Of course, there’s no simple answer to this question, as there are many variables that need to be considered. My goal in this article, is to outline many different ways you can adopt a healthy real food lifestyle, while still keeping your budget in check.
And, at the end of this article, I’ve included a list of resources to help you further explore and implement some of the tips and suggestions listed below. In addition, I’ve provided a follow-up post “Buy Big, Save BIG,” which provides an example of how buying in bulk can truly help families save money.
1. Get a Handle on Your Current Food Budget
Before you can accurately determine how much making the switch to real food is going to impact your budget, you have to determine what you are currently spending each week/month on food? What about eating out? It’s critical to include what you spend on eating out with family and friends, daily/weekly lunches out with your office colleagues, and special treats, like trips to your favorite frozen yogurt place, Starbucks, etc. Most people are shocked when they discover how much they are spending each week/month in eating out and/or ordering take-out. It’s important to keep in mind that the more you stop eating out, the more you will improve your health, and the more you will free up your budget to purchase real food, that’s real nourishing!
2. Set Goals/Determine Priorities and PRAY!
I can’t stress how important this is! Once you get a handle on how much you’re currently spending on food, including eating out, it’s important to sit down with your spouse and discuss your goals/priorities together.
However, before we go any further, I want to be sure to address the importance of being a good steward. Followers of Christ are called to be faithful stewards – using all of our various resources for His glory. My time, money and talent are God-given gifts – so in reality nothing is mine, it is all His. So my first priority is nothing less than to give sacrificially of my time and money in serving God. Everything else has to come second!
So I encourage you to prayerfully consider how God wants you to use the resources He has provided to you and your family. Seeking the Lord in prayer should be the first step you take before you and your spouse set any goals or priorities of any kind. Ask Him for His will in this first, before moving forward in setting goals/priorities for improving your family’s diet.
And when you are ready to move forward … please don’t try to change everything at once, it will not only be overwhelming, but it will also be expensive. Taking time to prioritize, and make one change at a time, will help you to keep a close eye on your budget and also help you to not become overwhelmed.
Ready to get started on your real food journey? Here are some tips:
• List out your goals for healthy eating
• Talk to your spouse and pray about them together
• Prioritize – put your goals in order of priority
• Focus – select one of your top priority goals
• Make an action plan – list out the steps you will take to meet that goal, including setting a grocery budget and exploring options to keep your budget in check. (I cannot recommend enough my dear friend Tiffany’s “How to Create a Frugal Grocery Budget Series” – it’s a great way to help you to set a do-able food budget.)
• Just do it – start putting your action plan into action!
• Analyze your success – how’s it going with meeting your goal? What obstacles are you facing, what can you tweak or change to be more efficient and save money?
• Keep on moving – once you have successfully achieved a goal, initiate an action plan for your next goal, and keep on building from there. It’s slow, steady progress that results in long-term change!
3. Meal Planning Saves Money!
Whether you’re trying to reduce the frequency and expense of eating out, or you’re trying to save time and money on the meals you’re already making at home, it’s important to get savvy with meal planning. Mastering Meal Planning will not only help you to more efficiently get a healthy meal on the table, but it will also help to reduce the expense of eating at home. In addition, meal planning enables you to take advantage of other important money-saving strategies like repurposing leftovers and the time- and money-saving strategy of Cook Once, Eat Twice or More.
4. Beyond Organic: Get to Know The Clean 15
Most people know that eating organic is the ideal. Organic foods are free of harmful pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals; they contain more nutrients; contribute to a healthier environment; and of course, they’re GMO free.
However, there’s also no doubt, organic produce is more expensive. We all know that you can’t put a price on good health, however, if you’re on a tight budget, it’s nice to know that there is a little wiggle room. It comes in the form of two great resources called: The Clean 15 and The Dirty Dozen.
The Clean 15 is a list of the top 15 non-organic produce items that are considered safe to purchase, whereas the Dirty Dozen are the top 12 foods that you definitely want to be sure to purchase as organic in order to avoid high levels of toxins. Knowing which non-organic produce is safe to purchase will help you save money without compromising your family’s health. The great news is, the Environmental Working Group provides a free downloadable pocket guide with all of the details.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The “Clean 15” shoppers guide is based on the highest and lowest pesticide levels on produce. However, it does NOT cover another important health issue – GMOs. For a free shoppers guide about how to avoid GMOs, please visit Non-GMO Shopping Guide. If you’re unfamiliar with GMOs and why you and your family should avoid them, or if you are interested in knowing the “secret” PLUs that reveal which produce is GMO, please check out What are GMOs & How to Avoid Them.
5. Convenience Verses Saving
Another great way to save money is to be aware of convenience versus saving. Those convenient premade/prepackaged foods that we’ve become completely dependent upon in modern society don’t come without a price. It’s not just the poor nutritional value that costs us, it’s also the price-per-serving that is oftentimes much more expensive than when we commit to making these same products ourselves using real food.
For example: Organic whole milk yogurt costs from $3-5 for a 32oz. container. A loaf of GF bread runs around $5-7. A box of “healthy” organic cookies runs about $4-5 per package. However, these items, homemade with healthy real food ingredients, will not only save you money, but are also substantially higher in beneficial nutrients and do not contain any unwanted added preservatives or fillers (“natural” or not).
Additionally, precut and packaged fruit and veggies are generally much more expensive than if you take the time to cut them yourself. For example, a container of precut pineapple at Trader Joe’s runs about $3.50. However, a more frugal option is to purchase a 3 lb. whole pineapple at the usual going rate of 99¢ a pound and slice it yourself, because for just $3.00 and five minutes of your time, you will get nearly double the amount of pineapple!
