On a budget but don’t want to sacrifice your health? Check out this list of clean eating meal ideas to try when money is tight!
I hear all the time that eating healthy is more expensive than eating junk. And, while I understand where that idea comes from, it’s not always my own personal experience.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of healthy food that can really add to your grocery budget and make clean eating hard for some families. But, at it’s core, I do believe eating clean can be done on any budget.
Why do I think this? Because my family managed to make this switch when we made less than $20k a year. During a time when I walked to the grocery store pushing a stroller so I wouldn’t have to cut into my food budget by buying gas, I was able to clean up my family’s diet and focus on whole, nutrient dense foods to fuel our bodies.
If I could do it then, I know you can do it too!
In this blog post, I’m going to share some clean eating meal ideas and tips that can work for you, even if you’re on a tight budget. This isn’t a full meal plan, but more of a list of recipes and meals I’ve used in the past when money is tight.
Of course, the cost of groceries varies wildly across the US, so I won’t make any price claims. Just know that each of these meal ideas is comprised of cheap staples that can be stretched to feed a family without costing a lot of money.
Ready to get started? Let’s go!
How Can I Save Money and Eat Healthy?
If I’m being totally honest, I actually started making my family’s food to save money. Yes, I wanted to be healthier, but the logical part of me realized that the same money I was spending on one meal at a drive through or from a box could be spent on ingredients to make 2-3 meals.
Things like flour, yeast, eggs, seeds, noodles, beans, and rice are all really cheap. You can use these to stretch other ingredients so they go farther.
Here are some simple tips to help you save money grocery shopping:
- Avoid “trendy” health foods that cost more: While things like collagen and kombucha and cassava flour are fun to experiment with when you’ve got the money, they aren’t 100% necessary in order to stay healthy.
- Stick with the basics: This goes hand in hand with the first tip. Stick with simple, affordable ingredients and keep your meals basic. (You shouldn’t need to follow a recipe every single night to eat well).
- Make a grocery list (and stick to it): Possibly the biggest offender to my grocery budget is when I shop on a whim. It always costs more, and results in more waste.
- Plan your meals: Make a plan that ensures you use up every last bit of what you buy. If you buy a bag of dry beans, plan a couple of meals to incorporate them. If you buy a whole chicken, plan a couple of meals to use that up! You get the idea. (I’ve got clean eating meal ideas below that will help!)
- Buy cheaper cuts of meat: Shop sales and find the cheaper cuts to help stretch your budget!
- Make things at home (like bread): Typically, ingredients are cheaper than actual food, so if you’ve got the time, consider making your own things at home. Plus, you’ll know exactly what’s in them!
- Shop for seasonal produce: Every fruit and veggie has a season, and you can save a ton of money if you make sure you’re buying seasonally. Broccoli purchased in the heat of summer is going to cost more than broccoli grown when it flourishes. Think seasonally when you shop!
- Buy frozen fruits and veggies: This is a great way to make sure you’re getting plenty of fruits and veggies for cheap. Just make sure to check the ingredients, because some brands will add extra salt or sugar. All you want to see is the fruit/veggie you’re buying, and possibly water.
- Buy in bulk whenever possible: This doesn’t apply to everything (don’t overbuy something that will go bad), but buying some things in bulk will be more cost effective than buying in smaller quantities. I like buying bulk for my frozen foods and meat, because I can portion them off at home and save a lot of money.
- Use everything: And, I mean everything. You can use things like carrot and celery tops, broccoli stems, and chicken bones to make broth. Left overs can be repurposed or frozen to serve again another night. Get creative with what’s left over!
- Cook extra and save left overs: Making a big pot of soup or a casserole? It costs pennies to bulk it up and make more servings, so consider doing that and saving the left overs. You can freeze them to have on hand later, or eat them a couple of nights in a row.
This post really elaborates on how to shop and what to keep on hand, if you want more info!
