Eat Local Food, Grown in Season
Not only does eating in season save you money, it ensures that you are getting the most nutrient dense food and it also decreases the environmental impact caused by food that has been shipped in from halfway across the world. There’s a reason melons are cheaper in summer and apple prices hit rock bottom in the fall…because there is greater supply at the peak of the season! You can also buy frozen produce, which is picked in season and often cheaper than fresh.
Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen
Each year the Environmental Working Group puts out a list of the most contaminated produce (Dirty Dozen) as well as the produce that has been found to have the least amount of pesticide residue (Clean Fifteen). If you aren’t able to buy all of your produce organic (we aren’t!), stick to the Dirty Dozen and don’t sweat buying the Clean Fifteen from the conventional growers. Check out the lists here.
Did you know that you can buy a whole (or part of an) animal directly from the farmer? It seems silly that I had never thought about that, but it seems to be getting rarer with the invention of supermarkets. The price can be considerably lower per pound and you get cuts of meat you may not be able to afford otherwise. Also you get the benefit of meeting your farmer and knowing exactly how your animal was raised.
I’ve never actually tried this, but I’ve heard you can negotiate with farmers (and even at some stores) for their “seconds”, or ugly vegetables. These are great for cooking since no one can tell what they look like before you throw them in the pot anyway!
Grow your own Garden
Even if you don’t have the time or resources to transform your whole backyard into a self-sustaining garden, there are lots of plants that grow well in pots–like tomatoes and herbs. Pick the vegetables you know you will eat, those you buy a lot of, and the ones you hate spending money on (for me its fresh basil–so expensive, but so easy to grow!). You can even throw a backyard chicken into the mix if you want some of the best quality eggs that can’t be found at the grocery store.
Get to know your local stores and what their “specialties” are. For some it may be their awesome organic produce, others may have rock-bottom prices in their bulk bins. and still others may have the best butcher around. You will save money if you are willing to visit more than one store.
sign up for coupons/loyalty programs
I used to watch those Extreme Couponing shows and every time I would think “I can do this!” and then I would go out and end up buying 5 gluten-filled boxed cakes that I couldn’t even eat because they were “such a great deal!” It’s true that there aren’t frequently coupons for “real food”…because real food doesn’t need to be marketed. But occasionally grocery stores will have sales on the basics, and it doesn’t hurt to sign up to receive the coupons via email–that way you can just delete them if you aren’t interested. Also, check to see if your store has a loyalty program. Our local health store recently started one, and not only do we get a certain percentage of our spending applied as store credit each quarter, but we also get a 20% off coupon each month, and when you know how to use it, that can go a long way! They also give out 10% off coupons at all of their store events and community booths, and I always pick one up, knowing that it will be put to good use!
Buy in bulk
Whenever you can buy something in bulk you will save money. Unless of course you don’t end up using all of the item, so you have to be smart about this. 10 lbs of avocados for one person? Probably not going to get used before they go bad. 16 lbs of ground beef that can be frozen in smaller portions and used at a later date? Scoop it up! Our health food store sells bulk meat packs for a slight discount. I go in once a month with our 20% off coupon and usually walk away with a screaming deal. This month I got 100% grass-fed ground beef for $2.37/lb. That is even cheaper than the tubes of conventional ground beef that I’ve seen at the grocery store! Things that are great to buy in bulk:
- staples (oils, nuts, flours, etc);
- root crops and produce that stores well (sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, etc.);
- produce that can be frozen or canned for longer storage;
Know your prices and Make wise choices
Knowing what is a good price for an item will help you to make informed decisions at the grocery store. It goes along with knowing what is in season. For instance, I know that I can get a mango for about 90 cents when they are in season. I also know that I can get frozen mango for about $1.10 year round, so I would never walk into a store and pay more than that. Another example is when it comes to snacks. A banana costs about 20 cents, an apple 50 cents, and a LaraBar is usually at least $1.00; choosing one LaraBar means you are sacrificing 5 days worth of bananas.
If you can’t afford grass-fed steaks, try a lesser-desired cut of meat like a roast. The cost will be less, but if you cook it correctly (low and slow!) it will be incredibly tasty. Prices are usually set by supply and demand. Ribs are expensive because there are only two racks in each animal, and a lot of people like to eat them. Offal (liver, heart, other bits that are usually considered “inedible” but are actually quite tasty and the most nutrient dense) is not in that high of demand, which means the price is lower.
Avoid food waste
- Meal planning
- By planning ahead you can make sure you’re only buying what you need for the week!
- Things come full circle when you use your food scraps to create nutrient rich soil for your home grown veggies!
- Using scraps in broth
- Save the ends of your carrots and celery to throw into your bone broth!
- Make sure nothing goes to waste by eating all of your leftovers!
Avoid convenience foods
Any time that you pay someone to process something for you, it’s going to be more expensive. You see it at the butcher counter–fillets are more expensive than whole fish; chicken breasts more expensive than whole chickens. But you also see it with other pre-packaged foods like veggies and fruits that have already been washed, peeled, and cut up, and individually sized portions of dips, nut butters, and snacks. If money is tight, cut out the convenience foods and do-it-yourself. When I was working I bought the more expensive, ready-to-eat carrots because I didn’t have the time to prep them myself. Now I have the time, and we are able to buy twice as many carrots for the same price we were paying before. Figure out if it’s worth it to spend a little more time preparing these foods.
Avoid eating out
I feel like it should go without saying that if you’re trying to save money, eating out should be the first thing to go, but many people don’t realize how much it costs them. Even if you were to go to a fast food restaurant (which we already decided doesn’t count as real food!) and get a meal for each person in your family of 4, you would pay close to $25. My beef skillet I would take less time to prepare, and use one pound of the $2.37 grass fed ground beef, combined with veggies that total less than $10.
Don’t make meat the main dish
Meat can be expensive. If you focus on having large hunks of meat at every meal, your grocery bill will quickly start to add up! If you incorporate meat in other ways, you still get the protein fill, but you almost trick your body (or your husband) into thinking there is more of it than there actually is. Try adding meat to pastas, salads, stir-frys, curries, or soups that are all bulked up with vegetables or other ingredients.
Evaluate your priorities
Sometimes you have to look at your budget and decide what is really important. For us, it meant that we did end up increasing our food budget so that we didn’t have to stress every month. The amount of money that Americans spend on food as a percentage of their income is shockingly low. It amazes me that people are willing to spend $200/month on cable TV, but they think organic foods are too expensive. Knowing where your money is actually going and making choices based on what will make you healthier can make all the difference!
What are your best methods for eating on a budget?
Important disclaimer: I have no medical training. Just lots of passion for real food! Please consult your own doctor and do your own research in support of my suggestions. It’s an important part of taking control of your health!