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Eating Well on a Budget

At this point, eating well on a budget might just seem like common sense stuff. One quick search on the internet will yield a thousand of the same bland results. Buying in bulk, cooking at home, and avoiding grocery shopping when you are hungry are all valid points, but despite the information, some of it seems lacking in depth. How do we do these things and how does it help?

The question "whose budget?" is always at the forefront of these conversations about eating on a budget as well. With the immense food insecurity and poverty in our country, it is important to include people with these sorts of means when discussing how to have a budget friendly diet. It is easy to incorporate more healthy foods into one's diet when one has the money to do so, less when your budget must include several children, or you are living off very little income with only a small percentage of that dedicated to food shopping.

The answer of course is your budget. If you are the type of person who budgets every month, you probably have a good grasp on what your food budget for the next four weeks looks like. If you are not the type to regularly budget, take a few moments to figure out a rough estimate for what you are spending each month and what you would like to be spending, and see how those numbers compare. After you've figured out your base budget, you can begin planning how to eat well with the amount of money you are comfortable and able to spend.

Understanding the Layout of a Grocery Store

Ever wonder why your grocery store has a huge floral department right by the main entrance? The idea is to quickly convince your brain that this store is beautiful and radiates freshness. They bring a liveliness to the store that you won't find in quick marts or huge supercenters. What do you find right past the flowers? Produce of course. With that pretty eyeful on your way in, you are thinking that the produce must be as fresh and fragrant as the flowers. This is all subconscious and can be misleading to your brain. Maybe without thinking then, you pick the produce right from the top of the pile, not taking nearly enough time to examine the fruit as you should. When you get home, you discover the brown spot on your apple that you hadn't noticed in the grocery store, and with a groan you eat around it instead of returning the damaged fruit. This can be avoided by taking the time to carefully examine your produce before you take it home. Keep in mind the tricks that packaging can play on your brain. For example, oranges are often in red mesh bags to make them appear more orange than they actually are. Look for expiration dates when possible, and if not possible, reach for the produce in the back of the pile. Good grocery stores will rotate their produce so the oldest is in the front to be sold more quickly. This is called product rotation and it performed daily in many produce departments. Pay attention for signs of aging or unnatural damage- like a big dent in a cantaloupe where a child dropped it.

Another thing you will notice if you are observant is that most grocery stores are laid out with all the healthy fresh foods on the outside and the bulk of the foods, almost all processed and full of preservatives, making up the main aisles of the place. Inside the aisles are all the cheap, convenient foods with little to no real nutritional value. Avoid the middle aisles, except for when looking for things like beans, rice, or canned/frozen produce, or if you have a specialty diet that can be better serviced by a specialty aisle in the middle of the store. International food aisles also tend to have some good, wholesome options so you could check out those aisles if they are particularly expansive.

Name brand stuff is more than likely at eye level. This is to entice you to buy those brands. After all, they are familiar, pricey, and probably full of cheap ingredients. Many manufacturers pay hefty fees to buy a good spot for their product to end up on that particular shelf in your local store, but that doesn't mean it's the right choice for your body. Look above or below these products to see if there are generic, healthier, or cheaper options. Planograms are layouts that manufacturers make up with grocery store chains to determine where the best product placement is to maximize sales. Usually, the highest bidder for shelf space controls not only where their product goes on the shelf, but where the lower bidders' products go as well. This is an unfair advantage for the big name brands, since they are continuing to earn a huge profit that translates to more products being placed on better shelves, and thus more control over the shelves. Avoid being tempted by colorful packaging at eye level. It is worth your time to look around for better prices on the same products. Examine nutritional facts and remember, anything that rhymes with the word gross, for example sucrose, is just a form of sugar and should be avoided or at least one of the last ingredients in the package. If sugar is in the first ingredient in anything you are hoping to purchase, put it back! Your body and budget will thank you.

What About Couponing?

For some families, couponing is a saving grace that helps them pick up huge food hauls that they stash away for rainy days or in the event of an emergency. The truth is, much of the food manufacturers offer coupons on is cheap, processed food that won't do anything good for your health. Even foods labeled "natural" can be full of bad fats and sugars galore. Eating well means eating fresh, wholesome foods and some of us just don't have access to those kinds of resources. You have to be diligent about what kinds of coupons you are using, and what kind of coupons you are looking for in the first place.

