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There’s no doubt that the coronavirus outbreak has forced all of us to re-think nearly every aspect of our lives: our busyness, our obligations, our families and friends, our bank accounts, and the food we eat—that we so often take for granted. With so many people who have been laid off, have had small businesses impacted by the crisis, or are simply concerned about the future, suffice to say, we’re all looking to cut back and thinking about eating on a budget.
Over the past few weeks, I have shifted my perspective on how much I spend at the grocery store, the foods I buy, and how blessed my family really is.
With people hoarding food, it was surprising to me when I saw the store shelves nearly empty or totally wiped out, and the items I was used to buying were no longer available.
While I often purchase some food that is organic and non-GMO for example, all of a sudden, I was grateful to buy whatever I could find. “Healthy” suddenly wasn’t as important as I once thought it was.
My perspective about how I feed my kids has also changed.
So often, my kids ask for seconds or “something else” in addition to what we already served.
Most of the time that “something else,” is something healthy like pumpkin or a piece of fruit, so I don’t make a big deal out of it. I also didn’t want to make food a power issue. While sometimes they’re legitimately hungry, other times I think it’s just a normal routine we all fell into.
Last week however, I challenged all of us to get out of our comfort zones.
Instead of rushing to the grocery store to re-stock what we were running low on, I encouraged my kids to eat what we did have and eat smaller portions.
This was in part, because I was apprehensive about heading to the grocery store and so I placed an online order for groceries that would be delivered in a few days.
I also wanted to teach them that not everything is instant and we could make the most of what we had. We waited an entire week without shopping, and on the last day, there was barely anything left in the refrigerator or the freezer, but guess what? We survived.
The outbreak has also changed my perspective on those who deal with food insecurity—up to 36% of people across the U.S.
Every month, my kids and I volunteer with a local non-profit organization. It’s like a food pantry, but we pack up food from a warehouse and then deliver it to people in need.
While they often have fresh fruits and vegetables, there are some months where the only produce is canned.
We always have the money to go to the grocery store to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, so I was always aware of the inequity that exists.
Yet last Saturday when I packed up their food, it hit me even harder.
Here are people who are low-income, facing chronic health conditions and are isolated in their homes. They rely on this food to stay healthy and get them through the entire month, but they don’t have the luxury of heading to the grocery store for fresh, healthy food. Instead, their bags were filled with canned potatoes, green beans, and corn. Not potato chips, but not the best either.
HOW TO MAKE EATING ON A BUDGET EASIER
If you’ve been financially impacted by the crisis, or you’re simply looking to cut back, here are my best tips for eating on a budget.
1. MAKE A LIST BEFORE YOU BUY
Whether you’re heading out to the grocery store or ordering your groceries online, make sure you make a list so you can stick to eating on a budget.
Go through your refrigerator, freezer and pantry and make a list of what you need to buy for certain meals and what you need to replenish, so you don’t end up buying something you already have.
Grocery stores and online sites are expert food marketers, and they’ll do everything they can to suggest foods that go together (pasta sauce and pasta), suggest other items you may like, and sell you items you didn’t intend to buy in the first place.
If your kids are with you in the store, chances are, you’ll be walking out with a box of Goldfish, a package of cookies and kid-friendly yogurt pouches too so make a list and stick to it.
2. TAKE UP MEAL PLANNING
Although I write about healthy eating and my husband I cook almost every meal, I don’t meal plan. I buy a lot of the same foods and make many of the same meals every week which makes feeding my family a no-brainer.
If you’re up for it however, try meal planning because experts say it can help you save a lot of money.
It can also help you cut down on food waste—a good thing since an average family of four in the U.S. wastes about 25 percent of the food they buy, costing as much as $2,200 a year!
You can use a meal planning app or an old fashioned pen and paper, but pull out your recipes and make a list of your meals for the week, including breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks and see how much you can save.
3. EATING ON A BUDGET DOESN’T MEAN ORGANIC IS OUT
You might be eating on a budget, but you may still be concerned about the pesticides your family is consuming.
While sticking with conventional produce for example, is definitely the way to go to save money, depending on what your food budget is, you may be able to swing some organic food too.
