Guest Post: How to Afford Real Food on a Budget

This is a guest post by Crystal Paine – a wife, mom of three, founder of MoneySavingMom.com, and author of the New York Times bestseller, Say Goodbye to Survival Mode. Sign up for her free Guide to Freezer Cooking and get recipes, tips, tricks, and ideas for saving money on real foods by using your freezer.



Real Food on a Budget on 100 Days of #RealFood

So many people have a misguided idea that the only way to eat healthfully is to spend exorbitant amounts of money. If you live in a remote part of the country, this may be the case, but in most areas you can feed your family natural, unprocessed foods without spending hundreds of dollars each week to do so.

Sure, you might spend a little bit more than someone who is eating a diet composed mostly of processed foods, but it really doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg as some people will make you think—especially if you’re willing to get creative and think outside the box. Here are eight ways to afford real foods.

How to Afford Real Food on a Budget

1. Plan a Menu Based Upon What is In Season and On Sale

If you want to feed your family on a budget, you need to have a plan for what you’ll be eating. If you can make your menu plan mostly based upon what is on sale at the natural foods store, what is in season at the farmer’s market, and/or what you’re reaping in abundance from your garden, you’re going to significantly reduce your grocery bill.

2. Practice the “Buy Ahead” Principle

If you happen to come across an incredible sale on tomatoes at the farmer’s market, or the health food store has organic frozen vegetables on a great sale, stock up. Buying items you routinely use when they are at their lowest price is another surefire way to savings.

3. Plant a Garden (or Barter with Someone Who Does!)

If you can pull it off, plant a garden. Produce is typically only pennies per item from your own backyard. It’s tremendously fresh, and you know exactly what you did or didn’t spray on it. Plus, you can can or freeze your extras—or bless your friends and neighbors with them!

Tip: Have a brown thumb? Find a friend who loves gardening and trade services (babysitting, bread baking, car maintenance?) in exchange for their garden excess.

4. Stick with Simple Meals Using Inexpensive Ingredients

When you’re planning your menu, think about how much your recipes will cost you to make. It doesn’t have to be a scientific to-the-penny figure, but just having a good idea that there is a $10 difference between the price of making one meal as opposed to another meal can help you decide whether you can afford to make something or perhaps should save it for a special occasion.

5. Serve Meat as a Condiment

I shamelessly stole this idea from Family Feasts for $75 Per Week because it’s so brilliant. Serving meat in soup or on homemade pizza is going to be a lot less expensive than serving roast and sirloin, especially if you’re buying high-quality meat.

Tip: Need ideas for stretching meat? Laura shows you how to make six meals out of one chicken.

How to Afford Real Food on a Budget
photo credit

6. Buy in Bulk

It is usually much more cost-effective to purchase meat and staple ingredients in bulk. Call around to local farmers and see what they would charge you for purchasing half a cow. In many cases, it’s at least $1 cheaper per pound to purchase in bulk. Buying large quantities of grains or beans, as well as many other basic ingredients with long storage lives, will almost always save you at least 20%, if not more.

Costco, as well as other bulk foods stores and local co-ops, offer great bulk pricing. You can also check with your local health food store to see if they’d offer you a discount for bulk purchases. It never hurts to ask!

7. Consider Joining a CSA or Co-Op

If there is a co-op or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in your area, check into pricing and details for joining. You might find that it is an affordable and money-saving option for your family. If you can’t find an affordable co-op in your area, you could consider starting your own co-op.

8. Use Coupons on Non-Food Items

A number of my readers don’t eat any processed foods, but they use coupons to save money on toilet paper, toothbrushes, and other non-food items that they purchase. Your savings might not be so exciting as others who use dozens of coupons each shopping trip, but even saving $5 each week by using coupons can start to add up over time.

What’s your best tip for saving money on real food?

photo credit

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59 thoughts on “Guest Post: How to Afford Real Food on a Budget”

  1. The main tip which I follow from these is using Coupons to purchase products to stay under budget. By doing this I save a lot of money and my monthly budget also sustains. One can find best online shopping coupons to get extra discounts on desired products. Thank You.

  2. Buying in bulk is a great idea, but pretty much impossible if you are living paycheck to paycheck. Same for a CSA. I’ve wanted to do a CSA for years now, but I never have the upfront money.

