Real Food Tips: 12 Ways to Keep it Cheap

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During this time last year our family of four was gearing up for our “100 Days of Real Food on a Budget” pledge. But once the pledge ended (in January 2011) I stopped sticking to our strict food budget of $125/week, and I often wonder how I even managed to do it. Just the other day I was reading some of my old budget blog posts, and on one shopping excursion I somehow left my favorite grocery store (Earth Fare) after only spending $67. If you want to know what I spent at Earth Fare earlier this week….well, just add about $100 – yikes! It is amazing how much more you spend when you don’t have a specific budget in place to help you keep it cheap. The scary thing is though, I sort of was “trying” not to spend a lot the other day. Now my effort didn’t go beyond a conscious thought in my head, but I should know by now that just thinking about being on a budget never really works. :)

As some of you know, my husband and I were fortunate enough to go on a very adventurous – and expensive! – trip to Asia earlier this month. So, for us, there is no better time than now to get back on the food budget bandwagon. I won’t be doing another official budget “pledge,” but since I’ve already proved this could be done I don’t really have any good excuses to convince my husband to let me off the hook (darn!). So for all of us – me included – here are some budget tips that I could never be reminded of enough. And if you have any advice I left out please share in the comments below…

  1. Set a specific budget. This tip may sound basic, but as I just said simply thinking about “not spending a lot of money” DOES NOT work! Here’s how to structure a budget…
    • Pick a realistic budget amount that you will adhere to each week or month. I personally think a weekly budget is easier to follow because you can’t go too far over budget before you realize you are in trouble.
    • Consider using cash in an envelope so going “over budget” isn’t even possible. (For those who’ve heard of Dave Ramsey, yes, we’ve both read his book!) Also, no matter what, make a commitment that if you do for some reason go over budget you will deduct that amount from the following week or month.
    • Define what will and will not be included in the budget. Will it just be for food or for household items too? What about alcohol, entertaining, and going out to eat?
    • Keep track of all your expenses on paper whether you use cash or not. It is important to see where your money goes.
    • Share and discuss the running budget total with the other adults in your household…accountability is what it’s all about!
  2. Be organized and plan out your meals for the week. Last minute purchases that you haven’t put a lot of thought into can add up fast.
  3. Minimize waste by saving all uneaten food instead of throwing anything away.
  4. Know and use what you have on hand especially if it’s perishable. Even consider keeping an inventory list of food on your fridge or freezer so different family members can check off items as they use them. I know my husband is more likely to eat something in the fridge if I leave a note telling him it is there (don’t ask me why)!
  5. Make substitutions in recipes to reduce how many things you have to buy…or even leave out a small ingredient all together.
  6. Maximize “cheap” foods like bananas, beans, and pasta. Here are some of our favorite super cheap recipes:
  7. When making inexpensive meals like soups and pasta dishes double the recipe and freeze the leftovers for when you have one of those days where you just don’t have time to plan out a good dinner.
  8. Make sacrifices like drinking water instead of milk and skipping juice and other flavored beverages all together. If you really have trouble kicking the juice habit at least water it down a little so the juice lasts longer.
  9. Reduce your consumption of meat and desserts. Meat can be a big-ticket item and while dessert is certainly a “nice to have” it is by no means a regular necessity (sorry)! Also experiment with “stretching” your meat dishes by mixing in veggies and/or beans.
  10. Buy produce that’s in-season and if you like to frequent your local farmers’ market try going just before closing time to get some great deals on items the vendors won’t want to haul back to the farm.
  11. If you can’t afford the organic version of everything consult the dirty dozen list.
  12. Check your receipt after you get home to make sure your money was spent wisely (most grocery stores accept returns!).

 

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175 comments to Real Food Tips: 12 Ways to Keep it Cheap

  • [...] - Read Food Tips: 12 Ways to Keep it Cheap – We’re minimizing processed foods in our house and Lisa’s blog has great ideas [...]

  • [...] PLAY – A Ten-Month-Old’s Letter to Santa - This made me giggle out loud and reminded me of The 5 Best Toys of All Time. While both posts are written humorously, they fall in line with one of our main parenting philosophies - and reinforces my belief that kids are cheap! [...]

  • Caroline

    I see that you mention buying a lot of items at Earth Fare. Unfortunately, I don’t have an Earth Fare but I am an Amazon Prime member. Can you tell me some of the products that you buy on Amazon that are good? I struggle with finding pastas and whole grain crackers that aren’t processed. Thanks.

