Healthy Eating On A Budget

Berkeley Bowl Produce

Berkeley Bowl Produce


In these ever-challenging times, I often see headlines on the internet, on blogs, and in the news, talking about how to cut your grocery bill during an economic downturn.  Many of them talk about stocking up on what’s on sale, using coupons, buying generic brands, or similar measures.  All of those ideas sound good in theory, but in reality, there is a better, much healthier way to trim your budget.


First of all let me tell you why store fliers and coupons are not a good idea.  Unless you are stocking up on grapes for 99 cents a pound, all those circulars and coupons are going to buy you is a bunch of packaged, processed food.  Use them to find out what’s on sale in the produce section and meat department, but stop there.  Most of what’s on sale and what the coupons are trying to sell are brands of processed food.  Cereals, cookies, canned soups, frozen dinners, soda, you name it.    If you are a fellow food allergy-sufferer, then hopefully you know to avoid the processed food already.  But if you don’t, take a package of any prepared food from your pantry and read the label.  If there are more than five ingredients listed, and any that you cannot pronounce, then you probably don’t want to eat it.  Processed foods are loaded with preservatives, salt, sugar, fat, and chemically altered derivatives of corn, soy and/or wheat, and the ingredients that were actually real food at one time turn out resembling something quite different than what was intended.


The solution?  Buy whole foods and cook them.  People who buy the bulk of their groceries from the center aisles may not know what I mean by that, so here is the wikipedia definition of whole foods:


 Whole foods are those that are unprocessed and unrefined, or processed and refined as little as possible before being consumed. They typically do not contain added ingredients, such as sugar, salt, or fat¹


Basically, that means fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meats, whole grains and legumes, raw nuts, eggs, and non-homogenized milk.  If you avoid the sea of processed foods in the middle of the grocery store and stick to the walls – i.e. the produce section, bulk foods, and meat department – you’re bound to find them.  The good news is, if you are buying food that is actually, well, food, you can save a lot of money over its packaged, processed imitators.


Here are a few rules of thumb to help you create a healthy yet budget-friendly grocery list.


Buy In Bulk


If your store has a bulk food section where you can purchase grains, beans, and other dry ingredients by weight (most health food stores have these), stock up.  You can purchase as little or as much of an item that you want, and you will usually find completely raw, unrefined, unprocessed staples here.  When you buy in bulk, you don’t pay for packaging, resulting in cost savings.  Where I shop you can buy organic brown rice for around two dollars a pound.  That’s about 2 cups dry, or eight servings.  In other words, that amounts to 25 cents per serving of a tasty, nutrient-rich, pesticide-free grain.  (Of course, you have to cook it, that’s the key.) 


Use A Crock Pot


If you don’t already have a crock pot, get one at a garage sale or find a cheap one at the store.  Cooking with a crock pot is very efficient, simple, and will help you save money.  Although canned beans are already inexpensive, slow-cooking them from scratch in your crock pot is even cheaper if you buy them in bulk.  (And I have read that it costs 2 cents per hour of energy to heat a crock pot)  Make a big batch of beans or soup and then freeze smaller portions to take out whenever you need.


Eat Less Meat


Most Americans eat way too much meat.  In fact, the average American eats over half a pound of meat every day, even after you factor in all the vegetarians.²  Eating more vegetarian meals is not only good for you and the environment, but it will save you a lot of money.  I’m not saying you should just have rice and beans every night, but try cutting out the meat for three or four, and prepare smaller portions on the other nights.  Make the vegetables the centerpiece of your dinner plate instead of the meat.  Check out some new vegetarian recipes.  Get creative.  Try some different grains you’ve never had before.  Quinoa and millet are both very nutritious and high in protein (quinoa has all 8 of the essential amino acids), and you can cook them in about 15 or 20 minutes.  (See my gluten-free grain guide)  Just toss or top them with your favorite vegetables sauteed in olive or sesame oil, throw in some garlic and herbs, and you’ve got a healthy, inexpensive meal. 


Buy Fresh, Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables


Whatever is in abundance is often the most inexpensive.  That’s why fruits and vegetables are often cheaper when they are in season.  But you get other benefits, as well.  Seasonal vegetables and fruits are at their peak nutrition and taste the sweetest.  Even in winter months, I look forward to the plentiful harvests of mandarin oranges, persimmons, beets and winter squash.  Buying what’s in season will challenge you to try new things and be creative in your meal planning, and will bless you with new traditions that you will look forward to every time of year.


Plan Ahead


Sit down once a week and plan out your meals before you go to the grocery store.  Make a list of the things that you need and stick to it.  If you don’t have a list, it is easy to end up buying a bunch of stuff you don’t need instead of keeping track of what you need.  I keep my grocery list in my cellphone and whenever I run out of something or think of an item I need, I pull it out and add it to the list.  My husband laughs at me because I’ll be sitting at breakfast on Friday thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner on Tuesday.  You might have noticed by now that I am a bit obsessive when it comes to food, but what can I say, it is my passion. 


So don’t force yourself to stop eating real food when disaster strikes.  Buy healthy and save money.  Put off buying that dvd or extra pair of jeans instead (or shop at a thrift store – I recently scored a pair of GAP jeans and sweater for 5 bucks total).  What you put into your body is way more important than what you put on it and is one of the best things you can spend your money on (you will make it up in health care savings later on).  But you can have the best of both worlds, and eat well on a budget.  Happy holidays and happy eating:)

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