Mother Earth Living

Eat Well, Spend Less: A Guide to Eating Healthy on a Budget

We pilot you through the diverse options in our guide to shopping smart and eating well.
By Tabitha Alterman
July/August 2011
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CSAs and farmer’s markets often include produce grown outdoors or in greenhouses, baked goods, dairy, eggs and meat, offering variety throughout much of the year.
Photo By Thomas Gibson
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The path to healthy, low-cost eating offers many entry points. We pilot you through the diverse options in our guide to shopping smart and eating well.

Buy in Season 

WHY? Like most goods and services, foods cost less when they are more abundant. Choose to eat foods during their peak season, and you’ll enjoy not only a happier price point, but amped-up nutrition and flavor, as well.

HOW? Choose your state and search by month or by vegetable to find out what’s in season where you live at the NRDC's Eat Local page.

WHAT’S NEXT? Eating seasonally is also the easiest way to...

Buy Locally 

WHY? When you spend $1 on food, not all that much of it goes to the actual food producer. Some of your dollar goes to the person who grew it, while some goes to the person who picked it; some goes to the company who processed, packaged and transported it; and some goes to the firm that designed the packaging and advertising. Some of your dollar ends up in the hands of the grocery store owner, and, hopefully, also in the hands of some of the store’s employees. If someone was involved with your food, they will need to profit from their involvement. The more food you purchase locally, the more pennies from your dollar stay in your own pocket, and in your community’s economy (of which you are a beneficiary).

HOW? Find farms, restaurants, food co-ops and other great local food resources through localharvest.org. Find farmer’s markets nationwide with the USDA's National Farmer's Market Search Engine.

WHAT’S NEXT? Money spent locally stays in your community, which is ripe with resources to...

Join Forces

WHY? Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs used to be charming novelties in certain neighborhoods that enjoyed eco-abundance, but their huge surge in popularity in recent years means CSAs are available nationwide—more than 4,000 are listed in the Local Harvest database below. A CSA is essentially a local farm subscription service, in which a group directly pays the farmer for the food she delivers. You can save a bundle on high-quality produce, and many CSAs also offer meat, eggs, dairy, honey, flowers and herbs. Some offer free or lower-cost subscriptions to those who donate time or qualify for low-income shares.

HOW? Find a CSA in your area through the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources or the Local Harvest Database.

WHAT’S NEXT? If you want to get in even closer contact with your food, why not...

Grow Your Own Food

WHY? Growing your own food is the quickest way to cost savings. Gardening expert Rosalind Creasy, author of Edible Landscaping, calculated the value of growing a simple, 100-square-foot garden in her northern California yard and found that it helped her save $700 on groceries that year. In Scarborough, Maine, Roger Doiron, the founder of kitchengardeners.org, calculated his cost savings at more than $2,000. If you’re unsure, start small! Even a modest herb garden can save big bucks over the course of a year, as fresh herbs are one of the priciest items in grocery stores. You might also want to join one of the 18,000 community gardens dotted all over the United States and Canada.

HOW? Learn how to start growing food at kitchengardeners.org and motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening.aspx. Locate a community garden in your neighborhood through the American Community Gardening Association.

WHAT ELSE? No matter how you get your food, you can save big bucks buying food during its peak season, in order to...

Preserve Your Own Food 

WHY? The flavor of home-preserved food is superior to anything you can buy in the grocery store. Even if you’re not growing food yourself, you can save up to 75 percent on home-canned and up to 80 percent on home-frozen foods if you buy them fresh during their peak season.

HOW? The National Center for Home Food Preservation, run by the University of Georgia, has all the info you need to get started.

WHAT ELSE? Just as you can preserve fresh foods for out-of-season eating, you can purchase seasonal dry goods at deep discounts and store them for later use. So why not...

Buy in Bulk

WHY? The price difference between cleverly packaged foods and plain, whole foods sold in bulk bins is immediately obvious. You might be surprised at how much you can find in bulk sections today—everything from spices, herbs and tea to beans, grains, flour, peanut butter, olive oil and more. Buying clubs and food co-ops also offer tremendous savings to grocery shoppers who don’t mind planning ahead and working with others.

HOW? Look for the bulk section in your grocery or natural foods store. Connect with a food co-op or buying club through coopdirectory.org and unitedbuyingclubs.com.

WHAT ELSE? Preserving foods is a great way to save grocery dollars. But when it comes to the smartest money savings, you’ll want to...

Choose Wisely

WHY? Supporting a reduction in our nation’s pesticide dependence by choosing local and organic is worthwhile—the effects of chemical agriculture reach farther than what we ingest as individuals and how it affects our personal health. But sometimes we must make budget-conscious decisions. If you can only access organically grown food some of the time, you’ll want to make the smartest choices. For example, fruits with permeable skin, such as strawberries, absorb more chemicals than thick-skinned bananas.

HOW? The Environmental Working Group maintains the most up-to-date list of which conventionally grown foods are likely to be contaminated with pesticides, and which are safest to eat.

WHAT ELSE? If we’re considering the health of our bodies and soils when making purchases, we might also want to consider the health and well-being of the animals who offer up their eggs, dairy and meat products. This means you’ll want to...

Go Grass-Fed

WHY? The edible products from animals that were raised humanely on healthy pastures are no doubt more expensive than their factory-farmed counterparts, but that cost is going down as more consumers become aware of the multiple benefits. Along with top-notch flavor, pastured products offer greater nutrition than conventional animal products. You can often save money by choosing cuts of meat that are less expensive, but still healthy and flavorful, such as bone-in chuck roasts, shoulder and shank cuts, or boneless round roasts.

HOW? Contact farms and butchers in your area, or visit your local county fair for potential sources. Find a producer near you at EatWild.com, a comprehensive, state-by-state database of grass-fed meat, egg and dairy producers. For more information on sourcing and cooking all cuts of grass-fed meat, try Pasture Perfect by Jo Robinson or Good Meatby Deborah Krasner.

WHAT ELSE? Indulging in delicious and healthy savory meats may cause you to develop a...

Thirst for Good Stuff

WHY? Many of us don’t have time to make all of our favorite foods from scratch, but if you’re so inclined, you’ll have fun and save money by making your own juice, soda, wine, beer and cider. And there’s nothing quite as refreshing as slaking your thirst with budget-friendly, homemade products that will make you proud and impress your guests!

HOW? Visit the Home Brewing page at our sister magazine, Mother Earth News. For a less time-intensive way to save money (and eliminate single-use cans and bottles), try making sparkling juices and waters with a home carbonating machine.


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