Your Healthy Grocery List, On Any Budget
Eating well, whatever your budget is.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 7:29 AM
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Eating well is feeling well, and feeling well is doing well, right? But eating well without spending a small fortune feels rather impossible, while you watch the price rise exponentially with every item swiped at the cash register. (I mean, they don’t call it #wholepaycheck for nothing, amiright?!)
The good news is, armed with the right strategy and a bit of planning, it’s perfectly possible to successfully and healthfully shop your local farmer’s market and/or grocery store without breaking the bank. We asked a bevy of wellness experts, nutritionists, and a doctor how to shop for healthy food, within three categories: budget conscious (ideally around $50 for a week’s worth of groceries), a bit more to spend (probably $100 for that weekly shopping list), and then without much of a budget (probably $150 and more for a week’s budget).
“Being on a budget when it comes to groceries can be a wonderful opportunity to eat even healthier by focusing more on the perimeter of the supermarket, where the fresh foods usually are, especially vegetables,” says nutritionist Dr. Charles Passler, founder of the Pure Change program. “The interior aisles of the store contain all of the expensive processed, packaged, and frozen items, so avoid them as much as possible.”
Dr. Passler also notes that the latest research on what deems a healthy diet is entirely budget-friendly, too, with an ideal plate of food being: 50 percent green and colorful veggies (which he notes is inexpensive), 25 percent complex carbs (also inexpensive), 25 percent protein (inexpensive in that small percentage).
“It’s true there’s so much confusion around what to eat for optimal health,” says Cindy DiPrima, wellness expert and co-founder of clean beauty and wellness mecca CAP Beauty. “With paleo and keto diets on the rise, and a stronghold in the vegan camp, we don’t all agree.” But she notes that the science of eating well can be simple: “In general, it’s important to eat simple, unprocessed, and whole foods.”
There are a plethora of diets out there in the world, and this general guide was designed without a specific one in mind, so feel free to alter according to how you feel and your eating philosophy—we’re just here to guide you to feeling your best, even on a budget.
Spend Just A Little
It’s entirely possible to get out of your grocery store with healthy, fresh food—on a budget—you just have to be smart and plan ahead, both for items and where you shop for which items. Olivia Mack McCool, author of the new plan-ahead, healthy cookbook Lunch!, says to plan where you buy what carefully. “I buy shelf stable organic olive oil, organic almond butter, and organic coconut oil in bulk at Costco or at a less expensive store, like Trader Joe’s,” says McCool. “Then that leaves some budget for super fresh veggies and the best quality meat and dairy at the green market or Whole Foods. When you’re on a budget, the extra trip to an additional store can be really worth it.”
When in doubt? Go simple and pick plants, says DiPrima. “Healthy eating is really about eating very simply,” she says. “It doesn’t have to involve expensive supplements or even superfoods. Those products are fun and can be amazing additions to any diet, but real health starts with clean and simple eating. Load your plate with fresh vegetables. Add some clean, cooked grains or a piece of sourdough toast. When you eat this way, you aren’t spending a lot on expensive meats and cheeses or on more expensive prepared foods, and so you can afford to spend a bit more to make sure you are buying quality.”
The Shopping List
Investing in staple, quality pantry items that’ll last weeks or months will obviously cost more in the beginning, but the payoff in both quality and longevity, in the long run, is worth it. “It is worth it to invest in pantry staples so that your weekly bill becomes less, and it will feel like you can make something out of nothing,” says Lily Kunin, founder of Clean Food Dirty City and the new, impeccable wellness spot Clean Market. Items that give you bang for your buck include lentils (and other grains), hearty vegetables (like carrots, beets, and cauliflower), and seasonal fresh foods (out-of-season produce tends to be more expensive).
The easy solution to this could be salads on salads on salads, but that gets really tiring really quick. DiPrima has a ton of solutions for preparing foods at home. Try fermented vegetables, which are incredible for your body, but can be really pricey ($8 to 10 per jar!). Making your own at home is really easy—for example, making your own sauerkraut is simple, you only need cabbage, salt, and a few inexpensive tools. Also, invest in foods that’ll pack a punch flavor-wise when added into a dish, like dried smoked chiles (they add SO much flavor, says DiPrima, and are cheap and easy to store), and thermogenic spices (warm you and support your metabolism), like cinnamon and cayenne. She also suggests grabbing starchy vegetables, like yams, winter squash, and even white potatoes—all are “inexpensive, deeply satisfying, and deliver great nutrition”— on the side of a big salad. Of course, greens should still be the main focus on your plate (that 50 percentage Dr. Passler mentioned before), then add your fermented cabbage, and cooked lighter vegetables (like carrots and broccoli), and then add in a roasted sweet potato or squash.
Love your bread? Try naturally fermented sourdoughs. “These don’t contain commercial yeast and are far better for you,” says DiPrima. You can usually grab these at your local bakers or farmers market, or even make them at home.
