How to Eat Great Food Without Breaking the Bank

Hola, amigos. How was your weekend? I have been super busy lately with traveling, working, and endless chores. It hasn’t all been work though – I have been trying to enjoy the last bit of summer before it’s but a distant memory. Because I have been so busy on the weekends lately, I haven’t made it to my favorite farmers market in a few weeks, which has left a great void in my soul. I’ve been a regular at the Tuesday evening Byrd House Market for the last month, but it just is not the same.

Brittany did a great post a little while ago about meal planning and grocery shopping and I have wanted to weigh in with my food shopping strategy ever since. As I am trying to ease back into my normal shopping routine, I thought now would be a great time to share how I turn my hard earned dollars into nutritious meals and snacks in la casa de veg:ology. I hope that you find these tips helpful in your own quest for real food on a budget.

Farmers Markets

My shopping journey each week starts at the farmers’ market. This is a great place to find fresh seasonal produce at the right price. There are many benefits to eating seasonal, including cost savings and better nutrition. I usually visit Victory Farms at the SOJ Market first, because I have my CSA there. Read more about my CSA here. I love going to the farmers’ market because I enjoy interacting with the people who grow my food. It is a great way to learn more about where your food comes from and the best ways to prepare it. People always complain about all-natural and organic produce being too expensive, and the farmers’ market is a great place to buy this food directly from the growers and avoid the markup applied by the local food grocery store. I have found that the prices are far better at the market than they are in town.


Planning and Prepping

On Saturday afternoons, I usually look at all the produce I have from the farmers’ market and start to plan meals. I also wash and dry all the produce that needs to be washed. Some things like berries should not be washed until you are ready to eat them, but I wash off most of the other things I bring home from the market.

It is important to make sure everything is thoroughly dried before storage, to reduce the risk of mold and bacteria growing on your fruits and vegetables. As the produce dries, I plan my meals based on the seasonal produce I have. I make grocery lists to avoid the overspending that usually results from aimless grocery store wandering. This book, Simply in Season, has been a fantastic resource for meal planning.

I try to plan for well balanced meals that incorporate adequate nutrition, especially considering protein since Kyle and I follow a vegetarian diet. Once you start to shop more for groceries, you realize how relatively expensive ingredients are. I choose recipes with shorter ingredient lists and try to avoid expensive items, like produce that is out of season or rare imported ingredients. It is also helpful to choose recipes that are somewhat similar so you can benefit from buying ingredients in bulk. For example, I may make stir-fry with brown rice one night, then use the leftover rice to make a brown rice pizza crust the next night.

I have been buying more and more organic ingredients, as much as I can afford, but not everyone can do that. They do tend to be more expensive and while the farmers’ market helps alleviate the cost, some items need to be store-bought and you can’t always afford to buy organic. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s dirty dozen and clean fifteen (TM) to help you plan and prioritize your organic and non-organic food purchases.

Store Shopping

The best advice I can give you for food shopping at the store is to shop around. Look up the weekly sales and shop around town to get the best price on the items you need. I know that some staples are cheaper at Trader Joe’s than anywhere else, so I make the trek out there once or twice a month to stock up. When canned certified organic beans go on sale at Kroger, I fill the bottom of my shopping cart.

I also pay attention to lower-cost substitutes. While we have beans on the brain, let’s consider cannelini (white kidney) beans. These are delicious beans that are sometimes more than twice the cost of most other beans. I do not know why they are so much more expensive, but I do know that great Northern beans make a great low-cost substitute. Green bell peppers are often half the cost of red bell peppers. And honestly, green bell peppers usually make a fine substitute for most recipes that call for red. Do not be so laser-focused on picking up the items on your list that you ignore the lower cost substitute on the same shelf or aisle.

If you are the type of person who lacks laser focus on sticking to the list and you always end up spending more than you intended to, try online grocery shopping. I occasionally use Relay Foods and it is really helpful when I am too busy to shop or when I am sick and can’t make it out to the store. Online grocery shopping reduces the amount of impulse shopping you may do in the brick and mortar store, and it allows you to shop around for better prices.

Cooking and Eating

Making things ahead of time really works to help you stick to your meal plan. Some nights I don’t want to wait 50 minutes for brown rice to cook, so I am tempted to call something in. Make your longer-cooking dinner components ahead of time (earlier in the week or the night before) to avoid the takeout temptation. Carry-out food is almost never as nutritious or economical as making your meals at home, so limit the frequency with which you eat your dinner out of a box. I try to only make exceptions for certain healthy things that I simply can’t make myself, like vegetarian sushi.

Another thing you can do to save money is make large batches and freeze leftovers for later. I always make ten servings of chili at a time. Having some frozen bowls of chili, soup, or curry in the freezer is especially handy on nights when you get home too late to cook or days that you want to bring a hearty lunch to work. Remember to exercise portion control and stop eating when you are full and you will find yourself with a lot more leftovers for healthy lunches and quick dinners.

I also try to go homemade on the items that are typical takeout traps for me. I’m not perfect at this, but my goal is to do this more often because it really saves money. I do the following things to keep me from shelling out dough on impulse food purchases:

  • Make morning coffee or tea at home, hot or iced overnight
  • Bring a water bottle with you everywhere
  • Pack snacks for work or errands and keep granola bars in your car
  • Make breakfast at home (Try my recipes for oatmeal breakfast cookies and overnight oats)
  • Bring your lunch to work – great excuse to splurge on a cute back-to-school lunch box!

Apple, er... Asian Pear for the Teacher?

I hope you find these tips and tricks helpful. Since my routine has been turned upside down for a few weeks, I have been craving normalcy. I also have not been feeling that great. I think it has a lot to do with later dinners, eating on the run, skipping the gym more than I would like to admit, and overdoing it a bit on the caffeine. I should be back on track with my normal meal planning and food shopping routine within a week, and I am looking forward to getting back into the swing of things. I’m also thinking of starting a food journal to better understand my relationship with food and its effect on my body.

Have you ever kept a food journal? What did you learn?

Do you have any tips on eating great food on a budget?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Have a great week!

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