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Caroline. Most 100% whole wheat pastas you would find, even at a conventional grocery store, should not have more than 1 or two ingredients. Hodgson Mill is a common brand. I buy their organic whole wheat angel hair pasta that has organic durum whole wheat, and flax seed as its only two ingredients. The crackers Lisa most often buys are: Ak Mak, and whole wheat matzo, or whole grain wafer type crackers with only 2-3 ingredients. All of these are minimally processed options. ~Amy

  • Renee

    Thanks for all the tips! I do want to mention that while most grocery stores will take returns many state laws require that all food returned to the store must be thrown away. It cannot even be given to food shelves, etc. (My apologies if others have already mentioned that I don’t want to sound like a nag if they have!)

  • […] Ways to save money on your grocery bill from 100 Days of Real Food […]

  • Ellie

    Sometimes being able to afford better quality food means budgeting in other areas. We don’t subscribe to television service which saves over $100 per month. We subscribe to Netflix for $9 and watch online. You can also stream a lot of your favorite shows on company websites like Fox, NBC, ABC, even some cable channels like HGTV. My 5 kids share a cell phone (which also serves as our “home” phone since we don’t subscribe to a land line service). We keep our heat on 64 during the winter and bundle up in warmer clothes and blankets to save on the heat bill. Our A/C is set to 76-78 during the summer (Arkansas) to save on the electric bill. We use dishwasher packets and washing machine packets so no one is using more than necessary when washing. (I used to make my own soap, but found the packets to be easier and budget friendly). We unplug all electrical items when not in use… nowadays everything draws a trickle of electricity… our bathroom heater has a small light on it that stays on when plugged in even though it isn’t “running”. Televisions, game consoles, computers, blenders, coffeepots, toasters, radios etc… EVERYTHING is using electricity (even when in “sleep” mode). So UNPLUG that stuff!! We use outlet timers to shut things on and off automatically to make it convenient. Use lower wattage light bulbs around the house and use a night light in bathroom instead of turning on the light every time. Use a light fixture such as a lamp to illuminate a room instead of a ceiling fan with 4-5 bulbs! There are a lot of ways you can save a little cash here and there that make a BIG difference. Then you can spend that savings on eating well!

  • […] I’m talking with friends about their challenges and resources.  You know I love these 12 tips to keep it cheap from Lisa’s 100 Days of Real Food (on […]

  • Leny Mendoza

    Shop at Mexican or Asian markets instead of buying your groceries, especially meat, fruit, and vegetables at Von’s, Ralph’s & Albertsons. You will be amazed at how cheaper the same items are at these markets. Wife and I get all the market handouts in the mail every Tuesday. We go thru each one because the sale starts the next day. We never go to American markets except Stater Bros. Then we go to the Mexican and Asian markets twice a month. And we save a lot of money !

  • April

    I am a stay-at-home mom of three and we live on a VERY tight budget. We actually didn’t even have internet for years until recently when our oldest child started kindergarten. We do not have cable or any “extras” at all. We do not even have iphones, crazy right?! Not really. For years eating healthy has been a major priority in my life. I even have a degree in Public Health Education and worked to implement school health programs in rural county schools before becoming a stay -at-home mom. So, you get the picture..health is a priority to us! We have cut out any extra expenses you could possibly think of. Honestly it’s not a sacrifice either because it allows our family more time together in this busy world. Here’s another thing, I’ve seen what it’s like in countries like Thailand when I volunteered in an orphanage two summers out of my college life. We are NOT really doing without anything if you really think about it. We have a warm place to live and food on the table. However, with all that said I am STRUGGLING with our real food budget. I seriously spend about $200/week on groceries to eat “real food.” We just partnered with some local farmers around here for the Spring and Summer baskets of produce, meat and milk so I am hoping that will save us money then. We do not have a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods where I live. My only option is Kroger. I can’t even buy all organic food, there’s no way. I want the best for my family. We will continue trying until we get this budget down to something realistic for us. So keep the tips coming! I love your blog! It has helped me, my husband and three daughters live healthier lives. Thank you for your passion with it!

