Guest post: by Lauren Dahl of The Living Home Blog. Lauren is a great friend of mine, we lived together for a year while we both ate a 100% raw vegan diet and ate a lot of chocolate pie! She is a wife, mum of 3, homesteader, forager, business owner, incredible budgeter, all round healthy living guru and is working towards a zero waste home to boot. She’s one of the people who inspires me most on the journey of health and I hope you enjoy gleaning from her wisdom here!
In my senior year of college, I started eating a 100% organic diet, and I haven’t stopped since. That being said, I’ve also been on a very tight budget for the past 10 years since starting my organic food journey. The biggest complaint I get from people who are trying to start their health journey is that eating organic is expensive. ‘Yes, it can be,’ I tell them, but I always add on, ‘it doesn’t have to be.’
When we first got married, my husband and I both worked part time, and we didn’t make much money. I can’t remember exactly, but it was around a total of $25,000/year between the two of us. That being said, eating organic was something we had a high value for and didn’t want to sacrifice, so for the first year of being married I figured out a way to feed us on a 100% organic diet for $40/week which comes out to be $100/month per person. That figure is considerably less than the average American spends on conventional food each month.
Even now, with our budget not as tight, my family spends considerably less than the than many familes do on food. We are a family of 4, and we spend $400-600/month on our grocery budget. I do grow some of my own food, but the $400-600/month is actually how much we spend when I’m not growing anything myself, and I have to buy everything. $400 is really tough for me to take happen, but I can do it if I really need to. $600 month feels great. Our food budget adjusts each month around other needs. If it’s a month where we have a lot of other expenses, I might try to cut back on the grocery budget. But if it’s a month where we have a little extra money, I’ll give myself a larger grocery budget to make things easier.
That being said, in order for me to spend less on groceries, I must be willing to spend more on time. If you have a higher income but have longer work hours, you might be willing to spend more on healthy convenience food. If you have a lower income, but can sacrifice some time, then you can still eat very healthy but keep your grocery bill low. Below are some tips I have for making that happen:
Eat at Home
Our $400-600/month budget for food means no eating out. That money is for groceries alone. We do occasionally eat out, but it’s usually with money that was extra income we weren’t expecting or someone gives us a gift card to a restaurant. Eating at home not only saves money, but it also keeps us healthier, because there aren’t a lot of healthy eating out options in our town.
Although I don’t meal plan anymore, it was a necessity when we were on a $40/week budget. I had to plan out exactly what we were going to eat every day in order to stretch my dollars. If I was going to buy sour cream for a recipe, I needed to find at least 1-2 other recipes I could use it in that week since the cost of organic sour cream ate up a good portion of my weekly budget. For example, if you plan on buying chicken, find a way to use chicken in two meals instead of one. Sitting down one day per week to plan out the meals and the grocery list can save a lot of money. Once you get good at it, it can take just 15-20 minutes per week.
Minimize Meat & Dairy
Organic meat and dairy are what I realized took the most of my food budget. We rarely eat meat or dairy now, but back when my husband and I spent $40/week on groceries, we still did eat meat and dairy. Usually, I would have to choose. I couldn’t afford cheese and milk in the same week, so I’d choose one or the other. Same went for meat. I couldn’t afford to do organic meat at two meals per day so I’d choose one meal per day to have meat at, or occasionally, we’d skip it altogether.
I didn’t do this so much when we first got married, but it’s something we do now that saves us a ton of money. Buying fruits and veggies that are in season can be a place of huge savings. For example, strawberries in June versus strawberries in January not only taste 100x better, but they are cheaper and better for you. My kids are used to eating seasonally. We get strawberries in April so from about September – April 1, we are in countdown mode of how many more months we have to wait for fresh strawberries. Then we go crazy! Eating seasonally not only saves money, but when you eat seasonally, the food tastes so much better.
