Healthy Eating on Budget

Tip 1: Have a Plan

Tip 2: Make your own meals

Tip 3: Make your own snacks

Tip 4: Choose natural, minimally processed foods

Tip 5: Learn to love your freezer

Tip 6: Make big re-usable food

Tip 7: Mind the drinks

Tip 8: Cut down on alcohol

Tip 9: Cut down on junk food

Tip 10: Eat less red and processed meat

Tip 11: Become a part-time vegetarian

Tip 12: Eat what’s in season

Tip 13: You don’t need superfoods to be healthy

Tip 14: Swap big brands for own brands

Tip 15: Avoid the grocery store

Tip 16: Be wary of supermarket offers

Healthy eating on a budget: Bringing it all together

Why we all need Vitamin D

Foods rich in vitamin D

Though I have a fairly healthy, balanced diet, I do take some vitamins. I take a daily multivitamin as insurance, to make sure I get a little bit of everything every day. However, I also take a vitamin D3 supplement on the advice of my doctor. About a year after moving to the UK, my blood levels of vitamin D were below normal. This is when I learned just how important adequate vitamin D levels can be.

Vitamin D is produced when sunlight hits our skin, plus we get small quantities from our diet. It’s essential for proper bone growth and maintenance. The most common disease of vitamin D deficiency is rickets, found in children whose bones fail to develop properly. Even today, there are children with rickets in the UK. As northern countries (like Great Britain) have much less sunlight in winter, and people spend a lot of time indoors, it’s hard to get enough vitamin D.  Children with darker skin tones are particularly at risk. Simply put, the darker your skin pigment, the more natural sunscreen it contains. So less vitamin D is produced for the same light exposure. This has little effect on those living in African or Asian countries with plenty of strong sunlight year round, but is a real problem for darker skinned people living in cloudy northern countries.

What’s interesting about vitamin D is its biological actions are still being discovered. Low levels have been associated with reduced immune function (more colds and flu), depression, high blood pressure, some cancers and diabetes. There is also evidence that athletes need more vitamin D than the general population, depending on their sport. Many impact sports, including running, cause micro tears in the bone that then need to be repaired. This is a normal part of adapting to exercise, but if there is insufficient calcium and vitamin D to make new bone, symptoms like stress fractures and reduced immunity can result.

The UK government recommends everyone get at least 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day in winter. Unfortunately, as the Covid-19 crisis continues, many of us are now spending most of our time indoors. This is why the government has issued new guidelines, suggesting everyone consider taking vitamin D3 supplements until lockdown is lifted. You can also increase your intake with foods like oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, etc.), red meat, liver, egg yolks, mushrooms and some fortified foods (for example, milk in North America has added vitamin D, but not in the UK.).

As I’m now at home 23 hours of the day and training for my second marathon (with lots of high impact running), I’ll certainly be taking my vitamin D!

You can find information about the new Vitamin D guidelines and answers to common questions on the BBC news website, at

Healthy Eating on a Budget: Bringing it all together

After three and a half weeks of Healthy Eating on a Budget tips, it’s time to bring this series to a close. We’ve seen how you can change both your eating and grocery shopping habits to eat well and save money. However, it can seem like a lot of information, so I’ve created a handy step by step guide to bring all those tips together.

Plan your weekly shop

  1. Start by having a look at some healthy recipes which use seasonal ingredients (you can check what’s in season on the Vegetarian Society website). Consider trying some vegetarian meals.
  2. Think about making big re-usable food earlier in the week which you can have for lunches and dinners later in the week. You can also check your freezer to see if there are any big reusables left from previous weeks which could be eaten this week.
  3. Decide what you’re going to eat for breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. Look at your schedule and be realistic about which days you’ll be able to spend time cooking.
  4. Check your cupboards and freezer to see what you have, and what you need to buy to make those meals. Pay particular attention to foods you plan to eat several times. For example, if you plan to have porridge for breakfast five days a week, and you use 50g of oats each time, you’ll need at least 250g of oats.
  5. Make your shopping list.

