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If you have read here much, you may have noticed that most of my posts over the summer have been our menus and our monthly budget. (I do hope to someday go back to posting other things, too. It has just been soooo busy this summer that my posting has been sporadic at best.)
I did get a question a few days ago on a budget post that asked how I do it. Today, I share a few of the things we do to help with our quest in eating nutrient-dense foods on a rather small food budget.
According to the USDA, with our family consisting of a 20-month-old baby, a 13-year-old girl, a 15-year-old girl, a 41-year-old male, and a 40-year-old female (I can not believe I just told you all that I am 40), we should spend between $705.30 for the Thrifty Plan and $1333.10 for the Liberal Plan each month.
In my wildest dreams could we spend that much money. Our grocery budget is usually somewhere between $475 and $650 for the month. I adjust it depending on other obligations that come up or if I am planning on any larger bulk purchases. And right now, this budget includes at least some of the meals for my 21-year-old daughter and her 23-year-old SO that are staying here. I know that this is an amazingly low amount of money to spend on food. The thing is, this is the amount we have to work with, so we do our best to make it work while trying to eat as healthful food as we can.
Okay great. So back to the main question, how do we do it? Here are a few of my favorite tips and tricks, which I suspect you may have seen most, if not all, of before in various places.
A big part of learning how to save the most money has been through education. I scout out articles on the internet and in various books and places on saving money. You’ll find a link to some of my favorite money-saving articles on my Welcome page. I have a few books on hand, such as the Tightwad Gazette and Real Food on a Real Budget, which I can refer to. Money-saving message boards are available for people to share ideas (I’m not very good at message boards, so I don’t have many that I participate in).
Part of my education is not just focused on what we can do to save money but on what we should spend money on: learning how to prepare meals and snacks to nourish my family. To achieve this, I borrow cooking books from the library, use free online resources, and use tips from Traditional Cooking School by GNOWFGLINS eCourses.
I like to keep a list of other resources, too, that I know I can find recipes for inexpensive meals that use ingredients I keep on hand. Hillbilly Housewife has a $45 Emergency Menu (it would cost more than $45 these days) and a $70 Low-Cost Menu that I often use for inspiration when I’m thinking of economical meals. The recipes are not “real food” meals as written, but with a few substitutions, some of the recipes work quite well. The Prudent Homemaker shares a Strictly Pantry menu that I’ve adapted a few things from also. And I’m often referring to the menus that Jenny from the Nourished Kitchen shared when she did her Food Stamp Challenge last year.
We try to focus our food dollars where we think they are needed the most. I learned from Kristin at Food Renegade that, by prioritizing, we could spend our money where it would do our bodies the most good. For us, that means spending extra on grass-fed beef and real (raw) milk. It also means that instead of buying rancid vegetable oil or shortening from the grocery store, we spend a good sum of money on coconut oil and palm oil.
Finding sources for these better-quality ingredients can be a challenge. I have had great results using Local Harvest and realmilk.com. Also, try your local Weston A. Price Foundation Chapter the chapter leader(s) should know of local resources for you.
I know this probably sounds bad, but we ration some of our food. There are some things that we buy on occasion that we can’t just eat as we desire.
Such as cheese.
I buy 5 pounds of cheddar each month, if that 5 pounds doesn’t last the entire month, we usually go without until the next month.
We get 2 gallons of milk for our cow share each week. If the milk doesn’t last until the next week, we do not have any additional. (We use the real milk for drinking. I do buy store-bought milk sometimes for other things, and we use coconut milk also).
We belong to a CSA for our beef. It is 100% grass-fed and finished and amazing. Our CSA is $50 each month for 10 pounds of assorted cuts. While I do occasionally get a bulk order of organic hamburger from another place, this is the major source of our beef, so we ration it to make it last until our next CSA date.
Do It Yourself
One thing I had a hard time finding a local source for was chicken. We decided, since we have the space, we’d raise our own chickens for meat (we already had a few for eggs). This has worked out pretty well for us, and we now have clean-raised (and processed) free-range or pastured chickens in our freezer (with more to be added soon).
We even started raising chickens for a few others who also desired homegrown chicken. Many towns and cities allow chickens in backyards. And of course, a backyard garden is very common and easy for most people to do (not so easy when a grasshopper plague hits, like it did for us this year).
Another do-it-yourself option is wild game. My husband grew up hunting, so filling our freezer with wild game is a wonderful thing for us and an enjoyable pastime for him. The cost can be quite low (depending on your area) for high-quality, antibiotic-free, truly free-range meat.
