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7 Tips for Healthy Eating on a Budget


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budget meats, eating healthy on a budget
Eating healthy on a budget means planning ahead. Nastco/iStock/Thinkstock

Making the switch from a standard American diet to a whole-foods, Paleo or Primal diet, can initially be a shock at the grocery store checkout line. For folks used to buying cheap grain products like bread and pasta, conventional dairy products, canned beans, or low quality meats, that first big trip to the grocery store can end up producing a pretty terrifying bill at the end. It might even be enough to deter someone from sticking with their new healthy diet.

Fortunately, with a little planning and some smart shopping techniques, there’s no reason why eating a Paleo diet should cost significantly more than your old way of eating. While there may always be a slightly higher cost associated with eating well (after all, isn’t your health worth it?), there are many ways to reduce your spending on food for you and your family. Here are my top seven tips for eating healthy on a budget.

With a little planning and smart shopping, anyone can eat healthily, even on a budget.Tweet This

1. Buy Ingredients, Not Products

It’s cheaper to buy raw ingredients and cook food yourself than buying pre-packaged meals, snacks, and other food items. Many people when first starting a Paleo diet tend to be overwhelmed at the grocery store and look for “Paleo-friendly” products like Larabars, nut milks, kale chips, beef jerky, and other items that can be easily made at home but are tempting to buy when starting from scratch. Also, some of those new to Paleo end up buying one or more of the many pre-made meals, sold online or at Crossfit gyms, that have been designed to be compliant with the Paleo diet and often cost an arm and a leg.

The more food you cook from scratch, the more money you’ll save. There are countless recipes online for snacks and meals that you can make yourself, including Larabar replacements, almond milk, kale chips, beef jerky, and other great on-the-go items. An added bonus – you know what all the ingredients are, and you can avoid mystery additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners.

2. Share Your Food

Buying food for one person, or even one family, can be pretty expensive. However, most individuals or families don’t have room in their house to buy fresh food in bulk. This is where sharing food purchases with other families can make a huge difference to your food budget. There are many different ways to share costs with friends. To save money on grass-fed meat, try a cow share, where you and a group of health-minded friends go in together on buying a whole cow worth of meat. If you split it up amongst more people, there will be less cost and less need for extra fridge space. Joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm allows you to share the crops grown at a local farm with other members of your community. This allows the cost of produce to be cheaper, since the farmers are guaranteed to sell everything they have. Planning Paleo potlucks with friends rather than going out to eat is a great way to save money on social dining occasions while still eating well. The more food you share with neighbors, friends, and extended family, the more money you’ll save.

3. Get down to Basics

Buy ingredients that are versatile and can be used for a wide variety of dishes. Instead of buying tons of spices that you might use once, get the basics like all-season salt, fresh garlic, onion powder, italian/mexican/indian (fill in the ethnicity) seasoning, curry paste, and anything else that can be used for a multitude of dishes. Try to choose a go-to fat like olive oil, coconut oil, or butter, and use that for all your dishes. Don’t be afraid of frozen vegetables, as they’re just as nutritious as fresh, can be used in many different dishes, and have a much longer shelf life than fresh veggies. For those who tolerate starches, white potatoes and sweet potatoes are cheap and filling, and can be used at any meal. Try to avoid buying exotic ingredients like gluten-free flours, excessive amounts of individual spices, multiples of ingredients like cooking fats, or other items that sit in your pantry uneaten for months because you don’t know what to use them for.

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4. Cook in Bulk

Making large batches of meals you can eat as leftovers saves both time and money. As those living on their own know, it gets expensive trying to buy single-serve food items, and food waste can be a huge problem when buying in bulk. That’s why cooking large meals and saving the leftovers can be especially helpful for those cooking for just themselves or perhaps one other person. Try making multiple servings of an all-in-one meal like a soup or stew, and freezing it for use later in the week. Not only will you save time with cooking later, you’ll also be able to use the ingredients you’ve bought in bulk and not have to worry about spoilage when you can’t eat all the meat or vegetables you’ve purchased.

