This is Part 3 of a 5-part blog series about sticking to a healthy-eating routine that is sustainable even on a budget and when you’re busy. To start at the beginning of the blog series, click here.
There’s a deep misconception in this country that eating a healthy, whole food based diet will break the bank. It’s true that eating that way is more expensive than ordering off the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s, and it’s true that extreme couponing won’t actually help health-focused shoppers that much, since most coupons are for processed items. But with some strategic planning and careful buying, eating healthy doesn’t have to hurt your budget. That’s something I learned firsthand. Here’s how Danny and I made it happen.
Set a budget: First, we looked at how much we were spending on groceries each week. We looked at what we were purchasing, and we looked at what we were wasting and replacing (like fresh herbs, produce I bought in an overabundance because it was on sale, and meat that I purchased without a recipe in mind) because we were letting so much of our purchases spoil. Then we came up with an amount of money that seemed reasonable, based on what we were already spending, and we started paying for groceries with cash. This was at the same time we decided to buckle down and set a full household budget and began paying for most of our non-bills purchases with cash. That was over three years ago, and since then we’ve adjusted our grocery budget just a bit, but the system has worked. Except for when we have company or we’re hosting dinner parties, we’re almost always able to stick to our weekly budget, and often times we come in under it.
Eating vegetarian and vegan several times a week is good for more than your health: One thing that has come down dramatically is how much money we spend on meat. We do get shares of a locally raised pig once or twice a year, which is not cheap (and which means our freezer chest is brimming with sausage and chops — yes!). But even with that factored into the mix, we spend an average of $15 or less on meat in a typical week — and there are many weeks when I don’t buy meat at all. What we do buy a lot more of are vegetarian protein sources: lentils, beans, and tofu, all of which are cheaper than meat. Where we live, beans average less than $1 per can or $2 per bag of dried beans. Lentils are also around $2 per bag. Organic, non-GMO tofu is only $2.99 at my grocery store. By contract, it’s a bare minimum of $5.99 per pound for vegetarian fed or organic meat and poultry. The $2.99 package of tofu often stretches even farther than the $8.50 package of chicken breasts, so planning meals without meat (or with meat added simply as a flavor-enhancer, almost like a condiment) can most definitely save money.
Plan meals — flexibly — before shopping: One thing that helps me stick to my budget is planning my meals for the week and making my grocery list based on that. Whenever possible, I’ll plan meals that double up on ingredients (two dinners that include Brussels sprouts; two meals that call for fresh basil, etc.) so I don’t spend money on extraneous quantities that end up going to waste. That way before I ever leave my house I can also gauge whether I’m going to run into trouble because I’m buying too many high-dollar ingredients in one week, and I can adjust the menu accordingly. But, that said, I leave some flexibility in my shopping list, and in some of my meals, so I can save money by getting whatever produce is on sale that week. As long as I plan some meals where the type of veggie isn’t integral to the dish, it doesn’t matter if I come home with broccoli or asparagus or green beans — so I can just get whatever is freshest and cheapest. Similarly, I try to leave a little wiggle room in my weekly budget so that when something I don’t need to purchase right away, like olive oil or canned tomatoes, is on sale, I can stock up knowing I’m saving myself money down the road.
Prioritize your list and shop accordingly: Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “shop the perimeter.” The point of shopping the perimeter is that that’s where you find all the fresh and unprocessed foods — produce, meat, dairy, eggs. The vast majority of my shopping involves the perimeter of the store, and it’s where I spend the bulk of my grocery budget. Then I work on replenishing my pantry items, like rice and quinoa and canned goods . . . and after that, there’s virtually no money left. But I get all the groceries I need for the week with the same amount of money I spent back before I was careful about what I purchased — because many of the center-aisle items, things like potato chips, soda, ice cream, and convenience foods, have a much higher per-serving price than a bag of carrots or lentils.
Know when to splurge and when to save:
When it comes to meat and most animal-based products (except some hard-to-find-organic cheeses), I buy organic exclusively. When it comes to produce, I buy organic when it makes sense. When it comes to dried goods, like flour, sugar, and cornmeal, I aim for organic but don’t stress over it too much (although I really do search for non-GMO whenever possible). I’m also becoming a lot more conscious about buying locally, and within the next few months hope to be buying at least half of my produce from local farmers or growing it myself , with the other half coming from the local grocery store. I definitely am willing to spend the extra money when I believe it will benefit our health, the environment or animals (I only buy cage-free eggs these days), our community (buying directly from a local farmer instead of a major corporation — although often times the prices are almost identical and sometimes even lower because there are no middle man costs), or the overall quality of our food (such as using unrefined coconut oil instead of refined), but none of us can spend extra money on everything. Organic bananas are definitely not worth the extra forty cents per pound since their fruit is largely unaffected by pesticides; organic milk is absolutely worth the additional cost to me because I want to know I’m drinking milk from a cow that hasn’t been fed animal by-products. Do some research, figure out what is important to you, and spend based on your priorities.
By sticking to these guidelines, we’re able to stick to our grocery budget and feel good about the food we’re bringing into our house. I would love to know what you’ve done to set your food budget and make it work for you!