11 Tips For Eating Real Food On A Real Budget

Deciding to focus on a diet of real food, and food found locally when possible, can be intimidating.  I was quite surprised to realize just how dependent we are on processed foods once we started consciously looking at everything coming into our home.  I have begun making the switch partially for health reasons - we have no health issues and would prefer to keep it that way, but also because there really is no reason for us to purchase man-made foods that claim to be "low-fat" or "healthy".  If we eat real foods we shouldn't have to worry so much about that.  Although we are mostly eating real food at this point, we have not switched 100%, but it's something I have set as a goal for us.

Processed foods, for the purposes of this article, are loosely defined as boxed, canned or bagged foods with more than 5 ingredients; fast food; foods containing artificial dyes or sweeteners; imitation foods {i.e. processed cheese food, etc.}and/or items with refined grains.

Real food would be the exact opposite - fresh or frozen veggies and fruit; boxed, bagged or canned items with less than 5 ingredients; whole grains; dairy products; etc.

Our Real Food Budget
Eating real food, and locally when possible, on a budget takes planning and prioritization.  The first thing I started with was meal planning.  Initially I made a weekly meal plan and shopped at the end of the previous week.  Now I make a monthly meal plan and shop at the beginning of each month {with a couple of supplemental trips throughout the month to the store or farmers market to restock things like milk, veggies and/or fruit}.  We splurge on an item from time-to-time, but generally not more than one in a week.

My monthly budget for the 2 of us {includes ALL items - food, paper products, toiletries, household items as well as cat and dog products} is $400.00/month.   I grow a lot of our veggies and am beginning to grow some of the fruit we consume and I try to shop locally when possible for the remainder of our food.  Locally raised, organic meats are definitely more expensive than what you purchase at the grocery store.  I suggest buying them, at least initially, when you can.  Also, you can purchase larger items such as whole chicken and roasts, where you know you'll have leftovers to use at another meal.

If I buy a locally raised, organic whole chicken for $22.00 {about half that for conventional at the grocery store}, I know that will provide us 2 dinners and a weeks worth of sandwiches or salads plus soup.  I'll roast the chicken the first night.  For lunches I'll use some of the leftover meat to make either chicken caesar salads or chicken salad sandwiches {Chicken salad:  chopped chicken, grapes or dried fruit & nuts, if we have them, mixed with a small amount of mayo}.  Later in the week I'll use more of the leftover chicken to make chicken fajitas, chicken enchiladas or chicken and pasta casserole and the carcass will be boiled with a few roasted veggies to make chicken soup/stock {if this is during the summer, I'll make the stock and freeze it until the cooler weather hits}.

So, when I calculate that week's expenses, I take the total amount of the chicken and divide it into each meal.  The meat portion for those 7 meals cost me just over $3.00 for each meal, making the $22.00 purchase worthwhile.  In the end, it would be more cost effective for me to purchase the whole chicken rather than organic, locally raised chicken pieces such as chicken breasts or thighs for each separate meal.

What We Eat
During the summer we eat a lot of grilled chicken and rice or pasta used in a variety of ways for dinners.  We also eat a lot of vegetables in the middle of summer, mostly because our garden is bountiful at that time.  Sandwiches are a staple for Jays lunch and salads a staple for mine.  During the colder months, soup is a staple for us for lunches and I buy more roasts and whole chickens for meals.  As I stated above with use of the whole chicken, these items are used for quite a few meals during the week.

Our breakfasts usually consist of things such as cooked oatmeal topped with a few berries and/or nuts; homemade muffins {batter made ahead and frozen}; homemade bagels; homemade yogurt & granola; breakfast burritos; eggs & english muffins; omelets or frittata's.

Lunches for Jay are usually a sandwich {half a sandwich and soup in the winter}, homemade crackers & cheese, {on the days I can't get him to eat crackers then he gets chips - not real food}, a sweet {homemade cookie, brownie, etc.} and a snack.  Snack ideas are things such as:

  • fruit or homemade yogurt with frozen fruit {or jam in the winter months}
  • hard-boiled egg
  • homemade trail mix
  • celery or apples with peanut butter or carrot sticks with dip
My lunches are usually salad in the summer with the addition of hummus, beans, canned tuna or leftover salmon.  I grow loose leaf lettuce in a container garden, for my lunches.  In the fall lunch for me is typically soup, sometimes salad plus fruit or the yogurt and fruit combo.

I typically make one dessert-type item a week that can be eaten one or two nights when we have a lighter dinner.

You can read more about our "real food" in a post I wrote for the "How We Homestead" Series {here}.

Our Meal Planning Basics
In my meal planning, I usually plan a specific protein for each day of the week, i.e. Sundays are almost always beef, Mondays = fish, Tuesdays = chicken, Wednesdays = pork, Thursdays = chicken, Fridays = beef and Saturdays = fish or chicken.  This makes it easier for planning recipes, but also for planning leftovers.  If I make a casserole, I plan those leftovers for 2-3 days of lunches.