5. Pick Your Battles

Not everything you buy has to be organic, grass-fed, free-range, and local. There are many food items that are fine to buy from a conventional grocery store on a regular basis. A list called The Dirty Dozen describes the twelve most contaminated fruits and vegetables on the market, as well as the twelve least contaminated. While you always want to buy organic celery and strawberries, it might not be so important to look for organic onions or bananas. The same goes for animal products. While you would likely want to avoid conventionally-raised chicken, pork, and organ meats, you may be alright buying lamb, eggs, and some natural cheeses that aren’t from 100% grass-fed and organic sources. Canned fish like salmon, skipjack tuna, sardines, and herring are far less expensive than fresh, wild fish, and are extremely nutrient dense choices. Of course, you should always get the highest quality animal foods you can afford, but not everyone has access to ideal sources of meat. It’s better to eat non-organic eggs than organic cereal for breakfast, and it’s better to have a dinner of a filet of farmed trout and conventional salad than a plate of organic pasta and wild striped bass. (In fact, some wild fish are even more contaminated than farmed ones.) If you’re unable to buy the best quality meats and produce, it’s a good idea to do your homework and figure out which items are worth the splurge, and which might be alright to spend less money on.

6.  Cut out the Extras

Determine if you’re buying anything that is unnecessary – $4 coffees, bottled water, fancy ingredients you use once for an extravagant recipe, protein powders, etc. – and cut it out. There are many people who excessive amounts of money on useless food items and then complain when pastured eggs cost $3 more per dozen than the conventional ones. Go through your food spending and see if you can identify unnecessary splurges that are putting your over budget. Once you’ve determined a few nonessential items, either get rid of them altogether or find a way to make them at home. Buy a good quality reusable mug or water bottle, and fill them up before you leave the house in the morning. Eat real food rather than expensive protein powders and supplements. Don’t waste money on these items that you could easily do without.

 7. Skip the Filet Mignon

A great way to save money on animal foods is choosing cheaper cuts of meat like brisket, chuck roast, etc. and offal (liver, heart, etc.). These are not only nutrient dense, they’re also some of the most tender and delicious cuts of meat (in the case of brisket, chuck roast, etc.) when wet/slow cooking methods are used. Many who can’t otherwise afford pastured-meat can afford these cuts pastured. And it’s especially important to buy organ meats from organic, grass-fed animals. These unpopular cuts are often just a few dollars a pound, and deliver an enormous nutritional benefit that will make a significant difference in your overall health.

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  1. (correction: last paragraph should have read “I don’t *have* to read it, it’s utter BS)

  2. Did you hear the NPR story regarding red meat and diabetes this morning? What’s your general take? (Allison Aubrey was reporting) I don’t want to cut back my red meat but they had “experts” that said there was a type 2 risk with eating too much red meat. What about organ meat?

    Of course their studies probably weren’t controlled and their sample sizes weren’t reported on!

    • Aaron,

      I heard that report this morning as well. I am so sick of the ridiculous non-scientific anti-meat studies lately. And this one is the worst of the worst! Anyone that knows anything about diabetes knows it’s mainly a sugar problem and an adipose tissue problem. Too much sugar causes insulin resistance. Too much adipose tissue screws with your hormones and produces tendency towards insulin resistance. Aside from eating an excess of meat (or anything!) to cause significant weight-gain, there’s no good logical reasoning for why meat (protein + fat — NOT sugar!) would be causing diabetes.

      Here’s the tell-tale: if you listened to the very end of the report you heard them make this statement: “but the researchers did not account for the weight of the individuals nor for the overall nutritional-quality of their diets”.

      Duh. It’s a “study” not worth being called such and not worth being publicized. Just based on simple logic and hearing that disclaimer at the end tells me all I need to know about that study; I don’t know to read it, it’s utter BS.

      Ugh. Society and science are really getting corrupted.

  3. A real key to all this for our family is cooking. Wife and I, and now maturing children, are all and have long been quite into cooking, and share the load happily between us. We almost never eat out, not really for economic considerations but because the food at home is usually better (not just healthier!) at home. More importantly, we just find the cooking process a daily pleasure, whether done individually or jointly.