Just yesterday, my husband brought us home about a 200-pound buck. It was opening day of archery season, and he decided to go for a quick hunt down the road before work. The total cost for this meat was $36. He used almost zero gas since he was hunting about three miles from home. And with it being archery season, there was no cost for bullets. Yes, it did take a bit of his time. He was gone a total of three hours and he had a difficult time hauling that deer out. And then there is the processing time (preparing it for the freezer), which we will do ourselves instead of paying someone else to do it. Plus, by the time it is said and done, the amount of meat put in our freezer will be considerably less than the live weight of the deer. But still…that is a pretty good deal.
It might be worth learning about the hunting rules in your area and exploring whether this is a good option for you. Same with fishing. Fishing is entertainment for us. My 15-year-old daughter loves to fish. LOVES IT. What a wonderful way to spend time together as a family and often have the bonus of bringing home dinner (or breakfast).
Making friends with similar interests has been wonderful for me. Not only do I have someone to chat with about all my crazy food things, but we share ideas and resources and even sometimes food items. Maybe you are not able to do it yourself as I mentioned above, but if you become friends with a small farmer, perhaps you can get food in exchange for your time. If we have help on chicken processing day, we “pay” in chicken. Or maybe you are friends with a hunter or fisherman who will share their surplus with you.
One of my friends got a 4H lamb last year but didn’t really care for the taste of lamb and didn’t like the smell of it cooking. She wanted it out of her freezer, and I was happy to put it in mine. Friends can also go in together on bulk purchases. Maybe you do not need 12 bottles of cod liver oil, but you and your 11 friends might, and then shipping is free. A couple of ideas for finding these new friends would be your local farmers’ market or the local Weston A. Price Foundation Chapter. Or you can do what I do and try to convert everyone you know to love real food, then all of your friends become real food junkies. hehe.
Expand Your Horizons
Be willing to try “weird” food. I have made it a point to learn how to cook with things like liver, heart, and tongue. These cuts are very nutrient-dense and can be quite economical. In fact, this kind of goes along with making friends from above. The friend I told you about with the lamb called me up one day and said her mother-in-law needed to clean out last year’s beef to make room for this year’s beef. She asked if we minded weird cuts. Those weird cuts were such a blessing to us. We received liver, oxtail, soup bones, stew meat, and even a couple of steaks.
Another friend texted me one day to tell me she had a “licker and a ticker””for me. They butchered some of their beef and saved me the heart and the tongue (actually, when I picked it up, there was a heart, two livers, and two tongues). Same thing with your friend the hunter — heart or liver from wild game is very good.
What about things like chicken feet? I know I have a freezer with more than enough chicken feet in it that I would be happy to share if I could only find someone as into chicken feet broth as I am 🙂 Maybe your friend the chicken farmer has a similar-looking freezer or would start saving chicken feet for you instead of tossing them. Even if you can not get these cuts for free, they are often priced less per pound than other cuts. Where I get my grass-fed beef they sell their liver for $2.50 a pound and their ground beef for $4.99 a pound. 50% off, what a great deal.
Make it Yourself
I try to recreate store-bought foods in my own kitchen. In that way, I can save money and know exactly what ingredients are in the items we are eating (what exactly is in natural flavorings anyway? After reading Fast Food Nation, I have a good idea and I’d rather not consume it). Yes, I do spend a fair amount of time in my kitchen each day. I try to do bulk cooking/baking one or two days a week so I’m not in there all day every day.
I read an article the other day in a women’s magazine while waiting for the girls to get their teeth cleaned. In the article, the author suggested that dieting is a part-time job. I guess that is how I feel about preparing my family’s food. It is my part-time job. For my paying job, I do work from home (part-time) and also do temp work, so I know that I have an advantage over many who work outside the home on a full-time basis (I did do a guest post at Traditional Cooking School sharing my experience working full time out of the home for a seven-week temp job and still cooking real food. You can read that post here). One of my real-life friends told me about how she used to do all of her cooking on the weekends and her family had home-cooked meals every day while she worked a full-time plus job.
Sometimes, we have to compromise. I would love for us to only use the best of everything. But our budget doesn’t allow it. This means that I can not always buy everything organic. For produce, I try to buy the Dirty Dozen in organic (or pass on buying it) and do not worry about buying the Clean 15 organic.
