By Tyler Mason

Dealing with Rising Food Costs: 5 Dietitian-Approved Tips on Eating Healthfully on a Budget

Dealing with Rising Food Costs: 5 Dietitian-Approved Tips on Eating Healthfully on a Budget


You may have noticed – food has gotten crazy expensive! Grocery store bills are steadily increasing and this year prices shot up over 11%, which is the fastest annual increase in 41 years[1]. With the increased cost of food there is also an increased cost on mental, physical, and financial health. As a registered dietitian I’m asked all of the time about how to grocery shop on a budget without sacrificing nutrition. If you find your food budget has become stretched, I have a few thoughts on how to help ease the strain.


What does “Food Insecure” mean?


 we dive into some cost saving ideas, let’s first chat about food insecurity, which has been identified by the World Health Organization as one of the ten key social determinants of health (alongside education, environment, and employment to name a few)[2]. Food insecurity has been described as “the inability to obtain sufficient and nutritious food through socially acceptable means”[3]. There are two types of food insecurity, household and individual, and although they are similar in consequence, they differ in terms of experience and severity.  For instance, a household may experience food insecurity, but the severity of individual food insecurity may vary dependent on the needs and role of an individual with the household. Mothers often sacrifice their own nutrition to ensure their children receive enough. Skipping meals or choosing less than required are all thought of as acts of maternal buffering[4].


Based on the latest Statistics Canada Income Survey, approximately 5.8 million Canadians (including 1.4 million children) lived in food-insecure households in 2021[5]. Although the following tips are my thoughts on how to help eat nutritiously while on a food budget, it’s important to note that these tips are only a superficial scratch on the iceberg. Those living in food insecure households may not have the ability to travel to multiple grocery stores to shop for sales, or the freezer space to cook in batch. To read more about what can be done to reduce food insecurity in Canada check out the PROOF research program.


Learn how to read food labels


With all that said, what can you do now to help with the rising costs of foods? Start by understanding how to read nutrition labels. There are so many similar products out there with varying prices. Often, we can become drawn to pretty packages or labels on the front of products versus the facts that are written on the back. Start by looking at and comparing  ingredient lists. If it’s long and confusing I tend to steer away. Remember that the first ingredient is always the most abundant, which is why when I look at granola bars, I’m always looking for the first ingredient to be a great source of fibre (a “whole grain”). I also look for lower sugar and more protein. As a general rule of thumb, I think 10 grams or less of sugar and 5 grams or more of protein and fibre when it comes to granola bars. But it’s important to note that there’s no perfect option, so compare labels of products you will actually want to eat.


Look at the “price per label”


Another label I look at when shopping at the grocery store is the “price per unit” label written on the shelf. This label will often have the price listed per unit – for example 0.80/ 100ml or 1.19/100ml. If the ingredients are similar, always go for the cheaper option! The final label to watch out for is the “if bought in multiples” label. If you can buy two products at the lower price, go for it. Often these labels are on shelf stable products which is amazing. However, if you don’t have the funds upfront, or the space to store extra options, these labels can be really frustrating.


Don’t shy away from nutritious processed foods


Buying shelf stable products like boxed pasta, canned product, and frozen fruits and veggies is another way to help reduce your overall food budget. Fresh or off-season produce are a quick way to blow the food budget. Instead opt for frozen! It’s equally as nutritious and will last longer. I’m also a huge fan of plant-based protein, especially lentils! I often mix in canned (rinsed, and drained), brown lentils to ground meat dishes as a way to boost nutrition (lentils are a great source of fibre) and reduce the cost of the meal. My kids barely notice them! Lentils are a great way to add protein to your diet, especially when animal-based products can be so expensive. Hands down the most popular recipe I have written is these flourless chocolate lentil protein muffins. Yum!


Batch cook


Another way to help stretch the food budget is by making meals that last. By this I mean batch cooking recipes to freeze in smaller portions. Not only do you save on ingredients, but you also save time and energy – which are precious resources themselves! If you have the space to buy big and store food in a pantry or freezer great! If not, perhaps think about sharing with a friend and splitting the cost of bulk items.


Waste less


As a busy parent and a dietitian who specializes in family nutrition, I can safely say that food wastage can be stressful and feel like money in the compost. My recommendation is to simply serve less to waste less! According to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in feeding we want to reduce pressure on our kids to eat so that they listen to their individual hunger[6]. Commonly we think about verbal pressure, such as coaxing or bribing. However, there’s also visual pressure. An overwhelming visual portion may suggest “this is what I think you should eat” versus allowing kids to determine their own portion. For example, a child may be more likely to consume two small pieces or broccoli versus four larger pieces. Simply plating too much food can lead to food wastage. Another option for reducing food wastage at the table is to serve meals family style. This means putting food on the table and letting kids (and adults) serve themselves. No pressure and no wasted food! A final way to reduce food wastage is coming up with a system for “first in first out”. This method allows for a rotation of foods to prevent spoilage (and therefore wastage). My system is to rotate – new cans head to the back of the cupboard and new veggies are placed at the bottom of the crisper. This simply technique can save you money in rotten spinach!


Redefine what “healthy” means to you


A final tip for helping with the rising cost of food is to redefine what healthy means to you.

Try not to stress about buying organic (it’s no healthier than conventional food) or buying based on front of label health claims. If a food is out of your budget and will cause you financial stress, then it’s not healthy for you.