I recently had the pleasure of speaking at an Indiana WIC organization about budget-friendly prenatal nutrition following Real Food for Pregnancy principles. Aside from covering the many misconceptions and areas for improvement in conventional prenatal nutrition guidelines, we spent the majority of the conversation around which foods are truly nutrient-dense, accessible, and inexpensive.
It may come as a surprise, but there is, in fact, overlap here. In my years in clinical and community practice, I’ve worked with a wide array of clientele from all walks of life. Some of them in dire economic situations were actually the ones eating the most nutrient-dense foods, often because they were either a) still connected with their traditional food practices (which often prioritize nose-to-tail eating) or b) because they cooked more from scratch as a means to save money. On the flip side, I’ve had wealthy clients who never put their gourmet kitchens to use outside of reheating pre-made food in the microwave.
That’s not to say that food accessibility and rising food costs aren’t an issue — it definitely is. There is absolutely no denying that. However, there are ways to make eating nutritious food more affordable. The trade-off for this typically means an investment in both time preparing the food and in building your cooking skills.
This article will address a number of considerations for eating real food during pregnancy with specific concerns about budget-friendly prenatal nutrition. We’ll cover tips for purchasing, planning meals, cooking, reducing food waste, and how to get the most out of food assistance programs (if this applies to you).
Also, don’t miss the cost comparison in this article! Sometimes it helps to run some numbers to compare the cost per serving of eating homemade meals versus “inexpensive” fast food.
DISCLAIMER: I want to acknowledge that there’s a wide range of concerns and experiences that may be lumped under seeking “budget-friendly prenatal nutrition” advice. This can range from simply wanting to save money on weekly groceries, to absolutely having to choose between one necessity (food) over another (rent), to living in areas that are “food deserts” (poor selection of healthy foods in your area), to folks who are living on the streets with extreme food insecurity and no regular access to a kitchen.
It is beyond the scope of this article to address all of these concerns. Some of the more dire situations are such that our primary goal is simply meeting the most basic needs of sufficient caloric intake and food safety. In these situations, a team approach from public health agencies, food assistance programs (like WIC), shelters, and social work are needed. For the most part, this article will focus on optimizing nutrient intake for those with a tight budget, but who have access to a kitchen for food preparation.
Budget-Friendly Prenatal Nutrition
Budget-Friendly Meal Planning Tips
It can be helpful from a budgeting (and nutrition) standpoint to take time at the beginning of the week to plan out what meals you’re going to make. This can help you incorporate meals around seasonal or on-sale produce, or repeat meals that you know are cost-effective, nutritious, and delicious.
I’ll admit, I’m not the strictest meal planner. I employ what I call Lazy Meal Planning, but you can choose whichever approach works for you. I personally like that with the “lazy meal planning” method, I can pick and choose from which proteins/produce are on sale or in season in any given week rather than be married to a strict plan. If beef prices are up, but chicken prices are down, plan a meal or two around chicken that week. When beef goes on sale, work that into the weekly plan instead and so forth.
Budget-Friendly Food Shopping
There are a number of ways to stretch your food budget. Simply the choice to cook a meal at home is often a cost-saving decision compared to eating out or purchasing pre-made options. I want to acknowledge that not every option I discuss below will be right for your situation, so please choose whichever tips apply to you personally and leave the rest.
Grocery Store Selection
First off, consider where you are shopping. If you have the option of several stores and can easily access any of them, choose the least expensive option. For example, if you have an ALDI in your area, their prices are often better than a standard grocery store or a health food store, but they still have a wide array of products made with simple ingredient lists.
Another option is to spread your shopping among several stores. Choose one for the best-priced meat, a farm stand, or farmers’ market for produce, etc. This choice has the downside of a) requiring reliable transportation (and fuel/fare costs to get there) and b) taking more time.
Sales & Discounts
Some stores have discount cards, loyalty/rewards points, weekly sales, and other incentives. Many grocery stores provide printouts/mailers with their upcoming or current sales and promotional coupons. When asparagus is 99 cents per bunch, plan a meal around asparagus! When the price is back up to $4.99 a bunch, opt for another non-starchy or green vegetable.