 Shop strategically

  1. Consider whether you want to go to the grocery store or whether online shopping can save you time and money.
  2. Only buy the things on your shopping list. Do not even go down the aisles which are nothing but crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks.
  3. Compare the price of different brands and package sizes using price per weight. If this is a hassle, buy supermarket own brands wherever possible, as they are usually better value.
  4. Consider buying things like chicken breasts in bulk and then freezing them at home.
  5. Spend some time in the frozen aisle. In particular, look for out of season produce (such as berries in December) and frozen seafood and fish fillets.

Eat well

  1. When you get your shopping home, check the use by dates on all fresh food. If you have some chicken or fish that will be past it’s use by date before you plan to cook it, freeze it.
  2. Break up any big packages of chicken, meat or fish into individual portion sizes and freeze in plastic bags.
  3. Do any baking, (such as making your own flapjacks or muffins for snacks), and make your big reusables as soon as you can so you are ready for the week ahead.
  4. Make sure you eat the food you buy. If you decide not to cook your planned meal one evening (i.e. you go out to eat or get take away), remember to freeze any fresh ingredients (such as vegetables) which might go off.
  5. Remember the 80/20 rule: Get in right 80% of the time and you can be more relaxed about the other 20%. It’s OK to have the occasional treat or go out with your mates on a Friday night. Acknowledge that going out once in a while is healthy too and plan for it, so you don’t waste food. Healthy eating should be for life, so make it sustainable and enjoyable!

I hope you have enjoyed this series on healthy eating on a budget. If you have any questions, or any ideas for future blog posts, please get in touch!

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Tip 16: Be wary of supermarket offers

When it comes to saving money on your weekly shop, supermarket offers can seem like the smart choice. By buying what’s on sale, you should be getting the best price. Sadly, this is not always the case, and many supermarkets actually use special offers to entice us to spend more! This means that if you want to save money, you need to be wary of supermarket offers.

Once again we come back to the problem with big brands. You’ll notice that the big offers prominently displayed on end caps tend to be for big brand processed foods. Clearly their usual price is higher than for supermarket own brands. However, this is often true even when they go on sale. For example, Tesco currently have Sharwoods Tikka Masala cooking sauce on sale for half price – £0.92 for a 420g jar instead of £1.85. But Tesco own brand Tikka Masala cooking sauce is only £0.75 for a 500g jar – and it’s lower in fat!

Grocery stores will often have multi-buy deals (3 for 2 offers, or 2 for £5) which makes it even harder to tell if you are getting a good deal. The only way to know which product is actually cheaper is to compare prices by weight. Supermarkets usually list the price per 100g or per Kg on the label on the shelf, just under the unit price (the price for one jar, one box, one loaf, etc.). Once you get used to checking prices this way, you quickly realise that the unit price hardly matters. Let’s take two jars of strawberry jam. One is £1.60 for 340g, while the second is £2.00 for 370g. You may think buying a bigger jar is a better deal. But actually, the 340g jar works out to £0.47/100g, while the second is £0.54/100g. All other things being equal, the smaller jar is actually the better deal.

Another reason big brand products are the most likely to go on sale, is that the supermarket is hoping you’ll make a permanent switch. The supermarkets are betting that, having bought the product at the sale price, you will like it so much you continue to buy it at the higher price. Plus, humans tend to lazy – most of us buy the same things every week without thinking about it. Having bought the product once, we’re much more likely to buy it again.

One area where offers are useful is in helping you identify in season fruit and vegetables. You’ll often find that when things are in season, they go on sale. As discussed previously, buying what’s in season can save you money and help the environment. It also encourages you to change up your diet regularly. For example, I use offers to vary my protein sources. I really enjoy prawns, but they can be expensive, even if you buy frozen ones. Rather than buy them every week, I wait until they are on sale and then get some. This helps me rotate what meat and fish are in my freezer and ensures I have a varied diet.

So, if staple items you usually buy, like rice or toilet paper, are on sale, go ahead and get extra. Use offers to guide your choice of in season produce and protein. But if the offer is for something you don’t usually buy, especially junk foods like crisps and ice cream, it should make no difference if they are on sale. And whatever you buy, remember to check the price per weight to make sure it really is a good deal!

