Many Americans struggle over how to create healthy, well balanced, nutritious meals on a small food budget. The price of everything is rising at an alarming rate, while income has been staying the same. Whether we choose to live alone, with roommates, or have a small family, we still have to meet the basic need of eating one way or another.
People often judge others based on weight, making assumptions about their willpower or their health. But how often do we judge the fact that maybe life is hard and healthy food is expensive? Have you ever compared the price of organic foods to non-organic? Have you ever felt the guilt of buying a comfort food instead of the healthiest choice? If you rely on food stamps, have you ever felt judged because you are buying chips and bologna for your children?
When my kids were younger, there were 4 kids and 2 adults to feed on one paycheck. While my ex did work hard and do his best to provide for us, it was ultimately cheaper for me to stay home most of the time raising the children. My job was to manage the home and finances. This meant meal planning and prepping, while also paying the bills. At times, we needed food stamps to help us get by, though not often. Many times I felt guilty for not being able to afford the best, high quality foods for my children. I feared judgement from others when I went shopping, whether I was buying lower quality food or not. I hate when I hear people assume that just because some one is on food stamps, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to have a steak now and then. Life is hard…you need to find pleasure in it when you can!
Because of my experiences, I have learned how to make food stretch to feed a large family and save money in the meantime. Hopefully, you will find some value in some of my tips.
HOW TO PLAN HEALTHY MEALS ON A BUDGET
- PLANNING: I have found that by planning my meals out ahead of time and planning my grocery shopping, I have saved more money and had less food waste. Being consistent and having routines for planning and shopping are key to creating healthy meals on a budget. Read more about MEAL PLANNING here for advice on how I plan for each week.
- BUDGETING: In my post on BUDGETING FOR BEGINNERS, I stress the importance of creating categories in your budget, and one should definitely be for food. I separate groceries from eating out on my budget, because the convenience of restaurants comes at a much higher price. At the end of the month, add up what you spend on groceries for the previous month, and use that total to create the next month’s budget. If you are trying to save money, this can be a place where you challenge yourself to lower your budget from the previous actual amount spent. If you are trying to eat out less, move money from your budget from one category to another. Figure out what you want to spend a month on groceries and then divide that by how many times you plan on grocery shopping for the month. For example, my husband and I go shopping once a week after I meal plan. Our goal is to buy enough food for the entire week, including lunches and snacks, while not going over our $120.00 budget. My daughter and granddaughter currently live with us, so this is the amount I am comfortable spending per week based on our schedules and needs.
- INVENTORY YOUR OWN STOCK: Every few months or so, I go through the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer and write down everything I have. I can’t stand when it gets too unorganized, so I like to go through and get rid of expired items and then try to put things back where they belong. As I do so, I write down exactly what I have. If something is going to be going bad soon, I write down the expiration date so I can use it sooner. Sometimes I am amazed at what I have floating around, and begin thinking of what I can make out of all the items I find. Recently, I cleaned out our deep freezer and found a whole unopened bag of chicken breasts, a half opened bag of stir fry vegetables, and 5 bags of cauliflower rice. The bag came with sauce, but I was also lucky enough to have an opened container of stir fry sauce in my fridge, so one night I was able to make dinner for basically free! This was healthy and delicious, and it made me feel like a wizard to be able to pull it all together! Maybe you have several cans of beans and some tomato sauce and can whip up a quick chili one night or a soup. Whatever you have on hand can be used to inspire what you are going to make this week.
- BUY IN BULK: It might seems counterintuitive, and this only works if you have space to freeze it and actually prepare it correctly, but, buying some foods in bulk can save your food budget in the long run. Look for foods that will last a long time, like those that come in cans or boxed pasta. If you want to buy fruits and vegetables in bulk, look online for the best way to prepare those foods to freeze and keep on hand for recipes, smoothies, or just a nice frozen treat ( you can even add them to cocktails!). If you are living on your own, chances are most foods you buy will already be enough for several meals. When you buy a pack of chicken breasts, place the extras in individual freezer bags with the date purchased written on it and freeze for another time. Or, you can prepare a freezer ready meal with that chicken, with the other ingredients already added and freeze it that way. You can even cook it all at once and freeze your leftovers
- LEARN TO COOK: Instead of relying on unhealthy convenience meals so often, learn how to make things on your own. Every time I see freezer dinners, I think to myself how I can make it, or a version of it, on my own and control every thing I put into it. I honestly skip the freezer section for dinner foods most of the time, unless I need some inspiration of something to make. Prepackaged and pre-made foods are very high in sodium, preservatives, and things that are necessary for freezing and keeping for so long. These are also the things that cause the foods to be unhealthy. I like knowing what is in my food, so when I make a chicken pot pie, for example, I know the ingredients are fresh and the sodium is low. You may think you don’t have enough time to cook a meal, but I have learned to make most of my after work dinner in about 45 minutes or less. I have also learned to rely on my crock pot and instant pot throughout the week to make sure we have healthy, delicious meals even on work days.