Clean Eating Staples to Keep on Hand
- dry beans (get an assortment)
- canned beans
- canned tomatoes
- whole wheat pasta
- brown rice
- baking soda
- baking powder
- bulk spices
- frozen veggies and fruits
- seasonal produce
- whole milk, cream, or milk alternative
- whole chickens
- chicken bone broth (made from bones of your whole chickens)
- cheap cuts of meat
Budget Friendly Clean Eating Meal Ideas
Here’s where we really get into the beef of is post (yep, I went there). What do you cook to make your groceries stretch as far as they possibly can?!
Here are some of my family’s favorite simple meals for when we need to make the grocery budget stretch. They’re not really recipes, in the traditional sense. Think of this more as us chatting as friends, and me telling you how I make some of my favorites. Please, don’t expect exact measurements and instructions here. Rather, take these ideas and run with them to feed your family simple, nourishing meals.
What I especially love about this list of clean eating meal ideas is that each one should make plenty for left overs. You can either eat the same thing a second night, repurpose your left-overs into a new meal, or freeze the extras. Like I said, if you buy the right ingredients, you can really make your groceries stretch further!
Beans and Rice
This one’s pretty simple, and I think the stereotypical “cheap” meal, but let’s be honest. It doesn’t get much heartier and filling than a tasty bowl of beans and rice.
You can find your fair share of recipes online, but I make them as simple as possible.
- Pour my dry beans into the instant pot with about twice as much water
- add some onion and bell pepper,
- season them with salt, pepper, onion, garlic, and a dash of cayenne.
- If you’ve got some bacon or ham pieces, throw those in, too.
- Then close the lid and cook on high for about 30-40 minutes!
So easy, and you can make a ton and hardly put a dent in your grocery bill.
Hold on to the left overs, too, because you can use them again in plenty of other meals!
Pasta with Bean Bolognese Sauce
I learned about this dish from a friend when I was super duper struggling to put good food on the table every night.
In fact, her specific advice was to buy a pound of beef and a pound of beans. Make beans and rice one night, and use the left overs in this sauce the next.
This one is super easy to make. All you need is:
- cooked pinto beans
- 1 lb ground beef
- onion (chopped)
- bell pepper (chopped)
- garlic (peeled and chopped)
- celery (chopped)
- 1 can of chopped tomatoes
- a few basil leaves
- salt and pepper
- whole wheat pasta
- extra light olive oil
Saute your veggies over medium heat with a little olive oil. Add your seasoned ground meat and cook through. Add your beans and tomatoes and let simmer.
Serve over whole wheat pasta with a garnish of fresh basil.
“Eggroll in a Bowl”
This is one of my favorite “in a rush” meals, and one we make all the time. I typically make it with a bag of veggie slaw, but if you’re on a tight budget, grab some carrots, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and red onion and run them through the food processor (or rough chop by hand).
You can find my full recipe here, but basically, just brown some meat (italian sausage, beef, or ground turkey) in a skillet, throw in your veggies, and sauté it like a stir fry. Season with some soy sauce and crushed red pepper, and serve over rice or noodles.
A classic favorite that can be made so. many. ways. Even in my own home, I have the “use what you have” version and the “let me flame broil these veggies and simmer it all day” version. I’ll let you guess which one I make more often.
For the topic of this conversation, let’s talk about the simple, use what you have version.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Ground beef
- Beans (told you to save those left overs!)
- Canned tomatoes or Rotel
- Chopped onions, bell pepper, and garlic
- Chili seasoning, or salt, pepper, onion, garlic, and cayenne powder
- Bone broth or water (optional)
To make, just sauté your chopped veggies in a little oil, add your meat and cook till brown. Then, add your canned tomatoes, seasoning, and liquids and let it simmer until you’re ready to eat!
Serve it alone, with plantain chips or corn chips, or over rice. Sometimes, I’ll add some sliced avocado, guacamole, shredded cheese, or sour cream as a garnish.
Whole Roasted Chicken with Veggies
I love making a whole chicken for dinner. Not only is it cheaper to buy the whole chicken than it is to buy parts, but you can use it for more than one meal!
Usually the first night, we eat rotisserie style chicken with veggies. Then, I use whatever meat is left over in a salad or soup, and then add the bones to a stock pot with any left over veggie bits to turn into a bone broth.
