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One-pot bean dish with crusty bread

Healthy eating on a budget

Eating on a budget doesn't mean you have to sacrifice taste or nutrition. Understanding which foods to stock up on and how to use these foods to create cheap healthy meals is key. Here's how to develop some easy dinner ideas to manage your budget and keep everyone healthy.

Rob's top tips

1. Stock up on store-cupboard essentials

Keeping your cupboard stocked with essentials is a practical way to help manage your food budget. Canned foods such as beans, pulses and lentils can provide a useful source of protein and other key minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron. These foods can be added to a range of meals, especially one-pot dishes such as casseroles, soups, curries and stews, all of which can make for healthy cheap meals.

It's also worth stocking up on healthy carbohydrates such as wholemeal pasta, bread and other foods such as sweet potatoes. These can be used in many different ways, and provide a good base for healthy meals on a budget.

2. Fresh vs frozen

Frozen foods such as fruits and vegetables are often just as nutritious as fresh, so are a good alternative when thinking about cheap dinner ideas. Frozen fruits can be added to healthy breakfast smoothies and puddings, while vegetables such as peas, cauliflower and sweetcorn can be added to various dishes including soups and stews.

3. Create a 'fake-away'

Takeaways have become part of many people's weekly food intake, but these do come at a price. To keep your food bill down, try exploring the 'fake-away' by recreating your favourite dishes at home. You can use lower-cost proteins such as chicken thighs or frozen Quorn alongside cook-in sauces to create takeaway favourites such as curries. Boiling your own rice and cooking your own poppadoms also saves pennies.

You can make your fake-away healthier than your usual take-away by adding more vegetables to your dishes such as frozen peas, cauliflower and spinach. Try my recipes for crispy beef with rice noodles, chicken kebabs with tzatziki or easy butter chicken with coriander chutney to create your own at-home fake-aways.

4. Switch to plant-based proteins

Meat and fish can be expensive if you're eating them every day, so try exploring plant-based foods. Plant proteins are much cheaper and include canned beans, pulses and lentils, as well as tofu and frozen Quorn. If you are eating meat, try swapping half of it for a plant protein such as canned beans to keep the cost of your dish down.

5. Get grainy

Grains such as rice, couscous, barley, spelt and quinoa are a good way to create cheap meal ideas. These foods contain fibre, B vitamins and magnesium, and make a good base for many meals. Easy recipes using grains include egg-fried rice, mushroom pilaf and summer salads using other ingredients such as dried fruit, nuts and seeds.

6. Spice things up

Cheap meal ideas need to taste good, and this is where spices come in to play. Spices can be cheap and go a long way, as well as offer valuable nutrition in the form of key minerals and other compounds that protect the body from disease.

Find your favourites, which may include single spices or blends such as curry powders. A good place to start is common spices such as cumin, coriander and smoked paprika, which are all incredibly versatile. Spices are also particularly useful when cooking plant-based meals with foods such as canned pulses, beans or tofu, which can be a little bland on their own. Shop around for your spices: independent shops can be cheaper than supermarkets, depending on where you live.

Cheap dinner ideas do not have to be boring or tasteless, and with a little inspiration and understanding of how to use basic store-cupboard ingredients you should see the difference to your bank balance. Here's a recipe as an example.

Healthy cheap eat:
Easy black bean chilli

Easy black bean chilli

Serves 4 (generously)

This chilli recipe is high in protein and rich in fibre, which has been shown to support gut health and reduce the risk of heart disease. A serving of this dish also provides many of the nutrients that may be tricky to get from a plant-based diet, including iron, calcium and zinc.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 2 tbsp mild chilli powder
  • 1 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 3 tbsp ground cumin
  • 2 tbsp bottled lime juice
  • 2 tsp cocoa powder (unsweetened)
  • 2x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
  • 2x 400g cans black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 400g can sweetcorn, rinsed and drained
  • Salt

Method

  1. Set a large saucepan over a medium heat and add the olive oil. Now add the onions and garlic and fry for about five minutes to soften. Add the spices and cook for two minutes until they become fragrant.
  2. Add the lime juice, cocoa powder and tomatoes, then cook for 10 minutes.
  3. Now add the beans and sweetcorn to the pan and cook for another 10 minutes.
  4. Serve the chilli in bowls.

Rob Hobson MSc RNutr is a Registered Nutritionist who has worked with some of the UK’s largest food and health companies and performs training in the public health sector (including government agencies and the NHS). Rob contributes regularly to UK press publications and has a monthly column in Women's Health magazine.

Find out more at Rob Hobson's website, or read more about Healthspan's health experts.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.