Eating Well on a Budget
You've heard the advice before -- from your mother, from your doctor, and from us: "Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and use polyunsaturated oils." But if you're eating on a budget (and who isn't?), that's tough advice to follow. Fill your grocery basket with fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and lean meats -- especially organic versions -- and you can lighten your wallet in a hurry. But eating on a budget doesn’t have to mean eating poorly. You can stretch your food dollars -- and still eat well -- with some simple shopping and food preparation strategies.
If you find yourself stocking up on macaroni and cheese instead of fresh fruits and vegetables when your food budget is tight, know that you're not alone. When people have few dollars in their pockets, they choose higher calorie, less nutritious options, because those are also the cheaper options. When budgets shrink, people need to make food choices.
The first foods to go are usually the healthier items – high-quality proteins, whole grains, vegetables and fruit. People turn to less expensive starches, added sugars, and vegetable fats. After all, when you've got $10.00 in your pocket and hungry mouths to feed, are you going to buy four apples at $2.69 a pound or a box of ramen soup at 10 for $1.00? Even among vegetables, the cheaper choices may not be the most nutritious. If you're watching your wallet, why buy nutrient-rich Romaine lettuce at nearly $2.00 a head when you can get a head of iceberg lettuce for $0.99?
But you can avoid the lean-wallet, wide-waistline pattern. Here are the top strategies for stretching your food dollars.
- Buy store brands (“private label”). Store brands once had a bad reputation, and rightly so – generic “no-name” brands were generally of poorer quality, unreliable processing, and didn’t taste as good as name brands. But new private-label brands are changing that, even offering gourmet foods. Consumer Reports found that for 33 out of 57 store-brand foods, expert tasters liked the store brands better than big-name brands. By choosing store brands, especially on sale, you can save 15 to 30% off your grocery bill.
- Shop Farmer’s Markets: The USDA Cooperative Extension Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program connects people in underserved communities with local growers. Through the program, seniors and WIC recipients are able to access fresh fruits and vegetables directly from local farmers at farmers’ markets.
- Join a CSA: CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” and it’s a way for community members to purchase directly from farmers. You join the CSA by paying a membership fee, and the farmer delivers a box of seasonal produce throughout the farming season. To learn more about the CSA model and how if benefits both consumers and local farmers, visit Local Harvest’s CSA page. You can also search for CSAs near you.
- Clip coupons: Keep an eye out for coupons in newspapers, free circulars, and online. Search for “food coupons” and you’ll find a host of options for free coupons that you can download and print. Hint: Kids love to clip coupons. Enlist their help.
- Shop sales. Grocery stores often have specials on basics. Check weekly sales flyers for sales on items that you use regularly and stock up when prices drop. Most grocers also place their weekly sales flyers online, so you can peruse them even if the dog ate the weekly circular.
- Form a buying club. Buying clubs are groups of people – you’ll usually need at least 5 people to reach minimum order size for bulk order – that join together to buy in bulk from wholesalers, local farmers, or “big box” retailers such as Costco. While your family might not go through 50 pounds of flour in the next year, five families might go through that much in a few months. Ask neighbors, friends, and classmates if they’ll join you.
- Shop in season. Purchase fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season. Or go on a U-Pick outing with the kids. Freeze extra fruits and vegetables for year-round use.
- Frolic in the frozen aisle. Purchase frozen fruits and vegetables on sale. Frozen fruits and vegetables retain as much nutritional value as fresh, and they last longer, so you’ll waste less.
- Avoid small packages. You can purchase a 16-ounce container of store-brand applesauce for 2.15 for 16 ounces or one 3-ounce kids’ pouch for $1.25. Yogurts can cost $1.00 or more for a small contain. Instead, purchase bigger containers of plain yogurt and add your own fresh fruit. Cheaper yet, make your own yogurt.