If you have enough of a budget to stock up on food items, take advantage of these sales especially for dry/canned items (canned tomatoes, peanut butter, beans, etc.), meat (note the expiration date and cook or freeze upon purchase), or frozen items.
Buy Direct from Farms or in Bulk
Another good option is to consider buying local, direct from farms. This cuts out the middleman and generally results in a lower cost per pound, but also better quality, fresher food for you. You could explore your local farmers’ market or search online for local farms or eggs, meat, dairy products, and fresh produce. Some farms also have CSA programs (community supported agriculture) where you pay ahead to receive a box of produce or other farm-fresh foods.
To locate farms, go to your preferred search engine, type in your location (city, state/country), and what you’re looking for (grass-fed beef, farmers’ market, etc.). I have moved many, many times in my adult life, and this is the primary way I research and connect with local producers when I arrive in a new area. You can also check Craigslist or other online marketplaces for farmers and home growers who sell their food/products.
Direct-from-farm and “real food” directories:
- EatWild.com — This includes a state-by-state directory for the U.S. and a Canadian directory primarily for meat, dairy, and eggs. They even have a directory of “farms that ship” if you can’t find any in your local area.
- USDA Database of Farmers’ Markets
- National Farmers’ Market Directory
- Local Dairy Farms
- Local Harvest — Family Farms & CSA Directory
One of my favorite writers and homesteaders, Tara of Slowdown Farmstead, shared about how she procured food inexpensively for her family when they were on a tight budget here. Her post highlights many of the same tips covered in this article.
Most Nutritious and Budget-Friendly Foods
There are more and less nutrient-dense foods among every category of groceries. Here are some ideas to get the most nutrition for your buck!
When it comes to animal products, people tend to think of cuts like ‘steak’ as being the most nutritious, probably because it is one of the more expensive cuts of meat, but it might surprise you to know that it’s the tougher cuts of meat, such as chuck roast, rump roast, flank, brisket, and pork shoulder that are some of the most nutritious (hello collagen and glycine). In addition, other less expensive cuts of meat like organ meat, chicken thighs (or whole chicken), and ground beef are also nutrient-dense options.
Consider buying whole cuts of meat that you can cut into smaller pieces yourself and eat throughout the week (such as buying a pork roast and splitting it in half: one is made into pulled pork, the other is cut into chunks, stored in the freezer, and cooked the following week as a part of a stew OR buying a whole chicken instead of chicken breasts). Also, don’t forget to save the bones from your bone-in cuts and any tough grisly bits and skin to make nourishing bone broth (see the below section on cooking tips).
Out of all of your meat products, organ meats are, by far, THE MOST nutrient-dense, often having 10 to 200x higher concentrations of key nutrients, like vitamin B12, iron, zinc, vitamin A, and folate. Building in one or more servings of organ meats per week will not only save you money, but it will significantly increase your nutrient intake, even if your diet is otherwise pretty limited in meat. Try my beef liver pate (can be made with any liver from any animal) and incorporate 3 ounces or more per pound of meat into recipes that use ground meat, such as chili, tacos, pasta sauce with meat, meatballs, meatloaf, stuffed peppers, shepherd’s pie, etc. If you have concerns over the safety of liver consumption in pregnancy, please review the section on liver in Ch 3 of Real Food for Pregnancy.
As always, pay attention to sales at your grocery store for meat and fish. Many grocery stores have discounted meat that is close to its expiration date (you might find this in the freezer section in some stores). If not frozen already, you can purchase and either use that day or freeze for later use.
