Food Guide Finance 101: How to Eat Well on a Budget.

Financial considerations play a massive role in dictating the food purchasing habits of most Canadians. Eating healthy on a budget is not always easy. Whether you are saving for the future, starting a new career away from home, are a student on a budget or someone who has a family to feed, each lifestage presents unique financial challenges. Eating well should always remain an extremely important consideration but it can be difficult to prioritize healthy eating admist other costs and financial limitations. With that being said, today’s posting will explore various strategies one can use to ensure an adequate and balanced intake that is within Canadian Food Guide recommendations and also prioritizies your budget. 

Food Guide Finance 101 

General Guidance: I often encounter people who have trouble with the monotony of their eating styles or who struggle to come up with what to cook. If you are eating on a budget, you are probably regularly reviewing grocery store flyers for deals ( or at least you should be). My suggestion is to let the flyer dictate your meal planning and creativity. Different food items will be on special during different weeks allowing you the opportunity to vary your diet based on those deals. Making a strict list of what you need before shopping will also help you to avoid unnecessary purchases and potentially wasted food and money. 

Meat & Alternatives:  The meat & alternatives group includes eggs, poultry, meat, fish , nuts, seeds, legumes and say products. The foods in this group are an important source of dietary fat and protein in the Canadian population but also represent some of the more expensive food items on the market. There are a number of specific strategies that can be employed to allow you to consume adequate amounts of meat & alternatives while staying on course with your budget. 

i) Eggs do not need to be exclusively a breakfast food. In terms of food guide servings, 2 whole eggs are the equivalent to 3 oz of fish/meat/poultry and are quite a bit cheaper.  I am not suggesting you eat eggs multiple times a day, but don’t be afraid to work them into lunch or dinner if the need arises. It will also help to buy eggs in the largest size container available and avoid expensive organic varieties. 

ii) Larger portions of meat , such as roasts, are generally cheaper than individually packed servings.  This is an important if not revolutionary concept. When these items go on sale, purchase and freeze them for future use.  When purchasing chicken, it is most wise to buy a whole chicken rather than specific cuts. 

iii) Your sandwich does not always need to contain meat. Peanut butter or nut butters such almond butter are a great substitute for quick lunch meals.

iv) Try plant-based protein options such as tofu,  beans, peas and lentils. These items are more affordable than animal protein and make an excellent replacement for meat in many meals and recipes. If you are interested in learning more about plant-based protein please have a look at my article on plant-based diets. 

v) When you choose animal protein, choose wisely: Canned salmon or tuna, pork loin and bottom roasts are among the most economical animal protein selections. Avoid items such as ribs which may have a low price per kilogram but offer little actual protein due most of the weight being in the bone. 

Fruits and Vegetables: If you have read any of my previous articles , you will know the great emphasis I place on ensuring adequate fruit and vegetable intake. Canadians do not currently eat enough fruits and vegetables and this is at least partly due to the fact they are amongst the most expensive food items. How can we eat more fruits and vegetables without breaking the bank? 

i) Buy Seasonal: Buying fruits and vegetables that are in season is one of the most sound approaches you can take to managing your food budget. Foodland Ontario provides an invaluable resource that outlines seasonal availability of most fruits and vegetables and should help with grocery and meal planning. 

ii) Try root vegetables, frozen vegetables and frozen fruit:  Root vegetables such potatoes, yams, beats, onion, garlic, turnips and carrots are generally a good choice for those eating on a budget. Buy these items in the largest quantities available to save money. Frozen fruit and vegetables can also be a good option, try to find deals on these items in your local grocery store and stock up when you can. It would be ideal if you could eat at least a serving of both a green and an orange vegetable a day.

iii) Eat a banana a day: Bananas are among the most affordable, convenient , portable and easy to eat fruit options out there. You can purchase enough bananas for the week with under $2. 

iv) Avoid pre-packaged items: Those of you who have read my a box of spinach a day keeps the doctor away article may be puzzled that I am now telling you to avoid pre-packaged items. I made it clear in that article that buying pre-packaged items, such as leafy greens, can be an effective dietary strategy but is almost always highly uneconomical.

v) Try finding a local community garden:  The Toronto Community Garden Network can help! 

Milk & Alternatives: Milk & milk alternatives provide us with an important source of protein, calcium and vitamin D. These products are very often sold in individual containers or groups of individual containers, which are often a more expensive choice than buying the largest available size. If you are buying milk or yogurt products, buy them in the largest size container available.

Grains:  Grains are an important and generally afforadble source of sustenance for humans all over the world. As with dairy, it makes the most economic sense to buy grain products in the largest available quantity. If you are purchasing oatmeal, for example, select a large bag of oats rather than individually portioned packets. Items such as rice and pasta can also be purchased in large quantities at a better value.

Snacks: I recommend avoiding potentially costly and unhealthy snack items, especially if you are on a budget. Popcorn is an affordable and healthy snack that will cost you less and do more for you than items like chips and candy. If snacking is a very important part of your daily work or school ritual then I recommend you take a look at my article on the ultimate healthy snack. 

Eating healthy on a limited budget can be challenging, but it is far from impossible. I am hopeful that some of the insights I provided today will help you with future shopping and meal planning endeavours and allow you more freedom to eat well within your budget. As always, I wish you the best in achieving your food and nutrition goals.


Until next time, Eat Up!
Andy De Santis RD MPH