Tips for Reducing the Cost of a Healthy Menu

Dear Home Ec 101,

I just got back from the grocery and I’m despairing. I’m trying to be frugal these days, but still I don’t want to intake HFCS and I like to choose organic eggs and milk when I can. And I feel like it’s a balancing game to keep my family healthy but still be able to put money in the bank.

I know I need to plan meals around sales, and currently I’m actually trying to clean out my freezer because we have a ton of frozen meat, but I’m talking about foods that you buy every week, perishables that you can’t stock up on, when you want to be cruelty free or organic or just not eat HFCS.

Signed,

Math is Hard

Heather says:

A family’s grocery budget is based on a series of compromises.. While my personal motto is know better, do better, I also realize that there comes a point where you just have to let it go.You could read articles, blogs, and papers about every ingredient, process, and dietary ideal for the rest of your life and still be confused about whether or not you’re making the best choices for your family.

You could also be hit by a bus tomorrow.

If you wanted to, you could wander down a path of fear and forget that food is meant to be savored and enjoyed.

Personally, I believe you are making good choices, wanting to avoid HFCS and choosing organic when it’s possible. My point is to make your choices and then quit worrying about it. Nutrition, is a developing field, new ideas are promoted one week and retracted the next. No one has it perfect, so there’s no reason to kill yourself pursuing perfection. (There’s never a time for that anyhow, the stress alone will undo your efforts).

Heck, there are many times where I don’t even manage to make the organic choice.

Here are a few suggestions to help reduce your bill without compromising your dietary principles.

Eat Seasonally

When you tailor your diet around seasonal produce, you’re taking advantage of produce at the peak of its flavor and nutrition.

If you have a Farmer’s Market in your area (and that stupid bill never makes it out of the House) get as much of your produce as possible from there. See if any of your local grocery stores buy locally and patronize them. Offhand I know that both Bi-Lo and Piggly Wiggly try to source produce locally when possible, but it’s still a good idea to check with your store’s manager. If your grocery store does source locally, in-season produce will likely be priced accordingly. (I can’t control for all factors, but this one is usually a given, since it’s in line with the economic principle of supply and demand).

Also don’t assume that certified organic is the only choice. Many small farmers have not been able to pursue the certification for some reason that actually doesn’t have an impact on how the produce or animal is grown. Sometimes the produce or animal producer is in the process of being certified. Find your supplier and talk to them. From what I know, many agricultural professionals are looking to open the channels of communication. It can’t hurt to try.

When seasonal produce is limited hit the freezer section for the next best option.

Don’t go for the fancy steamer pouches -who wants to bet the ads this post triggers are for exactly those?- Look at the fancy options and write down the ones that pique your interest. Typically you can make the same recipes with little extra effort, much more cheaply at home. I will admit that the coupon gurus may be able to beat me at cost per serving in this department.

Steam your vegetables and toss them with butter or olive oil heated (infused) with your favorite herbs.

Treat vegetables or legumes as the entrΓ©e.

I’m an unapologetic carnivore, but I put a lot of thought into our sides to keep our consumption in check. I know that both in the health and cost department vegetables and legumes are often much cheaper per consumable ounce than lean protein. Compare cabbage at $0.39 a pound to ground beef at $3.45. It’s easier to limit the our consumption of protein to recommended amounts when the accompaniment is not a pile of canned, overcooked soggy green beans.

On a tight budget, watch how much your recipes rely on cheese and butter.  (I am not suggesting you choose low fat options, just watch the number of cheese heavy recipes you serve in the course of a week).

Learn how to make stock.

Stock is a great way to increase the flavor of your recipes while taking advantage of items that would normally just go to waste (chicken bones, vegetables on the verge).

Watch your waste.

As a nation, we Americans (I can’t speak for our Canadian and European readers, I haven’t seen your studies) waste a LOT of food. For one month keep track of how much food was thrown away. Were leftovers in the fridge too long? Did the milk go sour? etc

There’s the possibility that you’re unintentionally buying more than your family consumes.