In the summers we grill our meat, for the most part.  No need in heating up the house.  The day I grocery shop I usually mix up any marinades I need for the meat for that month and freeze the meat in the marinade.  This way, during the week I simply take the bag out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator.  The next evening when I'm going to cook, it gets removed from the bag and grilled.  I don't have to plan time {or try to remember} to make the marinade and allow it time to set prior to cooking.

In addition to Italian Dressing, the basic marinades we use all of the time are:

Teriyaki Marinade:
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup honey or sugar
1 Tablespoon mirin or white wine
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Mix all ingredients together.  Set a couple of Tablespoons of the marinade aside to brush on the meat after it has been grilled if desired.

Southwestern Marinade:
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 Tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 chipotle chili in adobo sauce, minced {these can be stored in the freezer, frozen separately on a cookie sheet then placed in a freezer bag, once the can has been opened}
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Mix all ingredients together.  Set a couple Tablespoons of the marinade aside to brush on the meat after it has been grilled if desired.

On the grilling topic, I've found the best way to keep boneless, skinless chicken breasts moist is:
1. I cut them lengthwise into 2 equal pieces.  I found trying to cook a half of a chicken breast without splitting it, the outside gets dry before the middle is cooked.  You could, however, cook a half chicken breast, un-split, over indirect heat after it's seared.  It just takes longer to cook.

2. Always marinade them.  Even if I don't want a flavor added, say if I'm using a rub or sauce, I still marinade them in a light italian dressing.  The vinegar-oil mixture helps to lock in the juices.

3.  Cook them until just done.  The split half breasts usually take about 2-3 minutes per side.  That's it.  If you have an instant read thermometer, this is the place to use it.

In the winter, since we eat more stews, roasts and crock pot meals, I try to cut and prep any meat prior to freezing, for the type of recipe it will be used in.  I then label the bag so I don't accidentally defrost the wrong item.  Again, this saves me time on the day I'm actually preparing the meal.

For more about meal planning, you can visit the posts I wrote previously about it {here} and {here}.  I will be posting an updated Meal Planning post next week!

Here's the thing:
Real food will always be more expensive monetarily than highly processed food.  There are a gazillion coupons for processed foods and very few coupons for real foods.  Why?  Companies make more money selling processed foods than they do real foods.  Highly processed food will also always be more expensive health-wise than real food.

11 tips for eating real food on a budget:

1. Meal Planning
I can't stress this enough, it is much cheaper to have a meal plan {menu} that you shop for rather than winging it.  A meal plan cuts down the trips to the grocery store, makes your time spent there more efficient, and ensures you are only buying the items you'll be using.  No more throwing away fruit or produce that you've either forgotten about or haven't had time to use.

2. Pick & Choose Items To Make From Scratch
It's just not realistic to expect that you will make all things from scratch all of the time unless you are a full-time homesteader.  Even then, life happens.  It's easy enough, however, to pick & choose items you'll purchase and items you'll make from scratch.  Some items you'll be able to make up ahead of time, either on the weekend or on a free evening, making it easier to make meals during the course of the week.

3.  Think Of Alternatives To The Grocery Store
  • Plant a garden if you have the space and a little extra time.  If you don't have time for a full garden, plant some herbs, that are ridiculously expensive in the stores, lettuce {can be grown in a small container} and any other veggies your family eats on a regular basis.  If you have a friend who also has limited space but would like to grow some veggies and/or herbs, maybe you could each plant something different and share the bounty.
  • Join a CSA {Community-Supported Agriculture}.  Many have micro shares, allowing you to spend less than a full share to see if this type of arrangement is right for you.  Many are also going to a choices based CSA where they may tell you one of the items you take that week, but you can choose the remainder.  This directory gives an explanation of a CSA as well as lists many around the country. 
  • Shop at your local farmer's market.  Buying fresh produce in-season saves money and is top quality in flavor.  Even if you garden, this is a great supplement to the bounty you produce yourself.  And remember, the produce you buy doesn't need to look the "prettiest" - it just needs to be fresh and taste good.  You will often find deals on veggies that are seconds because customers pass over them for their more attractive rivals.  You may also get a deal on bulk purchases with some vendors.  This is the perfect way to stock up and preserve {can, dehydrate, freeze or ferment} for enjoyment later in the year.
  • Pick-your-own fruits or veggies.  This directory may help you find a PYO near you.  This is another way to shop in bulk in-season and save money.
  • Join a food co-op.
  • Purchase meat in bulk from a local farm.  This, of course, requires a freezer with space in it for half a pig, quarter of a cow, etc. as well as paying for the entire amount up front, but, in the long run it will likely save you money if you're purchasing locally raised meat.  The price is usually set at so much per pound plus you pay a share {or the entire amount if purchasing the entire animal} of the processing fee.  The price per pound seems high for the lesser priced cuts, but is cheaper for the higher priced cuts, making it even out overall.  You are usually offered some choices in the cuts of meat.
4. Preserve In-Season Food
Whether you can, freeze, dehydrate or ferment, preserving what's in-season to enjoy later in the year is a minor cost and inconvenience now, but a great addition to a meal later.  For more information on how we plan our food preservation, read {this} post.

