Eating Healthy on a Budget During Times of COVID

Shawn Leask, MS, RD, bariatric program coordinator for Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, shares ways to eat healthy on a budget. Shawn is a registered dietician with the Penn Medicine Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Program, has a master's degree in community nutrition, and recently completed training to become a registered yoga teacher.

For many people, eating habits and food choices have changed significantly over the past year. Meals are happening predominately at home, and you may be making more frequent visits to the grocery store. For households that have experienced loss of income or a decrease in income because of the COVID pandemic, this can be an extremely challenging situation.

The good news is there are still ways to eat healthy while sticking to a budget. Here are a few tips for lowering grocery bills during the pandemic ─ and beyond.

How to Make Smart and Budget-Friendly Grocery Shopping Choices

Supplements and Vitamins

As bariatric patients, getting the necessary supplements and vitamins is very important to meet your nutritional needs post-surgery. "Regardless of where you are in your bariatric journey you either know about these items or you're currently using them," Shawn said. "Taking vitamins and calcium every day is a very important part of your wellness."

Ways to Save on Vitamins and Supplements

  • Coupons
    Coupons are a great way to save. You can locate many coupons online via search engines or you can download a coupon app and scan from your phone at check out. "Target's really good at this, they'll have a discount program where you spend a certain amount on health and wellness products, and they'll give you a five or $10 gift card, similar to a coupon for your next order," Shawn said.
  • SNAP Benefit
    The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamps program, provides other ways to save on food items. As long as the items have nutritional labels you can use SNAP benefits to cover grocery cost, said Shawn.
  • Subscribe and Save
    Subscribe and save is an option that many online retailers are offering now to help save between 5 percent and 15 percent per month if you sign up to automatically reorder vitamins and supplements every 30 to 60 days. "Subscribe and save is a great way to reduce the cost of your monthly supplements, your protein shakes, by anywhere from 5 to 15%," Shawn said, noting that subscribe and save programs can also help keep you on track with taking your supplements every day. It's also a great way to maintain good social distancing, she said.

Calculating Cost Per Serving

Calculating cost per serving instead of cost per container is another way to save, especially when comparing liquid and powdered protein options.

"If you're home and you have the time to mix your powdered protein shake, it can be a great way to save about 70 cents on every single shake you make," Shawn said. "Over the course of your two-week post-surgery diet, this liquid diet option translates to about $20 in savings."

Shop Based on Your Location

SNAP recently started an online purchasing program pilot for Pennsylvania residents. "Since June 2020, Amazon, Walmart, and specific Fresh Grocer and ShopRite locations are now allowing individuals to use their SNAP benefits to order online," Shawn said. "This is a great way to get big box deals and still use your benefits."

But, don't forget to factor in delivery fees when shopping online!


Produce can be the most expensive item on your grocery list. "Try to eat seasonally, when possible," Shawn suggests. "This means, purchasing items that are grown locally at the time of eating. The cost will be lower. Also, it reduces the amount of time from picking to eating, so the nutrient content is generally a little bit higher." Your local farmer's market is a great resource for fresh produce. Check out the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware produce calendars to see what's in season near you.

Farmer's Market Nutrition Program checks do not replace your regular monthly SNAP, WIC or senior nutrition benefits, they actually add to them, said Shawn.

Keep in mind that if you are throwing out produce you are wasting money. "Most produce can freeze in an air-tight container for three months," Shawn said. "Also consider that frozen produce is a great way to keep costs low, and it can be a nice addition to oatmeal, yogurt and smoothies."


A good way to save is not to overbuy protein or to choose different types of protein, said Colleen Tewksbury, PhD, MPH, RD, LDN, senior research investigator and bariatric program manager. "Plant-based proteins can be lower in price, such as tofu, edamame, and different types on grain-based proteins."

Fish and meat are other good sources of protein, with darker meats, such as wings or thighs often less expensive than chicken breasts. And, they have same or similar protein content overall, Colleen added. "Post-surgery your stomach needs a lot of stomach acid and churning to be able to break up red meats, particularly beef," she said. "The more tender the cut, the easier it is for your stomach to be able to handle it but everyone's different."


Be careful of individually snack-packed foods, which are often much more expensive per serving than purchasing larger quantities and separating them into portions on your own, said Shawn.
You also can repurpose leftovers into a healthy snack. "If your family is not big on leftovers, use your leftovers in smaller portions as snacks," Shawn said. "It's a great way to use up, avoid food waste, and also have a snack that's pretty high in nutrition."

Shawn also recommends detaching yourself from "funny feelings' around food. "For example, popcorn is a great crunchy snack, there is fiber in it and we enjoy it," she said. "Your bariatric team, can give you the roadmap, just the basics, but it's up to you to find what works for you personally. I would encourage you to be a little more flexible and think outside the box. You know what's best for you."

Learn more about bariatric surgery at Penn Medicine

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Learn about bariatric surgery and get the support you need to continue on your weight-loss journey. We offer workouts, recipes and tips from Bariatric Surgery program team members, and stories from patients like you.

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