I get it. Eating healthy can be hard. Being on a budget can be hard. Sometimes the two together can feel impossible, especially if you have an entire (ravenous, implacable) family to feed. But it’s not impossible. By making small changes over time, you’d be amazed at how much healthy, nourishing food you can feed your family on a small budget. Here are just a few of the ways I make it work.
1. Double up
If you’re making something for dinner that’s freezer-friendly (and really, most things are), either make a double batch, or if you have a smaller family, freeze half of the normal batch. This helps in two ways. First, leftovers will never go to waste, shoved into that dark corner of your fridge. Throwing away food is like throwing away money. Second, it can really help with those nights where you have nothing prepared for dinner and you’d be otherwise tempted to order take-out. Being able to pull something from your freezer is not only a way healthier option, but it’ll also save you big bucks over ordering in or going out. I always have at least 4 or 5 entire meals in my freezer to warm up as I need them. As a bonus, this will save you time, because you’ll get two meals in the time it took you to make one. Good places to start are soups and stews; they almost always freeze well. Casseroles also do really well frozen, as do quiches, meatballs, and anything cheesy and baked.
2. Make it from scratch
I know, I know, it’s more work. But making things from scratch will save you so much money that it could be the difference between being able to eat organic foods versus not being able to. It is for us. I’ll give you my favorite example: chicken stock. When I make chicken, I throw the leftover chicken carcass and any stray bones into a freezer bag, along with the neck and gizzards that usually come tucked into the chicken. I also have a bag in my freezer for vegetable scraps- onion skins and ends, carrot peelings, parsley stems, celery leaves, etc. Once these bags are full, I put them all in a huge pot, fill it with water, add a bay leaf and a few peppercorns, and let it spend the day simmering on the stove. When my stock is done, I pour it into leftover yogurt containers (or whatever’s handy) and put it in the freezer. I usually get about 6-8 quarts of stock from a single batch. Last time I checked at the store, regular old chicken stock was going for about $2.50/qt on a good day (It’s at least $4/qt for organic). But when I make it myself, using ingredients that would otherwise go into the trash or compost heap, I not only get something for nothing, but I get stock made with organic chicken and vegetables.
That’s just one example, but this follows with lots of other things as well. Marinara sauce. Bread. Basically anything pre-packaged has a crazy mark-up and has lots of added ingredients that are just not good for you. For the price of buying a conventional convenience item (such as meatballs or frozen pizzas), you can make make two or three times the amount of healthy, organic version. And again, make large batches of these things and then store the leftovers in the freezer, so they’re just as convenient as the store-bought stuff.
I get that sometimes convenience is key. That’s why I really recommend starting off slow. I did. I gradually replaced pre-made foods with homemade. I learned as I went what was worth it and what wasn’t. You will, too.
3. Eat Meat Mindfully
My family loves meat. We eat it several times a week. But it’s expensive. To defray the cost, once a year we order a half cow and half pig for our freezer and split part of it with family. Yes, it’s a big expense that we have to plan for and set aside money in our monthly budget for the year leading up to the delivery. However, in the long run, it saves us a ton of money. First of all, we end up with high-quality, humanely-raised beef and pork, for a fraction of the price that we would pay for conventional meat in the store. And we have the added benefit of having a relationship with the farmers who supply the meat and can feel good about supporting a family farm. Having done this, we’ll never go back to eating meat any other way.
Because our meat is high-quality, I find that we need to eat less of it to be satisfied. And just because I have a hundred pounds of meat in the freezer to start off with, doesn’t mean we are eating meat with every meal. It’s a big cost output once a year and I want to make sure it lasts the entire year. So I use meat sparingly and waste nothing. If I cook a ham for dinner one night, I’ll slice some up for sandwiches, use some for a casserole or quiche for another dinner, and then use the hambone to make split pea soup for another dinner (which will probably have enough leftovers to put in the freezer for yet another dinner). So sometimes one cut of meat becomes 5 or 6 dinners around here. Paired with the savings we see from buying in bulk, it makes eating high-quality grass-fed meat totally do-able for us, even with a tight budget.
