Healthy Eating for a Family on $200 a Month

Author: Ms. Simple Economist (Awesome Mom and Registered Dietitian)

The new year is here and for most of us our resolutions probably involve eating healthy and taking control of our spending habits. These two goals interact on a daily basis as we plan our meals, prepare and eat food, allocate how much we are going to spend on food, and create new habits to manage our weight. Have you ever thought about how much you spend on food each month? Where does most of your food come from? Do you cook or eat out? These are the questions that ultimately affect our waistlines and our budgets.

What if I said you could eat healthy and feed a family for $200 a month? May sound crazy, but it’s possible if you start making some simple changes to your eating and spending habits. My husband and I have been successfully living off of a grocery budget of $200/month for almost two years now and continue to do so after having a baby girl this past December all without using coupons.

I know families come in many different sizes and with certain dietary needs or restrictions that can influence how much you allocate to your food budget. However, there are some simple steps you can take to start feeding your family for less.

“One of the least efficient areas of most families spending revolves around food. Eating out, eating in and food purchases are often done without careful consideration or proper planning. A little bit of forethought can go a long way in making food planning, preparing and consuming much more efficient! Lastly, an inorganic apple from Aldi is better than an organic sugar cookie from Whole foods! -Mr. Simple Economist”

Follow the 3 P’s: Plan, Purchase and Prepare

1. Plan

Step one is to establish a food budget suitable for your family.  On average most people don’t keep track of their food expenses and that can make it difficult to make changes or measure progress. Just doing this simple task may be where you need to start to improve your spending habits. One thing that has helped our family is allocating a certain amount of money we can spend on groceries before the month starts. We actually put literal cash in an envelop (Thanks Dave Ramsey) the first day of every month. Once the money is gone, we stop buying food and we get creative in the kitchen. If you have trouble running out of money early in the month, try splitting the total into weekly amounts (or whatever frequency you shop).

Make it a priority to grocery shop! Eating healthy starts by deciding to cook most of your meals at home. If you want to save money and calories, don’t eat out and get your butt in a grocery store! Keeping healthy food in your pantry and fridge will help you reach your goals and fight off temptation. Purchase fresh fruits and vegetables (freeze them if they are going bad), low fat dairy, lean meat, and whole grain breads and cereals to use in nutritious meals and snacks. One simple step: shop the periphery of the grocery store.

Food preferences and developing a meal plan are important tools for maximizing your food budget. What are your likes and dislikes when it comes to food? What about your family? Determine what your family normally eats and think of some of your ‘go-to’ meals and what you enjoy cooking. Make a reference list of these meals allocating them as difficult, intermediate, and easy recipes.  Then, plan your meals and snacks for one week that fit within your established grocery budget. Looking to save money and time? Include meals that will “stretch” expensive food items such as casseroles, stir-frys, chili, soups and spaghetti. Typically, eating less meat or using meat as an accent will be less expensive and often healthier. Find quick and easy recipes online with minimal ingredients (try to do 5 ingredients or less). Simple meals can still be nutritious!

Find the lowest cost healthy foods. Often, flea markets or farmer’s markets can have deals on in season items (sometimes they can be much more expensive also). Consider shopping at discount stores or national chains (Aldi, Walmart, etc.). They tend to have lower prices and good selections of store brands. Sometimes you can also save by shopping at warehouse stores (Sams, Costco) where you get items in bulk that will last you awhile. Before making the trip to the store, research sale items and weekly ads. Often the best deals are heavily featured and are on the front or back of the flyers. If  you must coupon, do it efficiently using a site like Southern Savers, just be careful not to be tricked into buying heavily processed unhealthy food. Look for ingredients you need for the meals you have planned for the week and compare prices between stores. If time allows, don’t be afraid to shop at multiple places.  Another way to save a few bucks is by getting and using a store’s loyalty card.

2. Purchase

Avoid Impulse Purchases

Your worst enemy: Temptations. Don’t let temptations get you off track when shopping. You don’t want all your planning and budgeting to go to waste. Here are some tips to avoid giving in to those annoying impulse purchases:

  • Go shopping when you are not hungry. You may be more inclined to listen to that ‘rumbling in your tummy’ instead of sticking to your grocery list.
  • Don’t shop when you are rushed. You won’t have time to compare prices and read nutrition labels.
  • Consider shopping by yourself. Your kids, spouse, roommates, etc. may influence your purchases and get you off track.
  • Avoid aisles with items you don’t need (chips, sodas, candy, frozen pizza)
  • Limit your purchases of pre-cut fruits and vegetables, individual yogurt cups, salads in the deli section, and instant items. They are convenient but usually cost more.

