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Healthy Eating on a Budget (No Coupons Necessary!)

Posted Feb 24 2010 7:25pm

In college I had a coworker tell me she fed her family of 5 for less than a dollar a day. My first reaction was to be impressed because I as a single girl couldn't feed myself for a dollar a day much less anyone else. But then I remembered that this was the same woman who believed me when I told her at the company Christmas party that I had made the sugar cookies with the Santa face in the middle by painstakingly tinting three different colors of dough, shaping Santa Claus by hand and then rolling it all up into a log before cutting and cooking them. Yeah, they were totally those Pillsbury cookie rolls (that always remind me of the packages of liverwurst my dad used to eat on crackers) that the lazy among us use when we don't feel like cooking. So her judgement might have been a bit spotty when it comes to food, is what I'm saying. Sure enough my suspicions were confirmed when she invited me over for dinner. It turns out you can eat for less than a dollar a day - no telethon needed! - if all you eat is 25 cent mac-n-cheese and 8-for-a-dollar "hot dogs."

It has long been stated as fact by hand-wringing politicians that part of the very real toll on poor people's health is their lack of access to affordable healthy food. While I don't wish to minimize the plight of the poor, there are ways to eat cheaply while not getting rickets. I do not claim to be an expert at budgeting, cooking or, well anything really, and yet when I got this e-mail from Reader Brittney I got all giddy
I know in the past you have mentioned having a grocery budget and your home baking (bread, etc) to help keep costs down. Would you mind sharing more of your cost saving tips with me? I searched your blog (maybe I missed it if you did a past post please let me know) but couldn't find one about that topic.
Brittney, girl, you are not alone. Who among us hasn't needed to do some belt tightening these days? Thanks to my good friend and money mentor Shellie, grocery budgeting has recently become my passion. See, Shellie manages to feed her family of 6 on a budget of 3-4$ per person/day and still stays true to her priority of feeding her kids organic fruits and veggies, whole grains and organic dairy. Here are a few tips I have picked up from her
1. Make a month's menu in advance. It's really not as daunting as it sounds, especially when you consider that you eat the same 15 or so meals over and over again. Make a calendar and write down your dinner for that day. I like to add in some fun by making theme days like Fish Friday and Mexican Monday (we're not Catholic or Mexican but I can't resist a good alliteration!). I also have a crockpot day, a soup night and a vegetarian night where I shamelessly try to wean my family off their dependence on dead animals. Plus the kids each get to pick a meal each week that they choose, prep and help me cook.

2. From your menu, come up with a master grocery list and do ALL your shopping for the month in one ginormous trip. You can buy all your non-perishables for the month in one fell swoop and then just have a short list of 5 or 6 perishable items like produce and milk that you buy each week. At the beginning of each month I hit the super-discount food store Aldi first. Then I buy whatever I can't find there at Costco and Target. It's a lot of work but I leave the kids with my husband, buy myself a smoothie and call it a mini vacay.

These two steps alone have helped me slash (so violent!) my spending by HALF. It's amazing what having a list and sticking to it will do for your budget. Some people prefer to plan out two weeks in advance rather than a whole month and I say do whatever works best for you but keep in mind that every time you enter a store, you are going to see things you want to buy so just minimize the number of times you have to go in each store. (i.e. If I had to go into Costco every 2 weeks instead of once a month, I'd have to leave one of our children in hoc to pay the bill. Yeah, I love Costco that much.)

3. Cook more. So many things - but not everything! - are cheaper to make than to buy. While I totally suck at cooking, I do actually kind of enjoy it so it doesn't feel like a burden to me to cook a lot. Out of the 21 meals we eat every week, I cook (and clean up, SIGH) 20 of them. My good friend Beth rescued a used bread maker for me and I use that thing almost daily. I also make our breakfast foods in big batches so I can freeze them and reheat them for quicker mornings. (Apparently I'm obsessed with themes and alliteration because our breakfasts are: Monday muffins, Tuesday Toast & eggs, Wednesday waffles, Thursday (French) Toast, Friday Free-for-all meaning oatmeal, chicken sausage, soy patty "mcmuffins" or whatever. Saturday is the only day the kids get to eat cereal and then I make them mix the sugary stuff half and half with a healthier variety. Sundays are protein Smoothies.) I also make my own yogurt in the crockpot (not that I can eat it any more). Make the crock pot your new best friend. Home cooked meals don't have to be elaborate to be healthy and tasty!

4. Don't be afraid of discount stores. One of you commented on my post about food snobbery that you buy fresh produce at the dollar store. While my dollar store doesn't sell produce, they do have nuts, beans (canned & dry), canned fruits and veggies that are usually a good deal - not to mention the large array of cheap costume jewelry that I simply cannot resist. (Do the math though because sometimes the dollar store rips you off in container sizes.) Farmer's markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes - for those of you who live in an area where food can actually be grown (i.e. not Minnesota in the winter) - can be a gold mine of fresh*, local produce. Check out Asian and Hispanic markets in your area as well as specialty items are often much cheaper there. Plus you can call it a cultural experience and practice your "Donde esta el servicio?" skills!

5. Once the money's gone, it's gone. This is the hardest step. I spend over half my budget during that one massive shopping trip at the beginning of the month and if I haven't planned well and the money runs out before the next paycheck then I just don't buy anything else. It's tempting to whip out the ol' credit card but then you just start the next month in a hole. You'll be surprised what you have left in your fridge and cabinets! You may have to get creative but you probably won't starve.

You may have noticed one thing not on my list: coupons. There are lots of you out there who are much better homemakers than I am (probably all of you actually, you should see the state of my kitchen right now - you'd think we live in the Roadhouse Cafe what with all the pistachio shells littering the floor) and who have figured out the whole coupon thing. Whole websites exist dedicated to the art and science of couponing whereby you get free stuff - and sometimes even get them to pay you! - by combining store sales with coupons. Gym Buddy Allison is the Zen Master at couponing and I'm constantly amazed by what all she manages to get but for myself, I haven't figured out a way to do it in a time effective manner. I simply have too many kids to drag them into 6 different stores every week. So while I applaud those of you that do, I don't coupon. My point: You don't need to be a master cook or a coupon expert or a dumpster diver to eat very well for very cheaply.

This method works for me. It's not for everyone - there are many different ways to stretch a penny! Let me know your best healthy eating on a budget tip! Do you make your own pasta? Share a CSA box with a neighbor? Grow a garden? Ferment your own vanilla in a bottle of vodka hidden in the back of your closet?

Note: This tip courtesy of supermodel Angie Everhardt will save you money and help you lose weight but I wouldn't call it healthy. Turns out she lost all her baby weight by "going 3 or 4 days without eating." Nice.

*Thanks to all of you who pointed out in the comments of my Food Snobbery post that the purpose of eating organic foods is not just their possible health benefits but that it is better for the environment and is more sustainable in the long run. You are, of course, exactly right and I regret my overly narrow focus.
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