Whether you're new to eating healthy or not, you've probably observed how expensive it can be to buy foods that are better for you, while seeing that junk food is so cheap! Why is that? While I could write an entire book on the subject, I'll save that for the experts and simply say that a major reason for the lower cost of processed food is due to government subsidies. These large corporations use the cheapest ingredients and even chemicals in quantities and combinations that will keep you coming back for more! A couple of great references on the subject are the books, The Omnivore's Dilemma; Pandora's Lunchbox; Salt, Sugar, Fat; and the films Food Inc., Ingredients, and King Corn. These resources can be found on my Learning Tools page.
In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan reminds us of the real cost of cheap food, which is often overlooked. "The ninety-nine-cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn't take account of that meal's true cost- to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsidies), the health care system (in the form of food-borne illnesses and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves." So though we may be referring to the prices we see in the supermarket or restaurants when we talk about how cheap or expensive food is, they don't always reflect the true cost of that food. You can look at healthy eating as an investment in your future. While you might be paying more from your wallet to buy those groceries today, you'll be saving on medical bills tomorrow and years into the future. Even so, it's good to know how you can get by eating healthy on a tight budget. Let's look at a few ideas I can share, from personal experience and from watching what others are doing to save.
A Dozen Ways To Save!
One of the most important aspects of staying within your budget is to make a plan and stick to it. Your ability to realize this objective means you can ensure you and your family are eating
healthy on a regular basis and means no one in the family will need to resort to buying junk food or fast food because no other options are available. No matter where you are, you'll be prepared with your meal or snack! Planning can be done one to four weeks in advance and is super easy now, with tools like Meal Garden, that have everything you need in one place: recipes, shopping lists, meal plans.
2. Home Cooking & Eating Left-Overs
This one goes hand in hand with meal-planning. Cooking at home gives you control of what you and your family are eating, ensuring your success in gaining and maintaining your health. While you could spend a fortune on a home-cooked meal, most meals made at home are by far cheaper than eating out. You should always plan to eat at home or take food made at home to work or send it with the kids to school. The occasion will arise for eating out from time to time, but planning to eat from home most of the time is the best way to stay on budget.
One of the biggest favors you can do yourself is to learn to eat left-overs. Only in our culture of abundance have I seen so many spoiled eaters who refuse to touch left-overs. In poverty-stricken cultures around the world, people are lucky if they get more than one meal a day and are more than happy to eat the same food every day, grateful just to have something to fill their bellies. If they can do it, so can we! But it's not even that hard for us; we're blessed to have a variety of healthy foods to choose from and learning to enjoy some of the same meals throughout the week can be a real pleasure. It's also a great way to avoid having to cook every single day. It gives you the opportunity to take a well-deserved break. Even if you don't eat the same meals every day of the week, a good rule of thumb is to plan on eating the same meal at least twice during the week.
3. Batch Cooking & Freezing
While making your meal plans, consider preparing more than you'll need for that week by doubling the recipe and freezing half of it. This is a really smart idea, as you're not making that much extra effort to double the recipe. It's usually just a matter of increasing your measurements, but the work is almost the same. That works great for things like lasagna or a breakfast casserole that you can just pop in the oven. It also works well for things like stir-fries, any kind of casserole, meatballs, muffins, brownies, cookies, etc. For weeks when you know you won't have as much time for home-cooking, you can simply defrost these frozen items and enjoy them. I always take advantage of my frozen meals when we return from vacation. I've also been able to help a new mother who didn't have time to cook or a friend who might be recovering from an illness or operation by having frozen items on hand.
4. Using One Large Cut of Meat throughout the Week
Consider buying a larger cut of meat than you might need for just one recipe and using that meat across the week in different meals. You might buy a large turkey or chicken, for example, and use the meat for soups, tacos, quesadillas, sandwiches, salads, stir-fries, etc. Ground beef can make meatballs, beef stroganoff, chili, spaghetti, etc.)
