(Disclaimer: I am not a medical expert. I have no medical background. I am not here to advise anyone about what eating habits they should take on. I am just sharing what my family does and how it works for us. I am also not a financial advisor and am not trying to convince anyone to spend their money as we do. This post is just to be of help for anyone looking for tips on how to make healthy food choices and not over-spend.)
We started really paying attention to what we ate about 3 years ago. I watched several documentaries about foods and how they are made/processed/advertised….and how broken our food system is here in America. Health is, unfortunately, NOT the main priority of the committees or groups that handle the regulations of foods. Money and ties to certain groups or companies are the priorities. (And I know a lot of people think documentaries are conspiracy theories, but I would encourage you to see who the folks are that lead the food regulation groups and what companies they have come from. There are some big name company CEO’s, CFO’s, Presidents, and so on that now head up the food regulations committees. And the companies they came from continue to get bigger and more profitable and more powerful. Coincidence??)
Anyway, back to my original thought….We watched some videos and read A LOT of articles and books on foods and how they fuel our bodies. We decided to make a huge change in our diet and lifestyle to really test out the idea that artificial ingredients do absolutely nothing beneficial to our bodies.
Here we are 3 years later, a little less rigid about our shopping habits and food intake but with the same goal….to fuel our bodies in the most healthy and affordable way. I have read probably thousands of articles about what foods we should be consuming and why.
My biggest take-away? If you can’t picture it in its natural form….it probably isn’t good for you.
When we read ingredient lists on a box or bag or package, there are a lot of “foods” listed that aren’t really foods. If you cannot pronounce it, it most likely is not a natural food. It probably is not something that grew from the ground or something that was born. It was probably created by scientists (NOT farmers) to help make it last longer or look more attractive or appeal to our addictive sight, smell, taste or feel senses. I have read so many things about artificial flavors and smells….the ones science folks KNOW appeal to people and feed our food addictions. Companies spend LOTS of money on finding ways to keep us attached to CRAP.
That cherry candy? It looks red, smells like a cherry and tastes like a perfectly ripe cherry. But, in reality, it is just red food coloring (which is a chemical that can/does affect behavior and does not at all include any food item), an artificial scent (a combo of chemicals that, when put together, resemble the smell of cherries) and artificial flavoring. Most “fruit” candies or snacks or whatever have ZERO food ingredients in them. It can be 100% artificial, but because of science they appear, taste, and smell like a fruit.
Imagine if all that money that went into artificial food items was used in the medical world for helping find cures for diseases and ailments. Or in the education world to better pay our hard-working teachers. Or into the pockets of those protecting us or saving lives….and not the pockets of those who have benefited immensely from our food industry’s destruction of food!
After reading a lot of things about whole foods, real foods, artificial foods, and food-like items, I have brought our family to the 80/20 rule. Usually when people refer to the 80/20 Rule, it is 80% real foods and 20% processed in their eating habits. For us, I guess it is more 80% homemade or real items (since I make a lot from scratch but still use refined sugars and flours) and 20% processed/boxed/bagged/packaged/already prepared. I am not overly strict on this rule, but it is always there in my mind when I make our menu plans and my grocery list. I strive to live by it, but when our budget is pinched I do what I can to NOT overwhelm myself about it but still buy and make healthier options than a box of junk.
Choosing real foods, healthy foods, organic foods can be VERY expensive. The organic food industry can be just as bad as the “regular” food industry. They jack up prices and claim they are healthy foods, when really it is a boxed food with 90% organic ingredients. When it is boxed, it still has a preservative and probably some sort of additive. So, just because an item on the shelf says “organic” does not necessarily make it the best choice. The BEST organic choices are usually those that are in the same form they grew in, like basic fruits and vegetables. Sure, there is a box of organic cheese crackers. But you’ve never seen a cheese cracker growing out of the ground, so it is still a processed food. You see what I’m saying? If you’re looking to fill your 20% processed, then yes go with those organic cheese crackers; however, I don’t try to fit that into my 80% real foods….because a real food is something I can grow outside or something that came right from the ground or animal. (But it isn’t worth going nuts over, so I try not to obsess over what category things go in or how to classify items. I just think “how could I make this on my own with real ingredients?”)
