12 Self-Reliant Ways to Eat Healthy on a Budget

Try these obvious and not-so-obvious ways to save money and still eat well.

young woman at farmers market

Farmers often offer discounts on imperfect, in-season foods at the end of the day at farmers markets.

Photo by iStock

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As a nutritionist and doctor of natural medicine for nearly 25 years, I can tell you that cost is the most common excuse people give for not eating healthfully. But, as I tell everyone in my office who makes this complaint, it doesn’t have to be. Of course, we’ve all heard some of the old standbys when it comes to slashing food costs: Ditch the expensive prepared foods and eat out less, for example. But eating shouldn’t be about skimping—it should be about abundance. Here are some more of my favorite ways to save money while eating very well.

1. Grow your own food, even in pots.

This is basic, but it’s important. It’s simply much more affordable to grow food than to buy it. As long as you have a sunny window or a balcony, you can grow strawberries, tomatoes, herbs and many other plants in pots. Step up to a tiny yard and you can actually grow a lot of food, especially if you choose to have a garden instead of a lawn. While you’re at it, choose crops that will come back every year, such as asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes (as long as you leave a few roots), raspberries, blueberries, rhubarb, horseradish and watercress. These healthy foods will cost you nothing after you’ve planted them the first year, but will provide many years of harvesting. You might also participate in or start a community garden, workplace rooftop garden, or other cooperative garden project that will help you enjoy a portion of the crop yields in exchange for shared labor and socializing.

2. Grow your own herbs.

Store-bought herbs are expensive, and they quickly lose flavor and go bad. On the other hand, most herbs are incredibly easy to grow from seed, replenish themselves and last a long time. Plus, they’re absolutely fresh when you pick and consume them, adding to their depth of flavor and nutrition. It’s also simple to preserve homegrown herbs.

3. Create an edible fence.

If you’re ready to try your hand at growing your own food, you can save money on food and fencing by planting an edible fence such as raspberry or blackberry bushes, or even Jerusalem artichokes. Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes as they are also known, are more like potatoes than artichokes. They grow quickly to more than seven feet tall. A Jerusalem artichoke fence will be seasonal, but as long as you leave a few roots when you dig up the bulbs in the fall, your all-natural fence will grow back every year.

4. Plant your scraps.

Before you throw out all your semi-used vegetables, consider planting them instead. While not every vegetable scrap will grow into a whole new vegetable, many will. You’ll want to save and plant the tops of beets, carrots and parsnips with at least a quarter of an inch of the vegetable intact to nourish new root growth. The same is true of potatoes: Look for eyes and keep a small amount of the potato intact to plant directly into the earth. Water your vegetable scraps as you would vegetable plants and before you know it, you’ll have a bountiful vegetable harvest at a price no one can resist—free!

5. Grow your own sprouts.

Sprouts are among the most nutritious foods we can eat, and it’s incredibly easy to grow your own. All you need is a glass jar, sprouting seeds, water and a strainer. Simply take a few minutes each day to rinse, strain and soak the seeds, and you’ll have inexpensive superfoods in your kitchen on a regular basis. Even if you don’t want to grow your own sprouts, many store-bought sprouts are quite affordable, especially mung bean sprouts (also called bean sprouts).

Grow Your Own Sprouts, 1-2-3!

1. Buy seeds you wish to sprout—alfalfa, mung beans, radish, lentils, mustard, beets, etc. Buy seeds marked for sprouting. Good suppliers include Sprout People and Mountain Rose Herbs. Rinse sprouting seeds a few times, then soak them overnight in a sterilized jar of water covered with cheesecloth secured by a rubber band.

2. Dump out the water in the morning, then rinse and drain seeds (and then sprouts) a few times a day.

3. Harvest sprouts as soon as their tails emerge, which is when they are sweetest, on up until they reach an inch or two in length if you prefer them less sweet. Store them in the fridge to eat over a few days.

6. Don’t throw out the seeds.

If you’re in the habit of scooping out the seeds of pumpkins and squashes and throwing them out, you might want to reconsider. These seeds are edible and delicious, and they’re filled with healthful fats and fiber. Soak them in a salty brine, let them dry, and then lightly coat them in olive oil and bake in a 300-degree oven until lightly browned. They make a nutritious no-cost snack that’s much healthier than potato chips. They’re also tasty sprinkled on salads. You can also press your own healthful cooking oil with a home oil press—it works with pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, walnuts and more. Watch a video demonstrating an oil press.