5. Buying In Bulk
While it isn't always cheaper to buy in bulk, it usually is. You can buy things like nuts, grains, seeds, flours, and spices in any quantity you want from the large bulk bins in health food stores. They are almost always cheaper than buying the same foods already packaged. They even sell bulk raw honey, and roasted almonds and coffee beans for grinding fresh in the store. Stores like Costco, BJ's, and Sam's Wholesale Club that tend to sell bulk items are now selling more health foods like unrefined organic coconut oil, organic coconut flour, almond flour, raw maple syrup, organic produce, etc. These are just some of the items I've seen at these stores. If stored properly, they keep well. I also use Amazon to buy things like Himalayan sea salt in bulk. You can easily save 50% or more on buying some of these items in bulk.
6. Taking Advantage of Sales, Discounts, and Coupons
In planning your meals, try to take advantage of what's on sale that week. That's why it can be helpful to only plan up to a week in advance so you better know what kind of recipes to look for. Always be looking for BOGO deals on items you can stock up on, like frozen vegetables and fruits; canned and jarred goods like tomatoes, which are a staple for our family, being both cheaper and healthier than the raw ones; crackers; chips; frozen breads and buns; milks on the shelf like coconut, almond, rice, oat, etc. As always when budgeting, look for coupons on items you buy regularly or might want to try and don't fall for the trap of the coupons. Just because you have a coupon doesn't mean that item will be cheaper than buying a less expensive brand.
Take advantage of discounts by joining rewards programs. My absolute favorite is Thrive Market, an American e-commerce membership-based retailer offering natural and organic food products at reduced costs. I've saved so much on food, supplements, cosmetics, and household items. They sell even more, but that's where I find my biggest savings. I've compared their prices to the healthy supermarkets in town and I can get their products cheaper than some of the sale items here!
Some local stores, like Whole Foods, offer rewards programs, where you pay a small annual fee to receive discounts on certain items. For example, the one in my city offers a 20% discount on any items in the supplements and cosmetics section, even when those items are on sale.
7. Buying in Season
Buying produce in the season it's harvested can save you money. It can be difficult to know what's in season, since we can pretty much buy any kind of produce we want year-round, no matter where we live in the US. Even if you didn't grow up on a farm or get your food from a farm, you can learn what's in season by searching online. Many times, the produce sales reflect what's in season, as prices go down when supply is high or higher than demand. Even if it's not on sale, take note of price drops for certain seasons.
One other useful tip here is to learn which vegetables and cuts of meat tend to be cheaper year-round. For example, organic sweet potatoes tend to be very inexpensive and make great "fillers" in recipes and meals. Chicken thighs and drumsticks tend to be cheaper than breasts, for example. Did you know the darker cuts of poultry have more iron, zinc, and thiamine? White meat has its benefits too, so mix it up and save. We've been lead to believe only white meat is healthy for us, mainly due to its lower fat and higher protein content, but all the cuts are important in keeping a balanced diet, rich in nutrients. Organ meat is especially healthy. Ask your butcher or meat department if they have any organ meat available and see if that might also provide some savings for you.
8. Joining a CSA Program
Community Sponsored Agriculture is a great way to eat locally and fresh! That means you're going to get more nutrients in your food since it's not being harvested before it's fully ripened and you'll also get the benefits of building your immune system against the allergens native to your area. That's why it's important to participate in a CSA as close to home as possible. While they don't all work the same, you'll generally find that you pay a flat amount for a particular season of produce, paying either in a one-time lump sum payment or divided out throughout the season. Since you pay, regardless of the crop's output, you are truly supporting your community's agriculture, successful or not! Another option some CSAs offer is to purchase your desired "basket," "bag," or "box" of produce as often as you want it, paying as you purchase. They offer different sizes to meet your family's needs and offer a variety of containers, like just fruit or just vegetables. Sometimes you have the option of signing up for either a weekly or bi-weekly supply. While some of these services offer delivery right to your door, others have different locations around town when you can pick up your produce. I won't provide a list here, as they'll differ depending on your location. Just start searching online and you should find a few options in your community. One key here is to be aware that you're eating in season and may not be able to get everything you want. You may have to supplement what you're missing with a trip to the supermarket, but in general, you can save with these programs if you regularly participate.
