Last Fall, I wrote a post about how to shop at Trader Joe’s for less than $100/week for a family of 4. To this day, it is still one of my most popular posts, with a few hundred views a week.
I thought that I would update things, because not everyone has a Trader Joe’s nearby, and some people care about eating only organic, grass fed meat and dairy (I do!).
I’m not a nutritionist by any stretch– I have just done a fair amount of research, and I have quite a few dietary issues to be on the lookout for. It’s harder to act on the knowledge that “this could deteriorate my health over the course of many years”. It becomes easier and a much higher priority when you eat something and it hurts 2 hours later.
Our family has many dietary challenges, which is what has lead us to be as creative and thoughtful as we are about food. I cannot eat gluten, chocolate, dairy or potatoes. Gregory cannot have gluten or dairy, and since we are Orthodox, we all eat vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays.
While I devote time and energy to our meal planning and shopping every week, I’m also not willing to let it consume me. Deal hunting and making things from scratch is all good by me– up to a point. Cooking and baking have never been passions of mine, they have become learned skills in order to save money and avoid digestive issues. I know that if something is too arduous or time consuming, I simply won’t keep it up. Simple, therefore, is the “name of the game” for me!
The number one thing that I’ve learned about groceries and meal planning is that there is ALWAYS a compromise. Even if someone promises you the moon and beyond, there has to be a catch. I’ve seen “how-tos” that basically involve couponing until kingdom come (I like couponing, but I also like my time and the freedom to buy what I want instead of having it dictated). Many posts that promise to feed a family for “x” amount of dollars are also telling you to buy the cheapest of the cheap, regardless of whether or not it’s organic or has scary “mystery” ingredients.
My FIRST and MAIN piece of advice is to first decide what you are willing to compromise on. If you can’t have it all (you can’t), what is it you DO want? Is budget your only concern? Are you wanting gourmet meals, or are you okay with simple and repetitive? Are you willing to buy in bulk or do you only like purchasing a few days at a time?
For me, personally, I am not willing to compromise on budget. I have decided that we will keep all of our groceries under $400, not because it’s all we have but because it’s a challenge and I know that I can. 95% of the time, I am not willing to compromise on organic/grass fed ingredients, with a few exceptions here and there.
But I am willing to compromise on variety, and we only go out to eat once a week, at most (and even then it’s somewhere cheap). It’s a lot more expensive to eat out when you want healthy and gluten free, but even then, we’ve found some ways around it (chipotle? Thai food? amazing taco stands?)
So, without further ado, here are the ways I’ve found to keep our organic grocery bill under $400 for a family of 4!
1. Double Up: Let’s get “variety” out of the way. I’ve found that if I double up at least 2 meals a week, refrigerating the other half and using it on a second day later in the week, we ALWAYS save a lot of money. And every time I learn more about film folding wrappers, the more I seem to save on things that are struck with exorbitance. No matter what way you slice it, more ingredients= more money. For a family of 4 (with 2 toddler boys that eat as much as grown men!), we still don’t use an entire bag of carrots in one meal, or an entire 8 serving package of quinoa pasta. Doubling it up and having the same thing as another night a few times a week really saves a lot of money. And, if I make Tuesday/Thursday’s meal together, then I only have to cook on Tuesday! No meal prep on Thursday required. On an average week, I only “cook” dinner 2-3 times, and the food still tastes good one or two days later (vs. freezing stuff for a long period of time, which always tastes kinda gross to me).
My one piece of advice for gluten free folks like me: avoid doubling up on pastas. Gluten free rice and quinoa pasta does NOT save well! Just double up the sauce, save half the package of pasta, and boil it later.
2. Use the Crockpot: In order to stretch the organic grass fed meat we buy, I almost always throw it into a stew of some sort. 3-4 servings of meat becomes 8 when you are adding tons of veggies, broth, and any other ingredients. Liquid is filling, and you also get the “veggie” part of dinner out of the way (although eating raw uncooked veggies a few times a week is still essential).
