Updated: Nov 5, 2019
When people comment on my husband's and my slimmer figures and we start discussing food, I often hear complaints about the price of eating healthy. I used to think this way too. My family lives on a teacher's salary (no, we aren't completely broke, but we are by no means wealthier than many Americans). Food is a flexible budget category, so it's a place where we would try to pinch pennies. Also, we didn't feel like we needed to change our eating habits because we weren't overweight (which is not a great health indicator). My feelings on this have since changed and I now believe that I can't afford not to eat healthy. I would like to share some of the ways my family eats healthy on a tight budget.
My Budget Baby Steps to Organic
(Are you on one of these steps?)
1. Pesticides are icky. Heard you can soak produce in vinegar to remove icky pesticide residue. Did that for a while. (budget baby step-buying vinegar)
2. Read that many times pesticides absorb into the produce if the skin is eatable. Made choices about when to choose organic by following the Environmental Working Groups's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Guide to Pesticides and Produce. (budget baby step-spending a little more to buy select organic produce)
3. Learned that even when you buy some safe to eat produce, such as bananas (the pesticide-covered peel is removed before eating), the workers on the plantations are having health problems and their babies are being born with birth defects due to the pesticide exposure. (budget baby step-started buying all organic when available)
4. Learned that another huge reason to buy organic is the nutritional quality of the food. The soil is richer in vitamins and minerals which means the crops are too. (confirmed the buying all organic decision)
5. Pesticides (like other toxins in processed foods, alcohol, cosmetics, body products, cleaners, pollution) are dealt with by your liver. When the liver is overtaxed with detoxing, it can't do it's other job of processing nutrients. Poor liver! Poor body! Toxin overload leads to obesity. The body stores toxins in fatty tissue away from the organs. Obese people are often malnourished, as strange as that seems. (another YES to organic!!)
Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail
I know. Do you hate me yet? "Failing to plan is planning to fail" is such an annoying phrase because it's mostly true (there is something to be said for flexibility and spontaneity of course).
You already know this, but planning meals saves you time, money, and sanity. Plus my seven year old likes to erase what I've written on my cute chalkboard menu and write weird things. My kids love to know what's for dinner and so do I! There are a million ways to meal plan. Finding one that works for you so that you do it is the most important thing. A designated planning day and grocery shopping day doesn't hurt either.
I have used Plan To Eat (I am not being compensated) for a few years now and really like it. I love how easily I can save all the recipes in one spot (without having to scroll through all the fluff on blogs to get to the recipe). It will even make grocery lists for you. You can even save lists for different stores and inventory frozen meals. There are all sorts of features. They give you a free month to try it. I always renew my subscription during the half-off Black Friday special. I spend about $20 a year for this, but I know it saves me way more that in sanity and food waste.
Another budget saver came when we learned about eating a detoxing diet and started eating less meat. We went a step beyond our Meatfree Mondays (a great starting point) to becoming Weekday Vegetarians. Plant-based protein is much less expensive than organic meat (and we are all on the same page about factory-farmed meat by now, right?). Also, when you eat nutrient dense food, you eat less (which saves money). Your body is satisfied.* This relates back to the obese and starving paradox I mentioned before.
Because we plan, we don't have much food waste around here. Food wasted is money wasted. When you are paying more for food, you value it more! We make sure to have a little leftover for lunch the next day. This saves time and money. Since packing a separate lunch takes time, the default is often eating out (or the school cafeteria, blah!). The easiest time for my husband's lunch to get packed is right before dinner is served. It's one less thing to do later (which may mean never). It's also a cheaper and healthier alternative to eating out. Even our produce scraps don't go to waste since they get tossed into the compost. The compost is used in our garden which is another big way to save. Grow your own food. More on meal planning and gardening in other posts. Next, where to shop...
Stock Your Pantry on a Dime
Besides your backyard garden, CSA or farmer's market, here are a few other places to shop that might save you some money.