9. Knowing When to Buy Organic
While it's best if you can invest in buying most, if not all your food organic, sometimes you have to choose. The Environmental Working Group has a convenient app you can use to get the latest information on which crops have the most and least pesticides and harmful residues. The "Clean Fifteen" list will show you the top 15 crops that are safest to buy conventional (non-
organic); while the "Dirty Dozen" list will show you the top 12 crops you should buy organic, as the conventional would be very harmful to your health. This way you can save on buying only what you feel is absolutely necessary in organic produce. While produce with a thick peel that you wouldn't eat (i.e. bananas, oranges, watermelon) isn't found on the dirty dozen list, it's still listed in the "Dirty Dozen +", which has up to 51 items currently listed that could be harmful to you and your family's health. Maybe start with these basic lists of 15 and 12 safe and harmful crops, with the goal to adjust your budget so you can fit in more organic produce over time.
10. Being Resourceful and Not Wasteful
This might seem obvious, but in a world of abundance, it can be easy to overlook. While it's important to teach children not to fill their plates with more than they'll eat, only to throw the rest away, it's just as important for us to do the same. This is a great way to maintain your health too. Think of it like this: when you overeat, the food is still being "wasted" in your body, many times causing us to feel badly with problems like indigestion, upset stomach, and eventually causing us to become overweight, further complicating other issues, like inflammation and loss of mobility. Another way to be resourceful is to save any scraps you might have during your meal preparation. For example, you can use the cut-up broccoli stem like you would carrots. Once you peel away the thick outer layer, the inside is mild and sweet. You can either shred it and add it to salads or slaws, or you can cut it into small pieces, like baby carrot size, to use with dips like hummus or tzatkiki (a yogurt-based dip). If you have any other kinds of left-overs, consider freezing them to later add them to recipes like soups or chilis. This resourcefulness can add up over time, meaning big savings for you!
11. Eating Only REAL, Whole Foods
By eating whole foods, I mean those foods found from nature, as much in their natural form as possible. If it came from the earth or has a mother, it's considered real food. While processed foods can be made up of whole foods, they're usually so broken down and denatured that we can't reap the same benefits as when eaten unaltered. Of course, we cook a lot of whole foods, but that should be the extent of our processing. Besides costing your health, packaged and processed foods tend to be deficient in nutrients, requiring you eat more to be satisfied and filled, unless you consider being bloated the same as being full! I find that real food is more satisfying and I don't require as much of it to keep me full. In addition, you can save on medication and supplementation when you're getting the nutrients you need through food.
12. Eating Vegetarian
If you haven't already noticed, meat, poultry, fish, and seafood can cost a lot, especially when you're eating the best kind (pasture-raised, grass-fed, wild-caught, organic). By eating more vegetarian meals, you can cut down on expenses and also give your body more nutrients from plants. While a bag of chips is vegetarian, your goal is to maintain or improve your health, so seek out plant-based recipes that will add loads of vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants to your diet! Beans, especially lentils, are a good source of protein when looking for a meat substitute at a fraction of the cost. Eggs can also be used but aren't going to be as cheap as the beans and lentils if you eat the best kind (pasture-raised).
As most of what's involved with being healthy, there's no easy button! Yes, it takes time to grocery shop, plan and prepare meals, but the payoff is so rewarding! What are you investing your time in? Where you spend your time and money shows what's most important to you.
Those are just a few ideas you can implement for savings. I'm sure I've missed some and maybe ones you like to use. Please add your comments below and share with our community what has worked for you and your family.