If buying directly from the farm, one option is a cow or pig share. With animal shares, you purchase a whole animal or portion of an animal, which brings the cost per pound down significantly. You may need a deep freezer to store this (certainly a cost to consider that makes this choice inaccessible for some). One of the benefits of doing a meat share is that many farms will give you bones and organ meats free of charge with your order. We have been doing a cow or pig share for close to 10 years now and it ends up costing $4-6 per pound on average. Keep in mind, this includes “cheaper cuts,” like stew meat and ground meat, but it also includes “fancier cuts,” like steaks and roasts that could easily cost five times that amount at a grocery store. I actually prefer the cheaper cuts, like bone-in roasts (beef shank and oxtail are incredible!) because they have more flavor, are easier to cook, and are richer in collagen than steak.
I also request the fat (which they give me for free) and I render that down to yield lard (pork fat) or tallow (beef fat). This takes the place of our need to purchase much cooking fat or oils. I really only keep olive or avocado oil on hand for salads, coconut oil for certain dishes (like curry), and butter/ghee, but the majority of our cooking fat is lard or tallow that I rendered down myself.
Eggs & Dairy
Many of the same principles for meat apply to eggs and dairy. Buying in larger quantities helps keep the cost down if you’re able to. For example, with dairy products, choose yogurt in a 32 oz tub instead of individual containers. Some stores have multiple dozens of eggs packaged in a flat for an excellent price.
For eggs, even the conventional eggs at the grocery store are a nutritious option. If it’s within your budget to spring for organic/pasture-raised, great, but it’s certainly not a requirement. In some areas, there are small farms or people with backyard chickens who sell eggs directly. When I’ve lived in rural areas, I have found excellent pasture-raised eggs from neighbors for as little as $3 a dozen. Check your farmers’ market, local online directories (some people post on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist), or simply pay attention on country roads for signs that advertise “fresh eggs.”
For dairy products, it’s most important that you’re 1) buying whole fat and 2) looking at the ingredient lists. Pay attention, especially to yogurt, sour cream, and cottage cheese, and choose brands that have the shortest, simplest list of ingredients. If you have the budget, there are certainly benefits to choosing organic/pasture-raised, however, conventional dairy is still a great source of calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K2, riboflavin, iodine, vitamin B12, and many other nutrients.
Dairy products can fill many important nutritional gaps, especially if your diet is low in meat or other animal foods. Consider prioritizing the higher protein options, such as Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and cheese.
If you receive food assistance from programs such as WIC, you’ll likely have plenty of dairy products available to you. (Some intel from the inside — circa 2021 — many at WIC are trying to expand dairy options, so you have more free rein to choose the fat percentage and quality. I’m hopeful!)
Shop the freezer for fish or seafood. Many people don’t know this, but most of the items labeled “fresh” at the seafood counter were previously frozen shortly after harvest and have been defrosted in the store. Consider frozen cod, which is often much less costly than other types of fish, but still packs a lot of nutrition. Moreover, most of the cod is wild-caught and can easily take the place of farmed white fish (like tilapia) for a similar cost.
If fresh or frozen fish is too expensive, consider canned salmon, sardines, or oysters. Here’s a little secret: check the “dollar store” for canned seafood. It’s not always canned in the best oils, so I recommend buying the ones packed in water or draining the oil, but it still packs an incredible amount of nutrients.
Oysters are one of the richest sources of iron, zinc, selenium, iodine, copper, and also have some DHA. For as little as $1-3 per can, adding this into your weekly rotation significantly boosts the nutrient density of your diet for a very low cost. This is especially important for people who don’t eat much meat or who are anemic.
Fruits & Vegetables
When it comes to produce, there are several ways you can save money and still get important nutrients into your diet. Just like with animal products, if it is accessible for you, attending your local farmers’ market or buying direct from a farm will likely help reduce grocery costs.
At the grocery store, focus on in-season produce. Click here for a link to a website that will tell you which fruits and vegetables are in-season in your state where you reside. Other perks of eating seasonally are that foods will be fresher, tastier, and more nutritious (because they are harvested at just the right time). You can always buy produce in bulk when it’s in season or on sale and you can freeze, ferment or can the extra (#grandmaskills). Keep in mind that pre-cut vegetables/fruit are usually more expensive, so stick to the whole items and cut it up yourself.
