Hey Laura, how do I eat healthy on the cheap?

Kristina writes:

Hey Laura!
My husband and I recently decided that we want to lower our food budget, without any loss to our health.  The problem is that it seems like cooking/eating healthfully is always so much more expensive.  Any tips or suggestions?

Then she ups the ante:

My husband will NOT eat leftovers that have to be refrigerated, so making something at the beginning of the week, and just reheating it several times throughout the week doesn’t work for us.

Before you judge, Kristina’s husband is a great guy who definitely pulls his own weight in the kitchen. He’s not just saddling Kristina with his gustatory whims unfairly; he does a lot of cooking himself!

Lowering your food budget while still maintaining some semblance of health (ie: no 10 for $10 freezer meals) can be daunting.  Not eating leftovers makes it seem like an impossibility. First I’ll talk about finding great natural/organic food deals, then I’ll discuss ways Kristina can work around the no-leftover challenge.

Know what you spend where
The less money you want to spend on food, the more work you have to put into saving it. This is why my food budget is (aside from rent + utilities) the highest part of my household budget: I’m lazy. I honestly can’t be bothered to do the work of searching out the best deal, finding coupons to double up, etc. I give mad props to the shoppers who keep coupon folders and return from the grocery store with less than $20 spent on a whole month’s worth of food; I love reading about that, but I just cannot get my head around doing it!

So, my spending suffers for it, and I cut corners in other parts of my household budget - like almost always buying used clothing and stalking CraigsList for other purchases.

If you want to really save money on food, first you need to start doing some comparison shopping. Find the best deals on the foods with which you normally stock your fridge and pantry. Don’t just go to Whole Foods because it is convenient; it is also almost always going to be the most expensive place to shop for natural foods!

Start a spreadsheet or just a simple list of the foods you buy most frequently. You can start populating data by just looking at your most recent receipts, but then as you hit the stores, take note of the prices as you go.

GetRichSlowly.com (one of my favorite money management sites in general) has a good article on how to do this. You can download a free grocery pricebook here - they’re trying to sell you their whole system, but the free download is useful and you can immediately unsubscribe from their mailing list upon receiving the spreadsheet template.

It’s a bit of a pain to get a price comparison list started, but pretty soon you’ll have a good picture of where you’re getting the best deals on what.

 

Shop around
Since Kristina is in Denver, I spent a little time looking around for some places to shop in her area. Whole Foods grow like mushrooms in that part of Colorado, but there have to be smaller guys who offer better prices on equally healthy and natural foods. Let’s see.

Sunflower Markets - “Serious Foods…Silly Prices” is their motto. They sound a lot like a Whole Foods with Trader Joe’s prices, if you know what I mean. They also have some killer coupons, and on Wednesdays their sales flyers overlap, so you have double the options to save.

Sprouts - another Whole Foods type knockoff. You have to be a savvy shopper, but their weekly deals page might harbor some savings for you.

Vitamin Cottage’s Natural Grocers - Vitamin Cottage offers 100% organic produce, foods, and supplements, store-wide. They don’t carry anything with artificial flavors, colors, or sweeteners. This is definitely a healthy food mecca, but most of the time the prices will be a little bit higher. For instance, right now Lara Bars are on sale at Sunflower Market for 10 for $10, while at Vitamin Cottage they are $1.47 apiece.

Check out the natural foods selections at a discount grocery chain, like Save-A-Lot. Even conventional grocery stores have at least a small section for natural foods and even some bulk items; you may find their prices are lower on certain items.

Salvage Grocery Stores are like the “scratch and dent” section in the back of the furniture store. Can you live with a slightly torn label on that can of organic stewed tomatoes? Yes, you can, especially when you discover that tear just knocked a buck off the price tag! There is a huge overturn at these places, so you can’t count on them for consistency. But the deals are amazing, and if you have some pantry space, it’s worth it to stock up (it’s also worth a drive if they aren’t in your immediate vicinity). I do a lap around my local Grocery Outlet store nearly every week. Sometimes I come up empty, but this week I filled my cart with near-expired gourmet goat milk yogurts for 2 for $1. At Whole Foods, they are $1.79 apiece! Just don’t get sucked into buying things you wouldn’t ordinarily get just because they are so cheap!