Something that many of the shoppers have no idea about is how using reward or loyalty cards at a grocery store can greatly benefit them. These cards will often track your purchases and single you out for deals and promotions. Those "random" coupons that get printed at checkout are in fact targeted store coupons that are triggered from your repeated shopping habits. This is a fact that feels like a double-edged sword. Some shoppers are wary of their purchases being tracked, so they choose to opt out of signing up for loyalty cards. On the other hand, the targeted coupons are an absolute plus. If you are buying a lot of fresh food anyway, you will benefit from stores that print out store coupons for a certain amount off produce purchases or meat purchases when you spend a specific dollar amount. This can help immensely. Treat these coupons like extra cash in your budget the next week, as usually they print out once you have paid for your grocery order. Pay attention to your coupons and learn how to read them to maximize your spending power. If a coupon says "store coupon" it can only be redeemed at the store where it was printed. However, if a coupon says "manufacturer's coupon" it can be redeemed anywhere that takes coupons, even if there is a specific store's logo on the coupon. This is a tricky way that stores try to get you to shop at the same place repeatedly, even if the better deals are at a different establishment. Be aware that most coupons geared toward fresh food, like produce, will probably be store coupons that can only be redeemed at that store. Check store circulars for even more coupons. Usually circular coupons are only good for a week, so pick one up at the door or service desk on your way in to shop. Most stores offer an online circular as well, if you are interested in perusing coupons or deals before you go into the store.

Prices vary depending on where you live in the United States, but generally speaking you can compare your local flyers and decide what works best for you. Coupons are a great way to help your money stretch but stick to coupons for foods that you actually want to feed your family. Don't be tempted to try a new food or buy a cheap food just because a coupon makes it feel like it may be a good deal. Chances are, you won't eat that food anyway, or a generic version may be cheaper than the coupon makes the name brand.

Farmer's Markets

Produce can be purchased at plenty of farmer's markets stands during the summer, fall, and spring, but might feel less accessible in the winter time. Check out the farmer's markets around you and find out which ones are open year round, or which ones do special weekend sales, etc.

Some of the best, most budget friendly produce can come from a farmer's market if you are willing to go up and talk to the vendors. See if they have any "ugly" produce for sale- these pieces aren't as aesthetically pleasing, so they might not exactly make it to your Instagram feed, but it's much better that it ends up in someone's belly versus a landfill. Unattractive produce is just as nutritionally dense as the pretty pieces, so it is fine to eat. Buying from a farmer's market stimulates your local economy, and it is good for your health too! Often you are getting the freshest produce, with the possibility of the produce actually having been picked that same day. Some farmer's markets offer a deal where you pay a premium monthly and get a box full of fresh produce every other week or monthly. Ask around if this is something that you can fit into your budget.

How Do Spices Fit In?

If the idea of eating the same bulk beans for the next two weeks makes you feel like you'll never eat a colorful, flavorful food for the duration of your lifetime, think again. We are firm believers that a section of your food budget should be dedicated to spices to make your healthy food the most delicious it can be. Good quality spices can last a long time if stored properly, so they can continue to liven up your meals for weeks at a time.

You want to avoid spices from the grocery store that have an array of additives or anti-caking agents added in. Plenty of seasoning blends available in grocery chains are also salt and sugar heavy, since they are two cheap "filler" ingredients that can be used to bulk up a blend. Looking for high quality spices can be exhausting, but luckily we know of a really great place to find a fantastic list of plenty of herbs and spices to be tasted and experimented with.

Herbs, spices, chiles, and seasoning blends are crucial to bringing food to life. They are a great way to make your vegetables taste incredible, and they can take a bland soup and transform it into something so tasty, you may want to eat it again every day until the end of time. Spices can also take food that may be not so great and make it taste at least palatable! You might not be a super huge fan of rice, but adding the right spices can bring your regular rice rotation to the forefront of your favorite dinners for the week.