4. Buy in bulk- efficiently
So I talked about buying meat in bulk, but there are lots of things you can buy in bulk which might help balance the budget. The key here is to only buy things in large amounts when it makes sense for you. Nothing that will go to waste, specifically those prepared foods that are so tempting. I make a rule for myself to try to only buy “ingredients” in bulk at our warehouse club. For example, organic eggs are a good price at my local Costco, and I know that I will easily go through a few dozen before they could ever spoil. Not true of the 3 pound tub of pre-made hummus. Stay away from those 10 pound bags of frozen chicken tenders, guys. Go for the basics that you know you will use when cooking from scratch and be careful not to get sucked in by delicious samples. I will also say that sometimes it just doesn’t make sense financially to buy in bulk. I searched for a long time for a source for bulk flour. I knew I could use a 25 lb bag within a few months. But no matter where I looked, the best price I could find was when I ordered regular 5 lb bags from Target online. I just go ahead and buy 10 bags at a time when they’re on special sale. So, know your prices and only buy what you need.
5. Be mindful when it comes to CSAs
Don’t get me wrong. I love CSAs. I think Community-Supported Agriculture programs are fantastic and I love that there is a way for consumers to get incredibly fresh, organic food while supporting local farmers. But if you’re on a tight budget and you’re not completely comfortable cooking a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, you might want to think twice. I have done CSA programs a few times and loved them, but I wound up spending a TON of time trying to figure out how to use up everything without letting anything go to waste. In the end, I think it would have been better for us financially to spend the money each week on picking out what we needed from those same farmers at the local farmers’ markets. If you have a huge family who loves veggies and you are up for the challenge of trying new things (it really is fun!), go for it. Otherwise, maybe just spend some time trolling around farmers markets and getting a couple things a week to experiment with.
6. Don’t. Buy. Snacks.
I know this one will bring me some flak. A few years ago, I would have totally eye-rolled this one. But here’s the thing. If you want to be able to afford healthy, organic foods on a tight budget, that budget it gonna be TIGHT. And snack foods just have very little justification in anyone’s budget. nutritionally speaking. Listen, I’m not saying you can’t snack. I’m just saying don’t buy snack foods. There’s a difference. Fruits and vegetables make great snacks. You can make a batch of hummus very cheaply, cut up a few peppers and cucumbers, and have afternoon snacks for a week. No need for a giant $7 bag of pita chips. You can make a huge batch of granola bars (buy oats in bulk! ;)) for a tiny fraction of what you can buy them for. Those little individual packages of animal crackers are sure convenient for throwing in lunch boxes, but pouring some almonds or dried cranberries in a small re-usable container is a lot healthier and costs so much less. A big batch of muffins, stored in the freezer, can give you a morning boost for weeks.
You might be saying, I could make those things, but I probably won’t. That happens to me a lot. And then, you know what? I don’t snack. When there aren’t easy, grab-and-go snacks available, I do a whole lot less mindless eating. If I’m hungry, there is always food to eat. I just have to go through the trouble of preparing it. If I’m not hungry enough to go through the trouble, I don’t eat. And really, that’s been a game-changer for me. When I stopped buying lots of snack foods, that’s when I really started feeling healthier. It’s also when I realized it’s do-able to eat well on a budget. It’s the same for the kids- if they’re not hungry enough to have a slice of cheddar cheese or a banana, they don’t need to be snacking. They only thing I break this rule for sometimes is cheesesticks. They’re a relatively good value and my kids are obsessed. So you have to know your audience, I guess. If you’re skeptical, next time you’re at the grocery store, put aside all the snack-type foods in your cart and add them up. I bet you’d be surprised by how much you could save by simply putting them back.
7. Go for quality over quantity.
I touched on this a little with the meat thing, but I think it bears repeating. I love the example of cheese. Good cheese can seem like a total luxury item. BUT, a little bit goes a long way. I don’t know about you, but if I buy one of those blocks of cheap cheddar, I can munch my way through an entire block in no time flat. When I buy a high-quality aged cheddar, I can contentedly nibble just a few small pieces, enjoying the flavor and texture, as opposed to just mindlessly shoving rubbery, mild cheese into my mouth. Or even just a tiny bit of flavorful blue cheese on a salad- way more delicious than cheap-o pre-shredded cheese, and in the end, probably cheaper because you use so little. The cheese principal can be applied to lots of things- a good olive oil, high-quality spices, a type of fruit you really like. Figure out what you love to eat, specifically, and spend a bit more on it. Chance are, you’ll need to eat less of it, nothing will go to waste, and most importantly, you won’t feel like you aren’t enjoying eating anymore because you’re always scrimping to stay on budget.
So that’s what I’ve got on how to eat well on a tight budget. I’d love to hear how others make it work, and what areas you struggle with!
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