Do you wish you could eat healthier, but feel you can’t afford it? Canned and frozen produce is so much cheaper than fresh; white bread is cheaper than wheat, and organic foods are crazy expensive, right? I used to think I couldn’t afford it either, until I started doing it. I recently read this article over at one of my favorite blogs, 100 Days of Real Food, which does a fantastic job of explaining WHY this lifestyle choice makes so much sense to me. Here is a post I wrote that explains from a more personal perspective the impact it is having in my life. When the doctor wanted me to take prescription SSRI’s (anti-depressants) for my anxiety, I went on a search for a more natural route. I have an old friend from high school who is now a certified naturopath and knows a lot about the connection between clean eating and overall health. She pointed me in the right direction, and it has been a journey I never anticipated, but I absolutely love. Now, I’m going to give you some tips to get you started on a Real Food lifestyle without breaking the bank.
Before I begin, I want to make a little disclaimer. These are things that have worked for me, so the advice here is based on my own experience. I am a stay-at-home-mom. I don’t “go to work” for 40 hours a week like a lot of moms do, and therefore I can’t speak for you. I realize that some of the methods I use take time, and I’m fortunate to be able take the time throughout the day to prepare and preserve fresh, healthy foods. I do use my crock pots and bread machine A LOT, which may work for you even if you have to leave home to go to work. I encourage you to just try, one little thing at a time, and see if it doesn’t actually free up some money and/or time in your life to make the next step possible. And if you reach a point where it’s all you can do, that’s ok. One thing I’ve been learning for myself lately is that I can’t do everything that is good to do. All I can do is my best.
I also want to make it clear that I fully realize that “on a budget” can mean many different things. I often get annoyed at fashion segments on TV that claim that $300 for a knock-off purse is “affordable.” Well, compared to the $4000 designer purse, I guess it’s a steal, but personally I’m not spending more than $10 on a purse, and it better last me at least 5 years! The same goes for food.
There was a time when we had less than $50 a week to spend on anything other than bills. That included food, toiletries, gasoline, doctor appointments, repairs on the cars, clothes, shoes, etc. I am fully aware that when you walk into a grocery store with less than $10 to your name, you are going to buy the $0.80 loaf of white bread instead of the $3.00 loaf of multi grain, extra fiber, super healthy bread. You are going to buy the $0.50 can of green beans instead of the $3.00/pound fresh beans. I get it. I have been there and done that. If this is you right now, I encourage you to start with the first two steps: pray, and go slowly.
1. Pray. (If you’re not a praying person, then just skip to step 2. Or give prayer a try). Ask God to show you where and how you can start making changes. I believe God wants us to eat real food. After all, He created it for our nourishment. I’m not sure it’s truly His desire for us to fuel our bodies with fake food that is loaded with chemical preservatives and colors. I’m not casting judgment here, like I said, I completely understand what it feels like to TRULY be unable to afford anything but the bare minimum. Nor am I at the end of this journey. I am still in the process of making small changes. That is why I say, pray. It’s the first thing I did, and I believe it was His leading that got me on this path. A year ago I thought organic milk was $7 a gallon, and organic meat was $9 a pound, across the board and there was no way I could ever afford it. I was wrong. I just had to find my way to the better stuff that isn’t so expensive.
2. Make one change at a time. Don’t go to the local health food store and buy everything you would normally buy at the regular grocery store. I tried that once. I came out with two grocery bags full of super healthy food, for almost $100! Yikes! Not cool at all. Start by changing one thing at your next shopping trip from “packaged, processed, or non-organic” to a more healthy alternative.