  3. I shop the clearance section a lot and buy reduced meat and either freeze it or cook it that night it’s usually half the price I also do the same with fruit and veggies and use them right away or freeze them

  4. it is also region based. We are in northern Canada where the growing season is about 2 months. Root vegetables are about all that grow well here. Some farmers are able, with the help of greenhouses to grow tomatoes, peppers etc. but the cost is still high because of the need to heat the greenhouses etc. To offset the cost of veggies, I try to get local berries. They are less sugary than most imported fruit (oranges, apples etc) and because of the colder climate are more nutrient dense. We have access to “crown land” (unused forest areas owned by the gov.) and can pick as many as we like for free. In our case, the early bird gets the berry!

  5. We saved a bundle this year by buying directly from a farm. We asked for recommendations on facebook. Tomatoes were $12 for 50 pounds. Enormous peppers were 25 cents. We bought hundreds of pounds of veggies for practically nothing. We froze or canned it all. Can’t wait to go back :)

  6. Joan Dahlen…I have a foodsaver and it’s awesome, I bought mine at Canadian Tire for 45% off…they go on sale all the time! Costco, Target and Walmart are great places to check just be sure to check out the different models to find one to suit your needs :)

  7. We have had to really buckle down and write a list- I mean detailed list, of what meals we are going to eat for the next 7 days and shop for those items. We do stray a tad from the list for produce on sale that I know we will eat (cherries, plums, carrots, etc) or meat that is on sale that can be frozen (but I do add each item on the calculator and stay within budget!). I also pay close attention to what we are running out of. If I can wait just one more week to grab paper towels, I will just wait. I use to like being stocked up (if we are almost out I’m going to need them eventually, why not get them now?!) but I would rather use that money this week for fresh organic produce then I be stocked up on stuff that can just wait until next week!

  8. I cook up sauces, soups, and meats in bulk when they are on sale and put them in serving sizes in the fridge to save both time and money.

  9. I really found the last tip to be particularly helpful. I can not usually find fresh food coupons and using coupons for other products makes a lot of sense. Talk about a fresh perspective! I always enjoy reading her posts!

  10. Joan, I’m the biggest veggie eater in my home so I understand your concern for finding wilted greens in the fridge, despite there being 5 of us. One thing that has helped is not washing any produce until I want to eat it. Also if I buy a box of pre washed greens I put a paper towel on top as soon as I open it to collect the moisture.

    I’ve never used a Food Saver but bought plastic green containers that are supposed to make cut produce last longer and it does. Wish I could remember the name.

    Thanks for the link, Camille. I’m off to check it out too!

    Great post, Lisa! One day I hope to grow an edible garden but for now I’m enjoying my CSA. :)

    Sarah

  11. Invest in a foodsaver. I purchased the wide mouth jar attachment and seal the salad inside the jars. The salad stays fresh and crisp for about 2-3 weeks!

    1. Hi Misty,
      What is a food saver, what does it look like and is it sold at regular grocery stores? I cook for two, so I am constantly forgetting to use up lettuce and other greens. I see little wings of dollar bills flying into my trash as I sobbingly have to throw them away.

      1. Joan, this is a FoodSaver:

        http://www.amazon.com/FoodSaver-V3240-Vacuum-Sealing-System/dp/B003U738ZE/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1406510848&sr=8-2&keywords=food+saver

        and here is the jar attachment Misty talked about:

        http://www.amazon.com/FoodSaver-T03-0023-01-Wide-Mouth-Jar-Sealer/dp/B00005TN7H/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1406510848&sr=8-7&keywords=food+saver

        I don’t think these are sold in grocery stores. I know that Costco has sold them, maybe target and walmart? Online is probably your best bet.

      2. Tricia Talkington

        Albert, sooo not nice! Apparently you landed on the wrong Blog. This Blog is for those whom have a need to learn as much as they can to benefit their families. Lay off the processed foods and maybe you’ll wake on the ‘good side of the bed’ next week. Thank you, Joan, for your bravery.

  12. Honestly, I find one big way to save money is to skip the meat. We have meat 2-4 times per week at best, And as the post suggests, the meat is usually in something. I would never buy a half of a cow like my parents did when I was growing up, because I simply would not serve that much beef in a year. I prefer to find farmers at my farmer’s market who humanely/sustainably pasture raise cows, pigs and sheep and buy the specific cuts I need from whomever sells them cheapest.

    Summer/fall is a great time to go meatless because produce is super cheap at the farmer’s market. We have been eating lots of salads, veggie bakes, frittatas, etc. and not missing meat in the least.

  13. You lost me at “natural food store”! I guess I live in a remote area. Our solution is growing and raising as much of our own food as possible, it’s just a process to get there.

