Healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, cooking at home from whole ingredients can be far cheaper than buying pre-packaged foods or going out (although, I confess, I love eating at restaurants). I’ve learned this from personal experience. My family’s food budget is pretty small. Take a teacher’s salary, subtract bills and tuition payments (either one or both of us has been in school since we got married), and then throw in two children and there’s not much left for food. A tight budget can make it hard to find and prepare food that’s healthy and tasty, but I’ve tried my best and discovered some helpful tricks over the years. Here are a few things that have helped me balance time, money, taste, and health:
- Back to basics: Buying ingredients in their most basic form saves a lot of cash. Beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables usually come with a low price tag. A good rule of thumb is that if the ingredient list contains just one or two items (think of a bag of beans) or it doesn’t have one at all (like an apple), it will be a better deal than something with a long list of ingredients. There’s one caveat to this, in my experience: healthy fat sources in their more basic forms do tend to be more expensive than highly-processed fatty foods. For instance, margarine is cheaper than high-quality butter or olive oil, and nuts are more expensive than many foods with trans fats in them. However, this is one area where I’m willing to invest, and I think it’s worth it in the end.
- Avoid packaged foods: This is the same idea as buying whole foods, but in the reverse. Pre-made crackers, cereals, and meals are far more expensive per weight than the sum of their ingredients.
- Make it yourself: In general, I am a functional cook, so when I say “make it yourself,” I don’t necessarily mean spending all afternoon, every afternoon making your own graham crackers and bagels. And the point here is saving money, not killing yourself to cook something you don’t want to cook or you don’t need to cook, so if you can afford a healthy pre-made version, go for it. If you can’t, learning how to make it can save a lot of money. For me, I have found certain things are worth that effort and others aren’t. Humus is at the top of my list, as is home-made bread, which tastes so much better than anything I can buy for a comparable price. (And grinding my own wheat in an electric wheat grinder saves a lot too.) I also try to whisk up a huge batch of pesto each fall, when basil is cheap at the farmer’s market or plentiful in my garden, and freeze it in ice-cube-size portions to use the rest of the year. Keeping a well-stocked pantry of some basic ingredients plays a key role here—at least it does for me, because I hate running to the store for one ingredient. Here are some things that I always try to keep on hand:
dried beans (lentils, chick peas, pinto, black, navy)
popcorn kernels (to grind into cornmeal or for popcorn)
natural peanut butter
whole wheat kernels (to grind into flour)
whole rolled oats
and, most importantly, chocolate chips and cocoa powder!
- Buy in bulk: If you have the space, start buying as many basic staples (particularly those listed above) in bulk as you can. Larger quantities usually cost much less per weight than smaller amounts. A number of bulk online stores, including my favorite, Azure Standard, sell food for much cheaper than regular grocery stores, and have delivery or drop-point options. At the moment, we have a basement, which makes it easy to store more food. I order 25- or 50-pound bags of dried beans, rice, and oatmeal and store them in plastic buckets downstairs. Even when we lived in an apartment, I kept a tub of wheat in the laundry room. I used it in my electric wheat grinder, which saved me a ton of money on buying flour. (A note of caution on this: I doubt anyone but me is stupid enough to do this, but just in case, it is NOT a good idea to store rice in a thin plastic bag next to your laundry detergent. I learned this through a very embarrassing situation involving a couple I had just met, and very much hoped to become friends with, and a dinner invitation at our house. Luckily they didn’t hold it against me…) Buying spices in bulk can also cut down on grocery costs. I must have 30 or more bottles of different spices, and many of them aren’t cheap. However, many grocery stores have spice bars, with bottles full of everything from turmeric and ginger to cayenne and anise seed. You can scoop as much or as little as you want into baggies and pay just a fraction of what it would cost to buy a little bottle the same size. This also enables me to try out new spices or recipes that call for a spice I don’t have, without forking over a lot of money.
- Shop around for tasty additions: You can live off of rice and beans, but who would want to?!! Often, having a little something extra to toss on top can make all the difference. When it comes to fancy vinegars, spices, and especially cheeses, it’s worth looking for discount prices. Grocery outlet stores often sell top-of-the-line cheeses for very low prices because they are close to expiration.
- Cook in season: Produce varies in price drastically from season to season, so, for instance, making eggplant parmigiana in January will cost quite a bit more than in August, when you might be able to find these lovely purple globes for just pennies at the farmer’s market. To help you with this, I’ve listed recipes by ingredient on the left-hand side of the home page. This way, when you arrive home with a mountain of fresh chard greens because they were on sale, you can find a list of recipes to use them up.
- Start farming: OK, this obviously isn’t a realistic suggestion for most people, and I’m not seriously suggesting a change in vocation. However, if you do have a little room in your backyard, or can get a plot at a community garden, I would highly recommend planting a small patch of vegetables and herbs. If the goal is saving money, then plant things that will give you the biggest bang for your buck (and the most produce for the amount of space). Some things I have found to be good candidates (at least in my climate) are herbs, arugula and other fancy lettuces, chard, kale, and tomatoes. These are all either expensive to buy, taste much better when homegrown, and/or take up little space. Also, if you love eggs like me, and you’re willing to go this far, getting a few hens is a great investment. They’re easy to care for, their eggs are far, far superior to store-bought ones, it’s cheaper than buying anything comparable, and most cities will now allow you to keep at least a few.
- Be creative! Fairly regularly, I can’t resist trying out a new recipe, even though I don’t have all of the ingredients and can’t afford, or don’t have time, to go out and get some specialty item just to make this dish. So I improvise. Certainly it might taste different than originally planned, and once in awhile it’s a failure all together, but generally it leads to fun culinary discoveries and new recipes that are repeated again, this time on purpose.
Have any of you tried any of these things in your own kitchens? What else have you done to balance time, money, and taste? Share your ideas!