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Healthy Eating on a Budget

Let me preface this entire blog with a few statements:

  • This blog is not a quick-fix solution to healthy eating
  • This blog is not a thirty minute meals for under $30 deal
  • This blog is not about expediting your nutrition

If you cannot find reason to allocate real amounts of time to nourish your body, which is one of the most basic things your body needs from you, this blog post is not going to be for you.  Being healthy requires an investment of time in what you eat and how you eat it; doing it on a budget requires you to do some of the work yourself and change the way you approach procuring your nutrition. This blog focuses on procuring whole ingredients to simplify the way you eat and the money you spend on food; it does not encourage meal kits, processed foods, or frozen meals. It encourages you to get intimate with your food and actually cook for yourself. With that being said, and hopefully with some better intentions and expectations set on your end of things, let’s dive in.

1. CSA Shares and Markets

CSA (community supported agriculture) shares are pre-measured quantities of local food that you purchase directly from a farm – no middleman driving up prices here! In Michigan, we are blessed to have the second most diverse agricultural economy in the country, second only to California. That means we have a lot of farms growing a lot of food, and a lot of that food becomes abundantly cheap during the peak of the growing season! All CSA programs work a little differently; most however, include a monthly payment for a weekly or bi-weekly pickup from the farm or a more accessible location. Using a CSA not only puts your money directly back into your region’s pockets, but provides you with the freshest produce throughout the entire season (or the entire year – lots of farms in Michigan have year-long CSA programs). 

If a CSA seems like a big commitment, hit up your local farmers’ markets for produce instead of the big stores – it’s always cheaper from the farmer and it’s always healthier when it’s fresher, as well. A lot of times farmers will allow you to pre-order bulk produce as it’s coming into peak ripeness as well, which saves you tons of money! Say hello to flats of tomatoes, full bushels of potatoes, and crates of onions to last you months at a time (or for a quick canning project). 

My favorite thing about a CSA share is that it’s a fixed cost every month and can supply ALL of the produce you need; it really helps stabilize your budget! A lot of CSA programs also have networks for recipe sharing and potlucks, as well. 

My favorite CSA programs: Green Wagon Farm (year-round and summer shares available, as well as “market cards”), New City Farm (summer share and winter soup share available), and Blandford Farm (summer and winter shares available).

My favorite markets: Fulton Street Farmers’ Market, Rakowski Family Farm Market (retail space), Rockford Farmers’ Market, and Urban Roots Community Market. 

2. Fear Not The Bulk Bins

It’s becoming increasingly popular for grocery stores to offer bulk bin sections in their aisles, and for good reason! Shopping ingredients in bulk not only saves tons of wasteful packaging from being used, but it’s far cheaper than buying traditionally packaged products. Here in West Michigan, we can look to Horrocks, Fresh Thyme, D&W Fresh Market, Harvest Health, and some smaller neighborhood markets for bulk goods. You can shop staples like grains, beans, seeds, granola, snack mixes, spices, oils, vinegars, flours, sugars, and coffee by the pound. Bring your own containers and fill them full of tasty ingredients – don’t be afraid to ask a store employee for help pre-weighing your containers (for the tare weight) so you aren’t overcharged when they weigh your products at checkout. 

Contrary to popular belief, bulk bin items do go on sale, too! Instead of aimlessly wandering down all of the aisles of the grocery store, I choose instead to aimlessly wander down the few aisles that contain the bulk bins and try out whatever is on sale. This keeps me on my toes and trying new kinds of foods frequently (different blends of wild rice, dried fruits, varieties of raw nuts, new cooking oils, etc.). Changing up what I purchase from the bulk section keeps my sources of nutrition diverse.

My go-to bulk items: brown lentils, wild rice blends, nutritional yeast, garbanzo beans, slivered raw almonds, raw pumpkin seeds, and Himalayan pink salt. 

3. Focus on Whole Foods

No, not the store (although they have a great bulk bin section). By whole foods, we mean unprocessed and unrefined foods (or those that have been minimally processed and refined). A focus on whole foods is not only great for your body, but your budget, too. Most of the foods you’ll find in the bulk bin section of a grocery store will be whole foods; same for the foods you find in a CSA share or a farmers’ market. By focusing on shopping for whole food ingredients instead of processed foods and pre-packaged meals, you’re really taking control over what you’re paying for. 

