How to Eat Healthy for Under $5 a Day

Women in a Publix grocery store: Tallahassee, ...

Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

It may surprise you to know that eating healthy can actually be less expensive than eating unhealthy. Health products advertised by grocery stores and manufacturers love to charge significant premiums for their “health benefits,” but what you are actually paying for is the marketing and advertising campaigns used to shove these products down your throat, no pun intended. If you are willing to do a little kitchen work, which by the way will burn a few calories, you can eat healthy for under $5 per day. Here is how.

1. Eat smaller meals and increase meal frequency.

6 small meals a day rather than 3 large ones will increase your metabolism, helping with weight loss. The good part about this is that most of these small meals should include raw fruits and vegetables, which tend to cost the least of any food group in the grocery store. Eating raw fruits and vegetables is like giving your digestive system a workout, which increases its functionality, also helping in weight loss.

2. Combine simple ingredients.

Celery with peanut butter and raisins, or frogs on a log, is one of the healthiest, easiest, and cheapest complete meals to make (not to mention those flavors happen to go quite well together; frogs on a log is quite tasty). Fruit smoothies are also one of the cheapest forms of healthy, tasty eating around. Buying a fruit blender will pay for itself in spades, not to mention saving you trips to those overpriced smoothie and coffee joints.

3. Buy meats raw and fresh and combine them with cheap bases and raw vegetables to form excellent soups.

Complete meals come quite cheaply in soups, if you are willing to mix the ingredients yourself. Great bases include water, egg, and tomato puree. Though meat is relatively expensive, if you want it, you can divvy it up among the week so that the daily cost is quite low. Meats are quite unhealthy in the quantity in which we eat them. Try smaller portions.

4. Buy in season and buy local.
Often you pay for the shipping costs of certain items without even knowing it. Regular trips to the farmer’s market can remedy that problem. Also, buying in season is basic economics — more supply equals lower cost. If you buy out of season, there are less of that item to be had, so people will feel justified in charging you more. Buy fruits in season and freeze them for later.

5. Hunt the coupon sections.

This goes without saying, but those annoying leaflets that your mailbox gets spammed with sometimes have some great deals. Be prepared to show the cashier, as many times they are not even aware of half the deals that are being offered.

This article was contributed by Jane Sanders from Debt Management. Check out her site for more financial tips and debt management help.

{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristl Story February 4, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Great article! I’m so tired of people saying they can’t afford to eat healthy because they think it means they have to eat expensive organic products and shop Whole Foods!

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2 Heidi February 4, 2011 at 8:26 pm

I know, that is one of my pet peeves as well!

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3 JustAGuy February 10, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Here Here!!!

Its like the human race has been poisoning itself to death for the last million years. But now that companies individually wrap tomatoes and throw on an organic sticker, buying anything else amounts to suicide by uncouth ignorance.

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4 Heidi February 10, 2011 at 6:40 pm

LOL! The only way to know it is truly “organic” is to grow it yourself (and even then there is probably crap left in your soil that gets into your food).

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5 r1sefomru1n February 7, 2011 at 11:03 am

You don’t have to shop at Whole Foods to be healthy yes. But it’s pretty hard in a traditional grocery store to find true health. Almost everything in there will have pesticides, hormones, genetically modified ingredients. Buy local and buy organic if possible. Or even better yet – grow it yourself when the season is right.

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6 Heidi February 7, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Growing your food is an excellent idea. And, yes, there are different levels of “healthy” when it comes to grocery stores. You can buy the canned fruit instead of the hostess snacks, but the canned fruit still has a lot of sugar. Buy real apples instead of canned fruit, but the real apples probably contain pesticides. Buy the organic apples instead of the regular ones, but sometimes that is expensive.

I would say that just over 50% of our fruit/vegetable purchases are organic and the rest are conventional.

I would argue that it is hard to find “true health” in any grocery store. I love Whole Foods, but they do sell a lot of conventional fruits/vegetables. Their fish cannot be beat IMO and their juices are also the best. But, I sometimes wonder if the organic microwave meals are really any better for me than a conventional kiwi.

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7 JC February 8, 2011 at 9:28 am

Whole Foods and the “organic” label are bilking people out of their money on a premise that is short on science and high on marketing savvy and sensationalism. The anti-GMO movement is even worse in that it will starve developing countries by discouraging crop growth that benefits nations devastated by low water conditions and consequent famine.

