I became frustrated when googling “Eating on a Budget” and finding blog posts from clearly wealthy people who call having $400 per month per couple for food a “small budget.” I’m here to give you some tips for eating smart on an actual budget… ya know, for poor people like me who have roughly around $250/month to spend on food for two people. While I can’t give you an actual grocery list, since everyone eats something different, I can give you some helpful tips that will stretch your small budget.
Before You Shop
Meal Plan. This is essential for making your money count. Sit down with whoever you will be feeding that month and decide then and there what you want to eat. I keep a Pinterest board of things I can actually make (not things I wish I could make if I were a French chef), and refer to this as I meal plan.
Figure out 3 – 4 breakfast meals, 3 – 4 lunch options, 4 – 5 dinners, and 1 – 2 desserts per month that you can cycle through. Also include 1 – 2 “quick” options for when no one feels like cooking and ordering Chinese food becomes all too tempting. Take a look at what you already have and what you can make with it. Look for recipes that don’t have one odd ingredient that costs $8 and you know you will never use again. Get creative when it comes to finding functional meals. For example, if you have a spaghetti night, you can use leftover noodles to make a casserole. If you have rice and chicken, you can make the leftovers into a soup. Take this knowledge, make a list, and stick to it!
Simplify. If you blend or juice, pick 2 – 3 fruits and veggies you enjoy instead of 5. Veggies and fruits are all good for you, and you don’t have to buy the expensive, obscure ones to get in all your vitamins. Carrot apple juice is incredibly healthful, and a spinach orange smoothie is delicious and nutritious. Leave the acai berries for when your wallet is a bit fatter.
Alternate your pricey items so you are only buying one or two a month. Meat is expensive, so one month we will stock up on beef, and the next month we buy our bulk chicken. This will help you stretch your money further and you won’t be out $50 for two items in one month. This is also where planning comes in. Knowing roughly how and when you will use your expensive items will help you stagger your purchases.
DIY. Find out what’s cheaper to make yourself. Making meals at home can save you money, and you get to control what goes into them. Take tortillas for example. They are super simple to make and are cheaper than buying a package. It is laughable how much the price of Kombucha is marked up, and chicken stock can be made at home for cheaper and much healthier than the boxed or canned. Take a look at what you normally eat, check out the ingredients, and decide from there.
Eat before you shop. I know, it’s something we’ve all heard before, but it is so very important. You may “need” that $4 bag of half-air-half-Doritos when you’re in the store, but in reality it’s not a smart way to spend your money. Eat before you go, so you can better resist impulse shopping. Remember, stick to the list!
At the Store
Get what you want. The golden rule of making your money last is not wasting food. So if you don’t like broccoli, don’t buy it, even if it’s on sale. Only buy the foods and quantity you know you will consume.
Shop around. Safeway might be the closest store but where I live, Fred Meyer typically has better prices on fresh produce (especially organic). Costco’s bulk will save you tons if you buy only what you will consume (unless you have a family of 4, that gallon of hummus will most likely go moldy on you). Grocery outlets are like a bargain treasure hunt but can be iffy on fresh produce. Also, if one of your friends or neighbors has backyard chickens, see if you can barter for some eggs (a lot of times they will have so many, they will just give them to you!)
Make a list of what to buy where. For example:
Grocery Outlet: I go here first and get whatever they’ve got that I need
Fred Meyer: greens and ice cream
Costco: chips, honey, rice, and apples
Safeway: milk and yogurt
Buy in bulk if you know you will consume it. We buy our meat, bread, rice, honey, carrots, apples, and lemons in bulk. We freeze the meat and bread, and juice the produce, so nothing goes to waste. I buy my tea online because I can get good quality, organic tea for a fraction of the cost of store bought boxed tea.
The trick to buying bulk is to know what you will use before it goes bad, and what you will not. If you aren’t sure you can get through 5 pounds of spinach before it gets slimy, then you should opt for buying a smaller portion, as long as you’re not paying more for less. Which leads me to my next tip:
Look at the price per unit, over the actual price. More often than not, buying the bigger container will save you a few cents, as can buying the off brand. Don’t be fooled by the convenience of pre-measured servings such as oatmeal packets. The extra packaging goes into your cost, and you will generally pay more and get less.
Organic vs. Non organic
In a perfect world, everything we buy would be organic. However, when money is tight we have to rethink a few things, and that is where the “Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen” comes into play. Learn what produce tends to have the largest amounts of pesticides and buy those organic if you can. Be sure to wash your produce, organic or not, well before consuming (especially Kale! Those tiny bugs love to hide in it!) but not before you store. It might be easier to wash everything at once, but that minimizes the shelf date.
Resist the urge to sacrifice your health to save money. While yes, we need to be smart about our budget, buying a case of ramen noodles for a buck isn’t doing your body any favors. Even though we’re poor, we can still be healthy. Instead of that cup o’ noodles, buy organic, whole wheat pasta and make some chicken broth at home from the bones of a whole chicken. Your body will be filled with nutrients and your wallet won’t be hurting. Buying pre-packaged meals may seem thrifty, but you will pay for it in the end with worsening health and more frequent ailments. Always buy with your health in mind.
In the Kitchen
Be OK with leftovers. If you’ve been acquainted with a slim bank account for a while, this should be a no brainer. However, if you’re new to living below the poverty line this may take some getting used to. Rest assured, most people eat leftovers and most of the time you can make them taste just as good if you store and reheat properly. Tossing everything into the microwave won’t cut it (plus it kills the nutrition). Get to know your stove and toaster oven.
Freeze. Tons of things can be frozen. If fruit is going bad, cut it up and freeze it for smoothies. Butter and milk can both be frozen, as can bread and meat if you buy in bulk. Just be sure to properly seal everything to keep that protective coating of freezer burn off your precious investments.
Make another list. This one goes on the fridge and contains all the foods that need to be eaten that week. This includes leftovers, riper fruits and veggies, etc. That way if something gets pushed to the back of the fridge, or anonymously wrapped in aluminum, it doesn’t get forgotten and wasted.
If you take a few minutes to plan every week, you will see (and taste) the results. Happy shopping!