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Eat Well and Reduce the Stress of a Tight Food Budget

The Reducetarian Diet is a healthy eating style that can also save you money.

Key points

  • Many people are financially stressed in ways that affect their eating habits.
  • You can save money, reduce anxiety, and eat healthier meals without drastically changing your diet.
  • Cut back just a bit on expensive animal proteins and still enjoy your favorite foods.
  • Budget cooking can be a creative way to spend time with family and friends.
Kevin McCutch/Unsplash
Kevin McCutch/Unsplash

Good nutrition is essential for mental, emotional, and physical health, but it’s not always easy with food prices skyrocketing. In fact, surveys have reported that more than 60 percent of Americans are stressed about money, and 44 percent report skipping meals to save money. At the same time, 43 percent of Americans report overeating as a way of coping with stress. If you’re struggling in this economy, living paycheck-to-paycheck, or simply don’t know how to cook and eat healthy foods on a budget, it may help to learn new ways to stretch your food dollars.

First, consider some of the least expensive foods that give you the best nutritional bang for your buck. That includes foods that are available year-round, such as cabbage, carrots, kale and other leafy greens, sweet potatoes, russet potatoes, onions, butternut squash, bananas, kiwis, pasta, oatmeal, beans, and lentils, peanuts and peanut butter, yogurt, milk, tofu, and many in-season fresh fruits and vegetables. Next time you’re in the supermarket, take note of other foods that seem less costly than others.

Looking at the food list above, one thing is obvious. There are few convenience foods and not much in the way of animal products like meat, seafood, or cheese. Besides saving you some money, focusing your food shopping and home menus on these and other less expensive items can also put you on the path to reducetarianism, a mindful approach to healthier eating that doesn’t insist you commit to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle or make drastic changes to your diet, but recommends setting actionable goals to gradually reducing the number of animal foods you eat regularly. While a reducetarian diet doesn’t specifically focus on your food budget, buying and eating less meat and cheese can save you money while encouraging you to eat more plant foods and fewer foods loaded with unhealthy fat and cholesterol. You never need to say “never” to foods you enjoy; you simply learn to say “less is better” by learning to cook and eat in a less harmful and less expensive way.

For many people, cooking and baking are therapeutic activities that reduce stress and anxiety. The process of preparing food can also be a creative and productive way of spending time with family and friends. Spending time together in the kitchen, being with people you love, and enjoying the smell of delicious food encourages your brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter known as the feel-good hormone, that puts you in a good mood and helps you feel uplifted and happily motivated.

One of the most important steps to take when eating on a budget, especially if you are modifying the way you eat, is planning ahead. Start collecting a variety of recipes and menu ideas that feature less expensive foods. Look for sales in supermarket flyers, and when possible, plan to buy in bulk, or buy the larger sizes when it comes to often-used staple foods, condiments, and seasonings. Learn to cook dried food like beans and whole grains instead of using more expensive canned and packaged varieties. Exchange ideas with friends and family members who are also trying to get the most out of their food budgets.

The goal of the reducetarian community is to help people cut at least 10 percent of the animal foods eaten regularly. This, they say, will not only improve human health but also the health and welfare of agricultural animals, and the planet as a whole. Those are all things to feel good about! If you want to know more about the benefits of a reducetarian diet, check out the documentary Meat Me Halfway.

At the same time, your goal is to get the most from your food dollars without sacrificing good flavor or nutrition. While fresh vegetables aren’t always cheap, protein in the form of animal food has almost always been the most expensive part of any meal. If you eat meat, consider having a few meatless meals throughout the week, counting on foods like beans, tofu, canned fish, and peanut butter for protein. Some classic tips for budget cooking: When you include fresh meat in a meal, think of it as a condiment, or seasoning food and use less than you would when meat is the main course. For instance, cook up a black bean chili or tomato pasta sauce with less than half the ground meat you would normally use. Serve that bean chili over a baked russet or sweet potato.

Use the same approach for a quick sauté or stir-fry; cut up a selection of less expensive vegetables and garnish with just a few slivers of lean meat or poultry per serving. Substitute half the meat in a casserole or lasagna with less expensive forms of protein like tofu, quinoa, or kidney beans. Experiment with different types of sauces to dress up grains and the blander vegetables. For instance, Thai or Indonesian peanut sauce adds protein and lots of flavor to vegetables like cabbage and potatoes. Peruse the internet for quick homemade recipes that jazz up humble, inexpensive ingredients. Or pick up a budget cookbook from the library or thrift shop. They’re easy to find.

The bottom line is a win-win: It’s possible to cook your way to better health, more happiness, some stress relief, and sound money management during trying and anxious times. You’ll also be rewarded with the pleasure of eating good food as you learn new and more wholesome ways to create crave-worthy meals.


The Reducetarian Foundation Website.

Clever Real Estate Stress Survey (February 2023)

Dopamine: The Pathway to Pleasure, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School

Meat Me Halfway, see streaming services, including iTunes, AppleTV, Vimeo, and Prime Video.

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