Planning and Preparing Nutritious Meals on a Budget

Even on a minimal-cost food budget, family members need a variety of foods for a nutritious diet. A variety of foods supplies the energy and nutrients for normal growth and good health. The USDA Food Guide Pyramid, a guide to daily food choices, can help American families eat better every day----the Dietary Guidelines way.

To ensure that the family receives a variety of foods and the suggested servings, the family food preparer should plan each day's meals around the five major food groups (grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, and meat) in the Food Guide Pyramid.

The food preparer totals the number of servings from each of the food groups that the family will need. An understanding of portions and serving sizes is key to planning and preparing nutritious meals successfully.

Additional information on portions and serving sizes is found in Nutrition Insights: Food Portions and Servings , How Do They Differ?

It is important that menus over several days include each of the vegetable subgroups: Dark-green leafy, deep-yellow, dry beans and peas, starchy, and other vegetables. The Food Guide Pyramid suggests consuming dark-green leafy vegetables and dry beans and peas several times a week and several servings of whole-grain breads and cereals each day.

Foods from these subgroups help to meet nutritional objectives for dietary fiber, magnesium, iron, zinc, vitamin B6, and folate, which are low in the diet of many Americans.

Tips for Preparing Nutritious Meals at a Minimal Cost

It's the food choices made over the long run----day-to-day, week-to-week----that add up to good nutritional health. No one set of menus or recipes, whatever the cost, can satisfy everyone, nor can families always eat exactly as planned.

Being flexible is an essential component of preparing nutritious meals that the family enjoys. The menus in this booklet illustrate ways to reduce dietary fat, sugars, and sodium for families on a limited food budget.

Planning and Preparing Nutritious Meals

Advantages to Planning Meals

There are many advantages to planning meals on a limited budget for several days at a time. Four key advantages to planning ahead are: ·

  • Planning ahead makes it easier to include a variety of foods from each food group, especially foods from subgroups that provide nutrients that are often low in the American diet.
  • Planning ahead saves money. When shopping for food, the food preparer will know what is needed and can buy only what the family will use. In addition, shopping lists can help avoid expensive impulse purchases. Preplanned quick meals can replace more costly convenience or ready-to-eat food items.
  • Planning ahead saves time and effort. Needed items will be on hand, which means fewer trips to the grocery store. Planning helps the food preparer make good use of leftovers, which can decrease preparation time and food costs. One use of leftovers is for work-time meals.
  • Planning ahead helps balance food choices. When a food relatively high in fat, sugars, or sodium is used, other food items that are lower in the same components can be used to go with it. For example, when ham is served for dinner, a fresh or frozen vegetable prepared without salt and lower sodium foods can be served with the ham.

Some tips to to help you plan and prepare nutritious meals on a limited budget include:

  • Build main dishes around pasta or grains, such as noodles or rice, and combine them with a smaller amount of meat, poultry, fish, or meat alternates such as eggs. For example, prepare a main dish by combining rice, vegetables, and ham.
  • Create variety by including a new, low-cost nutritious food occasionally, along with old favorites. For example, if potatoes are always whipped, try baked or a potato-vegetable combo.
  • Involve other family members in planning and preparing meals. This creates interest, teaches others basic food preparation skills, and lessens the workload for the food preparer.
  • Make meals easier to prepare by varying the methods used to cook foods. For example, if a slow cooker or pressure cooker is available, use either of these appliances to cook dry beans. The slow cooker does not require constant watching, and the pressure cooker requires much less time than the conven-tional stove-top method.
  • Go easy on fat, sugars, and sodium in preparing food items. For example, bake rather than deep-fat- fry chicken or fish. This does not mean elimi-nating all fat, sugars, and sodium----only limiting the amount. For specific tips on choosing and preparing foods with less fat, sugars, and sodium, see Making Healthy Food Choices (resource list).
  • Use herbs, spices, and other lower fat flavorings rather than rich sauces and gravies.
  • Take advantage of planned leftovers to cut prepara-tion time and save food dollars. For example, prepare a roast, serve half of it, and freeze the remaining half to use later with vegetables for a quick soup or in other dishes.
  • Do ‘‘batch cooking’’ when the food budget and time allow. Cook a large batch of spaghetti sauce, divide it into family-size portions, and freeze promptly for meals later in the month.
  • Make one-pot meals such as stews or hearty soups. These type of meals reduce the number of pots, pans, and other utensils that have to be washed.


Americans, in general, like to have snacks and often substitute snacks for meals because snacks are quick and easy. How often the family has snacks is not as important, as how these foods help meet nutrient needs. Eating too many convenience-type snacks that are high in sugars, fat, and sodium can increase food costs and add calories and fat without providing important nutrients that family members need. On the other hand, nutritious snacks such as fruits and vegetables in season and plain popcorn can provide needed nutrients at a reasonable cost.

