Dont forget to check the 'use by' date of a product when out grocery shopping Image Credit: Shutterstock

The UAE is well and truly a food lovers’ paradise. While there is a fabulous choice of dining spots in top-notch restaurants dishing out mouth-watering fare, those who prefer to cook at home have the opportunity of shopping at supermarket whose aisles are brimming with produce from the world over. While food options are aplenty, what is also important is choosing healthy produce and eating clean. With Dubai Fitness Challenge starting tomorrow (Oct 29), this could be just the time to make healthy food choices.

But if you thought choosing foods that are both nutritious and which do not burn a hole in the pocket could be tricky, you may be wrong. If experts are to be believed, it is not too difficult to eat healthy and within a budget.

According to Juliot Vinolia, Head of Dietary Services at Medeor Hospital, Dubai, eating healthy on a budget is very achievable. ‘The only challenge is the time you have to invest in planning it,’ she says. Some of her top recommendations include pre-planning the menu every three days, chasing food sales and offers, using online apps to make smart purchases, and investing in quality cookware to put that nourishing menu on the table without spending much.

Plot your meals

One of the best ways to start eating healthy is by writing down your current eating pattern, and reviewing it before finalizing a practical healthy weekly menu. Give a thorough scan of your fridge and cabinets to see what you have stocked that needs to be used before its expiry date. Now you have a list in hand of what you do need. This means you can avoid expensive purchases which could also go to waste.

‘Being mindful of portion size and quantity of ingredients required in cooking can also prevent food wastage and save money,’ says Juliot.

Juliot Vinolia

‘Being mindful of portion size and quantity of ingredients required in cooking can also prevent food wastage and save money,’ says Juliot.

Investing in good quality, multifunctional cookware, the nutritionist says, is yet another tip to control expenses, while meal prepping. ‘Check out for seasonal offers on air fryers, food processers, microwaves equipped with multiple cooking options, easy-to-clean dishware and non-stick pans. These gadgets can help save time, electricity, gas and water, and eventually contribute to ease of cooking.

You can also buy seasonal produce and freeze them, mostly berries, peas, carrots and broccoli. If there are offers on tomatoes, blanch them into purees to be added to recipes later, suggests Juliot.

Track food shopping

Now that you have planned your meals, the next step is to set a budget for your grocery shopping and your takeaway indulgences. You can make a monthly budget that can be tailored down to a weekly one which would also include weekend eating out expenses. You could also prepare a weekly grocery list for food products that have a short shelf life including vegetables, fruits, milk, meat and cheese; and a monthly list for long-life produce such as rice, cooking oil and spices.

Karla Barmaki

‘While at the supermarket buy local brands,’ suggests Karla Barmaki, who runs Vie Lifestyle Consultancy, UAE, that offers sessions helping people improve their physical and mental health through healthy eating and exercise habits. ‘These are often of the same quality as more expensive branded products. Most supermarket chains in the UAE offer their own generic line of brands and this can help you to save 15 to 20 per cent on your total bill.’

She also recommends stocking up on staple and favourite products when they are on sale. Buying in bulk especially grains, brown rice, millets, barley and oats can work out easy on the pocket. But do keep an eye on the expiry date as clearance sales can tempt you to buy what you might not use.

‘Importantly, make sure to shop after you have had a meal. When you are hungry, you are more likely to stray away from your grocery list and buy something on impulse,’ she cautions.

Homemade is best

Cooking at home will work out to be much cheaper than takeaways and dining out. It’s not only going to help you cut down your monthly expenses but will also turn out to be a much more nourishing option. What’s more, you could perhaps feed a family of four for the price of two people eating out.

Do a clear check of your fridge to ensure you buy only what is required Image Credit: Shutterstock

‘We cook most of our meals at home from scratch. It’s a huge money saver,’ shares Anupa Mathews, a Dubai resident and mom of two, who blogs healthy recipes at While at a supermarket, it is tempting to reach for packaged and processed foods including cookies, crackers and sodas. But in the long run, they might not be the best for your health. You would much rather invest your time in cooking a fresh meal at home. ‘Canned goods might be cheap but check if they are healthy as well. I often see hummus recipes that mention canned chickpeas, but it’s much cheaper and healthier to buy the dried ones, soak them overnight and cook them for a better tasting and much healthier humus,’ she says.

Anupa Mathews

Fresh meat and fish, as Karla points out, can be more expensive than frozen. One option is to get meat that costs less. ‘Look for chuck steak, whole chicken, ground meat or poultry. These are great in burritos, casseroles, soups, stews and stir fries,’ she says.

Another way you can eat healthy and save a few bucks is by packing your lunchbox to work. Calling in for a takeaway could end up squeezing your wallet while also upsetting your healthy meal routine.

Go local and seasonal

Local and seasonal foods are packed with nutrition, free from chemicals and preservatives. In the UAE, we get a range of produce from across the world, but the longer it has taken to reach your supermarket, the greater could be the incidence of its nutrition depletion. Plus you could be contributing to the carbon footprint. Dubai resident Tasneem Fatima Nawab says that she is mindful of what she fills into her grocery bag.

Tasneem Fatima Nawab

‘The UAE now has several local farms, so I always make it a point to buy what is grown locally, especially cucumbers, tomatoes and mints,’ says Tasneem, who has dabbled in nutrition coaching and is the co-founder of Zaish Design, a sustainable denim brand in the UAE. If not local, she prefers buying fruits and vegetables from Oman, Egypt and Iran. ‘My go-to place for all of these groceries is always the fruit and vegetable wholesale market where I know I will get it fresh and often at a discounted price. For eggs, milk and chicken, I visit farms in Dubai.’

Be creative

Cooking is an art and as you ease into your meal prepping, adding a dash of creativity by playing around with ingredients would not only enhance the culinary experience but also reduce shopping expenses. Look for alternatives that are just as nutritious and cost less. For instance, instead of an avocado smoothie every day, alternate it with a date one. ‘If you can’t afford salmon, go for sardines. They are less expensive and a healthy substitute. Instead of quinoa try millet. And spinach is just as healthy as kale,’ shares Anupa.

Use seasonal produce liberally and creatively in recipes. ‘When pumpkins are in season, I use them to make pancakes, add them in soups and stews,’ she explains. At the supermarket if you find a deal on a rotisserie chicken, buy two; have them as sides with your dinner or chop them up to make chicken fried rice the next day. Add some mayo and veggies to make a filling chicken sandwich for kids’ lunch boxes or pair it with some Thai green curry for dinner.’

If planned well, eating healthy need not be strain on your budget Image Credit: Shutterstock

Beans and whole grains are also value for money and can be mixed together into a main course or tossed into a salad or added to vegetables and even meat. They are also a great source of good quality protein.

Make use of leftovers

Remember how your grandma recycled everything that was left in her kitchen. Now that you are determined to keep a tab on your budget, meals prepared from leftovers can save you cooking time and stop you from eating out as well. And leftover meals don’t have to be boring. Use your imagination, and surprise your taste buds.

The easiest recipe is to use veggie scraps to make a broth; while leftover pasta can be added to a salad and made into a completely new meal.

Leftover bread can be turned into a yummy breakfast casserole with assorted veggies and eggs while bread sides can be used to make crumbs for coating fritters.

‘Tomato based leftover curries can be reused to sauté veggies, eggs or chicken strips to go along with rice or bread. Grilled chicken and meat leftovers can also go into a variety of stews and wraps,’ points out Juliot.

Just be sure how you store your leftovers to avoid food poisoning and contamination.