of cash over the years.
You will never out train a bad diet and statistics show that what you eat is responsible for 70-80% of your results, so finding ways to pay your bills and eat healthy is your only option; unless you want to continue looking and feeling like you do now!
Before You Get Started
Before you jump into this guide and start your shopping spree, I want you to do something.
I want you to spend one week adding up the cost of all your meals. I ask this because although you may be saying you don’t have enough money to eat healthy, you most likely you’re spending a lot more than you realize on junk food, impulse buys, and fast food.
It adds up fast and most people use the “ignorance is bliss” approach, meaning they just buy stuff without really understanding where it’s all going.
The average person eats out 2-3 times each week. A #1 combo meal at McDonald’s costs about $7, a 6 inch turkey sub at Subway is around $6, you’ll spend $8 to eat a burrito at Chipotle or to get a 2-piece chicken meal at KFC.
Many guys are spending upwards of $30 per week (or $120 per month) on fast food and don’t even realize it!
So I want you to track it all for one week, including drinks, vending machines, and gas station purchases. After that, set your weekly or monthly budget for food (you DO have a budget set up, don’t you?) and stick to it no matter what!
My motto is...
Eat As Healthy As You Can Afford!
The Typical American Diet Sucks
Eating the typical American diet is made painfully easy and everywhere we look, there is unhealthy food calling at us. The grocery stores are lined with it, a fast food restaurant is found almost on every corner, and even gas stations are hot spots for junk foods.
We are eating more processed foods, refined sugars, and trans fats than ever before and we are dying because of it! The obesity rates are out of control and only getting worse with each passing year.
Forget getting lean and muscular, eating healthy might just save your life!
But despite what Jillian Michaels or D. Oz tells you, eating healthy (or at least healthier than you’re eating now), is more expensive than eating junk. But it doesn’t have to be too expensive if you shop smart.
Every time you walk into a grocery store, you need a plan. Your shopping trips are going to make or break your wallet, so plan ahead and be smart!
Here are 10 things to remember every time you walk into the store:
1. NEVER go in hungry!
2. Have a shopping list, day, and time and stick to it. Just stopping in to pick up a few things will add up quickly if done multiple times each week.
3. Buy generic. Store brands are usually as good as name brands.
4. Use your club/shoppers card for discounts and reward points. Mine gives me gas points for Exxon.
5. Shop in season. For example, don’t buy watermelons in December or it will cost you $8. Eat a different (and cheaper) fruit.
6. Buy frozen when you can.
7. Shop in the morning if possible. There tends to be better deals available then.
8. Actually read the price tag and compare unit costs. And clipping coupons isn’t just for little old ladies! It’s not fun, but it saves big $$!
9. Don’t pay for convenience. Sure it’s faster to buy a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, but it’ll cost you twice as much as cooking it yourself. Other examples are pre-sliced cheese, pre-cut veggies, pre-cooked bacon, salad bar items, the hot bar, and individual cartons of milk or yogurt.
Shop at farmer’s markets if possible. The end of the day is when you’ll get the best deals because they’ll be trying to get rid of stuff. Also, you may luck out and get really cheap or free stuff that’s bruised and they can’t sell. Find a local one here.
At Home Rules
1. Put your recipes on note cards and leave them in a kitchen drawer. You can also use PlanToEat.com, which is an online service that will help you organize everything.
2. Plan your meals a week out. There’s no way to make good decisions when you haven’t planned and find yourself near a Burger King and starving! If you don’t plan, you have zero chance of succeeding at this!
3. Prep on the same day every week. I use Sundays and involve the girls. Your kids will love it, so let them be a part of it.
4. Minimize waste. Make sure you know what’s in your fridge. How many times have you looked behind something only to find some rotten, expired thing? It happens a lot and it a huge source of wasted food. Wasted food = wasted money.
5. Cook in bulk (but not too much). You probably don’t have the time (or patience) to cook every single night. Cook as much as you know you’ll eat for a few days. A good rule of thumb is to double all your recipes, but if you cook too much, you’ll end up trashing it.
6. Make the time to cook. You may think you don’t have time, but you do. Just make your eating a priority. After all, 80% or so of your results will come from what you put in your body. If you still don’t think you have time, write out all your activities, hour by hour, for 3 days. You’ll see A LOT of time in there available for cooking!
7. Organize your pantry and fridge. Know what you have and where it is. This will save you from buying the same thing twice. I don’t know how many times I’ve found the thing I just bought hiding behind something else on the bottom shelf.
8. Label your freezer foods and separate them according to the size you’ll be eating. I freeze my ground meat in one pound servings.
9. Every 4 weeks, go through your freezer and eat all your meat.
10. Combine leftovers to make a new meal and to avoid boredom and waste. Keep all scraps in bags and then when you have enough, throw them in a pot for soup. You don’t have money to waste, so use everything you buy!
