Eating well is one of the best ways to care for your health, but high-quality food can be expensive. Unfortunately, our food system priorities profit and quantity over quality, and many of the cheaper and more widely available products aren’t what’s healthiest for us. There’s no reason why we should be able to eat healthy on a budget.
It’s disappointing and upsetting that the systems in place make healthy eating so difficult for so many people. There are many influences at work that make our food system what it is: misguided nutritional information, misleading advertising, and corporate greed among them.
Good food should be accessible to everyone.
But the reality is, it’s hard for many. We know that many of the SuperHero Foods we talk about, like grass-fed butter and organic produce, are more expensive than the conventional counterparts.
Think of it as investing in your health; preventative care through eating well. But we also know that budgets are real, and everyone has their own limit on how much they can spend on food. So we thought of some tips on how to incorporate more SuperHero Foods without breaking the bank.
Remember: Some is better than none! You can decide what is most important for you to prioritize and what is most accessible in your context.
Here are 10 great ways to eat healthy on a budget:
1) Buy organic on the “dirty dozen,” buy conventional for the “clean fifteen”
Some produce tends to be more contaminated than others. If you aren’t buying organic, produce that has a peel or rind that you aren’t going to eat will likely be less contaminated. The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen describe the most and least contaminated of common fruits and vegetables.
Prioritize buying organic for the Dirty Dozen along with plants like oats and wheat, leafy greens, berries, tomatoes, and produce with peels/skin that you eat (like apples, peaches, potatoes, and grapes). And make some cuts by buying conventional for produce on the Clean Fifteen. The Clean Fifteen are the fruits and vegetables that the Environmental Working Group tested to have the least pesticides.
Remember though that some pesticides are systemic, meaning that the pesticides are absorbed through the roots and end up in the plant’s fruit. Every farm is different, so do your research when you can!
2) Consume higher-quality meat but choose cheaper cuts
The quality of the meat we eat, like everything else, really matters! Grass-fed and pastured meats have the highest quality saturated fats. It’s SO much better for you than conventionally raised meat which are linked to inflammation and other diseases. Yes grass-fed/grass-finished meat is more expensive, but there are very clean reasons why. Once you begin to understand the conditions used for conventionally raised meat, you’ll never go back.
If your family is already eating meat often, one way you can make this work for your budget is by reducing the amount of meat you eat. If you’re eating conventional meat every night, maybe consider eating grass-fed meat two or three times a week. But really there are much better solutions.
Look for cheaper cuts of meat. Most American shoppers are only familiar with a few different cuts of meat: maybe a flank steak, a tenderloin, and ground beef. But there are nutrients in every part of the animal that most people are missing out on! In fact, most other cultures have traditions of eating the whole animal: tongue, liver, brain, kidney, bones, cheek, etc. That may make you a little squeamish if it’s not what you’re used to, but the fact is animals aren’t all muscle, so why would we only eat the muscle?
Also, many local pastured farms offer full, half, and quarter steers/cows for purchase. Because we have a large family, it was a great choice for us. We can get a wide selection of ground meat, steaks, and other cuts for under $5/lb. One purchase will last us for about a year.
Grass-fed beef bones make an excellent, nutrient-dense broth that can bulk up a vegetable stew or pot of rice. Chicken necks and feet don’t sound like the most appealing parts of the bird, but they also make a superior broth.
Ask your butcher if they offer deals on certain days of the week or on certain cuts, and don’t be afraid to branch out and get creative. Eating the whole animal is not only a way to save money but also boasts all kinds of other benefits like providing often missing nutrients and being more sustainable.
3) Grow some food
Seeds are cheap, though they do require some labor. While you might not have the time to plant a whole garden, a few patio pots or a few feet of soil can produce a surprising amount of food with not too much work. There are tons of resources out there to get you started, and you can start small.
Herbs like parsley, cilantro, and basil are expensive to buy at the store, but they are easy to grow, and just a few plants can last you all season. Instead of buying one bunch of basil for $2 or $3, you can buy a starter plant or a whole pack of seeds!
Greens like spinach, kale, and arugula grow easily, too. And one zucchini plant will feed your family all summer.
And sprouting alfalfa seeds doesn’t even require any soil!
Gardens are a great way to involve your kids. Have them poke the seeds into the soil and water them every day.
4) Volunteer or trade at gardens and farms
Is there a community garden near you? Community gardens often have volunteer work days, and when you pop in for an hour or two, you can score some fresh herbs and vegetables.
While this option requires some time, it pays back in community connections, fresh air and sunshine, and knowledge! A trip to the garden is a great educational and active outing for kids. Community gardeners are also often tapped into other food resources in the community like seed libraries, food pantries, markets, and free educational opportunities.
