There’s a lot of advice on how to keep your food budget low: buy in bulk, watch for sales, use coupons, etc. Most of it is fine advice, and I do use some of it; but, I also don’t use a lot of it. So, how do I keep our food budget low while eating really great, sustainable foods if it’s not intensive couponing and vigilant watch on sale papers? Here’s what I do, what I don’t do, and why.
What I Do:
1. We don’t eat meat like Americans. As a country, we eat far, far too much meat. So, instead Thadd and I elect to do vegetarian meals several nights a week, and rarely eat whole cuts of anything. We use meat in a dish, not as a dish. I take that savings and put it into buying local, sustainable meats; or, short of that (usually if I can’t get it for some reason), I’ll opt for organic. When you eat a lot less of it, it becomes reasonable to purchase.
2. We recognize the difference in food as sustenance, and food as indulgence.
Sustenance (albeit yummy sustenance), Kale & Grapefruit Quinoa salad with veggie frittata:
Indulgence, roasted orange-cranberry sauce with port:
This means that we eat a lot of meals that aren’t our “favorites,” but are just fine, filling, and fairly tasty. Too many people have come to believe that everything they eat must be their favorite food. Since our bodies are designed to like high-calorie foods the most (hey, years ago we needed all those calories!), this means expensive and crappy food is topping the American “wish list” right now. I am not saying we eat tasteless goo or anything, but we do often eat simple, inexpensive meals because they’re healthy and it’s in our budget.
3. We buy frozen veggies. Fresh vegetable are nice, but when we can’t get veggies locally (and we can’t necessarily put up everything to survive on all winter, though someday we hope to do so), we often buy frozen. They’re typically cheaper–organic frozen is often less expensive than non-organic fresh–and they’re usually healthier. Frozen fruits and vegetables are typically picked when ripe and flash frozen, so they have more nutrients than their fresh, green-picked counterparts. Since frozen rarely cooks up like fresh, these often get used as part of entrees, instead of just as sides. If I am making miso chicken, I’ll toss in a bunch of frozen spinach at the end, for example.
4. We eat soups and casseroles a few times a week.
If it’s soup, there’s usually some form of bread on the side, but not always. I’ve had people say “oh, but my husband/wife/children won’t eat those! It’s meat and potatoes every night–so how can *I* save money?” Um..you can’t. Not if you still want to eat healthy. Look, here’s the truth, which I’ve said before hundreds of times here: people are spoiled and they need to get over it. A few mealtimes roll around and what’s on the table is a soup or casserole or go hungry, and the household will get the idea. Refusing to eat healthy, well-prepared, and flavorful foods just because they’d rather be eating something else is childish. I’d rather be a millionaire, but I can’t stop working just because I’d rather not. If it’s a spouse, well, I’m not going there–that’ll have to be figured out between the couple. If it’s the kids, then it’s time to pony up to the Parent Table and put your foot down.
5. Legumes are a main ingredient several times a week.
Beans, split peas, lentils…all great sources of lean protein that you can prepare a hundred different ways. And, even the organics are fairly inexpensive.
6. No processed or convenience foods. Processed foods are expensive (even if they look cheap, just look at their cost-per-pound–it’s always higher than whole foods), and lack nutrients.
7. Meal planning. I harp on this here, I know, but it really is probably the #1 thing we do to keep our budget low. Eating spur-of-the-moment, as most people do, is a recipe for disaster. Good, fast, cheap: pick two (saying courtesy of Thadd, who I believe got it from the military folks he worked with). If you want good, healthy food fast, you’re going to pay through the nose for convenience food. If you want cheap food fast, you’re going to pay the price by eating empty calories. So, the other option is good and cheap, which means it’s not fast. Planning for this is the only way to make it work.
8. Shop at my local Amish & Mennonite stores. They have the best prices and quality of grains, spices, cheese, and a lot of the produce we use fresh. Spices are often 1/2 to 1/3 what they are at Kroger or FoodLion, and they have just as large a selection of organic spices. Same thing with grains. Plus, they’re local, and that puts dollars back into our community (and, they’re great people, who are happy to do special orders, etc.).
9. Shop with a list (which was made using our meal plan). Stick to that list.
10. We keep a pantry stocked with basics. This lets us throw something together on the night that nothing went right, and to purchase items either in bulk or when we caught them on sale at the store.
11. Eat leftovers.
We do this a lot. In fact, we do this almost every day, and it’s actually part of our meal plan. We make sure to cook enough several days a week for us to eat lunch from, so no buying lunch out.
12. Make your own beverages. If you just have to have that specialty coffee or tea, make it at home. Shop craigslist or FreeCycle if it requires special equipment.
13. Keep snacks readily available.
We keep nuts, yogurt, some veggies & hummus, and the like on hand to munch on. This keeps us from doing something dumb, like ordering pizza, if we get home late and need to wait for dinner.
14. I use my slow cooker several times a week.
There are few things in life more useful for saving us time and money than our slow cookers. I have a few cookbooks (though I want more), am a regular visiter at A Year of Slow Cooking, and often just throw stuff for soup in and call it good. I love coming home to a good-smelling house and a yummy dinner.
15. Choose foods that will keep us fuller, longer.
Whole grains and protein are they key. In the morning, we usually eat fermented oats or steel-cut oats from the slow cooker. Sometimes, we do eggs and homemade toast. We don’t do pop-tarts, freezer waffles, or the like. Not only are those foods far more expensive than our options, but both of us would be hungry within an hour.
16. Store foods when they’re in-season.
Drying, freezing, canning. ‘Nuf said.
What I Don’t Do:
1. Use coupons. About 95% of the foods we eat never have coupons. The other 5% have them so rarely that buying a paper to get them isn’t worth it. If I happen to get a store coupon for something like $1/off fresh produce, I’ll obviously use it; but, generally the things that have coupons in my area are unhealthy and expensive.
2. Shop a bazillion stores to save 5 cents. Stores here are fairly far apart, so unless I happen to be going somewhere else in that direction, driving to more than 1 store rarely pays for itself in actual money saved, not to mention I don’t have hours upon hours to drive. Since we get all our meat, eggs, and milk from farms, there’s rarely enough price difference to warrant driving around. I do shop at a local health food store (which is also where I pick up our milk share and chickens), and the Mennonite market, in addition to Kroger. The health food store I shop at not only because I am already there, but because in this very culture-deprived town, it’s the only place I can get a lot of the ingredients I use (red lentils, etc.). The Mennonite store is a stock-up for me, when I need grains, spices, and cheese (which we freeze).
3. Buy things because “they’re on sale,” and I “might need them later.” If it’s not on my list or on the “stock up” list (we keep one of these, and have a certain amount each week we spend to do this), I don’t buy it.
4. Keep a garden. I’d love to do this, and I think anyone who can, should. We did do some herbs and greens this year, but we just don’t have a reasonable place to put indoor pots (by which I mean, a place we can keep them that my cats won’t eat them). Since we live in a rental that has really poor soil and very limited sun, and we don’t want to invest a pile of cash in doing what it would take to set up a box garden since we’ll likely only be where we are a short-ish period of time, we do without the savings. The time it would take us to recoup our outlay means we probably wouldn’t, so for us, it’s not a great option.
What do you do to eat healthy on a budget?
- 10 Winter Dinners from the Slow Cooker Recipe Roundup (thekitchn.com)
- Chef Eric Akis gives slow cooker recipes a contemporary tweak (canada.com)
- Karen Kelly: Changing the Food Landscape, One Person at a Time: Part One (huffingtonpost.com)
- In Praise of Frozen Vegetables (theatlantic.com)