Having a healthy diet doesn’t need to mean breaking the bank

People, especially college students, often claim they don’t eat healthy because good food is just too expensive. I would argue that this excuse is simply the product of laziness and poor accounting. Eating healthy might be slightly more expensive and time-consuming than living on fast-food and microwavable meals in the short term, but the return on investment for a proper diet, in terms of both time and money, will ultimately make it worth your while.

Planning out your meals is an essential component of eating right, especially when you’re on a budget. It sounds tedious to write out every single meal for the week, but it is the backbone of a healthy diet. Once you do it a few times, it becomes habitual and even enjoyable. There are many different approaches to a meal plan, depending on your budget and dietary goals. When I say diet, I mean intentional eating, and I believe that all eating should be intentional in that we should always be conscious of what we are putting into our bodies. We are careful to put the proper fuel in our cars, yet our bodies are by far the more valuable and incredible pieces of machinery, so why shouldn’t we treat them as such?

I have encountered a considerable amount of controversy surrounding the importance of breakfast. Some nutritionists say it is the most important meal of the day, while others say it is a matter of personal preference. I have tested both hypotheses, and while I can get by without breakfast, I have found that eating early is a good way to avoid unnecessary mid-afternoon cravings and fatigue. So if you chose to incorporate breakfast into your intentional eating plan, I would recommend eggs, oatmeal or both. Eggs are super cheap — a couple of bucks for a dozen, and they are packed full of delectable nutrients. When I don’t have time to cook them up (which is most mornings), I like to crack a couple of raw eggs into a protein shake.

Protein shakes aren’t just for bodybuilders, by the way. As long as you have a body, you need protein. Shakes are a cost-effective way to curb your cravings while providing your muscles with the material they need to perform. You can get a month’s supply of protein powder for as little as $30.

When I want to switch breakfast up a bit or when I know I have a big day ahead, I opt for oats. Oats contain a healthy dose of carbohydrates, which provide an early morning energy boost, and they are also loaded with fiber, which makes you feel full throughout the day and prevents overeating. I like to flavor my oats with blueberries, raspberries or bananas. If you want to add a little extra protein to the mix, you can pour in a quarter cup of dry vegetable protein. You can buy a bag at the grocery store for $2 or $3, and it adds a significant serving of protein to the oats. Oats are also very cheap. I buy them from the bulk dispensers at Smith’s for 79 cents a pound.

I have a simple checklist for lunch and dinner: protein, carbs and greens. If you want to lose weight, then you can reduce the carbs and up the greens. If you’re trying to put on muscle, up the protein and carbs. My go-to protein source is chicken because it’s lean, clean and cheap. Personally, I like to buy organic whenever I can, but it is definitely more pricey. That’s why I buy chicken thighs instead of breasts, which saves me about $2 per pound. They are slightly lower in protein and higher in fat per serving, but honestly, the extra fat makes them more tender and flavorful.

Chicken is also delightfully versatile. While I prefer to grill, you can also bake it, and you can constantly switch up the spices to produce a surprising spectrum of flavors. I’m pretty consistent when it comes to dinner: chicken (or steak when I’ve got some extra cash), yams and broccoli or asparagus. Sweet potatoes and yams are excellent sources of good carbs, fiber, Vitamin C and antioxidants. You can smother them in coconut oil and sprinkle some cinnamon on top to give them a delicious, desserty flavor, and they will only run you about $1 a pound. Broccoli and asparagus are also pretty cheap, and veggies, as we all know, are a clutch component of a healthy lifestyle. Broccoli is loaded with Vitamins A, D and K and possesses potent detoxifying qualities. Asparagus is also well equipped with Vitamins A, C, E and K, in addition to antioxidants and detoxifying compounds. Asparagus is a little bit more expensive than broccoli, however, so I typically go for the latter.

This is the general formula I adhere to, but I’ve done a lot of tinkering and experimenting, as I encourage you to do. For a while I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are cheap and not terribly unhealthy — just a bit high in sugar and fat for my liking. I also went through a period when I ate canned tuna every day for lunch, which is cheap, quick and high in protein. However, I tired of the taste after a couple of months, which seems to be an inevitable part of any meal plan. It is also one of the fun parts, though, because it forces you to get creative with your cooking and to try things that might be outside of your comfort zone. Once you begin to understand that what you put into your body dramatically influences your performance, your energy levels, the vibrancy of your skin, your emotional state and your general well-being, you will start to crave healthy food. When it becomes a priority, you will realize that there are plenty of ways to eat well without breaking the bank.

Since I’ve been disciplined about my meals, I’ve actually ended up saving a good chunk of change. I only eat the meals I set aside beforehand, so I don’t waste money on snacks and junk food throughout the day. Furthermore, I don’t crave that stuff anymore because I always have plenty of constructive calories and food-derived energy at my disposal. While it’s true that you can’t buy healthy food from the dollar menu, it’s also true that most people end up spending way more than a dollar on those empty calories anyway. If you habitually plan out your meals, take the time to prepare them and stick to the nutrition basics, you can have fun and save money while eating well.

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