Healthy and delicious eating doesn’t have to be expensive, and my meals are proof.

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Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

Being a recovering graduate student, I am on a budget. That said, I still find ways to have healthy, easy meals that I enjoy nearly every night. I'll admit, working as a dietitian and nutrition editor at a food website has given me a little leg up on how to make my dollar go further, without sacrificing deliciousness (for example, here are six changes that could save you almost $3,000 per year). 

Additionally, what I eat on any given day varies a lot. Sometimes, it's a "pizza for breakfast, skip lunch and drink too much wine" kind of day. But a healthy diet is about what you eat most of the time, not 100% of the time. This is by no means a template for how to eat the "right" way, but rather it is a consistent eating pattern that helps me feel my best. Here is what I eat in a day as a dietitian on a budget. 

Breakfast 

Breakfast is a meal that has changed quite a bit since working from home. I have more time to cook, which I like to take advantage of, but there is a fine balance (i.e. I quickly learned that I cannot take 45 minutes to make an extravagant breakfast on a workday). I am currently doing a lot less meal prep than I would if I were going into the office but as we transition back to in-person work, I am looking forward to bringing back my staples. I love making our easy muffin-tin eggs—these Greek Muffin-Tin Omelets with Feta & Peppers are my personal fave. They are a great way to add vegetables I need to use up to my breakfast. When I'm on the go, I'll pair a few egg muffins or a hard-boiled egg with avocado toast. 

I am a big savory breakfast person. Usually, if there is anything sweet on my plate in the morning, it's fruit. These days I will make an egg scramble with veggies that needs to be used up. Or, to be totally honest, most of the time I have a leftover grain or salad from dinner the night before. Just add a fried egg and call it breakfast. 

Greek Quinoa Salad
Credit: Greg DuPree

Lunch

Nine times out of ten, I eat leftovers from dinner for lunch the next day. Since I live alone and usually just make meals for my partner and I at night, more often than not I am left with leftovers. There are plenty of recipes, like Chicken & Tomatillo Enchiladas and Easy Chicken Tikka Masala, that are arguably even better the next day. Plus, this helps me get through what I've already made, so I throw less food away. 

If I am out of leftovers or want to switch it up, you can usually find me eating a tuna or chickpea salad. Our Tuna, White Bean & Dill Salad recipe is my all-time fave, I think I could make it in my sleep at this point. It takes just a few minutes to throw together and always sounds good to me. I'll enjoy it over salad or with bread or crackers for something more filling. Not to mention, it relies on super healthy and affordable pantry ingredients, like canned tuna and beans. 

If I am really low on motivation or groceries (or both), I will make a snack plate. Slice some cheese, vegetables and fruits, add nuts or deli meat and maybe some hummus or yogurt dip and voilá—it's a meal.

Dinner 

I love to cook, and dinner is where I get creative with it. Rarely do I have the same meal in back-to-back weeks (I also realize that is a perk of not having a family and maybe having more uninterrupted time at night to make a meal). Working at a food website, a lot of recipes cross my desk every day. Usually at least something will catch my eye, but if I truly don't know what to make, I turn to takeout. 

Instead of making something on a whim each night, I meal plan dinners for four to five days of the week. This helps me leave space for leftovers, takeout and spontaneity. In this plan, I include one night with fish, at least one night with chicken or red meat and two vegetarian meals. This helps me follow a Mediterranean eating pattern more creatively, based on what I'm in the mood for. Planning ahead and getting all of my groceries in advance helps me be intentional about what I buy, so I save money and cut down on food waste. 

Some of my go-to budget-friendly dinners include Shakshuka or a grain bowl of sorts, like our One-Pot Beans & Rice with Corn & Salsa and Quinoa Salad with Feta, Olive & Tomatoes. They can stand alone as a filling dinner and also pair well with salmon, chicken, steak or haloumi (or a fried egg). 

Snacks

I am not a huge snacker, but if I really need something I often turn to cheese and a piece of fruit. Or leftovers. In the warmer months, I love smoothies. It is a great use of budget-friendly frozen fruit and it makes it easy for me to add vegetables, greens and other nutritious ingredients like chia seeds, nut butters, yogurt, tofu and more. 

Dessert 

Yes, I eat dessert whenever I am in the mood for it. No questions asked (and no guilt felt). I usually eat a pretty late dinner, especially when the days are longer, so my ideal dessert becomes a nightcap glass of wine or beer (cheers to the health benefits of that!). Like I mentioned, savory food is my jam, so cheese makes its way onto my plate yet again after dinner sometimes as well. 

To me, dessert is more enjoyable when it's shared with others. When I host, I will make something simple but lavish tasting, like a galette (our Peach Galette is the star of summer) or Blueberry-Swirl Buttermilk Ice Cream. Ice box cookies are another sweet staple for me. 

Bottom Line 

There are so many ways to eat healthy, and there is no reason your healthy eating needs to look like mine. This is just the pattern that is most sustainable for my budget that also is enjoyable for me and makes me feel my best. Healthy eating is a balanced approach that works for you. To me, that often means sprucing up leftovers or pantry goods into something that feels special. For more, check out these things I wish I knew before cooking more at home.