Sunday, March 28, 2010

Eating Well on a Budget

It can be more expensive to make healthy food choices. It can take more time to serve “slow food” instead of “fast food” which is often packaged for convenience. I don’t have a lot of extra money or time, so I have learned several tips and tricks for eating well on a family-friendly budget and schedule.

First of all, create your own Price Book. This is simply a list of what you buy over the course of a month and what you pay for each thing. I usually track it as price per pound or per serving. That way I can compare easily. When I initially did this, I learned that most of my budget was spent on meat and milk. We used to consume way too much milk - rice and cow's. When I saw that, I started cutting back and now it is only used as a condiment, not a drink. Also, since we eat a lot of meat, I decided it was important to set a price point for meat and make it my goal to never pay more than that. I buy all my meat at BJ's where the price is consistent and I can get antibiotic and hormone free chicken, pork and beef for $3-$4 per pound. I don't ever spend more than $3.33/lb for chicken, $3/lb for pork and $4/lb for beef.

When you notice how much your most common grocery items cost at different stores and when they're on sale you can set a price goal and decide you will only buy mayonnaise when it is BOGO or you will only buy your kids' favorite granola bars when they are on sale for $1.99/box instead of regular price of $3.99. That means when these staples are on sale, you need to stock up so that you will have enough to last you until the next sale. I suggest you have a shelf or cabinet where the kids can't reach to keep your extra stock so that it won't get eaten all in one week. In my house, I have to only supply a certain amount of juice or snack foods like chips and crackers per week - whatever the budget for that week can afford. Hide the rest and bring it out next week. Otherwise, they will blow through way too much at once!

Here are a few other tips

• Know your stuff – certain fruits and veggies soak up the pesticides more than others. If you can only buy some things organic, look here to see which ones it’s most important to buy organic. Quick tip: get your apples organic, they are second on the list of all produce with the heaviest pesticide load!

• Join a CSA and you can get weekly shares of organic, local produce at a fair price. You can look for one in your area and also look for local grass fed beef suppliers at Of course, you can also go to a farmer's market in your area to get fresh produce. Usually there are some organic farmers there.

• If you live near a Trader Joe’s, they carry some organic produce at more reasonable prices. Know what a good price is for organic produce and don't buy it unless you find it at that price. Many times, frozen organic produce is cheaper.

• It’s hard to find candy without artificial junk in it. Whenever I see something ‘clean’ at a good price I stock up. Hard candy will keep a long time and chocolates can be frozen. Check out my recipe box for yummy homemade candy recipes that will cost a fraction of the store-bought stuff. I often will make candy for holidays instead of buying the expensive stuff.

• Get a food processor. It will save you money if you plan to eat healthy in the long run because ‘made from scratch’ is usually healthier and a food processor makes scratch-cooking much, much easier!

• Healthy food is rarely affordable when it is individually packaged. It saves a lot of money to make your own or buy it in a bigger package and ‘package it down’ yourself. For example, apple or pear sauce will cost a lot more in those cute little cups than it does in a big jar. Buy the big jar of sauce (or a can of pears packed in pear juice and puree them in your processor) and divide it into a bunch of 3 oz cups yourself.

• Buy a good quality thermos for each family member. Get stainless steel, not aluminum or plastic because those materials may leach into the drink. I got mine recently for $12.99 each. Now I can fill them at anytime with water, lemonade or juice. No more juice boxes (except for special occasions).

• Cook and puree a bunch of organic fruits/veggies for your baby or toddler. Freeze them in ice cube trays, pop them out and keep them in a bag in the freezer. At each meal, take out a couple of blocks of food and thaw. Each block is about 1 oz.

• Organic dairy products are expensive. If your kids love yogurt, buy the largest container available (will be best value) even if it’s plain flavored. Then, sweeten it with vanilla simple syrup, honey or pureed fruit. Divide it into 1 oz containers for school lunches or individual servings. YUM!

