Eating real food on a budget can be challenging, but with some thought and clever strategies it’s absolutely doable (…and you don’t even need to quit your job and become a full time couponer to do so! (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m actually quite fascinated by the concept, to be honest!)).
You probably will have to spend a bit more time cooking though, since usually the less processed a ‘real food’ ingredient is, the cheaper it’ll be – leaving some more work on your part.
However, personally I really value the skill set that being able to cook most things from scratch actually is and I tremendously value the fact, that I know what’s in my food too. It’s worth the extra time for me.
But you do you, implement what makes sense and leave the rest.
These are my best tips and tricks on how to eat real food on a budget!
Celery leaf pesto – a delicious pesto made from something you’d probably usually just throw out!
Waste not, want not
Food waste is a huge problem for the environment and our resources (the resources used to produce the food + obviously the actual food wasted) and it’s a major financial drain in your grocery budget too!
In the years 2007-2014 data regarding food waste was collected by researchers at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, University of Vermont and University of New Hampshire.
Researchers found that the average American wasted nearly one pound of food every day. This translated to roughly 30% of the daily calorie intake. 30%! The data furthermore showed that higher quality diets containing more fruits and vegetables than SAD (the standard American diet) had an even higher percentage of waste.
“Higher quality diets have greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are being wasted in greater quantities than other food,” says co-author Meredith Niles, a University of Vermont assistant professor. “Eating healthy is important, and brings many benefits, but as we pursue these diets, we must think much more consciously about food waste.” See article
Reducing your food waste will effectively save you some serious bucks on your grocery bill – if wasting nothing at all (compared to the average American) you could look at savings of more than 30%. Not to bad, eh?
Since the potential for saving money is so great, reducing food waste is probably THE BEST tip for eating anything – and even more so a higher quality real food diet – on a budget. So just get at it!
How to reduce food waste
- Meal plan (and actually follow the plan, okay? Yeah, I totally know the struggle!). Meal planning will make it so much easier for you to incorporate leftovers in future meals. If you know you’ll cook a big batch of ground beef on Monday to have with tacos, plan to use the leftover meat in a big salad on Tuesday, etc.
- Eat leftovers for breakfast and lunch. You’ll be amazed at how delicious this is (and how much money it’ll save you!). From a flavor perspective, most food taste better after a day in the fridge anyway, so I literally can’t see how you’re loosing on that one.
- Have one weekly leftover dinner – this makes sense to do around Thursday or so where you’ll probably have odds and ends laying around in your fridge. Don’t expect a perfect Insta-worthy meal, but do expect a tasty one! It’s easy to add a couple of eggs and more veggies/grains/pulses to add volume, if you don’t have enough leftovers for an entire meal. Grab some spices and go to town!
- Use your freezer – if you know you won’t be able to eat something before it goes bad, simply freeze it. Having some cooked meals in the freezer will help you on future busy days too – those days where planning just didn’t happen or you simply don’t have time for cooking.
General tips for grocery shopping
- Shop sales and stock your pantry with items you know you use all the time (yes, I buy bottles of strained tomatoes by the case and yes, I only recently ran out of my year supply of olive oil – I’m totally that person).
- Look for store brands and generic items at the grocery store. The quality of the product is often exactly the same as the more expensive option, you just don’t pay more for a specific brand name.
- Usually, the less prepped something is, the cheaper it’ll be (‘real food’-wise, anyway – it’s pretty difficult to match a 1$ microwave dinner cost-wise). Spiralizing your own zucchini will be cheaper than buying the zoodles, boiling your own eggs will be cheaper than buying the already hard boiled ones, etc.
- Shop online if you’re known to buy everything ‘not on the list’. Personally, grocery shopping is one of my most favorite things, so I’ll be hitting the store 10/10. But you do you!
- Speaking of lists – make a list and only buy what’s on the list.
Chunky tomato salsa – a great way to use wrinkly tomatoes!
Save on fruits and vegetables
- Buy seasonal produce! It’s cheaper and often times healthier too (fresher produce and less pesticides used compared to imported stuff). Preserve the bounty of summer and fall by canning, freezing, fermenting, etc.
