There’s this myth out there that eating healthy costs too much.  The truth is that you can create flavorful, nutritious meals at home for a fraction of what you might pay at a restaurant…but you have to be willing to cook!  I love to cook and try to cook as many meals at home as I can.  I use a lot of fresh ingredients, but I also use convenience items whenever it makes sense – balancing my time and budget with foods that are also good for me and my family.

To that end, here are some great money-saving, yet flavorful tips that you can incorporate into your menu planning sure to yield great flavor on a modest budget:

  • Spicy Peanut SauceSeasonal produce is the key to affordable fresh! Spring, summer and fall are great times of the year for produce with delicious fruits and vegetables available everywhere.  Even in winter, you can find nutrient rich greens and winter squash inexpensively featured in your local market.  Seasonal produce is fresher and less expensive, so eat up!  Epicurious.com has a great interactive seasonal ingredient map to help you find out what’s growing in your area right now.
  • Fill in with frozen produce. Frozen produce without added sauce or salt is generally as nutritious as fresh.  It’s also a lot less expensive!  Choosing fruits and vegetables that are frozen and out of season presents an even greater savings (ex. Strawberries in December, sweet corn in March) and they’re picked and frozen right away retaining the nutrients and the flavor of their fresh counterparts.
  • Do it yourself.  Here are just three ways you can save big bucks by making your own, instead of relying on prepared items in the store:
    • Choose dry beans that you reconstitute yourself for a huge savings over canned beans (and with a lot less sodium).   You can replace some or all of the meat in recipes like tacos, chili, and casseroles for big savings and more fiber. Dry beans costs just pennies per serving.  They require some advanced planning, so consider making a big batch in the crock-pot while you’re at work and then portioning and freezing them for later.  Learn more at the US Dry Bean Council website.
    • Mix your own convenient baking mixes.  Baking mixes are just flour with leavening and salt added.  USDA provides several recipes, including this Master Mix.  Plus, by making it yourself, you can bump up the nutrition by choosing whole wheat flour, adding flax meal, and replacing some of the wheat flour with peanut flour for additional protein and nutrients using some of the money you’ve saved.
    • Pre-portion “snack-sized” everything for less packaging at less cost.  For instance, slice up your own cheese sticks from block cheese and wrap in plastic wrap for portability; portion out cereal plus dried fruit and peanuts into snack-size zip-top bags for customized trail-mix; and use a plastic spoonful of peanut butter wrapped with plastic wrap for an instant dip or to-go spread. Check out my recent post Snack Like a Dietitian for more ideas.
  • Curried Pumpkin Peanut SoupChoose smart convenience foods.  Not everything that’s processed is bad.  Whole grain pastas, whole wheat bread, low-sugar cereals, dried and canned fruits and vegetables, and frozen fish are all great choices.  Peanut butter with little or no added salt or sugar is another great option, because it adds protein, fiber and mostly good fats to meals.  It makes for a fantastic staple food, since it can be used in all of the following creative ways (and more!):
    • Good ol’ PB&J – experiment with kicking up your peanut butter and jelly sandwich by altering the bread, or replace the bread with whole grain waffles and try fresh fruit instead of jelly.
    • Breakfast makeover – give your oatmeal some sticktuitiveness by stirring in a spoonful of creamy peanut butter.  Try heating two tablespoons of peanut butter in the microwave and pouring it over pancakes in place of syrup.
    • Bump up the nutrition in your favorite smoothie with a scoop of peanut butter.
    • Use peanut butter as a sophisticated dipping sauce, in soup or as a coating for chicken.

For more money-saving recipes for healthy eating on a budget, check out USDA’s SNAP-Ed Connection Recipe Finder.