Quality food on the cheap: part I

A statement that I hear quite often is, “I wish I could eat healthier.  But it’s just too expensive/I don’t have time to cook.”  Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive, and cooking doesn’t require Master Chef skills and lengthy prep time.  This is especially true if you are blessed to live somewhere with a temperate climate where fresh fruits and veg are abundant.  (If you live in the tropics I’m extremely jealous.  *le sigh*)  All it takes is getting a little smarter and investing more time in budgeting and planning.

I know, I know, the word “budget” tends to elicit groans and headaches.  When I first started, I felt that way too.  But it’s not hard or time-consuming, especially after you’ve done it a few times.  I take about half an hour max on a Saturday and bust out my whole meal plan, grocery list, and budget for the week.

The guidelines (read: customize to your lifestyle/needs) below are really just a brief outline of simple tips that help me.  In the next post I’ll give an example of a week of planning and meals for my family of 2 adults+2 kids.

1.  Set aside a certain day or time every week that you can sit down and plan for the week.  This is key to actually following through.

2.  Figure out what places you can get quality produce on the cheap.  In my area, that’s my farmer’s market, Costco, Trader Joe’s, and local supermarket/coop.  Farmers markets offer the absolute lowest prices on quality organic produce 90% of the time.  You can often get deals from the farmer if you ask.  If you go about 30 mins before the market ends, there are often huge mark-downs from farmers trying to sell what they have left.

3.  Know your prices.  I’m not advocating keeping a binder with spreadsheets of price comparisons like the people on Extreme Couponing, but just have a general idea in your head of things that are ALWAYS cheaper at a specific store.  Ex: I always buy bananas at Trader Joes (19 cents each for conventional, 29 cents each for organic) and I always buy dates at Costco (8 dollars for 2 pounds).

4.  Look at the ads.  When I was first starting out I always looked at the grocery store ads before starting my meal planning.  Most places have online ads and by looking at them you can begin to shape what you are going to eat that week by whats on sale (which is also usually whats in season-a bonus because its healthier/fresher)  I keep a little notebook and jot down whats on sale and for what price.

5.  Find or think up recipes, and keep in mind whats on sale when you decide on which to use.  I write down a hard plan for dinner, and am looser with lunch and breakfast plans since I know I’ll usually have leftovers and will always have fruit and veg for a smoothie or juice.  Keep in mind the time window you’ll have to get dinner on the table and plan accordingly.  Ex: Tuesdays and Thursdays I get home late and just want to get something on the damn table and not wash a bazillion dishes.  I prep food the day before or in the morning so there’s minimal cleaning and prep.  A few fave food blogs: celineeatsavocados , puremamas , ohsheglows , minimalistbaker ,  onehungrymami .

6. Make your list.  Write down the ingredients that you’ll need for your recipes/plans and allow for some snacks.  Approximate how much money each item will cost, and add it up at the end to get a loose idea of how much you will be spending.

7.  Get shopping!  Usual days for me are Sundays and Wednesdays, whatever you prefer is great.  Also:  clean your fridge out before you go!  Easier to put away stuff when you get home and you might find something on your list that you forgot you had. (why hello carrots stuffed in the back drawer and forgotten)  Things that are easily seen will get used instead of rotting.

8.  Post your meal plan on the fridge for easy reference during the week.

9.  Whenever possible, grow your own food or find it!  Gardening cuts WAY down on my grocery expenses.  I grow lettuce, kale, radishes, carrots, herbs, and onions/garlic in the winter along with my orange and tangerine tree.  In the summer, I grow tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, cucumbers and basil plus my plum and cherry tree.  All the things I grow are super easy and I grow most of them in pots (ie you don’t need a backyard to grow food!)  I also live near a bike path with fruit trees planted along it.  Check out fallingfruit.org to look in your area for public fruit trees that you can pick.

Hope this helps!  On Thursday I will post part 2 for an example meal plan + grocery list and what it cost for a week of food.  Please leave a comment if you have any questions/suggestions etc.

Much love, A.

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