- Buy fruits and vegetables at your local farmers’ market. This will automatically keep you seasonal and you’ll typically save a lot of money. If you’re used to buying fruits and vegetables by weight, the farmers’ market can really save you some serious cash. Things like zucchini, cabbage, winter squash and pumpkin are almost always sold by unit – and not weight – and it’s always so much cheaper than the price at the grocery store. Other than you saving money, you also support local small biz economy, which is always nice to do too.
- Shop the ‘imperfect produce’ section. Produce might have odd shapes, different colors, etc. but will be exactly the same as their ‘pretty’ siblings in taste and texture.
- Shop marked down fruits and vegetables. A bag of bruised apples will still be delicious for making apple sauce and quite frankly I wouldn’t dream of eating a banana without a brown spot anyway (yes, I’m waiting for those bananas to develop the brown spots, everyone rejecting them and me buying all of them!). Ripe bananas can be used to make banana bread or frozen for delicious nice cream!
- Grow fruits and vegetables yourself – even if you can only grow some herbs in your kitchen window, do that.
- Frozen fruits and vegetables are often very affordable and typically healthier than raw, since they’ve been picked around their actual peak ripeness and frozen immediately. That means less nutritional loss over time. An added bonus is, that they’re prepped and ready to use!
- If eating organic is important for you, but your budget doesn’t allow you to buy everything organic, look for the dirty dozen / clean fifteen list – some fruits and vegetables have more pesticide residue than others, so prioritize buying the ‘dirty dozen’ organic and go conventional on the rest.
- Peel/cut/spiralize fruits and vegetables yourself. Yes, it’ll take a few extra minutes, but it’s so much cheaper to do yourself!
- Use things you would’ve usually tossed for making delicious food. Use celery leaves for making celery leaf pesto (you can use carrot tops too). Use watermelon rind instead of cucumber in gazpacho, pickle it (turns crunchy and delicious and is basically the yummiest garnish for tacos!), make watermelon rind chutney, etc. Cut (organic) orange, lemon and lime peel Julienne and save in the freezer – it’ll add amazing flavor in your cooking and will be so easy to use. Save empty vanilla bean pods for making jams or apple sauce, there’s still so much vanilla flavor left in an empty pod! If you have a head of cauliflower with crispy nice looking green leaves attached use chose – chop them up and use them in a stir fry or bake them as chips! Saute beet greens like you would spinach. There’s so many things, that we usually throw away, that’s absolutely edible and delicious too! If you need inspiration for using ‘scrap parts’ in new ways, try Googling it – there’s so many good ideas out there!
- Save veggie scraps for making broth – it will add so much good flavor! This is how you make broth + a bit about the scrap bag practice.
- Know when and how to improvise ingredients in your everyday cooking. Unless you’re cooking for a special occasion (where you want everything to be absolutely perfect) a bit of improvisation in regards to your ingredients, can save you some dollars too. If a recipe calls for chives, but you have a bunch of scallions in the fridge, use those instead. If you want to make roasted cauliflower, but have some broccoli that needs to be used, use that instead. It’s all about identifying similar flavors and textures in your food.
Greek-style beef patties – an excellent choice for batch cooking (with often cheap ground beef) for easy freezer protein!
Save on meat
- Look for mark downs at the grocery store and cook the same day or freeze for later use!
- If possible (cost + storage) buy 1/8-1/2 an animal at a time from your local farmer. When buying, let’s say, 1/4 cow you’ll typically pay the same price per pound of meat no matter the cut. Ground beef will be 6 dollars a pound, but so will roasts and steaks! Typically being better quality meat too, it’ll save you so much money! Also, ask for the bones, the organs and the fat. Likely, nobody else is asking and you’ll probably get it cheap or maybe even for free!
- Save raw and cooked bones, carcasses, cartilage and skin for making broth – make a bone scrap bag and keep it in your freezer. Homemade broth is practically free this way! This is how you make broth.
- Eat nose to tail. That includes organ meats too! It’s so healthy and really delicious, if you prepare it right. I’ve written more about organ meats in this blog post where you’ll also find the recipe for chicken liver spaghetti sauce. Another easy ‘beginner dish’ (in regards to getting used to the taste) is chicken liver pâté.