Roadside Stands & Local Farms
Don’t be afraid of those small signs on the side of the road that say “Fresh Eggs” or “Honey” or advertise other produce. Depending on where you live, you might have a lot of these or very few. We have quite a few where I live. I’ve stopped at many of them, and now I have my “go-to’s” that are my favorites. Most of them are people like myself who have a home garden but happen to produce a little extra and want to sell some of it. They are never certified organic but that doesn’t really matter as long as they don’t spray or fertilize with chemicals. If you are unsure, just ask the owner. They don’t usually mind telling you. I had an egg lady for years who sold free range eggs for $3/dozen, but she also had seasonal fruit. I got plums, peaches, and apples for 50 cents a pound, and they were all organic! If it was plum season, my car was always loaded up with 10-20 pounds of plums, and I knew I was going to be coming up with a bunch of different uses for plums over the next week or two.
Pay Attention to Price per Pound
This goes for meat, dairy, and produce. It is so much cheaper to buy chicken thighs than chicken breasts. No, they don’t look as pretty, but you will save so much money making that simple switch. As far as produce goes, pay attention to price per pound as well as how much of it is edible. An apple might be $2/pound, but you can eat almost every single piece of it. Whereas an orange might be $1.50/pound but think how much you lose on a thick rind. Even though it’s cheaper per pound, in the end it might be about the same price as an apple when you get down to how much of the produce is edible. When we were on a really tight budget, I tried to stay under $1.50/pound on produce. This meant buying things such as squash, zucchini, cabbage, bananas, carrots, potatoes, onions, etc. I kept my purchases to very basic foods and ate nothing exotic or out of season.
By avoiding packaging, you are buying in bulk. Purchasing products in bulk automatically saves you money on price per pound. Buying dried black beans is much cheaper than picking up a can of precooked beans. I buy very little in packaging. My kids usually get a small bag of animal crackers each week, and my husband likes a bag of tortilla chips, but that’s it. Everything else I get is from the bulk section (quinoa, beans, popcorn, rice, flour, sugar, oats, etc.) or is fresh produce.
Cook from Scratch
If you are avoiding packaging, it means you have to cook from scratch. This overwhelms people at first, but it really is much more simple than it seems. Start with one step at a time. If you’ve never cooked with dried beans, try that this week. Buy bulk instead of canned beans and go from there. If you’ve always bought packaged tortillas for taco night, try a recipe for making your own tortillas. They are delicious, trust me!
Cheap “Go To” Meals
A great way to save money is to figure out meals you and your family enjoy eating that are cheap and quick. Oatmeal is a great example. It’s super cheap and with a little local honey and some cinnamon it makes a great breakfast for very little money. We do quinoa a lot at my house too. A huge reason I love it so much is it is high in protein, goes with any seasonal vegetables, and is great as leftovers.
People always chuckle when I tell them this one, but seriously, I have gotten some AMAZING deals by grocery shopping on Craigslist. Again, it’s very similar to the roadside stands. Most of them are people like you and me who happen to have a lemon tree or a small garden that’s producing more than they can eat so they are looking to sell the rest for cheap. I’ve gotten organic lemons for $1/pound and organic heirloom pears for 50 cents/pound. I’ve bought all sorts of nuts and even found organic chicken from a small market garden farmer. You can type in just “organic” to the search box on Craigslist and see what comes up or you can type in what you know is in season. Every fall, I type in pecans or walnuts or pistachios, because a lot of people in our area have trees, and I know that fall is when they harvest them. Or if it is apple season, I’ll type in “apples” to the search box and see what comes up. I don’t do this everyday, but every week or two, I’ll take 3-4 minutes to search Craigslist. Lots of times, I hit a jackpot!
Does eating organic cost more than eating conventional? Not necessarily. Yes, an organic apple will almost always cost more than a conventional apple at the grocery store. But if you can find a local farmer, you might find an amazing deal on organic apples that is much cheaper (and tastier) than the conventional grocery store version! I hope these tips help you on your health journey! Eating healthy doesn’t mean sacrificing massive amounts of your monthly budget. It can be done for cheap with a little strategic thinking and some creative planning!