    1. Exactly Holly, if you want to save money buy/grow Natural Food that is not in a Health Food Store…why pay the premium for marketing…

      I guess budget is a relative term…I grew up poor and still live a minimalist lifestyle…hence I try not to fall for the marketing hype…

      1. Yeah, um, guys? Not everyone can have a garden. I would LOVE to, but we live in an apartment without a balcony, and not even enough direct sunlight to grow herbs in the window. I get what I can from my friends’ gardens, and the market, but we also hit Whole Foods pretty regularly, and try to look for sales. It’s not perfect, but we’re doing what we can.

      2. I was saying that you don’t have to go to a “Natural Food” store to to buy healthy food

  14. I place a paper towel in with my lettuce and spinach bags/containers. It absorbs the moisture so that it stays fresh longer and doesn’t get that yucky gooey build up.

  15. Lisa Marie Lindenschmidt

    A number of years ago I started switching over a few items a month to organic and/or locally-grown. For example, one month I switched over to an organic gluten-free tamari. I just switched and chose to never buy the non-organic brand again. The next month, pick another item or two. (The advice above to stock up when something is on sale is one of the ways I do this switch!) Some items I chose to start making at home instead of buying them. Eventually, I got into a rhythm and now most of my house is stocked with local, organic or homemade goods. People ask me all the time how I make time to do this, but if you do it a little at a time, you’ll notice that your budget and your lifestyle (aka time spent) make the adjustments. Hopefully, this makes sense.

  16. I think your number 1 tip is the best one! Every Sunday night we sit down and come up with our meal plans for the week. This helps us buy everything we need in one grocery trip instead of going back 3 or 4 times in a week. The only other time I go to the store is if there is some awesome sale on another day during the week. This has saved us a lot of money. AND the co-ops are awesome if you can find them!

  17. All the above tips are great and do-able. This may sound obvious, but we never throw any leftovers. All leftovers are frozen and later used in a different meal. Eg, leftover beef, chicken or veggies will adorn the fried rice.

  18. My main tip is something that I’m still working on fully implementing, and it is NEVER waste food. I hate it when I clean out the fridge and have to throw away leftovers that I know I carefully planned and budgeted to be able to buy in the first place.

    This is closely connected to meal planning (planning ahead to be able to use everything you buy and cook), but occasionally when we have more leftovers than we planned on, it means NOT cooking the next planned meal so we can eat everything that’s already cooked up before it goes bad.

    It also means finding the best way to store produce (and other foods) so they last until we can eat them up. I freeze bananas that are starting to turn brown(to use in smoothies or banana bread), I store my lettuce in mason jars so it stays fresher, and I’m always looking for more ideas like that to keep our hard earned food from going bad.

  19. I have been finding Aldis is not that bad of a place to shop. I’ve been going there to get organic pantry items like honey,pasta, rice and some snack items (read the labels of course.) This has freed up money to buy organic produce at my local market then, although Aldi does have good prices on organic produce too. Aldis and Trader Joes are part of the same organization and I think they have improved their quality.

  20. Thanks for all the great tips, while I do a lot of these already I also picked up some new ideas to keep myself healthy AND have a full wallet.
    Highest on my list at the moment is to join a co-op, besides the ‘affordable food’ aspect, I also want to be involved with the community aspect of joining in with a local organisation like this.

  21. I plan all of our meals, cook from scratch as much as possible, and buy in bulk from Azure Standard. I’ve also learned to stretch meat by using lentils, beans, rice, more veggies, etc. I have also learned that frozen vegetables are much cheaper than fresh and taste much better than canned. I try to find a use for everything – I don’t throw any food away if it can be helped. Thanks for the info.

  22. Forgive me for sounding obnoxious because I don’t mean to be, but just so you know, it’s a steer, not a cow.

    1. Technically it could be a steer, heifer, cow or a bull. Steers are no the only gender of cattle that are sent for butcher.

  23. 2 of my favorite blogs come together!! This is inspiring because your blogs have both significantly blessed my family in our real food on a tight budget journey! I love msm & 100days!! :) Thanks continually for the tips and reminders!!

  24. Most of these are great tips to save money for people who have the money to afford bulk. Half a cow? how many people on minimum-wage jobs can afford to buy half a cow ever? How do you afford to purchase high-quality food when you’re actually a person who doesn’t have very much money. If I have $145 a month to spend on food how do I stretch that to equal healthy food? Or more accurately, $36 a week.