Pre-packaged and prepared foods from the grocery store more often than not contain a whole list of preservatives, flavors, colors, and other components that we would never cook into a meal ourselves – and we’re paying for that long list of ingredients that we don’t care for when we purchase those products. By focusing on whole foods, we eliminate the guesswork of checking ingredient lists by simply purchasing whole ingredients ourselves; therefore, we stop paying for those added ingredients as well as excess packaging, advertising, transportation, etc. It cuts out tons of costs and gets you closer to the actual value of the food you consume! 

My whole-foods staples: garlic, onions, lemons, potatoes, cashews, carrots, and kale are always in my kitchen – one or more of those ingredients appears in almost every meal I make.

4. Rebates and Coupons

This is a tricky category to address, because it starts moving us away from those glorious whole food ingredients that we talked about above. Rebates and coupons can be tricky, too, because they often get super specific about the size and quantity of a certain item we have to buy, which sometimes saves you hardly any money at all. I usually avoid them like the plague because they almost always lead me to over-purchasing and over consuming (neither of which are good for my budget or my health). 

The few cases where I find rebates and coupons helpful (including digital coupons and rebate apps) are for oils and spices. While you can buy oils and spices in bulk at some stores, not all retailers offer them and they’re often the items people don’t transition to purchasing in bulk first. For this reason, relying on coupons and rebates for oils and spices might be your best bet to get your kitchen stocked with diverse ingredients. If you are tempted to use coupons for other items, try to only use them if you can stack them on top of an existing sale in the store. Usually coupons on their own don’t offer a great discount, and they don’t cater to healthy eating very well by pushing snack foods, frozen meals, and purchase quantity requirements on consumers. 

Coupons I look out for: Spice Island brand spices, olive oil, packed pistachio nuts, King Arthur brand flours.

5. Meal Plan with what’s Available

When you’re on a budget, meal planning is essential. Taking stock of what you already have, making a realistic list to head to the store with, and prepping and planning your meals will save you loads of money in both the short and long term. Disciplined meal planning helps avoid impulse buying at the grocery store and makes sure you use up any odd items that have been hanging out in your pantry or fridge for too long, eliminating wasted products. Meal planning around on-sale ingredients at the store is a great way to take it a step further – use the online weekly ads section of your grocery store’s website to write your grocery list and get the most out of those on-sale items. 

I feel like a lot of people find meal-planning intimidating, and it doesn’t have to be. It can be really simple if you take a deep breath and realize every meal doesn’t have to be a production – eating healthy is often about eating simple. If broccoli, sweet potatoes, and spinach are on sale, purchase a bunch of them and get creative from there: sweet potato soup with broccoli, sweet potato taco with spinach, spinach salad with roasted broccoli, and sweet potato hash browns with garlicky spinach greens are all super differently styled meals that you can make with minimal other ingredient inputs. Work with what you have and what’s on sale! 

How I meal plan: I don’t look at every day of the week and write out what I’m going to eat. Instead, I locate on sale ingredients and estimate how much I would need to cook with it all week. I might meal prep my lunches to take to work, but I leave breakfast and dinner open to get creative with my sale ingredients at home. That way, I don’t get sick of eating anything repeatedly and I can cater to my cravings each day of the week.

6. Avoid the Pre-prepped/Pre-packaged Meals like the Dickens

Not only do these “kits” cost more, but they’re often loaded with salt and fat to help increase their shelf life (whether they’re frozen, refrigerated, or shelf stable). Soup kits, frozen meals, salad kits, snack packs, etc. all cost more per unit than if you just purchased the ingredients yourself and threw together the same meal. Guaranteed. 

The pre-packaged foods I will allow myself to buy: Dr. Praeger’s brand frozen foods (on sale) and on sale hummus.

While there are a lot of ways to “eat healthy” and a lot of ways to “be on a budget,” when the two intersect it isn’t always the prettiest thing. The six recommendations above aim to get you more involved with your food life: swapping out convenience for confidence (in your nutrition and where it’s coming from). Changing your eating habits to be healthier is not an easy thing; it requires you to spend some time getting reacquainted with your kitchen and introducing yourself to some new ingredients and recipes. If you’re having someone else do the work for you instead of putting in the time yourself (such as using a meal delivery service or pre-packaged health meals), you’re going to find your new habits aren’t sustainable or affordable long term. 

Healthy eating is at its core about reestablishing relationships with yourself and your food. Relationships take time, even the ones with our food. Give yourself a chance to sit down and figure out a real grocery budget, and work from there using the tips above. Having a shopping buddy to keep you honest is never a bad idea, by the way.

Good luck!