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*All prices from the website and are correct as of 22/01/2020

Tip 15: Avoid the grocery store

How you do your big weekly shop has a big impact on both the quality of the food you buy and how much you pay. Many people head to the supermarket at the same time every week with only a vague idea of what meals they plan to make. They then browse all the aisles, buying the same things they always buy, or what’s on sale. This almost guarantees they will end up with far more food, and more junk and processed foods, than intended. We’ve already discussed planning your meals and doing more of your own cooking. But to really save money and improve your diet, avoid the grocery store completely.

Supermarkets are wonderful places but they are in business to make money. Their goal is to get you to buy more stuff.  And supermarkets and food companies have a myriad of tricks to tempt us into buying their products. Everything from free samples and offers, to wafting the scent of fresh baked bread around. You’ll also notice that the offers prominently displayed on end caps tend to be for big brand processed foods. As discussed previously, big brands have a much higher margin than supermarket own brands. Where a product is placed on a shelf is also key. People tend to buy the product which is at eye level, in the middle of the shelf. This is where they put the premium brands, with budget brands on the top or bottom shelves.

If you want to save money, you need to shop strategically. The first step is to plan what meals you will be having this week, check your cupboards for ingredients, and make a shopping list. NEVER go grocery shopping without a list. Once in the store, do your very best to stick to the list. This means only going down the aisles you need to. By skipping the supermarket aisles dedicated to junk food and fizzy drinks, you’ll be less tempted. And remember to check the top and bottom shelves for budget versions of what you need, rather than buying the first thing you see.

You can also take it a step further. I no longer do my food shopping at a grocery store at all if I can avoid it. For the past ten years I have used online grocery ordering and delivery (a legacy of living in London without a car). I find that by ordering at home I am much more likely to plan healthy meals and stick to a shopping list. Buying junk foods becomes a conscious choice, rather than wandering down the bakery aisle and ending up with cake because it looked good. I can also check what’s in my cupboards as I go along, so rarely buy doubles of things I already have. At the same time, I am less likely to buy things simply because they are on offer or because the store was giving away free samples.

All major grocery stores in the UK now offer a delivery service. Most have the option of paying a regular monthly fee (usually £6-8) for unlimited deliveries at a time of your choosing. This means that, if you are placing an order once a week, the  delivery cost is less than £2. You certainly save that much in impulse buys alone.

I know every time I go into a grocery store I end up buying more than I planned, and the extra items are never the healthiest foods. Rather than rely on superior planning and willpower, I simply avoid the grocery store.

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Tip 14: Swap big brands for own brands

Last week I did several posts on changes you can make to your eating habits which are both healthier and save money. This week we’ll be focusing more on how changing your shopping habits can save you money.  And by far the biggest money saving tip is to swap big brands for supermarket own brands.

Without even realising it, we are all influenced by the way food is marketed. Clever marketing gives us all kinds of ideas about different brands – which are healthier, more delicious, or associated with a desirable lifestyle. However, many of the claims made by big brands have little to do with the food inside.

This is especially true of basic ingredients like flour, sugar and milk. People regularly pay double to get Quaker porridge oats (£0.20/100g) instead of just opting for a supermarket own brand (£0.10/100g – or less!). The reality is, there just isn’t that big a difference between the two products. This is true even when you look at more complex foods, like cake or pasta sauce. Bonne Maman strawberry jam costs £2.60 for a 370g jar, whereas you can get a 454g jar of Tesco own brand strawberry jam for £0.75 – more than 4 times less!

Many people believe that they can taste the difference between premium branded products and budget ones. But research and TV shows like Eat Well for Less have consistently shown that we are rubbish at this. When the fancy labels are removed, most people have no idea if they are eating their usual brand or not.