    1. Amy: {Hugs!} My encouragement is to do the best you can with what you have where you are.

      I know many families who split the costs of bulk purchases to make it affordable. If you split the costs between 4-10 families, it can make it doable, even on a tight budget.

      But if that’s not even a possibility, one option is to consider making some short-term sacrifices to allow you to save up an extra few dollars each week to put toward bulk purchases. That might mean that you have pretty basic meals for a few weeks, but over time, as you’re able to invest in buying ahead when an item is on a great sale or investing in some bulk purchases, it will free up even more money and provide you with a variety of healthy items to plan your menu from.

      Again, just do the best you can do with where you are in life. Also: if you can garden or make friends with those who garden, this can be a huge blessing to a small grocery budget!

      {Here’s an example — not the healthiest, but it gives you some ideas — of how to eat really simply on a tight budget to free up a few dollars every week to eventually be able to invest in buying ahead or buying bulk: http://moneysavingmom.com/2012/04/is-it-possible-to-survive-on-a-30-per-week-grocery-budget.html}

    2. Yes, I agree that a whole beef is a large up front cost, but I would like to point out that farmers often have other animals/meats available that will come in smaller quantities and are less of a burden. For example, I just bought organic, pastured whole chickens from a local organic farmer at 6 $/lb. My grocery store has organic chicken at 10 $/lb! This farmer also offers pork and turkeys, and some will sell eggs. Like Crystal mentioned, you can also find friends or families to split the costs with. Look into all your options before discounting the idea. You can really save!

    3. We recently bought half a cow from a local farmer for $3/lb. Two other families are splitting it with us to make it affordable for all of us. We will be getting hamburger, stew meat and possibly some steaks. For grass-fed beef, it’s a steal!

    4. I haven’t yet figured out how to fit buying half a cow into our grocery budget, but I do ‘buy ahead’ when I find good deals at the grocery store, and by always paying the lowest price for certain items that go on sale regularly, set aside money to start buying grains and other items in bulk.

      I look at EVERYTHING in terms of cost per pound. On a super tight budget week, when I’m setting aside more money for bulk purchases, which fruit do I buy? Bananas have a bit of waste in the peel, but are often significantly cheaper per pound than apples or oranges (35 to 60 cents a pound for bananas in my area), and pineapples on sale for $1 each come out to about 50 cents a pound for usable fruit. Which meat do I buy? Chicken leg quarters used to be hands down the cheapest, but lately it’s a toss up between those and chicken thighs, and I’m likely to pay around a dollar a pound for either.

      It’s tough to live your whole life always buying the very cheapest per pound items, but it’s very doable for a few weeks in order to free up a few dollars, as Crystal said, to save up for bulk purchases that will be cheaper in the long run.

      Also, like I said at the beginning, we don’t buy grassfed beef right now either. I think it’s important to be realistic and not beat yourself up for what you really can’t do right now. Maybe for you high quality food means replacing all your processed food with food made from real ingredients and not worrying about whether it’s organic or not. Or just increasing the variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet by replacing one less nutritious item in your cart with something from the produce section. It all depends on where you are with your diet right now.

      I know how frustrating it can be when all the ‘saving money’ suggestions are things you’re already doing, and you still can’t get ahead, so please understand that I know not all of my suggestions are necessarily helpful, I’m just sharing what I have in hopes that it will at least spark some ideas for you, that work for your specific situation.

  25. Great post, we do most of these and eat very well on a budget. The only one I disagree with (for us) is buying in bulk. We find that planning meals and then buying just what we need means that no food is wasted. We’re also short on storage and a small family, so I realize this can differ based on the circumstances.

    1. Storage makes a big difference, but I think it’s mostly a personality difference whether you prefer to buy exactly what you need, or scrimp a little in order to get a good deal that will last you a long time. Right now there’s only two of us to cook for, but even when we had a one bedroom apartment and no chest freezer I would buy extra of whatever was very cheap at the store, aiming to have enough to last until it hit rock bottom price at the next sales cycle.

      Now we have a small two bedroom apartment and my preferred method for stretching our (not large) grocery budget is buying bulk organic grains, shredded cheese at Costco (freeze half of it when we buy it) and meats and produce on sale. Once I’ve gotten to the point where I have all of this on hand, I can ‘coast’ for a few weeks at a time through pantry eating and save up grocery money for the next large purchases I need to make.