There are so many wild edible foods that are growing under our feet and over our heads. Familiarity with just a handful of common edible plants can spice up your meals and add an extra wild punch of nutrition.
If you’re completely new to eating wild foods, find a mentor or at least a good book to guide you. Be sure you’re familiar with some foraging ground rules before you go out harvesting too: identify plants with 100% confidence; know if the place you’re picking from is clean (the sides of roads are often sprayed with pesticides and polluted with vehicle exhaust and fluids); be respectful about how much your take, etc.
You’re probably already familiar with a few edible wild plants: dandelion, wild onion, and violets are all tasty common “weeds.”
6) Reduce waste: use EVERYTHING you buy
Did you ever watch your grandmother scrape the inside of the eggshell to get out every last drop? That’s what we’re talking about here. Waste nothing! Even more than a way to save on food costs, this is a way to respect and appreciate your food and to teach your kids to do the same.
A study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that the average US household wasted 31.9% of its food. The total annual cost of the wasted food was estimated to be $240 billion or $1,866 per household. That’s A LOT of waste! We’ll cover reducing waste in another article. Things like buy less, more often, organizing your fridge, and making use of your leftovers, there are dozens of ways to minimize waste. Plus, it’s better for the environmental too!
7) Find out if there are organizations in your area that redistribute otherwise wasted food
Across the US, there are more and more organizations that redistribute food that would otherwise be wasted. This food may be surplus or not up to aesthetic par or have a sell-by date that is fast approaching, but it is still good food.
Many of these organizations provide this food for free, and some sell it at a discount.
If you don’t have a local organization, some online grocery providers, like Misfits Market, are stepping in to save some of these misfit veggies and sell them at a discount.
8) Find out if your state does “Double Up Food Bucks” at your local market
If you use EBT/SNAP to purchase some of your regular groceries, check out this website to see if your state participates in Double Up Food Bucks. This program lets you get double SNAP dollars at the farmers market. So if you bring an EBT card with $50 on it to the market, you’ll get $100 to spend on fresh, local food. Awesome, right?
Farmers markets are a perfect place to find SuperHero Foods. You can ask farmers directly about whether they grow organically and get tips on how to prepare new vegetables!
Currently, over half of the states in the US participate, including Michigan, North Carolina, California, and Arizona.
9) Shop smart
Shop smart principles are meal plan, make a list, and never shop hungry.
Know your stores, and know the deals. Do you have an Aldi’s in your area? A Trader Joe’s or Costco or Walmart? Is there a co-op in your city?
It takes a bit of time and organization, but finding out which stores and markets in your area have the best deals for which foods can save you a significant amount of money over time. You can also pay attention to which store has the best quality of certain items too.
Many stores run sales or deals on a regular bases, and if you have the patience to time your shopping and make the most of them, those sales can help make buying organic, quality food more doable.
There are a few reasons why certain stores may have items for less than other stores. Some stores sell products under the “generic” brand (or store brand) for less. Warehouse clubs like Costco charge membership fees, but this gets you lower prices and is especially helpful if you’re buying items in bulk or feeding a lot of mouths (say four hungry kids and two tired parents!).
Don’t overlook co-ops either. Take the time to do the numbers on whether it’s worth it to pay a membership fee at a co-op. If you’ll be buying organic items all the time or making use of the bulk room, then the frequent member deals may pay off. Plus, it’s a great model of business to support.
Farmers markets can actually be comparable and even less expensive than a big box store depending on what you’re buying and when in the season it is. Produce in peak season is often less expensive at the market because all the produce sellers are flush with ripe tomatoes at the same time. Plus, having relationships with your farmers is a way to build community that can lend favors and look out for each other.
10) Buy in bulk or buy for now?
Depending on the way your income arrives and what you are buying, sometimes it makes sense to buy a bunch of something at once and sometimes it makes more sense to buy just for the week.
Buying in bulk is best for staple items that have a long shelf life. Things like rice, oats, pasta, flour, etc. do just fine sitting in the pantry for a month or two. If you are buying from the bulk bins or on a day when these items are on sale, it can save you time and money to buy a lot at once.
Buying for now is a better strategy for fresh items like produce. Buying just the amount you know your family will eat reduces unintended waste.
Take a moment to think about which strategy works better for your situation and for the particular items you buy.
Make the Changes You Can
Every family’s food budget is different. We’re not here to tell you to only buy organic or grass-fed because that’s not possible for many. But we do believe that shifts to healthier foods is a worthwhile investment, and we believe that we can eat healthy on a budget. If you are able, pay your farmers now instead of your doctors later. Food is the ultimate medicine, and one of the best forms of preventative healthcare there is! Let’s work together to make changes towards healthier families and kids!