Supermarket own brands can also be healthier than their big branded counterparts. Not always, so you have to read labels, but you’d be surprised how often this happens. Take something as simple as bread. The first four ingredients in Tesco’s Finest wholemeal loaf are wholemeal wheat flour, water, toasted rye flakes, and wheat gluten. But the first four ingredients in Hovis wholemeal medium bread are wholemeal wheat flour, water, caramelised sugar and yeast. Not only is the Tesco loaf lower in sugar, but it’s higher in protein too. All at £0.99 for an 800g loaf, compared to £1.10 for the same sized Hovis loaf.

Today all supermarkets have their own branded foods, and most even have different brands at different price points. For example, you can get Tesco Finest beef rump steaks at £18.50/Kg or Boswell Farms (a Tesco budget brand) rump steaks for £10.80/Kg. We’d all like to think that there is a massive difference in the care of the animals and quality of the meat in the Finest range, but the truth is, most of the time there is no way to know. Free range and organic are legal terms, but most of the words used on food packaging is not regulated and so meaningless. Anything can be labelled as “farm fresh”, “healthy”, or “natural”. My favourite is the “Natural” Confectionary co., where the first ingredient in their jelly snakes is glucose syrup – haven’t seen that growing on trees lately!

So on your next food shop, swap the big brands for supermarket own brands  (or unbranded foods). Check the labels and taste with an open mind. You may be surprised to find just how similar these foods are to your usual brand. The more budget own brand foods you buy, the more you will save!

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*All prices from the website and are correct as of 20/01/2020

Tip 13: You don’t need superfoods to be healthy

One of the reasons people think a healthy diet is more expensive, is they believe you need to eat superfoods. These are foods that have exceptional nutrient density and should, the theory goes, be exceptionally good for you. Many superfoods also come with a whole host of health claims – they may clear up acne, help with weight loss, improve immunity, even prevent cancer! Problem is, most of these foods have little evidence to back up their claims. And you can get all the nutrients you need from common fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. In other words, you don’t need superfoods to be healthy!

The word superfood is strictly a marketing term and has no scientific meaning. You’ll notice this term is often applied to more exotic foods which are not native to the UK – things like Acai berries or Maca powder. Of course, the combination of exotic and long travel distance means shops can charge a premium for these foods. What they don’t tell you, is that you can get most of the same benefits from everyday foods. For example, Goji berries are said to be great sources of vitamin A and C, with 53mg of vitamin C per 100g. Yet the same amount of strawberries has 58mg of vitamin C.

You are also paying those high prices for the superpowers of superfoods. In addition to being high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, many superfoods have extra health claims attached. Acai berries prevent cancer, matcha green tea powder can boost your metabolism and help you lose weight, bee pollen speeds up wound healing. Often these claims are based on traditional medicine or anecdotes from devotees. There may be or one or two small studies, usually in rodents given large quantities of the superfood (more than any normal person would eat), with no control group. It is very rare to find a large, well designed, placebo-controlled study, in humans, on the effects of any superfood.

Some “superfoods” do make the transition from exotic import to mainstream supermarket staple. Ten years ago no one had heard of chia seeds, yet you can now buy Tesco own brand chia seeds for less than it costs to buy walnuts.  So some superfoods can be great additions to your diet – but only after you’ve got the basics right. Adding some chia seeds to your diet will notmake up for a burger and pizza habit.

Fundamentally, most superfoods are a waste of money. You can get all the same nutrients and health benefits by eating a varied diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. You simply don’t need superfoods to have a healthy diet!

Tip 12: Eat what’s in season

As a society, we are becoming more aware of the environmental cost of our food choices. Much of our food is now grown or raised in one country, processed and packaged in another, before being flown to the UK to be sold. This is not good for us or for the planet. If you want to save money, the environment and get the most from your food, you need to eat what’s in season.

Eating fruits and vegetables which are grown locally and in season is particularly important. The problem is that many nutrients start to break down as soon as the fruit or vegetable is picked. Fresh produce may have travelled for a week to get to the store, then sat on the shelf for several days, before being in your fridge for a while longer. By the time you eat it, it may have half the vitamins it started with. However, if you choose foods that don’t have as far to travel, their nutrient content is much higher.