As a personal example, one of the first steps I took in eliminating packaged foods was to stop buying boxed cereals (which number one are not healthy, no matter what the label says and number two are expensive). When it comes to “cereal,” the grain lovers in my home eat homemade soaked granola and breakfast porridges, such as soaked oatmeal. (Personally, since I’m GF, I enjoy a delicious homemade grain-free “granola” blend made from various nuts, seeds and dried fruits.)
In addition, I make all of our healthy baked goods and sweet treats from scratch (i.e. cookies, muffins, cakes, biscuits, breads). I also make my own Kombucha, salad dressings and more – and WOW do I save big for my time invested in making these items. (Visit the Healthy Recipes section of this website for lots of homemade recipes.)
So, eating real food on a budget comes down to a barter system between time and money. It’s not always feasible to completely make everything from scratch. Believe me, I know! But, if you invest a little extra time by making many of the key staples in your diet, you will save money and even better, you and your family will also enjoy healthier foods. So if you really want to reduce your food budget, you need to take a look at your time, and determine how much time you have to save even more money by making more of your family’s food.
6. Buy Big, Save Big
Once you find a staple real food item that you like and plan to use frequently, be sure to buy it in the BIGGEST size you can afford and will use before its expiration. Larger-sized containers are almost always significantly less expensive per ounce, than their smaller counterparts.
Take honey for example: If I purchase the largest size (48oz) at the market, I will pay 26¢ less per ounce than if I purchase the 16oz size. So if I use 16oz of honey each week, that would equate to me saving more than $4.00 a week on honey alone.
Flour (whether whole grain or grain free) is another great example. I highly recommend buying your flour in bulk sizes and storing it in the freezer (up to 6 months) to maintain freshness. You can even divide the flour into smaller portions, if you’d like, so you can keep the majority in the freezer and have some on hand in your pantry for ease of use.
One of the best ways to save BIG, is to buy direct from the manufacturer in bulk. Even with the shipping, it’s oftentimes substantially less than grocery store/health food store prices. Especially if they run sales.
Even better is if you can join a co-op. There are many out there and I am blessed to be part of a co-op through Azure Standard. I’m completely thrilled, because many of the products are significantly less expensive than store prices, and with a co-op you don’t have to pay shipping! So now, instead of paying $8 per pound online for my blanched almond flour, I pay just $5.75 per pound through Azure Standard! That’s a savings of $2.25 per pound – what a blessing!
Another similar “buy big” concept is to buy more when it’s on sale! In other words, if there is an item that you use regularly and it goes on sale, buy as much of it as you know you’ll use before the expiration date. For example: I found my favorite brand of pure maple syrup on sale. Well, not only did I save money by buying the larger size container. I also saved money because the larger size was on sale. So I bought three of the jumbo-sized containers on sale and saved $3 each per container. I know that doesn’t seem like a lot ($9). But every dollar (or penny for that matter), adds up. And if you know you are going to use it, you might as well save as much as you can!
Be sure to check out my Buy Big, Save Big: Real Life Example article for a cost comparison of four common real food staples to help you discover how buying BIG results in significant cost savings!
7. Buy Local Produce
Next to organic, pasture-fed meats, fresh produce can be one of the top budget breakers. However, a great way to enjoy more fresh organic produce, while still saving money, is to buy local. I highly recommend that you take a trip to a local Farmers Market or Farm Stand and compare prices with your favorite whole foods market. You may be surprised to find some great deals!
Another money-saving option for many families is to join a CSA … It’s important to note that joining a CSA may require you to be a bit more flexible, as the boxes generally contain a set selection of seasonal produce and there may be limited ability to pick and choose what you’d prefer. So a CSA may not be the best option, if you have a family of picky eaters.
IMPORTANT NOTE: When purchasing organic produce at a farm stand or anywhere, be sure to look for the certified organic label (sticker) on the produce to ensure that what you are paying for is truly certified as organic.
8. Plant a Garden
Planting a garden and growing some of your favorite organic produce is definitely a budget-friendly option. And even if you don’t have a green thumb (or the real estate), consider starting with a simple herb container garden. I couldn’t believe it when I realized how much money I could save by something as simple as cultivating an herb container garden.
Let’s do the math … It costs about $2 for one small box of a fresh organic herb, like rosemary for example. By purchasing the boxed herb, you get 1-3 meals out of it, and then you have to buy another box. However, you can buy an organic rosemary plant at a local nursery for virtually the same price and enjoy free rosemary thereafter all year long! Saving just $2 a week for a year on just one variety of fresh herb equals $104. Now imagine if you grew all of your favorite fresh herbs! (That’s what I call saving money!)
And depending on how adventurous you are, you can take it even further depending upon your time and resources. This spring, my boys and I are planning to start a strawberry container garden to grow some fresh organic strawberries. It will be fun to learn how to grow strawberries and perhaps, depending on our yield, make some homemade strawberry ice cream together!
One final word of encouragement …
It’s important to not allow healthy eating or maintaining a budget to become an area of over-importance and stress in our lives. Eating healthy should not break the bank and it should not become an idol – something we pursue rather than whole-heartedly worshipping and trusting God. He knows what we need and has promised He will provide for us (Matthew 6:26) and He also reminds us that what we really need is to seek true nourishment only found in His Word and in sweet communion with Him (Matthew 4:4).
Additional Help for Creating a Real Food Budget:
• “How to Create a Frugal Grocery Budget Series” by budgeting guru friend Tiffany at Don’t Waste the Crumbs
• Real Food on a Real Budget (e-book) by Keeper of the Home