Healthy Eating on a Shoe String

Do you regularly pop into the supermarket for a carton of milk ...and leave with three bags of groceries? Or does your morning latte and muffin cost you over $1500 a year (yes, it's really that much!). Not only are these habits bad news for your wallet - they're probably affecting your waistline as well.

While some people seem to have a knack for producing creative, healthy meals on a budget, most of us could do with a few helpful pointers.

Read on for some easy ways to cut down on your food bill and boost your health at the same time. With a few of our smart shopping tips, you can keep your body, your taste buds and your hip pocket happy!

But it’s too expensive to eat healthily... or is it?

Take one shopping trolley, fill with pre-packaged snacks, frozen chips, frozen pizzas, cans of soft drink, frozen pies, bags of crisps, packets of biscuits, boxes of sugary cereal, and litres of flavoured milk. Not only have you got yourself a recipe for a heart attack from the food - the shock of your grocery bill might do just as much damage!

On the other hand, if you fill that trolley with fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, basic grains like brown rice, pasta, couscous and rolled oats, some lean cuts of meat, legumes, low-fat milk, whole-grain bread, and the occasional chocolate bar, your heart, health, and wallet will be a lot happier.

People tend to think that healthy eating is expensive, but it's not. Take a look at these figures.

Shopping Trolley 1 Shopping Trolley 2
Chips, multi packs
Crackers, multi packs
Frozen chips
Frozen pizza
Frozen pies
Soft drink cans
Sugary cereal
Flavoured milk
Custard, snack packs
Ice cream
Pre-made meal-to-go
Chocolate bar
Fresh fruit (apples, strawberries, oranges)
Fresh vegetables (broccoli, capsicums, carrots, zucchini)
Brown rice
Whole-grain cereal
Lean beef, diced
Chicken breasts, skin off
Low-fat milk
Tins of beans
Whole-grain bread
Dark chocolate
Total: $70 Total: $50

When you see it laid out like that it's clear that spending $50 on healthy and nutritious foods is better for both your wallet and your weight control than spending $70 on a few frozen meals and a couple of snacks and desserts.

The same applies to takeaway meals. A greasy $5.95 hamburger meal no longer looks like such great value when you realise that for the same price you could have feasted on chicken, fresh or frozen vegetables and even a punnet of strawberries for dessert.

The true cost of unhealthy eating

As well as being more expensive, unhealthy eating comes at a high price for your body.

Many processed foods, such as pre-made meals and eat-at-home takeaway-style foods, contain high levels of fat, sodium, preservatives and additives - all designed to make the food last longer on the shelf, look better, or be cheaper to produce. Unfortunately these extras are often added at the expense of the vitamins, minerals and fibre that your body really needs to be healthy.

When you're trying to control your weight, eating foods that are nutritionally dense is important for keeping your calorie intake down and helping you feel fuller for longer. If you're skipping fresh fruits and vegetables for frozen pizzas and biscuits, your waistline is not going to be happy and you'll also increase your risk of serious diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

So,what you can do about this? Take a look at our suggestions and see the dollars you can save and the health benefits to be had by making a few different choices next time you're at the supermarket.

Unhealthy purchase
Healthy alternative
Cost saving
Health benefit
Frozen chips (1 kg): $3
Potatoes baked in jacket (1 kg): $1.50
More: fibre, vitamin C
Less: fat
Flavoured chips, multi-pack (300g): $5
Sultanas, handy-packs (6 x 37g): $2.50
More: fibre, B vitamins
Less: fat, sodium
Chocolate biscuits (1 packet): $3
Punnet of strawberries (250g): $2
More: fibre, vitamin C
Less: fat
Soft drink, 10 cans (3.75 L): $10
Bottled water (3.75 L): $2.50
(an even bigger saving for tap-water drinkers!)
More: energy, better digestion, appetite suppression
Less: fluid retention, sugar, artificial sweeteners
Crumbed chicken nuggets (500g): $6
Fresh chicken drumsticks (500g): $3
More: protein
Less: preservatives, fat
Coco Pops cereal (785g): $7
Weet-bix (750g): $4
More: fibre
Less: sugar
Frozen potato wedges (750g): $3
Frozen mixed vegetables (500g): $2
More: fibre, vitamins, antioxidants
Less: fat, additives, sodium
Frozen roast chicken dinner (one serve): $6
Homemade chicken and vegetable stir-fry (one serve): $3
More: vitamins, antioxidants, fibre
Less: fat, preservatives
Ice cream bar: $2
Reduced-fat yoghurt (200g): $1.50
More: calcium
Less: fat, sugar
Packet meal base: $1.60
Dried herbs: $0.75
More: natural flavour
Less: sodium, preservatives
Cream-filled lamingtons (6 pack): $4.50
Crumpets (6 pack): $2.50
More: satisfaction
Less: fat, sugar
Macaroni and cheese (200g): $2.50
Baked beans (220g): $1
More: fibre, protein
Less: fat, preservatives
Chocolate (250g): $4
Tinned peaches in natural juice (410g): $2
More: fibre, vitamin C
Less: fat
Spaghetti Bolognese with 750g mince: $11.50
Spaghetti Bolognese with 400g mince, plus tinned beans: $9
More: fibre
Less: saturated fat

Just by swapping a few unhealthy foods for more nutritious options you can save over $30 a week on your groceries. Then comes the best bit - if you don't need to save it, you can spend it on something else! A massage, new bath products, a CD, a book, new clothes, a magazine, a trip to the movies... whatever takes your fancy!

