I was going to post my answers to NCN’s questions all in one post, but it got too long and I had to break it up. I talked about what’s in my retirement account and my thoughts on saving for college yesterday, but Question #5 cought my eye the most – I am a foodie at heart.
NCN asks how to save money on food, especially when one is trying to eat well and be healthy. My husband and I spend about $500/month on food, including eating out. We spend $38/week to have twenty pounds of organic produce delivered to our house – well worth the price for us. Then we spend about $200/month at Costco, plus about another $100 – $150 at grocery stores. We eat out very rarely (once or twice a month), and when we do, we have a coupon for a buy one get one free or something like that. We do not go out to fancy dinners. Last week we went to Chipotle with a bogo coupon and spent $8 total. Yay for cheap dates!
$500/month is not breaking any records for keeping food costs low. But whenever I read stories about people who spend crazy low amounts on food, I always wonder what they are eating. If you eat nothing but mac n cheese, top ramen, and bologna – yes, you can eat for $150/month for a family of 4. But what will the long term results be? My guess is that those people will not be in the best of health as years go by (and probably are not so healthy right now either). NCN made a good point about not being able to find coupons for “real” food. Coupons are generally printed by big brand name companies. The kind that make foods with 300 ingredients listed on the side of the box. When you banish processed food and switch to real, organic food, coupons are few and far between.
But my frugal self demands that I get as much good food as I can for my buck. So here are my thoughts, several years into a health food crusade.
- Eat out as little as possible. Most of the food you get in restaurants is not all that healthy anyway, and it’s usually more expensive than eating at home.
- Plant a garden. Even if you only have room for containers on a balcony, anything is better than nothing. Tomatoes, greens (swiss chard is super easy to grow), and herbs are some that we’ve had great luck with. They grow easily, you know they’re organic if you grow them yourself, and they are pretty expensive if you buy them in the store, especially the organic variety.
- Sprouts. I know, it sounds like a grungy 70s commune, but they are awesome. They’re about as good as it gets for a health food, and they are super cheap. You can get bulk sprout seed at any health food store, and all you need to grow them is a canning jar with holes in the lid. A couple teaspoons of seeds will fill a whole jar with sprouts in just a couple days. You can add them to anything (I even put them in my oatmeal after it’s cooked), and there are tons of different kinds available. You’ll find one you like, I promise.
- Take time to cook. You can buy healthy stuff that’s already prepared for you, but you pay for the convenience. If you hate to cook, start small. Don’t think of it as a chore. You don’t have to be Julia Childs. Just tinker around a bit in the kitchen. Get a good knife and a chopping board – a salad counts as a meal just as much as a homemade lobster bisque.
- Drink water. We have a reverse osmosis filter that we found on ebay for $100. If you live somewhere with good tap water, it’s almost free. Drink it up!
- Buy in bulk. We get 50 lbs of organic oatmeal every few months. It’s much cheaper than buying it in little cylinders at the grocery store. We also buy quinoa, lentils and dried beans in bulk (lots cheaper than buying canned beans). You can cook a bunch of beans in a crock pot and freeze them in individual containers to use whenever you need them. Shopping at Costco is great if you’re able to resist all the impulse purchases that they want you to make. We stock up on frozen stuff – veggies, fruit, shrimp, fish… it’s all a good deal as long as you don’t start buying lots of convenience food in bulk.
- Plan ahead, even if it’s just a little bit. I’ve never been organized enough to sit down and plan out menus for the rest of the month (or even the rest of the week). I’m very impressed with people who do that, but it’s just not me. Even still, I don’t run to the store every few days. Shopping at Costco helps with this, as we end up with a freezer full of ingredients for all sorts of stuff. When I think I need something from the store, I try to improvise and put off the trip as long as possible. And use a list when you shop. I do. Sometimes.
- Don’t eat meat. We are not vegetarians, but we don’t eat meat very often. If you’re trying to be healthy, a meal based on non-meat foods will almost always be less expensive and better for you then a meat-based meal. If you do eat meat, stretch it out. Cut up one steak and make it into a stew instead of giving each person a steak. Make meatballs with oatmeal and ground flax mixed into the meat – you’ll never taste the difference. I even grate carrots into my meatballs, and no one complains.
And it’s ok to spend a little more money on groceries if you’re trying to be healthy. You’ll save money on health care in the long run, and you’ll feel better right away. Some things are worth spending money on, and good “real” food is one of those things.