It’s hard to go a day without being reminded of the benefits of real food–from the organic section at the grocery store to the local farmer’s market to the town farm-to-table restaurant, we’re fortunate to live in a time where the advantages of natural, whole foods are continually being suggested to modern consumers. The trouble, however, is the practicality of making it all work in real life–how do we prepare it, how do we find the time to sit down and eat it, and most importantly, how do we afford it?
The fact is, when it’s an even exchange, real food tends to be more expensive than processed food. A pound of organic grass-fed ground beef is simply going to cost more than a pound of fast food burgers. While you might have to increase your budget, eating nutrient-dense, whole foods doesn’t need to break the bank. Once you’ve decided that eating real food is a priority for your family, here are ten steps that you can take to significantly reduce the cost of your weekly grocery bill:
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1. Meal Planning
There’s a good reason that everyone who has advice to offer about sticking to a grocery budget recommends meal planning, and that’s because it works! Having a plan for your week allows you to control the cost of each meal rather than relying on the grocery store to set your budget for you.
You don’t need a fancy template unless you want one—mine is a simple list of lunches and dinners on my Apple Notes app. Right now I plan my meals out weekly, but you can also plan monthly or seasonally if you find that this is more efficient for your lifestyle.
How to Save Money by Meal Planning
- Eliminate food waste by using up what you already have
- Stretch your meat by planning recipes that don’t feature meat as a main dish
- Purchase your pantry items in bulk
- Reduce reliance on restaurants and prepared food for busy days
- Lower the cost of produce by focusing on what’s in season
- Shop the store sales
2. Buy Local
In some cases, buying local can be more expensive than getting produce from the grocery store [I’m looking at you, $6 farmer’s market potatoes]. On the other hand, buying certain products locally, particularly pastured eggs and high quality meat, are much more affordable than what’s available in the store.
Our CSA offers a share of pasture-raised, organic eggs at $5/dozen, which is substantially cheaper than the $7+ eggs at the natural foods store [especially if you eat tons of eggs like we do!]. It’s also pretty tough to beat the prices on free range organic chicken [around $4.50/lb for a whole chicken] and grass-fed beef ($7.49/lb for ground beef) that you can snag from a local farmer, and the quality tends to be higher than what’s available at the store.
How to Save Money by Buying Local
- Join a CSA (community supported agriculture) program to share in a farm’s seasonal produce
- Shop farmer’s markets for competitive prices on seasonal produce
- Purchase produce and meat in bulk from local farmers
- Shop a co-op for access to high-quality food from smaller producers
3. Stretch Your Meat
Learning to stretch my meat purchases is one of the best changes that I made to save money in my grocery budget. While I don’t consider us a family of mega-carnivores, we were previously spending a couple hundred dollars on organic meat every month or so. Now, I buy less and make my meat purchases go farther.
How to Save Money on High-Quality Meat:
- Plan meals that incorporate meat rather than highlighting it as the main dish
- Cut the meat in half using veggies, grains, or beans
- Use cheaper cuts of meat (like whole chicken) and incorporate them into multiple meals
- Buy meat in bulk from a local farmer
4. Use it Up
Not only is using what you have good for your wallet, it’s also being a good steward of the environment. Take your fridge and freezer into account when planning your meals, and eat leftovers for lunch or freeze them to use later. Make bone broth with leftover bones and freeze vegetable trimmings to make vegetable broth. Get creative with the odds and ends in your fridge—soup is always a good idea!
5. Keep Emergency Freezer Meals
We just started keeping freezer meals and it’s been a total game changer. Even if it’s just leftover soup from a large batch, having something prepared in the freezer has eliminated those last minute restaurant trips or pizza runs when I run out of time to cook. Failing to plan ahead was a serious budget-buster for us, so keeping freezer meals prepped means that we’re out of excuses.
6. Keep Track of Purchases
Recently, I’ve started entering all of my grocery purchases into a spreadsheet that I separate by category. This way, I know where I’m allocating my money [is it really organic produce, or is it the irresistible bakery on the way out of the store?] and I can also keep track of the price differences for certain items in different stores. I’m not incredibly detailed about it, but I do find that reviewing the totals at the end of the month helps me shop more efficiently and make cost-informed decisions about joining CSA programs or bulk meat purchases.
7. Buy in Bulk
If you can budget ahead to purchase items like meat, vegetables, and pantry items in bulk, you will save on the price per pound and will always have what you need on hand. Beef can be purchased by the side if you have a chest freezer, veggies can be purchased in advance using a community supported agriculture program, and pantry items can be ordered online using sites like Vitacost, Azure Standard, and good old Amazon.
8. Make it From Scratch
Not only is fresh food substantially better for your health than packaged food, but most of the time, making an item from scratch is going to be much cheaper than purchasing it. For example, homemade pizza dough can be made in no time for pennies, but buying pre-made dough will cost at least a few dollars.
Using time-saving devices and techniques can take the drudgery out of cooking from scratch. Kitchen tools like the Instant Pot and the slow cooker can make quick work of dried beans and tough but inexpensive cuts of meat, while fermenting your own cabbage or kombucha is slow but virtually hands-free.
How to Save Money Cooking from Scratch:
- Make your own sauces and condiments
- Make your own spice mixes
- Make your own broth
- Make your own bread and dough
- Make your own cakes and cookies from bulk ingredients instead of using a mix
- Can your own salsas, jams, and tomato sauce
9. Allocate Your Money
Strategically, it makes the most sense to allocate the bigger chunks of your grocery budget to nutrient dense foods. We tend to spend a greater portion of our budget on organic, pastured meat, dairy, and eggs than we do on speciality items like black wild rice or exotic varieties of olives. Try to prioritize your organic vegetable purchases based on the “dirty dozen,” and avoid pre-made and packaged items whenever it’s practical to do so.
10. Grow it Yourself
Try your hand at growing a small garden! As a former serial plant killer, I can attest that anyone can do it. If you don’t have a large outdoor space, try a container garden or some herb pots in a sunny windowsill. If you have a backyard, give raised beds a shot. There’s nothing more satisfying than eating your own homegrown produce.
By implementing a few money-saving tips, we can have the best of both worlds–a reasonable grocery budget and a fridge full of healthy, delicious real food.
What are some of your favorite tricks for saving money on real food?
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