Is healthy food on a budget really possible? I believe that with some logical approaches and the recognition that you probably won’t be able to do it perfectly right out of the gate, it is.
If you’re just starting from scratch be ready to invest a little more in the beginning while you build staple ingredients and find sources in your area for your favorite foods (which may not mean you get them at the grocery store but from a local farmer, or farmer’s market). Use these 11 tips to get the ball rolling.
1. Buy seasonal
The problem: Every fruit or vegetable has an ideal growing season. Today we don’t notice it so much because so many foods are brought to our grocery stores from all around the world. Often picked green and chemically ripened, grocery stores work really hard to make sure our favorites are always on the shelves.
But this isn’t the way nature works and when you buy produce outside its normal growing season for your area, you’re going to pay a lot more for it and usually it tastes like cardboard.
What to do about it: Check out this awesome guide to see what’s in season in your area. For me, items like berries, peaches, and plums are astronomically expensive and flavorless unless it’s summer. I buy frozen most of the year if we just have to have them for a recipe or even opt for all-fruit leathers if I can’t get good produce. In winter I only buy citrus (oranges, grapefruit), apples and pears from my produce department.
2. Avoid pre-prepped ingredients
The problem: Pre-chopped, spiralized, diced or prepared items (especially produce) are extremely expensive. Anytime anyone has done the prep work for you, expect to pay someone for that time and effort. Prepped ingredients may also carry higher rates of food borne illness in some of these items (does anyone remember the salmonella in the watermelon outbreak from the summer of 2018?)
What to do about it: Be prepared to prep your own ingredients. I have a $2 hand held spiralizer I bought in the gadget area of Walmart a couple of years ago and I’ve twisted everything from sweet potatoes to zucchini through it and saved myself a ton. It takes about 2 minutes to do, and for me it’s worth it. If you feel like chopping ingredients just doesn’t work for you, buy yours already done if that matters to you. I’ll talk more in a minute about choosing your priorities and this may be one for you.
3. Buy what you’ll really eat. Not what you wish you would.
The problem: When you vow to “eat healthier” you might head to the store with one, maybe two recipes in mind that you want to make and no other ideas except that you have to buy “all the things” that are trendy. Paying no attention to the fact that you may not use all of a package of chopped kale, or an entire bag of delicate leafy greens, you have no plan for how to incorporate them in to anything else before they are slimy and your money is wasted.
What to do about it: Be really honest with yourself. If you or your family doesn’t like kale, buying a two pound bag of the organic stuff and putting it in your fridge does you zero good. Only buy what your family will really eat. If no one is on board with fruits or vegetables, buy one thing (and only a small amount) and try it during the week. Start with safe things like a salad with dinner, or roast some broccoli. Only buy what’s realistic–not what you’ve convinced yourself you’ll “find something to do with”.
4. Alternate expensive proteins with less expensive ones each week
The problem: Buying expensive fancy-labeled proteins as the center of every meal, every night is really expensive! 5 pounds of grass fed ground beef, pastured chicken or a whole side of Alaskan salmon would break just about anyone’s budget really quickly.
What you can do about it: Opt for protein sources that are filling but affordable. This might be black beans in quesadillas one night instead of adding chicken or steak, or using canned salmon (one of my favorites!) instead of having fresh salmon fillets. You might also choose a cut of meat that is tougher but cheaper–like chuck roasts or eye of round. Cook them low and slow and you’ll get a tender final result. Dark meat chicken like thighs or drumsticks will quickly offset the higher price of boneless skinless breasts. You can even use the bones that are leftover to make your own chicken stock later.
5.Just buy a little and pay more if you would only waste a big bag
The problem: Any wasted food is wasted money. To avoid this, there may be times when it’s smarter to pay a bit more and waste less.
What to do about it: If there’s an option to buy items individually (like a single onion instead of a bag) do that if you know you’ll never use the rest. The single onion will cost more by the pound than a bulk bag of them will, but you’ll save money in the long run when you aren’t throwing things out. This is an especially good approach for people who are cooking for one or two. You may be better off buying your meats from the butcher’s counter and only getting one pork chop instead of a pack of 6 you’ll put in the freezer and only find when they are freezer burned.
6. Decide what your priorities are for each shopping trip
The problem: Budgets and grocery needs will vary from week to week. If you’re tight on money this trip, or need to buy extras like laundry detergent and dog food that run up your total, you may have to decide what items are priority, and be okay with not getting, or buying convention versions of some of your other favorites.
