Over the years, I’ve received quite a few questions on how to eat intuitively on a budget. As someone who believes health-promoting behaviors should be accessible for all people, and that intuitive eating is one of the most powerful ways we can take care of our health, I wanted to create a resource that would help people understand how to integrate intuitive eating with financial barriers, whether you’re a student, saving up for something important, living on a fixed income, or struggling with more significant financial barriers.
Intuitive eating sometimes gets translated into eat whatever you want, when you want it. It’s an inaccurate and oversimplified translation, and creates a perceived barrier for people with financial difficulties in adopting intuitive eating. If intuitive eating is eat whatever you want, when you want it, and you can’t afford to eat whatever you want, when you want it, then you might think intuitive eating isn’t accessible to you.
While giving yourself full permission to eat all foods is part of intuitive eating, there will always be barriers to accessing the food you want. Whether it’s a food you lack the preparation skills or time to make, a food that’s not sold in your grocery store, or a craving for something really specific that you can’t find locally, no one is always able to satisfy every craving.
Of course, if you are living with financial struggles, those barriers are multiplied, whether it’s having limited time to prepare foods due to working multiple jobs, not being able to afford enough food or a variety of foods, or having limited funds to afford “fun” foods. Poverty and food insecurity can independently contribute to disordered eating, by forcing a restrict - overeat cycle, as one skips or skimps on meals in order to save money, and eats larger quantities when food is available, regardless of underlying hunger levels.
At the end of the day, survival is number one, and keeping yourself fed with anything is priority. Although some principles of intuitive eating might be more challenging than others, all of the principles of intuitive eating can be integrated in some ways, even if you’re on a strict budget. Below are a few special points about some of the principles of intuitive eating on a budget.
How to Eat Intuitively on a Budget
Reject the Diet Mentality.
Rejecting the diet mentality may be more challenging when you’re dealing with financial stress. The sense of control that comes with dieting can feel even more appealing when you’re dealing with other areas of life that are stressful and feel out of control, like finances. There’s a reason that food insecurity and poverty have been linked to disordered eating. Remember that while dieting might make you feel like you’re in control, it’s really the food that’s controlling you.
Honor your hunger.
Honoring your hunger means feeding your body adequately throughout the day, and any food is better than no food. If you’re eating on a budget, I think this is a principle to prioritize above all others. If food security is a barrier, consider setting aside money for food when you’re first paid so you have funds towards the end of the month (if possible), or looking into services/programs that make inexpensive or low cost foods more available, like community gardens, SNAP (i.e. food stamps), or food pantries. Here in Columbia, SC, there are social workers at our local library who can assist you in figuring out any programs you might qualify for. There’s no shame in asking for help!
Make peace with food.
I think this is likely the most challenging principle of intuitive eating on a budget, since it calls for giving yourself permission to eat all the foods. When you’re already limited because of finances, don’t add the stress by putting even more foods off-limits because of dieting! Even if you give yourself permission to eat everything, there may be certain foods that by nature are special occasion foods - not because you’re dieting but because you can’t afford for them to be an everyday food. So it makes sense that when you get access to them you might eat more of those foods than what feels good - and that’s OK! Financial barriers or not, it’s really normal to eat larger amounts of foods that you only get intermittent access too - that’s why everyone feels super full from turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving or eats a past fullness when they go out to eat somewhere special. While it might be a “normal” food for someone else, if it’s special to you don’t shame yourself for enjoying it!
Respect your fullness.
If you’re worried about reliable access to food, it can be really challenging to respect your fullness. Eating past fullness in response to inadequate or intermittent access to food is a survival mechanism we’ve had as long as humans have been on earth. If you’re eating a little more than what feels good because you’re not sure when you’re going to get the chance to eat again, I would consider that an example of satisfying practical hunger. If you notice yourself consistently eating to a point of uncomfortable fullness, this may be a place where it’s helpful to take a pause and ask yourself if you’re reacting to fear of hunger, or legit knowledge that you might not get a chance to eat again for awhile.
If you’re not respecting fullness because you’re afraid of letting food go to waste, consider if you’re able to pack up extra food to enjoy for a snack later on, or to repurpose for a meal by pairing with other foods. I’m a big fan of freezing leftovers! It’s a really great way to save money and prevent waste. If I’m not sure if I can freeze something, I always go to The Kitchn which has tons of articles if and how you can freeze different foods.
Discover the satisfaction factor.
Everyone deserves to eat enjoyable food! A few tips for including the satisfaction factor on a budget:
Have a few favorite sauces on hand to spice up homemade meals. Whether it’s a salad dressing, hot sauce, pesto or a curry sauce, store bought or homemade condiments are a great way to add flavor to meals.
Look for stores that sell spices in bulk.
Check out cookbooks from the library. I’m a big fan of Mark Bittman’s cookbooks (just ignore the couple of diet-y ones), because he teaches a basic recipe along with variations. Knowing a basic recipe and how to switch it up is a great way to save money but still get a variety of tastes.
Cook with fat! Seriously, fat makes everything taste better.
Learn how to spice up convenience meals. In college, I practically lived off ramen noodles bulked up with frozen stir-fry vegetables and diced tofu. You could add spinach and canned tuna to boxed mac and cheese, add extra veggies on frozen pizza, or make an egg and veggie scramble with frozen veggie burgers.
Also, it’s OK to enjoy “fun foods,” even if you’re on a budget. I feel like there is a lot of crap out there that makes it sound like if you’re on a budget, you shouldn’t “waste” any of your food dollars on “fun foods”, and if you do, then you’re being irresponsible. But food might be one of the few pleasures that you can afford, and as a human being, you deserve to enjoy pleasurable things! Also, remember that inexpensive “fun foods” are nutritionally no different than the Whole Foods version of those foods, even if the perception is. I promise there is very little difference between an organic lavender-strawberry soda and a Coke or fair trade chocolate covered almonds and peanut m’n’m’s.
Honor your health.
Wellness culture can make it seem like to be healthy, you need to pack every bite with expensive “superfood” ingredients. Thankfully, real healthy eating is a lot more accessible, although certainly there are barriers - many nutrient-rich foods are more expensive, and in some places it’s a “food dessert” with few options for fresh food nearby.
The cool thing about gentle nutrition in intuitive eating is that it emphasizes zooming out on nutrition, and making little changes to the pattern of eating habits rather than obsessing about every meal and snack. To increase intake of produce, consider canned or frozen vegetables, or more inexpensive fruits and veggies like cabbage (sauteed cabbage is SO yummy), zucchini, bananas, apples, cucumber, and carrots. Meatless meals using beans or eggs as a source of protein are a great way to save money and increase nutrition. There’s also many inexpensive basics that are packed with nutrition, like tubs of yogurt, whole grain pasta, brown rice, or canned fish. With flavoring ingredients, these can be made into really tasty meals! Some of my favorite inexpensive recipes on the blog are classic migas, mashed bean bowls with roasted vegetables, chipotle stuffed sweet potatoes, and penne with spinach, white beans and garlic oil.
If finances are really stretched or you’re going through a particularly chaotic time, it’s OK if nutrition takes a back seat. You get to decide priorities, and if you need to move nutrition down the list, that’s OK, and can even be a healthy choice if you look at the big picture. Mental health is health too, and if worrying about nutrition is creating stress, the healthiest choice may be putting nutrition on the back burner.
Are you eating on a budget? If so, I’d love to hear your tips and what you would add to this post.