Shop farmers’ markets (you can find a great listing in your area by searching on LocalHarvest.org. There are tons in the summer, but even Denver has at least one year-round farmers’ market! Buying direct from the farmer can almost always guarantee you a good deal. Plan to arrive about an hour before closing and be prepared to make a few low-ball offers. Farmers don’t want to tote unsold produce home, so they’re more likely to cut a deal to offload it onto you.

Costco. Costco. Costco. Be sure you price-check here, because buying in mass quantities is not always cheaper! I have quite a list of organic and natural foods that I buy at Costco right now - some produce, a couple cereals, some canned stuff. Again, don’t get sucked into buying things you don’t need. It’s really hard to escape a trip to Costco without spending at least $100, but trust me, if you make a list and stick to it, you can do it!

Super Targets and Wal Marts have some very good deals on natural and organic foods. Definitely add them to your list for price comparisons. They also frequently have store coupons that you can double with manufacturer’s coupons.

GreenPeople.org has a fairly comprehensive looking list of food co-ops, natural and health food stores sorted by state.

CraigsList. Seriously! I found my egg supplier on CraigsList. I pay $2/dozen for gorgeous, orange-yolked free range eggs that would otherwise cost $5/dozen at the Farmers’ Market! I just noodled around on the Denver CL page for you and found someone selling cheap veggies from her backyard garden (she also has eggs, $3 for 18!), farm fresh eggs for $1.50 per dozen, the Brighton Rotary Club fundraiser for peaches, pears, and corn, someone selling Wild Oats brand granola for $1 per 12 oz. package…you get the idea. It takes some creative searching, but you can definitely find some fun stuff on CraigsList!

 

Coupon Clipping
I’ve always been somewhat bitter about how hard it is to find coupons for foodstuffs I actually eat. Usually the deals are on nearly-expired freezer meals or other highly processed “food substances” and not on the fresh produce and bulk grains and legumes that I typically buy. However, there are a bunch of websites dedicated to helping you find discounts on the good stuff. Here are some to get you started:

HealthESavers.com

MamboSprouts.com

NaturalFoodList.com

ThriftyMama.com’s online organic coupon resources

Saving Cents with Sense

 

Change what you eat and how you shop
The best way to eat nutritiously on the cheap is to eat the raw materials, as close to the ground as possible - which usually means “shopping the perimeter” of the store. The center aisles hold the stuff with the extra long shelf lives; things with too many preservatives and not enough real nutrition.

I like Michael Pollan’s rules: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” He elaborates with other advice: “Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce,” “Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot,” and “Eat at the table (a desk is not a table),” among others.

Here’s a good article on what “Real Food” is. In sum:

~ Food grows and dies. It isn’t created.
~ Food rots, wilts, and becomes generally unappetizing, typically rather quickly.
~ Food doesn’t need an ingredient label (and probably isn’t in a package either).
~ Food doesn’t have celebrity endorsements.
~ Food doesn’t make health claims.

FoodRenegade.com (one I just discovered during my research for this article - I love it!) has a very helpful guide to eating real food on a budget. That is a must-read. It’s basically what I would write here if she hadn’t already done it. But, since about 95% of my readers don’t click through the links, I’ll do a little summary for your lazy behinds.


First, she talks about food choices:
1. Getting High Quality Fats & Oils [to rebalance your Omega 3s and 6s]
2. Buying Raw or Fermented Dairy From Grass-Fed Animals [or, I would add, eliminating dairy otherwise]
3. Getting High Quality Meats, Fish, & Eggs [more expensive, so you eat less - about the amount you’re supposed to]
4. Buying Organic Fruits & Veggies [I say, if you can’t do full organic, at least avoid the Dirty Dozen]

Then she goes over managing your kitchen properly:
1. Prepare your own meals
2. Don’t buy packaged foods
3. Buy in bulk and direct from farmers
.....and more.

There are a bunch of other helpful links included at the end of the article. You should definitely go read it. Here’s a link to it again so you don’t even have to scroll! ;)

I’ll add a couple other points before launching into the Leftover Avoidance Plan. If you eat a lot of yogurt, make it yourself. Did you know you can make yogurt at room temperature, without any fancy equipment? Sure, it takes more work than pulling it off the shelf at the grocery store, but like I said - saving money often does. Find a bread recipe you love and save yourself $4-5 on every fancy whole grain loaf you never buy again.

I’m taking my own advice and will soon be purchasing this Sprouter for $10 instead of spending $2 on a tiny container of sprouts for our salads every week! Do you have a sunny windowsill or patch of yard? Grow some herbs, or a small tomato plant. Every little change you make is money in your pocket, healthier for you, and ultimately much more satisfying - eating a tomato/basil sandwich the ingredients for which you produced single-handedly is a deeply rewarding experience!

 

How to Cook New Everyday
I’ve found that the best way to stay within a food budget is to menu plan. I’m assuming that while your husband doesn’t like refrigerated leftovers, he is totally willing to eat repurposed food. For example, say one night you have fajitas - onions, peppers, maybe a little meat thrown in. The next night, you can blend up the leftover veggies, some canned tomatoes and peanut butter and make a really kickin’ Moroccan tomato soup. Leftovers, yes, but disguised as something entirely new. I think that would work for you.

So, menu planning becomes really crucial for your situation! You need to cook with an eye toward the future. Your grocery list (and you must shop with a list!) needs to revolve around raw materials that can be used in at least a couple different ways.

If you boil a pot of black beans (very cheap when you buy in bulk!) at the beginning of the week, you can plan dinners around using up those beans: Burritos, nachos, quesadillas, and soup are a given, but how about black bean, chile and lime hummus with crudites? Or burgers with homemade black bean patties?

Take some of those veggies you have stored up for salads and dip them in this glorious peanut sauce for a quick take on gado-gado. Or add pad thai noodles and cilantro and simmer everything in coconut milk and spices for this delicious Big Curry Noodle Pot.

You’ll notice that the recipes I have tossed out here are mostly vegetable-based. That’s because I never think in terms of “meat + side dish.” In the summer, when the veggies are coming out our ears, I tend to think in terms of, “What needs to get used up before it wilts?” and then ponder, “What grain or legume can I serve with this?” Meat (or faux substitutes) is often a total afterthought in our house, and that saves us quite a lot of money (since when we do buy meat, I will only tolerate the highest quality, local, grass-fed, sustainable, yada yada kind of meat available).

To show you what I mean, take a look at my ridiculously overstocked fridge. I had a convergence of Wednesday’s CSA veggie box with a hostess gift of more homegrown greens…it’s a vegetable explosion. But we’ll definitely have finished most of this by the time I pick up next week’s box!

summer fridge

Top shelf: almost a gallon of raw milk (a gift; I don’t usually get milk), two avocados sitting atop a bowl of grape tomatoes, homemade applesauce. In the back: flax seeds and flax seed meal, tahini, goat milk yogurts, and some bread.

Second shelf: huge bag of greens sitting on top a container of steamed cauliflower (for dipping), three artichokes, two kinds of homemade hummus with a container of kefir grains on top. In the back: sunflower seeds, pepitas, kalamata olives, and capers.

Third shelf: 1 pound box of organic spring mix (a week’s supply), 1 pound box of organic baby spinach (a week’s supply), sitting on top of 2 pounds of blueberries and a batch of Asian cabbage salad. Not much behind that.

Drawer: Organic baby carrots, some hard boiled eggs, tortillas and wraps for quick lunches, perhaps a lime, some fresh ginger.

Bottom shelf: A head of CSA romaine, Pace Picante sauce, two dozen fresh farm eggs.

In the drawers below that I have yet more greens and odds and ends of veggies, lemons, and eggplants.

I realize this is a little extreme for some; when most people look into my fridge, they don’t even see food - just an overwhelming amount of greenery. Don’t be intimidated; I’ve been moving toward this kind of eating for the past 3 years, and I started out vegetarian anyway!

But, besides wanting to show off all my beautiful food, I want to show you an example of raw materials. I’ve been using the contents of my fridge to make the following, with very few leftovers involved (aside from extra hummus and a couple servings of the quinoa salad):

~ Daily salads or wraps with Crack Dressing
~ Crudites with hummus, Fruity Quinoa Salad, and garlicky green beans
~ Puy lentils with chives, shredded carrots, and sliced grape tomatoes (and maybe herbed goat cheese…mmmm…)
~ Breakfast hash browns with kale, chard, and chives (equal parts potatoes and greens gets you off to a good veggie start for the day!)
~ Green drinks every morning - this morning’s was frozen mixed berries, kale, spinach, and a banana
~ Chopped cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower with a healthier take on PW’s Asian salad dressing
~ Spring greens with strawberry balsamic dressing, goat cheese, and spicy candied pecans

Who knows what else I’ll wind up making with my plethora of greens. Lettuce wraps could be good (that recipe link is just an example; you can wrap anything in lettuce!) :)

In the summer, we eat tons of fresh fruits and veggies basically in their natural state. There is much less cooking here as there is assembling. Our salads aren’t just lettuce, either. Pretty much anything is fair game for a salad around here: fruit, nuts, seeds, hard boiled eggs, cheese, meat….it’s all good. If you aren’t big salad eaters, then while you’re training your palate to appreciate bunny food, roll up your greens and toppings in a whole grain tortilla or wrap.

In winter, we also try to eat what’s in season (with perhaps the exception of bananas). Our fruit intake decreases and is mostly frozen - either store-bought or whatever of the summer’s excess that I’ve frozen or canned. We rely more on roasts and soups - warmer, heartier fare. Eating what’s in season is almost always going to be cheaper because it hasn’t had to travel so far to get to you. Sure, you can buy fresh strawberries in December, but unless you live in a place where springtime arrives in December, that strawberry has traveled halfway around the globe to get to you and you’ll be paying for all those miles. Plus, it won’t taste very good! Frozen food is a great solution - it’s frozen at the peak of ripeness, so its nutrients are still pretty high. Canned foods have much less nutritional value, plus the addition of preservative chemicals and (in the case of most beans and veggies) added sodium.

In the winter, roasted vegetables are an old standby - just cut up your veggies (root veggies work best: turnips, onions, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, but also zucchini and peppers work nicely) into bite-sized pieces, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper (add some rosemary sprigs if you want to be fancy) and then roast in the oven (400 degrees is nice, then turn on the broiler right at the end to get them toasted) until a knife goes through easily. You can make soup with the leftovers - just add broth! Sometimes I’ll add some frozen or canned corn and leave everything chunky, or I’ll use my immersion blender for a nice creamy soup. Leftover roasted vegetable soup can be turned into a chicken pot pie with the addition of a cream sauce, some chicken (or substitute), and a biscuit or pastry crust. Or mash up the leftover roasted veg, add some lentils or chickpeas, breadcrumbs, and a couple eggs and make a vegetarian loaf - great with mashed potatoes or sliced in sandwiches!

Do you see where I’m going with this? It takes a bit of creative thinking, but repurposing all those healthy leftovers can be a very fun game to play in the kitchen. You absolutely don’t have to be stuck eating the same thing in its original form all week long. Just think ahead and have a game plan for how you’re going to repurpose what you’re making. Stick to a shopping list and use what you have. Pretty soon, you’ll find your groove and discover you’re eating well on less!

 

 

Hey Laura, I think... Hey Laura, how do I eat healthy on the cheap?

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