Many people think that eating healthfully means spending a fortune at the grocery store. It’s true that fresh, organic foods cost more than their conventionally grown and processed counterparts. But with thoughtful planning, smart shopping, and a bit of creativity in the kitchen, you can enjoy a nourishing, health supportive diet and stay within a reasonable budget.
Eating healthy, delicious meals is one of our core values, and we consistently make the time and effort to ensure that we eat well. There are many ways to reduce your food budget; some of our suggestions may take research and energy to implement, but you’ll find they make a significant difference in your food expenses—and you’ll be eating better than ever.
• Buy Whole Foods
It’s always less expensive to buy whole foods instead of pre-made meals and snacks. Avoid buying frozen dinners, pizzas, packaged cookies, popcorn, waffles, and precut fruits and vegetables. Organic prepared foods are even more expensive than conventional prepared foods, and despite being made with better ingredients, they’re nowhere near as tasty as what you can prepare in your own kitchen. Not only will you save money, you’ll eat fresher, more nutritious foods when you make them yourself. For example, we make pizza (see our recipe for Morel Mushroom Pizza), bake cookies (see our recipe for Healthy Chocolate Brownies), pop popcorn, and cut up fruits and vegetables instead of buying packaged precut produce. The more you cook from scratch, the more money you’ll save.
• Go To The Source
We’re fortunate to live in a town that supports local agriculture; it’s an idea that’s catching on across the country. When you buy directly from farmers and producers, you can reap tremendous savings on your food bill. We shop at our local farmer’s market from spring through fall, enjoying the bounty of in-season produce while lowering our food bill.
Community supported agriculture (CSA) farms are springing up everywhere; when you buy a membership, you’ll receive a weekly assortment of fresh-picked produce. CSA produce is less expensive because you’re ensuring that the farmers will sell all that they grow. If you eat meat, try to find a rancher who will sell an entire cow, pig, or lamb. You can share with friends, or stock your freezer. (Be sure to buy grass fed meats, of course.)
• Buy In Bulk
Bulk grains, dried beans, pastas, flours, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, nut butters, herbs, spices, honey, maple syrup, and olive oil are generally much less expensive than buying packaged, canned, or frozen foods. Most natural foods stores and some grocery stores carry a wide assortment of bulk foods. Make sure that the products are fresh, buy only the items that you use regularly, and store them correctly so that they don’t spoil. It’s best to refrigerate grains, flours, nut butters, and maple syrup, and to keep nuts and seeds in the freezer.
• Stock Up On The Basics
Herbs and spices are an easy way to add variety to your meals, but avoid buying exotic, expensive ingredients that you use for one recipe, only to find them lingering in the refrigerator or pantry months later. The same goes for specialty cooking oils, nuts, and flours.
• When Not-Organic Is Okay
Ideally, you’ll buy organic foods as much as possible. But organic foods do tend to be more expensive than conventional, and if your budget just can’t accommodate completely organic, it’s important to know which foods you can compromise on without compromising your health. Animal products are the most important to buy organic (or grass fed, in the case of meat), because hormones and other toxic chemicals are concentrated in dairy products and meats.
When it comes to produce, be selective. If you can’t buy organic, at least avoid the following “Dirty Dozen,” the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables the Environmental Working Group has found contain the highest levels and amount of pesticides:
- Sweet bell peppers
• Choose Less Expensive Fish And Meats
Grass fed meats, pastured free-range poultry, and wild-caught fish and seafood are probably the most expensive items on your shopping list. You can save money by buying whole fish and fileting them (simmer the bones and head to make fish chowder). Purchasing whole chickens is much less expensive than buying chicken parts; save the bones, wings, and other parts for chicken soup or stock. Buy less expensive cuts of meat (which tend to be tough) and prepare them using long, slow braising methods to produce tender, delicious results. A crock-pot is perfect for this type of cooking.
Other ways to save include buying chicken thighs instead of breasts, flank steak or ground bison instead of filet mignon, and sardines or canned albacore tuna instead of fresh salmon. Best of all is to make meat an accompaniment instead of the centerpiece of your meal—stir fry chicken or shrimp with vegetables and serve over rice; make a seafood stew rich with tomatoes, onions, and peppers and serve over quinoa; or braise beef or pork with a large portion of root vegetables and serve with polenta.
• Cook Once, Eat Twice
Cooking well takes an investment of time as well as money. It only takes a few more minutes to prepare double amounts of soups, stews, beans, and sauces that can be frozen for future meals. With a bit of pre-planning, you can also create two meals out of one—for example, grill fish and vegetables for dinner, and save part of the fish for tacos the following night. Or cook a pot of lentils; divide in half, and add roasted tomatoes, garlic, carrots, onions, Italian seasonings, and fresh grated Parmesan for a hearty soup; to the other half, add sautéed ginger, garlic, curry spices, tomato paste, and a bit of cream and simmer with the lentils for a delicious spiced dal over basmati rice.
•Eliminate Unconscious Splurges
It’s easy to spend $1.50 on a bottle of water, or $4.00 on a coffee drink and to consider it a small splurge. But if you’re habitually buying bottled water or fancy coffee drinks, you are likely spending a small fortune every month that could better be used for healthy foods. Buy a stainless steel water bottle and get into the habit of carrying it with you, and learn to make your favorite coffee drinks and teas at home for a fraction of what you pay at the coffee shop.
• Eat In, Not Out
Eating out is a quick way to bust your food budget. You’re also not likely to get anywhere near the quality of food as when you cook at home. Everyone likes a break from cooking, so plan potlucks with friends—it’s an easy way to keep your expenses down. We greatly enjoy the social aspect of sharing delicious, healthy food with friends.
• Grow Your Own
If it’s at all possible, grow at least some of your food. Even a small herb garden planted with rosemary, thyme, oregano, chives, basil, cilantro, and garlic will give you a big return on your investment. Our family enjoys gardening together—it’s a healthy and fun activity for us to do with our children.
• Eat Seasonally
Fruits, vegetables, and even fish have natural seasons. Not only is this when foods are freshest and best tasting, it’s also when they provide us with optimal nourishment. The principle of “eating with the seasons” is one of the cornerstones of all traditional systems of healing. For example, cucumbers and watermelon are hydrating and cooling, and help us adapt to hot summer days. Apples, pears, and root vegetables, which are plentiful in fall, help to replenish moisture and counteract the dryness associated with autumn. These foods are considered to support inward “yin” energy, which is most dominant in early winter. Eating seasonally is much less expensive, too; berries are often half the price in summer than in winter.
• Preserve Food In Season
If you’re so inclined—and you have the freezer and pantry space—freezing, drying, and canning fresh produce in season can save a significant amount of money. Fresh berries, cherries, nectarines, and peaches freeze well; apples, pears and tomatoes are delicious dried; and it’s fun to make fruit jams, chutneys, and tomato sauce to savor throughout the year. We even enjoy harvesting wild herbs, such as nettle, to make Savory Nettle Chips.
• Make A Weekly Menu Plan
It’s amazing how much money we save by making a weekly menu plan and creating a shopping list from the plan. By doing so, we can take advantage of weekly specials at our local food co-op, make sure that we’re using up food we have in the refrigerator, and plan for bulk cooking. It takes a bit of effort, but once you get into the habit of menu planning, you’ll find it both simplifies life and saves money.