Healthy eating on a budget


Eating healthily doesn’t have to cost a fortune. In fact, says Discovery Vitality dietitian Terry Harris, it can be quite cost-effective if you plan well.

This is the last in our series on nutrition and women’s health, in honour of Women’s month in South Africa. Each week, we’ve shared information and guidelines to better inform you about your everyday food choices and offer tips to make healthy eating tasty and more convenient. Now that it’s the end of the month, we have tips to help you stay healthy and save on that grocery bill if purse strings are tight.

Eating healthily doesn’t have to cost a fortune. In fact, says Discovery Vitality dietitian Terry Harris, it can be quite cost-effective if you plan well. Follow these tips to cut back on spending while still putting your and your family’s health first:

Shop smart

  • Make a grocery list of what you need before you go to the grocery store and stick to it. Not shopping when you are hungry helps prevent impulse buys.
  • Buy fruit and vegetables that are local and in season. These are not only cheaper, but usually more flavourful too. Check the packaging for the country of origin and if it’s in season. Be sure to buy only what you can use before it spoils.
  • If you have the freezer space, stock up on plain frozen vegetables. They are just as healthy for you as fresh, are more convenient as they are usually pre-cut, and may cost less as well as last much longer.
  • Buy vegetables in bulk and prepare and freeze large batches of meals in individual portions.
  • If you don’t mind the extra chopping (and especially if you have a food processor to make chopping and slicing a breeze), buy fruit and vegetables whole.
  • Purchase fresh fruits and vegetables by the bag, not by the piece, as this is more cost-effective.
  • Choose hot porridges, like oats, for breakfasts.
  • Buy plenty of dried wholegrains, such as barley, brown rice, and bulgur wheat that are more cost-effective and will go a long way. You can use these in a variety of soups, stews, pastas and warm or cold salads. Try this nut dusted pilaf/pilau for a creative way to use brown basmati rice.
  • Look out for specials and buy items like canned and dried legumes, canned fish, raw, unsalted nuts or high-fibre cereal in bulk.
  • When you choose your fresh produce, take the pack with the latest sell-by date so it lasts longer. Fresher produce is usually packed at the back of the shelf and the older stock in the front.
  • In addition, look high and low when scanning a shelf of food products. The most expensive items and ones being promoted the most are usually placed at eye level, in between shoulder and waist height for the average person. More affordable products will usually be below knee height or set high above eye level.
  • Ready-to-cook meat (for example marinated, boneless meat) is far more expensive than plain meat. Buy your meat plain, and skin, de-bone or season at home. Buy the family-sized or value pack and freeze what you don't use immediately.
  • Grow your own herbs. Fresh herbs add amazing flavour to even the simplest of dishes but it can be pricey to buy a variety of herbs at the supermarket. Growing your own herbs at home is inexpensive, easy and ensures that you always have a mix of fresh herbs available.

Cook smart

  • Buy less takeaway foods and cook more at home. Not only do takeaway foods and convenience meals tend to be high in salt, sugar and kilojoules, but they are also pricier than home cooked meals.
  • Add plant-based proteins to meat dishes to extend the volume of the meal – such as adding lentils to savoury mince.
  • Cook meals in bulk and freeze them so you can use these meals on busy days instead of ready-made convenience options.
  • Save on electricity costs by including more meals in your week that do not require cooking, such as salads. Add canned tuna to this corn, red pepper and onion salsa for a quick, tasty meal.
  • Dedicate one night a week to preparing a meal only using leftovers or food close to its expiry date.

Regularly binning expired or unused food can waste a lot of money, says Harris. She suggests these five ways to cut down on food wastage:

  1. Store food correctly. For instance, some fruits (like bananas) give off ethylene gas as they ripen, which can cause other produce around it, such as your leafy greens, to rot faster.
  2. Serve appropriate portions to avoid having to throw away uneaten food.
  3. Reinvent dinner leftovers for lunch the following day.
  4. Be realistic about what you buy, and get just what you need.
  5. Keep your pantry, fridge and freezer neat and tidy so you can see which foods need to be eaten first – follow the “first in, first out” principle.

Eat smart

  • Get into the habit of drinking plain water when you’re thirsty instead of buying bottled drinks. Tap water is easy on your wallet and has no kilojoules. A reusable water bottle is a great way to have water with you on the go, and is kinder on the environment.
  • Save money by cutting back on unhealthy snacks.
  • Opt for cheaper proteins in your diet: legumes, such as kidney beans, split peas, and lentils, are highly affordable, good-quality protein sources. Commit to regularly using these great sources of protein for main or side dishes. “Meat is usually among the most expensive items in your shopping list, and you can save a lot of money over the long run just by eating vegetarian a few times a week, suggests Harris. “Upping your vegetable and legume intake is also highly beneficial for you and your family’s health, so expand your cooking repertoire with some wholesome and filling meat-free meals.”
  • Seafood doesn’t have to be expensive – try buying canned tuna, salmon, or sardines – they store well, are a low-cost option, and are ideal for flaking into salads or preparing fish cakes with
  • Eggs are another great low-cost option and are easy to prepare.
  • Choose cheaper wholegrains as a carbohydrate source, such as barley, brown rice, and bulgur wheat.
  • When eating out, save money and avoid overeating by splitting the meal with a friend.

As an experiment, make a note of how much you currently spend on groceries and food a month – this includes things like snacks and takeaway coffees. Then give as many of these tips a shot in the new month, and see how much you can save on your food expenses. Your wallet may well thank you for the relief – and your body too, for filling it with nutrients!

By following a balanced, nutritionally-sound diet, you’ll lower your risk of lifestyle-related chronic conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers – and in this way, save on potential medical expenses in the future. Coupling a healthy diet with adequate physical activity will also help you lose excess weight: which is key, as the 2017 Vitality ObeCity Index reports that being obese increases healthcare costs by as much as R4 400, per person, per year.

Good food choices coupled with enough physical activity are key to safeguarding your health for years to come. Harris concludes, “Our research has shown a reduction in body mass index (BMI) and healthcare costs as more healthy foods are purchased instead of unhealthy foods. The bottom line is clear – if you want to live a healthy and productive live, moving more and consciously choosing foods that will nourish your body are crucial.”

Read other articles in this Women’s Month series on good nutrition for women's health:
#1 Why opting for a healthy meal is easier when you're organised
#2 The 3 nutrients women most need for good health
#3 How to entertain and eat out the healthy way
#4 How not to drink your kilojoules

Feed your family good health with Vitality HealthyFood

Discovery Vitality's HealthyFood benefit, created by a team of nutrition and health experts, aims to promote good health and lower the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Vitality members can earn up to 25% cash back at Pick n Pay or Woolworths for their healthy food purchases.

Check the Pick n Pay and Woolworths HealthyFood catalogues to see which products qualify. Then SMS "Join" to 47751 to start getting rewarded for healthy choices with Vitality.

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