There are ways to eat well and not break the bank. You can make great food choices and not have to go broke. You DO have to commit some time and effort to planning ahead and really keeping track of your spending, to make sure you stay within your family’s financial boundaries. I read an article the other day that was about a woman and her family of four that ate well for $350 a month. That is awesome but it isn’t always practical, since different areas of the country have different pricing and different fresh items available.
We are a family of seven. My husband is a very dedicated runner, who weighs 135 pounds. He does long runs about once a week and MUST take in a certain number of calories in order to, pretty much, stay alive! So, even though we are a family of seven, our dinners could typically feed 9 or 10 adults. I make sure almost every dinner feeds my husband two servings, as well as provides him a full serving to take to work for lunch the following days. And some days there are even leftovers for the kids and me, too. So, our dinners are NOT for a family of four, like the gal in the article. $350 a month would NOT feed our family based on our current needs. We spend about $600 a month on just food. (and about $200 a month between our Melaleuca order and our other paper products and diapers, for a total of $800/month in our “grocery” cash envelope)
So, here are the guidelines I use to plan my grocery trips and not go beyond our grocery budget:
1. Make a Menu Plan.
I plan for two weeks at a time right now. We buy a lot of fresh foods, so I think anymore than two weeks and things would be spoiled (I still have to make a small grocery trip the second week for the items that don’t keep well for two full weeks.). Having a PLAN for what we will eat over the next two weeks is key to keeping my commitment to better food choices. I am not running around like a crazy lady every day trying to figure out what to make for breakfast, lunch and dinner or finding out that I don’t have any of the ingredients for that awesomely healthy dish I found the other day.
I also make sure I use our family calendar to see what nights we are all home for dinner and what days we have appointments that might interfere with prepping dinner. I plan my slow cooker meals on the days we may not be home at 3 or 4 PM to start dinner. And I also plan frozen pizza one night a week to give myself a break. 🙂
2. Check the Pantry for Items that Need to Be Used.
I often have items that need to be rotated out of our stockpile before they expire, so checking our stockpile or pantry or freezer inventory helps me from wasting money. I don’t have to throw out expired items or end up buying an ingredient I already have on hand. So, check those pantries and freezers to see what you can use before you shop!
3. Use Store Sales to See What Fresh Items Are on Sale….and Create Your Menu Around Those Items.
We no longer get the newspaper, so I now have to do a little extra work pulling up store sales online, BUT it saves money. There are always fruits and veggies on sale at stores. And thanks to online searching, we can find a recipe that includes those sale items. Not that we make every single meal out of just sale items, but using the sale items as the basis for the menu plan does help from overspending.
4. Stick with Family Favorites and Make as Much from Scratch as Possible.
I try not to make more than 3 or 4 new recipes in a two-week period. I am too afraid I will screw it up or that my family won’t like it….then I have wasted money on a meal no one will eat! 🙂 I have a list of meals we love, and I add to it (sometimes I forget to do it right away, though, and then I can’t remember what it was we recently liked!) so we have a go-to list of great, healthy meals that are affordable!
I also have a mental list of meals we love that include some boxed or processed ingredients. I try now and then to make one of those meals, substituting a homemade version of the boxed item. For instance cream of chicken soup. It is so incredibly unhealthy out of the can. I have my homemade version (to be included in the next post with several other recipes), though, to use in place of the can and the meal is so delicious!
5. Plan to Make More From Scratch.
I have really expanded my cooking-from-scratch skills the past few years. Everything from pancakes, biscuits, muffins, cookies, breads, and condiments are made from scratch here…most of the time. I keep several large containers of homemade mixes on hand to whip up healthy foods without having to put it all together each time. I currently have pancake mix, baking powder biscuit mix, cornbread mix, and muffin mix in my pantry. The containers include all the dry ingredients for each type of recipe, and when I want to make one of those items I just scoop of the correct measurement of the dry mix and stir in the wet ingredients, bake/cook and it is done!
