Balancing a Holiday Food Budget While Keeping Healthy Eating a Priority

Today’s post comes from Karen Buch, RDN, LDN. Karen is widely recognized nutrition expert with broad experience in retail dietetics. She is owner and principal consultant at Nutrition Connections LLC  and Chair of the Supermarket/Retail Subgroup in the Food and Culinary Professionals Dietetic Practice Group in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. See more of her writing at Retail Dietitians Business Alliance in RDBA Weekly, where she is Interim Editor. 

With the holidays approaching, consumers are feeling the pinch of higher food prices at a time when they’re trying to set aside enough money for gifts and family celebrations. Even the sharp decline in gas prices in recent months, to below $3 per gallon for the first time since 2010, may not be enough to make up for the escalation in food prices this year. Food costs represent three times more than what consumers spend at the pump.1 It will take time and a sustained dip in fuel costs to translate to lower food costs in the future. So, here’s how you can help your patients and clients balance their budget this holiday season, while keeping healthy eating a priority.

1. Plan, Plan, Plan
Guide budget-conscious clients to set a weekly grocery spending cap that fits within their holiday entertainment plans. Setting a firm dollar limit can help prioritize food menu options for planned events; in November this year, the USDA estimated a cost of about $150 per week to feed a family of four nutritiously on its thrifty eating plan.2  Begin by listing all of the must-have food items, and then fill in with complimentary items. Encourage them to start early and use online grocery ad circulars, digital coupon sites and food shopping apps to help predict costs, find hot, promotional prices and capture extra coupon savings.

2. Balance Meats with Meat Alternatives
Beef and pork prices experienced some of the highest food price increases seen by grocery shoppers in 2014.3 Clients can either purchase lean meats on sale, which they can wrap and freeze until needed, or pick less-expensive options like tougher cuts of meat that can be tenderized by marinating or preparing in a slow cooker. For meat-containing recipes, discuss ways to stretch and use less, like adding brown rice or blending finely-diced, saut?ed mushrooms into lean ground beef or turkey.

You can also suggest planning entertaining appetizers and side dishes around less-expensive meat alternatives as a way to decrease portions of more costly meat-containing main dishes.  Dried beans, peas and lentils supply plenty of fiber and plant-based protein and can be used to make hummus, soups and salads. Eggs are one of the least expensive sources of high-quality protein–providing 6 grams per egg at an average cost of just 16 cents3 each—and are a staple ingredient in many holiday recipes.

3. Round out the Menu with Whole grains, Dairy and Fruits & Veggies
When planning a menu for entertaining, help clients align their menu offerings with the proportions of MyPlate. Guide them to include fruits and vegetables in half (or more) of the dishes, and remind them that healthful choices come in many forms including frozen, canned, dried and fresh. When including grain-based dishes, help them make at least half the grains whole, and point them toward lean dairy options like reduced-fat yogurt dips and cheeses.

4. Prevent Food Waste
Remember that the most expensive food your clients buy is the food that gets thrown away. Encourage them to ask invited guests to kindly RSVP to be able to match holiday menu portions with the number of expected attendees and help them maintain proper temperatures during the holiday event so that leftovers can safely be frozen for future use.

For more tips to help your clients eat well on a budget all year long, check out this comprehensive, 44-page guide to MyPlate on a Budget, this one-sheet pictorial guide to Build a Healthy Plate at Each Meal or this egg-shaped poster to Build a Healthy Plate at Each Meal, available in English or Spanish4.



  1. Layne N. Food costs eating into consumers’ saving at the pump as holidays near. Reuters. Published online: 10 November 2014. Accessed December 2014.
  2. Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels, U.S. Average, October 2014. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, United States Department of Agriculture Website. Updated November 2014. Accessed December 2014.
  3. Consumer Price Index: Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject. Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor Website. Updated 2014. Accessed December 2014.
  4. Patient/Client Educational Materials for Health Professionals. Egg Nutrition Center Website.Updated 2014. Accessed December 2014.
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