If fresh produce is out of reach or unavailable in your area, frozen is just as nutritious (sometimes even more so, because it is picked and processed during the growing season). Larger bags are cheaper per pound if you have the extra freezer space.
A final consideration for fruits and vegetables is to grow your own! Purchasing fruit trees and seeds for fruits and vegetables that will do well in your residing climate is another way to help reduce costs, though it takes time to reap the benefits. Keep in mind it may take your fruit tree 3-5 years to bear fruit. If you do not have a yard, consider growing some items in containers (tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, radishes, arugula, hot peppers, eggplant, or herbs) or see if there’s a community garden in your area. Just this year, I picked up two tomato starts at my farmers’ market in early summer for a dollar each and they went on to bear at least 10 pints of cherry tomatoes. Not bad when a pint can cost $3-5 per container!
Another tip: I have lived in areas that have produce “gleaning” programs that are organized by local university agricultural extension programs. In these programs, you sign up to receive notifications when people in your community have an abundance of fruit or produce. From there, you can arrange to pick the produce yourself. Often a portion of the produce is donated to a food bank and you get to keep a portion for yourself. Here’s one such program in Washington state. Search for your state/area and see if there’s anything like this available.
Dry Goods (canned items, grains, beans, etc.)
When it comes to dry goods, a good option is to buy beans, grains, nuts, seeds, pasta (and even spices) in bulk. You may want to consider suppliers, buying clubs, or co-ops like Azure Standard (USA) for purchasing these items if your local stores don’t offer this.
Even if you’re not buying in bulk necessarily, buying items like oatmeal as steel-cut or rolled oats in a 1-2 pound container rather than those little packets of instant oatmeal not only ensures you avoid numerous added ingredients, like sugars and artificial flavors, but it’s much less expensive.
Canned beans are convenient and relatively low cost, however, cooking dry beans from scratch in a slow cooker is even cheaper. You can soak dry beans overnight in water, drain them, and then transfer them to a slow cooker. Add enough water (or bone broth) to cover and cook for approximately 10 hours (or more). Season them to taste and they will be delicious! If you make a large batch and have extra, you can freeze portions in individual containers for later. I personally do this instead of buying canned beans, but again, it takes freezer space, so it doesn’t work for everyone.
For those who have a very limited budget for animal foods, beans and lentils are one of the better high-protein, shelf-stable foods to keep on hand. They are also a rich source of dietary folate. Although it can cost a bit more, using pasta that is made from legumes (such as lentil pasta or chickpea pasta) can help boost the nutrient density of your diet.
Some other dry goods to keep on hand include tomato sauce or canned tomatoes, peanut butter, canned fish or meat, canned vegetables, and canned olives.
Caution with Ultra-Processed Foods
One caution with dry goods is that many shelf-stable items fall into the category of ultra-processed foods.
Harvard Health defines ultra-processed foods as the following: food products that are “made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers.”
These foods are, by definition, low in or completely devoid of micronutrients, including important vitamins and minerals required for your health and your baby’s development in utero.
The most common ultra-processed foods are: breads, soft drinks, sweetened beverages (fruit drinks and milk-based drinks), dessert (cakes, cookies, etc.), snacks, frozen and shelf-stable meals, pizza, and breakfast cereal. These foods sometimes appear inexpensive, but relative to their nutritional content, they end up displacing other less expensive, real food options.
You can often spot ultra-processed foods by their ingredient lists. If you see enriched wheat flour (that’s white flour) or any type of sugar as one of the first ingredients, it’s not going to be a nutrient-dense choice. Furthermore, products that read like they came from a chemistry lab are also likely to be an ultra-processed food.
Currently, a whopping 58% of calorie intake in the average American’s diet is from ultra-processed foods. Furthermore, 90% of added sugar in the diet is from ultra-processed foods. This is based on a nationally representative nutrition survey of U.S. residents from all economic backgrounds.
