Eating well on a budget

I heard a story a while back on NPR about a group of people who were completing a challenge to try and eat for an entire week on just $25 (per person). The challenge was meant to make a point about how little the average American on food stamps has to spend on groceries. Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with the gist of the story: hunger is a real problem, even here in the U.S., and many of us don’t realize  that it’s going on in our own backyards. But, I did sort of take issue with the way the story came across… The participants in the challenge were interviewed after the fact, and most of them went on and on about how impossible it was to eat a healthy diet during that week. Many went on to tell how they had either given up on the challenge or been “forced” to eat awful, unhealthy junk during that time. But I’m here to say that it IS possible to eat healthy, well balanced diet on a budget, even a small one. (We do!) Instead of conceding that all Americans with a limited food budget are destined to eat horrible, unhealthy foods, we should be focusing on how to educate people so that they can make the most of whatever budget they may have and make the best food choices they can for their families.

Our family food budget is $220 a month or about $50 dollars a week, plus a “floating” $20 per month that I can use to stock up on bulk items or when I find a good deal. That is actually LESS than $25 dollars per person per week although, granted, Munchkin doesn’t require a whole lot just yet;) And I very, very rarely break the budget. Yet I would say our diets are very healthy. I mention this not to toot my own horn for being so frugal, but to point out that I DO know what I am talking about when it comes to budgeting! Here are my top 10 tips for eating well on a budget:

  1.  Go to the store with a plan! Write out a menu for the week (this can be as basic or as detailed as you want it to be), and write down the ingredients that you will need for those meals. Check to see what you already have. If a couple of the recipes use some of the same ingredients, all the better! Make a list of the things you still need to get and when you get to the store, STICK TO YOUR LIST!  No impulse buys in the ice cream isle:-) I have found that if I don’t go with a plan, I will almost always break the budget. This really works!
  2. If you’re shopping with a list, it will certainly help you with this next one: limit your grocery shopping to once a week. All those extra little trips to the store for something you forgot (and all the impulse buys that come along with it) add up fast.
  3. And I’m sure your mom already taught you this one, but don’t go to the store hungry! Those Pringles and Almond Joy bars will be far too tempting…  
  4. Now that we know a little bit about how to shop, lets talk about what to shop for. DRIED BEANS and OATMEAL! These are my two favorite healthy, filling and incredibly cheap staples. Some of my other favorite inexpensive yet healthy staples: peanut butter, lentils, canned tuna/salmon, brown rice, potatoes, eggs, and whole wheat pasta. Basing your meals around staples like these will help you stretch your budget.
  5. Make as much as you can from scratch. Yes, unhealthy processed foods (think white bread and ramen noodles) are cheap, but if you eat a lot of healthy prepared foods, the price will add up fast. For instance, you can buy a cheap loaf of white bread for less than $1 in most stores. A whole grain loaf of bread will cost you many times that amount. But a healthy, whole grain loaf that you make your self can cost just pennies. Processed cereals are another example. You can save a lot by eating simple ccoked cereals like oatmeal, or even making your own granola using rolled oats. And how about baby food? Or soup stocks? Or yogurt? All of these things can easily be made at home. No, I’m not asking you to spend all your time in the kitchen! There are lots of great recipes out there that don’t require a lot of time (look for some of my favorite recipes in my next post) Even incorporating just a few homemade foods can help you cut your grocery costs.
  6. Make friends with your crock pot! They are truly amazing when you are strapped for time.  Soups, stews, chillis, roasts, even a whole chicken can cook itself while you are busy with other things.
  7. Produce. A healthy diet wouldn’t be complete without fresh fruits and veggies, but they can be expensive.  The key here is to stick with what is in season and look for good deals. Try stopping by the farmers market at the end of the day when many vendors are ready to close up shop and are willing to bargain. You might even try your hand at growing your own! Frozen fruits and veggies can also a good bet (whether you buy them frozen or freeze them yourself), and are just as good for you as fresh. Even so, I would say that the majority of my grocery budget is spent on fruits and veggies. I guess it just comes down to a matter of priorities: if you are saving in other areas, it is absolutely feasible to feed your family fresh fruits and vegetables on a budget.
  8. Speaking of produce, I have to bring up the issue of organics. Are they better for us? Absolutely. But for many families on a budget, they can seem much too expensive. If you can’t afford them, don’t feel guilty about it. In my opinion, it is still far better to feed your family conventionally grown produce when you can than processed foods. If you are still concerned, consider this: avoiding (or buying organic)  only the 12 of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables can reduce your pesticide exposure by more than 80%. Here’s the EWG’s “dirty dozen” list of produce to avoid, and “clean fifteen” of fruits and veggies to enjoy.
  9. Meatless Monday. Consider going “meatless” one day or more each week. We do it at least 2 or three days a week. You will improve your diet (Americans eat far more meat than we need to!) and slash your grocery bill at the same time (leaving more money for fresh fruits and veggies!) Some of my favorite meatless dishes: Hambean’s (that’s the brand name, it’s just dried beans) 15 bean soup with lots of veggies and cornbread, curried lentils with vegetables, vegetable chilli, egg and veggie frittata, and of course, good ‘ole PB&J (with my own homemade unsweetened jam, of course:-)
  10. Last but not least, a little bit of common sense goes a long way. If your budget is limited, you must look for ways to get the highest possible nutritional bang for your buck. That means you simply can’t afford foods full of empty calories like soda pop, candy, and other junk foods. Cut them out! When your tempted to put that case of soda in your cart, stop and think, “how many ____(insert favorite fruit/veggie here) would that buy me?” Is it really worth it?

Yes, it IS possible to eat well on a budget. It may take a little creativity and planning, but it is something we all can do. Good luck! And please feel free to leave a comment sharing any budget-saving, time-saving , or healthy, frugal recipe ideas you may have. And remember to check back tomorrow for a few of my favorite recipes!

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4 thoughts on “Eating well on a budget

  1. Oh what an excellent post/series. These days this topic is even more important!

    You are so right to emphasize oatmeal and dried beans. Those are such healthy, delicious and versatile staples to have. We have a COOP out here and can get oatmeal and beans in 25 lb bags and it makes it even more easy as I don’t have to run out to the store to get more.

    I would also say that Aldi’s is a great way to save a lot of money on staples. They have a lot of healthy foods their like cheeses, extra virgin olive oil, baking supplies, produce and chocolate chips for great prices. I am always amazed at the quality of their food as well as of how much cheaper the bill is after I pay.

    Also I have found that making oat flour in a food processor is a great way to use oats and tastes great in cookies and quick breads. The fresh ground flour is better for us plus it is cheaper than other whole grain flours.

  2. Looking forward to seeing your favorite recipes. Food is so important to me, but the way that most people eat now (and think about food, for that matter) really makes me cringe. I love hearing about other people who make it a priority to make homemade meals from simple ingredients for their families to enjoy together.

    Now if only I could find someone with tips on how to train a picky adult raised on processed foods to enjoy eating real food…

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