Choosing Healthy Items

Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season (usually on sale, better quality, and taste better too!) Read nutrition labels and ingredient lists. Pay attention to the serving size and the number of calories per serving to know how much is right for you. Try and limit your intake of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Look for foods that contain 3g of fiber or more per serving, and choose nutrient-dense items (more vitamins and minerals/serving) than energy-dense items (more calories/serving). Be careful not to drink too many extra calories. Water is one of the cheapest and healthiest options!

Looking for some healthy, low cost items available all year? Here are some of our favorites:

  • Proteins – chicken, eggs, beans (garbanzo, black, cannellini)
  • Vegetables – carrots, greens, potatoes, onions
  • Fruit – bananas, apples, frozen strawberries
  • Canned fruits and vegetables are a less expensive option, but make sure to get ones with less sugar and sodium.

Stretching your Food Dollar

  • Try the store brands to see which taste as good as the national brands
  • Compare unit prices of items to get the best price per ounce – know the price of the item before putting it in your basket!
  • Purchase items with a longer shelf life in bulk (rice, pasta, beans)
  • Purchase large cuts of meat that can be cut up and used in several meals OR purchase in bulk when on sale (chicken < $1.99/lb in Athens, GA)

3. Prepare

Saving Time

  • Some meal items can be prepared in advance. Pre-cook on days when you have time or cook meals that make great leftovers
  • Try no-cook meals you can easily throw together (i.e. salads)
  • Cut up fresh fruit for smoothies
  • Wash and trim meat or poultry and freeze in individual bags/containers
  • Prepare a soup or casserole and freeze in multiple containers for later (Our favorite is homemade chili)
  • Double or triple on recipes and freeze for meals later in the month
  • Incorporate leftovers into subsequent meals OR use the same ingredients in multiple meals throughout the week.

Creativity in the Kitchen

  • Try meatless meals. Dedicate a day to eating no meat (Meatless Mondays)
  • Substitute meat or poultry with plant based proteins (beans, peas, quinoa). These options add variety and reduce sat fat and cholesterol in your diet. Also, they are typically cheaper and more nutrient-dense.
  • Keep your fridge stocked with a variety of foods – makes it easier to make meals with what you have available
  • Be creative and open-minded and the opportunities are endless!

Eating healthy on a budget isn’t difficult, it just takes some forethought and creativity. Planning ahead, being conscientious of your purchases and taking the time to prepare delicious meals are the keys. A better budget, more efficient life and a healthier waistline will be your reward!

39 thoughts on “Healthy Eating for a Family on $200 a Month

  1. We have made huge changes to our grocery budget over the past few years but we are still at around $500 per month for a family of 4. This amount also includes things like toilet paper, lightbulbs, and other household items. I could probably spend less, but we buy mostly organic and it gets expensive!!! =)

    • It’s great to hear you are making changes! We buy organic items occasionally but try to be as strategic about it as possible so we stay within our budget. Typically it’s on items where it really matters like produce that we eat the skin of or things that retain pesticide residue the most. Last month we started a little challenge of eating less processed/refined foods (we got the idea from http://www.100daysofrealfood.com) and it has been a little more challenging to stay within our $200, but it’s been good for us :). Also, we use a separate account (“envelope”) for household items which seems to help too.

        • Holly, my family of 4 just started budgeting for groceries and we also buy organic. First month our budget was $500 but we were not even close. How do you manage to stick to your budget of $500 for your family of 4? I would really like to know. Thank you!

        • Wow! I try to go organic, but it’s so expensive. It’s ridiculous to think that it cost more to eat healthy, when it should be the other way around. However, Braums milk is very tasty and delicious. It may not be organic, but it is only 3.19 a gallon, and also every other week or so it goes on sale for only 2 for $4! It saves us a lot. Plus it taste so much better than Walmart or Target. I try to stick to a budget but it is hard with a family of 5 and on a budget of $350/ month.

    • That is really impressive, especially considering the organic part. I know for me step one is stop eating nasty food and step two will hopefully include growing more and buying more local/organic produce.

  2. This is a great article. This is one area where my wife and I have probably the most trouble budgeting. We do not even have any kids but with limited time it just makes it very difficult. I will have to keep these ideas in mind.

      • Thanks for your tips . I’ve just retired and live alone. I was not wanting to spend a lot on food. Your suggestions are very common sensed and healthy. Looking forward to losing weight and buying smart. Thanks again

  3. We made the biggest change a few years back when we realized how much we were throwing away. We got a lot more disciplined about eating what we had purchased and saved a ton of money. Our favorite things now are the 1/4 pasture-raised cow we purchased and the wild salmon that are in our deep freezer ready to go at all times. Both are better quality than the supermarket and are cheaper when you buy in bulk as well. The freezer does take some energy to run, but it’s saved us a ton over the years.