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8 Heidi February 8, 2011 at 11:29 am

I think buying local organic is a wonderful idea. Also, if I grow my own then I will use organic methods. I’m just not sold on “organic” products that are made in a factory and shipped across the country. Unfortunately or not, we do need chemicals to produce enough food for the world.

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9 SMI August 10, 2013 at 7:44 am

Developing countries had a more reliable food supply before other, more powerful countries encroached and told those developing countries to stop producing the crops that had evolved to thrive in rough volatile climate in favor of “higher yield” crops like corn. Ironically, science has had to develop drought resistant GMO corn to get the same nutritional yield in the same field space.

And that’s not savvy sensationalism. That’s testing a hypothesis and analyzing the (ahem, dismal) results.

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10 Heidi August 15, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Agreed :( Check out my other site at http://www.pintsizefarm.com! I have posted a few things on GMO products already.
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11 CClio333 February 7, 2011 at 11:17 am

OK, this sounds good and I would love to eat like this every day. BUT… how often do you have to shop in order to keep fresh fruits and veggies in the house? Most of them start going limp, mushy, or bitter after just a few days. So we are talking multiple shopping trips per week here – not something that everyone has time for.

Plus many people live in “food deserts” and do not have fresh fruits and vegetables in their area. They have to do their shopping in the canned section of the local convenience store or gas station, or take a long bus ride every few weeks to stock up.

If this works for you, great. I agree that it sounds quite healthy and is the ideal way to eat. But not everybody can pull this off.

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12 Heidi February 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Fruits and vegetables last quite a bit longer than a few days. If they are not lasting longer than a couple days then I would look into a “choosing” guide. Whole foods usually has those, but I would guess you can find them online as well. If you choose fruits and vegetables that are already ripe or overripe then you have 2-3 days to eat them. Most grocery store produce is picked well before this stage so it lasts longer.

If you are not going to eat it soon then store it in your fridge. That will slow the ripening process. Our produce almost always lasts just over a week. I have a bag of apples (there were just over 20 in the bag) that is now 9 days old and they are still fine – with about 8 left. We buy organic spinach every week and it lasts til the next (well, we probably eat it in 5-6 days).

If it does ripen too soon then use them fast. Turn the apples into applesauce, bananas into banana bread, oranges into juice, etc.

The food desert is a real problem, and a sad one. If you are in an area that does not offer fresh foods then try to grow a few small items. Herbs grow well on a windowsill. Lettuce makes a great fresh salad and will grow in a normal pot. One of my friends had great luck with peppers in his apartment.

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13 Audrey February 7, 2011 at 11:20 am

It’s never referred to as “Frogs on a Log.” It is always “Ants on a Log.” Raisins do not resemble frogs in the slightest, frogs do not have a hard outer crust, and ants are ultimately more awesome that frogs. This article had such potential, but honestly I cannot get past this indiscretion. Please be more careful about misleading your readers.

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14 Heidi February 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Personally, I have always heard “ants on a log” as well, but I just did a google search that turned up a couple “frogs on a log” recipes so it is possible that other families call it something else. Sorry to disappoint!

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15 john February 7, 2011 at 11:30 am

Mabe I’m doing it wrong but i can’t bust $7 a day. Trust me I’ve tried. Cooking meals myself. Dinner tonight is also tomorrow’s lunch etc. Coupons or not fresh fruit and vegies are usually more expensive than their caned counterparts and dont have nearly the shelf life.

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16 Heidi February 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm

I tend to stick with in season items with a price point of $1.29/lb or less. It is more expensive than cans, but worth it in my opinion. We average about $7 a day as well, however (family of 4). Our budget is $200/month, which comes out to $6.57 a day.

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17 Cindy April 23, 2011 at 8:32 am

I note that when I shop and plan meals using similar ingredients, we can do $10 a day for 2. January (groceries $300/Dining out $100) and February (groceries $288/Dining out $180), but when life gets busy and I am not home weekends to cook for the week, that is when it gets more expensive, which what happened in March and April. We try not to not to eat too much breads/pasta on account of gluten. Wheat and sugar are both inflammatory foods and aggravate our arthritis. We also traded peanut butter for almond butter for the same reason.

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18 Heidi April 24, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Eating out will take a toll on the budget. Not being able to cook also make sit hard to stay under budget. When we were both working our budget was higher simply because it was impossible to cook a long meal when you get home at 7PM. I do love almond butter. Have you ever tried macadamia nut butter? Delicious! We have Sunflower Seed butter in the house right now and it surprised me. I bought it for the boys, but I enjoy it myself.

