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Rules for Eating Healthy On a Budget

Thursday, August 13, 2015


There have been countless articles written about this (in fact if, you Google it you get about 47 million entries), but they always seem to miss the mark. You read advice that either has you eating lots of beans and rice and other boring staples, or you see people advertising impossibilities. “How to feed your family of 4 for just $50 a week!” If you are getting food, legitimate food, that feeds 4 people for $50/week, there is no way you are buying healthy ingredients.

First there needs to be a baseline of what “eating healthy” means. For the purpose of this article, it goes something like this: Eating a whole foods based diet made up of mainly organic, hormone-free food. That’s pretty simple. Eat food that grows from the ground or comes from an animal and food that is minimally processed.

Most of the articles you find about this topic fail the person who believes that eating healthy includes eating free-range, hormone-free, organic meat, and high quality seafood. These things are pricey. You cannot often find this kind of meat for $1.99/lb. So how do you stay within budget? Read on...

Eat seasonally

This is really one of the keys to budgeting. If you eat seasonally you will most likely also end up eating local food, which is another way to keep the cost down. Eating vine ripened tomatoes in January is going to cost you a lot more than it will in August. This rule also encourages you to take advantage of any outdoor space you have to grow some of your own food. It’s the cheapest way to eat, and it is satisfying in a way that buying groceries never will be.

Buy a chest freezer

There is an initial investment here, but you can get a brand new 5 cubic foot chest freezer for as little as $150 and can find all kinds of them for sale on Craigslist. The newer ones are also very energy efficient, so you won’t spend much on increased energy throughout the year. This investment will pay off quickly because it allows you to buy your priciest staples in bulk when they are on sale. Does your family love hamburgers? If you have a chest freezer and ground beef is on sale for $2.50/pound off of its regular price, buy 10 lbs of it and freeze it. If frozen organic veggies are on sale 10/$10 (which is not an uncommon occurrence), buy 10 bags and stick them in the freezer. If you got a glut of tomatoes from your garden, freeze them! Too much zucchini this year? Puree it, put it in ice cube trays until it freezes then pop your zucchini cubes into the freezer to use in sauces, breads and smoothies throughout the year. The options for your deep freezer are endless, and it will pay the big dividends.

Think outside the box

Go ahead, buy the organic Annie’s Mac and Cheese when they are on sale 10/$10! Yes, it’s processed. No, it’s not the best choice. If you want to eat healthy on a budget, having some of this type of stuff in your pantry is a must. Imagine the night that you had planned to make a delicious stew that takes an hour to cook. You get home from work way later than you thought you would, the kids need to get ready for bed in 45 minutes, and there are no leftovers. These are the nights that tempt you to say “Forget the budget!” and grab some takeout.

If you have that $1 box of mac and cheese in the pantry, you can cook it up, throw in some frozen broccoli and some canned (wild, line-caught, low mercury, BPA-free) tuna, and you’ve got a quick and cheap meal in 15 minutes.

Create a pantry

This is along the same lines as the advice to buy a chest freezer -- it gives you the ability to stockpile staples when they are on sale. Never pay full price for cereal again! This is where you keep all your canned tomatoes (New Seasons has 10 for $10 sales on Muir Glen tomatoes -- read: organic and BPA-free-- at least twice/year), all your beans and rice (!), and all of the other more processed foods that do make up your menu. Crackers for the kids, pasta, grains. These things keep getting more expensive, and having a pantry allows you to buy on sale in bulk, keeping your overall expenses down.

Go the extra mile

Plan for once/month trips to buy staples. For some of you that means a monthly trip to Costco to buy frozen organic boneless skinless chicken breasts in bulk. For others it means taking a trip to that unsung hero Grocery Outlet to replenish your stock of organic cereal or gluten-free crackers for the kids (unless you have superpowers, you probably eat some processed foods). This can make a huge difference in your budget! If you are used to paying $4.59 for a box of gluten-free crackers at Fred Meyer and you find those same crackers for $1.99/box at Grocery Outlet, it will certainly impact your monthly expenses. The trick is not to buy extra things you don’t need just because they are so cheap.

Meal planning

It isn’t sexy. It’s kind of a pain, but planning out your meals and shopping specifically for them saves you tons of money. You won’t buy things you don’t need, you won’t make decisions based on hunger, and you won’t buy things that then rot in the fridge alongside your good intentions for cooking them. Here are two other ways that meal planning saves you money:

You can brown bag your lunch. You can still head outside to enjoy the sunshine on your lunch break. The average lunch out costs $10/day, so bringing leftovers, a sandwich, or a hearty salad can help you save money for something more fun.

You can meal plan according to the weather. This means that on grocery day, you pull up your weather app and check out the upcoming week. If it looks like a hot week ahead, you can buy appropriate food so that you don’t have to cook. Schedule chilled pasta salad, a no-cook gazpacho, or hoagies for dinner on the really warm days. This saves you from having to eat out just to avoid heating up the house.

Eating on a budget can be healthy and tasty. It just takes a little more planning than your current system of winging it. Depending on how you currently spend, a little food planning and smart shopping could save you hundreds of dollars each month. Save that up, and you’ve got an instant vacation budget, new car budget, or a cushion with your other monthly expenses. Once you get used to it, it takes very little sacrifice and leaves you with nothing but a big payoff.

Erin Brockmeyer, LAc, is owner and acupuncturist at Solstice Natural Health in downtown Portland.  She creates custom health plans for patients to help them tackle their most complicated health concerns, including infertility, prenatal care, fibromyalgia, thyroid conditions and chronic and acute pain conditions.  Visit her website for more information and to download her free e-book 5 Simple Ways to Improve Your Health Today.


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