The Five, Ten, or Fifteen Dollar Rule

Everyone gets home from the grocery store and then stops halfway through loading up their fridge to discover they had less eggs than they thought or sifts through the cupboards and shouts, "Oh no, I forgot something!" Don't worry, it happens to everyone and this won't affect your budget if you plan carefully.

Once you have set the amount of money you want to spend in a month, take a small chunk of money from your food budget and set it aside for those "forgotten foods." This can be 5, 10, or 15 dollars, depending on how much you have to work with in a month, or how much you are comfortable shaving off of your immediate needs fund. If you shop weekly, and you take just $10 from your food budget weekly and tuck it away for "forgotten items" you will have a little cushion to spend later. During the months that you don't touch your cushion, you may even be able to use that money for a splurge item- like a new, small kitchen appliance, a spice set purchase, or even a treat to yourself, like a dinner out. An even better use of this money would be to put it aside for future months where you may have an unexpected expense and need a little extra cash. Just a few dollars weekly can really add up!

Now, if this isn't something you can afford to do right now, you can build up to this. As you become better at comparing flyers and purchasing a shift in how much money you have available to spend can occur. Practice and patience will help you work within the bounds of your own budget.

How Do I Stick to My Food Budget?

So, you're the kind of person who wanders around the grocery store aimlessly and puts anything tasty you can find right in your basket. These tips will help you shop for good food without wrecking your budget in the form of three or four unnecessary, unhealthy items.

  1. Make a list. If you have a list, you are essentially putting blinders on yourself the way horses wear blinders for the Kentucky derby. Keep your eye on the prize! The prize in this scenario being a finished list and a cart full of pre-selected things, not necessarily a trophy. But, if you award yourself with a shiny trophy anyway, we wouldn't be able to blame you. Sticking to a list is hard.

  2. Put your spending money in an envelope and bring only that amount with you. If you don't have your credit cards with you, you will be absolutely forced to stick to spending only what you have.

  3. Allot yourself a set amount of time to get in and get out of a grocery store. If you have a budget and also a time constraint, you are way more likely to go and purchase only those items on your list. If you go to the grocery store on a lazy Sunday afternoon, with zero follow up plans, you are more likely to linger and find more things to spend money on wastefully.

  4. Eat before you go shopping. This is the most common sense thing on our list, but it really does make a difference. If you aren't distracted by being hungry at the store, you will be able to shop with a clear head and you will be much less tempted to purchase tasty looking, bad for you goodies like that donut that keeps staring at you from the bakery department.

  5. Round up. Bring a calculator with you and round up on each purchase, adding as you go along to make sure you stay within your budget. General rule of thumb is to round up to the nearest dollar, so if you purchase something that costs $2.30 with tax included, round up to $3. This might seem silly, but at the end of the trip you may be able to add an extra bag of frozen veggies or two! On the other hand, you may only come out of the grocery store with a few extra pennies. This is okay. Add it to your 5, 10, 15 envelope and watch those pennies add up over time.

  6. Shop for produce that is in season, not necessarily what you are going for. This is the only time you should be willing to get something that isn't on your list. Always go for the fruit and vegetables that are in season, and when possible, grown locally. They are usually cheaper than produce that is out of season or imported. This is better for your wallet and the environment! Transporting local produce takes a lot less resources than transporting foreign produce, and it helps local farmer economies. Being flexible with your produce and being willing to experiment with produce you might be less familiar with is a great way to incorporate new, healthy foods into your diet. For example, cherries might be your fruit of choice but you get to the store and discover a massive flash sale on apples. Unless your cherries are a huge part of a planned meal, you can opt for the apples for more fruit per dollar. While you are at it, if the prices are good enough, stock up on this fresh produce! You can prep what you know you won't use right away and freeze it for the future.

  7. Try the store brand product. Usually these generic products are the same quality, or sometimes even better than the name brand, and taste nearly identical to it. Being brand loyal will do a disservice to your family, especially when you can get the same product cheaper or in a healthier form.

