Real Food on a Real Budget
As a nutrition professional by day, I spend a lot of time promoting the health benefits of eating whole, unprocessed, natural foods. Some people refer to these as “real foods” in that they have been minimally processed and are essentially in their original state. One of the biggest misconceptions that I regularly encounter is that eating real foods is too expensive. Making any type of dietary change has its inherent challenges, but sticking to a reasonable budget doesn't have to be one.
You really can eat a wide variety of so-called real foods—even organic!—without breaking the bank. And even if certain items may cost a little more than their conventional or processed counterparts, keep in mind that while you may be getting a “deal” now, you may pay for it later with your health. Here’s how my husband and I stick to our grocery budget without compromising quality.
1. Buy seasonal produce
The best prices on produce are for seasonal items. When foods are purchased off-season, like tomatoes in January, they have to come from other parts of the globe. This means the cost in transport is translated to the customer via higher price tags. Learn what’s in season and shop accordingly for the best deal. Furthermore, seasonal produce usually tastes better and fresher because it hasn’t been genetically modified to grow in unnatural conditions or spend days en route to you.
2. Buy local
Similar to buying seasonal foods, shopping local—either your neighborhood farmers market or through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)—also boosts your budget. Some grocery stores even highlight locally grown products, which are often more economical for the same reasons. We rely on our weekly farmers market to purchase any seafood or eggs because we get a great price and it’s nice to get to know the farmers who grew or raised the goods.
3. Make a plan
Before the start of each week, take the time to write out a dinner menu—include lunches if it makes sense for your household. You can either do this from scratch or shop your pantry and fridge first (my recommendation). Once you know what you have on hand, plan your meals accordingly and only purchase the items that you absolutely need. In our house, we rotate between 10–12 favorite meals, which makes it easy to shop and prepare healthy entrees.
4. Go meatless a few times a week
If the idea of giving up the American diet mainstay—meat—seems difficult, try giving it up once a week at first. There are tons of vegetarian-friendly recipe resources and blogs online. If you can’t give up meat altogether at dinnertime, at least consider decreasing the portion. Fill half your plate with inexpensive, vegetable-based side dishes or grains and let them be the star of the show.
5. Buy in bulk
This one is obvious, but I encourage you to expand your ideas about what you should and could buy in bulk. Grains, rice, flour, nuts, and dried fruit can be found in most stores and if you belong to one of the big club stores, your bulk buying power increases tenfold. Skip canned beans, lentils, and legumes and opt for dried bulk versions. Just be sure you have enough space to store everything before stocking up.
6. Freeze your own foods
After you purchase a bunch of economically-friendly bulk foods, prepare large batches and freeze. This works especially well with beans, legumes, baked goods like muffins and pancakes, soups and stocks. Learn which items freeze well to prevent spoilage. We don’t eat burgers often but when we do we always freeze the extra buns right away. Have a bunch of overly ripe bananas? Freeze them for a healthy alternative to ice cream.
7. Stick to the dirty dozen list for organic produce
Certain fruits and vegetables (like tomatoes) are known to be more contaminated by harmful pesticides and chemicals compared to others. When it comes to these foods, buying organic is worth the extra cost. Otherwise opt for conventional.
8. Cut out the convenience foods and DIY
You’ve probably heard people talk about shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, right? Well it’s a great place to start because most of the center aisles contain little more than overpriced, convenience foods that you can easily prepare yourself at a fraction of the cost. If it comes in a box or package, skip it! I used to buy prepared maple almond butter that was close to $12 a jar. That’s pretty ridiculous when you consider that I now make my own for less than $4! The same goes for pasta sauce, and salad dressing.