A question I’ve gotten a lot lately is how to eat a real food diet on a tight budget. I can certainly sympathize, since this was one of my biggest struggles when we started eating this way.
Along the way, I’ve discovered a few resources and money saving tricks for stretching a budget while eating healthy foods, so I’ve compiled them in hopes that they can help you too!
Tip #1: Most Important Factor In Eating Healthy Without Breaking the Bank- Meal Planning!
This alone has made the biggest difference in reducing our food budget and staying on track eating healthy foods. Meal planning allows me to make some foods ahead and have them available for lunches or to re-purpose for dinners.
Since meal planning, I am also able to only go to the store once a week or less and can often prepare most of the food for the week in one day, which cuts down my overall food prep time.
The system I use for meal planning and rotating meals is simple to adapt to your own favorite foods and dishes. The meal plans above let us eat a different meal each night of the month and then repeat. I also have more seasonal plans for Summer and Fall.
To make your own healthy meal plan system:
- Write down 14-28 recipes that your family likes that are healthy. If your budget is tight, pick recipes that are also inexpensive to make.
- On the front of a 3×5 index card, write the meal and the recipe.
- On the back of the index card, write how much of each ingredient is needed for this recipe for your family size. (I usually plan for leftovers for lunches)
- To meal plan: once a week or once a month, pick out the number of meals you need and put them in order for the week. Turn them over, add up the total of the ingredients, and you have a shopping list (just cross off any ingredients you have already)!
- Stick the cards on the fridge or bulletin board and put them away in your recipe box as you use them.
This system can help you stick to a list, and helps ensure that you always have foods prepared or ready to prepare, which limits impulsive purchasing and eating! On nights we are busy or in a rush, stir frys are my go-to dinner. Just throw some leftover meat and a few bags of frozen veggies in a skillet or wok with some butter, and viola- dinner in minutes!
Tip # 2- Prepare in Bulk
I’ve found this especially helpful with regards to meat. When our budget is tightest, I prepare a large, inexpensive cut of meat and reuse it different ways throughout the week. I always keep an eye out for items like Turkey, Ham, Brisket, etc. to go on sale for these occasions.
A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I found whole turkey’s on sale for 39 cents a pound, which worked out to between $5 and $6 per turkey… I bought seven. Now, when we have company, (or even when we don’t) I just stick a turkey in the oven and have leftovers for the whole week.
To further stretch the budget, use the bones of any meat you eat to make a healthy bone broth or stock. Here are some simple recipes for turkey or chicken stock and highly nutritious beef broth/stock. Both can be stored in the freezer or even canned (make sure you follow instructions carefully when using any kind of meat product) to stretch them even further.
Some examples of how to repurose the meats:
- For turkey: leftover meat is rolled in lettuce leaves for lunches, made into turkey enchiladas for dinners, slowcooked in Crock Pot for soups, added to omelets, put in stir frys etc. Bones used for broth/stock.
- For Beef (Brisket, roast, etc.)- leftover meat is seasoned for fajitas, put in omelets, made into barbecue, thrown in soups, made into omelet quesidillas, etc. Bones used for broth/stock.
- For Ham- Roasted with cauliflower for “ham and potatoes” dish, used with bone for ham bone soup, put in omelets, wrapped up in lettuce or on salads for lunch, stir fry with cabbage for fast meal, etc.
You can also prepare large amounts of ground beef, chicken breasts or any other meat you have around and structure your meals for the week around this.
Tip #3- Find Inexpensive Vegetables
Veggies can vary tremendously in price, depending on the time of year and the source. Focusing on veggies that are in season will help cut costs some.
In the winter, we use a lot of frozen vegetables since they are cheaper, and in my opinion, fresher than the “fresh” produce that has been shipped halfway around the world.
Vegetables like cabbage and sweet potatoes are inexpensive year round and can be great fillers and substitutes in recipes. I stock up on things like these when they are in season, usually buying several cases of sweet potatoes in the fall from farmers markets.
Cabbage costs just pennies a pound from farmers when in season, and can be made into sauerkraut for later use.
Winter squash also stores well and we buy this in bulk too.