Cooking Tips & Reducing Food Waste
When it comes to making meals, know that buying individual ingredients and cooking at home will save you considerably more than purchasing pre-made foods (or eating out). See the next section where I do a comparison of Mcdonald’s meal and one made at home.
One of the “elephants in the room” with budget-friendly cooking is food waste. Some estimates are that 40% of food is wasted in the U.S. That’s like being overcharged 40% on your groceries. We can definitely do better at reducing food waste, but it takes some planning.
In order to minimize waste, pay attention to expiration dates and perishability of produce and use ingredients in order of perishability (i.e fresh fruit and leafy greens first). You can also reuse leftovers in other meals (soups and quiches are ideal for this exact thing!), or you could cook large batches at home and freeze leftovers for later use, like when you could use freezer meals the most (hello 4th trimester – see this article for 50+ recipes and meal ideas for a nourished postpartum recovery).
You might also consider a slow cooker or electric pressure cooker (such as in Instant Pot; Amazon affiliate link) to save time. Many thrift stores have slow cookers for under $5.00. If you can fit it into your budget, Instant pots are a long-term investment and have many functions. Opt for an older year model to save money or wait until they are on sale. Mine is 7 years old and still working perfectly. Instant Pots (and probably any multi-function electric pressure cooker of any brand) can act like a slow cooker but only need a fraction of that time to actually cook the food when using the pressure cooking function, so if you forget to start that crockpot meal at 8am like you intended, you can still throw it all together at 4:30pm and still have it ready in time for dinner. And did you know that they make the most perfect boiled eggs? Or that you can make yogurt in them too? This cooking tool is really worth all the hype once you can see all the functions it has.
After you cook meat or poultry, save the bones, skin, and other inedible bits in a bag in the freezer; this can later be used to make your own bone broth by placing it all in a slow cooker covering it with water, cooking for 24 hrs on low heat, and then straining. If you have an Instant Pot, you can make bone broth in 90 minutes on high pressure. I store extra in the freezer in quart-sized containers. Bone broth costs only pennies to make, but can be $10 a quart or more when store-bought. If you need some tips on making bone broth, see my Instagram story highlights called “broth.” It’s really hard to mess up. My best advice is to fill your pot at least ¾ full with bones to get the most flavorful and nourishing broth. This is why saving your bones in the freezer until you have a full gallon-sized ziplock bag is my default. No bones ever go to waste in our house! And yes, it’s perfectly fine to do a mix of bones (some chicken, beef, pork, etc…). Use this broth as a base for soups or as the liquid for cooking rice or beans to add additional protein and minerals.
You can also make your own sauces, dressings (even as simple as vinegar, olive oil, lemon, and salt!), and seasonings (you can use dried spices/herbs and combine your own seasonings in lieu of expensive, single-serving seasoning “packets”).
Comparing Food Costs
To show an actual cost comparison, let’s take a look at a meal from McDonald’s and compare it to one that you could make at home.
A Big Mac from McDonald’s costs $3.99 and a Big Mac meal (which includes medium french fries or a salad and a soft drink) costs $5.99. Remember that this meal provides 1 serving.
Now let’s take a look at homemade chili-the ingredients listed below together make a total of 6 servings.
Ingredients for homemade chili and approximate costs:
- 1 ½ tsp olive oil- $ 0.11
- 1 med white, yellow, or red onion- $0.78
- 16 oz ground beef- $5.18
- 1 tsp garlic powder- $0.05
- 2 tsp chili powder- $0.11
- 2 tsp ground cumin- $0.11
- 1 tsp dried oregano- $0.11
- 1 ½ tsp sea salt- <$0.01
- ½ tsp ground black pepper- <$0.01
- 28 oz (1 can) crushed tomatoes- $0.98
- 15 oz (1 can) pinto beans -$0.72
- 14 oz yellow and green bell pepper(frozen or fresh cut into strips)- $2.01
The total cost of the chili is $10.16, which appears to be way more expensive than the McDonald’s meal; however, remember that this meal provides 6 servings, so the cost per serving/meal is $1.69. Even if you were to only get the Big Mac sandwich alone, the cost of the sandwich is $2.30 more than a serving of chili.