Don’t love cooking at home? (*Raises hand) A simple salad can be an easy solution (obviously) but especially when you utilize pre-washed boxed greens from the store. They tend to be smartly priced and couldn’t be easier for a quick meal. Add to the greens, cost-conscious veggies like cucumber, bell peppers, and carrots, says Nicole Berrie, founder of wellness site Bonberi (which also just launched a brand new plant-based bodega (with vegan foods to-go!) on Bleeker Street in New York). And then adding in a grain, like lentils, will deliver a satisfying protein to your salad. “Make a big lentil salad as your base, top with roasted veggies, and spring for some fresh goat cheese,” says McCool. “I could eat that on repeat—even on rent week.”
Anything else? Yep, know when to purchase organically and when it’s not needed. DiPrima recommends familiarizing yourself with the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. “These lists help to guide you when deciding where to put your organic dollars,” she says. “Strawberries, for example, should always be organic. Otherwise, skip them. Avocados, papayas and peas, on the other hand, tend to be cleaner crops, even when they’re conventionally grown.”
Spend A Little More
Now that we’ve got a good foundation of the basics of yummy, cost-conscious items, if you have a bit more to invest in your weekly budget, here are the items to add in addition to your (online and literal) cart. Our experts especially recommend a few, worthwhile investments for your pantry, first and foremost.
The Shopping List
A few, everyday cooking musts, like avocado oil, which McCool says is one of the healthiest oils for us (but it can be pricey), is a great buy. Same with the best quality olive oil you can afford. “Investing in a high-quality extra virgin, cold-pressed olive oil is worth every penny for finishing salads and drizzling over sauteed veggies,” says Berri. Also, a tasty, worthwhile addition when it comes to sauteeing is organic, pasture-raised ghee.
Another worthy pantry addition to consider beyond good quality olive oil (and other alternative oils) is organic coffee. DiPrima loves Canyon Coffee.
A few additionals in the perishable section are olives (Castelvetrano olives are especially delicious) and quality nuts, which you can snack on, but also throw into salads. Kunin also recommends avocados, fresh organic berries, grain-free crackers (try almond flour ones, they’re super tasty), and if you do eat meat—pasture-raised chicken and grass-fed beef. In addition to those meats, Dr. Passler says to look into wild caught sockeye salmon, quality canned albacore tuna, and organic ground turkey—all in small amounts.
If You’ve Got More To Spend
If the budget isn’t so much of a focus for you, there are a few additional, worthy buys that are an investment but will go a long way in longevity and making you feel great.
The Shopping List
Not to sound like a broken record, but anytime you can invest in (as much as your budget will allow) the highest oils (olive, avocado, and coconut), you’ll see the benefits from a flavor and quality aspect, of course. Another item to add to the cart is really great, aged balsamic vinegar, which can be especially useful in dressings and topping roasted veggies.
In the fresh food arena, McCool and DiPrima both agree to try to keep things organic and local as much as possible, to avoid excess chemical interactions. Also, include super foods, like fermented vegetables (get those $8 to $10 jars now that budget isn’t a focus!), chlorella, and turmeric into your diet. DiPrima loves raw nut and seed butters, too. “Imported raw almonds are the only truly raw ones, but they can be very expensive…You’ll realize you never really tasted an almond,” she says.
Other things to grab if you see them at the market or at the store: fresh figs, goldenberries, persimmons (fresh and dried), microgreens (grown in soil), coconut yogurt,cap beauty
If you like cooking at home, Dr. Passler recommends adding in a little TLC for both you and the soul with some homemade chicken soup: a whole organic chicken, turnips, parsnips, onions, and celery. And yep, he says to invest in some high quality, lean steak (remember the 25 percent protein proportions he recommended earlier though).
No matter your budget, eating well shouldn’t be a huge investment. “In my experience, eating healthy doesn’t have to mean emptying out your bank account,” he says.
The Resource List
Still feeling a little lost? There are plenty of resources to look to make sense of a very crowded wellness and nutrition field.
McCool is a huge fan of Dr. Mark Hyman, with his high fat, very low carb diet made of simple, real food. “I don’t follow his plan to a T, but I find his philosophy sound and easy to follow,” she says. Another one of her favorite books is Primal Bodies, Primal Minds by Nora Gedaudas. “She not only speaks to paleo diets, but also ways to connect your mind/body to your primal roots, which, when living in a modern city, can be a helpful reminder,” says McCool.
DiPrima follows Natalia Rose’s book The Raw Food Detox Diet. “I can honestly say that eating this way has transformed my body and my health,” she says. Her CAP Beauty co-founder Kerrilynn Pamer is a big fan of the new book The Archetype Diet by Dana James. CAP Beauty also has an incredible book themselves, High Vibrational Beauty, with a plethora of beautiful plant-based and gluten-free recipes. Come for the recipes, but stay for the brilliant, unique self-care rituals and shockingly beautiful photography by John von Pamer.
Or, when in doubt, go back to the masters—Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, says Berri. “There is a lot of noise in the wellness world, and both writers break it down to no-nonsense basics in a really approachable way,” she says.
And take heart knowing that even after 30 years of schooling and clinical practice, Dr. Passler still sees that there’s no consensus on what makes the best nutrition. “In my opinion, there still doesn’t seem to be one book, blog or website that offers everything you could need when it comes to these subjects,” he says. So test things about, and see how you feel.
Without a doubt though, the greatest guide is you. “Listening to your own body is the best resource,” says Kunin.
Keep on eating well: