How to Eat Real Food on a Budget: 5 simple steps to save
Eating real whole foods doesn’t have to break the bank. You don’t have to skimp on protein to save money. Despite that fact that my husband was between jobs for a long time and I was only working part-time, our family of 5 (back then) continued eating very healthy despite our minimal budget for food. During those years I learned a lot about eating frugally because we had no other choice, but now we can keep eating frugally and save our money for something else. It’s no fun to waste all your money on your food budget.
To begin, I’d like to share just a few basic steps to follow that will greatly reduce your grocery bill:
Set A Budget (and stick to it):
If you do nothing else, this step alone with save you immense amounts of money. Some people find it best to use the envelope method and each month set aside their grocery budget in cash. This works well for people who are easily tempted to go over budget and spend extra. For some people, just deciding on an amount not to go over is enough and they are able to limit their spending accordingly. It’s important that you know yourself and what kind of system you need to use.
There was a time when I would not budge (even a £1) over our £60 weekly budget for groceries. I would literally add up the groceries as I put things into the shopping cart and decide what we could go without if I went over budget. As we became a little more comfortable financially I loosened up how close I stick to the budget. Right now, I have set our grocery budget (food and general household supplies) on a scale ranging from £100-£130 for our family of 6. Some weeks I spend under and some weeks I push right up to the top range depending on how many pantry staples we are running low on.
Now I realise that I am super lucky to be living in the UK where fresh food is so cheap. If you are in the US, it will be a lot more difficult to keep to such a small food budget, but not impossible. If you find that at the moment you are spending double or triple the amount you want to on your food. Don’t go crazy and slash your budget right away. Pick your ideal budget and every month try to reduce your budget by a certain smaller amount until you have learned how to live on that amount. In a few months time you should be able to reach your target grocery budget.
It’s amazing to find that when you set a budget you realise how many things end up in your shopping cart that you really don’t need. Having a budget also helps you pay more attention the price of things and you are more inclined to price compare and become more savvy in your spending.
Plan Your Meals & Shop with a List Once A Week
A meal plan is an important factor that will allow you to stick to a budget. If you go to the store without a plan you either, end up with way more food than you need that gets wasted or you end up having to make frequent trips to the store which wastes time and gas and always ends in spending more money. How many times do you go to the store for milk or bread and come out with about 15 extra things?
Having a meal plan (whether weekly or monthly) means that when you go to the store you can make a specific list. Before you go to the store, check out your own fridge and pantry to see if you already have anything on the list. I won’t go into any more details about how to meal plan here because I wrote a whole post on it a few weeks back. You can check it out here.
Buy Loose Whole Veggies & Avoid Grated or Individual Cheeses
While the convenience of baby carrots, pre-cut stir fry veggie packs, individual fruit packets, string cheeses, pre-grated cheese, salad mixes and sliced mushrooms is tempting. You will pay double and sometimes up to quadruple the amount for these conveniences. For example, a bag of whole carrots is 4 times cheaper than a bag of baby carrots, carrot sticks, or grated carrot. 4 times. Is it really worth paying all that extra when you could spend about 10 minutes tops cutting up that bag of carrots yourself. I also find that kids are much more excited about eating a whole carrot than they are about eating cut up carrots.
Not only are these convenience whole foods way more expensive than just buying the whole unprepared food, they also aren’t as healthy. Grated cheese has preservatives added to it to keep it from sticking together. Often fruits will have some kind of preservative put on them to keep them from browning. Also, half the time the pre-cut fruit is slimy, expires much faster, and does not taste nearly as good. Another thing to keep in mind when buying fruit and veggies is that they lose their nutrients faster when exposed to oxygen. If they are pre-cut, they will be losing their nutrients faster than if they are left in their whole state.
Another trick of the supermarket, especially here in the UK is that they like to bag up all the vegetables for you in easy to grab bags of bananas, peppers, carrots, potatoes, etc. Whenever you can, look for loose vegetables and fruit and you will find that they are significantly cheaper than the exact same thing put into bags. Not only are you saving money, but you are helping the environment by not using extra packaging and reducing food waste because you can buy the exact amount you need rather than what they have prepackaged for you.
Leftovers are my best friend, for so many reasons. One because they save me so much money and second because they save me so much time. Whenever I cook, I like to make extra whether it is a double batch that I can store away in the freezer to be used for another meal down the road or whether it’s just a bit extra that can be eaten for breakfast or lunch the next day.
In my meal plan I actually write in at least one dinner that just says leftovers. On those days, I either serve up a smorgasborg of the leftovers from a few different meals from the week, use some of the leftovers in the fridge to make an entirely new meal or just serve up the exact same meal we ate a few days before. Most leftovers last in the fridge for about 5 days, so to keep things from getting boring, I tend to wait a day or two before I serve them up again.
Leftovers not only save so much money but they can also force us to eat healthier portion sizes. Instead of filling up on the denser, heavier, and more expensive main dishes, we can can limit ourselves to one portion of the main course with extra veggies on the sides. You can save money with leftovers and train yourself in portion control at the same time. Eating healthy can be hard, especially on kids and husbands who might not totally be on board with you, but this is great a way to get them to fill up on the healthy sides of veggies.
Familiarise Yourself with Prices & Shop Around
It can take a little while for you to become familiar with the price of things in the stores near you. When I first started really becoming frugal with my groceries, I did a lot of research online before I went shopping comparing prices with the various stores. Having access to online prices makes this step a whole lot easier and quicker. In the beginning, I would literally look up every item on my list at the two cheapest stores in my area and make a list for each store. I ended up finding out from my research that here in the UK, Aldi (which is now making its way to the States as well) was significantly cheaper than any other store. They don’t have everything I need there, but I get almost everything thing from there and have found that I spend almost half of what I used to spend at Asda (an equivalent to Walmart in the States).
As you get deeper into health foods, you will find that you can’t get all the ingredients that you want at these general supermarkets and might find yourself needing to shop at more specialised health food stores. Before you go there, check online markets like Amazon or if you are lucky enough to be in the States check out Thrive Market (which is a mix of Amazon and Costco). I have heard great things about this online marketplace and how much cheaper you can find the more specialised health foods and products.
I haven’t found anything like that yet in the UK, so I find myself either buying in bulk at Holland & Barrett when they have their buy one, get one for a penny sales or just buying in bulk off Amazon. I find that nuts, seeds, dried fruits, coconut butter, coconut aminos, high quality vinegar and oils are much cheaper on Amazon than in physical Health Food stores. It’s just important for you to familiarise yourself with the stores around you and learn where and how you can get them the cheapest.
Don’t worry if applying all of these steps is just too much for you right now, even just picking one can get you started to saving lots of money. I’ll be sharing many more tips on eating real food on a budget in the future, but I hope this one gets you started saving some money without having to compromise your health.
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