5 Ways to Afford Real Food on a Meager Budget

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The question I receive most often is “how do you afford real food on a meager (small, tight, limited, paltry, minuscule, tiny, wee, etc) budget?”


I’m happy to share what we’ve found to be helpful in our quest for real food. Please keep in mind, what I share is what has worked for us. For a variety of reasons, “Your Mileage May Vary” (YMMV).

Food prices where you live are probably not identical to where I live.

I may have items abundant to me, you don’t have. And vice-versa.

Your family may need to follow a very specific style of eating due to food allergies, illness or other factors.

You may live in a location where it is near impossible to find fresh, nutrient dense foods.

You may have transportation issues which makes picking up food difficult.

Or any of a number of other reasons that won’t allow you to duplicate our results.

Slow Changes

When we decided to change our diet to a real/whole/traditional style of eating, based on the findings of Dr. Weston Price, we made a conscious decision to change things slowly, one step at a time (previously, I went through Dr. Price’s book chapter by chapter and shared my thoughts. The series is here).

We made slow changes for two main reasons. First, we could not afford to increase our food budget (not one dollar). Second the entire idea of making this change was overwhelming!

By making a slow transition we could start with one step at a time, become comfortable with that new food and/or learn that new skill before moving on. We also were able to start with lower cost changes which could make a big impact.

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As we learned more and changed more we found that our budget was freed up in many ways. NOTE: We did not have any food allergies or illness that required us to change our diet. If you do, you will need to make choices based on your situation.  Sally Fallon (author of Nourishing Traditions) said “the sicker you are the faster you need to make changes.”  Or something like that.

Now that is out of the way, here’s my top 5 suggestions to afford real food on a budget.  Keep in mind, YMMV.

Plan

Before we decided to make any purchases of our new foods we made a plan. We set small goals.

Our goals for the first several weeks were very small.

  • Replace a few things we purchased with higher quality items.
  • Eliminated a couple of non-nutritious items.
  • Eat one ‘real food’ meal the first week, two the second week, and three the third week.

We held at three real food meals the fourth week. Then we reevaluated our plan.

To make sure our new real food meals happened, I menu planned.

Our shopping list was made after the menu plan and shopping our pantry first. We would make sure to leave a little lead way in the budget in case we came across an excellent deal and needed to stock up. We follow the Dave Ramsey financial concepts and use the envelope system. Each week, we have a specific amount of cash in the envelope. When the envelope is empty, the grocery shopping is done for the week.

Made from Scratch

Swap

The very first thing we did was super easy, and only a minor cost increase. When we ran out of margarine we purchased butter.  Just plain butter. Recently there was a funny photo going around on Facebook. It was a picture of a famous chef and said something like “If you can’t afford to buy butter infused with the tears of virgins... Store bought is fine.”

So that is what we bought plain butter. Was it the best? No, but for sure better than margarine.  At that time the price difference between butter and margarine was around $1.50 per pound (I believe it is probably a $2.50 + difference now). We were able to accommodate for that difference by planning the menu and making the shopping list.

Honestly, the $1.50 came out pretty easy.  While we had been on a small budget we would still usually buy ‘something special’ each shopping trip. Maybe a six-pack of soda, bag of chips or box of cookies.  We bought butter instead. Why did we buy butter? Read more here.

5 Ways to Afford Real Food on a Meager Budget

The second swap was one ‘real food’ meal for the week.  At the time, my standards for what qualified as real food were not super high. The meal had to be made from ingredients that were as close to their original state as possible. No cans, no boxes. We didn’t require the meat to be pastured or anything organic. Basically it was a ‘from scratch’ meal.

We continued to make small swaps.  One of our swaps was buying whole milk instead of 2% milk.  We would have loved to by milk that was raw, unpasteurized, from grass-fed cows but at that time we were not ready to make that switch and we couldn’t stretch the budget. We had to make several other changes to find room in the budget. And we were temporarily living in a location that milk raw milk was sold in markets but was very expensive (if I remember correctly it was $8 per half gallon).

Consider Cream Instead of Milk

If we had it to do over again, I think instead of buying whole milk we would have chosen to purchase cream instead.

Cream that is not ultra-pasteurized seems to be a ‘less processed’ product since it does not undergo homogenization. Cream can be diluted with water to make it a suitable replacement for milk in baking.  But there is something enjoyable about a cold glass of milk.

We also stopped buying those little sweet containers of yogurt and bought large full fat plain yogurts. And wouldn’t you know, it was cheaper than the little things.

The first month our changes were very small.  Many people might even look at the changes and say they were not worth the effort. After all, we were compromising by not buying virgin tear laced butter, all organics, and raw dairy.