      For me, I think it just makes me feel better to know that if I get sick or we get snowed in or something like that, we have enough food on hand to eat well.

  26. I’ll be honest I think sometimes people don’t view food quality as a priority. I’ve heard it numerous times, the people who are much more well off then I’ll ever be are the ones who use the line “oh well eating healthy is so expensive.” It is more expensive but is it more important to you then driving a new car or having an upgrade on your phone every year? Also, yes maybe it is more expensive now but being in good health will save you later on in life. Thiese are great ideas, and I’d like to add my family also shops at Aldi and we get the same organic produce that they sell for $4 more at the regular store. We also shop at 3 different places because we have figured out who has the best prices on the stuff we buy regularly. With organic meats, it’s always a good idea to check out bundles from local farms. Then you know where it is from, plus you get a cheaper price.

    1. This is really a great point. I’ve struggled with getting my husband on board with the natural/organic lifestyle. He wants to do it but he just doesn’t get it completely. I took him grocery shopping once(it will never happen again) and he complained so much about how much higher the prices were for the organic products. We have a strict grocery budget and I’ve been able to adapt to that by making nearly everything we eat from scratch(tortillas, bread, etc) but he says that there is nothing to eat in the house because there are no longer convenience foods. Its a work in progress but I think he’s finally seeing the results of how much better we feel without the processed junk.

      1. I understand how your husband feels without “convenience food” aka easy snacks on hand. I don’t eat completely organic or anything but, like you, try to cook things from scratch. Sometimes it really drives my food-hoarding instinct to open up my cupboards only to find– you know–bulk spices, flour, and the like. What has helped me is learning to see things as convenience food that I didn’t see that way before. Having a carton of hard-boiled eggs, for example, in the fridge. Actually setting fruits and veggies out in a bowl to catch my attention, rather than only having them in the fridge. Sometimes I will make a whole bunch of popcorn on the stove and–once it cools–I’ll put it in a huge ziploc bag. It will keep for a few days before getting too stale. Popcorn is so cheap and relatively healthy depending on what you put on it–and honestly, sometimes you just need something you can grab your hand into to give you a salty crunch!

  27. Joanne Peterson

    CSA’s also need workers for the fruits and vegetables. For years I worked received a worker’s share for the CSA and it included more than me paying and picking up my share. When there were less than perfect produce, we were able to take that home too. So, I was able to get extras of items that may need trimming and then I froze or cooked and then froze. I could get more fruits and vegetables this way than in my garden because of their connection with other farmers and they were in a more temperate zone and could grow more than I can.

  28. I recommend the blog budgetbytes.com. The host lists cost of each ingredient. She does say in her site introduction that prices vary, cost may be more for organic, etc. The site gets you thinking in the mindset of how much each meal costs though.

  29. Love Crystal and it makes total sense to see her on guest posting on this blog! For keeping ingredients simple is key! I can get pretty carried away meal planning straight from clean eating magazine! So many of the recipes are unusual to me or just plain expensive!! However, its much easier to make real food adjustments to my tried and true family favorites. :-)

    1. That is so true about making adjustments to favorite recipes! If it turns out badly you don’t have to wonder whether it’s the ingredients or the recipe you didn’t like, and you can change as many or as few of the ingredients as are practical for your family’s stage of healthy eating.

      I enjoy reading all kinds of recipes for new ideas, but most of the recipes I use actually come from someplace like allrecipes and I just switch out ingredients for the healthy versions I have on hand.

  30. If anyone is interested Bountiful Baskets is an AWESOME co-op you only pay on weeks you want to participate and you don’t have one up front free, plus there are add-ons you can purchase. It’s nation wide and organic options available. I have loved it, check it out at bountifulbaskets.com

  31. I am considering buying in bulk. My question is: how long do items like oats and rice last at room temperature? I wouldn’t have freezer space to freeze bulk items. Also, I read that organic grains can harbor grubs & larvae because they’re not treated. Is this true??

    1. I have kept oats and rice and wheat for months at a time — or even longer. You’ll want to store in a cool, dry place and check periodically to make sure there aren’t bugs. It does happen, but in all the years I’ve been buying in bulk, it’s only happened once for me and it was only a small amount of wheat that was affected.

    2. I buy organic rice, wheat, oats, etc in bulk from Azure Standard. Since I’m buying 25 pound bags for two people, you can imagine that they hang around for months, or as long as a year, and I’ve never had a problem with larvae or bugs in them. I don’t do anything special except for storing them in five gallon buckets with regular sealing lids.

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