How to eat well on a budget

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The rising cost of food is seldom far from the headlines. BHF dietitian Victoria Taylor gives advice for healthy eating on a budget.

The price of the weekly food shop has been widely discussed recently due to soaring food costs.

Martin Caraher, Professor of Food and Health Policy at City University, says: “[Food] costs have risen by about 20 per cent since 2007 and that’s set to continue. In addition, the cost of fuel has also gone up and so the cost of transporting, storing and cooking food has also been affected.”

These rising costs mean that increasingly we are making compromises when it comes to food. “Food is the elastic item in our budgets unlike rent, mortgages or utility bills, which are fixed,” says Professor Caraher. For many, that means making tough decisions about what, and how much, food we can afford, but it’s important this isn’t at the cost of eating healthily. A healthy diet helps to prevent problems such as coronary heart disease and obesity, which are more prevalent in low-income areas.

Balancing budgets, and diet

To explore whether it’s possible to eat healthily on a budget, my editor challenged me to develop a seven-day eating plan (see sample menus) on a budget of £50 for two people based on the Family Food 2011 average. The Family Food 2011 report gives us UK figures for the amount and types of food and drink we are buying as well as how much we spend on it.

The menus needed to offer a balanced diet, and to meet reference intakes (RIs) for adults. These are guidelines about the approximate amounts of particular nutrients and energy a healthy diet requires. The daily menus also needed to provide people with their recommended 5-a-day, and include foods such as wholegrains and oily fish.

"It’s possible to live cheaply. I’m not sure how many of us really do or how many of us would want to"

The prices were compared in three different supermarkets and the cost based on the actual amounts consumed (so, 200g porridge oats from a 500g pack rather than the cost of the whole pack).

It would cost more at the till to buy full packs of everything in the menu, but this should even out over following weeks, providing everything is used up.

While we tried to make the exercise as realistic as possible, there’s a huge difference between a trained dietitian planning a week’s worth of meals, and the realities of living on a restricted food budget, which can be stressful and complex.

Professor Caraher says: “You can’t do it in one shop. You need to shop around and you need to have the resources to do that: time, energy, knowledge and the ability to read food labels. It’s possible to live cheaply. I’m not sure how many of us really do or how many of us would want to – those are two different issues.”

In planning the meals, I found I had enough money to meet the nutritional requirements but I had to be extremely careful about what foods I was choosing to do this – even down to the type of fruit and vegetables. Mediterranean vegetables such as peppers and aubergines suddenly seemed pricey and snacks such as fresh fruit and nuts needed to be eked out.

Part of the eatwell plate is about having some foods high in fat and sugar but, outside of basics such as cooking oil and spreading fat, there just isn’t scope for extras on this budget. While these foods aren’t essential, they are the foods we enjoy eating and, if our diet is too restrictive, it becomes unappealing. We used an average weekly budget and it was a challenge, but not impossible. See our budget-stretching tips and sample menus.

To eat healthily on a lower budget than we have explored, you would have to be really savvy, scouring different shops and local markets rather than the convenient supermarkets to get the best prices.

Planning a budget menu

"It’s important to plan meals ahead as it helps to avoid waste and ensure a balanced diet"

It’s important to plan meals ahead as it helps to avoid waste and ensure a balanced diet. As a dietitian, I am used to mapping out other people’s eating plans or creating new ones.

However, I’m also well aware that this does not necessarily come easily to others and, even if it does, the average person won’t have access to a computer nutritional analysis programme that can be used to check the nutritional adequacy of the diet on a daily and weekly basis.

Last spring, our Hearty Lives programme funded a pilot healthy eating on a budget course in Hull. The team ran six sessions at Winifred Holtby School, each lasting two hours. The focus was on teaching people how to organise and plan meals.

Programme Manager Ann Sunderland-Burrows explains: “We were working in the areas that had the highest rate of heart disease. We showed the group how to plan what they were going to eat for the week. A number of them stopped cooking several individual meals but found that the family still ate what was offered when they cooked one meal for everyone.

“One lady saved about £300 a month. The course is being continued at other schools in Hull and the council has commissioned eight more courses.”

Read our ten simple ways to save money on food - and still eat well

See our full week’s sample menu in pictures, and get the recipes

The Eatwell plateHealthy meals checklist

Ensure your diet is balanced and healthy. Here are some pointers to look out for:

  • Meals include starchy carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables, and protein (from lean meat, fish, eggs or low-fat dairy).
  • Meals are varied across the week.
  • Snacks are nutrient-dense, not just energy-dense; in other words, they provide plenty of vitamins and minerals.
  • Starchy carbohydrates include high-fibre and wholegrain options.
  • Meat is lean and low in salt.
  • The menu includes two portions of fish a week, one of which is oily.
  • About two to three portions of milk and dairy are included each day and reduced-fat options are used.
  • Added fats (oils and spreads) are unsaturated.
  • At least five portions of fruit and vegetables are included each day.

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