And here comes the compromise part: when you cook beef in a stew, for instance, you are able to use tougher meat. Choice cuts=expensive, especially when you’re buying organic and grass fed. If you choose beef cutlets or ground beef, you pay half of what you would for a strip steak or filet. Drumsticks in a crockpot are delicious, and 1/3 the cost of breasts or thighs (plus, if you’re SUPER “crunchy”, you can use the bones to make your
Many people would not be willing to compromise on this, because they love a good cut of steak (I do!). So it all comes down to which compromise you’re willing to make. We would rather eat organic grass fed beef ALL the time, saving the cost of a really good cut of steak for a special treat or occasion.
And, as our naturalistic doctor told me, the 95% is what matters. If you eat non-organic (say, for a meal out or for a good cut of steak that’s not organic) only 5% of the time, your body can process out those toxins easily. It’s when we over-saturate ourselves with pesticides and additive hormones that the body has a problem and deteriorates.
3. Buy staples in bulk: I have friends who are much more hardcore about this than I am. My biggest fear about buying in bulk is that I’ll pay a lot of money up front, then not use the quantity wisely.
A happy medium (for me), especially since we don’t have a TON of storage space, is to buy 5-6 of our biggest staples through Amazon Prime. When you subscribe to 5 or more items, you not only get the subscribe and save price (with free shipping), you also save an additional 15%! A large jar 32 oz. jar of organic coconut oil at Sprouts is $23, $17 at Costco. I get ours for $12 using all the discounts on Amazon, knowing that we will use it over the course of 2 months. We also bulk buy coconut milk, gluten free organic oats, gluten free cereal, gluten free protein bars (a small amount, treats!), toilet paper and almond baking flour. I reserve about $100/month of our $400 for our bulk items, since I know that I have to buy them anyways. Just make sure you have at least 5 items to get the extra 15%, even if it means you have to “subscribe” to super little things in order to hit 5. I once bought $3 worth of Betta food in order to meet my quota!
Word of advice: The way automatic shipments make money for their company is by sending things to you when you’re not done with the previous shipment. Track how quickly you are going through items, and if you only need to replenish things every other month, have a few additional staples to rotate in on the off months. We only buy a shipment of toilet paper every 3rd month, for instance, so if you can group things together to fit your needs, you won’t spend additional money by using the automatic subscribe and save shipments.
4. Buy local: Of course buying organic fruits and veggies at the supermarket is enough to break anyone’s budget! Produce is very expensive to begin with , which is why we have an obesity epidemic (especially among the lower class) in our country.
Buying local is better than buying the non-organic in a supermarket, in most cases. For instance, if your grocery store gets their produce from Mexico, the standards on pesticides are even lower than in the U.S. (which is saying something!). Most people already know this, but many local farmers do practice organic farming, they just haven’t paid for the right certifications. Buying local is also extremely good for the environment (if you care about this). Basically, buying non-organic at a farmer’s market is almost always better (and cheaper) than buying non-organic at a supermarket.
So, when you compromise on “organic” or not in order to stay in a budget, buy from a local farmers market first, and then buy organic whatever else you could possibly need. And if you don’t need to buy it organic (avocados, bananas, etc.), don’t! Don’t throw money down the drain if it’s not going to actually make a noticeable difference in your health! Stick to the Dirty Dozen list, and then try not to worry about it.
Another compromise that our family is willing to make is, once again, variety. Certain fruits and vegetables are a lot pricier than others. Bananas and carrots are EXTREMELY good for you, they don’t have to be organic (carrots are a ROOT for heavens sake, haha!), AND they are dirt cheap. Apples, pears and raspberries, on the other hand, would add an extra $100/month to our budget if we were to eat them every day. They require the highest amount of pesticides to grow non-organically, so, simply put, we don’t buy them very often. I wait for a good sale, stock up and freeze a bunch! People have been eating foods in season for thousands of years, and my kids will not be malnourished eating “special” produce less often.
