Being a grad student, I live on a budget that is pretty tight. At the same time, I made a promise to myself to eat healthy, which for me means whole foods. 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.
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.
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.
Those are my top tips for saving money when eating a healthy Paleo diet. Are there any techniques you use to save money when shopping for you and your family? Share your ideas in the comments!