Healthy eating can be affordable

Origninally Posted on March 28, 2016

UW-Extension offers tips for eating healthy on a budget

Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, fish, low-fat milk. These foods are basic to good health, yet most children and their families don’t eat enough of them, says Gayle Coleman, nutrition education program specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

“One reason for this is because people often believe healthy foods aren’t affordable,” says Coleman. “Recent information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service indicates that when we compare the average portion sizes of healthy foods to foods high in solid fat, added sugars or salt, healthy foods are often less expensive. For example, a medium apple costs less than a standard-size candy bar.”

Coleman suggests choosing foods that give the greatest bang for your buck and calories. “Carrots, cabbage, frozen veggies, and fruits in season are great examples of low-cost vegetables and fruits that are also low in calories,” she says. “The challenge is in knowing when foods that are low in calories but packed with nutrients are a good buy and how to make the most of limited food dollars.”

Coleman has some suggestions that families can use to stretch their food dollars and enjoy a healthy diet.

Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

  • Know when fruits and vegetables are in season ( or a good buy. For example, tomatoes are in season in the summer and oranges are a good buy in the winter.
  • Frozen and canned vegetables and fruits may be less expensive than fresh, especially when the fresh varieties are not in season. Choose frozen vegetables without sauces, and fruits canned in juice to reduce fat and sugar.
  • Buy only the foods that your family will eat before they spoil. Throwing away food is equivalent to throwing away money. This advice is especially important when purchasing perishable foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Consider buying fruits and vegetables that are less than perfect. A growing number of grocers sell imperfect produce such as ripe bananas, oddly shaped potatoes or yellowish cauliflower for a price lower than their more attractive counterparts.
  • Keep fruits and vegetables where they can be easily seen. For example, put fruit in bowls on tables or countertops so they are more visible and more likely to be eaten. Cut up vegetables like carrots, cucumbers and green peppers when you bring them home so they are readily available as snacks and can be used in recipes when time is tight.
  • Grow some of your own vegetables. Even a few tomato plants in containers on a porch can yield a bounty of tomatoes in the summer.

Choose 100 percent whole grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice and pasta.

  • Brown rice, oatmeal, and unsweetened whole-grain cereal bought in bulk is usually a good buy. Look for whole-grain breads (especially day-old items) tortillas and whole-grain pasta that are a good price
  • Compare Nutrition Facts on food labels, as well as prices, to find the best nutrition buy for your money. For example, the Nutrition Facts for a store brand whole grain breakfast cereal and name brand whole grain breakfast cereal might be the same, even though the name brand might cost more.
  • Be willing to spend a little more time preparing foods. In most cases, the more processed a food is, the more it will cost. For example, popcorn that is already popped or in a convenience form usually costs more than popcorn that needs to be popped in a kettle or popcorn popper.

Vary your protein sources—eat seafood and beans.

  • Canned tuna, canned pink salmon and some frozen fish are usually a good buy. Tuna salad, salmon patties and fish tacos are a quick and tasty way to eat fish.
  • Dry beans and peas (black beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, lentils, pinto beans, split peas) are a great buy whether purchased dry or canned. Drain and rinse canned beans with water to remove about half of the sodium. Chili Bean Dip goes great with raw veggies and is easy to make.
  • Use dry beans in place of some or all of the ground meat in recipes. Cooked lentils are a great meat extender or substitute for meat in spaghetti sauce and meat loaf. Similarly, cooked pinto beans work well in burritos, enchiladas and tacos.

For more information, see “Healthy Eating on a Budget” and a video about the cost of healthy foods from