Food is expensive. I’m always looking for ways to save money each month while still eating the highest quality real food that we are able to. There have been quite a few of these articles floating around the web recently, and I thought I would join in with some of my personal tips as well!
Six Tips for Saving Money on Real Food
1) Eat seasonally
This is probably my favorite tip. Seasonal eating is not only easy on the wallet, but it’s much more nutritious! Think about it. When you eat fresh tomatoes and berries in the winter, they are traveling thousands of miles to get to your grocery store and may be many weeks old by the time it reaches your plate. Not to mention they are much more expensive during those months! Once the food is picked, it begins to lose its nutritional value, and isn’t going to be as beneficial as something more locally grown in the season it was intended for. Unless you live in a very warm growing climate, this is the norm.
I also think God intentionally planned the growing season in this way. How cool that during flu season, citrus fruits are readily available! We all need extra vitamin C during the winter, and those tasty little orange clementines never last long in our house.
In addition to the above, what better reason than to support your local farmers! From May-October farmers markets, and CSA’s are a very affordable way to get plenty of nutrient dense produce into your diet on a budget. I’ve loved being a part of a CSA for the past two years and it has saved us a lot of money on fresh local produce. Most likely you will have to pay for the entire season up front, but typically the cost per week is very affordable when you break it down.
It’s a really fun challenge for me to find seasonal recipes that fit well into our budget. When you buy fruits and vegetables that are in season, you will be amazed at how much money you save! With the popularity of Pinterest, and countless food blogs, you can easily find a new squash or potato soup recipe to satisfy your palate during the cold months. Last winter, I’m pretty sure I went an entire season without eating a fresh tomato or berry. It can be tough, but worth the savings and nutrition!
Here is a general list of seasonal fruits and veggies to get you started (this would vary depending on what part of the country you live in):
2) Plan your meals
Confession: meal planning is one of my least favorite parts of homemaking. The sad reality is that if I don’t plan I’ll overspend. Planning our meals has become second nature to me as a result. Every week I spend about an hour looking at our schedule, researching recipes, and making a grocery list. I will plan every single meal for us. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner.
There is room for flexibility if something pops up (plans with friends, etc.), but the plan keeps us from making impulsive decisions like eating out just because I don’t feel like cooking. If I have chicken already defrosted in the fridge because that’s what I planned for dinner, I am much more likely to cook than dish out more money at a restaurant.
When I meal plan, I try to keep a couple of things in mind in order to get the most bang for my buck.
- Use ingredients more than once – When I look for recipes, I try to find ones that have similar ingredients. For example, this prevents me from buying five different kinds of fresh herbs for three different meals. Maybe I’ll buy a bunch of fresh rosemary and use it on chicken one night, and in a beef stew another night. Those little bunches of herbs can easily go to waste when you only use a tiny bit. A week later, you’re throwing out rotten, wilted herbs!
- Freeze extras – This works well for things like coconut milk, tomato paste, and other canned food. If you only need a tablespoon of tomato paste, or half a cup of coconut milk, spend a few minutes freezing the rest of the can in little plastic baggies or ice cube trays. I have saved a lot of money doing this.
- Plan for leftovers – When I make dinners, I typically always plan for leftovers that will serve as lunch the next day. Packing a lunch for work is one of the best ways to save money.
- Keep it simple – As much as I love a new recipe that pushes me to grow in my culinary skills, most of the time I need something quick and simple. This makes meal planning, and the actual cook time, much more pleasant. One of my go-to meals is roasting a whole chicken. This provides meat for us for a few days, and only takes a few minutes to prepare. I also have a handful of easy soup recipes that provide plenty of leftovers for us during the colder months.
Meal planning has a bit of a learning curve, and I’m still trying to figure it out after three and a half years. There are some very good (free, or very inexpensive) meal planning and grocery list apps out there. I personally use the Menu Planner app to keep track of my weekly meals, and the GroceryIQ app for my shopping lists. I actually don’t love either of these apps, so if anyone has suggestions for other ones, please pass them along to me! Trial and error will help you find the one that works best for your family’s specific needs.