I disagree, our changes were exactly what we needed. They worked for our budget. And, even better, by making slow changes my head didn’t spin off from being overwhelmed.

Butterscotch Rice

Reevaluate

When we reached week 4,  our time to reevaluate how things were going, we were pleased!

We also knew we wanted to step it up. One nice benefit of our very slow transition was that our children didn’t even realize we were changing things. This actually continued for a very long time.

We did realize that we needed to take a hard look at the foods we were eating and see what changes we could make that would help stretch our budget and enable us to reach our goals.

During our first month of Slow Change, I tried to learn as much as I could about nourishing, traditional diets. I shared what I gleaned (in edited versions) with my husband.  Something that I was struck by was one of the most nourishing things we could add into our diet was also one of the least expensive.

Bone broth

This video/article from the Weston A. Price Foundation was not yet made when I started my education. There  was other information sharing how homemade bone broth/stock could help stretch our tight food budget. This quote from WAPF sums it up perfectly.

“During time of frugality, homemade stock helps keep the food budget in check by allowing health to be maintained with only small amounts of meat in the diet. This is due to large amounts of 2 amino acids in the broth which act together as a protein sparer, allowing more efficient utilization of the complete meat proteins that are eaten once or twice a week.”

Going ‘meatless’ is a well known way to stretch the food budget. However, in order to have the most nourishing and nutrient dense diet we need to include (high quality) animal products in our diet.

Dr. Weston A. Price did not find one completely vegetarian society in his travels. He did find that different societies consumed various amounts of meat or protein based on location.

By adding nutrient dense, mineral rich, protein sparing, and inexpensive bone broth into our meal plans we could reduce our meat without sacrificing health.

This realization was huge for us!

Bone broth is one of the most inexpensive items you can have in your diet. In fact, it’s so inexpensive it can be made out of items that would normally be tossed in the trash can! It can be as simple as; the carcass from a chicken (after all of the meat has been picked off), vegetable scraps (if desired),  a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar (to help draw out the nutrients) and water.

Tip: Look for stewing hens. Many people who raise chickens for eggs will cull their hens every few years. These are often sold for less than birds raised for meat. Cook them low and slow, using the meat for stews, tacos, casserole, etc. Then use the bones for broth. You can also look for culled milk cows (from a grass-focused farmer, not a commercial dairy). I’ve had excellent results finding bones from people who are culling!

I even make this inexpensive dish even cheaper by reusing the bones up to three times! You can read about my bone broth method here.

Reality

The reality of less meat was a little harder for my meat loving husband.  His challenge to me was to make the meals taste wonderful so he didn’t miss the meat.

Challenge accepted. While I knew how to cook (thank you mama!), as a career oriented adult I had chosen not to cook for several years.  Before our real food transition I had been ‘cooking’ again for a year (after having left the ‘career’ and having absolutely no money for dining out) or so, but not making complete meals from scratch. I still relied a lot on cans and boxes except for our new designated real food meals.

Fortunately, we found a few favorite meat-free dishes. Read about those here. These meals are so yummy we hardly noticed the lack of meat! My husband wound up requesting these delicious decision. Yay!

During this reevaluate stage we took a hard look at the foods we thought we couldn’t live without. We looked at the nutrition in the foods we were eating for the amount of money we spent on that item. One thing that clearly didn’t ‘make the cut’ was cold breakfast cereal. Ten years later, we still skip cold cereal.

At first we bought less cereal but in a matter of weeks we were no longer purchasing cereal. It turned out that with a little planning we’d enjoy a much more nutritious breakfast, we’d stay full longer, and it cost considerably less than a box of cold cereal. You can read a few of the foods we choose over cereal here.

Venison Medalions in Cream Sauce

Ration

When we first started our transition and money was tight, we chose to ration some of our food. These were more expensive items that we would have loved to eat with abandon, but it just wasn’t possible.

Adding the bone broth into our diet and decreasing meat consumption, led us to seeking out the best meat we could afford. However, we didn’t have the budget to increase the amount we were previously spending on meat.

We found a local CSA specializing in 100% grass-fed beef. At that time a monthly share was $50 per month for 10 pounds of meat.  We signed up for it and made that 10 pounds stretch for the entire month.  Ten pounds of meat for a month isn’t a lot, but we made it work.

We were fortunate that year that my husband put an antelope in our freezer and another person gave us an antelope they had harvested (we live in Wyoming where antelope are fairly abundant). We had around 65 pounds of meat that we stretched to last until the next hunting season (a calendar year).

Cheese was also rationed. I would purchase 5 pounds of cheddar each month (Tillamook brand since they do not use growth hormones), if that 5 pounds didn’t last the entire month we would go without until the next month.

