Are you on a very tight budget and struggling to buy groceries? Here is a helpful list of cheap food to buy when broke!
No matter how little money you have at the end of the month, you still need to eat!
If you are having financial struggles during these difficult times (what with the pandemic and inflation and everything else!), one great way to save money is cut back on spending. A very easy and simple way to do this is buying cheap foods.
When money is tight, one of the easiest ways to save money is on your grocery bill.
Yes, you can shop for low-cost food items that are still nutritious and filling!
Here are some tips to help you shop smart, spend less, and still eat healthy!
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How Can I Reduce my Grocery Bill?
First, let’s check out some simple, general tips to help you lower your grocery bill. Then, we can see which items are the least expensive in the grocery store and plan meals around those.
Here are some strategies you can use when you have to shop for groceries on a tight budget.
- Meal Plan – If you plan out your meals (and only go shopping with a grocery list!), you can save a lot of money (by avoiding impulse purchases and scheduling meals that you know your family will eat).
- Cook from Scratch – Find ways to make things at home instead of buying them ready made. Like homemade pizza or mac n cheese.
- Check Sales – Before planning and shopping, check the weekly sales fliers (or apps) to look for discounts and/or coupons.
- Discount Grocery Stores – Shop at discount grocery stores like Aldi, Grocery Outlet, and not big name places like Whole Foods.
- Compare Prices – Use grocery apps and weekly fliers to check and compare prices (but don’t waste gas money driving miles around just to save a few pennies!).
- Buy Generic Brands – Choose the generic store brand items instead of the pricier brand names. Like Kirkland Signature at Costco or Great Value at Walmart. Most of the time the product is exactly the same with a different label.
- In-Season Fruits and Veggies – Select fruits and veggies that are in-season. They will be cheaper and tastier.
- Canned Fruits and Veggies – Look for canned fruits and veggies which can be a cheaper option than fresh.
- Long-Shelf Life – Focus on items with a long-shelf life (like pasta, rice, canned goods).
- Filling Foods – Shop for foods that help you feel full and satisfy your hunger – foods with high protein and fiber (for example, potatoes, meat, eggs, oats, beans, nuts). Avoid “snacky” type foods like chips, cookies, sodas, bakery items, or anything highly processed.
- Buy in Bulk – If you have a larger family or eat a lot of a particular item, then consider the cost-savings when buying in bulk. You will spend less per unit of measurement. I always look at the shelf tags at the store to see what the cost per unit is for an item and compare to the other items on the shelf.
- Avoid Snacks – Eat 3 meals a day and avoid snacking in between, or even consider intermittent fasting. Here’s a great book that explains the health benefits of intermittent fasting.
- Use Cash Back Apps – Don’t shop without using a cash back app! Try Ibotta (earn cash back for purchases), Fetch Rewards (earn points to redeem for gift cards), Checkout 51 (earn cash back for gas and grocery purchases), Receipt Hog (earn cash back for purchases).
If you struggle with meal planning, the $5 Meal Plan app can help you plan meals that cost just $5 per meal!
How to Live Well on a Tight Budget
Frugal Living Tips
Best Places to Buy Cheap Food When Broke
Next, you need to find low-cost places to shop.
Look for local, discount grocery stores that offer cheaper options – like Aldi, WinCo, Food4Less, Walmart, Costco. Even the Dollar Tree sells some food items.
You’ll definitely want to avoid shopping at Whole Foods!
Always check out the clearance section when shopping. I find a lot of good deals on meat that is close to the expiration date. I just cook or freeze it immediately when I get home.
Places to Get Free Food When Broke
If you are really struggling to pay for food, you can also look into these options for assistance:
- churches – many offer free food or even free hot meals
- social services/government assistance
- Facebook freecycle or Buy Nothing groups
- friends, family
- meal pantries, food banks
What are the Cheapest Foods I Can Buy?
When you find a grocery store that has low prices, then you need to focus on buying inexpensive food.
Low-cost food items generally include pantry items like rice, pasta, canned foods, in-season fruits and veggies, and other staples.
Be sure to keep an eye out for sales (weekly fliers) and coupons (paper and through apps as well!).
Best Cheap Food to Buy in Bulk
Buying items in bulk is a great way to keep costs low.
But, you need to be smart when buying foods – as you don’t want anything to spoil, which would be a waste of your money.
Look for foods that have a long shelf-life:
- frozen berries
- nuts in the shell
- peanut butter
- coconut oil
- canned meat
Let’s look at the cheapest foods you can buy in the main grocery categories.
As a reminder, always look for sales and select generic brands instead of the big name brands.
Cheap Food to Buy When Broke: Dairy
1. Whole Milk
Whole milk can be stretched out by mixing 1:1 with water. This is a simple way to stretch your budget.
Milk can be used for cereal, oatmeal, sauce, baking.
The large tubs of plain yogurt are cheaper (and healthier!) than the small, individual containers. Add your own fruit, nuts, seeds for flavor.
Yogurt can be used in pancakes, smoothies popsicles, muffins. My kids love plain rice mixed with yogurt and some salt. It’s a popular dish for little kids in India.
