High unemployment and poverty rates in the U.S. mean that many people require food assistance or are managing meals on tight budgets.
Research suggests that people who access services such as food banks are concerned about how food insecurity affects their health, and specifically their risk of obesity.
Week Of Healthy Meals On A Budget
Many parts of the developed world, including the U.S., contain food deserts — areas in which people have very limited access to varied, healthful food. These deserts result from income inequity, long distances to larger grocery stores, and other prohibitive socioeconomic factors.
Using census data from 2000 and 2006, the Department of Agriculture found more than 6,500 food desert tracts within the U.S.
A 2009 study explored the shopping habits of women with children and low incomes. The researchers highlighted three strategies that helped the participants make the most of their resources:
- improving budgeting skills
- increasing nutrition knowledge
- including less meat and more fruits and vegetables in meals
A later study, from 2015, analyzed the eating habits of college students. The participants reported that financial instability, time constraints, and low cooking skills were the issues that most frequently got in the way of a healthful diet.
With these issues in mind, we look at options for healthful meals on a budget. In developing our suggestions, we have focused on ingredients that a person can store in a pantry, and we highlight quick, one-pot recipes.
The meal plan does include fresh vegetables, which a person should purchase as frequently as possible.
When you’re trying to stick to a budget, meal planning and cooking at home can help you save some serious cash. With Americans spending, on average, $7,023 (or 12.5 percent of income) to feed a family of four annually, making more budget-friendly meals is key to cutting down on total food costs. Combine this healthy meal plan with cheap breakfast and lunch recipes to save even more during the week.
Tomato Bun Tuna Melt
Budget Tip: Budget-friendly canned fish, like tuna and wild salmon, are cheap and convenient options for fast and healthy dinners on a budget. At a fraction of the price of fresh or frozen fish, you’ll get the same health benefits from canned options (think healthy omega-3 fats and protein). You can still plan to check out the fish counter when you do your grocery shopping to see what fresh seafood options are on sale. Frozen fish may be the better option as it’s often less expensive, and you can defrost it when you’re ready to use it so you know it’s fresh.
Vegetarian Spaghetti Squash Lasagna
Budget Tip: Going meatless a few times a week is good for your health, good for your wallet and good for the environment. This vegetarian spaghetti squash lasagna, with 18 grams of satisfying protein and 7 grams of filling fiber, is a great budget recipe you’ll turn to time and time again.
Easy Chicken Fried Rice
Budget Tip: Fried rice with plenty of vegetables and a little meat is an obvious choice when you want to make a quick and healthy dinner that’s easy on your wallet. If you have a little extra onion or half a leftover zucchini you want to use up, all the better: just throw in whatever veggie odds and ends you have in your fridge. Being versatile and using what you have on hand helps you save money and minimize food waste.
Roasted Buffalo Chickpea Wraps
Budget Tip: Canned beans are an affordable, healthy and convenient ingredient and add satisfying protein and fiber to your meals. Here, canned chickpeas replace the more-expensive chicken but still deliver satisfying Buffalo flavor. Stock up when beans go on sale and use in wraps, salads, soups, stews and more for a healthy and cheap plant protein.
Bean & Veggie Taco Bowl
Budget Tip: Canned black beans, precooked rice and whatever veggies you have on hand is all it takes to whip up this fast and flavorful bean and veggie taco bowl. Use pantry staples to whip up this low-cost meal and skip an extra trip to the grocery store.
Creamy Chicken, Brussels Sprouts & Mushrooms One-Pot Pasta
Budget Tip: Chicken often goes on sale, so when it does, stock up and keep it in your freezer. This one-pot pasta uses less-expensive and flavorful chicken thighs combined with veggies, dried herbs and cheese for a delicious and creamy one-dish dinner.
This plan can be adapted to suit the number of people around the table.
Anyone on a plant-based diet can substitute beans and vegetables for chicken, but we offer specific options for vegan and vegetarian diets below.
Breakfast: Oatmeal made with low-fat milk or a plant-based alternative.
Lunch: Lentil soup and whole wheat bread.
