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  • Writer's pictureCommunity Wellbeing San Diego

How to Eat a Healthy, Balanced Meal on a Budget (A Practical Guide)

Healthy eating seems expensive. When we are in a restaurant, the healthy meal options can cost more than unhealthy options. And many of the “health foods” we hear about, like kale, chia seeds and organic foods, do not fit our budget.

Is it possible to eat well on a small budget? Yes, a healthy, balanced meal does not need to be expensive. This article discusses how to do this.

Identify a Good Source of a Nutrient

A balanced meal has a source of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Having all three in one meal is good if you have quality sources. It’s important to know the difference between a source and a good source of a nutrient. If you’re on a budget, you want to choose options that are both affordable and are high in nutritional value.

Foods with high nutritional value will have at least one macronutrient (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals.

White and wheat bread are both sources of carbohydrates. When white bread is made, the grains are processed and the fiber is removed. We need fiber for good digestion and wheat bread still has the fiber, so it is a better choice.

Here are some examples of food that can be a good source of nutrients.

Good Sources of Carbohydrates

• Any fruit

• Vegetables

• Some green vegetables, like spinach, don’t have a lot of carbohydrates. Generally, colored vegetables like potatoes, carrots and onions have more carbohydrates than many green vegetables, but this is not always true.

• Whole-wheat or multi-grain bread and pasta

• Grains like dry oats or brown rice

Healthy carbohydrates have higher amounts of fiber and some nutrients.

Good Sources of Protein

• Eggs

• Beans

• Lentils

• Chicken

• Red meats like beef

• Seafood like fish

• Dry oats (like oatmeal without added flavors)

• Dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt

• Soy products like tofu

Good Sources of Healthy Fat

• Unsalted nuts like almonds and walnuts

• Eggs

• Avocado

• Cheese

• Full-fat yogurt and milk

• Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Many of these foods can give you multiple nutrients as well. For example, eggs are a good source of all three main nutrients. Vegetables can give you healthy carbohydrates and minerals and vitamins. Dairy products like cheese and milk can provide both protein and healthy fat.

Knowing this can help you choose foods that benefit your diet the most and reduce the amount of items you need to buy.

There are many good sources of each nutrient, but which ones are also good for your budget?

There are a lot of foods that are both nutritious and budget-friendly. Many of these foods can be around $3 or less And you don’t have to make big changes to your diet to include these options.

8 Budget-Friendly Foods

1. Pasta and bread

Do you already eat these? If so, buy whole-wheat or multi-grain options to get more nutrients you need, like fiber.

2. Rice

Rice is a staple in many meals. White rice and brown rice can give us nutrients. Brown rice can give you more fiber than white rice and a higher percentage of some minerals, like magnesium, that you need in a day; however, you can still get nutrients from white rice.

3. Canned and frozen vegetables

Canned and frozen foods are often cheaper than fresh options, especially vegetables.

People think canned and frozen vegetables are not as healthy as fresh vegetables, but this is not always true.

Read the nutrition label before you buy canned vegetables because there can be added salt or sugar that make the vegetables less healthy.

You should still have fresh vegetables when possible, but canned or frozen vegetables can help you have a balanced meal within your budget. And it is easier to keep them in your house for longer.

4. Beans

Dried or canned beans are good source of protein and iron. You can also put beans in almost any dish. If you do buy canned beans, choose options with nothing added.

5.Plain oats: If you eat cereal, try buying oats instead. Oats are a healthy source of carbohydrates. You may not like the taste of plain oats though. Many people don’t. Add fruit, plain yogurt, or small amount of honey or peanut butter to change the flavor.

6.Chicken: Compared to red meat, chicken is an inexpensive meat with high nutritional value.

7.Canned Tuna: This is another inexpensive choice that can provide healthy fat and protein to our diet. Be careful of eating too much canned fish if you are pregnant because of the mercury levels.

8. Lentils

Similar to beans, lentils can go in a lot of meals like soups and stews. They are cheap and are good for your nutrition.

Read Nutrition Labels Before You Buy Frozen Dinners or Instant Foods

Ready-made meals can be cheap and useful when we don’t have time to cook, but they are not always balanced or healthy.

There are some brands that make healthier frozen meals like Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice.

Always read the nutrition label first, even if the package “looks healthy”. If you see high numbers of saturated fat, added sugar and sodium, avoid these foods.

If the numbers are reasonable, you can combine your frozen dinner with other foods for more balance. If you buy frozen pasta, add some frozen vegetables like broccoli or spinach to increase the nutritional value of your meal.

What numbers should we look for on a nutritional label? Under serving size, look for:

Calories: 250-300 calories

Saturated Fat: 4 grams or less

Sodium (salt): Less than 800 mg

Fiber: 3-5 grams

Don’t Add a lot of Sauce or Salt to Your Food

Do you consider sauce or salt to be part of a meal? You should because they can make a healthy meal less healthy.

Take barbecue sauce as an example. 2 tablespoons of sauce has 11 grams of sugar. That is a lot of sugar for a small amount of sauce.

Read the nutrition labels and follow the recommended serving size when you use sauces and don’t add a lot of salt or sugar to your food.


You can eat a healthy meal without spending hundreds of dollars. Find a good source of the nutrients you need, and then choose options that fit your budget. Invest your money into ingredients that you want to eat with high nutritional value. It can be hard to make changes to your diet, but start with small changes. These small changes now can have a big impact on your health in the future.

If you're experiencing food insecurity, click here.

By: Ame Proietti


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