3. Ditch the junk. Contrary to popular belief, junk food can be really expensive, if you break it down by serving size or by how much of it you or your kids will eat in a sitting. Again, you may want to do this slowly too for the sake of your family’s reaction. If you come home one day with NONE of the regular snacks and foods you buy, and ONLY fruits and vegetables, everyone will freak out. Just switch one or two things at a time. A bag of Dorito’s is over $3. A 3 pound bag of organic apples can be found for $5. A box of fruit snacks? I’m not really sure because I haven’t bought them (maybe ever?) but I’m guessing around $2? They’re not even fruit. They’re basically just candy. In season, you can get a whole pound of grapes for $2. Kids love grapes. The less food you buy that comes in a box or a bag (or a box of bags), the more money will be freed up to buy real food. I don’t even buy cereal anymore, and though my kids do still gripe about it, I feel better knowing they’re eating eggs, fruit, or homemade food for breakfast. Also, be careful of anything labeled “low fat,” “sugar free,” “all natural,” etc. These are gimmicks designed to get consumers to spend money. They do not equal “healthy.” In order to make something low-fat, they have to add a ton of sugar to make up for the taste. If it is sugar-free, the sugar is replaced with artificial sweeteners, which are even worse than sugar. There is no law or regulation on using the word “natural” on packaging. That means any food could have “natural” on the packaging because some tiny part of it is natural. Chicken is natural because it comes from chickens, but it doesn’t mean it’s organic, or hormone or antibiotic free. It doesn’t mean anything. Don’t fall for it!
4. REALLY compare prices. I used to breeze right past the organic produce section at Kroger because I knew everything there was at least double the price of non-organic. But when I really started price comparing, I found that organic apples are often on sale for the exact SAME price as non-organic. I can’t think of any reason not to buy the organic in this case. Also, I can usually find organic carrots for only about $0.20 more per pound. If I buy 2 pounds of organic carrots, I’m spending an extra 40 cents over the non-organic. I can handle that. This could be your first change for step two, and if you replace that $3 bag of Dorito’s for an extra 40 cents in carrots, you’re already coming out ahead!
You might have heard about the recent claims that organic food really isn’t any better for you than non-organic. I want to clarify that claim. Nutrient-wise, it is probably true: organic and non-organic apples (or whatever) probably have the same or similar nutrients. However, non-organic foods might have been exposed to poisonous pesticides, fertilizers, hormones and/or antibiotics that can slowly build up in our bodies without causing any immediate noticeable adverse reactions. I still say, go organic as much as possible.
5. Buy in bulk. I know this can be hard when the budget is tight. Consider going heavy on one thing, and lighter on something else for a week, until things start to even out. For example: packages of individually wrapped string cheese can be $5-$6 per pound. I found a store that sells 5lb blocks of mozzarella cheese for $3 a pound (GFS, if you have one locally). Yes, you have to cut it if you want to make “string cheese” to put in your kids’ lunch. I think it’s worth it. I know $15 is a pretty big chunk of a week’s grocery budget when you really only need the one package for $6. Maybe this is the week you cut those Dorito’s altogether. And then the cheese will last for weeks, so the next week, you don’t need to buy ANY mozzarella, which means you have a few dollars you could apply towards something else.
6. Plant a garden and learn to can. This is another thing you don’t want to go into full force. We have tried that several times and not quite lived up to our own expectations (we originally started doing a garden for the FREE FOOD). The first few years we had our garden, we basically ate what we could and gave the rest away because I didn’t have time (or the knowledge, or the time to learn) to do anything else. I froze a lot of tomatoes and zucchini, but that’s the only thing I really did for a while. I have learned to can, but haven’t found the time to do much of it yet. I’m still freezing most of my fresh produce. My boys have kept me too busy, but this summer they’ll be 4 and almost-4, so I’m really counting on having a *little* more time to do some canning.
7. Go straight to the farm. This one takes a little thought and resourcefulness, especially if you live in a big city. Check out a local farmer’s market, and ask around to find out if the farmers sell meat in bulk. I once asked about ordering a half beef (that’s farmer language for the meat of half a cow – something new I learned). I was able to get it, but beef cows are REALLY REALLY BIG. Broken down, the beef we ended up buying came out to less than $4 a pound (which is about the price of cheap ground beef at the grocery store), and included every cut, but to buy half a beef, it was over $1000. So I found 3 other families to split it with, making it something like $270 each. That 1/8 of a cow lasted us about 4 months. And we are a large family. A family of 4 or 5 could certainly stretch it much further. And if you’re really good at saving, this would be something worth saving for. We aren’t that good at saving, so we will use our tax return to do it again this year, only I think we’ll keep enough beef to last a year. I also ended up buying 10 pastured chickens from the same farmer and have used the bones to make some amazing broth. AND he sells pigs too, which we haven’t bought yet, but I hope to soon.