- Chicken. Breasts are better, but more expensive, so use thighs instead. Don’t buy small serving sizes either. Buy in bulk, preferably at Costco and freeze it for later. Also look for store brand chicken, which tends to be cheaper than Purdue or other brand names.
- Ground beef. Look for what’s on sale and if it’s not the leanest meat, just make sure you drain all the fat off after you cook it.
- Canned tuna in water. Chunk light is cheaper than solid white and tastes about the same.
- Low sodium deli turkey. You can always find a deal on deli meats, but don’t get the regular stuff, it’s got way too much sodium.
- Eggs. This is one of your best sources for protein, so buy the 18 count (or more) crates.
- Fish. Fresh fish, especially wild caught, is expensive so look for sales. Buy canned salmon instead. Here’s a good recipe for salmon burgers.
- Chickpeas. Buy the canned ones. Great for making your own hummus!
- Lentils. These are very inexpensive and have a good amount of protein.
- Yogurt. There is always a sale on yogurt and you’ll want to check the sugar content before buying. Greek yogurt is a better option than Yoplait as well.
- Milk. If you can buy this at Costco, do it. It’s a great source of protein and can be pretty cheap when bought in bulk. If you eat Primal, drink coconut or almond milk instead. I use the unsweetened stuff.
- Cottage cheese. Another good source of protein and it’s relatively inexpensive as well. Don’t buy the cottage cheese doubles though, they are more expensive and full of sugar.
- Brown rice. I personally use the individual Minute Rice cups because they are super quick, but it’s cheaper to buy a whole box and boil it.
- Whole grains and quinoa. Cheap and healthy, just don’t overdo it because of the high calorie count in them. Also, if you eat Primal like I do, these are a no-no.
- Spinach. Most stores offer a 2 for 1 special most weeks, so keep this superfood handy.
- Edamame. This has some good protein and fiber in it and is great for snacking. Don’t buy the salted ones though.
- Potatoes. White, red, gold and sweet. These are dirt cheap and a great source of complex carbohydrates!
- Steel cut oats. Buy the large container, not the individual serving sizes.
- Fresh fruits and veggies. Remember, buy in season only!
- Bagged baby carrots. Great for snacking and super cheap.
- Canned black, navy, white, lentil, and pinto beans. They are under a buck each and will last forever in your pantry. Throw them in pretty much any soup or stew. Buy them in a bag instead of a can and you’ll save even more money.
- Canned veggies. These can be just as nutritious as frozen ones, just make sure to wash them thoroughly after you open the can.
- Brown rice pasta. It tastes great and is a healthier alternative to white or whole wheat pasta.
- Nut butters. These can be expensive, so wait for deals. If you are going to buy peanut butter, buy the natural stuff.
- Olive, almond, and coconut oils. Buy store brand names for the best deals.
- Nuts. Stick with almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, and hazelnuts. Unsalted. Don’t buy pre-shelled if possible, it’ll just cost you more.
- Canned olives. Personally I despise them, but they have a number of health benefits.
- Raw pumpkin and sunflower seeds. A super cheap and healthy snack option.
Keep It Simple
It’s super easy to get overwhelmed when trying to plan, shop, prepare, cook, and eat all the foods you’ll be eating.
There are thousands of websites dedicated to healthy recipes and it’s SO much information, it can leave you paralyzed.
The trick, and what I do, is to keep it as simple as possible. There is no need to cook meals with 25 ingredients (unless you like to), because a meal with 5 can be just as tasty and healthy.
I also find it best to stick with the same 3-5 recipes for each meal time. Not only will this save you money on useless ingredients that you’ll use once and never again, but it saves a ton of time trying to plan and prepare.
I like to put all my spices and non refrigerated items together in one spot so I’m not searching all over for ingredients.
Remember, the easier you make it for yourself, the more likely you are to stick to it. If you think you have to spend hours per day planning and cooking, you’ll most likely give up because it’s not sustainable.
Use a Crockpot
Sometimes you just don’t have the time or energy to prep and cook and you need an easier solution. Well, a crockpot will often solve your problem.
They’re great for cooking anything from meat, to rice, to yogurt and from what the experts say, it's a very healthy way to prepare foods.
And if you don’t have one, the Instant Pot is a 6-in-1 multi-functional cooker--pressure cooker, sauté/browning, slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer & warmer, and has great reviews.
And because it’s so versatile, easy to use and clean, and pretty inexpensive, it’s probably a wise investment for the long-term.
Here are 10 great recipes for it as well:
- Lemon Garlic Chicken
- Pot Roast
- Breakfast Quinoa
- Butternut Squash Risotto
- Chicken Burrito Bowl
- Chicken Cacciatore
- Red Lentil Chili
- Mexican Meatloaf
- Mongolian Beef
- Chili Lime Chicken
My Personal Favorite Recipes
I like to cook and was actually a fine dining chef many years ago, but I just don’t have the time for it now.