7. Shop at farmers markets, especially at the end of the day.

Most of us know we can find a deal on food at our local farmers market, but few know that shopping at the end of the day often means saving money. Many farmers don’t want to pack up any extras and would rather slash prices than take the leftovers home. Also check booths for any specially marked boxes of “seconds”—items that may not look perfect, but will do just fine in your kitchen. Every year, I buy blueberries, raspberries, cherries and vegetables in bulk at a discount from my local farmers and freeze them. It’s easy and saves a lot of money. (Pit cherries prior to freezing.)

8. Make the most of meat.

Meat and seafood tend to be among the more expensive items on our grocery lists. By making meat a side dish rather than the star, you’ll save a lot of money. This may also help you afford pricier, healthier grass-fed meats. When you do buy meat, make use of every part of it by turning chicken, fish or other meat bones into homemade soup base. Collect bones in the freezer until you have enough to boil them in a large pot of water, along with vegetable and herb scraps. (See our Homemade Chicken Stock recipe.)

9. Make your own fermented foods.

Yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles and dairy-free cheeses are typically expensive specialty items at the grocery store, but they’re remarkably cheap and easy to make at home. Plus, they are packed with health-boosting probiotics. (Additionally, most store-bought varieties of fermented foods are pasteurized and thus do not contain the beneficial microbes). For many recipes and step-by-step instructions, check out my new book, The Probiotic Promise.

Make Your Own Yogurt, 1-2-3!

1. Bring 1 quart milk to 180 degrees slowly over low heat, then allow it to cool to between 110 and 115 degrees.

2. Mix a small amount (about 1⁄2 cup) of the heated-and-cooled milk with a tablespoon of yogurt that contains live, active cultures. Incorporate this milk-and-starter mixture into the rest of the milk.

3. Incubate the inoculated milk for several hours, and avoid jostling the container. You can use any incubator that will maintain the 110 or so degrees needed to encourage yogurt bacteria to proliferate, including a small cooler or thermos, a box-style food dehydrator or, of course, a dedicated yogurt maker. The yogurt is finished and ready to eat or refrigerate when it has achieved the consistency you like, usually between 3 and 8 hours.

10. Beans there, done that.

Beans really are the magical fruit when it comes to eating healthy on a budget. Dried beans are incredibly economical, and they offer protein and fiber to help us feel full. They also come in a wide variety, from tiny lentils to giant White Northern beans. Buy dried beans and throw them in a crockpot or on the stove, then cool and freeze in single-use portions in freezer bags or jars. Use cooked beans in soups and stews; in traditional dal curries; make them into vegetarian burgers, “meatballs” or “meatloafs”; or blend them into hummus or other spreads. You can also add unseasoned, neutral-tasting bean purées to brownies to boost the fiber.

11. Skip the expensive drinks.

Soda, juices and other beverages are filled with sugar and often cost a pretty penny. Simply choosing water will save you a stash of cash. If you want flavor, consider infusing water with fruits, vegetables or herbs. Bottles like the Aquazinger have a built-in infuser. Buy one and save on flavored beverages all year. You can also reduce your beverage bill by making your own coffee and tea, hot or iced. I regularly keep a pot of freshly brewed tea, with a few drops of the natural sweetener stevia and the juice of one lemon, in a pitcher in my fridge for a refreshing sugar-free, low-cost drink.

12. Bake your own bread.

Specialty breads are expensive to purchase at the local health-food store or bakery. They are actually much easier to make than you might think. Try baking your own and you’ll enjoy better-tasting, freshly baked breads, and keep some extra dollars in your wallet. For recipes or instructions check out Whole Grain Baking Made Easy by our food editor, Tabitha Alterman.

Make Easy, Healthy Bread, 1-2-3!

1. In a large bowl, combine 3 cups whole-wheat flour with 1⁄4 teaspoon instant or active dry yeast, 1-1⁄4 teaspoons sea salt and 2 cups cool water, and stir to blend. The dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover loosely and let rise at room temperature at least 12 hours, preferably about 18 hours.

2. When dough is dotted with bubbles, turn it onto a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle flour over the top and fold dough on itself a couple of times. Cover loosely and let rest 15 minutes, then shape into a ball. Put dough seam side down on a floured towel and dust with a little more flour. Cover loosely and let rise until it more than doubles in size and does not readily spring back when poked with a finger, about 2 hours.

3. Half an hour before dough is ready, preheat oven to 450 degrees with a heavy covered pot in the oven. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven and turn dough over into pot. Give the pan a good shake to distribute dough; don’t worry about how messy it looks. Cover and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until well browned. Cool on a rack for at least an hour before slicing.