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19 Lenny February 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm

I’m curious about the whole “eat 6 smaller meals”.. how small is small?

In my work day (8-5), I would think that would consist of meals around:
7am – 10am – 1pm – 3pm – 6pm – 9pm

Does that look right?

I would like to try this but I have a tough time figuring out how much is a small meal? especially for evening dinners.

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20 Heidi February 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm

I’ve done the small meals thing quite a few times (especially when pregnant since a “large” meal is out of the question when there is no more room!). That schedule looks pretty similar to what I did. I would eat a breakfast (which is always fairly “small” for me – a bowl of cereal or a slice of toast with a fruit). Then I would eat at 9:30 and again at 12:30. The two of those together added up to a “normal” lunch for me. I would eat a fruit or some crackers/cheese (maybe 7 or so) at 4:00 and then an almost “normal” dinner at 7:30. I wasn’t too concerned about the size of the dinner, but with a small snack at 4PM you are not as hungry so you should naturally eat less. Maybe 75% less than what I eat when I am eating three times a day. It was still the largest meal I ate.

If I was still hungry before bed (10:30 or so) then I would eat another small snack, about the same size as the 4:00 one.

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21 Hellscream February 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Kristl and heidi – it all depends on what you want. If you don’t want stuff with all the chemicals, pesticides, etc, that all non-organic stuff has, then you will pay more for organic.

But obviously you don’t seem to care as much about that sort of stuff, and all the chemicals in processed foods, so obviously you wouldn’t shop at those places.

Enjoy embalming yourself!

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22 Heidi February 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Buying local usually means organic (although not always) and that is one of the tips. Eating smaller meals has nothing to do with processed foods (and Jane points out eating raw fruits and vegetables in that tip as well). Combining simple ingredients is one of the tips – and again, nothing about processed foods.

I am guessing that you read the title and not the article.

To be honest, you do not need Whole Foods to eat “healthy”. To tell people you do is doing them a disservice since, for many people, if they cannot attain the “goal” (healthy eating) then they will give up entirely. Also, organic does not mean expensive and it is sold in many places. HyVee has a good sized organic section. Price Chopper sells a few organic options. I repeat, you do not need Whole Foods to eat healthy.

Not to say that Whole Foods isn’t a great store. I love it and I used to do coupon matches for them. However, not everybody has a Whole Foods. If you believe that you can buy “health” simply by paying more for your food then you are mistaken.

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23 Paul Thomson February 7, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Eating smaller more frequent meals doesn’t actually increase your metabolism over 3 large meals. See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19943985

There are more studies disproving this myth. The bottom line is your total caloric intake per day will determine weight loss or gain, how and when you intake those calories doesn’t matter.

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24 Heidi February 7, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Very interesting!

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25 Peter Wills February 8, 2011 at 3:23 am

I disagree completely as I have proven it myself on more than one occasion. Each time I have lost up to 10kg+ in 6-8 weeks and that was not really cutting out any of the bad stuff, just cutting back a bit at each serving.

Your body is an amazing instrument and will quickly learn to adapt its behaviour based on how you treat it, whether that be how you feed it or the routine you impose upon it.

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26 Peter Wills February 8, 2011 at 3:26 am

By the way the other very important thing to do is to drink at least 6-8 litres of water throughout the day.

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27 Heidi February 8, 2011 at 11:31 am

I definitely agree with you there! Water is one of the things I have trouble drinking a lot of, but I do try. If you drink water you also tend to drink less of the sugary stuff.

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28 Heidi February 8, 2011 at 11:32 am

You would be able to cut back at each serving easier if you ate small meals (theoretically you wouldn’t feel as hungry throughout the day). I will have to look into the studies when I get the chance!

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29 Paul February 8, 2011 at 4:03 pm

What are you disagreeing with? You lost weight because you reduced caloric intake, that was my point.

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30 Rachel February 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm

I’m sure this will fall on deaf ears, but here is the other side of the issue. Organic food is no more nutritional than conventionally grown food. Calorie to calorie, no different. Milligrams vitamin A to mg vitamin A.

And what are these toxic pesticides? Name them. Why don’t you add their LD50 vs. what is used in practice. But before you do, make sure they are still even used and not the same outdated list circulating around like propaganda. Don’t forget to mention the synthetic ones that break down naturally and do not linger on your vegetables.