Like you, I’m a busy dad with more things to do each day than I have time. So I find ways to make healthy and delicious meals as quickly (and cheaply) as possible.
Below are my 8 “go-to” recipes and I’ll rotate between them each week. It’s gotten so that I can whip them up with little thought or time and you’ll want to find your “go-to” ones as well.
Like I said, the easier you make this, the better.
1. Meatloaf (minus the brown sugar and carrots). I cook this in 2 pound servings and eat it all week. Just 60 seconds in the microwave to reheat and it’s ready!
2. Shrimp Scampi. I normally use brown rice noodles instead of traditional pasta.
3. Chicken Marsala (stolen from the Olive Garden). You can use grass fed butter and I prefer almond flour. I also add tarragon to it, which gives it a better flavor.
4. No Bake Energy Bites. This is a great protein packed snack with little prep and no cooking.
5. Breakfast Burrito. I scramble 3-4 eggs (with cheese), cover with hot salsa, and wrap in a brown rice tortilla. Perfect breakfast with some fresh berries!
6. Whey Protein Smoothie. I like this post workout and I use 1 scoop whey isolate protein powder (I use Dymatize), 1 cup frozen berries, 2 handfuls of fresh spinach, 1 cup of coconut milk, and 3 ice cubes. Blend until smooth.
7. BBQ Chicken Stuffed Sweet Potatoes. And only 3 ingredients!
8. Power Salad. Start with a bowl of spinach, add grilled chicken and then as many vegetables as you can. I also like to add cranberries, walnuts, and avocado. Stick with oil/vinegar for dressing even though Ranch would taste better!
Best Money Saving Tips
Here is a collection of my top money saving tips:
1. Stop buying supplements. Unless you are already in great shape and trying to improve performance or something sport specific, you don’t need anything other than a good multivitamin. Don’t buy creatine, BCAA’s, pre-workouts, post-workouts, fat burners, or protein powders until you have all the basics of proper health and nutrition covered first. Use that money for quality food instead!
2. Buy a water filter or get home delivery (the 5 lb bottles) instead of individual water bottles. You should be drinking upwards of 100 oz of water daily and that adds up fast. We pay $30 per month for 20 gallons of Deer Park water.
3. Avoid the deli. You’ll often pay more for meat and cheese there and you can usually find the exact same stuff already packaged (and cheaper).
4. Buy one and get half off the second one isn’t a good deal. What you’re getting is 25% off each and you can usually find a better discount elsewhere.
5. If there are two store entrances, go through the one not by the produce (unless you need to buy it, of course). It’s a psychological tactic that supermarkets use to put people in a good mood with all the bright colors and it’s been shown to increase spending because of it.
6. Don’t shop on weekends. Studies have shown that people buy more when stores are busiest. Mondays and Tuesdays are the least busy generally, so shop then.
7. The misting machine that sprays the fresh vegetables adds weight to your product, so shake off all the water before you check out.
8. Check “sale” signs carefully. Stores will often put the sign between two foods and many people will grab the more expensive (and non sale) item by mistake.
9. Many times the “fresh” fish at the seafood counter was frozen at one time. Instead just buy it frozen and you’ll save a lot of money.
You are not reading this guide to get healthy for a month or a year. You are doing this to change your lifestyle permanently. And because you want a permanent change, you should look at this as a long-term decision.
Eating the foods you need to in order to get fit is not going to be cheap regardless of how many tricks you use and you’ll have to make some sacrifices. Put off buying that new iPad or hunting bow and spend it on the things that will make you healthier and ultimately, happier.
Sure, it might cost you an extra $50 per week to eat healthy, but compared to the cost of your medical related issues caused by years of eating junk, it’s a small price to pay. Plus, as you’ve learned, eating healthy doesn’t have to be overly expensive.
I also like to think of the cost of my quality of life when shopping. If I know something will make me feel like shit (like soda or frozen pizza), I’m less likely to buy it.
Keep in mind that eating out just once a month can blow your budget for food. If you are really trying to save cash and eat healthy, save the outings for special occasions.
Please understand that you don’t need to give up everything you enjoy just so you can eat healthy foods. If you plan ahead, make smart buying decisions, and keep your eyes out for deals, it doesn’t have to leave you penniless.
As I mentioned earlier, if you truly want to be lean, fit, and healthy, you absolutely must pay attention to the quality of your food every day.
In just a few weeks of healthy eating, you’ll no doubt have more energy and feel so much better. And then you’ll see the difference in your waistline, in how your clothes fit, and in the mirror.
All good things.
And now you can do it well within your budget!