I used to love checking the receipt to see if I could save more than I spent, and I was pretty masterful at getting the great deals and then buying dozens of them. My mom would even share her coupons with me since she couldn’t use them all and I was too cheap to buy a Sunday paper.
Poor mom, she doesn’t even know what to send my way these days. Over the past few years, I use fewer and fewer items that have coupons, from grocery to pharmacy. They’re few and far between for produce, and bulk mail order grains and local farmers don’t really do coupons!
All that whining aside, it is possible to save money and live within a budget while buying whole foods, and sometimes even really well-sourced “real food”, and it’s not that much more difficult than serious couponing. It just may take a little more creativity, the same amount of organization, and a lot of cutting – just not always with scissors.
I make a lot of willy nilly decisions, but there are some places I’ve really thought things through in the area of food budget. It’s my goal to help people balance their care for their family’s health with the environment AND their budget, all while trying not to spend forever in the kitchen. I want to show you that yes, you CAN live a more natural life without filing for bankruptcy.
In this post I’ll list all the real food practices and foods that you really should be eating, no matter what, and divide them into those that will save money over a conventional diet and those where you must spend more to get more. Along with some cleaning and personal product frugality, you can trim here and spend there and still stay within a budget while eating a super healthy, real food diet.
This idea is really individual to a family’s preferences, time available to make from scratch, family size, and budget. Many might make different choices, so do read this as simply my personal story.
The Big Idea of Buying Whole Foods
When I think about buying food, if it’s a whole food, I’m happy. If it’s a well-sourced (organic, local, etc.) whole food, I’m thrilled. Those are the litmus tests I apply in general: skip what is fake, always; buy what is real, always; buy what is real and grown properly, whenever you can.
I personally splurge on:
- Meat – grass fed and organic straight from the farm (If you choose to buy through that link, use the code ks10 to get free bacon and $10 off!)
- Milk – $6/gallon for raw milk, straight from the farm
- Eggs – $3/dozen for organic, pastured eggs, straight from the farm
- Butter – I go back and forth on this, sometimes buying the $3.50-4/pound “better” butter – no meds, partially grassfed, and sometimes just sticking with $1.50-2/pound on sale. I would never compromise on a butter substitute or margarine, though. Yikes!
- Healthy fats – I buy a gallon at a time of coconut oil (use the code STEWARDSHIP to get 10% off) and extra virgin olive oil . They’re always gone before I think possible!
- Sweeteners – I mourn the fact that I no longer (okay, rarely) buy a 5-pound bag of sugar for around two bucks, but now I get a gallon of maple syrup for $40 or a ½ gallon of local honey for $16-20. Painful, painful. So I have to learn to use less, especially if I find I need to cut my budget.
- Anytime I buy organic, I feel like it’s a splurge, because so recently I didn’t buy anything organic at all unless it was pretty much the same price as the conventional or for baby food.
I’m a HUGE compromise girl. My tips for the “settle” choices:
- Produce, any produce, is better than no produce. Settle on non-organics if they’re too hard to find or too expensive!
- Frozen vegetables and fruits, especially organic ones, are hardly a compromise. They’re usually flash frozen immediately after being picked, so they probably have more nutrient-density than the broccoli that you allow to sit in your produce drawer for 4 days, or the lettuce you buy to last all week because you only grocery shop on Thursdays.
- Ice Cream: I know how to make ice cream without an ice cream maker, but it’s a little complicated for a regular treat. We love ice cream. I try to focus on the simple ingredients in Breyer’s and eat a small bowl, savoring every bite!
- Ketchup: Again, I know how to make my own, but my husband didn’t like it and it doesn’t last very long. We use so little ketchup that I just buy Meijer naturals or organic and call it good enough.