While you’re at the farmer’s market, buy twice as much produce as you think you will need for the week (when it’s in season and local, it’s relatively cheap), and preserve half of it. I would buy 15 or 20 ears of corn, cook it all at once, serve whatever we need for dinner that night, and then cut the corn off the remaining cobs and store it in jars in the freezer. This was the first year I did that with corn, so I only ended up with enough to last til about November. In time, I expect to get better at having a nice variety of fresh, preserved vegetables to last through the winter.
*By the way, many farmer’s markets accept EBT/food stamps and WIC!
8. Cook from scratch. I know, this one is hard, especially if you’re not home a lot. It’s a little less hard though, if you have jars of preserved veggies, bone broth, and a crock pot or three. As with everything else, go slowly. Just do one thing. And then another. I cook a lot of chickens in my crock pot (I know, I link to this recipe so much), and then once all the meat is picked off, I use what’s left in the pot to make chicken broth right in the same pot. Each chicken cost me $12 (straight from the farm), gives my family of 7 enough meat for 3 meals, plus about 3 quarts of broth. I don’t know if you could do much better buying these items from the grocery store. I use a bread machine to make fresh bread every day, which costs less than $1.00 a loaf for whole wheat bread with no additives. I cook beans overnight in a crock pot, and store in jars in the freezer. You can make vegetable broth virtually for free. Basically, you save the veggie trimmings that you would normally throw away, boil them for a few hours, then strain the liquid.
9. Use the internet. This amazing modern tool is a wealth of virtually unlimited information always at our fingertips. I have started following a whole bunch of “real food” blogs, and I get so many ideas, recipes, and knowledge. While you’re at it, keep following this blog. I often post recipes that I have created (or copied) that follow along my real food journey. They are not all 100% real food. As I said, my journey is not over. I just do the best I can with what I can afford.
10. Don’t give up. Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something. If your family is resistant, stick to your guns. If there is no junk food available to your kids, they will eat healthy food. You are not starving your kids by offering them healthy food. If they choose not to eat it, they won’t go hungry very long. When they get hungry enough, they’ll eat. It may feel a bit cruel in the short run, but in the long run you are truly doing your kids a favor by denying them the junk. They will eventually grow to love the healthy snack foods. Every now and then my kids will eat a can of Spaghettio’s or a package of serving-size macaroni and cheese, and they are disgusted by it. This is after only a few months (thought I was never into that stuff too much anyway). I’m lucky that my husband grew up on a small farm, and is used to farm food. He loves it, and he is totally on board with the whole change. I know it’s not that easy for everyone, but take it back to the first step – pray. Also, I would not suggest forcing your spouse to change his or her eating habits. We are all grown ups and have the right to make those choices for ourselves. You CAN, however, feed yourself and your kids to the best of your ability. It’s perfectly acceptable to feed your kids “natural” peanut butter (read the labels), but still buy “regular” peanut butter for your husband, if that’s what he prefers.
One more thing: I have read that the most important real-food to get into your body is clean animal fat (YES, FAT!). This includes meat, dairy, lard, and also eggs – but only if they’re clean, and not factory-farmed commercial products. Therefore, I splurge on butter. Organic butter is $5 a pound when it’s not on sale, and I know that is really expensive considering Aldi sells “regular” butter for less than $2 a pound. It’s probably the only thing I really splurge on though, because it’s so high up there in importance. I do sometimes make my own raw butter, which is even better, but costs about the same. Produce is important too, and somewhat easy to do during summer and fall, much harder to do in winter and early spring. Currently (February) I buy one or two organic produce items at the grocery store, and don’t worry about the rest.
In addition to what I put INTO my body, I am also becoming more mindful of what I put ONTO my body. I am SLOWLY but surely ditching commercial hair and skin care products, as well as OTC medications in favor of herbal and natural counterparts.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave me a comment. If you have any other tips or tricks you’ve found helpful, I would love to hear about them.