As we begin our new school year, staying on top of my menu planning and grocery budget is important. If I’m off track in this area, it has a ripple effect on how efficiently I operate in every other area. Having my meals planned ahead, ingredients on hand, and grocery budget under control lessens my stress level, maximizes my efficiency in the kitchen, and ensures that I’m feeding my family well.
Over the last several years, as I’ve answered questions and given advice about gradually converting more and more to a whole foods diet, I’ve noticed that one major obstacle is that people think it costs far more than buying conventional food. Surprisingly, I’ve noticed just the opposite! Our grocery budget actually does much BETTER when I stick to our healthier eating habits than when I stray from them.
I’ve learned that eating healthier actually costs LESS than eating conventionally in many cases.
It does take some education and effort initially, but it’s not necessary to spend oodles of cash to eat a nutritional, largely whole-foods, diet.
Here’s how we do it:
Consider alternatives to the grocery store
Maybe the impression that eating well is super expensive comes from pricing items at a grocery store. “Prepackaged” organic and all natural products are very pricey compared to conventional packaged foods, and even staples like meat and produce are high. It’s necessary to think outside the box a bit…most people don’t realize that it’s less expensive to purchase much of your food at places OTHER than the grocery store. My grocery store list is actually quite short.
Not only is it often less expensive to buy elsewhere, it’s preferable. You see, the companies providing organic items to your local grocery store must jump through many hoops to become “certified organic”. It’s a complicated, expensive process that many smaller companies just can’t afford. Then, they must package and ship their product, usually a great distance. All of this is reflected in the high prices you see on these items. Not only that, but there are “loopholes” in the organic certification process that unfortunately allow some companies to follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit, meaning you can’t always trust that the organic label means you’re getting the quality you think you are…but that’s another post.
By buying locally or through a buying club or co-op, you can be familiar with the actual source of your food and confident that they are producing a quality product, even if they are not necessarily certified organic. There is also a savings to the producer in packaging and shipping costs. Often, all of this is passed on to the consumer in the form of lower prices.
For example, I buy almost all of my meat through a co-op, from a farm located a couple of hours away. They aren’t certified organic, but they produce a product far superior to “factory farm” conventional meat. I’ve seen how they raise and process their animals and I feel confident about the quality of the product I’m receiving. I pay a price that is MUCH less than what I would pay for certified organic meat from the grocery store. It’s slightly higher than conventional prices on some items and about the same on others. So, overall, I don’t spend any more on meat than I would if I simply purchased conventional meat at the grocery store…in fact, I often spend LESS than I used to!
Produce is another area that can be very expensive, but doesn’t have to be. We participate in a veggie co-op in the spring and summer that delivers a large basket of fresh, local veggies to each person every week. The cost is a good chunk of my weekly budget, but during those months I spend virtually nothing on produce at the grocery store. Everything is always freshly harvested and in season, unlike the produce at the grocery store, which has often been stored for week or months and shipped across several states, or even from another country, to reach us! Each week, I wait to see what’s in my basket and then plan my menu around it. During the off season, when I buy my produce at the grocery store, I follow a few simple guidelines that ensure we’re eating the healthiest items AND spending the least amount necessary.
- I only buy organic when absolutely necessary (see here and here for guidelines).
- I try to buy in season…in season items are much less likely to have been stored for long periods of time or treated to force them to ripen, they also cost less (this is why strawberries are less expensive during the summer, for example). We didn’t used to have the luxury of eating any and every fruit or veggie at any time of year. Eating produce in season is much less expensive AND much healthier.
- I look for produce that was produced locally, or at least in the US. Again, it’s less expensive, AND healthier. Other countries use farming methods and chemicals that we aren’t allowed to use here (yet we still import their crops…go figure), plus these items are least likely to be fresh since they must be shipped in….they can be days, even weeks, old by the time they reach the store.
Checking local farmers’ markets can also yield inexpensive, fresh produce. The cheapest option is to grow your own…I’m working on getting to that point! By participating in the co-op and following these simple guidelines, my cost for fresh produce is about the same as it would be just purchasing all conventionally raised items.
Make Your Own Convenience Foods
Since I make our bread and most of our other baked goods myself, my cost for prepackaged items like cookies, crackers, bread and baked goods is minimal. After the initial outlay for the equipment (grain mill and mixer), my only expense is the grain and baking supplies. I purchase these through a coop and my cost is pennies on the dollar compared to buying baked and packaged goods at the grocery store.
I buy very few prepackaged foods, sticking to the perimeter of the store as much as possible. For example, besides not buying crackers, cookies, cereals, and baked goods, I make my own pasta sauce, cream soups, and chicken stock, and my own granola, which we use for breakfast cereal. These things take very minimal time and fuss to make plus they are much healthier and save me a bundle. Prepackaged items are some of the most expensive items in the entire store. Just switching from conventional to “all natural” or organic packaged snack items is quite expensive, and the nutritional benefit is minimal. Refined and prepackaged items just aren’t good for us, regardless of whether the ingredients are organic or not. True, the organic versions may be slightly LESS BAD for us, but cutting these type of items out of our grocery lists as much as possible is the best option, nutritionally AND financially.
Dairy products are tough, I admit.
Organic and/or raw dairy is quite expensive. I’m blessed to be able to raise a few hens and provide some of our eggs, and have several friends I can buy from to supplement. When they don’t have enough to spare, I buy “cage free” eggs at the grocery store, though they aren’t as good as the TRULY “cage free” eggs I get from my other sources. My family doesn’t drink much milk, but we get fresh, raw milk from a nearby dairy delivered for what we DO need. I also buy their cream and make my own butter for at least part of our needs. We buy delicious grassfed (but not raw) cheese from them as well, and grate it ourselves. I do sometimes buy conventional dairy products for the rest of our dairy needs (parmesan, cream cheese, sour cream, etc.), although I have made our own from our raw milk when time allows. I always buy whole milk products since they don’t have the additives that the lower fat items do (plus, they’re healthier).
Shop less often.
Finally, since I buy so much through other sources, I can avoid going to the grocery store near as often. The less often I’m in the store, the less I spend! Often, I can go two weeks without setting foot in a grocery store, saving myself time AND money.
It really IS possible to feed a family a healthy, whole foods diet without spending any more than a conventional diet costs.
It takes a little bit of creativity and research, but it definitely CAN be done. In fact, now that I’m used to it and have found sources for many of my needs, I find it easier and less time-consuming than back when I bought everything at the grocery store, clipped coupons, tracked prices at several stores to get the best deal, etc.
Most areas have access to co-ops or means of obtaining locally grown food, and there are numerous options on the internet as well. A couple of good starting places to find meat and produce sources in your area are Eat Wild and Local Harvest. Check my Kitchen tab in the top menu bar for several links to good sources for grain and baking supplies.
We are a family of six living on a single income and I have a very minimal grocery budget. It takes some research and effort at first, but I encourage you to investigate your options and not assume that you “can’t afford” to eat well…it CAN be done!