Food 101: Eating Healthy Without Blowing Your Budget

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.muffins

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!

~ Laura

Food 101: What’s in Our Pantry

This is Part 2 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.

Confession time: In college, I kind of lived on Mountain Dew, crackers, and candy bars on the days when I had to be on campus from morning till evening. Thinking about that now makes me feel a little queasy, although I will forever have a soft spot for the deliciousness that is a Cheez-It. If you checked my pantry today, you would find a couple unopened bottles of ginger ale leftover from Christmas punch, and perhaps a box of crackers or pretzels and some pasta, but nearly everything else on the shelves either looks pretty much as nature intended it, or has an ingredients list that’s barely longer than my name.

It’s not that I never let myself indulge in junk food, and it’s not that we know how to do eating healthy perfectly; it’s just that I’ve learned to largely keep junk food out of the house so that Danny and I can’t mindlessly dive through a bag of chips. I don’t feel guilty when I occasionally have something deep fried at a restaurant, but what I bring home from the grocery store lines up with our everyday eating goals. To compliment the fresh produce and (small quantities of) meat and dairy that we use in our cooking, I keep the pantry stocked with ingredients that help us keep up the kind of real-foods-driven diet we want to maintain.Stocking your pantry

To keep it simple to find what I need, I (try to) organize our pantry into distinct sections:

  • The rice/grains shelf
  • The oils/vinegars/sauces shelf
  • The flour/sugar/baking goods shelf
  • The canned/jarred/dried goods shelf
  • The tea and coffee shelf
  • The miscellaneous shelf (this is where a bag of tortilla chips or box of cookies will wind up)

When the pantry is organized, it makes me less tempted to bring home those chips or cookies because they’ll seem out of place, and keeping the pantry well stocked with the foods I know I’ll use in many different recipes — and in recipes I’ll make regularly — makes me so much less tempted to just order a pizza at the end of the day.

The staples that you will almost always find in our pantry include:

  • Whole grains (numerous varieties of rice; quinoa; barley; farro; oats)
  • Granola or organic cereal (with low sugar content)
  • Pasta (we don’t eat pasta often, but it’s good to have on hand)
  • Lentils (red and green)
  • Beans (chickpeas; great northern; black beans; kidney beans; split peas)
  • Canned tomatoes and tomato sauce
  • Stock and broth (veggie broth; chicken broth; coconut milk)
  • Non-refrigerated produce (garlic; onions; potatoes; winter squashes such as butternut, spaghetti, and sweet dumpling)
  • Dried fruits and veggies (sundried tomatoes; raisins; dried cranberries and cherries)
  • Oils (olive and infused olive; coconut; avocado; sesame; vegetable) and vinegars (balsamic and infused balsamic; red wine; white wine; apple cider; rice; and white)
  • Local honey
  • Peanut butter
  • Baking goods (flour; cornmeal; organic cane sugar; brown sugar; cocoa powder)
  • Tea and coffee beans
  • Popcorn kernels
  • Nuts (although nuts keep best in the freezer)

I want to always have these things on hand because they’re the base of so many of our meals. It’s easy to pull together a fast and super healthy dinner at the end of a workday when I have some fresh produce and all of these pantry ingredients at my disposal. With quinoa, great northern beans, garlic, walnuts, veggie broth, red wine vinegar, and a winter squash from the pantry, all I need to round out a healthy and filling dinner is some fresh kale or Swiss chard; with red lentils, canned tomatoes, basmati rice, onions and garlic, and olive oil from the pantry, plus some spices from the spice cabinet, all I need to finish a simple Indian dal is a jalapeno and fresh ginger, and if I serve it with a green vegetable, dinner is complete. (I’ll be sharing some of my favorite fast recopies and recipe resources in a few weeks).

Another thing I’ve found is that by not keeping easy-to-grab snacks on the pantry shelves, I a) only eat when it’s mealtime or I’m actually hungry, versus eating for entertainment, and b) usually make sure I eat enough at mealtimes or go back for leftovers. I keep fresh fruit on the counter, yogurt in the fridge, and I’ll pop a bowl of popcorn with coconut oil several nights a week. And I don’t miss having premade snacks or junk food around at all. I love having a kitchen and a pantry that are not only well organized, but well prepared to keep our (non) diet on track.

Next Monday: Eating Healthy Without Blowing Your Budget — I’ll explain how Danny and I came up with our food budget, how I make it work for us even when buying high-quality ingredients, and how I shop to make the most of the money.

~ Laura