I still buy grocery store milk a few times a month, not for drinking but for making yogurt and/or kefir. I buy some things frozen, like salmon or fruits, and some things canned, like pineapple, coconut milk, salmon, tuna, and occasionally tomatoes. Sometimes I even shop at stores that I do not care for because their pricing is the best on certain products. Part of our compromising includes doing without or limiting some items (see Rationing above). I would love for us to eat high-quality meat or seafood every night. But with our budget, we can’t.
Since we can not eat meat or seafood every night, I look for alternatives that can be as nutrient-dense as possible. Where I live, pastured or truly free-range eggs are around $3 dozen (mine come from our own hens). It’s a great value for an excellent source of protein and good-quality fat. Need some ideas on how to use eggs? Check out this post. Another option that we use on a regular basis is beans. Beans that are properly prepared through soaking or sprouting are easily digested. We usually cook our soaked beans in nutrient-rich homemade broth, which is a nutritional powerhouse on its own. Check out my Stretchy Beans book for even more info on making delicious, healthy bean recipes.
Stock the Pantry/Freezer and Shop it First
I do a meal plan most of the time (the times I try to get by without it, we struggle to eat). I try to plan out all of our dinner entrees for a month at a time (to coincide with my husband’s payday), shopping from the freezer and/or the pantry first. I’ll loosely plan sides then, too, if there is something that I really want with the planned entree, like when I’m planning a curry, flatbread and rice usually get planned as sides. When I do go shopping, I’ll have my list prepared so I just have to add what we need to complete our meal plan. I also restock the freezer and the pantry if the price is right for the needed items.
Be Prepared for the Unexpected
While I like to have a menu plan so I know what I’m doing, I also know that I need to remain flexible. My plan has been known to fall apart. An example is this week’s plan. I planned on making a big batch of sprouted lentils and turning it into the three meals just like Erin from GNOWFGLINS did in this post. However, my lentils took a day longer to sprout than I figured. I guess I didn’t start with enough lentils, because it did not make nearly enough for three meals (not three meals the way my family eats anyway). I did make the lentil slaw, which was delicious, but that left us needing to figure out two additional meals. Having a few emergency meal ideas helps with that.
Even with my emergency meal ideas, I found myself in town way past dinnertime and picking up burgers. Not good. Obviously, my plan has a few holes in it.
Cut Down on Waste
This is something that we are still working on. When I do my meal plans, I often plan the same base item for more than one night. Such as taking one chicken and turning it into more than one meal (here is a great example of that). This works very well and gives me a plan to help cut down on the waste.
Freezing things helps too. One thing that I do is from a Tightwad Gazette tip. I keep a container in the freezer for small amounts of leftover veggies and meats. Everything gets put in that container. This container, along with homemade broth, becomes the basis for soup. The resulting soup has been some of our favorite meals, especially when the soup is topped with dumplings. Yum!
Along these same lines (and also as suggested in the Tightwad Gazette), I’m using the freezer more for leftovers. Items not designated for lunch or dinner the next day go in the freezer. I add a sticker showing the date and contents. My hope is that they can become a future emergency-style meal of smorgasbord night.
I mentioned broth before. Besides my supply of chicken feet for broth, I keep all of our bones in the freezer. This means that the lamb chop bones go into a bag that says “lamb bones”, same with chicken bones.
When we fish, the carcasses and heads are saved after the fish is filleted off. I’ve found that trout makes an amazing broth. Finished broth goes in the fridge. If a layer of fat develops on the top of it, this becomes cooking fat.
I also have bags of fat in the freezer from when we’ve processed chickens and ducks. When rendered down, these will be perfect for cooking.
Be Willing to Change
This is a hard one. I tend to fall into ruts and think that the way I am doing something is the best way. Change is hard for me. By being open to making improvements in methods, I have found our dollars can stretch a little bit farther. One change we are making is actually going back to something we used to do. We used to use cash only for groceries (using Dave Ramsey concepts) but stopped doing it for whatever reason. It seemed as soon as that little debit card came out, the food expenses increased. I’m hopeful that by once again operating on a cash basis, we can get our budget back under control.
Sometimes our eating plans do not work. Sometimes our budget goes all wonky. Some days we have the best intentions of eating good-quality food but don’t make this mark. I try to give myself some grace when those things happen.
What do you do to stretch your food budget while still trying to eat as healthful as possible?
Learn how to get the most nutrition from the foods you eat! You’ll love the books from Traditional Cooking School by GNOWFGLINS.
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