We Get Greener Kit Cassingham & her Bigger Half

Healthy Eating On A Tight Budget

Whenever I have an idea to ponder I share it with my friends and learn from their reactions and responses. After having read several books on sustainable food I shared my thought that people would be healthier if they ate organic, whole, locally grown foods. It sure seemed like a reasonable concept to me.

The passion that was driving my statement was the understanding that whole foods, unadulterated with fillers and chemicals, were healthier for us than processed foods. Furthermore, locally grown foods are more environmentally sensitive because of the reduced transportation costs -- fuel, wear and tear on vehicles, air pollution, etc. And organic food is healthier for people and the environment, making my concept -- I thought -- a win:win.

Can you imagine my surprise when I was told I didn't understand eating on a tight budget, and that it couldn't be done. I have to admit I don't have a food budget, so indeed I don't understand that concept, or reality. I buy what I want when I want. But, I don't buy many processed or prepared foods, something that saves me money by virtue of just not spending the money.

After thinking about my premise and the reaction I went back and asked what a tight budget meant. I was wondering if we were talking as low as $50/week, or even tighter at $35/week. The group of friends initially guessed they spent $35/week on food, but concluded it might be as much as $50/week. Per person, mind you. Whew!

Healthy Eating on a Budget
Whole, organic foods on $5/day

An experiment was born. I decided to test my theory that healthy eating could be done on $35/week. It seemed to me that if you planned carefully you could eat well on sustainable foods for that price. For four weeks I committed to eating local and/or organic foods of meat, vegetables, and fruit -- as much as possible. Note: I am trying to eat grain-free so I didn't rely on pasta or rice, and I ate very little potato either. My Bigger Half didn't want to participate in my experiment, so this was literally just one person eating this way, not getting to cost average my foods as families can do.

What I learned is that you can eat well on $35/week. If I were a bigger person it would have been harder to eat on that low a budget, but I did it - almost easily.

When your schedule gets busy it's harder to eat well, though. The days I had meetings and appointments were harder to make this work, but I did it with pre-planning and the willingness to eat at unusual times.

What wasn't, and still isn't, clear to me is whether eating out counts in the weekly budget; I decided it didn't. I can go weeks without eating out, but during my test month I ate out about twice a week. I also sneaked a trip into the month, really throwing off my calculations. Figures! I also didn't price the herbs and spices, or wine for my virtual wine tasting nights, I used because that got to be too much for me.

I had to establish some rules to help me with this experiment. I decided that whenever I took something out of my pantry/larder/freezer I "charged" myself market price. Same with picking produce from my greenhouse. It was a fun experiment, and one I'm glad I ran. It gives me more appreciation for people on a budget, with food intolerances, and fussy eaters.

Organic Foods
Organic, whole foods on $5/day

You may be wondering what I ate on that kind of budget. I didn't scrimp, in my opinion. Here's my list, organic and local as much as possible:

  • chicken - 4.5 pound, locally raised, organic chicken: this made chicken pieces, chicken divan, stir fry, and chicken broth -- for two weeks I ate on this bird
  • locally raised eggs
  • peanut and almond butters
  • "Peggy Cheese", aka soft goat cheese marinating in oil, spices, and spices
  • organic cream cheese
  • vegetables like carrots, celery, broccoli, lettuce/Swiss chard/spinach, tomatoes, spaghetti squash, pumpkin, avocado, yam
  • fruits like blueberries, cherries, bananas, peaches, raspberries, applesauce
  • whey protein, the foundation of smoothies
  • yogurt
  • coffee
  • nuts and seeds
  • organic, local sausage
  • enchiladas, with the "tortilla" made of a flour-less pancake
  • curry
  • canned salmon
  • shrimp, for a stir fry
  • Lara Bars

Some days cost more than $5, but other days were less. It balanced out nicely. I had diversity in flavors and textures, balanced nutrition, and a food experience I don't have usually because I don't normally put that much thought into my food. And I did this by myself, not taking advantage of an economy of scale in buying in bulk for more people.

I loved my experiment and still find myself thinking about how to balance a nutritious diet with a tight budget. I come up with recipes that stretch my protein so I get full use of the meat or nuts. Since stopping the experiment I haven't been as good about getting ample vegetables into my diet, making me think there's even more to menu planning than I had initially anticipated.

If I had been willing to use pasta and rice as a staple, eating on $35/week would have been a snap. Nobody can tell me now that junk food is all you can afford when you are busy or on a tight budget. I've been there. It can be done.

Comments

Kit,

I've been changing my eating habits, doing pretty well, and making better choices for my "junk foods", not eating full servings (I was very surprised when I actually measured a serving of my favorite pretzel pieces - very little was in a serving!) and looking at all ingredients (found MSG in a few).

