How to Eat Well on a Budget
One of the most cited barriers to healthy eating by students is that eating healthfully costs too much. Eating well does not necessarily require that you have a lot of money. Here are some tips on how to get the most for your food dollar.
- Make a budget. Determine how much money you have for food each month and divide it by 4 for your weekly food budget.
The Montreal Diet Dispensary has estimated the weekly cost of a healthful diet that can help you determine your budget. For January 2019 the estimated costs were:
- $11.28 a day for a man living alone
- $9.79 a day for a woman living alone
- $19.32 a day for a household with 2 adults
- Track your food spending. Documenting your spending lets you know where you spend your food dollars and helps you determine where you can make changes to save money. There are apps that can help you track your spending. You can also do it the old-fashioned way...on a paper.
- Plan your meals. Look at what you already have at home and examine the specials to plan your meals for the next few days or for the next week.
- Discover low cost recipes. There are plenty of ideas on the web. Use your knowledge of the qualities of a healthy diet to select healthy recipes. Most resources are from the US so keep in mind that food prices there are different. These include:
- Good and Cheap: Eat well on $4 a day by Leanne Brown (American resource)
- 7 day menu for less than $5 a day (American resource)
- Budget Byte$: Delicious recipes designed for small budgets (American resource)
- SOS cuisine has "Best Deals This Week" that you can access from the "Recipes" drop-down menu. Make sure to select your province in the top right hand corner of the site before you begin your search (click on the flags). This is a Canadian resource so you don't have to account for US prices and currency exchange. However, there is a fee to unlock the feature that lists the stores where the ingredients are on sale. None-the-less, the recipes in the free version can give you ideas for low cost meals.
- Good and Cheap: Eat well on $4 a day by Leanne Brown (American resource)
- Make a grocery list and stick to it. It is easy to buy more than you planned when you are in the store. Making a list and sticking to it helps to avoid buying on impulse. Use pen and paper, the notes feature on your phone, or download an app:
- Focus on plant-based foods. Not only is this the best way to enhance the quality of your diet, but animal foods such as meat, fish and cheese are typically more expensive, kilo per kilo, than plant-based foods.
- Avoid junk food. Cakes, candies, cookies, chocolate bars and other “junk foods” are packed with unhealthy ingredients, are associated with weight gain, have no nutritional value and add unnecessary cost to your food budget. There is room for these foods in a healthy diet in small amounts.
- Avoid alcohol. Although alcohol is not an essential nutrient, it is something that many consume that provides calories and no other nutritional value. Alcohol is expensive and adds unnecessary cost to a tight budget.
- Avoid bottled drinks. These drinks (e.g. soda, energy drinks, iced tea etc.) are typically loaded with sugar and add unnecessary cost.
- Drink tap water/avoid bottled water. Tap water is free and safe to drink. Carry your own refillable bottle and top it up at home or on campus in the refillable water stations. If you are concerned about the quality of tap water consider a water filter.
- Examine how often you eat out. Restaurant food and take out are more expensive than cooking at home. The Montreal Diet Dispensary has calculated the daily cost of healthy food for a male living alone ($11.28) and a female living alone ($9.79). It would be very difficult to eat out frequently for this cost. Prepare food at home often. If your cooking skills need improvement, check out "Basic Kitchen and Cooking Skills".
- Examine your coffee habit. Fancy coffees are pricey. But even getting take away coffee on a regular basis can add up. ($10 on coffee a week adds up to over $500 a year.) Prepare and drink coffee at home and bring some to school/work in an insulated, leak-proof container.
- Avoid buying foods at convenience stores or vending machines. The prices at these places are usually higher and the selection is often less healthy.
- Shop around. Prices for the same item can vary dramatically from store to store.
At the Grocery Store
- Become familiar with the typical price of foods. If you know the typical price of food you will be able to tell if the price is good value or not.
- Buy items on sale. You can find food specials through a grocery store’s flyer that you can pick up in the store, in the Publisac that is delivered to your home. There are also websites and apps where you can find the specials that include:
- Many stores have reduced price items for quick sale. These are usually items that are close to the end of their shelf life. These are great deals to use on the day of purchase.
- Make sure an item on sale or other offer is a good deal. Just because an item is on sale doesn’t necessarily mean it is good value. (For example, Macintosh apples may be on sale at one store for $1.79/lb (rather than the usual $2.49/lb) but at another store you can regularly buy Macintosh apples for $1.49/lb.) Offers that can confuse shoppers are :
- bulk specials (e.g. 3 for $10) where you usually can buy 1 item for $3.33. If you must buy 3 to get the special, make sure you will use all three.