  8. How often you are doing shopping is another factor to consider. If you aren't going to the grocery store frequently enough, you may find your fresh foods are becoming spoiled and you may be discouraged from purchasing them again in the future. It can be easy to cave to the pull of the processed foods in the middle aisles of the store when you are feeling bad about the vegetables you left out on your counter for too long that spoiled. Plan to shop at least weekly and pick out the freshest foods, produce especially, from the back of the pile to eliminate excess food waste.

  9. Sign up for a loyalty card. Sure, the groaning ensues, and it's really annoying to add yet another tag to your key ring, but these cards offer great deals and as mentioned before, targeted coupons. You may also get mailers with exclusive offers available to you or a look into a new product launch.

  10. Meal planning. Prepping your meals or making dinners ahead of time can seem a daunting task, but if you plan out what you want to eat all week and look at recipes early on, you are more likely to make good choices than if you quickly dart to the store and throw something quick, easy, and familiar into your shopping cart. Don't forget the mad dash through the narrow checkout lanes, all designed to get you to impulse buy that shiny, pretty candy bar on your way out the door.

  11. Cook at home. If you include all plans of eating out in your food budget, you will discover that eating out takes a huge chunk of your money in purchasing just one meal! The convenience of takeout food or a single restaurant trip will cost you a huge portion of your money! These take out foods are often loaded with sodium and preservatives as well, so they are not a healthy choice. They may be enjoyed in moderation occasionally, but they should not be a frequent occurrence on your family's menu.

  12. Buy frozen or canned fruits and vegetables! They are often picked and packed at the peak of freshness and stay good for a longer than fresh will. If you are purchasing canned fruit, try to buy canned fruits that have ben packed in water or 100% fruit juice, not in syrup. If you are unsure of what they have been packed in, you can always drain the excess liquid before enjoying the fruit. For vegetables, always drain them. Rinse canned vegetables if they have been soaking in a salty brine. Try to find cans marked "low or no sodium" for a more heart healthy option. Frozen or canned produce options are great for working families, and they are sometimes more cost effective than fresh. If it's this or no produce in your life at all, always opt for the vegetables. Fresh when you can, frozen or canned when fresh isn't an option.

  13. Cook large meals and freeze excess for later. This will help you during times of financial distress, or it will just help you stretch your food out for longer. If your freezer is full of bad foods, you will be tempted to snack and eat junk. If you are using your freezer as storage space for more meals, you are making a healthier choice for your body and mind by eliminating space that would have otherwise been occupied by processed foods.

  14. Eliminate meat from your diet as much as possible. Meat is expensive and lots of supermarket meat is actually treated with carbon monoxide to maintain its pink color, meaning that in many cases it will still look fresh even after it has spoiled. You can in fact have a balanced diet without meat. Plenty of cultures rely on a daily dose of rice and beans for their main source of protein. The combination of a legume and a grain forms a complete protein, as well as many of the essential amino acids the body needs for proper function. You can serve a hearty dinner to two people for just under $3, and that's if you buy canned beans and microwavable rice! For more people or just bigger portion options, buy bulk bags of rice and bags of dried beans and cook as needed. You can eliminate a huge portion of your expenses by simply cutting meat out of the equation all together.

Don't feel guilty if you slip up or if the budget gets broken from time to time. It's not healthy to beat yourself up if you accidentally spend too much or go over your budget a little bit once in a blue moon. Not everyone is perfect and unexpected expenses do happen.

Eating Well on a Budget

Prioritize buying fresh foods frequently and avoid unhealthy foods as much as possible. If you are scrounging to get by, eating the best you can is good enough until you have the resources to eat even better. Turn to bulk packaging or family sizes if you are purchasing meat and freeze any excess. Rely on canned or frozen produce when you can't afford fresh. It is a true work in progress and do not feel discouraged if you must choose boxed macaroni and cheese one time versus making it yourself from scratch. Adding as many fruits and vegetables as you can to your diet, swapping out instant dinners for home cooked ones and cutting out all sodas from your diet are great ways to get started if you are on a particularly tight budget, but can also benefit anyone in general. Everyone's financial situation varies and there is no cookie cutter, one size fits all answer for how to eat well on all budgets. Use these tips to determine how you can begin to prioritize more wholesome foods and less junk food in your diet.

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