Although people in the UK like to complain about the weather, it actually ensures there are fresh, locally grown vegetables available year-round. The abundant rain and mild temperatures (it rarely freezes in winter) make this a “green and pleasant land”. In other words, good growing conditions. Even now, in January, you can get British grown apples and pears, root vegetables like carrots, beetroot, and turnips, greens like cabbage and kale, and winter squashes. In fact, you can get a whole rainbow of different coloured, British grown produce! You can find out what’s in season in the UK by checking out the Vegetarian Society’s website.

Another reason to eat seasonally is variety. Eating seasonally means apples and Brussel sprouts in January, strawberries and cucumber in June – not year-round. People who eat a wide variety of foods have the healthiest, most diverse bacteria in their gut. More and more research is showing the connection between gut bacteria and a host of diseases, from obesity to depression1. By eating different fresh foods, you encourage different strains of beneficial bacteria to thrive.

Foods which are in season are also much cheaper. Anyone who has bought fresh strawberries in January and June will have noticed the price difference! Again, the shorter the distance the food has to travel to get to you, the less fuel and resources it takes. There is also a supply and demand effect – strawberries are plentiful in June, so the price drops. Buy choosing local, in season produce, you can really cut your food bill.  If you do fancy an out of season strawberry, buy frozen. As discussed in a previous post, most have been frozen within a couple of hours of being picked, locking in all the vitamins and minerals – and keeping the cost down.

Eat what’s in season and you can do something good for your health, good for your wallet, and good for the planet!

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  1. Singh RK et al. Influence of dieton the gut microbiomeand implications for human health. J Transl Med. 2017 Apr 8;15(1):73. doi: 10.1186/s12967-017-1175-y.

Tip 11: Become a part time vegetarian

A variety of plant foods are high in protein.

Vegetarian and vegan diets have exploded in popularity over the past decade. There are now more than 3 million vegetarians and 600,000 vegans in the UK. And there are many good reasons, from your health to the environment, for eating less meat. If you are going to be eating less red and processed meat anyways, why not become a part-time vegetarian? Done properly, having some meat-free meals every week can improve your health and save you money.

Generally speaking, a diet based on plants means more fruits and vegetables, is higher in fibre, and lower in saturated fats. The kind of things recommended for any healthy diet! Numerous studies have found that vegetarians (people who eat no meat or fish but still have eggs and dairy products) and vegans (who eat no animal products of any kind) have better health than the general population. A large meta-analysis of 86 different studies found vegetarians weighed less, and had a lower risk of getting heart disease or cancer1. The effects were even more pronounced for vegans.

However, the problem with most of these studies is that, by definition, vegetarians and vegans care more about what they eat than the general population. They tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, and less junk and fast foods. So, it may not be the lack of fish and chicken in their diet that makes them so healthy, but the lack of bacon and burgers (as we saw yesterday). In fact, a large study of over 267,000 men and women found that when other dietary factors were accounted for, vegetarians and vegans lived no longer than people following a healthy diet2. And being a strict vegetarian or vegan can put you at increased risk of certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies, including iron and vitamin B12.

Becoming a part-time vegetarian allows you to take advantage of the health benefits of a plant-based diet, while avoiding the pitfalls. Having several meals based on vegetables, pulses and whole grains increases the amount of fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in your diet.  Including some meat and fish ensures you get enough protein, iron, and vitamin B12 for energy.

Cost is often cited as another benefit of giving up meat. However, this can be misleading. Yes, 100g of tofu costs less than 100g of steak. However, when you compare the amount of tofu you would have to eat to get the same amount of protein as in a steak, the cost is about the same. To illustrate this point, I’ve included the cost of 25g of protein from a variety of foods below:

Protein source Amount you need to eat to get 25g of protein Cost of that amount*
Frozen salmon fillets (raw amount) 125g £1.14
Frozen Quorn mince 175g £1.04
Organic Tofu 200g £1.01
Beef steak (raw amount) 110g 0.96
Fat free Greek yoghurt 245g £0.85
Tinned beans (kidney beans, borlotti beans, etc.) 325g £0.75
Chicken breast (raw amount) 105g £0.57
Free range eggs About 3 large £0.48
Semi-skimmed milk 695mL £0.33
Porridge oats 243g £0.24

