Author: Ms. Simple Economist (Awesome Mom and Registered Dietitian)
The new year is here and for most of us our resolutions probably involve eating healthy and taking control of our spending habits. These two goals interact on a daily basis as we plan our meals, prepare and eat food, allocate how much we are going to spend on food, and create new habits to manage our weight. Have you ever thought about how much you spend on food each month? Where does most of your food come from? Do you cook or eat out? These are the questions that ultimately affect our waistlines and our budgets.
What if I said you could eat healthy and feed a family for $200 a month? May sound crazy, but it’s possible if you start making some simple changes to your eating and spending habits. My husband and I have been successfully living off of a grocery budget of $200/month for almost two years now and continue to do so after having a baby girl this past December all without using coupons.
I know families come in many different sizes and with certain dietary needs or restrictions that can influence how much you allocate to your food budget. However, there are some simple steps you can take to start feeding your family for less.
“One of the least efficient areas of most families spending revolves around food. Eating out, eating in and food purchases are often done without careful consideration or proper planning. A little bit of forethought can go a long way in making food planning, preparing and consuming much more efficient! Lastly, an inorganic apple from Aldi is better than an organic sugar cookie from Whole foods! -Mr. Simple Economist”
Follow the 3 P’s: Plan, Purchase and Prepare
Step one is to establish a food budget suitable for your family. On average most people don’t keep track of their food expenses and that can make it difficult to make changes or measure progress. Just doing this simple task may be where you need to start to improve your spending habits. One thing that has helped our family is allocating a certain amount of money we can spend on groceries before the month starts. We actually put literal cash in an envelop (Thanks Dave Ramsey) the first day of every month. Once the money is gone, we stop buying food and we get creative in the kitchen. If you have trouble running out of money early in the month, try splitting the total into weekly amounts (or whatever frequency you shop).
Make it a priority to grocery shop! Eating healthy starts by deciding to cook most of your meals at home. If you want to save money and calories, don’t eat out and get your butt in a grocery store! Keeping healthy food in your pantry and fridge will help you reach your goals and fight off temptation. Purchase fresh fruits and vegetables (freeze them if they are going bad), low fat dairy, lean meat, and whole grain breads and cereals to use in nutritious meals and snacks. One simple step: shop the periphery of the grocery store.
Food preferences and developing a meal plan are important tools for maximizing your food budget. What are your likes and dislikes when it comes to food? What about your family? Determine what your family normally eats and think of some of your ‘go-to’ meals and what you enjoy cooking. Make a reference list of these meals allocating them as difficult, intermediate, and easy recipes. Then, plan your meals and snacks for one week that fit within your established grocery budget. Looking to save money and time? Include meals that will “stretch” expensive food items such as casseroles, stir-frys, chili, soups and spaghetti. Typically, eating less meat or using meat as an accent will be less expensive and often healthier. Find quick and easy recipes online with minimal ingredients (try to do 5 ingredients or less). Simple meals can still be nutritious!
Find the lowest cost healthy foods. Often, flea markets or farmer’s markets can have deals on in season items (sometimes they can be much more expensive also). Consider shopping at discount stores or national chains (Aldi, Walmart, etc.). They tend to have lower prices and good selections of store brands. Sometimes you can also save by shopping at warehouse stores (Sams, Costco) where you get items in bulk that will last you awhile. Before making the trip to the store, research sale items and weekly ads. Often the best deals are heavily featured and are on the front or back of the flyers. If you must coupon, do it efficiently using a site like Southern Savers, just be careful not to be tricked into buying heavily processed unhealthy food. Look for ingredients you need for the meals you have planned for the week and compare prices between stores. If time allows, don’t be afraid to shop at multiple places. Another way to save a few bucks is by getting and using a store’s loyalty card.
Avoid Impulse Purchases
Your worst enemy: Temptations. Don’t let temptations get you off track when shopping. You don’t want all your planning and budgeting to go to waste. Here are some tips to avoid giving in to those annoying impulse purchases:
- Go shopping when you are not hungry. You may be more inclined to listen to that ‘rumbling in your tummy’ instead of sticking to your grocery list.
- Don’t shop when you are rushed. You won’t have time to compare prices and read nutrition labels.
- Consider shopping by yourself. Your kids, spouse, roommates, etc. may influence your purchases and get you off track.
- Avoid aisles with items you don’t need (chips, sodas, candy, frozen pizza)
- Limit your purchases of pre-cut fruits and vegetables, individual yogurt cups, salads in the deli section, and instant items. They are convenient but usually cost more.
Choosing Healthy Items
Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season (usually on sale, better quality, and taste better too!) Read nutrition labels and ingredient lists. Pay attention to the serving size and the number of calories per serving to know how much is right for you. Try and limit your intake of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Look for foods that contain 3g of fiber or more per serving, and choose nutrient-dense items (more vitamins and minerals/serving) than energy-dense items (more calories/serving). Be careful not to drink too many extra calories. Water is one of the cheapest and healthiest options!
Looking for some healthy, low cost items available all year? Here are some of our favorites:
- Proteins – chicken, eggs, beans (garbanzo, black, cannellini)
- Vegetables – carrots, greens, potatoes, onions
- Fruit – bananas, apples, frozen strawberries
- Canned fruits and vegetables are a less expensive option, but make sure to get ones with less sugar and sodium.
Stretching your Food Dollar
- Try the store brands to see which taste as good as the national brands
- Compare unit prices of items to get the best price per ounce – know the price of the item before putting it in your basket!
- Purchase items with a longer shelf life in bulk (rice, pasta, beans)
- Purchase large cuts of meat that can be cut up and used in several meals OR purchase in bulk when on sale (chicken < $1.99/lb in Athens, GA)
- Some meal items can be prepared in advance. Pre-cook on days when you have time or cook meals that make great leftovers
- Try no-cook meals you can easily throw together (i.e. salads)
- Cut up fresh fruit for smoothies
- Wash and trim meat or poultry and freeze in individual bags/containers
- Prepare a soup or casserole and freeze in multiple containers for later (Our favorite is homemade chili)
- Double or triple on recipes and freeze for meals later in the month
- Incorporate leftovers into subsequent meals OR use the same ingredients in multiple meals throughout the week.
Creativity in the Kitchen
- Try meatless meals. Dedicate a day to eating no meat (Meatless Mondays)
- Substitute meat or poultry with plant based proteins (beans, peas, quinoa). These options add variety and reduce sat fat and cholesterol in your diet. Also, they are typically cheaper and more nutrient-dense.
- Keep your fridge stocked with a variety of foods – makes it easier to make meals with what you have available
- Be creative and open-minded and the opportunities are endless!
Eating healthy on a budget isn’t difficult, it just takes some forethought and creativity. Planning ahead, being conscientious of your purchases and taking the time to prepare delicious meals are the keys. A better budget, more efficient life and a healthier waistline will be your reward!