Of course, the real rewards will be the improvements you see in your health, energy levels and your weight!

Ten tips for smart shoppers

Making simple food swaps at the supermarket can really trim down your budget. Here are a few other tried-and-tested ways to get more value from your next shopping trip.

  1. Be prepared. Planning your meals and buying the food you need in advance can stop you resorting to less healthy options when it's dinner time and you're starving. Keeping a few pantry staples on hand, like tinned tomatoes, rice, tinned tuna, frozen vegetables and cans of beans, also means that you won't be caught short if the fridge is on the empty side. With a few basic ingredients you can whip up a budget-friendly, low-calorie meal in no time.
  2. Shop from a list. Make a shopping list and then stick to it! Planning what you need to buy stops impulse purchases, like that tub of chocolate chip ice cream that's on special. Don't forget to include healthy foods for lunches and snacks on your shopping list. Just by packing your own lunch and kicking your morning latte-and-muffin habit you could save yourself upwards of $2000 a year!
  3. Stick to the outside of the supermarket. In most supermarkets you'll find the basics in the outside aisles - milk, vegetables and fruits, meat and bread. The inner aisles usually contain things like confectionary, chips, snack foods and so on. Get to know your supermarket and stick to the aisles that you actually need. Don't tempt yourself by venturing down the ones you don't.
  4. Buy in bulk. Items such as meat, potatoes and carrots are cheaper per kilo if you buy a larger quantity. Freeze the extras (if freezable), or split large purchases with friends or family members. Likewise you can make your own single-serve portions of snack foods by dividing up a more economical, larger packet as soon as you get home from the supermarket - save money and protect your waistline.
  5. Get a leg-up with legumes. Legumes (beans and lentils) are tasty, versatile and cheap. At only 70 - 130 calories per 75g serving, you can fill up without fattening up. Soaking and cooking dried beans and lentils is the cheapest option, but tinned legumes are also economical. Just watch the sodium content of some brands.
  6. Use those veggies. Halve the amount of meat in recipes and add additional vegetables. More veggies means extra fibre, less saturated fat, and more antioxidants and vitamins for your body, plus more dollars in your pocket! Stir-frys, Bolognese and lasagne are all good dishes to try out this tip on.
  7. Grow your own. Nothing beats the taste of home-grown vegetables and fruits. If you've only got a small yard or courtyard, look for varieties that grow well in pots. And if they're right there in your garden, you'll have no excuse not to snack on a fresh-picked mandarin or carrot!
  8. Buy in-season. Buying out-of-season fruits and vegetables often results in an expensive, imported products that can be disappointingly tasteless. Choose recipes that make the most of what's in season and enjoy the good taste and cheaper prices. Instead of spending money on chocolate bars, treat yourself to some of the more exotic fruit varieties when they come into season, like mangos, fresh raspberries, custard apples, lychees and pineapple.
  9. Don't go shopping when you're hungry. A sure-fire way to end up with expensive, high-calorie extras in your trolley is to visit the supermarket on an empty stomach! You'll be better able to make sensible decisions if your stomach isn't steering you towards the chocolate aisle.
  10. Make it from scratch. Preparing a dish yourself rather than buying the pre-made version will usually save you money and can help you stick to your calorie targets. You can use low-calorie cooking methods to make the meal healthier, plus you'll be doing your body a favour by skipping the preservatives and additives that are often added to keep pre-prepared meals fresh.

Healthy meals in minutes

Of course, one of the biggest reasons we spend unnecessary dollars on unhealthy foods is because we're pushed for time. The best way to avoid this is to have a few super-fast and cheap-but-healthy meals on hand that you can resort to when you're short on time.

These five ideas can each be prepared in less than the time it takes to get in your car and drive to the nearest fast-food joint - and they taste better too!

Swish Fish

One of the fastest meals around, fish only takes a few minutes each side to cook and it's packed with heart-helping omega-3s. You can jazz it up by sprinkling it with herbs or spices before grilling or barbecuing. While the fish is cooking, prepare a crunchy salad to go with it.

Veg-orama Pasta

Put a pot of pasta on to cook. When the pasta is about 3 or 4 minutes from done, throw some broccoli florets, sliced red capsicum and frozen peas into the same pasta pot. When everything is cooked, drain the whole pot and divide into serving bowls. Top each serve with tinned tuna and a sprinkling of low-fat grated cheese.

Speedy Pizza

Spread a piece of Lebanese bread (or Turkish bread or English muffins) with a little tomato paste, and top with your favourite low-calorie toppings. Try diced capsicum, tomato, mushrooms, lean ham, sliced olives, fresh basil or oregano. Finish with a sprinkling of grated low-fat cheese, and bake until the cheese is melted and browned. Serve with a side salad.

Fruity Chicken Salad

Make a salad from your favourite vegetables. Top with shredded barbecue chicken (skin and stuffing removed) and pieces of your favourite in-season fruit, such as orange segments, mango slices, crisp apple pieces, or grapes. Sprinkle with a few chopped nuts and drizzle with a little fat-free dressing.

Deliziosa Pasta

While your pasta is cooking, saute chopped onion, sliced celery, and crushed garlic. Add tinned tomatoes, drained tinned red kidney beans, a few sliced black olives and a little chopped chilli (if you like it hot). When the sauce has reduced and thickened a little, stir through some shredded fresh basil. Top pasta with sauce, and sprinkle with a little parmesan cheese.

For other economical, speedy and healthy recipes, check out's Recipe section. You'll find something to suit every taste, budget and time constraint.

Isn't it time you started investing in your health, your budget and your savings?

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