Try these suggestions and understand that inflation and time constraints take their toll. There is a point where you won’t be able to cut your budget any further without compromising your principles. If you can afford your principles, keep them and let the worry go.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com



9 Comments

  1. Jo-Lynne on December 13, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    This is a good post, but I'm telling you what. Eating better has made me more stressed out than ever about waste (it never used to bother me before, and now when a kid leaves a morsel on his plate, I go ballistic), and eating seasonally and locally sourced seems to cost more, not less.

    Just today I was at my whole foods mart. I had 3 choices for chicken. I asked the store personnel which chicken was raised on pasture. She pointed to the one that cost 2x as much as the other choices – both organic factory farmed chickens. (Yes, organic factory farmed chickens do exist – in fact, most organic chicken is factory farmed.) The pastured chicken at my store is also raised down the road, not shipped across state lines. The best choice was obvious, but it cost 2x as much as the other 2. And those were 3 or 4 times as much per pound as the generic grocery store brand would be.

    I chose the pastured, local chicken, because I feel strongly about it as a health issue as well as a political statement. BUT JEEZ.

    Signed,
    poor but healthy in PA
    My recent post Menu Plan Monday

    • HeatherSolos on December 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm

      I think you might have missed a tiny bit of nuance.
      Eating seasonally and locally is more expensive than conventional.
      Within the boundaries of choosing organic, it's often cheaper. πŸ™‚

  2. Mrs. J on December 4, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    When my husband and I first started eating healthier, we noticed that it was hard to do so and stay in our budget. But we've learned what foods work for us, and which ones are most nutritious and also cost effective. At this point, we come in well under budget every week. We buy healthy grains and beans in bulk when they are on sale. We also freeze fresh fruits and vegetables when they are in season and on sale. We also started vegetable gardening so that we can eat and store our own fresh produce.

    I've recently started blogging about our garden and the frugal recipes I use. The blog is still young, but I'm sure in time I'll have quite a collection. roadlesstraveled.blogspot.com
    My recent post

  3. Milehimama on December 3, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I wrote a few posts about this very thing on my blog: http://www.milehimama.com/real-food-frugal-food/

    Know what is important to YOU and YOUR family so you can prioritize expenses. Buy what you eat, not what you *think* you should eat (easy to fall for current fads, stock up, then realize that you really, really hate seaweed or chickpeas or kombucha.)

    The bill that passed the Sneate did exclude family farms making less than $500,000 a year and went to the House. The House blue-slipped it because the Senate had put taxing things/revenue in the bill and they're not allowed to do that – tax and revenue stuff has to originate in the House.

    I still really, really do not want this to pass until the FDA is fixed. The FDA as is has so many problems, conflicts of interest, bad policies, and is not accountable to the people. The people who would end up with ultimate power about what we are allowed to eat and feed our children would be unelected bureaucrats. I agree, Heather. It's a good theory but the current application is sorely lacking.

  4. Karen on December 3, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Heather, what do you mean by the comment "that stupid bill never makes it out of the House"? What concerns do you have about this bill? I am currently reading both good and bad things about it.

    • HeatherSolos on December 3, 2010 at 3:33 pm

      As originally written it would have been like the lead testing requirement from a few years ago. The theory is good, protect kids from lead, but the application was bad the burden on small businesses was too great.
      I think there's an amendment that fixes it, but I am unsure of whether or not it passed the Senate with or without the amendment. I need to research it further before I make any more snide remarks. πŸ™‚

      • HeatherSolos on December 3, 2010 at 5:09 pm

        Here's a good, if biased explanation of the issues with the bill. You're of course welcome to research and find your own conclusions. This article does a great job explaining what I believe to be wrong with the bill.
        I am not endorsing the political stance of that site, I haven't seen it before. I try to keep Home Ec 101 completely apolitical in topic, but this bill hits me where I eat. πŸ˜‰ http://www.seismologik.com/journal/2010/12/3/unco

        • Jo-Lynne on December 13, 2010 at 5:51 pm

          this bill is hideous. It gives way too much power to the FDA, who already has too much power and does more harm than good. My blog used to be a politics-free zone too, but this stuff has my panties in a bunch.
          My recent post Menu Plan Monday

  5. Karen on December 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Good post. I love your blog and am recommending it to my newly married daughter. Best of luck!
    My recent post Me and Isaac

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