Several months into our transition we’d freed up enough room in our budget to be able to afford a cowshare for raw milk. We were no longer living in our temporary location and a share in our state (Wyoming) was fairly reasonable, at that time.  The cost per gallon ended up being about $7.  At first we started with just that one share (one gallon per week) and rationed it. We used the real milk for drinking and I would still buy  a gallon of whole ‘grocery store’ milk for cooking each week.

Things have changed in Wyoming and cowshares are no longer necessary for purchasing raw milk. It is now available to buy on farms, at farmers markets, and other select locations. This increased access is wonderful, but the prices have also fluctuated.

Expand Your Horizons

I know that I will lose some of you here.

Once we decided to expand our horizons, and step out of our comfort zones, we really upped our nutrition without affecting our monetary bottom line. We were now willing to try ‘weird’ food.

I made it a point to learn how to cook with things like liverheart and tongue. These cuts are very nutrient dense and can be quite economical. In fact, we discovered that by being willing to ‘eat the weird stuff’ food practically fell in our laps.

We had more than one friend call us up and say something like “I need to clean empty my freezer of last years meat. It is mostly weird cuts. Would you like it?”  We’ve  received liver, oxtail, soup bones, stew meat, assorted lamb cuts and even a couple of steaks.

I had a friend call me a couple of times to say she had a “licker and a ticker” saved for us. They butchered some of their beef and saved me the heart and the tongue.

By letting people know that you are adventuresome in your style of eating you might find many opportunities to get extremely nutrient dense foods for little or nothing.

We now raise and process our own poultry. I always have more chicken feet than we can use and look for people willing to take the feet off my hands.  Chicken feet make incredible broth.  Even if you are not getting these things for free, quite often organ meats are a much more economical price than other meats. At one point my CSA was selling liver for half the price of ground beef!

Expanding your horizons can apply to more than adding organ meats into your meal plans. It might mean being willing to make foods out of things you wouldn’t normally consider.

Take our bone broth example. We are making a highly nutritious food out of bones that would normally go in the trash. What else can you salvage from the trash?  Cutting down on food waste will make a huge impact on your food dollars. Take a look at this post, 5 Ways to Cut Down on Food Waste, for ideas to get you started.

Grace

When we first started this real food journey we had to give ourselves a lot of grace. With our budget at that time (an average of $475 per month for a family of five to seven– depending on the adult children being home) we could not eat exactly the way that we wanted to and that many other people suggested we should.

It can get very discouraging to travel the internet and see all of the things that were going to ‘kill us’ that day.

Creamy Carrot and Apple Soup

I remember a time when we were four or five months into our transition. I decided we were going to buy only organic produce. When we first started transitioning our food we were living temporarily in Northern California. They had a weekly year around farmers market there with lots of either organic or no spray choices for a reasonable price. We could buy all of our produce for the week for $10.

When we moved to Wyoming it was early May. There was not a farmers market (it only runs 6 weeks during the summer), produce CSA, or anything. Our option was the regular grocery store.

The first week I decided on all organic I found two things that were in our price range and looked decent. So we only had those two items that week. The next week my husband shopped with me. I was practically in tears in the store.

The selection of organics was awful. The appearance was horrible and the price insanely high. Joe let me know he would rather have produce that wasn’t organic than no produce at all. That is when we started using the Clean 15 for our produce and buying organic (or not buying at all) from the Dirty Dozen.

Don’t Worry About Perfection

Is this a perfect solution? No but it works for us in our location and with our budget.  A couple of years ago, the town we lived in at the time got a new store with all organic produce. It made it easier to enjoy organic produce. Where we live now, it’s an hour drive to a store in the same chain. We’re back to doing the best we can and using  the Clean 15 Dirty Dozen guidelines.

Sometimes our eating plans do not work. Sometimes our budget goes all wonky. Some days we have the best intentions of eating high quality food but the stuff that goes in our mouth isn’t it. Lots of grace on these days!

Unfortunately, since we are talking about money and a limited supply of it, if our budget goes wonky and I spend all our money on take out burgers, that might mean we are eating a lot of beans and sourdough pancakes for the rest of the month. Instead of mentally beating myself up over the mistake or choices I try to give myself a little grace and learn for next time.

What do you do to stretch your food budget while still trying to eat as healthful as possible?

Design a Dish: Save Your Food Dollars!

Would you like to learn great methods to reduce food waste? What if you could enjoy one meal for ‘free’ each week? We’re not talking about gourmet meals but wonderful, simple dishes you can prepare day in and day out. You’ll be amazed how easy it is to nourish your family with these tasty dishes!

Save your food dollars with Design a Dish! Learning to use formulas, instead of recipes, will help you design dishes with ingredients that are abundant to you. This will help reduce food waste and save you money — you may even find yourself eating a meal or two for ‘free’ each week just by cutting down on waste!

