The subject of eating real food often brings up this common objection:
“Healthy eating is too expensive.”
While the validity of this statement is hotly debated from both sides, today I want to share the strategies I’ve personally test-driven to keep my food costs as low as possible while simultaneously feeding my family-of-four the highest quality food we can afford.
- Buy in bulk: Whenever possible, stock up when real food items go on sale, which typically coincides with when they’re in season. Let the weekly grocery store flyers guide your meal planning efforts. Consider a Costco membership for non-perishable staples like nuts, oils and canned items. Cowpooling (splitting a cow with friends) allows you to enjoy more humanely raised animal protein without the added price tag.
- Dine in: Hands downs, the best way to blow your food budget is by going out to eat. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that the people most concerned about the high cost of real food are often the ones who eat out the most. Opt for brown bagging it most of the time. Travel with a cooler of snacks for those inevitable, “Mom, I’m hungry” moments. And strengthen your relationships by coming together to cook as a family.
- Cook simple recipes: Even though I recommend meal planning as an essential habit for eating real food consistently (and affordably!), it doesn’t have to be the labourious chore many of us fear it to be. As long as you have veggies, protein and healthy fat on hand, you can virtually make hundreds of different meals. Opt for simple recipes (or no recipe at all) using common ingredients called for in multiple dishes.
- Join a CSA: Community supported agriculture (CSA) is an alternative means of accessing locally grown produce that is slowly gaining the momentum it deserves. CSA members pay at the onset of a growing season for a weekly share of the vegetable and fruit harvest (typically Jun-Oct). I can highly recommend Strattons Farm in Stirling and Thyme Again Gardens in Carrying Place. Not only does the CSA model allow you to get to know your farmer, it encourages you to meal plan around in-season foods. When you get twenty ripe tomatillos in your basket, you can be sure you’ll find a tomatillo recipe rather than let them all go to waste (Thanks to this very scenario, tomatillo salsa is now a summer favourite).
- Start your own “meal exchange”: Think cookie exchange, but with real food. I’m proud to be part of a weekly meal exchange with five other local real food enthusiasts. Each week we make everybody in the group 1-2 servings of a real food dish of our choosing — chili’s, casseroles, soups, stews, salads, side dishes and even condiments have been exchanged in ours. Not only does this approach make sense from a cost and time perspective, it also deepens social connections with like-minded foodies in your area. There is no way around it, meal exchanges are a win-win situation.
- Consider a second fridge/freezer: Not only does this allow you to stock up when things go on sale, but you can mass produce meals when time allows without having to worry about storage space.
- Try canning: What do you do when one hundred and twenty tomatoes all ripen at the same time? Either give them away to friends or start canning! Canning plentiful, in-season produce opens up the possibility of eating nutrient-dense food (perhaps even from your own garden. See #10) all year round. It also makes a thoughtful gift that is bound to be appreciated by anyone.
- Buy cheaper sources of protein: Choose cheaper cuts instead of compromising on the quality of your protein. Ground beef instead of prime rib. Canned tuna instead of fresh filets. And when the budget allows, treat yourself to a mouth-watering steak or fresh lobster and enjoy every bite.
- Set aside time for batch cooking: We tend to shy away from home cooked meals thinking they’ll be too time consuming to make. But we pay somewhere for convenience (sometimes it’s way down the road!). By making your time in the kitchen count, you’ll maximize your money, your time and your health. My best advice is to set aside some time each week for mass cooking sessions, and always plan for leftovers. I cook every single weekday between 3:15-4:30 when my kids get home from school. And when I haul out all the ingredients to make a salad, I’ll often make five or six. I’ll hard boil a dozen eggs at a time to have on hand as snacks or a quick protein source for salads. I’ll cook the whole pack of chicken breasts instead of what we need for the next meal. If you’re opposed to the clean up involved with home cooked meals, then I suggest making friends with your slow cooker.
- Grow a backyard garden: Whether it’s an herb garden in a sunny windowsill, a container on your deck, or a full backyard vegetable garden, grow as much of your own food given the space that you have available. Not only will it be healthier for you, there is a certain amount of pride that comes from eating a meal which started out as a tiny seed that was nurtured by you.
I hope these suggestions get your creative juices flowing as to how you can stretch your food dollars as far as possible. Initially they may take some work to incorporate into your life, but the pay offs are almost always worth the investment.
Now I’d love to hear from you. Do you have a favourite cost saving strategy that you can share with our community? Find us over on Facebook and leave a comment now.
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