how we eat real and healthy on a budget.

How We Eat Real and Healthy on a BudgetI 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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17 thoughts on “how we eat real and healthy on a budget.

  1. Your #4 is very true. My family joined the warehouse clubs to try and save money, but for things like flour and sugar, sales at grocery stores are cheaper. The only thing I consistently save money on at these places is dairy and meat. I am always careful to have my price point in my head – at what price is this item a good deal? Also, buying in bulk often means just eating way too much of that item too quickly and running out. (For us, granola bars and fruit snacks.) Good tips!

    1. Yes, exactly! I think many people assume that things are a better price at warehouse clubs and they’re just not. I do find, though, that a lot of times, items might not be THE cheapest (like organic frozen vegetables for instance), but the quality is so good that it’s worth getting them for what might be a comparable price to conventional veggies at the grocery store. Those warehouse clubs are tricky… and not only because I ALWAYS get sucked into buying at least ONE thing I don’t need in the least (yoga pants, kids’ pajamas, etc…) 😉

  2. SO, so good! I just did a whole30 (super hard for me) and cutting out snacks because of the time it takes to prepare food was something I really took away from the month. Just reading all the stuff they put into pre-packaged snacks too is crazy! Now I’m like, I can make granola bars or hummus or other things, like you said, and I know all that’s going into them! Makes me feel a ton better about what I’m giving them… although convenience is hard to push aside some days haha!

    1. Yes, I’ve heard so many people say that’s one of the benefits of doing a Whole30- you’re so much more mindful about snacks because you actually have to put work into preparing them! And oh boy, YES, some days, convenience is king, and you have to go with it a bit, otherwise you’ll go nuts. But I think that’s where having stuff like fresh fruit (apples, oranges, etc), nuts, and sometimes even stuff like cheese sticks can be really important. It’s just as convenient, but it’s not processed junk. I wish it was easier to find convenient alternatives to snack-type foods that are healthy and don’t cost a fortune, but in the mean time, there’s a lot of carrot sticks and apples happening over here. 😉

  3. These are awesome tips! I’ve been doing the freezer thing a lot lately, since I’ll be giving birth in about a month and a half. It’s just my husband and I (and unborn baby) for now, but I’ve never been able to figure out how to cook for 2 people (I’m one of 6 kids), so instead of eating leftovers for an entire week, I’ve started putting all leftovers in the freezer after one or two meals, to slowly build up a supply. Eventually, I would love to buy a big pot to make it easier to make chicken stock, since our pot is pretty small. Though we really don’t eat meat that often, so it’s not something that I’d do a lot. I think the “don’t buy snacks” thing is good advice-I’ve never thought of that, but it makes a lot of sense! Do you have a favorite granola bar recipe? I recently got into making granola bars, but the recipe I found didn’t work out as well the second time I made it, and the bars were mushy, watery, and fell apart. So…I’m on the hunt for a good recipe, and I’d love it if you have a good one!

    Some things that currently work well for us when eating on a budget are meal planning (so we only buy what we need), cooking from scratch (healthy and saves so much money), and regularly incorporating rice & beans in our diet. We also really don’t buy beverages; the only time we buy juice is every couple of weeks we’ll purchase OJ to use in smoothies, but that’s pretty much it-we’re big water drinkers (with the occasional coffee and tea thrown in the mix) 🙂

    1. Oh, yes girl! Those freezer meals were total God-sends after I had my babies! Not only because they were easy, but my body wanted real, healthy food after all that work, and take-out just wasn’t going to cut it. So, so smart!

      I have two granola bar recipes that we all love and I’ve made many times. They’re relatively easy, and store really nicely in containers or the fridge.

      Love some of your ideas for saving on groceries- I totally forgot about beverages but that’s a HUGE one. My hubs is a huge OJ lover, and the kids were getting in the habit, too. But then I realized I was easily spending $40/month on just juice and I said, “Sorry, babe, no more juice.” Same with soda and other stuff, too- if something’s gotta go, it’s a good place to cut expenses (and a ton of calories, too!) LOL, of course I would NEVER give up my coffee, so there may be a bit of a double standard there. We all have our limits. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

  4. This has a lot of good ideas! Thanks for sharing. I am looking to revamp what my husband and I buy and eat.

    1. Thanks, Trista! Just start slow! This is the point I’ve gotten to after almost 5 years of really honing in on what’s worth it to us and what makes sense for us- it takes some time, but in the end it’s worth it, because you’ll feel better and have more moolah to spend on the fun stuff, whatever that is for you. 🙂 Best of luck to you!