    Indeed, a preference for home cooking, with a strong from-scratch bias, was a key factor in making it easy to shift to a paleo diet (in a kind of PHD version in our home), and also makes it easier to ameliorate the increased economic burden of this diet as well.

    I recognize that not everyone shares an ability to derive pleasure from cooking as we do. Also, if I may be forgiven a bit of immodesty, I suspect not that many people have the ability to make home cooked food as satisfying and delicious as we generally do. This is unfortunate since lacking these skills will make this way of eating much more difficult and more costly for people to adhere to. There is little doubt in my mind that a sharp decline in basic home cooking ability over the recent decades is one of the more significant factors in the trend of deterioration in health.

    So, perhaps another key bit of advice to add to Chris’s list is learn to cook well, and try to learn to enjoy cooking.

  4. Seems like money’s ALWAYS an issue with me, so finding ways to enjoy my Paleo lifestyle while maximizing savings is a sure-fire winner in my book. Really enjoyed reading this selection…

    Suggestions #2 and #6 are near and dear to my heart… 😉

  5. These are all great tips. I also find that meal planning eliminates waste, and I second the tip regarding tinned sardines and herring. Also, even if pastured eggs are a little more expensive, they are still a relatively cheap source of protein. All in all, even though we invariably spend more on groceries than we would with a poor quality diet, I will happily spend more since the result is better health, both now and in the long term. If that means eliminating cable TV, using an old flip-phone rather than a smart phone, and resisting the urge to update my wardrobe, then so be it. These are all small sacrifices to make when I look at the big picture.

  6. I also recommend meal planning. Before I started preparing for grocery trips by planning out dinners for the week, my fridge was where produce went to die. I was storing too much food and wasting too much food. Now that I plan ahead, I hardly ever have to throw anything away. For the sake of flexibility, I tend to plan a couple of meals a week that use ingredients that will keep for an extra week if my plans change. I also try to plan at least a couple meals a week that are easy (whatever that means for you with your current skills and equipment). When life happens, I just switch meals around and bump the flexible meals from the schedule as needed.

    Unfortunately, there’s just no way around the fact that nutrient-dense whole foods result in a higher grocery bill than generic boxed mac and cheese. Over the last 4+ years I’ve gone from eating mostly processed grains, to mostly whole grains, to adding more protein and produce, to buying higher quality animal products and cutting most processed foods and wheat. I follow a lot of the budget advice and my grocery bill has still gone up every step of the way.

  7. Chuck roasts are delicious cooked all day in the crockpot! Add veggies and you will think you have died & gone to heaven. Whole Foods showcases organic beef farmers with pictures & where their farms are located.

  8. I have found that there is no benefit for me in buying a half cow. Because quarter, half, and whole cows usually include some “luxury” cuts like steak, it’s still cheaper for me to buy just the less expensive cuts of meat individually (but from the farmer, not from Whole Foods).

  9. I’ve connected with all my favorite stores through e-mail and Facebook. Whole foods will send notices when they have 1 day sales sucked as pastured chicken for 2.99 lb. Sprouts has had grassfed ground beef for 4.99 lb and rib eyes for 6.99. I stock up when those show up!

  10. Yes I second that: find a local farmer and buy meat directly from them!!! Especially if you buy in bulk, it will save you a TON and it will be so higher quality, and fresher. I can’t fathom spending $8 a pound for ground beef at the natural food store, not when I get it from a farmer for $5 for a pound and a half. I feel like we hit the Jack pot 🙂
    Also, for convenience I round out my family’s diet with store bought organic or at least anti biotic free natural chicken from time to time. But what I do is check out the sell by date, and I will try to plan a trip back a day or two before that, early to mid morning is best, when they mark that stuff down. I will stock up and freeze some if its a good deal. I often find chicken leg quarters for a steal, which is a great week night meal esp for grilling. I know it’s not as good as farm fresh pastured poultry, but it helps stretch the budget 🙂

  11. Thanks so much for these great tips! I joined a local natural foods co-op and have found a SIGNIFICANT savings! All of the produce is organic, and as local as possible and I pay the same price, and sometimes less, than regular non-organic produce from grocery stores! They also have partnered with local farmers for grass fed and pastured meat, which we order three times per year. I try to plan how many pork roasts I’d use (for carnitas), chuck roasts, ground beef, minute steaks, etc. for the upcoming months before the next order. Investing in a good upright freezer is a must – but worth it!