    • Liliya

      Hi, April,
      I saw that you have a Kroger around there. Do you use coupons? I know it’s hard to find coupons for healthy foods, I am having the same challenge. But there is a couponing blog that is dedicated only to Kroger and you can find some really good deals on stuff you use, it’s called iheartkroger.com . I don’t know if you have a publix, but the same person runs iheartpublix.com . Now like I said their stuff is expensive unless you get it on sale and there is not really any coupons for veggies and fruits, but it’s worth checking out. Sometimes they have a $5 or $10 coupons for a certain amounts, or discounts on gas with the groceries. If you have time to follow the blog, it can save you some money.
      Liliya

    • Stephanie

      If you live on any land, you should look into growing some of your own food. [Just to let you know-we're semi-rural suburban but not in a farming community- My family lives in S. California in track housing.] Probably 1/2 the backyard is a garden though we’re planning on taking out the rose bushes & putting in some more- we usually grow tomatoes, zucchini, jalapenos, bell peppers, berries, limes, herbs, lettuce(s), etc. We also trade a few family friends who also grow they’re own food(one couple in particular always grows WAY more than they can eat so they give the extra to my mother- also a homemaker). In the last few years, we’ve started keeping our own chickens – (we have 4 laying hens now)- it was about $300 for initial start up costs (building the coop) but its really pretty cheap to maintain. In addition to their feed, they eat some of our left over vegetables (the ones that are a little questionable but not rotten- save those for compost). We’ve almost entirely stopped buying eggs from the store (btw – there’s 8 kids- as you can imagine we were going through A LOT of eggs). To be honest, I don’t know exactly how much my mother budgets for groceries but I’m pretty sure this helped. Of course it also depends on WHAT your family likes to eat too, but personally,as a college student, keeping my own costs down really helps by stocking up on my family’s (100% guaranteed) organic, cage-free eggs, & lately, eating a combination of the stuff from the jars my mother & I pickled over summer & making my own sauerkraut for a fraction of the store-bought cost.

      Don’t mean to get too personal- but if you’re not already- consider using cloth diapers & cloth *female products* for any ladies in the house (we’ve got 5 young women to which these products currently apply)- much better for your health (no dioxins & landfill waste) & WAY cheaper in the long run. Hopefully this helps give you some ideas where to start :)

    • Stephanie

      I forgot to add – try looking at a Winco if there are any out by you. They have bins of non packaged dry goods (nuts, oatmeal, flax, pasta, soup mix, beans, etc.). They’re very reasonable and have some stuff available in organic / whole wheat / gluten-free / rice-based etc (for instance – raw cashews @ Whole Foods is $6 – $12 Lb. I think we picked up some of the same ones @ Winco for $2-$3 Lb). Also something that might help.

  • Brandi K

    For #8 Making Sacrifices, I’m all for skipping the juice, but calcium is important in one’s diet, so skipping milk is not necessarily the best idea. I would suggest having a supply of dry milk to use if you use milk in cooking, which I do because I make my own cream soups rather than buying canned. Also, I have heard (though I don’t remember where) that milk is sometimes (maybe even often) cheaper at convenience stores since it’s perishable and they want it off the shelves faster. I don’t know about everywhere, but that seems to be true in 2 places I’ve lived, Georgia and Wisconsin.

  • Brandi K

    Also, thanks for this post :)

  • April

    Brandi K, something we also have to think about is the quality of the milk. My family is going to start drinking milk from a local cow that is very well-taken care of. The cow’s milk in the convenience/grocery stores would make you VERY sick if there weren’t so many processes to go through before it’s allowed on the shelf. The cows are milked so much that they get infections in their breasts and have to be given antibiotics to take care of the infection. The milk has hardly any nutrients in it and actually doesn’t provide calcium. It has been driven into our brains that we need to drink our milk, drink our milk to get that good calcium. However, there are SO many other sources of calcium. I will never drink another glass of mass produced milk ever again, and this comes from a person who used to drink milk a few times a day!! :)

  • amy

    So, out of curiosity how much do you spend a week on food (when you don’t stick to the budget)? 300/ week?

  • I am thrilled to see people share tips to help out on this, however, I noticed that when you break down the prices and monthly food budget in your meal plans, that you have the old food stamp max benefits number still. They dropped last month. Also, if you are in a real tight bind, Aldi and Wal-Mart both carry organic lines now. I have been writting a blog documenting my efforts and tips for trying to live green on minimum-wage. http://epatrick4.wix.com/greenonminimumwage#!blog/c23qi

  • By the way, I love what you do, and follow both you and your husband’s blogs!

  • chanchal

    Asian and Maxican market has no quality food ,I would not trust them.There grains are very low quality.There is no control in asian countries.I tried but even taste is not good.To spend less we should eat spices food which is very healthy and make you eat less.other thing don’t eat too much meat,it is not good for us.No need for smoothies and green drinks.Our grand maa never tried these and still lived till 90 years.Don’t watch too many food shows just to sell stuff they make us eat more fancy food.I eat very healthy and organic and spend very wisely.My store is Earthfare only.Main thing bother me is bread.So I make indian Pitta bread with whole wheat.We eat greens in three meals.we don’t buy bars,they are useless.our snack is fresh water not cold.