Dinner: Thai curry made with vegetables or chicken and any frozen or fresh vegetables available. Serve it with whole wheat noodles or rice, preferably brown rice.
Breakfast: Boiled eggs with whole wheat pita toast.
Lunch: Leftover curry in a whole wheat wrap with added fresh spinach.
Dinner: Turkey or bean chili prepared ahead of time in a slow-cooker, which is sometimes called a Crock-Pot. Serve it with leftover brown rice or a baked sweet potato.
Breakfast: Banana pancakes.
Lunch: Leftover chili in taco shells with lettuce and tomato.
Dinner: A frittata made with eggs, potatoes, and grated cheese. Add in frozen peas, tomatoes, and any other vegetables available.
Breakfast: A peanut butter and banana smoothie.
Lunch: A baked potato with tuna, tomato, and fresh spinach.
Dinner: A chickpea curry, with canned or dried and soaked chickpeas. Save extra chickpeas for tomorrow’s lunch.
Breakfast: Oatmeal with cinnamon and grated apple.
Lunch: Mashed and seasoned leftover chickpeas in a whole wheat pita with any vegetables.
Dinner: Whole wheat pasta with a sauce made from canned or fresh tomatoes, garlic, and canned borlotti beans. Add fresh or frozen spinach to the sauce, if available. Make extra pasta for tomorrow’s lunch.
Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with a side of grilled or canned tomatoes and whole wheat toast.
Lunch: Leftover pasta.
Dinner: Chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, and broccoli or frozen vegetables.
Breakfast: Peanut butter and banana on a whole grain bagel or toast.
Lunch: Canned soup, such as lentil dahl, with flatbread. Add extra fresh or frozen vegetables or leftover chicken.
Dinner: Chicken casserole made with any available vegetables or canned beans.
Below are some cheap and healthful meals tailored for people who have a vegetarian or vegan diet.
- vegetable and bean curry or chili served with brown rice or a baked sweet potato
- lentil soup or dahl
- hummus and salad wraps or sandwiches
- cottage pie made with red lentils and vegetables and topped with mashed sweet potato
- whole grain pasta with a tomato and bean sauce
- for vegetarians, cauliflower and broccoli gratin made with tomato sauce and topped with cheese
- for vegetarians, a vegetable omelet or frittata
The following foods are inexpensive, nutritious, and easy to store between trips to the shops:
- brown rice
- whole wheat pasta
- whole wheat bread
- old-fashioned oats
- tomato sauce
- canned tomatoes
- dried lentils
- dried or canned chickpeas
- dried or canned beans
- frozen vegetables
- canned tuna
- canned vegetable soups
- ground turkey, possibly frozen
The following strategies can help:
Plan meals for the week
Planning meals and making a list of necessary ingredients before visiting the store can help prevent impulse buying and help a person stick to their budget and nutrition goals.
To start, check which items are already in the pantry or fridge and plan simple meals around them.
To feed a larger household or make sure that there are plenty of leftovers, add rice or pasta to soups and stews and add frozen vegetables and beans to pasta dishes.
Buy in bulk
If a person has the space to store bulk items, buying in bulk is usually a cost-saving strategy. It might involve buying larger bags of potatoes, rice, and dried beans and family packs of frozen chicken or vegetables.
Cook batches from scratch
Cooking from scratch often can be time-consuming and impractical. But setting aside one block of time to cook several batches of a meal and saving them for later can be a helpful strategy.
Eating these batches throughout the week is usually cheaper than purchasing premade meals.
A person might try this with soups, stews, or one-pot chilis or curries.
Eat fresh produce in season
Eating fruits and vegetables that are currently in season is often cost-effective.
A person can tailor their meal plan to the fruits and vegetables on offer, and this also ensures that there is variety in the diet.
Adding leftovers to the next day’s lunch makes meals go further. For example, a person could add leftover vegetables or meat to a soup or lunchtime wrap.
Various strategies can help a person make healthful meals that are cheap and convenient.
Planning weekly meals according to what is in the cupboard and making the most of leftovers can help, as can eating seasonal produce and buying in bulk.
For example, larger bags of chickpeas, lentils, and beans can offer excellent value and provide good sources of protein.