- limited time offers
- maximum number of items (e.g. Maximum 3 per client)
- end of aisle sales
- Compare brands by unit price. Unit price is the cost per unit of volume (ounce or milliliters) or weight (ounce or grams). In grocery stores this is often on a tag on the shelf below the item. Generic and store brands are often indistinguishable from popular brands, and they usually cost less per unit weight/volume.
- Ask for a “raincheck” if an advertised item is out of stock. A “raincheck” (also known as a deferred rebate coupon) allows you to buy an out of stock item at the current advertised price in the future when the item becomes available.
- Avoid impulse buys, especially at the checkout. You can do this by making a grocery list and sticking to it. Also, avoid shopping when you are hungry as you may buy more than planned.
- Look high and low. Look beyond the middle shelves where stores often place more expensive products.
- Look for local produce. This doesn’t automatically mean that it will be better value, but it often is. Buying local is much better for the environment (e.g. less transportation) and it supports local agriculture.
- Look for seasonal produce. When produce is in season, it is often at the lowest price of the year.
- Consider buying in bulk. Food products are often less expensive by unit price when offered in bulk. However, this is not always the case so always compare by unit price. Don’t buy more than you can store or use before it spoils. Grocery stores often offer food in bulk. Bulk food stores in Montreal include:
- Use a shopping basket rather than a cart. Grocery stores know that the bigger the cart, the more a consumer may put into it. One experiment found that people who used bigger carts ended up spending 40 percent more in the store.
- Watch for mistakes at the checkout and always double check your receipt and change. In Quebec the Consumer Protection Act outlines rules for price labelling and accuracy policy. Merchants often display this policy at the register. For merchants who do not use a scanner "the lowest price rule applies if there's a price error. This means that, if there's a difference between the price indicated directly on the product and the price advertised in a flyer, in a newspaper or on a sign, the merchant must sell the item at the lowest price." For merchants who use price scanners the rules are that "If the pricing error involves a product that costs $10 or less, the product is given to the customer free of charge. If the pricing error involves a product that costs more than $10, the merchant must sell the item at the advertised price and give the consumer a $10 discount. If the same pricing error occurs for identical products during the same transaction, the merchant must sell each product at the advertised price, but the $10 discount only applies to one product."
- Bring your own bags. Many stores charge a small amount (e.g. 5 cents) for each plastic bag. Saving 5 or 10 cents at each visit to the store doesn’t sound like much...but it adds up
In the Kitchen
- Try less expensive cuts of meat. Per serving (or per kg), meats are among the most expensive food items. A healthy diet doesn’t include much meat (especially red meat), but if you do choose to have meat consider buying a less expensive cut. These tend to be a bit tougher when cooked, but you can make them more tender in a variety of ways:
- Cooking slowly, such as using a slow cooker (crockpot) or stewing for a long time.
- Marinating, which softens meat fibers.
- Tenderizing with a mallet, which breaks down meat fibers.
- Cooking to the right temperature. Overcooking usually toughens meat.
- Cutting cooked meat against the grain, which creates shorter meat fibers that are easier to chew.
- Cook your own beans. Beans are among the best source of plant proteins. They are inexpensive in cans and even cheaper if you cook dry beans yourself.
- Freeze foods. When there is a good deal on fresh produce, or when foods are getting older...freeze them. Many fruits and vegetables freeze well. Other foods including breads, rice and milk freeze well. Over time the quality of frozen foods deteriorates so become aware of how long you can store foods in your freezer.
- Avoid waste. An estimated $31 billion of food is wasted in Canada each year. Much of that occurs in the consumer’s home. Ways to reduce waste include:
- Look at the “best before” date before buying a food. Items with the longest “best before” date are usually placed in the back of the shelf at grocery stores, so don’t automatically take the item closest to you.
- Understand what the “best before” date means. Consumers are confused about that these dates mean. Best before dates do not mean that the food is expired and unsafe: rather, it refers more to freshness. Obviously, if a food smells or looks bad, don’t consume it. If in doubt...throw it out.
- Organize your fridge and pantry. This way you will clearly see what you have. Bring older foods to the front and use them first. Clearly label dates of leftovers (have tape and marker on top of fridge).
- Freeze foods before they are no longer good to eat (see above)
- Rethink what you toss away. Vegetable scraps can be frozen and then made into vegetable broth. Chicken and beef scraps can also be frozen and then made into chicken or beef broth.
There are many community resources that can help those who are struggling with finding affordable food. Check out our Affordable Food Resources page.
Here at Concordia the People`s Potato offers a vegan meal on weekdays for free or for a contribution and there is a Hive Free Lunch at Loyola. Multi-faith and Spirituality Centre (MFSC) has a Student Emergency and Food Fund that provides gift cards that can be used at specific grocery stores. The Concordia Student Union can provide students in need with Emergency Food Vouchers.