A healthy meal plan supplies five primary components, which are grains, protein, calcium-rich foods, vegetables and fruits. For the maximum amount of nutrition at the least expense, choose unprocessed whole grains -- such as brown rice or oats -- instead of prepackaged mixes, and purchase produce when it is in season. Look for plain, nonfat dairy products, and opt for plant-based proteins instead of meat. When you do purchase meat, poultry or seafood, pick inexpensive cuts and use only a small amount in each meal.
A typical daily menu on an inexpensive and healthy meal plan could start with a low-sugar, high-fiber cereal for breakfast, along with fresh fruit, low- or nonfat milk and a hard-cooked egg. Follow it with a lunch of a grilled chicken salad with whole-grain bread, and a dinner of spaghetti prepared with whole-wheat pasta and extra-lean ground beef, paired with steamed vegetables and a whole-wheat roll. To keep the cost per serving low and avoid overeating, watch your portion sizes. A serving of meat, seafood or poultry is just 3 ounces, while 1/2 cup of cooked noodles or grains is a single serving.
Start the day with half of an orange and oatmeal cooked with nonfat milk for breakfast. Make pork fajitas with sliced fresh fruit for lunch, and baked fish, boiled potatoes and sautéed kale at dinner. A cheaper alternative to regular milk is nonfat dry milk powder. Keep a pitcher of the reconstituted milk in your refrigerator and use it whenever recipes call for milk. If you do choose to buy fresh milk, choose gallon over quart containers for less cost per ounce.
Plan at least one meatless day each week to lower the amount you spend on meat. Good choices include beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products such as tofu. Not only are they cheaper than meat, poultry and fish, they contain less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Have fresh fruit and whole-wheat toast spread with a low-sugar nut butter for breakfast; vegetable fried rice with canned fruit and milk for lunch; and bean and vegetable chili for dinner, along with steamed vegetables and a whole-wheat roll or brown rice.
Eating milk, cheese and yogurt isn't the only way to the calcium you need. If you are a vegan, a strict vegetarian or lactose-intolerant, incorporate calcium-rich foods -- such as dark leafy greens and calcium-fortified juices or plant milks -- into your diet. For breakfast, drink calcium-fortified orange juice with a whole-wheat bagel, fresh fruit and low-fat soy milk, followed by a lunch of bean and vegetable soup, low-sodium crackers and sliced fruit. Dinner might be baked tofu with scalloped potatoes and steamed spinach.
Include fruits and vegetables at every meal, advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Produce purchased when it is in season costs less, but you can also opt for frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. Choose low-sodium brands and fruit canned in 100 percent fruit juice, not heavy syrup. Try a serving of canned fruit, such as pears or peaches; scrambled eggs; whole-wheat toast; and milk at breakfast. A turkey and cheese sandwich and carrot sticks for a suitable lunch. Dinner might be a lean ground beef hamburger on a whole-wheat bun with canned fruit for dessert.
Make whole-grain pancakes for breakfast, served with orange juice and fresh fruit. Instead of using convenience mixes when you're cooking or baking, prepare dishes from scratch. They cost less per serving and are healthier if you use whole-wheat flour. Lunch could be homemade chicken noodle soup and biscuits with canned fruit and milk, while dinner might consist of baked chicken, mashed potatoes, steamed green vegetables, a whole-grain roll and fruit.
Use up leftovers first when planning your weekly menus to avoid waste and help you get the most out of your grocery budget. The biscuits served with soup from the previous day could be paired with cooked oatmeal, milk and fresh fruit for the next day's breakfast. At lunch, use leftover baked chicken on a taco salad featuring plenty of chopped raw produce, such as tomatoes, green onions and avocados. For dinner, stuff baked potatoes with a mixture of cheese and any leftover cooked vegetables, paired with whole-wheat pasta and fruit.
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: Food Groups - Choose a Food Group
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: Sample 2-Week Menus
- The University of Maine: Planning Thrify Meals for Small Families
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: Dairy - Tips for Making Wise Choices
- The University of Maine Cooperative Extension: Ideas for Planning Thrifty Menus