  5. We’ve done Bountiful Baskets ( a few times. It’s sort of like a CSA in that you pay a fee and get whatever fruits/vegetables are available, but it comes off a truck. It’s opened us up to trying new things that our small town grocery store never has– mangoes, bok choy, radishes (they were exotic to us!) They do have an all organic option.

    The best tip I got was not to stress about being able to eat only organic food. It’s better for a kid to eat a regular apple than a poptart. If that’s all you can afford, you can be diligent about washing regular produce and still know you’re way above twinkies.

    We have a local farmer connection for meat and eggs as well! What a blessing!

    1. I’ve heard others recommend Bountiful Baskets before, too! Such a great option, especially if the stores around you don’t have a super exciting selection. And YES about just making the best choices you can with what you’ve got! Like you said, an apple is always gonna trump a twinkie! (I mean, not that didn’t eat many a twinkie as a kid and live to tell the tale, but…) 😉

  6. Such good advice!!

    You buy a half cow and pig?! Jealous! I wish I had enough people in my household to do that. It’d be so nice to be more mindful about my meat consumption.

    I know a lot of people don’t consider this as much of a challenge, but it can be really hard to grocery shop in a one-person household, too. You are cooking meals usually meant to serve 3-4 for just one person. Your feezer can fill up pretty quickly unless you want to eat the same thing for lunch or dinner all week (often I do).

    And when you are the only one eating the groceries, it’s frustrating seeing how much produce goes to waste. I can’t eat fruits and veggies fast enough! I find myself making curries and soups every week just to get through the vegetables most efficiently (which can be boring after a while).

    So something that has been a great change for me is avoiding grocery stores altogether and opting for local markets and farm stands instead (at least for meat, produce, and spices). I have a great market near me, and by shopping there I’m no longer limited to buying in pre-packaged amount/weight. Instead of buying a bag of 15 carrots that will just go soggy before I can use them all, I can just pick out the 4 I need for the recipes I’m making that week. Instead of buying a massive bunch of bananas that will just rot in a few days, I can just buy the three ripe ones I want for breakfasts that week. It has also forced me to buy (like you advised) ingredients and not snacks and has made me more mindful of what I’m eating. And having fresh ingredients in your house makes me want to cook and experiment with recipes for the fun of it. Not just because I have to get through a massive box of mushrooms and a huge bag of tomatoes before they go off.

    1. Oh my gosh, I totally agree- I think in a lot of ways just cooking for one or two people is really harder than cooking for a large family. It took me a long time to figure out how to cook for just myself and then just Kevin and I… and I don’t think I ever really got good at it. Super smart to shop places where you can buy just what you need.

      Although I do have to inquire… have you seen my best friend? The one who only ate bagels and beer? Because she left for Australia and now you’re clearly hi-jacking her account and talking about going to farmers’ markets and making curry. LOL. I think I fixed my Whatsapp… check if my text went through! Love you, girl!

      1. HAHA! I AM STILL HERE! I ate a bagel today, but I am having an alcohol-free May (I know, shock and awe….I miss beer so much). But this is only until the 21st, when I begin my Tasmanian wine tour. Just giving the liver some time off before then 🙂

        Until then, curry and veggies.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I’ve been thinking about writing a similar post for quite some time now, and now I really feel encouraged! Maybe I should share some money saving tips on my blog. What do you think?

    1. I would love to see more frugal healthy eating posts from real families! I saw a meme the other day that said something to the effect of, “If your first tip for saving money is to stop getting a $5 coffee every day, you already think I have more money than I do.”

      1. Ha! So true! Whenever I see that advice, I’m like, “I don’t think you understand my problems.” LOL!

      2. Yes, do it! I learn so much from reading and hearing about what other people do and how they try to save money. So often stuff comes up that hadn’t even occurred to me. And even if I already do some of the things, it’s still nice to read about others’ experiences and know that other people have the same struggles and successes. I’d love to read what you write!

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