Even in the best of economic times, we’ve always had a rather small budget for food. When my husband and I first got married, we were both full-time students working part-time, minimum wage jobs at $4/hour. There were months when I fed both of us for just $15/week!
Granted, it wasn’t particularly Real Food, but I mostly mention it to say: I’ve been there, folks. I’ve been dirt poor trying to do the best I can with what I had.
I understand the sticker shock that comes from choosing nourishing, real foods. It can be hard to pay $6.50/gallon for grass-fed raw milk when the grocery store milk is $3/gallon less. It feels crazy.
And, it often makes people give up in frustration before they’ve even begun to incorporate better food choices into their diet. Well, I’m here to tell you it can be done. You may not be able to do it all at once; I know we didn’t. It’s taken us years to get to where we are, and we still make compromises all the time because of budget constraints. So, give yourself a little grace.
There are two components to eating Real Food on a budget. One is learning what foods to prioritize sourcing well, and the other is learning how to manage your kitchen properly to stretch those dollars.
How to Prioritize Food Choices
Without question, this is how I prioritize spending my money:
- Getting High Quality Fats & Oils — The goal here is to eat a traditional balance of fats by reducing the amount of Omega 6 fatty acids in our diet and increasing the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s also to eat more saturated and monounsaturated fats, and to reduce polyunsaturated fat intake to less than 4%. You can do that by switching to traditional fats. If buying quality animal fats like lard or tallow from pastured/wild/grass-fed animals is too expensive, consider using more coconut oil, butter, and olive oil in your cooking. Whatever you do, eliminate all yellow seed oils like corn oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, etc. If you’re worried that you’re not getting enough Omega 3 oils, despite your best efforts, by all means buy and take a quality fish oil or krill oil supplement that’s been certified mercury-free, etc. I highly recommend supplementing with fermented cod liver oil, just because of all it’s wonderful nutritional benefits. For online sources supplements, check out the listings on my Resources Page.
- Buying Raw or Fermented Dairy From Grass-Fed Animals — Obviously, this is a big step, and knowing how to prioritize buying milk or cheese can be difficult. That\’s why I recently started a What To Buy series of posts. If you haven’t already read them, or would like a refresher on how to prioritize your dairy choices according to your budget and what’s available, check out these posts on Healthy Milk: What to Buy and Healthy Cheese: What to Buy. Fermented dairy includes yogurt, kefir, cheese, sour cream, buttermilk, and the like. These all contain healthy bacteria and living enzymes.
- Getting High Quality Meats, Fish, & Eggs – By this, I mean for you to eat meats from humanely raised, pastured animals or wild caught seafood. Grass-fed beef is nutritionally superior to its industrially raised counterpart, and the same can be said for any pastured meats. High quality eggs are trickier to find, thanks to lax labeling standards here in the U.S. that allow egg packaging to be quite misleading and downright deceptive. Check out this post on Healthy Eggs: What to Buy.
- Buying Organic Fruits & Veggies — If you’ve done the first three things on this list and still have some wiggle room in your budget, then start buying as many organic fruits & veggies as you can afford. Prioritize buying organic on thin-skinned fruits & vegetables like grapes, peaches, leafy greens, etc. If a fruit or vegetable has a thicker-skin or peel, you can feel safer buying non-organic b/c you can simply peel it and eliminate most pesticides that way.
Please note that buying organic fruits & vegetables is way down on the list. In fact, it’s got the lowest priority. That’s because of all the changes listed above, switching to organic fruits & vegetables will have the smallest effect on your health and nutritional well-being.
How To Manage Your Kitchen Properly
These are tips that I listed before in a previous post on this subject, but they’re worth repeating again and augmenting with a few clarifications. This is how I manage my kitchen:
- I prepare our own meals – Eating out is a luxury. And contrary to what KFC claimed in their infamous $10 Challenge commercial, it really is cheaper to cook your own food at home.
- I don’t buy packaged foods — This is a huge money saver! (And it does wonders for your health.) There’s a reason why my first Newbie Tip is to Become A Label Nazi. After all, even so-called “organic” packaged foods can hide unhealthy ingredients.
- I buy in bulk, and directly from local farmers when possible – I pick up bulk grains and beans and natural sweeteners from my local grocery store (or in buying clubs with like-minded friends & neighbors), and I also plan large once-a-year purchases of pastured beef and poultry. This saves a lot of money. It is considerably cheaper to buy grass-fed meat in bulk than to buy it by the cut, and (with the exception of ground beef) I beat grocery store prices for industrially raised meats for just about every cut of steak or roast out there. I know that having freezer space is an issue for many; it was for me for years. But I kept my eyes peeled for free or low-cost freezers on Craigslist and Freecycle, and eventually ended up getting one when I moved into my new house. Considering that I’m probably saving $850/year in meat costs alone, even buying a new freezer would pay for itself quickly.
- I eat fewer animal products (and more veggies) — While I believe animal products are far healthier for me than the diet dictocrats would have us believe, I’m also a vegan for about 40% of the year thanks to my religious principles (Orthodox Christian). And, even when I’m not keeping a vegan fast due to pregnancy or breastfeeding, my family still only averages about 2.67 lbs of meat per week over the course of the year. The trick here is to make meat only a part of the meal, rather than the centerpiece. Instead of serving one chicken breast per person with some sides, we’ll cut up the chicken and put it in a casserole or soup or on top of a giant salad.
- I don’t waste food — We save up unused vegetable parts and uneaten leftovers to make hearty broths and soups each week, use chicken guts to make gravy, use the carcass for a gelatin-rich broth that’s oh-so-good for your joints. This way, I can generally get four meals out of each chicken!
- I make my own convenience foods – Breads, salsas, salad dressings, condiments. It’s all healthier and cheaper when you make it at home. Check out this recipe for making homemade mayonnaise.
- I try not to double up on expensive animal proteins in any given meal — This means I rarely pair meat with cheese, eggs with cheese, meat with eggs, and the like unless I’m cooking up something special. I save lasagna and quiche for when I have company.
- I eat in season & locally, when possible — This can also save you a significant amount of money. Inevitably, there is always a week at the Farmer’s Market when everyone has tomatoes. When that happens, they’re surprisingly cheap! I’ll buy a whole case of them and can them for the winter. The same goes for any other fresh fruit or vegetable. Buy it when it’s at the peak of its flavor, and you’ll not only pay less, your food will taste so much better.
In other posts when I’ve gone into the details of how much I spend on any particular food item, I’m always amazed by the diversity of people’s comments. What I’ve learned is that food costs vary greatly from place to place. You simply need to do the best you can with what you’ve got.
With time, you’ll start feeling comfortable spending a little more on food and cutting out other expenses that seem less necessary. If you’re not there yet, don’t worry. Just do your best!
I will conclude with this thought: I feed my family of four nourishing, real foods on far less than the federal food stamp allotment for a family my size ($668/month). It takes a lot of thought, planning, and detective work to eat this way, but I do it.