You can’t sell me with scare tactics. Emotionally charge words such as ‘embalming yourself’ vs. organic leading to ‘true health’. Can I see someones credentials here?

But hey, tell you what. Enjoy noshing on your Arsenic, Rotenone, Spinosad, or Copper Sulfate that actually ends up building up in the field until it’s too toxic to grown there. You are still eating chemicals. They are just ‘naturally occurring’.

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31 Heidi February 7, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Well said! Whenever I post a “healthy eating on a dime” style post I get comments from people who claim it can’t be done simply because you must have organic products to do it. I often wonder why they bother reading the post (although most of the time I do not think they do). I do like to eat organic sometimes, but it isn’t healthy just because it is organic. But, propaganda sells!

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32 Andrea February 9, 2011 at 3:43 am

That’s a lot of drama for a little list post!

@Rachel, you do know that chemicals are sprayed on to fruits and veges right? You don’t think some of those chemicals are left behind which you then ingest when you eat them? You don’t think that could be harmful?

If you don’t care about that, what about the people who work on the farms where these chemicals are sprayed. Thousands of people die or become seriously ill each year from the chemicals which are sprayed on crops. This is especially prevalent with cotton crops but I was recently reading about locals in Costa Rica who are now suffering from skin diseases and cancer after companies created large pineapple plantations which they spray regularly.

And if you don’t care about that, what about the environment? Runoff from farms pollutes waterways which kills fish etc and the lack of plant diversity messes with the ecosystem.

There are many reasons why organic produce is better but everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

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33 Heidi February 9, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I like drama posts, especially when they are unexpected!

The organic vs. conventional debate will be around for a long time. Unfortunately we do need conventional methods in order to feed the world (at this point at least), but using those methods will always take a toll on both our health and environment.

It is a catch 22. IMO the chemicals used in conventional methods are bad. I worked with them for years (I’m a biochemist turned blogger). I try to ingest as little as possible. However, I do understand the need on a global scale and strictly speaking, nutritionally the products are the same. I would rather suggest that somebody eat a conventional apple vs a snack cake.

In an ideal world we would all be able to grow our own food using organic methods.

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34 Rachel February 10, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Heidi, thanks. It’s refreshing to see I’m not alone.

Andrea, my whole point is there are pesticides on the vegetables whether conventional or organic. It is a fallacy to assume there are no chemicals or pesticides on organic produce since that’s not how the USDA defines it. ‘Naturally occurring’ pesticides are allowed and are used. The ones I listed above are ‘organic’ pesticides.

So yeah, it doesn’t matter the source synthetic or natural added chemicals have an added risk. So I would rather bank with highly regulated and thoroughly tested synthetic pesticides than the unregulated natural ones.

Moving on to environmental and worker concerns. Like it or not, synthetic pesticides and herbicide produce greater yields on less land. They are also more effective so do not require as many applications as natural ones. In addition, they are regulated to protect the workers and environmental run off. Finally, GMO crop are drought and environmental resistant so not as taxing on limited resources.

So I really, you have to be against the environment, worker safety, and feeding those less fortunate than you by choosing organic.

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35 Mrs. Jen B February 9, 2011 at 7:16 pm

In this day and age, of more and more overweight Americans and less money in our wallets, this is an incredibly important topic. Thanks for addressing it and providing some great tips!

Visiting from Support/Promotion thread @ 31DBBBB forum!

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36 Heidi February 9, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Thanks Jen :)

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37 CMG February 10, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Actually, it is possible to eat very healthfully on $5 per day, especially if you’re only cooking for yourself. My food budget is $100-$150 per month, and I eat very well on that here in Southern California. That’s $3.33-$5 per day in a 30-day month.

I regularly shop at Trader Joe’s and Henry’s Markets, (with occasional forays to Stater Brothers for things they don’t carry). I check the circulars for the loss leaders on fruit, veggies and meat each week and only buy what’s on sale – often Henry’s has organic produce priced cheaper than the conventional produce at another store. If meat is on sale only in the family pack, I’ll freeze it in 2 or 3 portions to use in a recipe later. I don’t use coupons.

