Tips and Tricks to Eat Well While Maintaining a Budget
by Catherine Morris | September 11, 2020, updated 4 months ago
There are ways to save money without sacrificing the quality of your diet. You might not be stuffing your shopping cart with the pricey high-end organic brands again any time soon, but you can still give your body the right fuel at the right price.
So put down the Happy Meal, don't join the line at the drive-through, and step away from the bargain box Kraft dinner—now is the time to shop smart and focus on whole foods. We've a few suggestions below to help you get started.
Support Local Farms
It’s pretty easy to socially distance at a well-organized farmer’s market, and farmer's markets give you a chance to develop a relationship with suppliers. Get to know them well enough and you'll be able to haggle over prices, select the best veggies, and order in bulk for a discount.
You can also trawl the market for contacts—buying directly from farmers can sometimes give you access to a wider range of fresh foods at a better price.
A note of caution though—make a list of what you need before leaving the house, and stick to it. Farmers' markets are full of tempting goodies, but do you really need that $20 jar of raw, locally-sourced honey, or that hand-carved chopping board made from native wood? Probably not, you’re on a budget after all.
Eat in Season
It's easier to shop seasonally at farmers' markets but even in a chain store, take time to seek out the fruits and veggies that are fresh and locally-sourced.
The seasonal stuff doesn't just taste better, it's also easier on the wallet. Cutting out travelling and shipping costs makes a difference in the price you pay at the check-out, and as an added bonus, is a great way to support local producers.
There's plenty of salad-friendly veggies available as the summer season comes to a close, and squash season will soon be upon us. Time to break out that spaghetti squash recipe you’ve been waiting to try out.
Know Your Dirty Dozen from Your Clean Fifteen
If you usually buy your fruits and vegetables from the organic aisle, but now you’re worried about the cost, relax. It's okay to bend the rules when times are tough.
Going organic is great, but it's also expensive, and when price is an issue being a bit more strategic can help.
You’ve probably heard of the Clean Fifteen and the Dirty Dozen? No? Well, first of all, it's not a bad Western, it's a list annually released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that pinpoints the best produce to buy organic, and the worst.
The EWG looks at the amount of pesticides in produce and determines which crops are most heavily sprayed.
The most contaminated end up on the Dirty Dozen while the least are listed as the Clean Fifteen. If you want to avoid pesticides but don't have the budget to buy everything organic, just stick to the Dirty Dozen.
This year's Dirty Dozen looks like this:
While the Clean Fifteen (ie the produce you don't need to buy organic if you can't afford it) are:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon
Invest in Pantry Staples
Most of us know that pre-packaged food is not ideal for our health. Meals that come from a box are generally speaking, frowned upon in the ‘clean eating’ community, but maybe it's time to ease up on those hard and fast rules.
Investing in a good haul of pantry staples is great for your budget, and your body. Stick to whole foods where possible and items that keep well—lentils, nuts, beans, brown rice, quinoa, jerky and canned fish are all good things to have on hand.
Spices, sauces, and seasonings can be bought in bulk at a good price, and make cooking a bit easier.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, think frozen rather than canned. Getting these from the freezer aisle can cut the price, and is just as healthy or healthier than the produce on the shelves at your local store. Picked at the point of ripeness and perfectly preserved, frozen fruits and veggies retain their nutrient content so you can enjoy them worry-free.
We've all been there—buy a bunch of broccoli on Saturday, and watch it wilt before reluctantly binning it on Wednesday. Frozen veggies can be tossed into a meal as is, and when they're needed, reducing waste and saving you those broccoli bucks.
Bonus tip—realize you’re not going to get to that broccoli, or those berries on time? Save yourself the ding to your food budget, and lay the soon-to-go-off food out on a parchment paper lined pan, not touching. Put the pan in the freezer, and when they’re frozen take them out and pop them in a freezer appropriate bag. Now you’ve got yourself some frozen fruit or veggies.
Overhaul Your Storage System
Keeping food fresh means less trips to the store, and less unnecessary spending.
Proper food storage is an art and a science. Different items call for different approaches, but there are a few golden rules to note.
Don't store fruits and vegetables together—
Stick a bunch of bananas in the same bowl as a head of lettuce and both will be mushy and inedible in a matter of days. Fruits release ethylene gas as they ripen, a hormone that encourages plant cells to soften and degrade. Tossing all your produce together in close quarters means faster ripening which, in turn, means more waste as you scramble to get it eaten in time. If you have avocados, citrus fruits, or tomatoes that are at their peak, putting them in the fridge can help preserve them.
Wrap salad leaves and herbs in a kitchen roll—
Leafy greens are hard to keep because they soak up moisture and quickly become soggy. Once you've washed and dried the greens, wrap them in a fresh paper towel and place them in an airtight bag or container in the fridge.
Store root veggies in a cool, dry place—
Onions, potatoes, carrots and other root veg can be kept out of the fridge, as long as they're somewhere cool and dry. They are best stored loose as keeping them in plastic bags encourages moisture.
Prepare your produce before storing it—
For perishables such as cheese and cooked meats, consider beeswax paper. This sustainable material is not only better for the environment than plastic wrap or foil, it's also better at preserving perishables thanks to its antimicrobial properties.
Grow Your Own
When it comes to fresh, there's nothing like harvesting from your own garden.
While there may be an initial outlay on seeds and equipment, having a flourishing garden can save you money off your food bill in the long-term.
Some of the most cost-effective crops are lettuce, bell peppers, garlic, broccoli and tomatoes. These may be pricey in store, but the seeds are generally inexpensive and, depending on your climate and soil, should produce a good yield.
If you're new to gardening, don't expect to turn your yard into a fertile oasis overnight. Gardening is hard work, and it doesn't take much for a pleasant hobby to become a labour-intensive drain on your time and money.
Start small. Less land will be easier to maintain and manage. It'll also mean you can experiment with new produce without wasting lots of time and money if it doesn’t take.
Plan ahead. You can score some great deals on seeds and gear by buying in the fall when demand is low and stores are trying to offload inventory.
If you don't have the space for a garden, it might be time to join forces with other thrifty foodies in your neighbourhood.
Many towns and cities have community gardens or allotments (Vancouver alone has over 100 to choose from) and in the bigger urban areas there are a number of private groups making the most of what space they have with rooftop gardens and patio produce.
There's most likely a fee to join, but these are minimal and community gardens are usually well-equipped, so all you have to bring is your own seeds and/or plants. You can get your own plot (although this may involve joining a waiting list), or team up with a friend to share one.
If you're feeling really adventurous, why not start your own? This will require filing an expression of interest with your local municipal authority, but you may be able to qualify for funding for soil and equipment.
Health = Wealth
What's on your plate is important, but it can be easy to forget that when you're worrying over the mortgage or stressing about utility bills.
The phrase 'pay the farmer or pay the doctor' reportedly comes from Italy, but it's equally applicable across North America where food bills pale in comparison to the millions poured into healthcare each year.
Investing in a healthy diet, and knowing when and where to cut corners in lean times, is an investment you’ll benefit from for years to come.
If you’re in need of a dietary overhaul and don’t know where to start, consult a professional. Which Doctor has a variety of naturopaths, dietitians and nutritionists to help you match what’s on your plate to your health goals.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.