Of course, convenience sometimes trumps cost considerations or nutrition, but if your budget is really tight, cooking at home for the majority of your meals can save you quite a bit of money.
Q&A on Budget-Friendly Prenatal Nutrition
The following questions about real food on a budget for pregnancy have been submitted by readers, so I thought it best to address these in a Q&A format.
1. We recently qualified for WIC and I’m wondering what resources/recommendations you have for women getting WIC assistance and eating real food? I want to use their assistance to the max.
First of all, I’m so glad you are able to get some assistance from WIC. Programs can differ slightly from state to state and region to region, so be sure to talk to your WIC nutritionist to get the most out of it. For example, some have partnerships with local farmers’ markets. As a general rule of thumb, WIC offers assistance for items such as beans, eggs, dairy, cereals, canned fish, fruit juice, and some produce. They do not currently (as of 2021) offer assistance with buying meat, so I would plan to get as many of the above-mentioned items with WIC benefits, then spend the remainder of your discretionary food budget on inexpensive cuts of meat (don’t forget organ meats and bones for broth), extra fish/seafood, extra eggs, and produce (frozen is A-ok).
2. How important is it to buy all meat pasture-raised/grass-fed? That’s not accessible for a lot of people. Is it better to eat vegetarian?
Priority number one is to meet your basic requirements for energy, then macronutrients, then micronutrients regardless of where the food came from or how it was raised. Pasture-raised meat certainly has its benefits (and for those that can afford it and support small farms, please vote with your dollars in that regard), but conventionally-raised meat is still nutritious. Meat — and animal foods as a whole — fill many nutritional gaps in the diet that would otherwise be present on a vegetarian diet and then necessitate numerous expensive supplements. Plus, plant-based alternatives to meat are often more expensive than meat (or a similar or sometimes higher cost) but come without the full array of micronutrients and amino acids that you get from the real thing. Refer to the earlier section on meat in this article for ideas for incorporating meat into your diet without spending a fortune. Also keep in mind that a diet with a slightly lower intake of meat, but that incorporates bone broth, organ meat, and shellfish, can help fill in any gaps in micronutrient requirements from an otherwise low-meat diet. Replacing some of your animal proteins, but not all, with beans/legumes, can also be a cost-friendly option while still maintaining a sufficient intake of protein.
3. I’m disappointed by what foods are covered in my local food assistance program. It’s not very nutritious and everything is low fat!
I feel your frustration and have talked with many professionals working at these organizations that are hopeful to bring about change in this way. There are several problems to address. From a top-down approach, policies need to change. If dietary guidelines truly reflected the evidence on saturated fat, government-funded food assistance programs would no longer have to advise for low-fat dairy products and might allow for their benefits to be used for more animal foods. This would fill a LOT of nutrient gaps. Likewise, if there was more flexibility in using these benefits for fresh or frozen produce instead of fruit juice, that would also improve nutritional intake and avoid contributing to excessive sugar intake (which for many, especially women with gestational diabetes, can be a mismatch for their physiology). My recommendation, as stated above, is to make the most nutritious options available given the limitations of these benefits, then to use your remaining discretionary food budget to fill any gaps with fresh, whole foods that you’re so eager to have on the table.
Budget-friendly prenatal nutrition has its challenges, but there are many possible ways to still meet the nutrient requirements of pregnancy without overspending. Eating mostly unprocessed foods that are prepared at home, regardless of how that food was grown or raised, can absolutely meet your nutrient needs. Not every idea in this post will apply to your situation, so take what you need and leave the rest. Even implementing one or two of the ideas presented here will help you make more nutritious choices for both you and your baby without breaking the bank.
Until next time,
PS – If you have tips/resources for other readers on budget-friendly prenatal nutrition, or simply eating real food on a tight budget, tell us in the comments below. We can all learn from one another.