One of the most common questions that I get is “how do you eat well on a budget?”
If I being honest, it comes out from clients sounding more like: “We have a limited budget” (insinuating that they don’t have enough money for food), “ or “I can’t buy organic,” or “I wish I could, but I just don’t have the money,” or “good food is just SOOOooo expensive.”
I am here to tell you that organic food is not too expensive. You can afford it.
You can afford to buy high quality meat, in season produce from the farmers market, and an abundance of healthy, nourishing food. How do I know this? My own experience! I have been making this one of my life focuses for over six years.
My husband worked for a non-profit for several years. During this time, we both made less than $10,000 a year. We were below the poverty line for years. Then, after that, we both took time off to get married, go rock climbing for half of a summer and then build our tiny house on wheels. Not only were we not making money, but we were spending quite a bit of money. After a short re-cooperation period, my husband went to graduate school for two years and I went back to school for a degree I had started previously. We were again, below the poverty line and in debt and have accumulated several responsibilities, including a mortgage. Throughout all of this, we refused to compromise on food choices. And we always made it work.
It would have been easy to say that we couldn’t afford organic, or that we couldn’t even step foot in the farmer’s market because it was too expensive. We didn’t make these excuses. We still shopped at whole foods on occasion, spent money on supplements, bought quality meat, and bought a lot of whole fruits and vegetables. All while making ridiculously low incomes.
I say all of this because I want to show that it is possible. The first, and most important step is to believe that you can. I also want to show you how. It is not as easy as going to king soopers, or whatever large grocery store you go to, and switching to higher quality, organic, and less processed foods. This probably would be more expensive.
There are a few key mindset shifts involved, a couple of lifestyle adjustments (that I promise will add MORE value to your life), and a little bit of know-how. When these things click, you realize that organic can be cheaper than conventional. And I mean your actual grocery bill, not just the amount of money you save from less medications.
Organic is the poor man’s food.
Have I convinced you yet?
I hope so.
The following are the ten key tricks for buying real food on a budget. These are the practices that I have found to work the best for keeping our grocery bill down and the nutrient properties of our food the highest.
1. Cook your own
Added oils, fillers, flavorings, salt, and sugar are added to pre-packaged foods. Cooking your own food will not only save you money, but it will taste better, feel better, and you will get more nutrients at each meal. This step is essential in order to make the rest of them work.
2. Make a meal plan and shopping list
Always go in with a plan. Focus your eating goals and your menu ideas. Plan cheaper meals centered around beans, rice, and vegetables. By going into the grocery store prepared, you will eat better all week and avoid filling your cart with unnecessary and costly items.
3. Get back to the basics
Just like cooking your own food, getting back to real, simple ingredients and basic meals will help you save money while meeting your nutrient needs. It is much cheaper to eat rice, beans, and vegetables than complicated dishes with lots of specialty ingredients. I think we often get it into our heads that eating healthy has to involved a lot of new ingredients and superfoods. It doesn’t. We have evolved as a species to nourish our bodies with the basics.
4. Buy in Bulk
Buying in bulk will often grant you a discount. Purchasing foods with less packaging is also better or the environment and your health. For example. Two-three cups of canned beans is about $1.00 (or more) whereas a pound of dried beans is the same price and amounts to a lot more! Plastics are one of the largest contributors of xenoestrogens, compounds that mimic estrogen in our bodies and throw off our hormonal balance (leading to weight gain and other unwanted symptoms). Reducing the time your food spends in plastic is a simple step towards reducing xenoestrogens impact on your health.
5. Grow/Harvest your own.
By purchasing and cultivating seeds, you can an entire summers worth of kale for the same price as one bundle from the grocery store. You don’t need a huge garden. A couple of pots on the patio will do. Honestly, this is the number one way that we have been able to save money and make it work. We have always had a garden.
6. Participate in a CSA
For the average price of $40 a week, you can get a box of high quality local food delivered to you and for most people, this covers a large portion of food for the week. Some farms let you volunteer in exchange for a CSA. If vegetable CSAs just don’t seem to work for you, a meat CSA is a great way to support a positive and ethical food system while saving you money.
7. Know your farmer
This is key! Develop a relationship with your local farmers. Spend time at the farmers market and let the farmers know that you are passionate about real food (they will love that!). This can lead to satisfying relationships and opportunity but can also lead to deals (it does for us!). Visit the farmers market towards the end and ask for seconds of produce. (seconds = reduced price, bruised or less beautiful produce).
8. Choose your foundation:
This tip goes back to keeping it simple and buying in bulk. Choose a cheap foundation (like rice and beans, potatoes, or ½ of an animal if you eat a lot of meat). Keep this the same for most meals and vary the vegetables each week.
9. Supplement Wisely
You don’t need a lot of supplements. In fact, scrap them completely but do make sure you are eating fruits, pastured meats, and vegetables if you do get rid of supplements completely. But once you have a foundation of a healthy, simple diet, choose one or two supplements that are most important. This might be a B12 supplement or a fish oil supplement. You could also choose one superfood at a time, like flax-seeds or chlorella, and then cycle through the supplements instead of consuming them all at once. Which can require a big down payment.
Remember that it is the big picture that matters. When buying real food on a budget, you will not be able to eat all the foods you would like to all the time, so prioritize the ones that you can afford that offer the most nutrition.
When prioritizing foods, remember that the darker the food is, generally the most nutrients it has. When shopping at the store, I always spend the most money on high quality oils and meats, then I make sure to buy organic dark leafy greens, colorful cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli), and some fruit. Then the rest can be whatever.
There are several other tricks, like the dirty dozen, shop-hopping, etc. but these are the ten that I have found that have made the biggest impact on our wallets. It’s not about penny pinching, or buying cheaper options. It’s about shopping wisely and knowing how to get all of the nutrients that your body needs.