A good first step is to check out the Environmental Working Group’s 2020 Dirty Dozen list which was released last week. You may consider buying organic for all or some of the foods they have listed:
Be sure to shop sales, buy frozen organic produce which may be cheaper, and shop the farmers’ markets.
Also, think about what’s really important to buy organic. While organic cereal may be ideal for example, when you’re eating on a budget, regular cereal is fine too.
4. DO THE PREP WORK YOURSELF
Washed, prepped and pre-chopped fruits and vegetables, microwavable bags of veggies, and salad kits are quick and easy, but they’re usually a lot more expensive.
Instead, carve out an hour in the morning or at night to prep all of your produce ahead of time. Wash and chop fruits and vegetables and store them in Ziploc bags or clear, glass containers.
5. STICK WITH HEALTHY, CHEAP FOODS
By stocking—but not hoarding— your kitchen with some healthy, cheap food stapes, you can stretch your food budget and make it easier to eat healthy while you’re stuck at home. Here are some foods that are affordable and can be used in several types of meals:
- Rolled oats
- Beans and lentils
- Beef/chicken/vegetable stock
- Brown rice
- Tuna fish
- Peanut butter
- Whole wheat pasta
- Sweet potatoes
- Canned tomatoes and tomato sauce
- Frozen vegetables
- Frozen peas
- Pureed pumpkin
6. BUY FOODS IN BULK
When it comes to eating on a budget, one of the best ways is to buy in bulk. Membership clubs can save you money, but it’s not necessary.
Stop by the bulk bins in the grocery store and stock up on food staples.
For example, I usually pick up brown rice, quinoa, nuts, and seeds (chia, sunflower, etc.) but you can also get different types of grains, granola, and dried fruit.
7. EAT MORE PLANT-BASED FOODS
With everyone stockpiling meat, now is the best time to transform your meals and eat more plant-based foods, which is healthy and can save you money.
Plant-based foods are packed with vitamins and minerals and have filling fiber which satisfies hunger and can prevent constipation. Recent studies also show plant-based diets are also linked with a lower risk of type-2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and obesity.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, replace meat and poultry with plant-based options like:
- Black beans
- Red kidney
- Whole grains: brown rice, oats, farro, barley, bread
- Nuts: cashews, almonds, walnuts, Brazil, pecans, macadamia, pistachios
- Seeds: pumpkin, chia, flax, sunflower, quinoa
- Milk: almond, soy, coconut, rice, oat, hemp
8. USE YOUR STORE LOYALTY CARD
Most stores have loyalty reward cards so be sure to sign up. You’ll be able to take advantage of member-only sale prices or get reward points you can use on your purchases.
9. SHOP AT PLACES OTHER THAN THE GROCERY STORE
If you’re heading to Target or another big box store to stock up on toilet paper (hopefully they have it!), you can score some good deals on produce (organic included) and other types of food.
I like to pick up tea, healthy snack bars, cereal, and gluten-free flour, which are usually much cheaper than they are at the grocery store.
Also consider shopping local farms or your local farmers’ market.
According to one report, you may get a better deal on organic produce than you would at the grocery store. If you arrive around closing time, the farmers may also give you discounts on produce they haven’t sold.
10. TRY MONEY-SAVING APPS
Another way to make the most out of your food dollars when you’re eating on a budget is to try grocery reward apps.
Fetch Rewards is one of my favorites. All you have to do is take a photo of your grocery receipts, let the points accumulate and then cash them in for gift cards at popular retailers.
11. PLANT A SPRING GARDEN
My husband’s been looking through his catalog of “Seeds from Italy,” and is ready to plant our garden, which saves us a lot of money, especially on salad greens.
Planting a garden, or having planter boxes, is an easy and fun way to eat on a budget and it teaches your kids about healthy eating.
12. EAT OUT LESS
It probably goes without saying, but the key to eating on a budget is to eat out less.
After a long day of work, homeschool and caring for your kids, the last thing you probably want to do is cook. Yet getting your dinner delivered is so expensive. In fact, restaurants mark up their meals on average 300%, according to this article in Forbes.
Also, your coffee runs will give you a break and get you out of the house, but they can add up too. Instead, make coffee, grab your to-go cup and head out for a walk.