When it comes to eating healthy, most people picture farmers markets, fresh fruits and most importantly, money. But eating healthy doesn't have to be expensive, even if you're making minimum wage. And if you think the cost of food is the only thing standing between a dinner of chicken breast, quinoa and a salad or a Big Mac, think again.
Approximately 1.6 million people in the United States earned the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Working 40 hours per week, minimum wage earners could find themselves with little more than $100 per week for food, making fast food and other unhealthy, but cheap, items attractive. But minimum wage earners are more likely to be obese than higher earners, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, indicating they are precisely the group that would benefit most from a healthy diet.
If you're living on minimum wage and want to eat better, here are six ways to eat greens without spending a lot of green -- in fact, experts say eating healthy will actually save you money down the line.
[See: U.S. News Best Diets.]
1. Plan accordingly. Healthy eating starts well before you get to the grocery store, says Ruth Litchfield, associate chair and professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University. Litchfield took part in the SNAP Challenge in March -- where she spent a week with the food budget of someone who receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps. For her week, she had a food budget of only $84 for her family of three, but found that surprisingly, her budget wasn't the biggest issue.
"It takes a lot of planning," Litchfield says. "People think it can't be done because of the cost of healthy food, but the constraints are more about time. The time it takes to look at what's on sale, plan your menu and actually prepare the food is incredibly consuming."
Litchfeld sat down with all the weekly flyers from her neighborhood stores, scouring them for sales. During her challenge week, she found chicken hindquarters on sale -- a 10-pound bag for $10. "Once I saw that, I knew that would have to be the prominent protein for the week," she says. "I planned all my meals around it."
[Read: How to Eat Healthy on a Budget.]
2. Do the math. Just because something is cheaper, doesn't mean it's the best value, Litchfield says. Figure out the price, then divide by the weight of the item you're buying to determine its unit cost. Use that to compare the true cost of two products.
"I was looking at buying a pineapple," Litchfield says, "and even once I accounted for how much I was going to cut off and throw away, it worked out to be a better bargain than frozen."
3. Fresh isn't always better. Don't be scared off from frozen fruit. Some is just as good frozen as it is fresh and lasts much longer to boot, says Kathy Wright, nutrition program director at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. Berries freeze best, she says, and offer a great opportunity to stretch your dollar by avoiding costly spoilage.
"Fresh berries are not a good value because they have a short shelf life," Wright says. "During most of the year they have to be trucked to the northern parts of the U.S. Very few fruits and vegetables freeze as easily as blueberries."
[See: The Best Berries for Your Health.]
4. Buy long-lasting foods. If you're eating healthy on a budget, spoilage is your enemy. Frozen food can last months, but not every healthy food freezes well. So when you buy fresh, opt for foods that won't spoil quickly.
" Apples tend to last a long time," Wright says. "Root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, turnips and sweet potatoes have a long shelf life and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Throwing food away is a huge expense, and choosing items that are less likely to spoil quickly allows more opportunity to put it to use."
And if you find yourself with an excess of fruit, don't let it go to waste. If you don't think you'll use it before it goes bad, turn it into something that will last -- make jam, can it or freeze it.
5. Cook! With such a tight budget, there's no room for prepacked or prepared foods, Litchfield says. Cooking for yourself saves money and can also leave you with leftovers to eat the next day or week.
"That's something that the general consumer may not know how to do, and may not want to take the time to do so," she says. "It takes a lot of time to plan out your menu, bring it home and cook it, but it's worth it."
Wright adds that you pay a premium for the convenience of prepared and prepackaged foods, but there are easy workarounds.
"Buy large containers of yogurt and mix in your own fruit or jam, rather than buying several small containers of yogurt," she says. "Buying dried beans is a good value compared to canned beans, which also tend to be high in sodium."
[Read: Building Your Kitchen Confidence.]
6. Do it today. While it may not always be easy, Litchfield says eating healthy on a budget is a worthy investment in yourself and in your future. "People make the assumption that eating healthy is out of range on their budget, but it's having the skills to take the time to figure that out," she says. "A healthy lifestyle can deter health care costs down the line."