    • I completely understand! Mr. Simple Economist helped me realize how much we were wasting over the years, not only with food but with a lot of other disposables (paper towels, diapers (we use cloth), etc.). We now save most of our food scraps and put them in a compost pile in the backyard. We are planning on using it for our garden this spring/summer. Also, we just got a chicken and are hoping to get some eggs too!

  4. Love this post guys! Any favorite meals/recipes you’d like to share? What are your go-tos in the kitchen?

    • Hey! Yeah, we actually eat very consistently and we have probably 10 meals we eat every single month (like stir-fry every Monday). I’ll send you a copy of our favorites. We actually keep a shared gdoc with the meals we eat most often so when we plan our meals for the week it is easier. We are also planning to keep track of every single grocery item we buy for April and meal we cook so we can share those too.

      • I would really love some meal ideas as well. Please if you don’t mind sharing your list of meals? I have 7 people to feed 3 meals a day.

    • I’m on low carb diet. I need to stay within 200.00 for a month, including t-paper etc…any ideas ? Love to have your stir fry receipe.

      • Do you have an Aldi’s store where you live? I eat very well on or around 200 dollars a month. I do like organic dairy, and they have the lowest prices. Aldi’s also has lots of of organic fruits and vegetables.

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  6. Hello I love your site and have learned soo much . I was hoping for some advice on how to feed a family of four on a budget of 200 $ a month . I lost my job (still got tons of interviews so things look up) and my husband works but after bills( rent, 2cars, dental bill payment, electricity, trash, and phone plan trust me in a snow bank you wish you had a phone and for 3 phone unlimited $150.00 ish is a good deal but plan on dropping a line) and money to get to and frm work and bus stop (to far for kids as little as ours to walk ) were left with little to no money and we sadly have no stock pile(food or cash) anymore . We lost out home and jobs for a bit and used all we had to keep somewhat afloat to pack up and head cross country to find better jobs and lives for our kids . Any advice is welcome as long as it has a real helpful plan . Criticism is fine but not if it comes with no resolution. I’m truly at my low point I want to garden but I don’t know where to start . I don’t want to feed my babies junk to survive . And all of you here seem to know the value of loveing your family enough to want the best . Thank you Blessings to all

    • Hey, Thanks for the message. I’m glad you are able to get some value from our site! It sounds like it is a tough situation but I appreciate your humble attitude and willingness to try new things. I think groceries can be a huge part of most americans budget. If you have time, buying raw and natural ingredients and making as much as possible from scratch can save tons of money and also allow you to eat healthily on a slim budget. We have a second post about exactly what we buy for groceries. I would suggest getting a copy of the book “Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover” and reading that cover to cover. I read my first copy from the the library- you don’t have to buy it. It is a fantastic resource and more robust than what I currently have on my site. It sounds like you have taken the first step by just seeking out information about where to start. Keep us posted on any progress!

    • Chris,it is good you are not sticking your head in the sand, and actively seeking suggestings to save money. Look at what you put in your shopping cart, and see if you can pick a cheaper brand, or if you can make it with the ingredients you already own. For example, instead of buying pancake mix, make it from scratch. Dry cereal is expensive, even if it is cheap. Consider buying a bag of oatmeal and cooking it yourself. We add apples, apricots, peaches, raisins,pears etc while cooking to change flavours..add some cinnamon and brown sugar. Make extra for the next day. It will thicken as it cools, but just add some water when you heat it up. Make homemade pancakes and waffles..freeze..then pop into the toaster.
      Instead of buying sandwich meat, consider buying a roast when it is on sale. Much cheaper.
      Substitute or omit ingredients when making a recipe. It may change the flavour. It could make it tastier.
      I have a basic white cake recipe. By adding fruits, spices, brown sugar, it changes the flavour.Instead of frosting, consider making a hot lemon sauce.
      If you normally use 2% milk, buy whole and dilute it with water. You get twice as much. I always dilute milk in a recipe with water. You can’t tell the difference.
      We make lots of stews with doughboys. Chicken stew, pork or beef stew.
      We buy whole chickens. Roast chicken for a couple of meals, then some sandwiches, casserole or simmer sauce with rice, and then with the carcass we turn into a soup. You can do the same with a roast pork.
      We like omelets for breakfast. Use some leftover pieces of veggies, meat and onions, shred some cheese. Only need to use one egg per person. Add some slices of fruit on the plate, and add toast.
      Buy fruits and veggies that are on sale or reduced. If you planned on buying a cauliflower, but broccoli is on sale..you get that instead.
      If you buy little single serve yogurts, buy a large tub and separate into reuseable ones.
      Limit food. In our family, kids were allowed to have one glass of milk and juice a day. After that, if they were still thirsty, they could have water.

  7. You titled this with “Family” – do you have any children? If not, maybe you should change that to “Couple” 🙂

    • Hey, Thanks for the message. We do have a child that is included. You are right in your assessment that if you had 4 teenage boys you might have a slightly different situation than ours. However, the principles still remain the same. We know many couples with multiple children who spend even less than we do!

