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Your Personal Meal Planning Assistant
June 15, 2021 / Amy Height

Your Guide to Eating Clean on a Budget

Woman grabbing vegetables in a grocery store while holding a tan bag.

With its focus on fresh veggies, unprocessed proteins, and whole grains, clean eating meal plans can seem like a pricey proposition. Good news: clean eating doesn’t have to break the bank. It’s possible – even easy! – to learn how to eat clean on a budget. All it takes is some planning and a bit of strategy.

Clean eating is a commonly used term with many varying meanings, but a simple way to define it is putting unprocessed foods into your body. These are foods that have had little done to them: they’ve had nothing added or removed from their natural state. Eating clean prioritizes these minimally processed foods over heavily processed and refined ones, which the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics designates as foods that have been cooked, canned, frozen, packaged, or changed in nutritional composition with fortifying, preserving, or preparing in different ways.

Learning how to eat healthier means your menu will consist of a wide variety of whole foods that offer tons of nutrition and great flavor – including many options to keep your wallet full and your grocery budget on track.

Eating clean can be affordable! While it might mean foregoing the $24 piece of salmon at the fish counter or the locally-foraged morel mushrooms, you can build a varied weekly menu that will help you feel your best. Nutrition and budget-consciousness can coincide. Here are some of our favorite ways to eat clean and save money at the grocery store.

1. Avoid Trendy Health Foods

The term “natural” and “healthy” on food labeling is not regulated, which means that food products that claim these benefits may not be as healthy as advertised. These products are often more expensive, too.

Not sure how to tell what’s real and what’s marketing fluff? As a general rule, the best clean eating plans are the ones that involve little or no packaged food. Fresh veggies, lean proteins, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are nourishing, budget-friendly options, with no fancy logos or buzzwords required.

You don’t have to visit a specialty store or organic-only establishment, eating clean is possible with conventional produce, quality meat, and plant-based proteins from your local grocer. Farmers markets can also be a great place to source locally-grown fruit, vegetables, and meats without the premium price tag.

2. Plan Ahead So You Don’t Have to Buy Expensive Meals Out

Stopping for a $15 salad every day of your workweek can add up quickly. Cut this expense by planning and packing your own lunch and organizing your homemade dinner in advance with a clean eating meal plan. Having foods prepared for your day and something delicious waiting at home will save your wallet and help you avoid unexpected expenses (and junk food!) when hunger strikes.

3. Pack Nutrient Dense Snacks On The Go

A satisfying snack that keeps you fueled is essential to avoid the siren song of the vending machine. Plan your snacks ahead of time, focusing on ones with a balance of carbs, fat, and protein to help sustain you throughout the day. These two snacks take less than 30 minutes to prepare and are cheap clean eats that are easy to make in advance for the week ahead:

4. Prepare Meals with Ingredients You Already Have

Knowing what is in your pantry will help reduce food waste, save money, and reduce the time you need to spend at the grocery store. It can be helpful to do a thorough inventory of your fridge and pantry once a week and craft your clean eating meal plan based on what you already have. PlateJoy’s smart grocery lists allow you to add what is already in your kitchen, and the app creates meal suggestions and a custom meal plan based on the food you already have.

5. Make a Grocery List Ahead of Time

Making a grocery list ensures you don’t waste time and money buying groceries you don’t need. After doing an inventory of your pantry and fridge, craft a grocery list that focuses on the perimeter of the grocery store: fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, and meat are sold here, and you can avoid the pricier interior aisles that house processed food. It is entirely possible to make healthy meals under $10 when you plan ahead and prepare your list accordingly.

6. Buy Bulk Goods

You may have strolled the bulk bin aisles at the grocery store looking for trail mix or interesting sweets, but these bins also hold a variety of pantry staples at low price points. By purchasing rice, beans, oats, and other dry goods you can fill your pantry with cheap clean eats that last a long time and are versatile and healthy. Dry foods recipes are plentiful and also make some of the most affordable meals.