- On meat: If I can’t get to the farm or Farmer’s Market to get the stuff I KNOW is top notch (organic, pastured or grassfed, nearly organic, antibiotic and hormone free, etc.), often I will go to a local butcher’s for “better” meat. It’s a step up from the grocery store because there’s some “local” involved and no antibiotics or hormones. However, it’s not organic, sometimes partially grass fed, and very pricey. Last week I bought conventional store chicken, bone-in breasts, 99 cents/pound. I felt a little twinge of guilt, but today when I bought the same thing for $3.99/pound at the butcher’s and knew it still wasn’t top notch quality, I felt pretty darn good about last week’s chicken consumption! Real meat is always better than processed meat (lunchmeat or bacon, for example), and you can at least get the bones to make nourishing stock as well! I’m thinking I’m going to shoot for the best stuff but compromise for sanity’s sake on the cheap stuff every so often. We all do what we can. If you want to buy great quality meat but just can’t find access to some in your area, Butcher Box is a great option, and if you use the code ks10 you’ll get some free bacon and $10 off your order.
What You can Just Skip:
This section includes some “junk food” that you should just skip because no one should eat it, a good number of items you skip because you can make them yourself for less money and more nutrition, and a few high-quality items that we would eat if we had more money, but we swap out for something different.
- Bottled water and juice
- Potato chips (except for an occasional fun summer meal)
- Desserts (except the aforementioned ice cream!)
- Packaged snacks of any kind (because you have Healthy Snacks to Go, right?!)
- Packaged frozen dinners (make double and freeze your own)
- Breads, once you learn to make your own (get that breadmaker for $10 at a yard sale!)
- Cereal (much to my husband’s deep dismay, the 40 cereal boxes that used to grace our basement have disappeared entirely. We rely on hot oatmeal, homemade granola, yogurt, eggs, or homemade breakfast items each morning.)
- Salad dressings (I just don’t even keep them on hand anymore. Once a month or so I get dirty looks at the table because we’re practically out of homemade dressings, but I can’t justify the massive amounts of soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup in the store-bought versions. I just won’t do it!)
- Expensive cuts of meat: steaks, boneless chicken breasts
- Expensive fish: wild caught salmon, for example, and much other sustainable seafood makes a huge dent in the budget. I grab a can of Alaskan salmon and spicy seasoning and take cod liver oil instead…
- Super expensive stuff – lard and tallow from the store, sprouted products, ready-made bars (even the high-quality ones), fancy sugars.
Yes, I pretty much avoid the entire middle section of the grocery store, except to pop in for some salsa, spaghetti sauce, canned fish, dry beans, vinegar, peanut butter and spices/baking supplies, and even some of those I’m finding in bulk more often these days.
Main priorities? Get enough meat to plan a week but try to avoid meat-centric meals, fill your fridge with produce, and have lots of oats, rice and potatoes on hand to fill out the meals. When there’s money left, grab some dried fruits and nuts for snacks and treats.
Can You Eat Well AND Spend Less?
Let’s look at each “splurge” above and find one way to splurge less…
- Buy only whole chickens, make stock, and use them for multiple meals. You should be able to get 3 dinners with leftovers for a family of 4 with one chicken, if meat is not the centerpiece of the meal.
- Use half or three-quarters of a pound of ground beef or sausage in recipes that call for a pound, like soups and casseroles. Cut taco meat or sloppy joes with cooked lentils.
- Make “meat-centric” meals rare. Bacon becomes a seasoning.
- Strrrrrrrretch the meat! I use one pound of ground pork, make my own homemade sausage with seasoning, and put half a pound in sausage, kale and bean soup, sausage spinach pasta toss or savory Greek sausage-stuffed squash, THEN use 1/4 pound in two awesome breakfasts with eggs, peppers, etc. or a grain-free quiche. That’s one pound of meat for three meals…
- Some people wondered how my meat expenditures from this week’s 2011 real food budget could possibly be so low. I use the strategies above, plus
- we bought 1/16 cow in December 2010
- we get venison from my brother from time to time
- I made some cheap grocery store compromises
- lots of beans
- lots of soups
- a meatless meal or two per week
- On a related issue, we bought about 60 pounds of in fall 2010 (for $2.99/lb!!!) that lasted us pretty much through the summer, so our nuts expenditures were much, much less in 2011 than we consumed.
