This past weekend a friend and I were chatting about living on a budget. Both of us are trying it in earnest for the first time. We were commiserating about the difficulties of reducing our food costs, especially when shopping for healthy, fresh and unprocessed foods. Not to mention, we both have families of four with two small boys. A fact that makes reducing our food costs a necessity. The question then was, is it possible to eat healthy, organic, real food on a budget?
Photo by Fotolia/Goran Bogicevic
It is commonly recommended that your food bill equal no more than 5 to 15 percent of your total budget. Before I started paying attention and making an effort to reduce my family’s food costs, we were spending more on food than on our mortgage. I obviously had a lot of room for improvement.
According to the USDA the average family of four is spending between $544 and $1235 per month for food eaten at home. They break it down into 4 plans: thrifty, low-cost, moderate, and liberal. We were in spending beyond the liberal plan and looking to move to a low-cost or moderate food budget. That gives us a budget of about $800 per month.
After some trial and error (and actually looking at my receipts after shopping), I discovered that our most expensive items were meat, condiments, juices and deserts—organic or not. Eliminating some or all of these items has cut our grocery bill in half.
To reduce your food costs, here are some helpful tips that are working for my family. Using these, we have found that healthy, organic foods can still be affordable and keep us on budget.
Tips to Eat Healthy on a Budget
1. Keep a list. On your refrigerator write down items you use most often as they run out so you aren't guessing when you get to the store.
2. Create a simple weekly menu. I have had success searching the internet for recipes with minimal ingredients. 5-10 ingredients seem to be the magic number for cost savings while also saving you time in the kitchen.
3. Grocery shop only once a week. I have found that reducing my trips to the grocery store to one time per week reduces impulse buying that can add frivolous items your food costs. If I run out of something I ask myself – do I really need this now, or, can it wait until next week?
4. Create a shopping list. When shopping at the grocery store, purchase only the items on the list.
5. Eat vegetarian a couple times a week. Meat, poultry, and fish are big ticket items. Eating vegetarian meals even 2-3 times a week will make a big impact on your food bills—in the right direction.
6. Shop for the season. Purchase foods when they are in season, especially produce. Prices skyrocket for off-season foods.
7. Buy fresh herbs and freeze or dry the excess. Chop up soft herbs such as cilantro or basil. Place them in a glass jar and freeze. Or dry your herbs on a cooling rack with parchment paper underneath. I almost never use an entire box of fresh herbs for one recipe so this method is a money saver.
8. Avoid boxed cereals. Compare the per-weight price of any packaged, processed cereal to that of quick rolled oats, and you'll see how much the boxes mark things up. There are lots of delicious ways to eat plain oatmeal, and it takes only 3-4 minutes to prepare.
9. Avoid buying prepackaged meals. These shortcuts do not really save you time, and, pound for pound, they cost far more. If you are in a rush, pick up a roasted chicken instead.
10. Skip the beverage aisle. Buy milk or 100% fruit juice if you need it (we typically stick with orange and apple), but remember water quenches thirst just as well. You can squeeze in a slice of lemon if flavor is what you crave. We keep refillable glass bottles of tap water in the fridge for a cool refresher.
11. Skip dessert. Sweets are essentially an indulgent grocery item and add to your grocery bill (and your waistline) quickly. But who doesn't like to indulge once in a while? So go ahead, but try keeping desserts to one night a week. (Your kids' pediatrician will thank you). Make your own desserts to save on costs.
If you are willing to trade more of your time to reduce food costs and improve quality, you can also look into bulk group buys, or, improving your cooking skills to be able make most of your food from scratch.
Christina Selby is a writer, blogger, environmental educator, and mom. She lives on two acres of tumbleweed-ridden land in Santa Fe, NM into which she is constantly trying to breathe life. On her blog, Tumbleweeds and Seeds she shares tips and ideas to help readers live simply and sustainably—freeing up time and resources to follow your dreams and make a difference in the world. Visit her blog at Tumbleweeds And Seeds.