Thrive Market. Thrive is an online organic store with great discounts. I try to stick to pantry staples in my Thrive order. Be careful of some of the free food they send with your order. It's easy to get hooked on pricey organic "processed" food. Even if the ingredients are super nutritious, you are still paying for convenience on top of the pricey quality ingredients. If you are trying to save dough, you need to do your own "processing". (This takes more time I know. If you simplify your home you might find that extra time.) We received a free membership because my husband is a teacher. They offer free memberships to military, teachers and for those that qualify financially.
Aldi. I have always loved Aldi. That's a lie. I used to think it was super weird and hated it at first. Quarter carts. Only one choice for every product. Only one choice leads to the blink-and-you-miss-it scenario and you have to go against the flow of the aisles like a spawning salmon to go back to find it. BYO bags if you don't want to buy them or find an empty box. (I love that this has trained me to remember bags!)
Aldi is genius! It's a grocery store for minimalists. It's so much faster to shop when there aren't so many choices. And the prices are fantastic. Lately, every time I go to Aldi I see another new organic option. This is the place where I buy organic tortilla chips. This is one of the few processed things I buy other than Ezekiel Bread. I don't make tortilla chips and bread every week. I haven't reached that level of crazy.
Costco. A bit of a drive for us, but a great place to save on organic if you have one close by.
Wegmans. Great prices on the family packs of organic produce and organic frozen veggies and berries. I love that they sell organic produce from local farms.
Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Please come to the Harrisburg Area!!!
I do not have memory retention when it comes to numbers: highway numbers, grocery prices, pi. I will never win on Supermarket Sweep. I begrudgingly admit to something dorky: I created a Google Sheets spreadsheet to keep track of the best prices for what we eat. I don't know the first thing about spreadsheets and just made up something that worked for me. This is a case where my need to get something done allowed me to push through perfectionism and procrastination and just do it. After figuring out the best places to buy certain things, all I have to do is remember what I buy where. It does feel reassuring that I can reference my cheat sheet from my phone whenever and wherever. It's in my grocery shopping IEP. You do what you have to do.
Prioritizing and Healthy Budget Cuts
We have to put our money where our mouth is, literally.
Increasing our organic food consumption gradually was less of a shock to our budget. Beyond healthier eating choices, our whole house decluttering marathon prompted more intentional spending. We became more disciplined with our budget. You can't make baby steps in your grocery budget if you don't use it or you don't even have one. We switched to Every Dollar (again not being compensated, you need a lot of readers first, I'm thinking) and are really pleased with how much more user friendly it is than Mint. It really helps us to prioritize financially.
It turns out good food is not really a priority in the budgets of most Americans. As you can see from the chart, Americans are spending a smaller portion of income on food than they used to. We get what we pay for nutritionally. We are paying to be sick and malnourished and not just with our wallets, with our lives.
One big expense works in our favor. Housing. We live in a four bedroom, 2 bath, 1300 sq ft 1950's cape cod style home with our 3 kids. Simplifying our belongings keeps our home from feeling claustrophobic. Not being house poor helps us afford good food on my husband's salary. A smaller home helps you to afford good food. Not having a cable bill or buying new cars helps too.
It can be a lot to take in. This is why people take healthy baby steps one at a time. If you find your motivation (and keep it), it makes it a lot easier to start and keep going. It's only fun to learn about this stuff if you are genuinely interested. You have to find what motivates you the most.
I am just an armchair novice. For the real deal check out Environmental Working Group's Good Food on a Tight Budget.
Did you go through similar steps in eating organic? What tips do you have for eating healthy on a budget?
*Getting those nutrients can be a bit of a process as you will most likely need to do a bit of detoxing. You will need to clean the gunk in your intestines (poop-you might be full of it literally) so that the villi can absorb nutrients. You can feel a little yucky (it's is a detox after all) during this process. If your transition is more gradual, then your detoxing withdrawal symptoms (skin breakouts, bloating, stomach pains, headaches, food cravings, trouble sleeping, nightmares, diarrhea and constipation, fatigue, drowsiness, low energy levels, irritability) won't be as severe. Baby step your way to healthier eating.