If you are like me, you don’t have a ton of extra cash and that money tree you attempted to plant last spring just never bloomed.
One of the most common things I hear from people is “There is no way we can afford to eat healthy on our food budget.” I get it! I really do. I lost my job almost a year ago and while I didn’t make a ton of money, it helped to cover things like groceries, especially once I switched us to organic produce and grass-fed meats. Now I’m forced to really think about where we spend our money and quite honestly, we don’t go out to eat as often (it was just hindering my goals anyway) and we were forced to prioritize where our money went. Groceries are more important than almost anything I can think of (after the mortgage, car payment and utilities, of course) so in my case, that is where my extra money is allotted to.
So how do I feed my family healthy foods without breaking the bank? Well…. here are a few of the techniques I’ve been using, as well as a few I would like to begin implementing soon.
1. Meal Planning: I’ve spoken about meal planning a little bit on here before. I’ll sit down and figure out a weeks worth of dinners (with enough leftovers for Mike to take to work) and make a shopping list based on them. I usually try to choose recipes with similar ingredients but different flavor profiles, so I can buy items in bulk and we don’t get bored eating the same thing over and over. The upside of meal planning is that you are creating a plan. This plan helps you to save money at the grocery store (as long as you stick to the list), plus you’ll save time in the kitchen because you’ll know what you are cooking each day. You will also save money by being prepared because you’ll have dinner on hand and you won’t need to order a pizza or go to the drive-thru. As much as I love pizza and a good greasy burger with fries from time to time, they hold very little nutritional value, but they have a decent sized price tag when feeding a family of four.
2. Meal Prep: Many people meal prep these days. You know it’s becoming popular when Rachel Ray makes a cookbook and show about the topic, right?! (She has some good options and ideas on the show but she tends to be heavy handed on the cheese and oil, so please adjust those recipes to fit your goals if you watch that show or have the book.) Meal prepping is taking your meal planning a step further. You do a bulk grocery shopping, lay out your recipes and then have a marathon cooking session, usually on a Sunday, so you are all set for the week. There are two different approaches to this that I have seen. Some follow recipes for casseroles or slow cooker meals and prepare everything to be either tossed into the slow cooker the morning they plan to eat that meal or reheat the casserole when they get home from work on a particular day. The other method is to roast, steam or sautee large batches of vegetables, grill, roast or sautee chicken, ground beef or other proteins and cook large batches of rice or pasta. They use a general seasoning (usually just salt and pepper) to the foods to keep them generic, then when packaging them into plastic containers (try to make sure these are BPA-free) they may add different seasoning and combinations or sides to change the taste profile of the meals. Both techniques are excellent, I think it just depends on your lifestyle to see which fits better. I tend to use both, since I like to have options ready for me at lunchtime, but I also need full meals for dinner. Here are two of my favorite meal prep lunches.
3. Buy Food in Bulk: I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t have a membership to Sam’s Club, Costco or some other warehouse club. If you don’t have one, you probably have a friend or family member who does, so ask them if they would mind taking you one day. While these stores don’t always have grass-fed meat and organic produce, I’m okay with that. As much as I would love to buy everything organic, grass-fed or free range, it’s just not possible and I take the time to wash non-organic produce well (make sure you use white vinegar mixed with water to remove the pesticides). Buying in bulk gives you a big bang for your buck. It may seem like a lot of money to lay out at once, but if you purchase items you use on a day to day basis, you’re going to save money in the long run. I tend to purchase nuts, oils, spices and produce there. I also like to stock up on meat. I save a ton of money by buying club packs of meat and then breaking them down and freezing them. I buy chicken thighs with the skin and bones and just remove them myself when I get home. I’ll buy thick boneless pork chops and slice them in half to make thinner ones because it saves a ton of money. Yes, it’s a little time consuming, but I save money and still get to feed my family real meals each night, so it’s worth it! If you use a lot of dried fruits, whole grain pastas, brown rice, quinoa, coconut or almond flour I would recommend looking for bulk options and purchasing them that way.
4. Shop The Reduced Produce Rack: Every grocery store has a reduced produce rack. These may not be THE freshest produce items in the store, but most of the time there is nothing wrong with them and they just get bumped back there to make room for the newest shipment. I use a lot of bananas so I always shop the reduced rack when I need them. Most of my bananas go into smoothies, so when I get them home, I take the peel off, toss them into a freezer bag and pop them into the freezer. I get ripe bananas for pennies compared to the green bunches that have to sit on the counter for days before they can be used. As a matter of fact, I purchase a lot of vegetables from here. Peppers are perfect because I just take them home, cut them up and toss them into a freezer bag as well. If they have spinach or green beans back there, grab them, par boil them and freeze them!