- GET CREATIVE: Speaking of leftovers, find creative ways to use your leftovers. If you don’t want to just eat them the next day or take them for lunch, maybe you can make something else with it? You can easily google recipes with whatever foods you have to get inspired to make something new. Maybe you can use leftover vegetables to make a soup, or bake some leftover pasta with some sauce in the oven for something different to try. The main idea is to use everything you cook. And if you DO like leftovers, plan enough to feed yourself for several days. When you make a large quantity of something healthy, you won’t feel guilty eating it all week long.
- USE IBOTTA: If you don’t know about Ibotta, let me tell you…it is a fun way of earning money back on your purchases. Just go to IBOTTA.COM and sign up for an account to earn $10 right away. This is not a sponsored post, but let me tell you how it works. Choose the store you want to shop at and look at the list of items available for money back. Click on the items you would have bought anyway and it will tell you how much money you will receive for buying it. Look for instructions, like a limit to how many you can purchase. Make sure you select all the items before you go. After shopping, just submit your receipt by taking a picture of it and it will find your rebates for you. The money is in your Ibotta account usually within 24 hours. Once you have earned a certain amount, you can have it transferred to your Paypal or use it to buy gift cards for many different retailers. While you aren’t saving money like a coupon off the top, you are earning money and let me tell you, that money accumulates quickly. I haven’t used it often this year, but I have almost $100 to use whenever I want. I have family members who have earned over $1000 in a year. The more you use it, the more items become available to you. If you are looking to earn money on your groceries, definitely check out IBOTTA.COM.
- MAKE HEALTHY SWAPS: When you are looking to create healthier meals on a budget, the problem is that healthier options are almost always more expensive. It might be easier to make a couple healthier swaps at a time, than spending an arm and a leg at one time. Certain fruits and vegetables, for example, do not have to be organic. Most fruits and vegetables with peels that you remove, such as bananas, avocados, pineapples, and kiwis do not need to be organic to be healthy. Onions have the lowest amount of pesticide residue of any other vegetable. I think people equate “organic” with “healthier,” but that isn’t always the case. Certain foods, like berries, leafy greens, and apples, benefit from the “organic” label. If you choose to eat free range meats, look for those that are individually packaged or use them in recipes that can be stretched out…like shredding chicken to be used in wraps or making a large batch of chili with grass fed ground beef. Swap out turkey hot dogs for the original when they are on sale and keep a couple of packs in the freezer for later.
- SHOP AROUND: We don’t have a lot of shopping choices in our area, but we do have an Aldi, and we always shop there first. Not only do they usually have better prices for their generic version of things I would use anyway, but they also have a great selection of healthy foods for any diet restriction you are on. The downside is that sometimes their awesome items are only available for a limited time, but for me, that just makes it fun to stock up when I can on something I know I love. We also have a “BENT AND DENT” store in town that sells items that are expired or close to expired or damaged so much that the stores can’t sell them. This sounds bad…but if a whole case of something was damaged out because the case was broken, there may still be some good items left at a very discount price. Also, if you plan on using an item before the expiration date anyway, then the discount outweighs the date on the bottle! I wouldn’t go this route for every day shopping, but it is good to look around for things you may need now and then.
- DON’T FEEL GUILTY: Unless you are either a nutritionist or are in a higher tax bracket, realize that we are all feeling the same way. We all want to give our families and ourselves the best possible food choices, but sometimes that Lunchable is just going to have to be a solution. And if you have small kids, then you know you can spend time and money on a meal and they won’t eat it anyway! Realize that it is ok to go the unhealthy route now and then. No one should judge you for eating those cookies…even if you are using food stamps!
Learning to make healthy meals on a budget takes a lot of planning and preparation, but it can be done. Know what your family likes to eat, make healthy swaps, and find ways of making your grocery budget work for you. If you still struggle, maybe you need to tweak your budget’s grocery category and save money in another way, or apply for food stamps. There is nothing wrong with asking for help for your basic needs. Don’t allow your own fears or the judgement of others stop you from making the best choices for you and your family.
Please follow Being Grown Up on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook and search for Being Grown Up on your favorite podcast subscriber to listen to your favorite posts or at ANCHOR.FM/KIM-STAMLER.