I have been asked to write about how we maintain a reasonable “real food budget” that doesn’t break the bank. Let me just start by saying: Keeping food costs down is not easy! It wasn’t easy several years ago when weren’t buying organic and healthy, but eating real food on a tight budget can be even more of a challenge. Food is just expensive, prices are increasing all the time, and wages aren’t even coming close to keeping up with the rate of inflation. It’s depressing to think about it, but it’s part of life, and we just have to find a way to deal with the reality as best as possible.
So, I have compiled a list of 10 strategies that help me stay more closely within a budget—things that help to keep costs down, at least somewhat. Hopefully these tips can help you as you are buying real food on a real budget also.
1. Don’t feel like you always have to buy the “best of the best” of everything.. We definitely cannot afford to do that on our small budget. Sometimes you have to operate on a “good-better-best” kind of mentality—“good” is not bad, right? And if you can afford the “better,” you’re even more ahead of the game. “Best” just isn’t always attainable. I have had to make some compromises here and there and just “settle” a bit on some of the things that we buy simply to make ends meet. For example, store-bought butter is definitely a “good” choice over the margarine alternative. Would organic butter be better? Sure. Would organic, grass-fed, raw-milk butter be the best? Absolutely, but that is not something in our budget, or something that’s even readily available where we live. So I buy butter at Aldi’s, where I have found it to be cheapest, and still feel like I am doing a good thing.
2. Know the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen.” Hopefully, if you’re working on eating more real, you are incorporating LOTS of fresh fruits and veggies into your diet. Even frozen ones are great, so don’t be afraid of them. Many of you have likely heard about the Dirty Dozen—these are the 12 most heavily sprayed and chemically treated produce items out there. The problem with these fruits and veggies is that you can’t just wash the pesticides and junk off of them, even with a really good produce wash, because the poison seeps into the flesh and becomes literally a part of it. So, the recommendation is that you always buy those produce items organic (and also other items that are made from those things—think applesauce and raisins). The Clean Fifteen, however, are fifteen fruits and veggies that either aren’t heavily sprayed, or they have such a thick skin/rind on them, that the chemicals don’t penetrate like they do the others. These you can buy from the regular produce section, without having to shell out the big bucks for organic. This is good information to know, so you can take advantage of the regular produce sales on the Clean Fifteen. Here are the lists:
3. Try to buy the really expensive stuff only when it’s on sale or where the regular price is good. This one is sometimes difficult to do, and there are times when I don’t follow this. It’s rare though, and usually only for some kind of special occasion. For example, I never buy organic, grass-fed beef unless I can get it on sale for a good price (I usually hold out for $4.99 a lb.). I watch the ads religiously, and I stock up when there is a good sale, so I don’t have to watch for awhile. I don’t buy organic grapes or blueberries or other very expensive organic produce unless I can get it on sale. This makes my son sad sometimes because he loves fruit almost like candy, but I just can’t justify paying $4 or $5 a lb. for some of that stuff when we can just eat something else that’s cheaper. I have found certain produce for pretty decent regular prices at particular stores so I won’t buy say, organic colored bell peppers or organic strawberries, unless I can get them at Trader Joe’s where I know they are the cheapest. Or I will wait until I make a trip to Aldi’s to get avocados, which are almost always cheaper there than anywhere else. We just don’t eat those things until I can get them for the best prices.
4. Shop around, but not too much 😉 I have done price comparisons, and I shop at several different places, to take advantage of the best deals that I have found at those stores. I have a price list that I’ve made that shows how much the things I buy cost at each store, and I will try to post that soon. I will also be sharing what stores I shop at and what I buy at those stores in the coming days, so watch for those posts. I don’t go to every one of those stores every week—some, only about once a month. Even still, some people may not think shopping around is cost-effective because you spend time and gas traveling around, and certainly you can cancel out your savings in that way, if you aren’t careful. I always have a plan with my shopping trips, and make errand-days and gas count as much as possible. For example, I have go to the bank every other week to deposit paychecks (we can’t do direct-deposit), so I will hit the stores that are near there on those days—I’m already going over there, so the gas is already spent. I have found that it definitely helps our budget to do this because of the substantial savings that I can get at those certain stores on certain products.