Having said that, you can certainly save money by swapping some meat and fish for vegetarian protein sources, such as eggs and beans. And don’t forget that we eat very few foods in isolation. For example, you could pair a bean stew with whole grain rice or quinoa to increase the protein content. One thing to note is that the processed meat replacements, like Quorn mince and vegetarian burgers, are by far the most expensive. Once again, the more cooking you can do for yourself, using raw ingredients, the better!

Consider becoming a part-time vegetarian as another tool for healthy eating on a budget!

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*All prices from the website and are correct as of 15/01/2020


  1. Dinu M et al. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Nov 22;57(17):3640-3649. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447.
  2. Mihrshahi S et al. Vegetarian diet and all-cause mortality: Evidence from a large population-based Australian cohort – the 45 and Up Study. Prev Med. 2017 Apr;97:1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.12.044. Epub 2016 Dec 29.

Tip 10: Eat less red and processed meat

So far the dietary changes I’ve recommended to help you eat healthy on a budget have been pretty standard. Most people are aware that too much alcohol and junk food isn’t good for you. However, fewer people are aware of the dangers to too much red and processed meat. I often see clients who have some form of red or processed meat every day, sometimes with every meal! Bacon with breakfast, a ham sandwich for lunch, spaghetti bolognaise for dinner – it’s all red meat. If you are serious about your long term health, you need to eat less red and processed meat.

Red meat is anything that comes from an animal that walks on four feet – beef, pork, lamb, venison, etc. Processed meats are anything that has been smoked, cured, salted or has added preservatives. This includes foods like bacon, sausages, ham, pate, and deli meats (such as pepperoni or turkey slices for sandwiches). While processing makes these foods last much longer and taste great, all the extra salt and chemicals are really bad for us.

We have known for decades that a diet high in red and processed meats raises the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. However, recent studies have shown a clear dose response relationship – the more meat you eat, the higher your risk of getting cardiovascular disease, cancer and dying young1. There is a particularly strong link between processed meat intake and certain cancers2. What’s more, eating more red and processed meat is associated with weight gain over time, especially dangerous fat around your middle3. It is now recommended we get no more than two servings of processed meats per week.

Cost is another reason to cut down on red meat. A quick browse through the grocery store shows that most beef mince is at least £6.50/Kg, with steak starting at £8.00/Kg. On the other hand, you can get chicken breasts for £5.50/Kg. Processed meats may be cheaper, but that’s because most of them contain less actual meat. Take Richmond brand sausages – they contain 14g of protein per 100g of grilled sausage. On the other hand, cod contains 18g of protein per 100g, and chicken breasts over 24g of protein for 100g of meat.

The longest living populations in the world eat very little red meat. Instead their diets tend to be high in fish, shellfish and vegetarian sources of protein, like tofu and lentils. Pulses (like beans and lentils) are high in vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fish and shellfish are high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation, the root cause of many diseases. When these people do eat meat, it tends to be poultry or small portions of very lean cuts of beef, pork or lamb (not fatty sausages).

So many things in nutrition are complex and depend on each person’s individual situation. But this is not. Eating less red and processed meat has clear health benefits for everyone and can save you significant money.

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Diallo A et al. Red and processed meat intake and cancer risk: Results from the prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort study. Int J Cancer. 2018 Jan 15;142(2):230-237. doi: 10.1002/ijc.31046. Epub 2017 Oct 16.

Wang X et al.Red and processed meat consumption and mortality: dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Public Health Nutr. 2016 Apr;19(5):893-905. doi: 10.1017/S1368980015002062. Epub 2015 Jul 6.

Konieczna J et al. Longitudinal association of changes in diet with changes in body weight and waist circumference in subjects at high cardiovascular risk: the PREDIMED trial. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2019 Dec 27;16(1):139. doi: 10.1186/s12966-019-0893-3.