Variety is not only the spice of life, but it can also be the key to a heart-healthy diet.

Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables along with whole grains is one way to help improve your cardiovascular health. February’s American Heart Month is a perfect time to try heart-healthy recipes at home and learn how to incorporate heart-healthy foods into a budget-friendly grocery list.

It’s easier to create heart-healthy meals on a budget than you might think:

  • Make a plan. A little planning can go a long way. Take some time to plan out your meals for the week and check what ingredients you already have on hand. Make a list of what you need. In-season fruits and vegetables tend to be cheaper. And when it comes to that fresh produce, look to buy one week’s worth to avoid throwing out those unused, forgotten veggies in the back of the refrigerator.
  • Shop the perimeter. Fresh produce, whole wheat bread, and lean meats are usually positioned along the outside of a grocery store. Shop the outside first, then go into the aisles to supplement with things like canned tuna, whole grain pasta, and canned or frozen vegetables.
  • Don’t sleep on frozen or canned vegetables. Frozen and canned vegetables are often more affordable and usually as nutritious as fresh produce. Just read the label and chose ones with the least amount of sodium and added sugar.

Most importantly, ditch the all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to heart-healthy eating and embrace the 80-20 rule instead.

“Look at your whole day, your whole pattern of eating, and strive to eat heart-healthy foods 80 percent of the time, giving yourself 20 percent to enjoy other foods,” said Brianna Wallenhorst, a registered dietitian with the Independent Health Foundation. “You’re not going to go through life never eating a cupcake. The key is to have plenty of vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains the rest of the day.”

What makes a heart-healthy meal? Consider these factors:

  • Make fruits and vegetables the star of the show. Look to fill half your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Reach for whole grains. Look for brown rice, whole wheat bread, and whole grain pasta.
  • Keep your proteins lean. Think beans, grilled chicken and fish.
  • Add flavor. Heart-healthy meals avoid butter and salt, but there’s plenty of flavor to be found in olive oils and on your spice rack. Look to add flavor with salt-free seasonings, herbs, and garlic.
  • Avoid processed foods. Cut back on things like processed meats (think sausages, hot dogs, beef jerky, salami), microwave meals, and desserts like cakes and cookies.

Looking for a little inspiration in the kitchen to put those heart-healthy ideas into practice? Check out the Independent Health Foundation’s Healthy Option Buffalo website for a variety of budget-friendly, heart-healthy recipes, as well as video demonstrations on how to prepare some of these meals at home.