3) Shop your local farmers markets for deals
Farmers markets are sadly misrepresented as overly expensive and out of reach for the typical person. This couldn’t be further from the truth! During the summer of 2010, I began visiting our local farmers market while living in Pittsburgh. I would shop there weekly and began to build relationships with the farmers. I really enjoyed building relationships with the men and women who were personally growing and harvesting our food.
If you time your trip to the market right, you can score some seriously sweet deals! I found that when I shopped near closing time, many of the farmers were practically giving their produce away. One time I bought a cantaloupe for $1! However, you don’t want to go too late either, as all the good stuff may be gone.
When you start to build a relationship with your farmer, and loyalty is established, many of them love to sneak freebies into your bag. Almost weekly, one of the farmers I shopped from would share new produce with me along with recipe tips. They are incredibly generous people and love to share their harvest with those who truly appreciate it.
4) Buy in bulk
If you have a Costco nearby, or other membership warehouse, there could be a goldmine of real food waiting for you at a great price! Not every Costco carries the same items, but here are a few that I stock up on regularly and/or occasionally:
- Almond butter
- Organic coffee
- Organic lettuce
- Organic apples
- Chocolate chips (they recently began selling socially responsible ones!)
- Canned wild salmon
- Frozen wild caught salmon
- Fresh mozzarella (no rbst or other hormones)
- Organic peanut butter
- Organic tortilla chips
- Organic salsa
- Organic extra virgin olive oil
- Organic ground beef (I don’t believe it’s grass-fed, but it’s an inexpensive option and better than conventional in my opinion).
I buy my coconut oil in bulk from Nutiva. They always have really great deals that often include free shipping and I will rarely pay over $50 for it (be sure to sign up for their emails!). I will buy a one gallon container every few months or so, and use it for cooking as well as a variety of homemade body products. Adam and I use an envelope cash system for budgeting, so that’s how we save up for bulk purchases like this. When my tub of oil runs out it’s a great feeling to know I have the money already saved up to buy more!
5) Don’t waste a single crumb
Since moving to a real food diet, I have become very conscious of waste. Previously, I would find myself throwing out leftovers that had gone bad, and rotten produce that I never used. I truly desire to be a good steward of our money, and when I throw out food due to poor planning on my part, that is hardly wise stewardship! I didn’t think much of it then, but my heart has changed quite a bit in regard to this.
For example, a common phrase uttered in our home is “save the bones!” This is in reference to chicken bones, and we save every single one. Weird, right? Hear me out.
I mentioned above that I often roast a whole chicken and the meat will last us a number of meals. When the chicken is stripped of its meat, I throw the carcass, and all of the bones, into a gallon sized Ziploc bag and freeze it. These bones are then used for nourishing chicken broth! I haven’t bought boxed or canned chicken broth in over two years because I always have a supply in my freezer. During fall and winter, I am constantly making bone broth either on the stove, or in my crockpot. We eat a lot of soup during those seasons, and this is a major money saving tip!
I also save/freeze the tips of my carrots, celery, and onions (peel included) to throw in the stock pot with my chicken bones. I hope to share more about bone broth sometime soon, as it’s probably my favorite nourishing kitchen practice.
I have also saved citrus peels for a multi-purpose citrus cleaner, and I often don’t peel apples and potatoes for various recipes unless I absolutely need to (tip: if you’re buying apples and potatoes organic then pesticides won’t be an issue here). I’ll also scrape every last ounce out of condiment jars, and then reuse the jar as well!
6) Don’t buy more than you need
If you have a plan, and a shopping list that goes with it, you are much less likely to overspend and make impulse purchases. When the end of the week comes around our refrigerator is close to being completely empty. This is because we’re eating primarily fresh food, and everything is made from scratch according to a meal plan. When I shop for my planned meals, I’m only buying the exact ingredients that I need for those recipes.
It takes time, and a lot of thought to get into this routine, but the savings are worth it if eating real food is a priority for your family. How about you? Do you have any money saving tips when it comes to real food? Do you meal plan? If so, what has worked well for your family?