Farmers markets, CSAs, and local farmers are great resources for buying inexpensive veggies in bulk. (more on that below)
Tip #4- Order in Bulk
Though there is more of a cost upfront, ordering in bulk can usually save money in the long run. We order non-perishables like coconut flour, shredded coconut, olive oil, coconut oil, herbal teas, liquid castille soap, almond flour, etc. in bulk from a co-op.
We also order cheese in bulk 10-20 lb blocks from an organic farmer who offers raw cheese. Finding these resources in your area can be tricky, but once you find and establish a relationship with farmers, it can be a tremendous help to the budget.
Tip # 5- Find a CSA, Farmer’s Market or Local Farmer
Websites like Local Harvest and Eat Well Guide can help you find a farmer, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), or farmers market in your area. Websites like EatWild.com have resources for finding a local supplier of grassfed beef or other healthy animals.
Ask around too! We get most of our meats and vegetables from Amish farmers, but they don’t have listings online. Check with local health food stores- many will know places to find these items locally.
Tip # 6- Grow Your Own Food
Even if you live in a big city, it is often possible to grow at least some of your own food. We have a 25 x 40 foot garden for vegetables, and also have fruit trees, grape vines and blueberry bushes in the works this year.
We are able to grow enough vegetables for summer and preserving throughout the year for our family of 5 in this space. We offset a lot of our food bill last year by growing our own, and it was much easier than I expected.
I haven’t tried it myself, but a lot of people recommend Square Foot Gardening to maximize space in small yards. Consider checking out a book on this if you are tight on space.
Tip # 7- Get Some Chickens and Even a Cow!
I’ll be writing about this more in the future, but having chickens can be a great way to save on healthy food while on a budget, especially if you eat as many eggs as we do. We go through a dozen eggs a day right now, and since the truly free range eggs are close to $5 a dozen at times, having our own chickens is helping cut down the food bill a lot.
This wasn’t honestly something I ever expected to do, but we reused an old shed to make a chicken coop and now have 18 chickens producing 8-12 eggs a day in our backyard. Websites like Backyard Chickens offer a lot of information about raising chickens, even in a small backyard.
For most people, it isn’t feasible, but having a cow can also really cut down on the food bill in the long run. Right now, we get our beef from cow-sharing, where we purchase part of a live cow and pick up the meat once it is processed. If keeping a cow isn’t for you, look for a farmer that offers (grass-fed) beef in your area.
Tip # 8- Preserve When Possible
Another factor that can really help cut down a food bill is the ability to preserve foods for use when they aren’t in season. Last year, I tried my hand at canning, and we are still enjoying the outcome.
This year, the goal is to can all of our tomato products for the year to cut down on BPA expsoure from canned tomatoes. I also plan to can applesauce by buying several bushels when they are in season and making our own. Last year, we also canned condiments and pickles, and will do this again.
Freezing is another way to preserve foods, and our extra deep freeze in our shed has been a tremendous help for storing our 1/4 of beef and veggies from the garden.
Dehydrating is another option, though it takes a while and can be a slow process, at least with my dehydrator. If money is tight, look for dehydrators and canners at garage sales and thrift stores to save money over buying new.
Tip # 9- Don’t Buy Drinks!
If you are trying to eat healthy, hopefully you’ve already cut out things like soda, canned drinks, and processed juices from your food budget. If not, do it now! This alone is a big step in improving overall health.
If you have consumed much of these beverages in the past, go back and look at the percentage of your food bill that they take up. In general, buying beverages in any prepared form is an expensive and unhealthy option.
Even fruit juices cause a big insulin spike in the body, and are expensive without offering much nutrition. Pasteurized milk isn’t a healthy option either as it contains some levels or hormones, and the nutrients have been largely removed by the pasteurization process.
Cutting those items from the food budget will often free up a lot of cash for healthier options. If you aren’t a fan of only drinking water, ever… there are still some healthier and cheaper options for nutritious drinks.