- There’s not much you can do here, honestly. I console myself that eggs are super healthy and pound for pound generally cost less than meat. But we’re pushing a dozen for scrambled eggs, so that’s a $4 breakfast, and certainly not frugal! The elimination diet meal planner doesn’t lend itself to eating less than 4 dozen eggs a week…
- Make your own yogurt, and only buy what you can afford. My kids know that they can choose milk as a drink for one meal a day. If we use too much, we run out before milk day. It is what it is… When I make a cream of potato soup nowadays, I use more broth than milk, and it’s more nutritious, just as delicious, and more frugal. Try water instead of dairy in biscuits or pancake recipes – you’ll find you can often get away with it!
- I do buy a decent amount of store cheese and just decide I’m not going to worry too much about it. I’m trying to focus more on raw milk and organic cheeses, but this has been as our budget gets more wiggle room. If I wanted only organic and was on a budget, I wouldn’t eat very much cheese.
- Use a microplane grater to grate cheese directly on someone’s plate rather than incorporating a cup of shredded cheese into or onto a dish that calls for it. The eater still sees and feels the cheese in the mouth, but you can use a LOT less with similar taste.
- If you don’t have a source for raw cheese, I just found this one online with pretty good prices and sometimes free shipping. I just got it in the mail and will let you know how it tastes!
- Buy in season from local farmers – ask your farmer questions to find those that grow organically but don’t pay for certification. That saves you money, too.
- Grow your own – here’s the organic gardening series at KS
- Focus on the dirty dozen – don’t worry as much about conventional broccoli, cauliflower, avocados, onions, etc. Splurge a bit on potatoes, apples, greens.
- Watch for reduced racks and learn what day your health food stored reduces their slightly older produce, then use or freeze it right away at home.
You can do it! I mentioned on last year’s real food budget that as we started switching over, I prioritized real food so much so that I put tax refund and garage sale money into the grocery budget instead of somewhere like entertainment. Make it important, spend some time cooking and meal planning, and you CAN stay within a normal budget and eat almost exclusively whole foods, and hopefully even good, real, well-grown food.
Remember than an apple, even a conventionally grown one, is always better than a jar of applesauce with X chemical on sale with a coupon.
Here’s Where You Can Save
- Homemade yogurt: I save $700 on 12 jars/2 weeks with conventional milk/conventional yogurt, pricing both yogurt 32 oz. and 1 gallon milk at about $3 apiece, or I save $780-1092 using organic raw milk at $6/gallon vs. organic yogurt at $4-5/quart. Because it only takes me 20 minutes or so per gallon, I’m getting “paid” about $35/hour to make yogurt. Not bad for a stay-at-home mom! Here’s my yogurt making tutorial with the Cliff’s notes version of the process, pictures, and testimonials from people other than me that it really is easy! Also, see the new troubleshooting guide for homemade yogurt and how to make creamy raw milk yogurt.
- Homemade chicken stock: it’s practically free. I probably spend maybe a buck more to buy the bones themselves, another buck in onions, carrots and celery (if that), less than a buck, hopefully, on power for the stove, and I get at least 1-2 gallons of stock. For organic, no-MSG broth at the store, that would cost $12-25 easily, maybe more. Since it does take a good hour to complete all the parts, I only earn about $20/hour. “Only.” And of course, if you use the bones more than once…you’re saving even more by making food from garbage!
- Cooking with dry beans: I paid $1.35/lb. for 25 lbs. of organic black beans from Country Life. Cans cost over $2 if you get good organic ones, about $0.69 if you get conventional on a really good sale. I won’t spend more than $1/lb. on dry beans at the store. One pound of beans generally makes the equivalent of about 4 cans. My organic beans cost 50% less than conventional canned beans, and they save almost $7 vs. organic canned beans without BPA (Eden Organic brand from Amazon). Shave off a few cents for stove energy (always cook at least a pound, if not two, at a time, and you’ve got enough to buy The Everything Beans Book after just a pound of beans! 😉 Or, you can say you “make” about $6-30/hour by taking two 5-minute sessions to cook dry beans. For me, because I do this far too often and have to spend 15 minutes cleaning it up, my pay is docked down to about $5/hour, but it’s my own dumb fault.