Many of these methods are based on the principles of nourishing traditional foods based on the teachings of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Millie Copper
Millie Copper is a Wyoming wife and mama. After reading Nourishing Traditions in early 2009, her family began transforming their diet to whole, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods—a little at a time while stretching their food dollars. Millie is passionate to share how, with a little creativity, anyone can transition to a real foods diet without overwhelming their food budget. Millie began blogging in late 2009 and has amassed a collection of frugal recipes and methods. Her specialties include cooking with wild game and creating “Stretchy Beans”. Discovering a love of writing, she has penned four books focusing on healthy eating on a budget and is trying her hand at fiction writing. Learn more at MillieCopper.com.

Comments

  1. Kristi Cooke, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner

    I have to say that this is one of the best step-by-step tutorials on switching over to real food. I am going to share this with my nutrition clients. Thanks you so much for this great post!

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  2. Kay D

    I also shop the clean 15 and avoid the dirty dozen. Growing your own organic garden helps the budget too. We are blessed to be able to order from Azure Standard. Good savings on produce can be found there. There is an organic grocery store in town. A couple of times a year they have sales where you can get 25 percent off everything in the store excluding produce, honey and cold items. They also have a reduced for quick sale basket where you can get produce for 50 cents a pound. I always check that basket. Ordering food off Amazon with the Subscribe and Save program saves money. Vitacost is another option on savings. We are not doing the grass fed meats yet. That is just way too expensive. If the hubby wasn’t such a big meat eater I could work that into the budget. I’d like to get into more meatless meals to save money.

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      Millie

      Great info Kay. Thanks! We love Azure also. In fact we just found out they are going to start a drop in our nearest town. We have been driving 2 hours one way for pick up. So excited.

  3. Stacee Gutierrez

    Our family is also making the transition to unprocessed/whole foods (Gluten-Free and Low Carb also)… you’ve outlined it perfectly! I will definitely be hanging onto every word of your blog…. you’ve taken the words out of my mouth/mind. 🙂

  4. Katie

    We ration food too! We try to buy the best we can, and something like raw milk and grass-fed meat must get rationed. Everyone gets a 4 oz. cup of milk instead of a 8-16 oz. cup of milk, and milk is not served daily but rather 3 days a week…I serve water the otherwise. A 1/2 cup of meat is a serving and it is rare that I serve more than per person. Raw cheese is a flavor booster not a sit down and eat all you can snack.

    ~Katie
    http://www.simplefoody.org

  5. Amy

    I really appreciate your article! Hubby & I grew up eating whole foods (mostly), but have only been getting truly back on the wagon in the past year. We were living in Northern California until just 3 weeks ago where we had ready access to CSAs, grass-fed beef (a littly pricey, but a bit less than a 1/4 lasted us a year) and great organic produce & organic products in the grocery stores at decent prices. We are now in east Texas and I was astounded to find the food prices the same or even higher than CA! And, the local grocery stores don’t carry that great of a selection of organic- and not at decent prices. We missed the cutoff for a great source of grass fed beef through my husband’s new job(hubby works for a non-profit now and they raise beef on campus)so will need to wait until next year, but we are able to get fresh eggs here & raw milk at good prices. I will still order from Azure & occasionally, take a trip into Dallas to stock up at Trader Joes (my favorite grocery store ever!). Besides the lack of availability, the hardest part of this transition has been adjusting our grocery bill. Last year we were in a corporate job and making quite a lot of money, though saving up to move out of CA. Our new job pays less than 1/2 of the old, so all of your hints & the other comments are encouraging!

  6. Pingback: Really affording real food- part 1 | Cheerfully Imperfect

  7. nikkhi

    Learn about wild edibles in your area! 😉 Nature is abundant and waiting to be explored.
    Host a pot luck dinner once a month
    freeganism
    grow your own food ( do not let living in an apartment stop you…)
    sprout!
    SMILE! 🙂

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  8. Jessica

    Thank you for this blog entry! My husband had to talk be down from a anxiety attack earlier when I ran next months budget switching everything over to real foods. We are a family of 5 in an expensive area (with no option to move) trying to get out of debt and just now starting to financially recover from multiple long unemployment. To add to that fun we have to deal with several allergies/intolerance/health issues that limit certain foods (soy, nuts, legumes, pork). I work 2 part time jobs and do stationary design on the side, hubby works full-time (with a 2 hour commute) and all the overtime he can get and the budget just can’t budge. The bit at the end about grace is what I really needed tonight. For right now I have to do the best I can with what we have. Thank you again!!!

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      Millie

      Hi Jessica,

      Thank you for your sweet comment! You do have some challenges and it sounds like you are making some great choices. Best wishes to you and your family. 🙂

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