Healthy Eating On A Budget

Is it possible to feed a family of four on less than $500/month AND eat healthily?

Yes!!!

After years of hearing comments and excuses about why people can not eat healthy, seeing cupboards stuffed full with food (especially junk), being shocked at how much families spend on groceries, and reading a recent article on how many “overweight” families are actually starving in our country, I thought I would share several tips I have used over the years that enable our family to eat fairly well, and on a very limited budget.

There Is No “Ideal” Healthy Family

Our family does not eat healthy all the time because my husband and son would prefer to eat frozen pizza and chips every day and avoid vegetables at all costs, while I prefer fresh and unprocessed foods. This food battle often makes it impossible to plan a proper family meal since our eating choices are polar opposites. I prepare 1 or 2 main meals during the week, while the rest of the time it is a free-for-all since we eat so differently, and that works great for us.

For the most part, I can keep our kitchen much healthier than the average American pantry by replacing unhealthy snacks with nuts or fruit or something I make. We’ve also eliminated much of our need for munching by not having around that comes in a package.

Do not think that you have to be perfect to be healthy. If your family eats a lot of boxed mac-n-cheese, sugar-loaded cereals, and bags of chips – start with one step. Choose one thing such as replacing mac-n-cheese for lunch with one of these healthy lunch ideas, and adjust to that change first. Give yourself a lot of grace!

Choose Your Battles. You will have to decide when it comes to food, what are the non-negotiables:

  • Are there favorite foods someone in your family is not likely to give up? Especially if you are trying to make a shift to healthier eating, you may need to give in on certain things. For example, my husband loves his frozen pizza. To me, it’s a chemical-laden piece of cardboard, but that is a battle I gave up years ago. So we keep a pizza or two in the freezer for him.
  • What items absolutely must be organic for you? Since our budget doesn’t allow for everything to be organic, I have selected a few items that are non-negotiable for me. I spend the extra money for free-range eggs, organic free-range chicken, grass-fed butter, nitrate/nitrite free bacon or lunch meat, and when I can get away with it, grass-fed beef. Many supermarkets, including Walmart, are increasing their organic selections and that makes it easier to get organic produce, but I don’t always buy it. Organic dairy, eggs, and meat. That is the most important to me.

Finding The Money To Buy “Health Food”

The #1 complaint I hear everywhere regarding healthy eating is the cost. I get it, but it can be done. For budget purposes, I do most of my buying at Walmart and leave specific items for Natural Grocers or Whole Foods (or “Whole Paycheck” as my husband likes to call it).

Learning to eat healthy on a budget started ten years ago when I was a single mom determined to maintain my health, even with little or no income. I was able to feed myself and my kindergarten-age son for around $100 a month, even while shopping almost entirely at a health food store. We didn’t have a lot, but I resisted the urge to buy cheap food – because cheap food, isn’t food – it’s poison to our bodies. Now, in 2016, we are a family of 3, including a teenager. I am still able to feed our family very well, including favorite indulgences, on average of $300-$400/mo.

As much as I would love to do all my shopping at a dedicated health food store, that is not financially reasonable for our family. I have selected two stores to do my shopping: Walmart and Natural Grocers. I stick to those stores as I know what I can get and where. It saves me time and money. Here are more tips that can reduce your grocery bill by HALF OR MORE! (really!!)

1. Shop Wise

  • Don’t go shopping when hungry. I think we all intuitively understand that, but we don’t always pay attention to it.  It is almost a guarantee you will spend significantly more when you shop hungry.
  • Shop alone. My husband loves to go grocery shopping with me, but when he does, we both purchase extra items we don’t need. I found it to be much more cost effective to go alone.
  • Make a list I am not naturally a list person, but my husband has established this habit in me. That being said, I always leave it at home! Even so, that list is usually in my mind and keeps me on task.
  • Shop By Recipe. I have made it a rule not to go to the store until I have decided what our meals will be for the next few days, and then I create a shopping list. Seriously. I can not emphasize enough how helpful this tip is! Even if my husband needs to stop to pick up a bar of soap, I will never shop for anything else unless it is ingredients for a SPECIFIC recipe.
  • Resist The Urge To BROWSE the aisles. When you are randomly walking up and down the aisles, you are no longer shopping with purpose but with emotion. That’s when the packaged cinnamon rolls, cookies, chips, or sugary drinks start to look really good.
  • Avoid the center of the store. You’ve probably heard this before, most of the food located on the interior of the store is BAD for you. If it comes in a box, bag, or can it is probably unhealthy. 
  • Shop Frequently. I do a “big” trip to the store every other week with my husband (because he really likes to go) and I will make a trip to the store for fresh foods or fill-in items once a week.
Allow for a favorite treat!
Allow for a favorite treat!