- Picking and freezing your own fruit IF you live in the right area: A friend of mine just moved to Virginia and discovered (after picking) that peaches were less per pound at the store! Here in Michigan, we can save a ton of money on U-pick apples, blueberries, and strawberries, and by buying peaches and organic peppers to freeze and organic tomatoes to can at the Farmer’s Market.
- Fermenting vegetables (and fruit) is definitely something I need to do more of. Not only does fermentation wildly increase nutrients, but it’s quick, easy, and super frugal, helping to preserve the harvest and allowing you to buy cheap veggies like cabbage and make them into a superfood.
- Buying in season and in bulk. I’m so excited to have our own house again so I can do things like buying 50 pounds of oatmeal or 25 pounds of beans. I’m also saving up for an upright freezer instead of my very small chest freezer so I can really tank up on the summer peppers (and other things) even more and maybe buy a quarter of a cow or something. (Do you get jazzed about silly things like that too?) I wrote extensively last year on Midwest food sources and buying in bulk; that post is definitely worth perusing as you seek to trim your budget on real foods.
- Make from scratch: You kind of have to in order to eat real food, but just remember that your time in the kitchen is saving money! Here are some considerations when cooking to make sure you’re saving money (the second list of 5). You can try my real food donation printables for some inexpensive and filling meal ideas for your family.
- Be sure to check out 5 frugal tips for purchasing food from last year, including the reduced produce section, local butchers, buying in bulk with friends, and buying a portion of a cow.
Save on Personal Products So You Can Spend More on Food
Although I do review some spendy items from time to time, like some of the 80 sunscreens my family has tested, I really mainly use super inexpensive cleaning and personal care items. Use these to save in one category so you can splurge a little more on food:
- Homemade deodorant (incredibly cheap)
- No poo shampoo method (even more incredibly cheap)
- Vinegar, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda for most day-to-day cleaning
- Soap nuts for laundry – they are lasting me forever, partly because I know the trick for how to tell if soap nuts are still active – each load costs pennies. I do buy oxygen bleach for soaking stains and Biokleen Bac-Out for spraying stains, but I dilute the Biokleen 3:1 with water and it really does last a long time as well.
- Shaklee Basic H, about a Tablespoon diluted in a whole foaming pump for hand soap. Expensive to buy a big jug (maybe $35 for 32 ounces?) but it will last us forever. Castile soap or other natural liquid concentrates work well also, but the foaming pump is the key. This has to save us a bunch each year, based on the one bottle of “natural” foaming soap I bought when we were living at my in-laws and how FAST it needed a refill! This practice also helps you avoid triclosan (now banned by the FDA) and artificial colors that are in many soaps.
- Homemade baby wipes (I probably spend $12/year on baby wipes for a full time diapered kid)
- Oil cleansing method to wash your face (EVOO is expensive, but you use so very little, it’s cheap in the long run)
- Zit treatment and acne cream: I’ve been using Redmond Clay, and you can be economical by buying it dry and mixing it with water yourself. (Here’s a You Tube video showing how.)
- Why use body wash? Just buy regular soap, or nice homemade soap if you have a local supplier (or try MadeOn‘s goat milk soap). Erin also posted on an easy, non-toxic homemade body wash that is great for babies or adults.
- My hard lotion (also from MadeOn) may cost more than the super cheap stuff I used to buy, but it also works better and I don’t worry when Jonathan sucks on my hand after I’ve put some on. For me, MadeOn products are not that much of a splurge, and I always buy the refill packs, which are less expensive.
- The only two places I can’t find an inexpensive alternative are dish soap and dishwasher detergent. We just have to suck it up, buy in bulk, or buy on Amazon with Swagbucks for those items.
Finding Real Food in Unexpected Places
You don’t have to go right to the farm or shop exclusively at health food stores and mail order specialty shops to eat real food. Whole foods, in their natural form, are more pervasive than we sometimes realize.