- Look at unit prices. Pay attention to the price per unit (usually price per ounce) of foods and beverages. Generally, the bigger the package, the less you’ll pay per ounce. For foods with a long shelf life – for instance, vinegar, flour, or dried beans – purchase the bigger package.
Don't Buy Expensive "Extras"
- Drink tap water: Unless your tap water is unsafe to drink, leave bottled water on the shelf. Instead, purify water with an on-tap water filter. If you must buy bottled water because your tap water is unsafe, purchase and refill five gallon containers with water from a vending machine.
- Eat less animal protein: Meat, fish, and poultry are often some of the most expensive items on your grocery list. Add at least three meatless meals a week to your menu. Use low-cost, low-fat, high-fiber legumes (beans, lentils, split peas, etc.) – not high-fat cheese – as the main source of protein at the meal, and serve with whole grains such as brown rice, millet, or bulgur.
You’ll save the most if you purchase dried beans and soak them overnight. Throw them in the crockpot before you leave for work in the morning with a few cloves of garlic and a bay leaf or two, and you’ll have a simmering pot of supper ready when you get home. When you do serve meat, don’t make it the centerpiece of the meal. Stretch your grocery dollars by serving meals that use meat as an accompaniment, rather than the other way around.
Look for sales on lean cuts of meat, poultry, and fish. If you purchase extra meat during a sale, you can freeze it for later use. Ground meats can be frozen for three to four months, while steaks, chops, roasts, poultry, and fish can be safely frozen for four months to a year, depending on the cut. For more detail about safely storing meat, fish, and poultry, see the FDA’s Guide to Storage Times for the Refrigerator and the Freezer.
- Skip the soda: Buy a case or two of soda each week, and you’ve spent about $10-15 a week or up to $780.00 per year. Add a weekly soda from a vending machine or convenience store for about $1.79, and you’re spending nearly $1,000 per year on a nutritional nightmare. Drink water instead. Your body -- and your wallet -- will thank you.
Become a Kitchen Do-It-Yourselfer
- Brew your own: Skip the daily stop for a coffee and treat, whether it’s at a coffee shop or gas station. Both your wallet and your heart will thank you. According to the Wall Street Journal, depending on where you live, a daily Starbuck’s Latte will set you back anywhere from $2.80 (in New Delhi) to $4.30 (in New York City) to $9.83 (in Oslo). Instead, brew your own, save the change, and plan a trip to the beach.
- Make your own. Make your own muffins, breads, biscuits, granolas, and other staples. You’ll pay less, and you can control what goes into the finished products. Besides, you might find yourself actually enjoying it – baking is a great way to spend time with kids, spouses, or friends. Use whole-grain flours, healthy oils, flaxseed, and other nutritious ingredients. Cut back on fats by substituting applesauce or apple butter, prune puree, or mashed bananas.
- Garden: Plant your own vegetable garden. No room? Join a cooperative community garden, or try container gardening. You’d be amazed how much you can grow in a small space. Your local Cooperative Extension Service can provide information about which plants grow well in your area and myriad other gardening tips. For more information, see www.extension.org
Those who need financial assistance to purchase food can find some support in several programs offered by the USDA Food and Nutrition Program. However, benefits are limited and income eligibility guidelines strict.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Formerly known as the food stamp program, SNAP helps eligible low-income families to purchase healthier foods. There are strict income and resource eligibility limits for the program. In 2013, 73% of households receiving SNAP included a child, disabled adult, or senior.
- Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program: The WIC program helps low-income women and children who are at risk of nutritional deficiencies to access healthy foods. WIC is available to low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to their fifth birthday. Through WIC, women and children have access to supplemental nutritious foods, nutrition education and counseling, and screening and referrals to other health, welfare, and social services programs.
- Children’s Programs: Children's food assistance programs are generally run through schools, child-care centers, and after-school programs. Programs supported by the Food and Nutrition Service include the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and the Special Milk Program. The programs are administered by State agencies and may vary slightly from state to state. But each program works by paying organizations such as schools and childcare facilities for providing healthy meals to children.