We subsidize the overproduction of corn for processed foods, and allow industrial animal agriculture to externalize many production costs; so when the economy struggles and budgets tighten, shoppers often turn towards unhealthy ‘cheaper‘ food choices. But wait: it doesn’t have to be that way! Eating well doesn’t have to break the bank. Use these simple strategies to stretch your grocery dollars, while embracing a healthy and delicious real-food diet.
1. Buy Ingredients, Not Products
A loaf of bread that costs $3 to buy costs about $1 to make. Those pre-made pancakes in the frozen foods section (contain a bazillion nonfood ingredients and) can be easily made at home instead from really cheap (real food) ingredients like flour, sugar, apple sauce, and baking powder. Buy potatoes instead of potato soup, and you’ll get five times as much soup for the same cost.
It takes a little practice to shift gears towards a cook-from-scratch model, but it becomes second nature very quickly once you start! The key is to never prep just one meal — cook a double-batch of brown rice and freeze what you don’t need in 1- or 2-cup servings, for stir-fry another night. Bake 2 loaves of bread instead of one, and freeze what you won’t eat within a few days. Cook up a double batch of black beans, and you’ve got raw materials for Cuban black bean soup, burritos, and black bean hummus with hardly any prep at all.
2. Buy Basics in Bulk
The more you can buy shelf-stable or frozen basic food items in quantity, the less you’ll spend overall for each meal. If you’re near a Costco or similar store, look for the mondo-sized olive oil, coconut oil, all-purpose flour, pasta, rice, oatmeal, peanut butter, and frozen veggies. You’ll also generally pay less (because you’re not paying for as much packaging) when you utilize the bulk bins a health food stores or co-ops for things like nuts, legumes, and grains.
For beans, buy the dry version instead of canned — you’ll dodge the BPA problem too, but that’s a post for another day. With a little planning, it doesn’t take much extra effort at all to cook with dry beans, and you’ll save tons of funds that can be spent elsewhere.
This part of the system comes hardest to me, but it really does make a difference. Sit down before you go to the grocery store and plan out the week’s kitchen business, so that you have several meal built around similar ingredients. By knowing ahead of time what you’ll be cooking for the week, and having a plan for leftovers — that double-batch of cheesy sauce can be on macaroni Monday night, and with cumin added can go on nachos Thursday! Plan out your weekly menus and before shopping, and I promise you’ll spend less at the grocery store.
Planning ahead also keeps you from falling into the habit of making the same few dishes over and over; spaghetti and PBJs can only keep you happy for just so long! By using good menu planning habits to arrange yourself a tasty bit of variety, you’ll be setting yourself up for success in sticking to your healthy real-food budget (and habits)!
4. Waste Not
Food waste is the enemy of everything good and righteous, especially when you’re cooking on a budget. Freeze what you can’t eat before it goes bad, and use veggie scraps, peels, odds and ends to make broth instead of buying it pre-packaged. If you share cooking duties with family members or housemates, label leftovers so they’ll know what’s available for snacking. Make a tapas-style lunch with small amounts of different leftover dishes.
Empty your produce drawer the last day or two before grocery shopping — throw that last 1/2 of an onion, quarter of a bell pepper, couple of straggler potatoes in the crock pot with water and lentils for a hearty veggie stew. Stale bread? Pulse it in the blender with a bit of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and nooch; store the result in an air-tight freezer bag for next time you need seasoned breadcrumbs. Bananas going bad? Make banana bread, or throw ’em in the freezer for smoothies.
Reduce your food waste, and you’ll be surprised how much further your grocery bucks can stretch!
5. Give Restaurants a Rest
If it’s your wedding anniversary or your birthday or you just published your first novel, take yourself out to dinner! We all need a bit of indulgence from time to time. But avoid relying on restaurant fare for sustenance in regular ol’ everyday life. Pack your lunch; host or attend potluck dinner parties with friends; picnic with your sweetheart. Not only to restaurant meals tend to offer an overabundance of sugar, salt, cholesterol, and processed non-food ingredients, but they also wreak absolute havoc on your food budget.
Workplace lunch hours offer special challenges — pack lunch the night before, if you’re typically hurried and harried on workday mornings. Don’t set yourself up for an unhealthy budget-wrecking fast-food jones by waiting until you’re starving at 12:30 (or in a mad rush at 7:30) to decide what to do about lunch. Don’t be fooled: those ‘value menus’ aren’t — it’s cheaper in the long run (at the grocery store and in the pharmacy) to pack your lunch!
6. Plants, Yo!
Whether or not you’re interested in going vegan or vegetarian (do it! it’s tasty and satisfying! … but I digress), moving towards a plant-centered food plan tends to shave dollars off your budget — especially if you’re replacing the animal junk, rather than adding to it. Lentils and split peas cost way way way less than most cow or pig or chicken products. Maybe the ultra-cheap meat and dairy stuff like bologna and Cheese Whiz appear to compete with the economy of things like dry black beans; but nutritionally, those ‘cheap’ animal-based foods offer nothing comparable at all!
For the most nutritional bang for your buck — to eat HEALTHFULLY but inexpensively — tilt the bulk of your diet towards a plant-based paradigm, and you’ll reap large health-and-budgetary dividends.
7. Shop Locally, Shop Seasonally
When your neighborhood farmers’ market offers abundant tomatoes, kale, or butternut squash, stock up! Then freeze, can, or dry what you don’t need right away. By buying directly from local growers you’ll pay less per unit — and as a bonus, you’ll contribute to improving your own local economy!
Obviously options for local and seasonal food markets vary by region; just look for opportunities to embrace this grocery model, and reap its benefits when you can. It will save you grocery bucks!
Eating Well on a Budget: General Notes and Resources
If you value organic food but work within a tight budget, prioritization is key. The foods most commonly genetically modified get top billing on my must-have-organic list — such as corn, soy, canola, and sugar. Thin-skinned produce that you eat without peeling also deserves organic-prioritization, to minimize pesticide as a food seasoning. Read more about shopping organic on a budget here.
Vegan on the Cheap offers a wealth of information about real-food cooking on a budget, whether or not you actually eat vegan. Eat Vegan on $4 a Day and Plant-based on a Budget provide a similar treasure-trove of good ideas for stretching that grocery dollar, without compromising nutrition or enjoyment. Whether or not you eat vegan, these resources offer a strong recipe base not dependent on expensive or highly processed ingredients for flavor. You can always add other ingredients, too, if you prefer; but you’ll have a good solid recipe bank to build upon.
If you’re going to use coupons, make your menu plan first; then just use coupons for things already on your list. I don’t get too excited about coupons myself, since generally they’re for products vs. foods — how many times have you seen a coupon for tomatoes or bell peppers?! Usually they’re trying to sell stuff I wouldn’t buy otherwise, so it’s not helping me ‘save’ anything: it’s helping food companies sell me processed food. No thanks!
If you do like coupons for grocery-budget-trimming, just be sure to make your shopping list first and shop accordingly. Don’t let yourself be lulled by food industry coupon glam into buying processed junk you don’t need!
In Sum: Thrifty Yum
Cooking on a budget doesn’t have to mean restricting yourself to a diet of ‘cheap’ but unhealthy and nutritionally inadequate food. Like any shift in habits, it takes a bit of planning and some initial effort to adopt a thrifty approach to real-food cooking when financial pressures mount — but make that effort, and you’ll quickly find it to be time (and grocery dollars) well spent!