Eating Clean on a Budget

“Healthy food is too expensive.”
“I can’t afford to eat well.”
“I’m too poor to shop at Whole Foods.”

These are common excuses for eating poorly, and they’re not entirely unfounded. Fresh produce and sustainably sourced meats and fish can be expensive. I certainly don’t do all my shopping at Whole Foods, either, because many items are overpriced. At the root of these excuses, though, is a lack of strategy to address the financial concerns.
I will say that we, as Americans, may need to reevaluate the proportion of our salaries we concede to spend on groceries. If you compare it to that of other countries, it’s low. It’s like we want good health for the same cost of a poor, cheap diet. You often get what you pay for- but eating healthy doesn’t have to break the bank.

Here are some tips on how to maximize nutritional density of foods for minimal costs:

  • Buy in bulk– get a big box store membership.
    • Costco has grass-fed ground beef, organic produce, frozen meats and fish, and healthy snack alternatives for less money per item than you’d pay in regular grocery stores.
      • Organic pitted dates and large bottles of avocado oil are some staples I find there.
    • Costco memberships start at $60 per year with coupons, promotions and special offers available. The savings you get there make the fee worth it!
  • Wait for sales– My local grocery store in PA puts grass-fed beef on sale for $5 per pound every once in a while. When they do, I stock up.
  • Frozen vegetables– vegetables are usually picked at peak ripeness and then blanched and frozen. Nutritional value is higher than most canned foods, and frozen food is easier to have on-hand for a back-up weeknight meal than fresh produce.
  • Canned fish- wild caught tuna, salmon and sardines are great affordable options. Look for BPA-free cans and steer clear of fish packed in unhealthy oils. Olive oil is fine.
  • Farmer’s markets– produce tends to be cheaper at farmer’s markets. Sometimes they have meat and eggs, too!
  • Join a CSA– this stands for community supported agriculture. Each participating farm has its own method of sales, but with mine I paid a flat rate and was able to pick up a big grocery bag of produce every week for six whole months (May-October). Many farms price it out by the week, and often times you don’t have to commit to coming every week. Some farms even deliver!
  • Imperfect Produce– They advertise that they ship you a box of produce for $11 per week. You can choose from organic or conventional mixed fruit and veggies, or just fruit or just veggies. It’s cheaper because it might not look picturesque like produce in stores.
  • Eat seasonally– local produce tends to be cheaper, even in the grocery store, since it doesn’t have to be shipped cross-country or overseas. Try to build meals around what is in season locally.
  • Incorporate eggs into your meals– quick, easy protein for low cost per person, even if you buy free-range or pastured. Who doesn’t like breakfast for dinner?
  • Soups– this is a great way to use up veggies that are about to go bad. It can be an entree or a complement to the main meal and there are almost always leftovers for lunches.
  • Use cheaper cuts of meat– chicken drumsticks, ground beef.
  • Use the whole animal– even if you aren’t doing a cow-share or don’t otherwise have a “whole animal,” you can try to limit waste.
    • Buy one whole chicken and eat for days- Roast it and have chicken with vegetables one night. The next day, make broth from the bones in a slow cooker or on the stove. Make soup with the broth, leftover meat and inexpensive veggies like carrots, onions and celery. You can add rice to stretch it and make it more filling.
    • Do this with a turkey and the whole family will eat all week!
  • Cook at home most nights and pack lunches- This seems obvious but warrants a bullet point. Eating out at restaurants, getting take out and even eating fast food isn’t cheap. Home cooking is almost always healthier, too. For me, the main downside of eating out nutritionally is the use of poor quality oils that pretty much everything is fried in. Canola, soybean and other partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are damaging to our health. You may think the Dollar Menu burger is cheaper, but in the long run disease is expensive. I love going out to eat occasionally, but we think of it as a treat and we try to choose restaurants that are worth it.
  • Meal plan to avoid food waste and unnecessary spending– If you plan out the exact meals you will have, then you are more likely to stick to your list than when you are thinking in hypotheticals while shopping.
    • Keep a white board or chalk board in your kitchen for “This week’s meals.” If anything changes, you can write them in or move meals around.
  • Stick to your list– if it isn’t on the list, it isn’t going in the cart (within reason). If you have your meals planned out, there will be no room for extras that could go to waste.
  • Choose stores strategically– If you know a certain store has higher prices, avoid it except for items you can only get there.
    • My local Giant store has a great organic section now, and carries more of the healthy brands I like. This saves me trips to multiple stores!
    • Home Goods has a foods section and they can have great deals as well. This is where I get my Himalayan Pink Salt and organic dried fruit!
  • Do fridge and pantry inventory weekly– If you do this often enough, you’ll still have time to use most things that didn’t get eaten from the previous week. Do this before weekly meal planning and then plan accordingly. This way, things are less likely to get lost in the back of the shelves.
  • Start small- Change is hard and often unwelcome. You don’t have to try all these things at once! Pick the ones that seem easiest to you and start there. Once you see that it doesn’t have to be more expensive to eat well, you’ll want to add even more strategies in.

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