Many people in the United States eat on a budget, so it is important to know how to prepare healthful meals that are simple and cheap.
Below, we provide a 7-day healthful, cost-effective meal plan that can be adapted for people eating alone or with others.
We also highlight vegetarian and vegan options and offer tips on planning for more healthful, inexpensive meals.
High unemployment and poverty rates in the U.S. mean that many people require food assistance or are managing meals on tight budgets.
Many parts of the developed world, including the U.S., contain food deserts — areas in which people have very limited access to varied, healthful food. These deserts result from income inequity, long distances to larger grocery stores, and other prohibitive socioeconomic factors.
Using census data from 2000 and 2006, the Department of Agriculture found more than 6,500 food desert tracts within the U.S.
A 2009 study explored the shopping habits of women with children and low incomes. The researchers highlighted three strategies that helped the participants make the most of their resources:
- improving budgeting skills
- increasing nutrition knowledge
- including less meat and more fruits and vegetables in meals
A later study, from 2015, analyzed the eating habits of college students. The participants reported that financial instability, time constraints, and low cooking skills were the issues that most frequently got in the way of a healthful diet.
With these issues in mind, we look at options for healthful meals on a budget. In developing our suggestions, we have focused on ingredients that a person can store in a pantry, and we highlight quick, one-pot recipes.
The meal plan does include fresh vegetables, which a person should purchase as frequently as possible.
This plan can be adapted to suit the number of people around the table.
Anyone on a plant-based diet can substitute beans and vegetables for chicken, but we offer specific options for vegan and vegetarian diets below.
Breakfast: Oatmeal made with low-fat milk or a plant-based alternative.
Lunch: Lentil soup and whole wheat bread.
Dinner: Thai curry made with vegetables or chicken and any frozen or fresh vegetables available. Serve it with whole wheat noodles or rice, preferably brown rice.
Breakfast: Boiled eggs with whole wheat pita toast.
Lunch: Leftover curry in a whole wheat wrap with added fresh spinach.
Dinner: Turkey or bean chili prepared ahead of time in a slow-cooker, which is sometimes called a Crock-Pot. Serve it with leftover brown rice or a baked sweet potato.
Breakfast: Banana pancakes.
Lunch: Leftover chili in taco shells with lettuce and tomato.
Dinner: A frittata made with eggs, potatoes, and grated cheese. Add in frozen peas, tomatoes, and any other vegetables available.
Breakfast: A peanut butter and banana smoothie.
Lunch: A baked potato with tuna, tomato, and fresh spinach.
Dinner: A chickpea curry, with canned or dried and soaked chickpeas. Save extra chickpeas for tomorrow’s lunch.
Lunch: Mashed and seasoned leftover chickpeas in a whole wheat pita with any vegetables.
Dinner: Whole wheat pasta with a sauce made from canned or fresh tomatoes, garlic, and canned borlotti beans. Add fresh or frozen spinach to the sauce, if available. Make extra pasta for tomorrow’s lunch.
Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with a side of grilled or canned tomatoes and whole wheat toast.
Lunch: Leftover pasta.
Dinner: Chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, and broccoli or frozen vegetables.
Breakfast: Peanut butter and banana on a whole grain bagel or toast.
Lunch: Canned soup, such as lentil dahl, with flatbread. Add extra fresh or frozen vegetables or leftover chicken.
Dinner: Chicken casserole made with any available vegetables or canned beans.
- vegetable and bean curry or chili served with brown rice or a baked sweet potato
- lentil soup or dahl
- hummus and salad wraps or sandwiches
- cottage pie made with red lentils and vegetables and topped with mashed sweet potato
- whole grain pasta with a tomato and bean sauce
- for vegetarians, cauliflower and broccoli gratin made with tomato sauce and topped with cheese
- for vegetarians, a vegetable omelet or frittata
The following foods are inexpensive, nutritious, and easy to store between trips to the shops:
- brown rice
- whole wheat pasta
- whole wheat bread
- old-fashioned oats
- tomato sauce
- canned tomatoes
- dried lentils
- dried or canned chickpeas
- dried or canned beans
- frozen vegetables
- canned tuna
- canned vegetable soups
- ground turkey, possibly frozen
The following strategies can help:
Plan meals for the week
Planning meals and making a list of necessary ingredients before visiting the store can help prevent impulse buying and help a person stick to their budget and nutrition goals.
To start, check which items are already in the pantry or fridge and plan simple meals around them.
To feed a larger household or make sure that there are plenty of leftovers, add rice or pasta to soups and stews and add frozen vegetables and beans to pasta dishes.
Buy in bulk
If a person has the space to store bulk items, buying in bulk is usually a cost-saving strategy. It might involve buying larger bags of potatoes, rice, and dried beans and family packs of frozen chicken or vegetables.
Cook batches from scratch
Cooking from scratch often can be time-consuming and impractical. But setting aside one block of time to cook several batches of a meal and saving them for later can be a helpful strategy.
Eating these batches throughout the week is usually cheaper than purchasing premade meals.
A person might try this with soups, stews, or one-pot chilis or curries.
Eat fresh produce in season
Eating fruits and vegetables that are currently in season is often cost-effective.
A person can tailor their meal plan to the fruits and vegetables on offer, and this also ensures that there is variety in the diet.
Adding leftovers to the next day’s lunch makes meals go further. For example, a person could add leftover vegetables or meat to a soup or lunchtime wrap.
Various strategies can help a person make healthful meals that are cheap and convenient.
Planning weekly meals according to what is in the cupboard and making the most of leftovers can help, as can eating seasonal produce and buying in bulk.
For example, larger bags of chickpeas, lentils, and beans can offer excellent value and provide good sources of protein.
The Department of Agriculture provide more tips, including strategies for eating in restaurants, here.
They also offer resources to help with meal planning, food shopping, and budgeting here.