It’s a question I get asked all the time, on an almost daily basis. The question takes many different forms, but essentially readers want to know the same thing, and it boils down to, “How can we eat better, eat cleaner, and make it affordable?” While a recent study shows that what separates a healthy and unhealthy diet is just $1.50 a day, understandably, some families don’t have a dime of wiggle room. Without getting into the particulars of an individual’s personal finances, including my own, I will say that we do spend notably more on groceries, eating this way, than we did before. Weekly grocery trips can be as little as $10 more than they used to be, and some weeks, if I’m stocking up on certain items, I could spend $50 more than I used to. As our priorities shifted, we creatively shifted some finances around, one of them being eating out less, and have found the added expense to be manageable and completely worthwhile for our family. For some reading this, you may fall into this category, while others need to eat differently on the same budget. I thought I’d share some creative ways to save money while cleaning up your diet. These are just some of the tips and tricks I use, but would love to know your secrets too.
Avoid “superfoods” - The notion that in order to eat clean, you must consume these marketed superfoods, is perplexing to me. Sure, it’s fun and interesting to try out things like chia seeds and maca powder, if the budget allows. But you can certainly eat a nutritious and wholesome diet without these superfoods, which can be super expensive.
Cut down on packaged and pre-made – Convenience costs money, so you can’t continue to buy the same packaged and pre-made food items, on top of other more expensive healthy items, and expect to spend the same amount of money. I’ve said it many times before, but you are not only investing additional money eating this way, but you are investing additional time as well. While the standard way of thinking, and basic math, may tell you that you’re spending less per calorie to buy packaged food, the cost for food energy in buying whole foods such as fresh produce and grains, is cheaper in the long run. This USDA study proves this point perfectly.
Eat less meat and use less meat when cooking – According to the USDA, Americans are on average consuming 57 pounds more meat per year than they did 50 years ago, where as newer studies show that we on average now consume almost twice as much meat as we did 50 years ago. This idea of eating bacon for breakfast, then salmon on our salad at lunch, and then chicken for dinner is a fairly new concept. Try switching to more meatless meals, especially at breakfast and lunch, and invest in buying higher quality meats instead. They do cost more, but studies show that grass fed/organic/pastured animal products, including milk, are more nutritious and therefore worth the extra cost. It’s gotten to the point now where I am quite stingy with the expensive quality meat I do buy, but we savor and consume every last bite, leaving nothing to waste.
Cook like a starving college student – The other night I had a simple dinner of cooked quinoa, roasted tomatoes and some canned beans. The most glamorous of meals? Definitely not, but it filled me, in a nutritious and hearty way, and it was super affordable. Not every meal has to be an exciting five star production. Cook several simple meals throughout the week, and have some easy cheap side dish options on hand to save you from going to bed hungry, or worse, hitting up the drive-thru.
Eat leftovers – Eating leftovers was a way of life when I grew up, so I was shocked to hear recently that several friends and acquaintances simply won’t eat leftovers, because it just doesn’t taste good to them. Personal preferences aside, when you break down the cost of a wonderful meal you’ve invested time and good money into, why wouldn’t you want to eat the leftovers?
Buy cheaper cuts of meat - I recently joked with a friend who refuses to eat dark meat, that she needed to learn to get over her thigh issues and move on from breasts – chicken breasts that is. Investing in quality, more expensive meat will inevitably come with some sticker shock. Ease the transition, and eat more affordably, especially when entertaining, by eating tougher cuts of red meat, or bone-in dark poultry meat.
It’s not all or nothing when it comes to organic – We can’t all afford to stock our kitchen with nothing but organic products, and you shouldn’t feel guilty if this is one area you have to scrimp on. The simple guide to the “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” will help tremendously with making educated decisions in the produce department. Additionally, recent studies show that organic produce may not necessarily be healthier for you anyhow.
Make your own dressings and sauces - The average bottled dressing costs $3.00 a bottle, and is loaded with preservatives, sugar and sodium. Want an “all-natural” preservative free bottle of salad dressing, and you’re likely to spend $5.00, whereas to make a simple olive oil based dressing at home can literally cost you pennies on the dollar. Plus, it’s preservative and chemical free.
Source online – I shared an article back in December which proved you could get quite a lot of nutritious health food online, for much cheaper than in-store, including maple syrup and some specialty flours.
Buy in-season produce – My article earlier this week talked about how you’ll not only save money, but you’ll improve your healthy by eating in-season fruits and vegetables, and buying frozen or canning, during the long winter months.
Buy in bulk – Grains, nuts and seeds, and even expensive flours can be bought in bulk either online, or at many natural foods stores, at a significant savings to you. Buying from bulk bins allows you to only buy what you need, and by eliminating packaging, the producer can pass those costs on to you. OR, buy buying items in large bulks, you save money by making a large investment up-front, with significant savings to you, in the long run.
Other creative ways to save on quality meat – I wrote this piece a while back on getting creative with purchasing quality meat, including things like cowpooling, which I’m happy to report, is next on my agenda.
What items do I personally feel is worth the added investment, and where do I invest more money?
To start with, I’ve become quite passionate about eating quality animal products including eggs, meat and dairy, and wild-caught seafood (preferably local to the US and Pacific NW). This infographic gives a wonderful overview of the basic guiding principles we use when sourcing animal products. We try to stay in the Best column as much as possible, but quite often fall in the Better and Good column, and I’m okay with that. We do the best we can with what we have. I buy organic produce, mainly according to the dirty dozen guide, and on other produce outside the spectrum, when costs are negligible. I have definitely found value in swapping out our common all-purpose white flour and refined sugar for whole wheat and wheat free flours, as well as raw honey and pure maple syrup. Those types of “clean” products are decidedly more expensive, and I notice a spike in my grocery bill when I have to refill our pantry with those things. Other than that, the foods we are buying aren’t all that more different in costs than what we bought before.
In the end, the basic premise of eating clean is simple – eat less processed foods, eat more whole foods including fruits and veggies, eat high-quality animal products, and eat at home more. There are no hard and steady set of rules that dictate one must only eat gluten-free flour or organic produce. That is the beauty of clean eating. At the very core of this way of life, it’s all about getting back to the start, to how we used to eat, before drive-thrus and massive supermarkets became a common part of our everyday. It takes time, practice, research and some creative budgeting, but it changes, be it big or small, can be done, even on the tightest of budgets.
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