- Use your slow cooker (or braise low ‘n’ slow on the stove top). Tougher cuts of meat, that take longer time to cook, are usually cheaper. Same goes with bone-in meat, it’s usually cheaper because it’s more inconvenient to cook and eat (but also more flavorful, so are you really loosing or are you indeed winning?).
- Eat less meat. Many people eating a ‘real food diet’ tend to eat unnecessary large amounts of meat. Up your veggie intake and cut down on our meat intake. Focus on better quality meat if possible, but even if it’s not within your budget, less meat is still a reasonable goal. Stretch/supplement meat with loads of vegetables and healthy fats. I’m not suggesting you should go meat-free or even add grains and pulses to your diet either, if you don’t eat those. But add the extra onion, throw in a couple of handfuls of grated carrots in your spaghetti sauce, etc. it’s healthier too!
- Buy frozen fish and sea food instead of fresh, often times you won’t be able to tell the difference anyway.
- Eggs. So good. So versatile. Usually quite a lot cheaper than other sources of animal protein (even when you buy the crème de la crème pastured ones).
Save on grains, pulses, nuts and spices
- Buy in bulk. It’s always cheaper than buying prepackaged food.
- Bake breads and crackers yourself. Use stale bread for making croutons. Most breads, if not all, freeze well too.
- Cook your own beans and lentils. Most dry beans need to soak for about 24 hours before being cooked for 1-2 hours, until tender. I like to batch cook things like chickpeas, kidney beans, etc. and freeze in portions. You know exactly the ingredients used and you bypass the potentially harmful chemicals from can packaging completely. Lentils typically don’t need to pre-soak before being cooked. Lentils freeze well too.
- Toast your own nuts and seeds. It’s really easy – this is how you do it.
- Make your own nut butters. You can make your favorite blends and you can add seasonings too (well hello maple-vanilla almond butter, pumpkin spice pecan butter, hazelnut sea salt spread, etc.).
- Make your own spice blends, it’ll cost you way less than store bought varieties. Try making this onion salt for an easy all round seasoning. But Sabine, won’t I have to spend 30$ to buy the spices to make the blend? Not if you buy bulk – or generally use spices in your cooking anyway and will need those spices for other dishes too. It’s more affordable, trust me.
Save on kitchen staples and condiments
Make your own kitchen staples and condiments – you can make ghee, broth, mayo, pesto, salad dressings, etc. with great savings compared to the cost of store bought varieties. An added bonus is, that you can adjust flavors to your exact liking too!
- Make your own ghee, you’ll be able to save $$$ on this one! It’s really easy to make too, this is how I do it.
- Make your own broth. When using bone and veggie scraps, it’s practically free! How to make chicken bone broth.
- Don’t buy things like mayo and salad dressings, it’s really easy and super affordable to make yourself. Look for recipes online or in cookbooks. My go to salad dressing for most basic salads is just mild-tasting extra virgin olive oil either lemon juice or white vinegar or apple cider vinegar and some good quality salt (maybe some black pepper and granulated garlic too, depending on the salad). Ratio for oil and acid is 1:2. This really simple salad dressing enhances the flavors of the vegetables without masking and overpowering them, which I generally appreciate. Other good salad dressings are my garlic tahini dressing and my peanut-free satay sauce (great for Asian style slaws!).
- Make your own pesto – I have 3 easy and dairy-free recipes for you: dairy-free pistachio pesto, roasted red pepper pesto and celery leaf pesto.
- Make your own salsa – try this chunky tomato salsa.
- Make your own dairy-free cheese sauce made with cashew nuts.
- I generally have a lot of recipes for homemade condiments, since they’re great to boost flavors and make eating homemade food more fun! Check the recipes out here.
…and I think that was about all I have on this topic for now!
I really hope you liked this article and that you’ve picked up some tips and useful ideas.
Did I forget anything? What’s your best tips for eating real food on a budget? Share the wealth (…pun absolutely intended) in the comments below!
Thank you so much for reading along!