2. Remove Your Options

THIS. IS. THE. BEST. TIP>>> Buy one of something and eat that until it is gone. Just because there are hundreds of varieties of cereal does not mean you need them all at home. PICK ONE. Resist the urge to purchase another box of cereal until that one is gone. You will save a boat-load of $$$$$ by doing this!

Same goes with chips, crackers, drinks, lunch meats, snacks, frozen foods, etc. Be especially careful of canned foods. Unless you are stocking up for an emergency, there is no reason to have a cupboard full of canned goods. (Besides, they are not healthy).  Your cupboards and refrigerator should have lots of room at the end of the week.

Shop from a recipe. I don’t purchase something I don’t have a plan for. If I need to go to the store and haven’t planned out the next few days, then I decide what my plan is right then and there or I make myself uber-focused and get what I need and leave before I am tempted to look around.

Purchase smaller amounts of produce. Are you throwing out apples, bananas, etc? Most of us are tempted to buy the bulk bag or a whole bunch of something, yet in a few days, the produce goes bad and is thrown away. Buy 1 or 2 at a time instead.

3.  Use What You Have

I plan my week based on what I still have in the kitchen. For example, I have a bunch of Polish kielbasa in my freezer. This week I’ll be making up a batch of breakfast burritos to freeze, and then I’ll sauté the rest with fresh mushrooms for dinner. Dig through your cupboards, freezer, and fridge, and then gather ideas from Pinterest. You’ll be surprised what you can contrive.

You Don’t Need A Lot Of Time

Don’t Make A Big Meal Every Night: Our family has learned that we don’t always want a big, sit down meal every night. As a result, I plan for TWO dinner meals per week. That’s it. I use the ingredients from those meals to come up with what we eat the rest of the week. Your family will eat less and not miss it, I promise!

Any change at first will result in some backlash, but it won’t take long for them to adjust. Our family enjoys having a small snack at night such as cheese, crackers, and fruit or a bowl of cereal instead of a big meal. Saves time in preparation and clean-up, as well as a smaller grocery bill.

All of these tips are easy to do and not time-consuming. I do most of it in my head. When it is time to go to the store I will do a quick browse of what I have, think of a few recipes and then go to the store. The greatest benefit to the money-saving tips is that you can probably cut your grocery budget in half (or more!) which frees up plenty of money to spend on healthier food.

Healthy food is more expensive. However, when you cinch up your grocery bill, start eliminating unhealthy food, you soon find that your body will crave the healthy food instead of the junk, and eventually you don’t WANT to eat as much. Many studies are out there that reveal how processed foods actually CREATE hunger and food addiction. When you eat healthily, you don’t have as many food cravings because your body is getting the nutrients it needs, so you eat less. It starts by shopping smart so you are not tempted to bring home the unhealthy foods in the first place.

An effort is needed to create a new habit, but once you find your rhythm, it becomes easy to maintain.

I hope these tips are helpful and encourage you and your family to save money and eat healthy. See below for more specific tips and ideas I use at home.

Make your own healthy pancakes and top with greek yogurt or coconut milk yogurt.
Make your own healthy pancakes and top with greek yogurt or coconut milk yogurt. Make extra pancakes and freeze for quick breakfast later on.

Additional Tips:

  • Purchase a whole fryer chicken (free range). After roasting or baking for dinner, pull off remaining meat from the bones (leave some on the bones). Freeze the leftover meat for another recipe. Put the carcass in a crock pot, add a sliced onion, celery, carrots, peppercorns, bay leave, about 1/4 cup of Apple Cider Vinegar, and a few cups of water. Cook on low for 12 hours. Pour broth into glass jars (through a cheese cloth) and freeze. Discard bones, etc.
  • Keep corn tortillas on hand. Whenever I have leftover meat (esp. chicken or pork), I like to heat a tortilla on a hot skillet. When it becomes soft, I put a few pieces of shredded meat and a slice of cheese on one-half, then fold like a taco. Heat on each side until crunchy and the cheese is melted. I will make a big plate of these and serve them with salsa and guacamole for a light dinner.
  • Hard salami and cheese are favorite items to keep on hand when we don’t want a full meal.
  • Lunch is ALWAYS leftovers or a simple sandwich.
  • There are lots of healthy pancake recipes! We make coconut flour or another type of wheat-free pancake. When making a batch,  freeze any leftovers. Keep healthy yogurt on hand. Serve the pancakes with a nut butter or yogurt, and real, organic maple syrup, topped with fresh fruit for an inexpensive, easy, super healthy and filling breakfast.
  • Make ahead breakfast burritos for when you are in a hurry. Use any tortilla of choice. Saute leftover potatoes (cut in chunks) with a variety of meats such as bacon, breakfast sausage, or our favorite…polish kielbasa. Add in any veggies you want. Top with cheese, salsa, etc. Roll in wax paper and then aluminum foil, freeze. Hearty breakfast to go!

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