Here are some tips for preparing nutritious snacks at a reasonable cost:

  •  Limit the amount of food served as a snack so that it does not replace a meal. Or, if it is taking the place of a meal, choose meal-type foods----a small entree, a sandwich, or a hearty salad.
  •  Serve snacks that provide dietary fiber and other nutrients. Fresh fruits in season with skins (apples, peaches), dried fruits (raisins, prunes), raw vegetables, and whole-grain breads or crackers (whole-wheat, rye) are some good sources of dietary fiber. 
  • When the food budget allows, buy extra low-cost, nutrient dense foods such as potatoes and frozen orange juice concentrate. These foods keep well and can be served at snack or meal time.


Eating nutritious meals and snacks does not mean giving up favorite desserts, such as ice cream and cookies. The key is to balance desserts with other foods that are lower in fat, sugars, and calories. For example, if ice cream is being served for dessert, serve one scoop instead of two or more.

Desserts can be good and nutritious for the family without adding excessive cost. Baked products, for example, can be moderate in calories, fat, sugars, and sodium. Many traditional desserts can be modified so that they contain less fat, sugars, and sodium without affecting taste.

For example, try a fruit crisp, such as the Peach-Apple Crisp recipe in this booklet, instead of a fruit pie with a double crust to reduce fat and calories.

Wisely Selecting Foods

Whether meals are prepared in advance or fixed at the last minute, food shopping is an essential component of making nutritious meals on any food budget----liberal-, moderate-, low-, or minimal- cost. Here are some tips to use in wisely selecting nutritious foods for your family:

  • Plan meals to include a variety of foods from the Food Guide Pyramid and make a list before shopping of all foods needed.
  • Compare ingredient list and nutrition facts label on packaged foods to help select the most nutritious foods. If the family tends to eat foods that are higher in fats, sugars, or sodium, balance them throughout the day with other foods that are lower in these nutrients.
  • Compare the cost of convenience foods with the cost of those foods made from scratch. Many convenience foods (such as fancy bakery products, frozen entrees, and vegetables with seasoning and sauces) usually cost more per serving than similar foods prepared at home. In addition, the amount of fat, sugars, and sodium can be controlled in products made at home. 
  • Look for specials, sales, and coupons in newspaper ads, on radio, and in television spots. Remember, coupons save dollars only on those products one needs and normally buys.
  • Try store brands and generic brands. They are usually less costly than name brands and are equally nutritious.
  • Use the unit price (price per ounce, pound, or pint) to compare costs of different brands and package sizes. The unit price is determined by dividing the total cost of the product by the number of units the product contains. Most stores show the unit price on the shelf.
  • Use open dating information (‘‘sell by dates’’ and ‘‘best if used by’’ information) to help select the freshest foods.

Additional Tips for Consumers To Get the Best Buy for the Money

  • When buying meat, consider the amount of cooked lean meat or the number of servings obtained for the price. The cut with a low price per pound is not always the best buy. A relatively high-priced cut of meat with little or no waste may provide more meat for the money than a low-priced cut with a great deal of bone, gristle, or fat. 
  • Consider less expensive lean cuts of meat such as chuck or bottom round instead of sirloin. They are just as nutritious as the more expensive cuts but need to be cooked longer at a lower temperature to make the meat tender.
  • Use dry beans and peas occasionally instead of meat, poultry, or fish to vary meals and reduce cost. These foods provide protein and many of the same nutrients found in meat.
  • Buy fresh vegetables and fruits in season, when they are generally less expensive.
  • Buy fresh fluid milk in large containers (gallon or 1/2 gallon) that generally cost less than milk in quart containers. Fluid milk sold at ‘‘24-hour’’ convenience stores usually costs more than that sold at supermarket food stores. Nonfat dry milk is the least expensive way to buy milk.
  • Buy bulk foods (when available). They are lower in price than similar foods sold in packages in the store. Also, buy the exact amount needed to control food waste.
  • Foods at salad bars can be costly. Basic food items----lettuce, cabbage, and carrots----usually cost less in the produce section of the store than at the salad bar. But for some families, buying a smaller amount of food items at the salad bar may reduce waste and save dollars.
  • Prevent food waste. Buy the types of food that family members like and the amount that they will eat before the food spoils.

Preparing and Using Food Safely

Here are eight key tips for preparing food safely in your home:

  • Always wash hands with soap and warm running water before handling food.
  • Always wash cutting boards and utensils (knives or scissors) used to cut meat with soapy, hot water before cutting other foods such as raw vegetables or fruits on the boards.
  • Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter, or thaw them in the microwave oven, following the oven manufacturer’s directions. Marinate foods in the refrigerator.
  • Keep cooked foods away from raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftover foods promptly. Perishable foods should not sit out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
  • Cook raw meats, poultry, fish, and eggs thoroughly.
  • Use a clean food thermometer, which measures the internal temperature of cooked foods, to make sure meats, poultry, fish, casseroles, and other foods are cooked all the way through.

For additional information on preparing foods safely, contact USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline (1-800-535- 4555), weekdays, 10-4 eastern time (in Washington, DC, area, call 202-720-3333).

Source:  USDA