5. Cook From Scratch: Our family has to do this anyways, since we have so many special dietary needs. Unfortunately, gluten free comes with a price tag– unless you cook it from scratch or forego it altogether. Gregory and I share one small loaf of gluten free bread a week– anything more than that I force myself to make it. Same with gluten free cookies and pasta. We use corn tortillas instead of buying expensive gluten free ones.
6. Go Meat-Free: When I really sat down and looked down at our budget, I realized that eating vegan on Wednesdays and Fridays was a huge money saver. I can make a meal that will serve for 2 dinners for only $6!! That’s $3/dinner, folks (if you need ideas, try our Thai Quinoa Casserole which has been “pinned” nearly 800 times!). Just make sure not to buy any fake meat or pre-packaged meals– so many chemicals and additives!! If you are only going vegan for a day or two a week, it doesn’t need to be fancy, complicated or expensive. Quinoa and nuts provide a TON of good protein, and you might not even realize you didn’t use meat or dairy.
7. Use “Fillers”: No, not the hotdog kind 🙂 With 3 hungry man-sized portions at stake for each meal, I have to make it stretch (or double our grocery bill!). Although Paleo fanatics would not agree (starches=evil), you can add rice, potatoes or rice pasta to almost any meal to stretch it. I can’t have potatoes, but sweet potatoes do the trick. For 50 cents more at Trader Joe’s, you can buy the more nutritious quinoa pasta, or just add quinoa (well rinsed, it doesn’t bother most tummies, which is why Paleo followers are on the fence about it). Spending an additional dollar or two on adding these things can make a 4 serving meal into an 8 serving meal.
8. Make a Plan: I once heard the saying, “Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail.” For me in our meal planning, this is SO true. Back before I meal planned, we ate out a LOT, simply because the evening would sneak up on us and before we knew it, we were hungry. When I go to the grocery store without a super itemized list, I always spend at least $40 more (no matter how hard I try!). I know ahead of time what I want to pay for different things like meat, pasta and veggies, so I add it up ahead of time to get a rough estimate. If the number is higher than I want, I spend an extra 5 minutes tweaking the meal plan to get things in order.
Likewise, make sure to plan enough time for grocery shopping, and don’t do it when you’re cranky or worn out. I go into my grocery shopping time like I am playing chess. The moment I am not concentrating or I get exhausted, I end up paying more “just to save time” or because it “looks so yummy!”. Taking that extra trip to a different store, however inconvenient, could save $10-20 per trip– something that would equal $40-80 more per month.
Usually this means I don’t take the kids with me to the store, since I end up concentrating on them instead of my “grocery chess game”. Lately, however, I’ve started taking Gregory because we get a little date out of it, and he gets super involved and stoked about each deal. Sometimes he even cheers me on!
9. Know Your Stores: This probably goes with the last point. I make sure to go to my grocery stores in the right order, so that if I forgo buying something at one because it’s “too expensive”, I can get it at the next place. For me, I always start at Sprouts, Natural Grocers or Whole Foods (depending on my mood, haha!) and get my organic meat and a few gluten free products. I end at either Trader Joe’s or Aldi, and if there’s STILL something I didn’t grab (specialty), we grab it later at Kroger/Vons/Albertsons.
10. Grow Whatever You Can: I left this one for last, since lots of people don’t have room for a huge garden or orchard. When we had a garden bed in CA, without hardly any gardening know-how I was able to grow enough lettuce for months worth of salads, along with hundreds of cherry tomatoes. My parents had an apple and pear tree in their backyard, and it used to produce enough fruit in season to can and save for an entire year– not that we ever fully took advantage of this, but it’s true that just one or two fruit trees can take care of an entire family.
And, there you have it! The little things I’ve done along the way to keep our meals organic AND budget friendly! If anyone has any additional tips, please feel free to comment and I will add them to the list (giving you the credit, of course 🙂 ). Happy grocery shopping!