I make my chicken in the Instant Pot, so it’s done in about 45 minutes. You can find the full recipe here.
Pizza Pasta Bake
This is a fun dish I honestly haven’t made in years. But, I was looking through an old blog of mine, and found this recipe I use to make 10+ years ago. I thought it was the perfect fit here, because it’s simple, easy, and super affordable.
To make, you’ll need:
- whole wheat penne pasta (or macaroni pasta)
- Italian sausage, ground beef, or ground turkey
- Sliced pepperonis
- Sliced mushrooms
- 2-3 tbs of heavy cream
- Pizza sauce
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 can of black olives, sliced
- 2 c shredded mozzarella cheese
In a skillet, sauté your onion and brown your meat. Set it aside and cook your pasta according to the package directions.
Then, mix your pasta, meat, pepperonis, sauce, and heavy cream and put it in a casserole dish. Top with cheese and olives and bake it at 350 until the cheese is bubbly.
This was always my poor college kid meal, but back then, I literally poured a can of chili into some boxed mac n cheese. Don’t get me wrong, it felt like a feast back then, but it’s hardly what I’d consider nourishing my body these days.
I do still make a cleaner version of this every now and then, though. And by making it myself, I can actually make a much larger meal for close to the same price.
To make it, you’ll need:
- cooked, seasoned ground beef (I like to save any left overs for this)
- this Instant Pot mac ‘n’ cheese recipe
Then, once you’ve made your mac ‘n’ cheese, just mix in the beef and serve it with a side salad. This is a great way to use up any extra beef or pasta you made earlier in the week, too.
Baked Potato Soup
This one’s easy, hearty, and can feed lots of people with very little effort. I’ve already written a recipe for this, so I’m not going to type it out again. But, if you love a good potato soup, click HERE to find out how I make mine in the Instant Pot!
This is another easy recipe I’ve shared in the past, and it’s one of my favorites when I need to throw something together quick and easy.
All you need is some corn tortillas, meat of choice, salsa, diced onions, and shredded cheese. It’s easy to scale, and if you needed to make it more filling for cheaper, you could add some cooked beans as well!
Tuna Noodle Casserole
Does this take anyone else back to their childhood? Just me?
I don’t know about you, but we ate this a lot growing up (except with chicken, because my mom wouldn’t eat tuna). It’s just so nostalgic. It’s also incredibly affordable and easy to whip up on a week night.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- heavy cream
- mushrooms (chopped)
- onion (chopped)
- egg noodles
- 2 cans of tuna
- 1 bag of frozen peas and carrots
- Melt your butter in a sauce pan over medium low heat
- sauté your onion and mushroom
- pour your heavy cream over the veggies and stir well, making a cream sauce (how much you add will depend on how creamy you like your dish).
- Let that simmer down while you cook your egg noodles according to the package directions.
- Once the noodles are drained, add your tuna and sauce and mix well
- Optional: Top with shredded cheese and bake on 350 until cheese is bubbly
How to Save Money on Fresh Produce
Of course, part of eating well on a budget is being able to save money on groceries. The better deal you find while shopping, the more you can buy at one time!
A lot of people swear by coupons, and they can certainly help. But, what I’ve noticed is that there’s rarely coupons for the things I actually buy.
So, I use coupons and shop sales when I can. I also buy bulk from Sams (or Costco) whenever I can, too.
But I think the thing that helps me consistently save money on groceries – specifically produce- is ordering through Imperfect Foods. I get a box delivered weekly full of produce and grains, for less than what I’d spend at the store.
If you’ve never tried them before, you can use my referral link right here to get $10 off your first box! Don’t worry. You can cancel at any time, so if you don’t think it’s worth it, you’re not roped in!
Clean Eating Meal Ideas on a Budget: Final Thoughts
It’s a common misconception that eating healthy is more expensive. Sure, if you’re buying the trendiest “health” foods on the market and shopping at specialty stores, it can certainly add up. But shopping seasonally, focusing on simple, whole foods, you can easily feed your family on a budget.
Try adding a few of these clean eating meal ideas and shopping tips into your next meal plan and see how easy it can be!