As food costs continue to rise, eating healthy on a budget can be a challenge. Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor shares some tips to help.
With food costs higher than ever before, we understand that the size of your supermarket bill might be a bigger concern than whether it’s healthy. But it’s possible to look after both.
Here are our top tips for making healthy food choices that don’t break the bank, helping to reduce your risk of long-term health issues like a heart attack or stroke.
Affordable ways to get your 5-a-day
Any fresh fruit and vegetables can be included in your 5-a-day (apart from potatoes, yams and plantains which are starchy carbohydrates) – ideally, try to have as much variety through the week as you can.
It’s worth looking out for special offers on fruit and veg, and buying them in season will be cheaper and tastier than out of season. Frozen fruit and veg also count towards your 5-a-day, and can be cheaper (especially when it comes to things like berries and cherries), as well as helping to avoid waste.
Tinned fruit and veg count towards your 5-a-day if they’re tinned in water or juice, without added sugar or salt.
Sadly, “value” ranges of tinned foods sometimes have sugar and salt added. Most of us in the UK eat too much salt, and over time, this contributes to high blood pressure, which can increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes.
We’re also mostly eating too much sugar, which can lead to putting on weight. So check the label and consider whether the one without sugar and salt is affordable. If not, perhaps you could switch to a different product (like tinned mixed vegetables in water, instead of sweetcorn with sugar and salt).
Protein on a budget
Plant proteins – like beans, lentils and tofu – are generally the cheapest way to get protein, and because they’re lower in saturated fat than meat, they’re a great choice for your heart health too.
If you want to include meat in your diet, extra-lean mince is the healthiest way to buy mince, but it does cost more. The cheapest mince contains around four times as much unhealthy (saturated) fat, compared to extra-lean. If you need to buy the cheapest mince, you can reduce the fat if you cook it the day before, allow it to cool, refrigerate, and then remove the fat from the top the next day. Or you might be able to use less meat in dishes like shepherd’s pie, Bolognese sauce, stews and curries, by adding beans and vegetables. This will reduce the fat content, and if you don’t need to buy as much meat, leaner options might become more affordable.
Skin-on pieces of chicken and pieces with bones are cheaper than skinless, boneless chicken pieces. Just bear in mind that chicken skin contains saturated fat, so remove it before cooking.
Tinned fish is cheaper than fresh, and doesn’t even need cooking. Tinned salmon, sardines, mackerel and pilchards are oily fish, which we’re recommended to eat once a week for our heart health. Frozen fish can also be cheaper than fresh – frozen fish fillets or pieces without added sauces or coatings are usually healthier than fish fingers or other breaded or battered fish, which contain added fat and salt.
Adding healthy carbs
Wholegrain versions of bread, pasta, or rice don’t necessarily cost more than the white versions. They’ll help to keep your digestive system healthy, and can be more filling too.
Porridge oats are a healthy choice, and cheaper than many cereals. If you don’t want to make porridge, you could try overnight oats (just soak porridge oats overnight in water, or low-fat milk or plant milk, mix in a pinch of cinnamon and some fruit).
Cheap and healthy snacks
If you have three nutritious, balanced meals each day, you might find that you don’t need to snack. But if snacks are part of your diet (or your family’s), try to choose fruit, plain low-fat yoghurt and unsalted nuts for a more filling and nutritious choice. Bananas, satsumas and apples make good-value snacks and don’t need any preparation, or if you have a little more time, making carrot and celery sticks can be even cheaper per portion, and any leftovers can be used in soups or stews.
Making your own popcorn instead of buying it ready-made, or as an alternative to crisps, can save money and can also be healthier, if you have it plain or flavoured with herbs and spices instead of salt, sugar or butter. Peanuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are usually the most affordable nuts and seeds, and have similar health benefits to pricier nuts and seeds. Unfortunately, salted or roasted peanuts are often cheaper than plain unsalted nuts. Bear in mind that the salted ones might tempt you to eat more of them, and that too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure.
It’s estimated that between a fifth and a quarter of food that we buy is wasted. Planning what you will eat will help you make sure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, and reduce waste. Writing a meal plan doesn’t have to be complicated, and helps you plan for days when you might not have time to cook, and so avoid buying food you might not get round to cooking.
Almost any leftover vegetables can be made into soup, perhaps with a tin of cannellini or butter beans to make it more substantial. This can be healthier than buying soup, as you can make it without adding salt, and add herbs or spices instead of salty stock. You can freeze soup in portions for another day. Sliced bread, muffins, crumpets and buns won’t go mouldy or stale if you store them in the freezer and just take out what you need. Freezing is also a good way to take advantage of end-of-the-day offers on wholegrain bread.
Microwaves and pressure cookers tend to be the most energy-efficient ways of cooking, so can save you money on your energy bills. When it comes to slow cookers, it depends on what temperature setting you’re using, but it may work out cheaper than using the oven. If you are thinking of buying one of these appliances, BHF Home stores sell preloved models, which have been tested to make sure they work and are safe to use, and are cheaper than buying new.
If you are using the oven, you can reduce the energy cost per dish by batch cooking. If you are baking fish for dinner, for example, serve it with roasted veg that you can cook alongside and homemade potato wedges cooked in the oven. You can cook double portions so that you have leftovers for the next day. You can also try turning the oven off five to ten minutes before the end of the cooking time, as the food should finish cooking in the heat that’s still in the oven. This works well for casseroles, vegetables and shepherd’s pies, but less well for things where the exact temperature is important, like biscuits and cakes.
If you are cooking on the hob, use the smallest pan you need for the job and put a lid on it to speed up cooking and save on the amount of fuel you use. Try not to boil more water in the kettle than you need, but if you have leftover boiling water, you can put it in a flask to use for hot drinks later.
Where to get more support
Make sure that you are claiming any benefits you are entitled to. Visit the Turn2us online benefits calculator to check. If you’re over 50, Age UK offer help with claiming benefits – their Advice Line is 0800 678 1602.
You can also contact Citizens Advice for help.
If you need emergency support, there are food banks around the UK. You may need a referral from a professional such as a social worker, doctor, health visitor, or probation worker or Citizens Advice. Speak to Citizens Advice or contact Age UK to find out about your local food bank and whether you can get a referral.
Published September 2022
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