Continuing the Natural on a Budget blog series, I am going to tackle food. This can be a huge topic and vary greatly from family to family. (And even within families :-) One of the most important beginnings in proper health and medical care is diet, which makes this subject even more important!
I've written a little on my blog in the past about food, specifically about sugars and fats. You can read those articles here and here.
I hope to be writing more articles in the future, especially about what I'm learning in my Nutritional Counseling certificate! To preface this blog, you should know that my approach in nutrition is in large part drastically different than what you'll get from the FDA, mainstream nutritional advice, or traditional medical doctors and dieticians. I am learning more and more each day and really enjoy researching various perspectives on proper eating habits.
I believe that good food is a budget priority. I am willing to sacrifice in other areas to be able to buy healthy, nutritious food. While I aim to be as frugal and wise about spending as possible, I do esteem good food higher than other things. This is mainly because eating well saves medical costs in the long run. Proper nutrition is key for bodies to function properly and when you're taking care of your body, you spend drastically less on medical costs. In that way, food pays for itself. I should also state that I don't buy packaged organic or healthy convenience foods like frozen chicken nuggets, pizzas, cookies, crackers, cereals, etc. Even though they're better than conventional packaged foods, they are expensive and we couldn't afford to eat naturally if we relied on any amount of convenience foods.
I've grocery shopped, meal planned, and cooked for my family for several years and at this point in life do most of the jobs pertaining to the above duties. While I'm not nearly as experienced in budgeting and cooking as many, I do hope I can share a little bit of what I've found has worked for my family and me.
Fruits and Vegetables We eat a lot of fresh produce. This Summer, my Mom and family had a garden and we were able to bring in a ton of food for eating and also preserving to eat later. If you can, try to grow your own vegetables as it saves lots of money! Other ways to save are to buy through a farmer's market (year-round or seasonal), directly from a farm, in bulk, through a program such as Bountiful Baskets, and stocking up when something goes on sale. For example, our farmer's market/produce barn had bananas on sale for about 10c a pound several months ago so we bought 20 pounds of bananas and froze them to use in smoothies, banana breakfast bread, thaw out for snacks, etc. We also buy fruit from Azure Standard in 25lb boxes that will last us for 2-3 weeks. Usually you can get quality, organic fruit at a good price: apples, pears, and oranges at 50c-$1.10 a pound. While organic produce is a plus, it can be expensive, so check out this "Clean 15" and "Dirty Dozen" list to know which produce doesn't really matter if it's organic or not: http://www.motherearthliving.com/natural-health/2012-dirty-dozen-clean-15-lists.aspx We also don't buy expensive produce like berries, mushrooms, etc. and stick to the basics of onions, carrots, celery, lettuce, etc. at cheaper prices. We do buy frozen berries for smoothies in 10lb cases from Azure for significantly cheaper than average grocery store prices and also occasionally buy dried fruit in the bulk bins at the grocery store to put in oatmeal, homemade trail mix, etc.
Grains We buy rice, oats, polenta, quinoa, wheat berries for grinding into flour, and other grains from Azure Standard. (Usually in 25 or 50 lb bags) It saves money to buy in large quantities and they keep in 5gallon buckets for a long time. Get creative with breakfasts - polenta with butter and veggies is a yummy start, oatmeal is just about the cheapest breakfast around and can be made in dozens of ways, rice with milk and cinnamon is fun too... the list goes on. We don't buy cereal unless it is less than $2 a box and even that is rare. Try buying bulk granola or making your own... it's a great cereal alternative and super simple. (We buy 25lb of granola when Azure has it on sale and then ration accordingly. It is a fun treat for snacks or breakfasts) We buy pasta in bulk from the grocery store and eat that about once a week.
Non-animal ProteinsBeans and lentils are my favorites, and cheap too! Stretch your taco meat with pinto or black beans, add pureed white beans to make creamy vegetable soups, use chickpeas to make hummus, use lentils rather than ground beef/turkey in your next casserole, put beans or lentils on top of salads... the list goes on and on. We buy beans in 25lb bags from Azure, again saving money by buying in bulk.
Peanut butter is a culprit for hydrogenated oils which are detrimental to health, so read the ingredients label and aim for organic or natural peanut butter without added sugars. We buy 2 gallon buckets from Azure usually about twice per year. Almond butter is my personal favorite since I'm not huge on peanut butter but one little jar can be $8-12 so I try to limit myself to two jars a year. Buying nuts in bulk is a great option too, but they can go rancid so you have to be more careful than when you're buying beans or grains.
Dairy Products Milk is considered by most to be a staple, but limiting milk consumption and use can not only benefit your health, but also your wallet. Raw milk is the best (it's ok, don't freak out, here's all your questions answered and safety hazards debunked: http://www.raw-milk-facts.com/raw_milk_health_benefits.html) but it can be hard to find a source at an affordable price. (Plan to pay $5-10 a gallon) Organic milk is your next best bet but pasteurization and homogenization makes it subpar to raw milk, though it's easier to find. (Plan to pay $4-6 a gallon) Try looking for raw milk sources here: http://www.realmilk.com/real-milk-finder/, consider buying a "share" in a cow for a raw milk co-op, find a farmer who's willing to sell or share, or call local health food stores to see who's got it. I personally hate to drink milk but love using raw milk to make other dairy products, and my family enjoys milk.
We buy yogurt by the case from Azure for about $3.50 a container, but you can find full-fat, all-natural, no-stabilizer yogurt at some grocery stores for less than that sometimes and you can also make your own for even cheaper! (One of my goals for 2013...) I also want to experiment with kefir which is just YUMMY and so good for you but SO expensive at the store.