3. Block Cheese
You can save a lot of money buying block cheese and shredding it yourself. You can even use a food processor. I have this one – it’s inexpensive, works great, and is easy to clean!
Cheese is a great addition to lots of dishes! Pasta, sauces, chili, salads…
Butter is better for you than margarine. You can keep an eye out for sales and stick to the generic brands. I have bought in bulk and kept sticks in the freezer for later.
Butter can be used on toast, in baking, as a topping, and mixed in lots of dishes.
Cheap Food to Buy When Broke: Grains
Rice is staple around the world and has a long shelf life. There are a lot of varieties, with white generally being the cheapest.
Rice can be a wonderful side dish (with some butter!). You can eat with with stir-fry, beans, meat, casseroles.
Start eating oats for breakfast – they make a healthy meal!
You can add your own flavors to spice it up – we like to add frozen blueberries, cinnamon, flax seeds, brown sugar…
Pasta makes a simple, easy meal. Look for whole grain or pasta with added veggies.
You can make spaghetti, casseroles, mac and cheese, pasta salads.
Whole wheat or multigrain bread is the healthier option. My girls love eating bread with peanut butter, honey, and cinnamon sprinkled on top.
Bread can be a great side dish – next to chili, soup. You can make all kinds of sandwiches as well.
9. Quinoa (‘keen-wa’)
Quinoa has a lovely, nutty flavor. Packed with lots of protein it fills you up fast and keeps you satisfied longer.
I’ve substituted quinoa for rice as a side dish. You can add it to salads, soups, tacos, or protein/power bowls.
We always have a stack of tortillas on hand. My girls love tacos and I can whip up a quick meal for them. I also make some fast quesadillas too!
You can make tacos, quesadillas, wraps, and homemade chips.
Cheap Food to Buy When Broke: Pantry
Crackers are a great staple and can be added as a side dish (or filler) into lots of meals.
Cheese and crackers make a great, simple snack (or meal!). Eat them with soup or chili. Top them with peanut butter or cheese. You can use crushed crackers as a bread crumb substitute.
If you like to bake, you can use flour to make all kinds of yummy things. You can keep it in the freezer if you don’t bake a lot.
Try making baked goods or adding flour to soups to thicken them.
Sugar has been a pantry staple for ages.
Use it for making desserts or drinks or to sweeten up anything.
14. Cooking Oil
Cooking oil is helpful to have on hand to make quick stir fries or for baking.
I personally like coconut oil (you can buy a big tub at Costco).
While oats are a healthier breakfast option, cereal is nice to have on hand for a very fast meal. (And kids seem to love cereal!)
16. Peanut Butter
Peanut butter and apples are my kids go-to for a snack (or meal!). We use peanut butter on lots of things (apples, toast, spoons). PB is also a great source of protein.
Use peanut butter with apples or bananas, crackers, bread, etc.
Spices are a great way to add flavor to dishes, especially meat. I never buy the pre-packaged taco spices, but always have on hand several different spices – like salt, pepper, garlic, onion, oregano, ginger, cumin, and chili powder.
Make your own taco seasoning or add flavor to meats and stir-fries.
Cheap Food to Buy When Broke: Meat/Protein
High protein foods fill you up and keep you satisfied for longer.
Make sure to add protein to each meal.
Many of these protein options can be substituted for meat in recipes.
Eggs are a great protein source – the best ones are brown, free-range.
Make scrambled eggs, omelets, hard-boiled eggs, quiches, or stir-fries.
Dried beans tend to be cheapest and have a long shelf life. You can also buy canned beans.
Beans can be used in the place of meat for many recipes (or 1/2 beans 1/2 meat). They are a great addition (or side dish) to tacos and soup, and of course taste great in chili!
Lentils are another healthy, inexpensive option for meals.
You can make soups or stews with lentils or use them in salads or curries.
21. Canned Fish
Canned tuna or salmon provide protein as well as omega-3.
Use tuna or salmon to make sandwiches, salads, casseroles, or just as a snack!
Sausages can be a quick, easy meal if you are in a pinch.
Cook up some sausages with fried eggs and toast or cut them up to add to a casserole.
23. Ground Meat
I often buy ground beef, chicken, pork, or turkey on sale and freeze it for later use in making tacos or stir-fry.
Use ground meat in tacos, soups, stir-fry, pasta, mixed with rice, burgers, chili. Lots of options!
24. Whole Chicken
A whole chicken might seem intimidating (it did to me at first!), but you can cook it in a crock pot and eat meat for at least a week!
Once cooked, you can shred the meat and use in tacos, casseroles, stir-fries.
Tofu is an excellent source of protein.
You can use tofu in smoothies (we also make our smoothies into popsicles!), substitute it for meat in dishes, add it to soups and salads, and make tofu scrambles (like scrambled eggs but with tofu!).
Cheap Food to Buy When Broke: Fruits
Fruits are excellent, healthy snacks and make great additions to meals (like blueberries in pancakes, raspberries in yogurt, etc.) or as a side dish or healthy dessert!