Real food is in your grocery store, all over the produce section. I adore the reduced produce racks, where they sell slightly bruised apples, potatoes from a bag where one went bad, dented peppers, and other less than perfect fruits and vegetables.If your store doesn’t do a reduced produce rack, write the manager and ask him/her to institute one. In these challenging food times, every little bit counts, and I think any wise manager would see your point. Use the draft example here as a starting point.
I sent a letter to my store asking them to forgo the Styrofoam trays, and now they use plastic bags almost exclusively! I even reuse the bags for future produce purchases.
Three KEY tips when buying second best produce:
(1) Don’t get stuff that’s just gross. If it has mold, is so old that it has probably lost all its nutrients (especially for broccoli and greens), or is otherwise unusable (like mushy avocados), don’t be tempted.
(2) Watch your price point – sometimes “reduced” is not even a good deal versus the store sale that week. Know the regular price on everything!
(3) Only buy what you can use or otherwise store in a day or two. Seems obvious, I know, but sometimes the prices are so tempting you end up needing a reduced produce garbage bag because your eyes were bigger than your time and energy.
You can stumble across some real gems in local butcher shops, sometimes finding sources of grassfed, organic, or almost-organic meats without traveling outside the city limits. You have to poke around, ask people you know, and maybe visit and ask the butcher lots of questions, but it’s a great thing once you find a winner.Don’t be afraid to ask the butcher what they do with organ meats, suet, lard, and chicken feet. Sometimes you can get a super deal (or a freebie) just for chatting and asking the right questions.
If you’re not sure what to ask, start with these 10 Questions to Ask your Farmer (most of them apply) and check out some of my Q&A in Grand Rapids on my Local Resources page. Here’s a little more debate on meat.
My favorite bonus of the local butcher? He’ll cut the meat off the bone when I buy split chicken breasts, so I get a package of boneless chicken breasts and some bones for stock.
Going in with friends:
Sometimes, you really need to get to know the right people. Try a local Weston A. Price Foundation meeting (even if you don’t do all the Nourishing Traditions stuff, that’s a good place to find local food resources), chat up your farmer, or strike up foodie conversations at church. In no time at all, you’ll gather around you a list (keep their emails!) of people with whom you might find deals on:
- organic frozen cherries, 27 pounds at a time, $47 a bucket cherry almond coconut crepes, pictured above)
- real maple syrup, by the gallon, $40
- organic almonds
- raw cheese, in 5-pound blocks for $22 each
- good salt, in bulk
- coconut oil and olive oil, by the gallon
These are all real bulk purchases I make with friends or that have come through my email. Every other week, someone is emailing offering a deal they found on SOMEthing healthy. It’s awesome to be clued in, and it didn’t take long at all. Start talking. Somebody knows something in your town, too!
Via your milk or meat farm, or a Co-op:
I think I’m probably lucky in that our raw milk farm does some bulk orders through Country Life Natural Foods and sends emails about other local farmers and their products. However, there are multitudinous co-ops around the country that do the same thing. You just need to look around, ask around, and see what you can find. If you can’t find anything, start one up and take a little cut for doing all the work!
Buying Part of Cow?:
I added the question mark because although many people recommend buying a quarter or half cow to save money, you may have to do some serious math to make sure it’s worth it. If you usually only buy ground beef and cheap cuts like chuck roast and stew meat, a portion of a cow may end up costing just as much or more.From a frugal standpoint only, getting a few steaks for a better deal isn’t really a good deal if you wouldn’t buy steaks anyway. Make sure you compare “hanging weight” per pound, which is what you often are quoted, with the actual per-pound breakdown of the total price. The $2-something per pound might sound awesome, but you have to ask for a list of all the cuts you’ll get and approximate weight of each, then divide your total cost by the number of pounds. If that’s more than you’d pay for a pound of ground beef, stick with your ground beef and skip the steaks! I finally bought a part of a cow last fall, splitting an eighth with a friend (I know, I know, I don’t really have a big freezer though, and even for that had to take a bag over to the in-laws!). I figure I saved a few bucks, but nothing major, and ONLY because I spoke up and asked for organ meats. With our lousy eighth, we got FOUR packages of beef, the whole heart, the tongue, 2 packs of soup bones, and the oxtail.
