Eating Healthy on a Budget: Tips for Athletes

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Grocery Shopping

For athletes, eating healthy on a budget can be difficult. Athletes often need more calories, and therefore more food, than the general population. And training schedules keep them very busy, giving them little time to cook or prepare meals.

However, fueling on a budget is possible when you are armed with the right information.

The best way to fuel yourself for activity is to eat foods from each of these groups daily: Powerful Proteins, Complex Carbohydrates, Fiber-Rich Fruits and Vegetables, Healthy Fats and Best Beverages. And if you shop smart, foods in these groups are less expensive. Use the following tips to get the best deals.

General Tips

  • Make a grocery list and stick to it! This will prevent you from spending money on items you don't need.
  • Take advantage of sales. Check out the advertisements and stock up on things that can be stored (like canned goods and pasta) or frozen (like fish, chicken or steak).
  • Consider buying large portions and sharing the cost with your teammates or neighbors.
  • Coupons count! They can be found free online or in your local newspaper.
  • Prepare filling, inexpensive and nutritious side dishes (like vegetables and beans) to stretch your main dish further.

Powerful Proteins

  • Mix your ground beef or turkey with oatmeal and pureed beans (1/4 to 1/2 cup of each per pound of meat). This will add fiber and powerful nutrients to your meat. You'll be eating healthier and won't taste the difference. Plus, you can make twice as many burgers with the same amount of meat.
  • Try to go meatless one day per week. Get your protein from beans and dairy products. Careful planning will keep your belly and your wallet full.
  • Great choices include canned tuna or salmon (packed in water), eggs or egg whites, beans (pinto, black, kidney), skinless chicken breast, extra lean ground beef or turkey (92-96 percent lean), top round roast or flank steak, turkey breast slices, yogurt, string cheese and cottage cheese.

Complex Carbohydrates

  • Stock up on grains, pastas and cereals when they are on sale.
  • The store brand is almost always cheaper and just as good for you!
  • Look at the ingredient label on pastas and breads. Make sure that the first words are "whole wheat." This will give you the quality carbohydrates you need to fuel your exercise.
  • Great choices include oatmeal, sweet potatoes or yams, any variety of squash (zucchini, butternut, spaghetti), Cream of Wheat (farina), brown rice, 100-percent whole wheat pasta, rye or 100-percent whole wheat bread, 100-percent whole wheat English muffins or tortillas and whole grain cereals (Shredded Wheat, Grape-Nuts, Special K).

Fiber-Rich Fruits and Vegetables

  • Shop with the seasons! Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. They have more flavor and are usually less expensive.
  • Visit farmer's markets, flea markets or roadside stands; show up at the end of the day to find the best deals. (Find a farmer's market near you.)
  • Try canned or frozen veggies and fruits. Stock up when they are on sale.
  • Buy low-sodium vegetables and fruit canned in 100-percent fruit juice.
  • Pickles are vegetables!
  • Buy small amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables to cut food (and money) waste.
  • Keep it simple! Pre-cut, pre-washed and ready-to-eat veggies and fruits are much more expensive. Do it yourself and save tons.

Healthy Fats

  • Fats are an important part of an athlete's diet; however, you must eat mainly healthy fats to reap the benefits.
  • Go nuts! When nuts are on sale, stock up! Add them to trail mix or your morning oatmeal.
  • Pick up avocados when they are in season or on sale. Avocados can be smashed with a fork and mixed with plain yogurt to make a healthy sandwich spread.
  • Mix canola or olive oil with vinegar and spices to create your own inexpensive salad dressing or marinade.
  • Great choices include peanut butter, any kind of nuts, canola or olive oil.

Best Beverages

  • The cheapest beverage is also the most important—water! Athletes must replace the fluid they lose through sweat with water (learn how to stay hydrated). In addition, if you begin competing in a dehydrated state, you will not be able to play at your best. Try carrying your own water bottle and re-filling it for free from the drinking fountain.
  • Try spicing up your water with a squirt of lemon or lime—or even orange juice.
  • Nutritional drinks (Boost, Ensure, Slim Fast) are often expensive but are sometimes necessary to meet your athletic goals. Use coupons to help drive down cost. Also, competitive athletes must make sure that their drink (or drink powder) contains no banned substances.
  • Great choices include water, cow or soy milk and 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice (such as V8).

You are now armed and ready to make a grocery list. Eating healthy on a budget is easy if you follow the tips in this article. If you have questions about how diet impacts your athletic performance or how to eat healthy on a budget, contact a sports dietitian.

Looking for more guidance in your everyday nutrition? The STACK Diet page is full of recipes, meal plans, and tips to optimize your diet.



Katie Knappenberger, RD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master's degree in nutrition, with a concentration in sports dietetics, from the University of Utah and her bachelor's degree in athletic training from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She is a member of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association and the Sports Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter (@KatieRdATC) for sports nutrition tips and cutting-edge research updates.

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