5. Buy Frozen: When vegetables are out of season, they cost more. What’s worse is that they cost more and they aren’t even really fresh. They’ve traveled halfway around the world to get to your local grocer store. Do yourself a favor and just buy frozen vegetables when they are out of season. Frozen veggies are usually picked and then flash frozen so they most likely have more nutritional value than the “fresh” produce that travel the world to get to you. They also go on sale all the time! Many grocery stores have their own brands and you’ll only pay around $1-$2 per bag. You can also keep an eye out for sales and manufacturer coupons and then stock up. I would be lost without my stock of frozen vegetables in my freezer!
6. Buy Locally: Buying seasonally is a huge money saver as I mentioned above in the reduced produce and buy frozen section, but so is buying locally! Spring is the best time because that is when many local farmers markets open up. In summer, they are in full swing and there is an abundance of fresh produce available. Talk to the local farmers, get to know them and ask questions. Many times their produce is only minimally sprayed (or not sprayed at all) but they can’t afford the organic certification. If you plan on buying in bulk, be sure to speak to them because they may be able to cut you a deal. To find local Farmer’s Markets and when they open near you, visit Local Harvest and Eat Well Guide.
7. Join A CSA: I have not yet joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) but it’s something I’ll be looking into. CSA’s have become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. When you join a CSA you usually receive a box, bag or basket consisting of local, seasonal vegetables, but other farm products may be included. If you are a big fan of shopping at local farmers markets, joining a CSA might be a logical next step for you. For more info on CSA’s visit Local Harvest and Eat Well Guide.
8. Grow Your Own Food: I know not everyone has a yard but there are different options for growing your own food. I have tried my hand at this but I lack a green thumb. I seem to only have luck with herbs and it’s better than nothing. I found a website while lurking around on Pinterest called Square Foot Gardening and it’s something I plan on looking into more this season. I would love to be able to plant my summertime staple vegetables and be able to control the full growth process AND have the fresh from the vine when I need them. If you already grow your own vegetables, I would love to hear some of your tips and trick for keeping the squirrels away!
9. Use Whole Grains and Legumes: Unless you are following a Paleo or Gluten-Free lifestyle, using whole grains and legumes in your recipes will help you to stretch your dollar without sacrificing nutrition. They are filling and can be found in a ton of vegetarian recipes, so incorporating a “meatless monday” into your schedule can help cut back on the money you spend on meat, as well. I’m pretty sure if you are here and reading this far into the post, you know that white, processed pastas, breads and rice are not your best choices and that you should be opting for whole grain versions. Stock up on these in bulk and make them the stars of your dishes, but like everything in life… use them in moderation!
10. Avoid Processed Foods: While these foods seem like they fit into your budget easier, they leave your body nutritionally starved and begging for nutrients. You end up eating more of these foods because your body is never truly satisfied by them due to the lack of nutrients. These over processed foods are filled with sugar, ingredients you can’t pronounce and unnatural food coloring. They are also designed to make you crave them, so you end up eating more, so what are you really saving by buying them?
When you do your grocery shopping, avoid the center aisles of the store. That is where the majority of the over processed foods are. I know that 10 for $10 seems like a budget saving deal, but in the long run, it is not unless we are talking plain ol’ frozen vegetables. All of those frozen diet entrees should be avoided like the plague. Ever flip one over and look at the ingredients?! It’s disgusting! They are full of gross additives and sodium. Skip them. Another area to skip is the yogurt in the dairy section. If it has a name like red velvet cake, boston cream pie or cherry cobbler, that means it is loaded with sugar. I don’t care if it says it is fat free. You can’t only look at one component of the ingredients. If you like yogurt, stick with plain greek yogurt and add your own fruit to it. Juice is another pitfall. Most commercial juices are full of sugar and additives. Your best bet is to purchase foods with less than 5 ingredients in them. If you can’t pronounce and ingredient, leave it in the store. Potatoes, strawberries, carrots, spinach, chicken and ground beef all have one single ingredient to them. That is the key to eating healthy and it is possible to do on a budget, you just have to plan a little more and be creative.
Here is list of produce you should try to purchase organic versions of because they are known to have the highest levels of pesticides:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Imported spinach
Don’t worry if you can’t get the organic versions all the time, it’s not the end of the world. Just take the time to clean them properly with equal parts water and white vinegar or a commercial veggie wash. Pesticides are designed to withstand rain, so just rinsing them with water is not enough to remove them.
If you have any tips for eating healthy on a budget I would love to hear them! Please share them below or over on my Facebook Page.