Creative Ways To Eat Healthy On A “Budget”

Twelve years ago I became very serious about my physical health. I started to exercise and eat better and lost over 100 pounds over a period of three years. I didn’t follow diet programs or plans, I researched food and simply began to move my body. I changed some very unhealthy behavior. It was hard, but that’s a story for another time. What I want to focus on in this piece is what I learned about food. It really boils down to:

  1. Food is preventative medicine.
  2. Eating real, nutrient dense food helps alleviate health conditions. 
  3. Eating good food takes commitment.

A few quick Google searches on eating healthy and organic on a budget quickly turned up great articles, but they weren’t what I was looking for. The word budget has become synonymous with “thrifty” and “deprivation,” and that’s not how I roll. If you want to eat well, become more healthy and feel better, you’ll have to adopt the idea that healthy food is contributing to your daily health. That can be on a “budget” in some areas, while in other areas you’ll have to balance the cost to what you want.

Buy Meat From Your Farmers Market, Local Farm, Food Co-Op or Raise Your Own

Meat, if you eat it, isn’t where you can cut costs. You want to eat better meat, even if it means you less of it. Most farmer’s markets have local/regional farmers who sell chicken, pork, beef, lamb and various fish. While these meats cost about $7-$12 per pound, they are well worth the cost. Eating locally raised meat that’s been raised on quality feed – grass, organic grains and/or no corn or soy is a game changer. You will literally taste it.

If you don’t have access to a farmer’s market, you may be able to find a local farmer that sells meat. A local food co-op is another resource as most co-ops have direct agreements with their suppliers and have stricter standards on meat than general grocers. For example, Sacramento has Market 5-one-5, the Sacramento Food Co-op, Seattle has PCC Natural Markets and Los Angeles has Erewhon. Whole Foods is another option if you buy meats rated at least a “4” on their animal welfare scale (like the Hearst Ranch Beef they carry). 

If you have land and are permitted to do it, you can raise your own meat. Last year, I raised a goat and pig on the farm where I keep my horse. The cost per pound to raise my own meat was by far the cheapest and most rewarding option. It came out to around $2.49 per pound (because I even went non-GMO, corn and soy free and I gave those animals all sorts of goodness). I did what’s known as a farm kill, so the animals were put down on site instead of being sent to a facility (yep, it’s legal!). This year, I’m learning to butcher my own meat! Good, quality meat is something you don’t skimp on, PERIOD.

Buy Organic When Necessary, Conventional Won’t Kill You

Contrary to popular belief, not all the fruit and vegetables you eat need to be organic. Buying only organic fruit and vegetables doesn’t make them healthier for you and can strain a food budget. Buying organic is mainly about avoiding extremely toxic chemicals applied to our food. A quick trip to the grocery store clearly shows that organically grown foods cost more. But, there are some fruits and vegetables that are perfectly fine to buy not organically grown. Buying a mix of organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables will help balance out the cost.

Some fruits and vegetables have thin skins that allow chemicals and pesticides to permeate the inner flesh, allowing harmful chemicals to enter our bodies. In the case of greens, pesticides are sprayed directly on them (that’s not salad dressing). EWC recommends that these fruits and vegetables always be purchased organic:

Apples, Strawberries, Kale, Blueberries, Grapes, Cherries, Tomatoes, Peppers, Peaches, Nectarines, Celery, Peanuts, Potatoes, Milk and Salad Greens. 

These fruits and vegetables are safer bets to buy non-organic because they have outer skins that offer protection from toxic chemicals and pesticides: 

Avocados, Sweet Corn, Pineapples, Onions, Papayas, Eggplants, Kiwis, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Cantaloupe, Broccoli, Grapefruit, Sweet Potatoes, and Honeydew. 

If you’ve got even a small amount of outdoor space, you can grow some of these yourself. Tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and peppers are really easy to grow in containers and give a single person a pretty large yield. In general, don’t go overboard trying to eat completely organic, you’ll go broke! I’d rather eat an in-season, California grown squash over an organic, imported veg that’s not currently in season, any day.

Macala’s Pro Tip:

If you’re shopping at a Farmer’s Market, ask vendors who don’t have organic certifications if they “no spray.” Organic food certifications take a long time to get, many farmers grow crops that they don’t treat with herbicides or pesticides. Unsprayed crops are just as good as those with organic certifications (and they often cost $.50-$1.00 per pound less!). 

Buy Staple Goods In Bulk From Online, Natural Food Retailers

Azure Standard, Thrive Market, and Mountain Rose Herbs are staples for me. I order everything I can’t get from a local market or farmer, online. I’ve stopped shopping at traditional grocery stores because ordering online (even if there’s an annual subscription fee) has continually shown to save me 15-30% over the shelf price. Olive oil, rice, canned goods, loose leaf tea, tinctures, supplements, it all comes from one of these three resources. 

The best part of ordering online is that these companies can ship anywhere, even the most rural backroad in the middle of nowhere! Other places to check are Brandless, MOVE (relaunching 2019 with new offerings), Public Goods and if you want mainstream, conventional brands, you’ve got Amazon and Boxed. 

Find Alternative Food Companies With Shipping Capabilities

If you have food intolerances or sensitivities, finding companies that ship your specialty goods is critical if local stores don’t sell things like gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan options. While alternative milks (mylks) are a challenge (maybe make your own Oat or Coconut), you can get bread, crackers, and cookies. Great resources for gluten-free, vegan, allergy-friendly (meaning no corn, soy and/or nuts) are Delicious Cookies, Grindstone Bakery, Bread Srsly, Preservation (pickled goods, marinades and sauces), Mauk Family FarmsPushkin’s Bakery, and Sugar Plum (not currently taking online orders). 

Learn To Cook and Streamline Your Menus

In order to maintain healthy eating on a budget, you’re going to have to cook your own meals. The best way to eat really well is to make it yourself. Meal order services and restaurants are going to blow your cost consciousness out the window. My best advice is to buy an Instant Pot, a food processor/blender combo (I love my Ninja), and invest in a decent set of cookware and utensils to go with them. Cooking may take some time, but if I do it in bulk, I have food for the week. 

Macala’s Pro Tip:

If you love juicing, then invest in your own juicer. It’s cheaper in the long run vs. buying juices at the store. 

While I love diversity in my food, I’ve also learned to streamline my menu, cooking things I like to eat frequently. By doing this, I’m buying fewer ingredients and have less food waste; this means spending less. Using my simple kitchen setup, I make black beans, faux pancakes that don’t taste like crap, sweet mashed potatoes, veggie burgers, my own hummus, pesto, and applesauce. These things can be paired with most meats or salads I decide to create. Speaking of salad, I also recommend buying high-quality olive oils and bottles of vinegar, and to have mustard, honey, and herbs on hand. You’ll never buy salad dressing again once you know how to make them yourself. They are simple and take under five minutes to make.

Give Yourself Time To Change Your Eating Habits

In years it took me to learn how to eat better (and cook), I came to realize that eating well can be synonymous with spending more money; organics, supplements, juices, cleanses and premium meat were costing me a fortune. While I was willing and able to pay a premium for my food as I wasn’t paying for it with poor health, there came a point where I started to try and figure out ways to make eating well efficient and cost-effective because I wanted to put the money elsewhere. Hopefully, my practices will help you navigate your way to better food budgets and finding a way to shop, eat and cook that works for you. 

Remember, cheaper isn’t always better. You’ve got to balance your life and needs with achieving health goals. By following the steps outlined above, I’ve streamlined my food budget from $800-$1000 per month down to about $400-500 (which includes eating out 2x, coffee, and ordering food allergy-friendly faux carbs).