For breakfasts, we keep pre-packaged waffles in the freezer because my waffles never turn out that great (and our waffle maker is for Belgian waffles, so they don’t fit in our toaster at all and the microwave makes them soggy when reheating from frozen). The rest of the time we bounce around between eggs (love them!), homemade oatmeal (super easy), baked oatmeal, cinnamon roll cake (a new favorite), coffee cake, cinnamon rolls, pancakes and muffins (using the mixes). I usually have a box of cereal in the pantry, but that is not the norm. (I did make Puppy Chow this week, so we have a partial box of Chex cereal in there, as well as a partial box of Cornflakes that might be stale because I used it for cookies quite a while ago!) I have really learned to enjoy making breakfasts for us all. And we are up before dawn every day, so we need the proper fuel to get us through the day. 🙂
We also started making homemade mayo, ranch dressing and bbq sauce. I would like to do ketchup too, but I probably won’t get to it until Spring or Summer. We had a lot of tomatoes this past garden season, so our freezer is stocked with homemade marinara, tomato paste and sauce. I also canned chopped tomatoes.
And what about snacks?? Our kids do not need packaged fruit snacks or candy or fake fruity roll-up things. Give them a banana or apple slices with peanut butter. Give them orange segments. Give them some raw veggies and homemade dip. There are so many options for snacks, but I feel like the commercials and snack packaging have really convinced us to just go “easy” and grab a box of items that look good and healthy but that can be substitute almost as easily with a REAL food item. I am not saying my kids don’t beg me to buy Oreos or fruit rollups or everything else we see at the store. I just try to remind them they aren’t healthy and that we can just have something else we make at home. If I do buy a packaged snack item, I keep away from artificial colors and I let it be part of our 20% items. And then I try to find a way to make or bake something just as yummy from scratch for the next time. 🙂
6. Make a List of Meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner).
The more meals you can plan out, the better. I plan breakfast, lunch and dinner for every day in the two weeks. This helps me from buying a bunch of cereals or mac and cheese when I don’t have time to sit and think out something to make for the day. If it is overwhelming to plan out 3 meals for each day, just start with dinners and then add as you become more comfortable with the planning. We have to be intentional about menu planning, though, and not just winging it five minutes before we go shop. There has to be some prep time set aside to really work on saving money but eating well. It is a commitment, but unfortunately think they don’t have the time to do it. What’s that saying?….”We have enough hours in the day to do the things we want to do.” So, if we don’t have an hour to prep our menu and grocery lists, maybe we need to rethink how we’re spending our days. (No judgment from me….I struggle with time management all the time!)
7. Create a Big List of All Ingredients Needed for Meals (excluding items already on-hand) and Decide Which Store to Purchase From.
I make a huge list of the items I need to buy for my meals and snacks. Then I go back and write the name of the store with the best price or sale. After each item has a store written next to it, I write a separate list for each store. This way, I don’t accidentally write the same item on two different store lists.
And I didn’t make it a “step” but I shop at more than one store each time. I have yet to find one store each week that has the best sales on every item we need. And we live in an area where most of the stores are all on the same road, so I am not running around to five different parts of town wasting gas. (Whole Foods and Costco, though, are a bit of a drive, so I usually do those two stores in the same trip since they are across the street from each other. If I am only wanting to shop at one of those, though, I don’t go to either. It feels like a waste of gas for me to just drive 30 minutes for one store.) My favorite or “regular” stores are: Aldi, Meijer, Whole Foods and Costco. We also have Fruitful Yield, a wonderful health food store….but I don’t buy much food there, I use it more for essential oils, beeswax, shea and cocoa butters, and whatnot.