We buy cheese (usually 10-15 lbs a month) from Azure in 5lb blocks. They have white raw milk cheddar at an unbeatable price and their mozzerella is a staple for my fam. :) If you can't use 5 lbs before it goes bad, consider shredding and freezing. It thaws quite well and doesn't change the taste or consistency.
At this point we just buy conventional butter from the grocery store for $2-3 a pound. If it's on sale, we try to stock up and freeze what we can't use. Butter is a health food! Don't be scared of it. :) Buttermilk, whipping cream, etc. are usually just bought at the conventional grocery store since they're a rarity.
Meat and Eggs This is probably the most expensive part of eating. Meat isn't necessary for every meal and you can stretch it even longer by cutting it with beans, lentils, veggies, or starches. It's tempting to buy the cheap stuff but not worth it in the long-run. (Watch Food, INC for a start on the why...) Make your meat last longer... when I cook a whole chicken (purchased from a friend who raises organic, soy-corn free [which means GMO free! really important... do some research] chickens and turkeys), it lasts for at least four meals. For example, the first meal we might eat it by itself or on rice/potatoes with veggies. Next meal would be shredded in a chicken pot pie or casserole or on a salad. Next I'd make bone broth out of the carcass and use it to make two pots of soup. This chicken that cost $12-18 dollars just fed 6 people for 4 meals. Well worth it nutritionally! Try to locate a farmer near you who raises animals naturally... usually it's cheaper to buy good quality meat from farmers directly than through the grocery store. We have a butcher shop near us where I can find chicken breasts for $1.99 a pound and ground beef for $2.68 a pound sometimes... I buy 10 or 20 lbs of each and keep the freezer stocked. We've also bought part of a cow where you get several cuts of meat which is a cost effective option as well. We'll buy turkey bacon or turkey/chicken sausage on occasion when we can find it on sale and then I'll use small portions in egg/veggie breakfast casseroles.
Speaking of eggs, currently we buy Azure eggs for $3-4 a dozen. It can seem like a lot but they are much more nutritionally dense and well worth it! We go through a lot of eggs at my house and they're a prime breakfast or snack option.
Baking Products and SeasoningsWe buy wheat berries in bulk from Azure to grind into flour as I mentioned earlier and all the baking I do is with either hard red wheat or soft white-wheat whole-wheat pastry flour. Wheat berries are less than 50c a pound. Bleached, enriched, white, all-purpose flour is to be nixed completely - it harms your poor digestive system. Baking powder, baking soda, sea salt, seasonings, etc. are all bought in 5+ lb bags from Azure for about the same price as you're paying for the little 6oz container at the grocery store. Bulk saves serious money, especially in seasonings. Oil (canola, olive, and coconut) are all bought in gallons from Azure and we also get Apple Cider Vinegar from them too. We get condiments usually just from the grocery store but Vegenaise (like mayo but better) in a gallon from Azure that lasts a while and a goal of 2013 is to make my own condiments. We make oil and vinegar salad dressings at home but also buy salad dressing from the grocery store (a habit I'm trying to end in 2013 and learn to make more of my own).
Sweeteners I am to use no artificial sweeteners and refined white sugar. We buy stevia powder, raw honey, molasses, and evaporated cane juice crystals in bulk from Azure and use as sparingly as possible. I make unsweetened applesauce and can it myself from juice grade apples we buy in the fall for 25-50c a pound and use that too. If I'm baking cookies for a birthday, I generally cut the sugar in half (at least) and substitute with the cane juice crystals and then cut the oil in half and substitute with unsweetened applesauce. I'm also experimenting with baking with honey. For the most part I try to use sweeteners as seldom as possible, but am not 100% sugar-free. I'd love to be able to afford pure maple syrup but it's so expensive so I've been making my own for pancakes with cane juice crystals, water, and maple extract.
Packaged Foods We buy all-natural tortilla chips from the grocery store and usually have those on hand or I'll occasionally buy whole-wheat crackers to have with cheese but otherwise I don't buy chips or crackers or snacky foods. We all enjoy CLIF or Luna bars so I try to stock up when Azure has cases on sale for less than $1 a bar. They're handy during sports seasons when you're running out the door to a game so though they're not the most frugal, it's a convenience food that's worth it. (Plus I haven't found any particular recipe I've made myself that I've liked) As much as possible we try to stay away from packaged food!
BreadGoal of 2013 is to master making my own bread! For now, we buy 100% whole-wheat all-natural bread from the grocery store for $2-3 a loaf. We buy cases of whole-wheat tortillas to freeze from Azure but I want to make my own of those too. Sandwiches and wraps with veggies and cheese are common around my house - especially with athletes and kids in school. Hamburger buns and things like that aren't usually around but I try to keep one package of the whole-wheat ones from the grocery store in the freezer for a quick meal with veggies and shredded chicken on them.
Does eating healthy take time and planning? YES! Don't say you're too busy to try - I am a part-time student, work 20-25 hours a week, play sports, have a family, and try to sleep 8 hours at night. :) (I know a lot of you are busier than I am and still make it work!) I meal plan once a week, and then grocery store and produce barn shop about once a week or every other week and we pick up Azure every 2 weeks. Planning ahead saves a ton of time.
If you're not able to use food in such big quantities, try a food co-op or sharing with a friend. Also I've been trying to get better about bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. They usually give you 5-10c discount per bag and that adds up over time. If you have any tips on how not to forget them in your car, let me know. :P We don't eat out... like ever. Sometimes I will get food after a game out of town but by and large, my family doesn't eat out but for birthdays or celebrations once or twice a year. This also saves major money.
What about you? How do you save on food and how much do you spend? It can be a hard balance to find and I know I'm working to improve as well.