  8. My husband and I are on a very fixed budget, with only a few dollars over $200. for food for the entire month. Up til now we’ve always had our coffee with flavoured creamers (and i’ve tried doing the home-made creamers and they SUCK..frankly..lol). I am addicted to coffee, but WITH added flavoured creamer–my personal fave is Almond Joy by International Delights. However, with our food budget having been lowered, it’s going to be too expensive to use that for my two cups of coffee per day (esp since i use about 4 T. per coffee cup (mug-size)! Yeah, i like Almond Joy…lol!
    I’m not a fan of black coffee, even with the addition of sweetener..any ideas here wd be great.
    Also, i go through about 12 boxes of True Lemon a month, with ten packets (per glass or bottle) in each box. (I REALLY hate plain water!) Adding fruit to plain water isn’t palatable to me, either, unless it’s so concentrated it might as well be a fruit juice. Any ideas there? My thinking is, if i can somehow replace these drinks with something cheaper but yet still tasty, we’ll have more money for actual food.
    Thanks for any feedback! 🙂

    • Ohh, btw, the TrueLemon all told for 12 boxes, at $3.00 apiece, comes to $36. that could be going towards food. It’s good, but it’s NOT cheap!

    • Hey, thanks for the message and questions. We have done a lot of work to our food budget as well and drinks have been a large part. At different times in our lives we have spent well over $200 just on drinks alone (including alcohol) a month! However, these days we drink mostly water. My wife does enjoy her coffee but just a few dollars of coffee will last us the month. Tea is also a great way to stretch the fluid category. We grew up drinking tea (south- sweet with sugar) but now we try lots of different types including savory teas as well. It is pretty easy to grow things like mint and rosemary which can also make some teas. Lastly, even things like true lemon can be found much cheaper on amazon if you end up checking there. Thanks for the reply

      • Wow, thanks for the quick reply! 🙂
        I never thought of going to Amazon.com–good idea! I’ll have to check there! (Like when my hubby gets back inside..lol.) It would surely make it easier and easier to swallow, knowing what i’m drinking isn’t costing an arm and a leg!
        I was also thinking of switching back to English Breakfast tea or Chai teas (hot with cream & sugar). Half & half is a lot cheaper than ID flavoured creamers.

  9. “Try and limit your intake of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium”

    You missed out SUGAR there as well! Although you did alude to it earlier in the article and clearly have cut that out yourself already, I think it needed stating again within that sentence to drill it home. Eating lots of sugary food and drinks is far worse for you than a bit of fat and salt in my opinion (well for me personally anyway, from diet self-experimentation), but everything in moderation as they say of course.

  10. Hi there, you have some really great suggestions on this website. Is there anyway that you would consider sharing what a typical weekly/monthly meal plan looks like for your family? As someone who is living on a very tight budget, it can be hard to “visualize” how to eat well, while staying within your means. If not, do you have any suggestions for websites that provide this? Thanks again for you help!

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  14. I don’t see how folks can spend so little on groceries. We can’t get under $200 a week for two adults and one child. Almost all our meals are made from scratch. We do not eat meat, hardly any pre packed food, don’t understand.

  15. Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited this web site before but after going through a few of the articles I realized it’s new to me.

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    be book-marking it and checking back regularly!

  16. i been living on $200. a month for three years now. i am unemployed and have a disability. its hard to do.. i find i eat a lot of eggs(9 dozen) and (10 loafs of )wheat bread ,a few hot dogs and a lot of chicken, canned veggies ,are a must and 10 pounds of taters and 5 lbs of onions, i don’t get city water ,so i end up buying 4 cases of water a month to drink…its rough but i always have 9 dollars and some change to go in my electric bill fund i spend 60 dollars a month on my electric ,,,, just no work for a 62 year old man with a disability…i make my funds working odd repair jobs.. so grocery’s on a budget is very important to me your article helped thank you

  17. I spend on average 500 per month on groceries for a family of four. Sometimes it is less. All of our meals are homemade. I grew up on southern cuisine and that’s usually how we eat. We eat a lot of beans and cornbread, seasoned with hog jowls. Which is the best IMO. We eat a lot of tomatoes, garlic onions, peppers and cabbage. It’s nothing to go through a couple of pounds of garlic a month!

    As far as other household budgeting, I usually allocate 100 per month for things like bath tissue, shampoo, laundry soap, dish soap, trash bags and cleaning supplies. Dollar stores usually have the best deals on cleaning supplies but, we do buy better brands of dish soap. The cheap stuff goes too fast. We don’t use paper towels either and we machine wash our sponges at times to make them smell better and last longer. There’s other ways to cut cost other than going without food.