I bake my own whole wheat bread each 5-7 days, and I’ll cook a large batch of a main dish such as soup, chili, pasta or a casserole and eat it all week. Breakfast is usually oatmeal (bought in bulk at Henry’s for $.69/lb) with white raisins or eggs ($1.29 per dozen at TJ’s) with toast and an orange from my tree. Lunch is my main dish with a piece of fruit. Snacks at work are almonds (bought on sale in bulk from Henry’s), veggies or fruit. Dinner may be the main dish (again) or another “batch” of something, since I try to make something every 4-5 days so I have variety. This week it’s chicken tamale pie (the extra filling makes great burritos!) and tomato-based veggie stew. I use lots of seasonings, spices and herbs I grow myself, and I cook many ethnic dishes (Indian, Italian, Chinese, Mexican) which are less expensive than something that starts with a steak or roast.

The “trick” is to not by anything pre-prepared. No convenience foods other than canned beans, canned tuna, chicken broth and pasta sauce. Buy barley, split peas, oatmeal, cornmeal and lentils in bulk and store in plastic air-tight containers. A crock-pot, a breadmaker and microwaveable bowls are your best friend!

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38 Heidi February 10, 2011 at 11:29 pm

It sounds like you eat very healthy!

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39 Barb February 11, 2011 at 7:45 am

Great article! I think one of the most frugal things to buy regularly is a whole roasting chicken. I get a few when they are on sale and freeze them. We typically get 3 meals plus about 2 gallons of broth out of 1 chicken.

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40 Holly February 11, 2011 at 11:24 pm

These are great tips. I’m one of THOSE people who think it’s more expensive to eat healthy

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41 Cindy April 23, 2011 at 8:03 am

Something has to give. Can’t “digest” $500-$600 a month for my husband and I and occasional guests. This means nothing into the savings account.
Went to buy our Oberweiss mile Thursday and it had gone up 70 cents in a week. Good bye Oberweiss. Look forward to summer and our local Farmer’s Market.

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42 Cindy April 23, 2011 at 8:07 am

btw – this amount includes going out at least once a week to eat, which is coming to an end.

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43 Heidi April 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm

We eat out in “splurges”. We tend to go cold turkey then give up for a month! It is just so easy (and nice) to eat out. It adds up fast though.

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44 Heidi April 24, 2011 at 8:42 pm

You always want to pay yourself first. Set up an auto deposit in your savings account and then pretend like it doesn’t exist! We generally spend about $300 per month for a family of 4, but I can bring it down to $200 in a pinch fairly easily. I like the extra $100 so I can splurge when I want. Before we had kids we were spending $600-$800, but a lot of that was eating out. I do use coupons (not like that extreme TLC show though!), but most my savings come from watching sale items and Costco. It also helps that I can get our home products (shampoo, TP, toothpaste, brushes, etc) for free utilizing CVS’s ECB program. I started that shortly after having our first kiddo and that saves quite a bit!

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45 Mark July 25, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Shoot, does Mcdonalds count as healthy? I dont see how $5.00 would do it, lol.

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46 Heidi July 26, 2011 at 12:50 am

LOL, I definitely do not think McDonalds counts as healthy.

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47 Apu October 6, 2013 at 2:16 am

I definitely agree…we should eat healthy food which is less expensive that is less expensive than the unhealthy food we usually eat for being tasty…
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48 Heidi October 14, 2013 at 5:32 pm

Healthy food is really tasty too, we just get caught up in the convenience of the quick stuff.
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49 Nathan Harrison October 7, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Hey Heidi,
this is a great informative article. It definitely gives some ideas on ways to eat healthy without having to spend a lot of money on diets. Thank you for adding this post.
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50 Heidi October 14, 2013 at 5:30 pm

you’re welcome, thanks Nathan
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51 Joseph Miles January 17, 2014 at 11:26 am

Thanks Heidi. I’ve been trying to live healthy and eat healthy food these days. This might help. Have a great year ahead.

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52 Heidi February 3, 2014 at 4:52 pm

good for you and happy to help :)
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53 Surya Tejaswini April 29, 2014 at 8:51 am

It is always so very important to have a healthy diet in this polluted world. Because the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and everything around is polluted so taking healthy diet is the only way to stay strong against all such odds. The way you planned this diet with just 5$ sounds truly great. Loved to see such an awesome post…… :)
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54 Heidi May 12, 2014 at 9:41 pm

Thanks for stopping by :)
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55 Adriana Evans June 13, 2014 at 7:40 am

Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution – this results in organic foods being over priced by the big chains. It is possible to ‘eat on the cheap’ in healthy ways but stick to the lower end fruit and veggies ( unfortunately! )
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56 adam July 16, 2014 at 12:07 pm

This might help. Thanks Heidi for sharing.
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