Balancing Frugality and Nutrition

A reader named Joanna recently emailed me the following question:

I’m not sure if you take topic requests, but I’m interested in hearing how to stay on budget while feeding your family as much organic/natural food as possible. I am really trying to move in that direction and not having much luck. I’m a single mom of 4 and work, so I have no time for multiple stores, coupons, etc.

Great question, Joanna. (And, yes, I am always happy to write about a particular topic if asked, provided I know something about it!) We all want to save money, but I think most of us also care about the health of our families just as much. Cheap junk with artificial flavors, preservatives, and chemicals galore shouldn’t be the mainstay of anyone’s diet, even if it’s free from a deal. Because I enjoy shopping and couponing, it’s worthwhile for me to spend the extra time/effort. Folks who don’t have that time—or interest—can still save in other ways. Here are 8 ways to balance frugality and nutrition:

1.  Plan – I make a detailed grocery list and a menu plan and stick with both. Seriously, if you only make this change, it will save considerable time and money—no needless trips to the store for a single, forgotten item; no dinner time panic; no “emergency” Drive-Thru runs.

2.  Scan the Flyers – By looking at the store ads, buying what’s on sale, and creating a menu plan based around it, you can afford to stock up on the good stuff. Items that are perishable should be used or frozen soon, while shelf-stable foods can go right into the stock pile. Every large grocery chain has a few rock bottom deals that can’t be beat; these are called Loss Leaders. They change weekly and are always worth looking into.

3.  Look for markdowns and clearance – Items that are nearing their expiration date will often be discounted as an incentive to buy. I have seen tons of meat, dairy, and produce—including super-expensive organics—offered. Not all stores do it, and those that do will have their own policy/schedule, so you may have to ask. Personally, I find the best markdowns very early in the morning or right before closing time.

4.  Cook from scratch – Eliminate as many processed foods from your diet as you can and you’ll not only save a lot of money, you’ll also eat much healthier. Baby-step your way away from reliance on processed foods. I like to have fresh fruit and veggies washed, cut up, and available at all times to snack on. I also like to cook meals in big batches and freeze things whenever possible for future use. 

5.  Use whole foods – Ditch the cans, bags, and boxes in favor of fresh. A 10-lb bag of potatoes is often cheaper than a bag of potato chips. Recipes that have fewer, inexpensive ingredients are cheaper, quicker to prepare, and much better health-wise. A lot of our meals are simply based around 3 items (meat, veggie, grain).

6.  Limit meat and dairy – If you insist on eating strictly organic and can’t afford a lot of it, simply cut back. It is possible to get adequate protein and calcium without consuming large amounts of meat and dairy, but most families don’t want to be strict vegetarians. Adding a small amount to a recipe and stretching it with other foods is a good way to do it.

7.  Scrimp vs Splurge –  We don’t eat all organic at this point, but I try to incorporate some whenever possible. Hormone-free meat, milk, and eggs are especially important. Don’t worry about organic produce with a thick rind like bananas; stick to the more easily contaminated ones like berries.

8.  Look into alternatives – Plant a garden, barter with friends, use a meal delivery service, join a co-op, check out local farms, farmer’s markets and CSAs. There are resources beyond a grocery store, after all! 

Because food is a constant need, it’s impossible to eat perfectly, everyday. Simply do your best and trust God with the rest. I think this is the most important point to be stressed. No matter how well we do, we can always find someone who is doing it “better.” (According to them and their social media feed, anyway!) Every family is different. We all have different tastes, different budgets, and different ideas. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, just try to focus on the positive. Tiny efforts add up over time and that’s what counts.