- Water Kefir or Kombucha- These two beverages can be made at home for pennies and are great sources of nutrients and probiotics. Both are made with different types of reusable colonies of healthy bacteria and once you have these, they take only sugar and water to make again and again. I got my supplies from Cultures for Health, and have been very impressed. They also have some great videos explaining how to make both. Added Benefit: water kefir gets carbonated like soda, so it is a naturally satisfying sub for one of the most unhealthy drinks available!
- Herbal Teas- To help my kids get vitamins in, I make herbal teas and keep them in a large pitcher in the fridge. I order herbs like Red Raspberry Leaf, Alfalfa, Nettle and Stevia in bulk and make tea by the gallon. It works out to under a dollar a gallon, usually much less. I use about a cup of dried herbs per gallon of water, and steep overnight for the most available nutrients. The kids love it, and I love that they are getting vitamins. Bonus: the mixture above tastes similar to sweet tea, a vice of old!
- Homemade Coconut and Almond Milk- (coconut milk recipe coming soon!) I’ve found that making coconut and almond milk is much cheaper and healthier than buying them. It also lets me sneak in extra vitamins and good fats!
Tip # 10- Save Money in Other Areas
The biggest advantage to eating a healthy real food diet is saving money in other areas (like doctor bills!). We haven’t been to a doctor since we started eating this way all the time, and we all coasted through flu season no problem.
There are other areas of a budget where you can save money to help buffer the food bill also. Here are some of the way’s we’ve done it:
- We don’t eat out… ever. I admit, I love eating out. Not because the food is good (it usually isn’t) but because I don’t have to cook or clean for one whole meal. This is a big deal when you cook three hot meals a day and then have to do the dishes (and mop the floor as they case may be with a one year old!). That being said, eating out even once a month can use up a lot of the food budget at once. Saving the money from eating out lets me provide healthier options for me family at home, and none of us miss eating out much. [The one exception here is that my husband and I go out on a "real date" every couple months when family offers to babysit, though this is usually just for salads!]
- Make expensive baby items at home: I’ve saved money by making my own Natural Homemade Baby Wipes, baby food, and cloth diapers. All of these items are expensive in stores and healthier when made at home.
- Make Your Own Natural Cosmetics/Beauty Products- This is another area to save money and get healthier options. Try using someNatural Homemade Substitutes for Conventional Beauty Products or making your own deodorant and toothpaste.
- Make Your Own Cleaning Products- This one is so easy and saves a lot of money. If you aren’t doing this already, you should be, and you probably already have the stuff at home. Try these recipes to make the switch easier:
Make Your Own Natural Homemade Laundry Detergent
Natural Homemade Laundry Detergent
Natural All-Purpose Cleaner Recipe
Natural Oven Cleaning
Natural Homemade Glass Cleaner Recipe
Easy Homemade Scouring Powder Recipe
Floor and Tile Cleaner Recipe
- Cut Back on Supplements- Unless you are taking a very specific supplement for a condition, chances are you can back off of some supplements when you start eating healthier. You can also get vitamins, minerals and probiotics much more inexpensively my making herbal teas, bone broths, and kefir/kombucha. Your diet is naturally higher in these things too, so if you have to cut back on the supplements to eat a real food diet, consider doing this. Supplements are meant to “supplement” a good diet anyway, and you can’t out-supplement a bad diet. In general, it is better to have healthy food options than to pop pills.
- Exercise at Home or With Your Kids- Chances are you already have running shoes (or exercise barefoot… the trend is growing). If you are paying for a gym membership, consider using this money for real food instead. Do some sprints outside or learn how to do pushups at home. Make exercise fun without being a gym-rat by playing a game of soccer with the kids. Added bonus: you are keeping your kids active too!
- Do a Media Detox: If you’ve made the above changes and money is still tight, consider doing a media detox and cutting back on entertainment related expenses. We cut out cable a couple years ago, and we don’t even miss it. We can watch most things online, and even signing up for Netflix is cheaper than a cable bill in most cases. Face it- the news is usually depressing and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better. Consider getting rid of the cable, newspaper subscription, new radio, etc. to have money to put in healthier areas of your life. Our kids don’t get video-games either (oh, the horror!) and they don’t care… they have this great entertainment called the backyard!
How do you save money without compromising healthy foods?
Top Photo Credit: Suzanne Perazzini