• When you see a good deal on cheese (I look for $4/lb or less) STOCK UP. You can freeze blocks of cheese and you’ll be eating cheese for a good price for a long time. I also shred this cheese in my food processor. It tastes much better than the pre-shredded type and you're not eating the preservatives that are often in the pre-shredded cheese.

• Get a breadmaker. If buying healthy bread is breaking your bank, try making your own. I had no idea how easy a breadmaker was! Often you can tell friends and family you’re looking for one and find one to borrow that has been sitting in someone’s garage for a long time (thanks, Marti!). How easy is it? Dump in wet ingredients, dump in the dry ones and push the start button!! It mixes, kneads it, rises it and cooks it! Wow! I make gluten free bread this way too and pizza dough.

• Let them drink water! When money is very short I let the kids have one cup of juice per day, one cup of milk per day and the rest water. I always offer water first. We fill a jug from a filter on our kitchen sink and keep it in the fridge at all times. Somehow, cold water tastes a lot better.

• Plan 3 meals a day and snacks. You can be flexible, but if you plan them for the week or month, you’ll know you have enough and won’t shop haphazardly.

• As explained above, stock up on sale items that you buy regularly anyway. Publix is great at having Buy One Get One (BOGO) deals. Whenever my regular brand of mayo, peanut butter, butter, oatmeal, chips, pasta, juice (I buy it in cans, so it’s shelf stable) is BOGO I really stock up. I try to get enough so it lasts until the product is BOGO again. That way I always get those staples half price. It kills me to buy those things at full price. Even better is when you have a coupon for a BOGO item – and you can use as many coupons as you are buying items. Recently, I got my favorite organic break n bake cookies on a BOGO sale and had 6 coupons for $1 off 2. That was a GREAT DEAL! I got them for half price and .50 extra off each package! Check out Zombie Mommy's blog for moneysaving ideas too - she's the guru and has links to other money saving sites too!

• Unless I hit a big sale, I try not to buy many store bought cookies. It’s cheaper to make them at home. You can make cookie batter, scoop it on wax paper-lined cookie sheet and pop it in your freezer. Once frozen, dump the frozen lumps of dough in a Ziploc bag and you have homemade ‘break n bake” cookies ready to thaw and bake when you need them fresh.

• Make lunch, don’t buy it out! This saves so much money. Try making a wrap for you or hubby to take to work. It is versatile and portable. You can put something different in it everyday. It can be a grilled chicken & ranch wrap one day and a chicken burrito the next. Take leftovers, make a cold pasta salad with last night’s dinner. Get creative or you will likely burn out on taking your lunch. Everyone needs some variety!

• Make breakfast at home for you or hubby to take to work. A breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, cheese and salsa is good on-the-go. For variety, try baked oatmeal. It can be made once for the week and cut into slices to take in the car as needed. Banana bread made from your old bananas is a great, quick breakfast-on-the-go too.

• Real Maple Syrup is a budget buster and the artificial maple flavoring is made from petroleum! If your kids like waffles with peanut butter for breakfast as much as mine, you might want to try making some simple syrup and keeping it in the maple syrup bottle. Just boil 1 cup water, 1 cup brown sugar and 1 cup white sugar until the sugar is dissolved.

• Try making your own chocolate syrup for ice cream, salad dressings, salsa etc. These things can be made in big batches, can save you money and will most certainly be healthier for you!

• And lastly, learn to make your own broths for cooking. The powdered broth is not usually very good for you. It probably has hidden corn syrup and MSG (they have many, many names). The store-bought organic broths are pricey. So, whenever I cook a whole chicken, I save the bones and make some homemade broth (it's really easy). I let it cool, then pour it into ice cube trays and freeze it. Then, I pop out the cubes of broth and keep them in a ziploc bag in the freezer. So, when I'm cooking and need some broth to add to the recipe I either thaw it and add it or just plop the cubes in the skillet and let them melt right there. It really works great.

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