Eating healthy is not cheap these days. Scrap that… eating in general isn’t cheap these days. Throw supporting local farms and an organic lifestyle into the mix and you have a recipe for financial bankruptcy!
Okay perhaps I exaggerate a little, but you understand the picture I’m painting here.
I have a lot of people ask me about our food budget and how we meal plan. Folks are curious how a family of three living off a single income (currently) is able to eat almost an entirely organic and local diet without breaking the bank. So I decided that I would share some of my tips and tricks for how we manage to stay within a reasonable and modest/frugal budget while still eating healthy, local and organic.
If you are looking for a post on how to feed a family of six on $100 a month you have come to the wrong place. Head on over the Pinterest and you will find LOTS of posts on how to stretch every dollar to the max. Because we focus on a level of food quality that cannot be achieved in our country on $100 a month you will need to understand when you choose food as a priority that it will cost you some money. My goal in this post is that you leave with tips and strategies so you don’t waste the food you have and spent precious money on! The only thing worse than spending $10.99 on grass-fed butter is throwing out said butter because it went rancid before you could use it all.
Decide Your Priorities
The first step is budgeting and planning around meals is to decide what your food priorities are. This is a personal decision that only you and your family can make. Whatever your priorities and goals may be, I highly recommend you set them first before setting a budget.
Examples of some food priorities may be:
- eating organic
- eating local
- eating seasonally
- eating vegetarian/vegan
- reduce grocery spending
- gluten-free or other allergy consideration
- home-cooking every night
While you may want to do all of these things it may not be in the cards for your family. If you are not able to meet all of your food goals/wishes, then choose your top 2-3 priorities. Once you get your meal planning and budgeting down you will likely be able to add more.
** I don’t want to tell you what your food priorities should be as I don’t walk in your shoes nor live your life; however…. home cooking will ALWAYS be cheaper than eating out and/or convenience meals from the grocery store. So if one of your goals is to reduce spending, home cooking is the best way to accomplish that. **
This is the most important aspect to meal planning and it’s the one most difficult to stick to. However if you truly want to be successful at reducing your grocery expenditures while eating well and using the food you have, then you need to set a budget and STICK to it.
We invest in a local farm and receive a weekly CSA (community shared agriculture) box. We pay $62 per week and we receive 3-4 lbs of locally and ethically raised, non-GMO organic meat products and a selection of 5-7 vegetables (also organic, non-GMO etc.) We get our share on Fridays and this is when I plan my meals.
In addition to this weekly amount we have a total monthly budget of $300. This is taken out in cash and placed in an envelope. Whenever we need to go grocery shopping we take the money from the envelope and once it’s gone we are done shopping for the month.
We tried enforcing our budget and using our bank/debit card to pay for groceries but it just didn’t work. It was too tempting and easy to go over budget usually due to impulse purchases or simply not keeping track of our receipts. So if you are easily swayed by temptation and are terrible at keeping track of your receipts (like we are) then the cash system may be your best bet.
Be Okay with Less
My best piece of advice is being okay with what you have and what you can afford. It can be frustrating when your family can’t afford the cuts of meat you’d like or eating out at restaurants but sacrifice (and home cooking) is really the only way to save on food expenses. It’s easy to dwell and lament over what you can’t have but unfortunately it doesn’t get you anywhere. As a gentler sort of parent I’m not really big on tough love, but in this situation I have to say… suck it up. No point crying over milk you can’t afford right? Work with what you have and make peace with it and you are less likely to go way over budget.
Eating local and in season is by far the cheapest option when it comes to fruits and vegetables. In Ontario in winter that means not a lot of variety and mostly apples, but apples are abundant, inexpensive and easy to find.
There are certain categories of food that are expensive regardless of choices like organic or natural and those two are meat and dairy. The fastest way to reduce grocery spending is to be lean in these groups. While it may be nice to eat meat every meal, it’s extremely expensive to do so therefore each meatless meal you have is money back in your pocket.
I feel like this goes without saying but alas I will say it… stay home. Eating out is the single fastest way to blow your budget right out of the water. This includes your Tim Horton’s or Starbucks coffees too!
Create Food/Meal Categories
When I set up my meal planning system my first step was creating meal categories. This was helpful because I would choose my meals based on the categories; most categories are eaten once per week and a few twice. Here are some examples of the categories I created for my family.
- breakfast for dinner
- meat as a main
So for my meal planning things like chili fall under the soup/stew category which is often a category that I’ll do twice in one week because of it’s nutritional benefits and low cost.
Create a Recipe File/Binder
Most people I talk to about meal planning tell me that their family has certain favourites that they enjoy on a regular basis. Ensure you have a location where you have these recipes stored – be it digital/online or a paper binder or a recipe box – you just want to be able to access your recipes easily and on a regular basis. Spend an evening brainstorming with your family about what they favourite meals are to include in your recipe collection. If you have staple favourites this will make your weekly meal planning much easier!
I tend to get a lot of recipes from Pinterest. So when I find something new I want to try I’ll use my tablet to look at the recipe while I’m cooking. If it’s a hit with the family and earns a spot in our regular meal rotation, I will print it out to put in the binder and delete the pin. This helps me keep track of what I’ve tried and what recipes are new. It also helps to reduce the number of pins I have (as that can get quite overwhelming).
Have a System
Create a routine or system that will work well for your family. In our house we get our CSA share on Fridays. Once I get my produce box/meat I look through it and do my best to create meals that will use up everything that I received (using my meal categories as a guideline). As I’m writing out our meals I ensure to have a pad a paper beside me so I can create a grocery list at the same time.
Once I feel happy about how well I’ve used our fresh vegetables I turn my attention to the freezer and canning pantry. My goal in planning meals is to always purchase as little as possible at the grocery store. I will often do a freezer meal at least once a week to help reduce my work load and use what we have.
This system works for me and my family, but it might not work for yours. Tweak and change whatever you need to so that meal planning is something that can easily become apart of your routine.
Stick To It
If I miss a week of meal planning I guarantee you we will blow our budget for that month. No planning always results in two things in my house: impulse meals and take out. Both of these slip ups are costly.
Other Cost Saving Tips
Barter and Trade
If you are able to, try bartering and trading for food items. If you offer something of value (services, crafts, products etc.) small farms are often willing to trade. In return for my products (as gifts for their family) I was able to get pork products, maple syrup and honey from a local small farm. It was a lovely trade and advantageous to us both. I have found that many small businesses, crafters, farms and artisans are very receptive and open to bartering/trade.
Whenever possible I always cook in large batches. While I’m uncertain it saves us money in the long run what it does save me is time (and time is money). On days when my cooking motivation is low I turn to my freezer meals instead of ordering pizza or buying a convenience meal from the grocery store. Soups, stews, cabbage rolls, muffins, breads and pasta sauces are easy to freeze and make in larger batches. So if you have a favourite soup recipe make sure you double or triple it next time so you save yourself from cooking on two other nights. I always say, my family eats home-cooked food every night, but that doesn’t meal I cook every night.
Growing your own food is not only immensely rewarding, it is helpful for the pocket book as well. Even if all you can swing is a small vegetable garden, it will help you to appreciate the art/science that is growing food plus save you money.
I hope this post has been helpful in some way. If you have any meal planning tips I would LOVE to hear about them
Until next time,