Ten Ways to Eat Well on a Budget

One of the biggest challenges people face today is being able to afford to eat healthy. The opportunity to eat healthy food should be a human right, rather than a privilege, but unfortunately that isn’t the case for many families. Case in point, five bags of healthy groceries often cost the same as a cart full of processed foods.

In Canada, the average person spends around $8,100 on food each year, according to 2016 statistics. The country as a whole wastes $31 BILLION of food. This is partially due to perishable items not selling at the grocery store. However, 47% of that number happens in the home. If you divide it equally across the population, that means that each person is wasting between $600 and $700 worth of food each year. Unless your children go grocery shopping on a regular basis, it probably means that you’re wasting over $1000 of your hard earned money each year if you have a family.

Meanwhile, 850,000 Canadians use the food bank every month. Let that sink in for a moment.

While we can’t control what the grocery stores do-- though in some areas, people are working toward reducing grocery store waste-- we can control what we do. Here are ten solutions to help you eat well on a budget, while reducing waste.

Defining “Eating Well”

Before we dive into the different solutions, let’s take a moment to reflect on the term “eating well”. I use this term rather than the buzzwordy “eating clean” for two reasons. One, clean eating is subjective. If your goal is to eat clean foods as in “unprocessed” you should also be cutting out healthy options like shelled nuts and Greek yogurt. That doesn’t always make sense.

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Furthermore, the words “eat clean” makes it sound like every time you fail to reach this goal you’ve become dirty or undesirable. That’s not a healthy, balanced mindset when it comes to food. Eating minimally processed, healthy food throughout the week then enjoying a serving of chicken wings and a pint with your friends on the weekend doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you have a healthy social life and prioritize balance.

Now, onto the solutions.

Solution One: Eat Local, Seasonal Produce

There are many benefits to eating local, that can both directly and indirectly influence your budget.

First, consider the added costs of having food shipped in from away. Fuel, storage, and labour are all contributing factors to the price tag you see when you buy imported foods. While they do often have the benefit of bulk discounts when purchased by your local grocery store, those savings are often seen in the margins rather than on your receipt.

Purchasing locally sourced food also indirectly benefits your budget by boosting the local economy. Supporting the farmers that sustain us goes a long way toward supporting the community. Choosing to purchase at the local farmer’s market supports small business initiatives and keeps your dollars out of the big box stores.

Purchasing seasonal fruit and vegetables also has numerous benefits for your health and your budget. When you buy seasonal produce, your food is cultivated in your local climate, meaning you aren’t having it shipped in from elsewhere. There’s also a theory that purchasing from your local environment is better for you based on the fact that your body is adapted to it, but I have yet to find some solid research to back it up.

Finally, eating locally sourced food is better for the environment as it reduces the carbon footprint of getting the food from the farm to your table.

Solution Two: Don’t Discount Frozen

For a long time, people have viewed frozen produce as lesser than fresh. The truth is, frozen produce is equal to, if not better than, a lot of the fresh fruit and vegetables we consume. Modern freezing practices ensure that the product is frozen at peak freshness, maintaining the vital nutrients contained within.

There are a lot of factors that can impact the nutrient content of food; that’s why it’s important not to get too hung up on the labels (though reading them is still a valuable skill). The longer it takes for produce to get to its destination, the more nutrients it loses along the way, which is another compelling reason to buy local. In most cases, when you thaw frozen produce, it’s as nutritious as it was on the day it was picked.

Solution Three: Pick and Choose Organics

As much as we’d all love to eat organic food grown in the magic germ-free jelly bean fields all the time, it’s not a reasonable ask for many families. Organic produce comes at a premium rate, paying homage to the idea that eating well is a privilege. For those who struggle with a budget, the best option is to pick and choose organics based on the Dirty Dozen.