I like some conveniences (like boneless skinless organic chicken, already shredded organic cheese), so my shopping bill will never be that low, but with rarely eating out now, my total food bill is a lot less than before the changes.

I'm going to add a starter garden this year. It's hard to find good organic cukes grown in the US - as it's my fav vege (fresh and pickled) - I'll be planting lots of those!

Anne, MI

PS Have to laugh (I'll assume the ads are random), a Taco Bell ad was at the end of your page.

Anne at March 28, 2011 9:08 AM

Michigan Anne,

You have hit upon one of the dangers of "junk food" -- that there are too many ingredients included to make them good. Even healthy-sounding junk food can be surprisingly bad. MSG, trans-fats, sugar, HFCS, and sodium are just among the ingredients people may want to avoid.

The trade off of processed (even just shredding or skinning foods you want) versus inexpensive one everyone has to face. I prefer easier too, but did prove to myself I can eat well on a tight budget. And I didn't skimp on ingredients I love!

Enjoy your garden this summer. I hope you get a winter's worth of cukes in all forms.

-Kit

Kit Cassingham at March 28, 2011 11:28 AM

Kit,

I did a rough figure, even with some of the skinless, etc products, I can do a week with about $50 and that includes the few things I'm still buying that I need to eliminate.

After being brought up on processed foods, sugar and HFCS - more than 40 years later, I found small changes were easier to keep going - I try to change something every week.

I've changed my bread to no corn syrup at all (just can't get used to whole wheat, multi grain etc - tried) and don't eat alot of it. Arnold's is the brand I can get easily.

I've eliminated corn syrup of any form, artificial sweetners, almost all items with chemical preservatives. Use organic whenever possible, especially fruits and veges that have the highest rates of chemical fertilizers due to skin thinness or the way the plant grows (celery is one of the highest). Buy US organic as often as possible.

Read your posts on the worms and greenhouses - thanks for the info! I want to do the worms as well, but maybe not til next year. Greenhouse would be later.

Anne, MI

Anne at March 28, 2011 12:42 PM

Anne, thanks for confirming my research about healthy food being feasible on a tight budget. You are helping yourself and your budget with your careful pruning, aren't you. I agree, small changes are easier to swallow (excuse the pun) than a massive change. I have managed massive changes at times, but prefer the one baby step at a time.

I started years ago with the elimination of artificial sweeteners from my diet (My Bigger Half never consumed them). We started, as a couple, with the elimination of HFCS. Then getting rid of non-organic foods, and non-local foods took over our lives -- mostly mine. This winter we decided to greatly reduce our consumption of grains. It's all a process. Can you imagine what life would have been like if we'd tried all of that at once? Eeegads!

By the time you are ready for your worms and greenhouse you'll have been able to avoid many of the mistakes I made. Don't you just love learning from others' mistakes? I do.

Keep on keeping on, Anne. And share what you do and find. It makes things more interesting for all of us.


-Kit

Kit Cassingham at April 2, 2011 12:34 PM

Kit,

Another way to save money (and calories!) is to get a food scale (I bought a nice one at Target) that has oz and grams. Measuring by grams is more accurate than by spoons/cups - food packages have both US and Metric measurements.

Easier to measure too - I put my plate on the scale, zero it out for each "ingredient" (had rice and chicken for lunch - even weighed the sprinkled parmesan cheese by grams) - only the plate to wash - eco friendly!

I've lost 5 1/2 pounds this way without trying. :) That also converts to grocery dollars saved since I'm not eating as much as before, but just as satisfied.

Anne

Anne at April 7, 2011 10:07 AM

Anne, that's a good idea. Of course, if you are pinched for money, buying a scale might take from food you were going to buy. But, for those who aren't pinched, that's an excellent approach.

Thanks!

-Kit

Kit Cassingham at May 2, 2011 12:47 PM

My Bigger Half sent me an article about junk food not being cheaper than whole food. I love it when I get independent confirmation on my experiences and observations. :~)

But, to make sure you see the details covered by this New York Times article, here's the link:
Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?

Personally, I do eat junk food on occasion, but it's a rare occasion. It's not that I'm a purist, I just like whole foods better. I save fast food, like a box of mac and cheese, or a can of soup, for times when I'm in a rush and don't have time for cooking real food.

Another reason I tend to avoid junk food is my desire to eat minimal grains. Sure, I eat grains sometimes, but I like to choose when and what grains I eat. Junk food tends to indiscriminately use grains, removing my choices.

Kit Cassingham at September 26, 2011 11:06 AM
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