What to do about it: This one may take some practice, but ask yourself: “What products will I not compromise on?” In our house, synthetic colors are 100% a deal breaker. If you haven’t seen my video about why, you can watch me on YouTube here or check out my about page. If I know I have a few things on my list that are going to run my total up (like the natural laundry detergent I moved us to) then that week I may skip my favorite brand of Katie’s Best chicken and buy conventional chicken thighs–or–I may skip chicken altogether and use canned tuna to make a casserole, or go all vegetables for dinner one night.
7.Stock a pantry, fridge and freezer with staples, then check it before you shop
The problem: You don’t have any basic ingredients on hand to throw a dinner together on the fly, and buying items like oils and spices is really killing your bill.
What to do about it: There’s no perfect way around this one unfortunately, and it’s one of the reasons people think cooking from scratch is so expensive. Because it likely will be at first while you build a base of ingredients. It’s very rare that I don’t have 75% of what I need to make a recipe already here in the house–things like olive or avocado oil, garlic, onions, butter, flour, salt and spices. But remember the bigger picture: for what you pay for that can of 12 biscuits in a tube, you can buy enough flour, butter and milk to make 10 times that number of biscuits.
Your pantry is only as effective as its organization. Check your freezers, fridge and pantry for any ingredients that are nearing their expiration and use those first that week. Make recipes that will use them up.
8.You don’t have to always buy organic
The problem: Organic foods are 10 to 30% more expensive than conventionally grown, and don’t necessarily have to be the only type you buy. From produce to cheese, only you can decide what items you absolutely won’t compromise on and which ones you feel a bit more laid back about.
What to do about it: You may have heard of The Dirty Dozen or The Clean Fifteen. Both of these are lists of the most and least contaminated fruits and vegetables you can buy. Some people say both lists are a total joke and that our fruits and vegetables are totally safe without the organic label. I’ll leave that decision up to you, but you can take a look at the lists and let it help guide you to what items may be worth buying organic and which ones you can save your money on. I don’t follow an exclusively organic lifestyle. I call myself “organic-ish.”
9.Consider the canned and frozen items
The problem: Canned and frozen ready made meals are loaded with things we don’t need, but you feel like a real food lifestyle means you can’t have anything that’s canned or frozen.
What to do about it: While it’s true that the center aisles of the grocery store have a ton of mystery junk in them, don’t count it all out right away! There’s still plenty to love and enjoy if you know what you’re looking for. Buying frozen fruits and vegetables are great (even if they aren’t organic) when you’re just starting out and on a budget. I’d rather you eat a non-organic frozen bag of mixed vegetables in a soup you made yourself than a bag of chicken nuggets.
If you’re buying canned fruit, get it only in its own juice, and without synthetic colors. Sugar free applesauce is great and we enjoy frozen fish and shrimp (because, it’s Kentucky) from U.S sources. Canned Alaskan salmon makes awesome salmon patties and I use frozen puff pastry in my homemade hot pockets.
10.Don’t confuse “real food” with expensive labels
The problem: Pressure from others has left you feeling that only the food under the fancy labels is good enough. That the only way you can have “real food” is when you adopt an all-or-nothing lifestyle.
What to do about it: Remember that no two families will have the same type of real food lifestyle. If you think I’m kidding, listen to this podcast by Kristin Marr over at Live Simply. She’s AMAZING, so much further along in her journey than I am, and totally inspiring (you’ll even hear me on her podcast!). And while you’ll hear from some who say the only way to go is grass fed, pastured, heritage bred and organic, remember that this is a process and every small change that takes you away from a drive through and in to your own kitchen is worth giving yourself a pat on the back for.
11.Build a list of affordable recipes to fall back on when money is tight
The problem: You don’t have a base of recipes that are affordable and quick to make. Even though you scour the internet and pin all the time.
What to do about it: You’re going to have to get in the kitchen and cook. Experiment with one new recipe per week until you have a base of recipes you can rotate. Save them in a program like Evernote, or Plan to Eat (my FAVORITE meal planning app) (affiliate link)
Extra points for recipes you can tweak to feel different. My baked mac and cheese would feel fresh with chicken and broccoli, or chicken fajitas made with thighs instead of breasts would save serious money. Here are some others you might want to check out: Vegetable beef soup, quiche lorraine, and sausage and lentil soup.
Just do your best.
If there’s anything that gets me cranked up, it’s the real food snobbery or elitists that can make your small efforts feel unimportant. But I feel like when we look at the bigger picture: Everything you make yourself is automatically healthier in some ways than something made in a factory.
h I hope you will just continue to make small changes and remember that everyone starts somewhere. None of us know it all and none of us have the exact answers. Do what’s right for your family, your wallet and your conscience and then let the rest go.