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How to Eat Well on a Budget

Greens and veggies at an organic supermarket

Credit: Yvon

You’re eco-friendly.  You take public transportation or ride a bike when possible. You are conscious of the amount of water, plastic and electricity you consume. You dream about local, organic food.

Because, let’s face it, you are on a budget and eating well is one of the few eco-friendly things that costs more than eating junk. So what to do? Do you continue to dream about it or is there some way you can make better choices on your tight budget?

Having wrestled with this very question for the last few years (why, oh why, does working at a non-profit not pay millions of dollars??), I have a few tips and tricks you can try.

  1. Eat whole foods. No, this doesn’t mean shopping at Whole Foods! It means buying whole ingredients and making things from scratch.  Read those ingredient labels! Is the list so long you got bored? Probably not a great choice.  It’s easy to buy oats, toast them yourself, and make your very own granola! And it comes with a feeling of accomplishment.  Even things like pasta are quick and easy and not junk.
  2. Meal plan. A friend told me to do this when I moved in with my fiance (because who needs a plan when it’s just you!).  We plan out what we will have for dinner each day, and then only buy those ingredients. We’re not stuffing our cart full of things we might make, fancy herbs and additions that will most likely just sit in our fridge until they rot.  It’s planned.  Because we stick to this plan, we end up saving money and can afford to buy that organic tomato sauce for the yummy spaghetti.
  3. Pick what is most important to you, and make room for that in your budget. Do you care about GMO plants? Or is animal welfare most important to you? Does local outweigh what is shipped in from California? Pick the aspect of food politics that is the most important – the one thing that is the absolute last straw – and buy that organic, or local, or whatever. I have a really hard time deciding on this, and so it rotates in my house.  One month, I’ll insist we go to the farmer’s market every week, the next we’ll only eat organic, free range, grass fed meat from local farms (which is waaaay outside our budget so we really end up eating vegetarian when this happens…).  But it helps to know what my purpose is going into the store.  If I know that I only want to buy organic veggies, I’ll carefully plan out what veggies I’ll need so it fits into our budget.
  4. Treat yourself. If you’ve decided that really good meat is out of your budget, it’s ok to splurge every once in a while and buy the really good stuff.  It reminds you of what it could taste like, and will remind you that it really does matter.  Just don’t get depressed when you have to go back to ‘regular’ food.
  5. Grow your own garden. One cheap way to grow good veggies is to grow them yourself! Great if you have lots of room, or access to a community garden plot.  Even if you don’t, it’s easy to grow things like beans, tomatoes, garlic, and onions in containers on your balcony.  Do some research and find out what grows best in your situation.  Seeds are usually pretty cheap, and you can have complete control over how they are grown. (Even better budget solution? Find a good friend who has a garden and become even better friends with them!)
  6. Find friends to do this with you. Food is about community. End. Of. Story. Why should eating well be any different? You can find new recipes together, check out local farmer’s markets, and encourage each other to research and find cheaper solutions.  And, of course, eat yummy foods together.
  7. Remember that it’s ok to not be the perfect environmentalist. You don’t have to do all the things ‘right.’ It’s ok to not do things because of budget, or because of other circumstances.  You aren’t not helping anyone by getting down on yourself about it!

These are just the things that I’ve found have helped me to aim to eat good food on a small budget.  It’s not easy, and a lot of time I still end up shoving chemicals down my throat (pudding is amazing. I don’t care if it’s all fake ingredients.) but I try.  I do my best. And I remember that even the little effort that I am doing, can make a difference.  It’s fun to try new things, and explore new options.  I love it.

What are your tips for eating well on a budget?



One thought on “How to Eat Well on a Budget

  1. Loooooove this post, Lisa! Great ideas to help you stick to a budget when eating healthy. My tip for eating healthy on a budget that’s much like your #6 tip: I split a CSA share with my co-workers this summer – and now I have 20 weeks of delicious, local, organic fruits and veggies all for a reasonable price! I’m supporting local businesses while trying out delicious new vegs – it’s a win-win!

    Posted by a_a | July 2, 2013, 9:50 am

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