5. Make Meals Ahead Of Time
Take time at the beginning of the month or at the beginning of the week to make meals, or parts of meals, ahead of time.  Also, prepping veggies, meats, etc. ahead of time makes it easier during the week.  

If you're making a soup, casserole, or other meal that you know freezes well, double the recipe and make two.  One for that day and one to freeze for later in the month.

6. Use Your Crockpot
You may own crockpot cookbooks and have pinned crockpot recipes to your Pinterest board, but do you actually make these recipes?  Owning one or two crockpots to make the main dish and sometimes the side dish is a huge timesaver.  Leftovers can be used throughout the week or, in some cases, frozen for meals later in the month.

7. Know How To Use Your Leftovers
Part of meal planning is planning ahead to effectively utilize leftovers.  

8. Maximize Less Expensive Foods
Beans and pasta are typically inexpensive foods and can be used in a number of ways.  Zucchini, during the summer, and carrots throughout the year are typically the least expensive vegetables and bananas one of the least expensive fruits.  Finding different ways to utilize these items throughout the week can help out your budget.  Remember, beans can also be made ahead of time and stored in the freezer.

9. Eat From Your Pantry
Make an effort from time-to-time to clean out much of your pantry by using the products in your meal planning.  At one time, prior to meal plans, I would buy pretty much the same things over and over at the grocery stores because I typically cooked from the same recipes.  However, if we didn't eat a particular dish for months than some of the canned items I had purchased just for those dishes sat, waiting for their turn.  When I began meal planning the first thing I did was to clean out the pantry by challenging myself to utilize the items in the first month's meals.  Additionally, if you've got processed food in your pantry that you don't plan to make part of your meals any longer, use it up by incorporating it into meals until it's gone then don't replace it.

10. Buy In Bulk
Visit the bulk food section of your grocery store for many pantry staples that may save you money.  You can save large glass jars from pickles, etc. to store food in or visit a thrift store for great deals on jars.

Also, if there is a sale on non-perishables or things that can be stored in the freezer, buy as much of it at the sale price as your budget allows.  This will loosen up your budget for the next month and you'll be able to stock up on additional sale items with the extra money.  Little by little you'll build up sale items that will give you more leeway in your monthly budget.

11.  Eliminate Waste
Cooking and shopping from a meal plan will definitely help with this but if you open a product up to use part of it in a recipe, what to do with the remainder?

If I open a can of Chipotle Peppers in Adobe Sauce, for instance, I know I can freeze the remaining peppers for future use.  If we open a jar of jam and it's not used up within 2-3 weeks I try to make Thumbprint Cookies or Easy Cream Cheese Danish for dessert the next week.  Try to figure out how to utilize products prior to expiration.


Our Neck of the Woods said...

This is such an awesome post! I love how you gave examples of what you actually eat - that is so helpful. I have to agree that meal planning is so important in keeping your budget in check. I have learned that firsthand.

I always wondered why there were so many coupons for processed food but it makes sense now! I see all these people saying they save so much money with coupons, but the groceries I buy don't ever offer coupons! Too bad there's never a buy one get one free on bananas or pomegranates! haha!

Dani said...

Excellent post - well done - and thank you :)

elaine said...

Great post - it must have taken you ages to put it together. Lots of useful tips and common sense in there.

daisy said...

Wow, your food budget is impressive. We spend more than that, mostly because of the gluten-free, dairy-free and other "frees" we must adhere to. So many great tips, Staci. Look forward to reading more...

Leslie said...

This is such a helpful post. Thank you so much for all the great ideas!

Mary said...

Great post! Eating well may cost more up front, but I firmly believe it pays off in the long run, so many ailments that plague us come from the food we eat. I thought we were eating a very healthy diet of poultry and fish, no read meat, then last week I read that much of our so-called "farm-raised" fish comes from China, where the fish are frequently raised on raw sewage. Ewww. It is so important to know where food comes from. I thought I was doing the right thing. Now I'm back to scrutinizing labels to find the source of my groceries. If I can't tell where it came from, I don't buy it. Even a lot of name-brand frozen vegetables are processed in China, where the safety regs. are so poor. Thanks for this helpful post!

Staci at Life At Cobble Hill Farm said...

Tammy - I'm happy it was helpful!

Dani, Daisy, Leslie & Elaine, thank you.

Mary - I know, I've been really concerned since finding out things such as the whole farm-raised business. I also find you have to read and re-read labels, because things change. You can never get too comfortable. :)