  • These are some very practical and easy to apply tips. Since Cameron and I have started eating real we’ve talked a lot about how much we spend on food.

    First of all we don’t eat out hardly at all anymore and we don’t waste money on empty calorie food like chips and cookies.

    Not only are we saving money that way but because the food is a little more expensive we hardly ever waste any food! Planning out our meals weekly has probably been the best thing we have ever done so we only buy what we are going to use.

  • Stephanie

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned CSA’s (community supported agriculture) – in addition to the fact that you can grow your own organic food, if you don’t own land you can always see if you have a CSA in the area (if you honestly feel as somebody implied above, that you should be skeptical of minorities & believe they are lying about ingredients & food quality). Not ALL Asian countries have poor quality control – for instance, S. Korean & Japanese markets are decently trustworthy & often carry organic veggies for about the same price as GMO’s in other stores. I’ve seen Daikon on sale once- $1 for 5 lbs (literally no exaggeration) & have picked up persimmons for $1-2 lb. If you’re used to Hippie-filled, or Caucasian-only, typical commercial chains, an ethnic market will probably be a really new experience for you. Depending on the culture, people can be (what your own culture may deem as) rude, pushy, loud, etc. it really just depends. Its not for everyone & some places, I would not recommend bringing small children (seriously – they may get trampled).

    The tricks to shopping @ ethnic food markets will vary depending on what the market is. I’ve been to quite little Persian markets with no more than two people – they were confused that I was looking around for things that caught my eye – without firm intentions of buying a particular item.
    For the Korean one I go to- oh geez. Nobody prepared me for that.
    My tips: Park your cart off to side before venturing into the fruits/veggies- throw elbows- those old ladies are ruthless & may very well knock you down in the process. Ask. You see a really cheap item but don’t know what it is or how to cook it- smile & ask- those same old ladies throwing elbows will be glad you are interested in traditional Asian cuisine & will likely give you many ideas how to use it. -Boom! Nutritional variety & introduction to foreign veggies-you’ll wonder how you ever lived without ‘em.

    The majority of students I attend college with are Asian- rather than coming with a concrete shopping list, we go with a loose idea of what we want/need & alter it based on price. Parsley’s really cheap this week? Looks like another night of Tabbouleh. Seriously – this saves me more than going with a list. Except for some tea now & then, I’m really not tempted to pick up extra treats since I hate seaweed, tolerate (sweet) Kimchi, & can’t read half the other stuff in the store.

    If you’re looking to increase variety in your diet, don’t turn your nose up at Ethnic Markets.
    Are all of their fruits & veggies beautiful & picture worthy? No- they’re sometimes bruised or bad altogether you have to inspect each piece you pick up nobody is forcing you to buy the poor quality pieces- perhaps this is the “lack of quality control” referred to above(?)
    Do their store conditions rival that of super chains? -No, they’re often family owned & cut their costs as they see fit. This might include mopping less frequently, sales & price signs marked in felt-tipped pen, etc. If you’re used to high end American supermarkets, it might seem “dirty” and foreign as they do not go out of their way with shelving & lighting levels determined by research to make the consumer at ease or emotionally manipulated. Its usually all about efficiency & cost reduction – not atmosphere.
    Do they offer super cheap produce & organic/ locally grown options? -Depends on the product & where you live but yeah – often they do.
    Do they use MSG & preservatives in SOME products? -Yes.
    Are you being forced to buy these products? – Nope!
    If you decide to buy something packaged, is it guaranteed to be fresh? – No, don’t be a dummy- You should always look for an expiration date no matter where you shop.

    If you have patience- ethnic markets are actually a REALLY good place to pick up your Real Foods for real cheap prices. Often, they get their profits from the high prices of their specialty items (in-house Kimchi, locally caught & prepped fish, green-tea kit kats, etc.) so they don’t need to gouge you on the produce which- again – you’ll have to sort through.

  • Moramay

    Hello ladies! I’ve been thinking it would be nice to have a list of actual farmer’s markets by region, I live in Los Angeles and although we can find “farmer’s markets” all over, the sad truth is that many times all you find there is resellers, not even local farmers, just trying to sell leftover produce from who knows where. You can’t trust those places, we’ve been disappointed every time we’ve tried. We only know of a couple of places where you can buy directly from the farmer, but it’s far and not very convenient for weekly shopping. Other than that, Whole Foods is pretty expensive, Trader Joe’s doesn’t have everything you need, so our latest favorite is Sprouts. Any thoughts on how to find authentic farmer’s markets? How do you spot the real ones from the resellers?

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