5. Get a Costco card. If you have Costco in your area, I would highly recommend getting a membership. They have a pretty wide variety of organic and real food options and their prices can’t be beat for most things. We actually don’t have a card just yet (getting one very soon!) but I have gone with a friend and was blown away by their deals. Shopping there will help to cut down on my trips to some of the other places where I have been shopping, and there is a Costco not far from my house, so win-win!! The membership fee is $50, but I think it will easily pay for itself, and they often have coupons that make their deals even better.
6. Buy bulk spices and seasonings. If you’re not buying spices in bulk, you really should look into it, as this little trick can save you TONS of money. You can get all kinds of regular and less common spices for pennies on the dollar, as compared to buying them on the spice aisle in little pre-made bottles. We’re talking drastically cheaper! Plus, if you need only a half teaspoon of something like Fenugreek or Saffron for a recipe, you can buy just what you need, rather than having a whole bottle of that stuff taking up space for the next eight years in your cabinet. I must confess that the neurotic clean freak in me had to get over the fact that there are lots of people dipping out of the same bulk bins for the spices. But the practicality of it and the prices helped me to get over my bad self 😉
7. Grow your own. Plant a garden, or even just have some patio containers for growing some things. We have had a pretty good garden in previous years, but this year it didn’t work out. Already planning for next year, though. I do have basil and oregano growing on my patio, and even if you just have an herb garden, you’ll save some money. I use my fresh herbs in spaghetti sauce, and for other dishes, and it is so wonderful (and so cheap!) to go out back and cut what I need, when I need it, instead of having to buy them at the store.
8. Don’t buy stuff that is super expensive. This seems like a silly one, but I really am serious. There are certain foods that I don’t want to compromise on because they are GMO, or really heavy on the pesticides, and I simply can’t afford the organic varieties. I mentioned this a little bit above, but there are things we really love to eat that we have decided to do without because of the high prices. We love corn on the cob (especially Nathan), but finding organic is near impossible, and when we do, it’s five prices! I don’t buy beef roasts or steaks or anything like that because I want to buy only organic, grass-fed, and they are just too expensive. There are quite a few of these kinds of things that we would really like to eat, but just pass on because of the price. It’s a matter of deciding what you can and need to sacrifice. Not fun, but necessary when you are on a tight budget.
9. Eat less meat and make your meat go farther. This is a bit of a no-brainer, and pretty self-explanatory. If you cut back on the amount of beef or chicken you eat each week, your budget will thank you. We eat beans pretty frequently around here, and they are a great alternative source for protein, as are things like quinoa and eggs. Anytime you add healthy fats to a meal, like avocado for instance, you will feel full faster and not miss the meat as much. As far as stretching your meat, try using half the amount called for in certain recipes like soups and spaghetti, or try leaving it out altogether, if that’s a possibility.
10. Don’t eat out. I have saved this very important tip for last, and it may be one of the single-most important ones on the entire list. Eating out is expensive, and if you do it a lot, your budget will really take a hit. We literally can’t afford to eat out, so this isn’t even an option for us. If you really want to eat healthy and stick to a real food diet, eating out is not a good idea anyway. And if you really want to save money on food, eating home-cooking for every meal is the very best way. It takes a lot more planning, especially when traveling, and even the day-in-day-out preparations for Rex’s lunches can be challenging. It is totally do-able though, infinitely more cost-effective, and real food is always better!
I hope that these strategies will help you as you set out to trim food costs for your family. I would love to hear any other tips or suggestions that you might have for eating real food on a real budget! Please comment below and share them with everyone! Thanks!