8. Find Coupons.
I was a couponing QUEEN just a few years ago. We have 15 boxes of cereal in our 2 bedroom townhouse. I was storing boxed foods in our master bedroom closet, our coat closet, and even under our bed for a time. Yes, I was saving tons of money. BUT I was not getting anything nutritious. Nothing I had stocked up on was worth eating. Sure, I didn’t have to buy cereal for months, but 15 boxes of sugar-laden, artificially colored, food-like items really served no purpose. We weren’t helping fuel our bodies at all. There were added vitamins in the cereals, but I think all the crappy ingredients cancelled out any added vitamins or minerals. So, I quit couponing and started hunting for coupons that would help a healthier lifestyle.
Meijer has a great system called mPerks. They often have coupons for money off your purchase after you reach a goal of purchasing $50 in produce. They also offer custom coupons through mPerks for items you regularly buy. I see coupons for organic foods on there often now because they’ve tracked our purchases and see that we have purchased those things. And it is digital, so I don’t have to keep track of 100 paper coupons! (which is fabulous when you have little ones in tow) You just digitally “clip” the ones you want or will use, then at checkout you enter your phone number and password associated with your account and it deducts your coupon amounts!
Whole Foods offer paper coupons in their monthly booklets and their weekly ads. These coupons are also available online to print!
Aldi does not issue or accept coupons, but the items we buy at Aldi are typically lower in price than other stores. So, when they are not on sale and I cannot use a coupon at other stores, I grab them at Aldi. (also, I always buy our frozen pizzas at Aldi. They are $1.99 each ALL THE TIME. I don’t bother with sales or coupons at other stores because we like the taste of Aldi pizzas and they are CHEAP!!)
9. Pay with CASH.
For some reason, physically handing the cash to the checkout person makes me much more aware of what I am spending than if I am using “invisible” money with my debit card. 🙂 Paying for groceries with cash has really changed how we budget. We use Dave Ramsey’s envelope system for groceries, gas and “extras” each pay period. So, I know that when the grocery money is gone, it is GONE. It makes me more diligent about finding ways to save on healthy foods and helps me really consider where I am spending the money.
When I make my store lists, I tally up about how much I think I’ll be spending there (rounding up a few dollars for tax and miscalculations). I usually take only the cash I’ll need for the stores and maybe an extra $10 for any errors, so I don’t have to pull out the debit card.
10. USE the Menu Plan and Plan Ahead.
I know a lot of people think that buying at home with my kids means I have all the time in the world to make meals from scratch and bake our bread and whatnot. Yes, I probably do have more time than a mom that works outside of the home, but I have five kids that are not completely independent and still need me often. I do a lot of my planning and work during naps. My older two do homework and the three littles sleep. We have school all morning, so I can’t exactly spend every morning baking and prepping dinner. I have to plan ahead times to set aside and do dinner prep work or do all the baking for the week (typically Tuesdays, but that doesn’t always work out either).
I have heard of several moms, that work outside the home, who used time on one of the weekend days and prepped as much as they could for the dinners during the work week. They chopped all the veggies or cooked all the meats or put together the casseroles. And then everything was ready in the fridge or freezer to pull out each day and reheat or quickly cook. This keeps them from running through the drive-thru on the way home and choosing poor foods. This also helps with not wasting all those ingredients you just bought!
There are weeks when I don’t set aside prep time and things spoil. My spinach and lettuce wilt. My tomatoes mold. My oranges dry out. It is aggravating, but it is also a good reminder the next time I want to just skip the prep work. All those dollar signs falling into the garbage can are a good visual! 🙂
If we are going to go to all the work of making a menu plan and being careful about our purchases, we have to MAKE SURE WE ACTUALLY FOLLOW THE PLAN AND USE THE FOODS!!
These are the steps I could think of that help us stay on budget and make good food choices. Obviously having a garden or shopping the local farmers markets are also great tips and steps, but since it is January and here in the midwest we cannot do either right now, I figured I would just include the tips or steps that would be applicable for the current weather. 🙂
Hopefully these “tips” help those of you looking for a starting point with shopping healthier and saving money. My next post will be a list of MANY recipes for homemade mixes and substitutes. I have enjoyed making a lot more of the items we previously bought prepared. It saves on the added unhealthy ingredients and saved us money!
Do you have any advice on eating healthy and saving money? How have you helped your family eat better and spend less??