The Dirty Dozen is a list of produce that tends to have higher pesticide use than others, not a group of Western movie bandits as the name would imply. The Dirty Dozen includes:

        1. Strawberries

        2. Apples

        3. Nectarines

        4. Peaches

        5. Celery

        6. Grapes

        7. Cherries

        8. Spinach

        9. Tomatoes

        10. Bell Peppers

        11. Cherry Tomatoes

        12. Cucumbers

Whether you buy organic or not, you can reduce contact with pesticides by thoroughly washing your produce with a vinegar solution.

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Solution Four: Know the Stores and Sale Schedules

While a lot of the solutions so far focus on produce, meat products are often another costly consideration when trying to eat well on a budget. That’s why many protein-seekers opt for meat-free protein sources, such as eggs, lentils, tofu, and legumes. Consider adding a meat-free day to your meal prep as a bonus solution.

Take time to look at the stores in your area and become familiar with their sales and flyer schedules. There are some stores that offer student discounts on specific days of the week or have deep discounts before the next promotion starts. Additionally, some stores take a low-volume, high-price approach to making money while others take a high-volume, low-price approach.

Solution Five: Take Advantage of “Enjoy Today”

“Enjoy Today” sales are discounts given on products that are reaching their best before date and have yet to sell. They’re also a great way to save a few dollars on a healthy meal. It’s important to note that best before dates don’t mean that the food magically goes bad when the clock strikes midnight; you could purchase something to cook for lunch the next day.

“Enjoy Today” sales often take place earlier in the week, away from peak shopping hours. It’s hard to find these sales on a weekend, as the inventory of most stores is often refreshed to deal with the predicted influx of customers.

Solution Six: Find the Meal Prep that Works for You

The problem most people have with meal prep is that they think it has to be done in bulk, with elaborate meals planned out. That doesn’t always work well for everyone.

If you live close to the store, it might be easier to head to the shop a couple times a week on the way home from work rather than loading the kids up on the weekend. This approach can help reduce food wastage as well. Alternatively, you might be able to get into a routine of setting time aside every Sunday morning to cook in bulk while listening to Spotify and dancing around your kitchen. The point? Do what works for you.

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Solution Seven: Consider a Meal Prep Service

Meal prep services are a dime a dozen these days, which means that there is likely a meal prep service that’s perfect for you. Services like HelloFresh, Plated and Blue Apron are all readily available to plan healthy family meals at home. These services take away the time associated with meal planning, shopping, and food preparation. Alternatively, individual services are great for those who have health and fitness goals but struggle with healthy meal prep.

It’s important to note that with a meal prep service, you are paying more for convenience. It’s up to you to determine if the extra you’re paying is worth the opportunity cost of your time and the food that ends up thrown out when you lose motivation to cook and order pizza instead.

Solution Eight: Know When to Bulk vs. When to Not

You’ve probably heard the jokes about shopping at Costco and ending up leaving with too much stuff and a lot less money than you walked into the store with. Believe it or not, bulk isn’t always better. Sure, you might save a lot of money per piece when you buy 15 limes, but unless you’re making margaritas, are you sure you’ll use them all before they go bad. (If you are making margaritas, call me).

Buying in bulk is a great deal if the savings are there and the product you’re buying will get used quickly or can be preserved. Note the usual price of items though; sometimes BOGO items are marked up before they’re offered for half-off. Just be sure you’re actually getting a deal.

Solution Nine: Buy Off-Brand

Take it from someone who has worked in food innovation: a lot of the off-brand products you buy come from the same place (and even the same production lot) as premium brands. The difference often comes down to packaging and presentation.

If you’re buying a lot of minimally processed food (the healthiest of options) then this isn’t as much of a concern. If, however, you’re looking to stock up on rice and grains or other dry goods, go for the off-brand.

Solution Ten: Keep it Simple!

Finally, keep it simple. It’s time to break up with Pinterest and get back to basics when it comes to planning meals. Think protein, vegetable, smart carb when considering dinner. Think of meals that have five ingredients or less. Throw together a salad for yourself and cut up veggie sticks for the kids. The easier you make it on yourself to eat healthy, the more affordable and consistent it will be in the long run.

If you have any tips or suggestions that have worked for you, add them in the comments.

eat well on a budget