Be sure to buy seasonal fruits for the lowest possible price.
26. Oranges and other citrus fruits
Oranges, grapefruits, limes, and lemon provide vitamin C. They make good snacks or additions to meals.
You can add them (or their juice) to salads, desserts, or meat.
There are a wide variety of apples. We like Fuji and Honey Crisp.
Our go-to snack is apples and peanut butter. Apples also taste delicious in baked goods, desserts, or on salads.
A great low-cost snack – bananas and peanut butter (can you tell we really like peanut butter??)
Try bananas in breads, muffins, or other baked goods. They can be added to smoothies and even sandwiches (with peanut butter!).
29. Melons, Cantaloupe, Watermelon
Any type of melon makes a great addition to a fruit salad or an afternoon snack.
30. Frozen Berries
We buy frozen berries all the time, especially blueberries. My kids love them in smoothies, pancakes, and even just right out of the freezer!
You can try blueberries, strawberries, or a mixed bag!
31. Canned Fruit
I especially like canned pineapple, but you can also try peaches, pears or other fruits. While they might not be as good as fresh, they are an inexpensive alternative.
Canned fruit is great for baked goods, desserts, and on their own as a sweet treat!
Cheap Food to Buy When Broke: Vegetables
You can easily add (hide!) veggies in any meal! This cookbook is really funny and gives really great ideas for “hiding” veggies, especially for picky eaters.
As always, select veggies that are in-season for the best price and don’t be afraid to try out new ones that are on sale!
I always tell my kids, you can’t say you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it yet!
Cucumbers are cheap and easy to add to salads and as a simple snack.
If you want to add flavor and keep sickness away, throw some garlic in your dishes.
Garlic can be added to stir-fries, casseroles, tacos, etc.
Potatoes (sweet and regular) can add substance to a meal and stretch your portions. They are cheap and filling.
Make baked or mashed potatoes, french fries, or hash browns.
Cabbage is nutritious and easy to use. You can chop it quickly in a food processor to add to meals.
Use it in stir-fries, soup, salad, or to make sauerkraut.
There are a wide variety of squash to choose from (my all-time favorite is delicata squash!).
Try some squash in a casserole, soups, or just plain roasted with salt, pepper, and butter!
Stock up on zucchini when it’s on sale, shred it into portions and freeze them for later use.
Some great ways to use zucchini: zucchini bread, fried zucchini, side dishes, zucchini “noodles”, stir-fries or soup.
Onions are a very cheap option for spicing up a meal.
You can use them to make soup, casseroles, fry them, or add a little to salads.
You can often find peppers on sale. They taste great and are good for you.
Try chopped peppers in salads, stir-fry, or just plain as a snack (or dipped in hummus!).
40. Lettuce, Mixed Greens, or Spinach
Salads are a healthy meal option. I’m not a fan of iceberg lettuce, but I do enjoy the leaf lettuce or mixed greens packages that you can buy.
Get more greens in your diet by making some salads or adding spinach to stir-fry or soup.
Celery is nutritious and generally very cheap.
You can add celery to stir-fry, soups, chili, or just eat plain (with peanut butter!)
42. Canned Veggies
Canned veggies might not be the healthiest option, but they are very inexpensive.
You can just cook and eat them or add them to soups, stews, stir-frys, or rice.
43. Frozen Veggies
Frozen veggies are a healthier option and not much more expensive than canned.
Add frozen veggies to soups, stews, stir-fry, casseroles, or just cook on the stove and eat.
Easy, Cheap, Healthy Meal Ideas on a Budget
So, now you’ve gone shopping and stocked up on cheap items for your fridge and pantry. What kind of meals can you make?
Here are some simple, nutritious meal ideas:
- scrambled eggs (add any chopped veggies)
- hard-boiled eggs
- veggie omelet
- oatmeal (with fruits, seeds, nuts added)
- yogurt (with oats and fruit)
- toast (PB & J, butter, avocado toast – my kids love avocado toast with a bit of pepper on top!)
- pancakes (add blueberries, nuts, chocolate chips)
- veggie soup (lots of possibilities!)
- sandwiches (PB&J, cheese, tuna)
- mac and cheese
- tacos (I always mixed finely chopped veggies into the taco meat – my kids never notice!)
- salads (endless possibilities here too!)
- quinoa and veggies
- sweet potatoes and veggies (Sheet pan dishes are easy!)
- chili (add veggies here too!)
- stir fry
- roast chicken and veggies
- cheese and crackers
- yogurt and fruit
- apples or bananas and peanut butter
Other Ways to Save on Food and Meals
Another way to save on meals is by avoiding snacking between meals and practicing intermittent fasting. Dr. Jason Fung has 2 helpful books describing his work with diabetes patients and the benefits of fasting (be sure to check with your doctor prior to making dietary changes). Just cutting out snacking between meals can save you money!
Finally, if you are trying to cut costs and still eat healthy, be sure to keep in mind these cheap food when you go shopping at the grocery store. If you make some adjustments to your grocery list, you can save some money! What are your favorite cheap foods? What meals do you like to make with them? Share your thoughts below!