My friend and I are having a food processor party with the heart next week. I kid you not. This is the kind of weird playdate you, too, can enjoy when you make the right friends. However, without those organ meat extras, I would hardly have had any savings over ground beef and stew meat. Ask for suet and render your own tallow, too, if you can. Huge savings there!
Once you’ve bought your food, there are countless ways you can cut costs in the kitchen itself.
Top 5 Cost Cutting Measures in the Kitchen
1. Make from scratch:
Surely one of the most obvious – if you do more work yourself, you pay somebody else less and keep more money in your pocket. My recipes page will give you tons of ideas on how to start, and two of the Eat Well, Spend Less ladies are dishing out on homemade convenience and pantry foods as well. Watch for tomorrow’s post, as I’ll excerpt from each of the participants and tell you how to find all of them!
2. Consider the savings:
How much per hour are you saving? Save your sanity, too, and if you need to make cuts, make sure they make sense. For example, I make homemade tortillas because I insist on only the best quality grains recipes, but for many people, making tortillas only save a dollar and takes half an hour. The cost-benefit analysis doesn’t work (unless the nutrition is more important than the frugality).This is one reason my Monday Missions have impact ratings on them – you can see at a glance if something is going to make a huge difference, and you know it’s worth it if it saves you money, increases your nutrition, AND helps the Earth. If it hardly takes any time, you have a real winner!
3. Stretch the Meat:
I have become more and more adept over the years at using less meat and still resulting in tasty meals. Meat is expensive, and although we need to eat it, if your budget won’t allow, it’s an option for cuts. Here are a few ideas from Facebook readers: My best money saving tip is to prepare larger cuts of meat (a chicken, a roast) with lots of side dishes, saving half or more of the meats for other meals (quesadillas, soup, stew, burritos, cottage pie, sandwiches, etc.). In this way, I can stretch $10 to $20 worth of meat into 2 or 3 meals, easily.
- Leanne: My biggest money saving tip is to stretch the meat in our dinners over at least two meals. I buy only grass-fed beef and when I do, we have it grilled one night and then sliced on a salad or in burritos the second night. I cook 2 organic chicken breasts at a time. My husband eats one. My son and I split half of another. The remaining half becomes chicken salad for lunches.
- Emily: The Everything Beans Book also has great ideas for using less meat without compromising nutrition.
4. Use it all! Don’t waste food:
This may seem obvious, but between the produce that gets slimy on accident because it was purchased without a plan and the food we serve at the table that won’t fit in our stomachs, I’m willing to bet that your garbage eats more of your food than you’d like to admit. With the high caliber of KS readership, I’m sure you’re all well below the average American, who has a real problem with wasting food. To achieve this, meal planning is of utmost importance. We’ll talk more about meal planning next week as well, so be ready for some challenges!
5. Use a less expensive alternative:
Sometimes you can get a similar result with a more frugal choice of ingredient, such as…
- Oatmeal and rice – although grains aren’t always the best choice, a breakfast of oatmeal and a rice side dish at dinner will help to cut your budget over eggs and green vegetables, so keep them in consideration, and just make sure to prepare them properly by soaking.
- Cabbage instead of lettuce – when you’re building a salad, grab a cabbage for $1 or less a pound instead of the lettuce now at $2/pound, and you get as much if not more nutrition for half the price! Mix both together if cabbage alone is too crunchy. (Here’s a good Cabbage Salad recipe.)
- Beans instead of meat – for example, did you know you can make tacos with half lentils and no one will know the difference?
- Fresh jalapenos (or frozen from the Farmer’s Market, even better) over canned chiles
- Regular potatoes instead of reds
- What else can you think of? I have a feeling I’m only scratching the surface on this category…
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