    Meal planning is another way I think we can save. If I’m not caught off guard on what to make for dinner, I don’t make last-minute runs to the store for higher-priced items.

    Thanks again – I love reading your posts!

  12. Well Done! Very thorough as usual. People always find the roadblocks, you do a great job of showing them a way around them. Bravo!

  13. Like Laurel, I too noticed a big price-jump several years ago when we started the migration away from the SAD. However, not so much of a price-change last year when we started going more organic/paleo.

    On SAD you are mostly eating a ton of processed food… mostly wheat, corn, sugar. Stuff in wrappers and bags in the middle of the store. The big price-jump is when you leave that stuff in favor of mostly-real food (ie: actual produce, meats, dairy, quality breads). It’s when you start shopping mostly in the perimeter of the store that you see the biggest price jump.

    But when you go organic and paleo, there’s not a lot of additional price-change.

    That comes with primarily 1 caveat though: you have to find an affordable local source of pastured animals products — or at least for the meats if not the eggs — and you have to buy in bulk. If you buy individual cuts of organic grass-fed meat in the regular store, you are going to pay THROUGH. THE. NOSE. Buying from a local rancher in bulk, however, can be about the same price as buying traditional individual cuts through your grocer.

    That’s been what we’ve experienced here in Salt Lake City, anyways.

    Buying real food as opposed to packaged food, and buying individual cuts of organic pastured meats, are the 2 largest hits to your budget.
    Both of them can be countered by finding a good small local source of both; for example, a ‘co-op’ for your produce and a rancher for your animal products. Buy your meats in bulk from the rancher once/quarter, buy your product from your co-op when you can, buy from the store in-between visits to save time/effort.

  14. This article is very helpful in working out more details of moving to a Paleo diet, thanks!

  15. We definitely follow most of these tips you mentioned and our “whole food”, organic, grassfed diet is much more expensive than our SAD diet ever was. I shop the outer isles of the grocery store and rarely enter the middle isles except for things like seaweed, canned tuna, organic cheese and the like. We buy our meat from a local farm in bulk (whole chickens, a half a cow or hog). We also buy our raw milk and pastured eggs from a local farm. Sure I try to make a lot at home (yogurt, mayo, bone broth) but with two little ones, time is at a premium. Are we healthier and happier? Of course! But this came at quite a hefty price tag 🙂
    Love your website and all the information. Keep doing what you’re doing!

  16. What a great list! Affordability can make or break a new healthy lifestyle. I’ll be sure to share these thoughtful tips. Thank you!

  17. I’ve stopped following Dirty Dozen & just buy all organic produce. Here’s why. I wrote them but got no reply. Soy & corn are products that are mostly GMO yet corn is on the Clean 15. The only reason I can come up with as to why its on the clean 15 is due to its GMO status , it doesn’t need to be sprayed. BUT I don’t want GMO either. So for me, I don’t trust the list any longer, for a person who has no clue as to what GMO is , they would eat the corn due to being in the clean 15 yet be consuming a GMO product.

    • Corn is on the Clean 15 because they are referring to sweet corn, which is not GMO (yet).

    • It might also be because the corn is covered with a thick husk that prevents it from getting hit by the pesticides on the part we eat. Same goes for onions, bananas, avocados – they’re all produce with outer inedible coverings. Compare that to celery or strawberries, which probably absorb a lot of the pesticides into the edible component and thus are more dangerous to eat when conventional. Just my two cents!

    • The crops that are GMO typically ARE sprayed, but are designed to be Roundup-resistant so they are not killed by the pesticide like everything else.

  18. Great article, Chris! Thanks for summing all of this up. I get asked all the time how to deal with tight budgets, this is a great article to refer folks to.