7. Skip the Pre-Packaged Snacks

One of the most impactful ways you can get in the habit of eating clean is by avoiding pre-packaged snacks. The benefits of skipping these types of snacks are two-fold: you eliminate processed foods from your diet and save money. If you compare the cost of things like packaged crackers, sodas, and chips to whole foods like fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, the difference is clear.

8. Tend to Your Garden

Another way to eat clean on a budget is to grow your own produce and herbs. By planting inexpensive seeds and tending to a small garden, you’ll be able to cross several items off your grocery list. Many herbs can be grown in planters or window boxes, and tomatoes, lettuces, and more taste even better fresh from a home garden.

9. Select Generic Brands

While you may prefer brand name items for one reason or another, if you really want to learn how to eat clean on a budget, it’s helpful to let go of the notion that name brands are better than generic brands. Most of the time, the main difference between the two is simply the price and the packaging.

10. Price Compare

These days, you have even more options for where to purchase food than ever before. There are farmers markets, grocery stores, and an abundance of online retailers as well. Compare prices between your options and go with the best price.

11. Replace Expensive Meats with Other Foods

Meat is one of the most expensive purchases on your grocery store receipt. Try replacing your steak and other high-priced animal products with high-protein foods that cost less. Eggs and canned fish are great alternatives that contain high amounts of protein while being inexpensive. Another benefit of these swaps is that they last longer, are versatile, and are easy to prepare.

12. Take Advantage of Sale Items

Pay attention to store and brand promotions and plan your meals around ingredients that are on sale. Additionally, if you have favorite items or things you always use that will last, stock up on those foods when they’re on sale. These savings add up over time and enable your money to go further.

13. Repurpose Leftovers

Remember that leftovers can be repurposed and transformed into completely new menu items with a little creativity and a few additional ingredients. One night’s roasted chicken with vegetables easily becomes the next night’s delicious burrito. Avoid any food waste by committing to eating leftovers. This is how you can eat clean on a budget and be sure none of the money you spend goes to waste.

14. Purchase Frozen Fruits and Veggies

Frozen fruits and vegetables sometimes get a bad rap simply because they aren’t considered “fresh.” In reality, these foods are usually frozen at their freshest point to try and preserve nutrients and minerals. They also tend to come with two perks as compared to fresh fruit and vegetables: a lower price tag and a longer shelf-life, which means you’ll pay less for the items, and you’ll avoid throwing any away that may spoil.

Clean Eating Recipes That Won’t Break the Bank

With all of these budget-friendly steps in mind, use your ingredients to create a great meal plan of recipes for the week ahead. If you don’t have time to craft your own recipes, a meal planning service can do it for you. To get you started, here are some budget-friendly clean eating recipes to incorporate into your week:

For a simple, portable sandwich to get you through a busy workday, try this chicken salad with apple and grapes on gluten-free bread

We love this quinoa salad with chickpeas, roasted peppers and goat cheese for a work lunch or to take along to a potluck

A decadent spin on a childhood favorite: spanakopita grilled cheese

Asian-style turkey lettuce wraps with rice: these sound fancy but they’re simple (and fun!) to assemble

You might be wondering, “Can your meal plan get covered by health insurance?” Some insurance providers do cover certain qualifying meal plans, and it may be an excellent way to utilize your benefits to start eating clean.

The Takeaway

With a little planning ahead and some careful strategizing in the grocery store, it is possible to learn how to eat clean on a budget. Avoiding pricey brand-name health foods and opting for fresh greens and bulk grains can make a big difference in your grocery bill, and planning your meals can set you up for success. PlateJoy can help you start eating clean with simple, custom meal plans to suit your preferences and your budget.

Amy Height
Holistic Nutritionist @ From the Ground Up Wellness

Amy Height is the founder of From the Ground Up Wellness, a holistic nutrition practice where she specializes in plant-based nutrition and helping her clients combat food addiction. She completed her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where she received her certification in the Health Coach Training Program. She is a triathlete and CrossFitter with a passion for all things outdoors. By night, Amy stage manages Broadway musicals and she frequently travels North America seeking out the best vegan restaurants and the best run courses. Follow her on Instagram or check out her blog for recipe and wellness ideas.

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