5 Simple Ways to Eat Healthy AND Save Money on Groceries

5 Simple Ways to Eat Healthy AND Save Money on Groceries

Since I first moved out on my own, I have been trying to figure out this whole grocery shopping thing – how to eat well without overspending money or time.

I have tried everything – from couponing to rebate apps to stockpiling boxes of granola bars [not healthy, by the way]. I shopped exclusively at Aldi for a time. I followed popular shopping bloggers and ran to the store every time they said there was a good deal.

None of these things worked for me. They were all time-consuming and exhausting and didn’t actually seem to save me much money and on top of all that, we weren’t eating healthy foods.

So I’ve been trying to figure out how to spend less on groceries without sacrificing quality or healthfulness.

After ten years, I have FINALLY reached a place where grocery shopping is no longer expensive, time-consuming, or unhealthy. I spend less time meal planning, less time at the grocery store, and less time stressing over the grocery budget than I ever have.

To give you an idea of how much you can save, here are USDA’s recommended grocery budgets.

They vary based on the number and ages of you family members and based on whether you are living lean [“Thrifty plan”] or high on the hog [“Liberal plan”].

So according to this chart, for my family of five, a thrifty plan would be $561.50 per month, if I don’t count my youngest who is only 18 months old, or $655.60 if I do count her.

Doesn’t really matter because our budget is $400/month. This doesn’t include our eating out budget which is $60/month and allows us to eat out about twice per month. Also, every other month we cut our budget in half [a lengthy explanation of which I may write and post someday]. So, technically, we feed our family for $300/month, if we average it out.

That may sound like a lot or a little to you depending on your situation, but for us, it is less than half of what Brett and I were spending back when it was just the two of us – and we weren’t eating nearly as healthy as we do now.

[I’m harping on the healthy thing because anyone can eat ramen noodles every day and save tons of money, but I have found that I can eat super healthy – I’m talking fresh produce and high quality foods – and still save money. So if you are one of the many people today who believe that eating healthy is more expensive, please read on.]

So how do we feed our family healthy foods with so little money? Well, for starters we buy very few processed foods [for our health] and we do our best to avoid packaged foods [for the health of our planet]. Those two things contribute a little bit to our savings – but I know that they are not the reality for the average American [though I wish they were].

The bulk of the money and time is saved by following these five simple rules:

1. Buy what is on sale.

Rather than creating a meal plan and then buying the ingredients regardless of the price, I let the weekly ads determine what we eat each week. In my area, each Wednesday, grocery stores roll out new ads with new deals. I compare the ads from four different local grocers and then choose the one [or maybe two] with the best sales and that’s where I’ll be shopping that week.

Besides simplifying meal planning, another benefit of this rule is that it saves a lot of time at the grocery store. I know exactly what I’m going in to get. I don’t need to price compare a bunch of different options, or stroll down aisles looking at different food choices, or fall prey to the clever marketing tricks like flashy signs and end-caps. I go in, get what’s on sale, get out.

Bottom line, if it’s not on sale, I don’t buy it.

[As with all rules, there are exceptions. In the case of rule #1, I don’t buy my bulk dry goods on sale because most stores don’t offer regular sales on bulk goods. In this case, I am prioritizing my obligation to the health of the planet over money – ALWAYS a good choice, by the way. But I still save plenty of money.]

2. Set price limits.

Over the past two years I’ve learned what a good sale price is for most items and I have set rules for how cheap they need to be. Simply being “on sale” is not necessarily good enough. Not all sale prices are created equal. For example, it is extremely rare that I will buy produce at Aldi because their sale prices are never as good as my other local grocers. If you [as most people do] assume that Aldi is cheaper for everything simply because it’s Aldi, then you are overpaying.

This week, 1lb of strawberries is $1.69 at Aldi and $.88 at Fresh Thyme. In fact, everything on this Aldi ad can be found cheaper elsewhere.

In order to figure out what a good sale price is, you have to pay attention to sales in your area over a period of months. My price limits are still changing as time goes on. For example, I used to only buy boneless chicken if it was under $2/lb, but after a while I learned that I could find it at least once a month for $1.49/lb. So that became my new price limit.

Here are some examples of my price limits [understand that prices will vary greatly depending on your location]:

I won’t buy produce for more than $1/lb. Sometimes I do buy blackberries at $.88/6oz package and I will buy avocados if they are $.79/each or less, but I don’t make a habit of buying these items because they are so expensive compared to normal produce.

I won’t buy cheese for more than $1.50/8oz package. If cheese is not on sale for this price or less, we just do without cheese. It’s not even really a hardship. In fact, I think it has improved my children’s appreciation for the taste of real foods not covered in cheese.

I won’t buy eggs for more than $1/dozen. Though, I admit, I am going to buy eggs from our farm CSA this summer at $5/carton, but in this case, I am prioritizing supporting local agriculture and health over saving money. I will also be limiting our eggs to one carton per week.

Your rules will depend on what eat, but everything should have a price limit required for purchase. There will always be off cases when you simply must have something – like butter to make buttercream for your son’s birthday cake – and it’s not on sale. Okay. Sometimes we have to bend the rules.

3. Eat less meat…and live longer and healthier lives.

I’m a fitness professional, not a registered dietician or nutritionist, so you don’t have to agree with me on the healthful side of this rule. Eat meat if you want, but know this, meat is WAY MORE expensive than plant-based foods. We used to make two or three chicken breasts for our family of five for dinner. Now, we all share one chicken breast [oftentimes less] and fill the majority of our plates with vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes.

Check out choosemyplate.gov.

This is the USDA’s newest recommendation for healthy eating which has replaced the typical food pyramid we all learned in grade school.

Notice that three quarters of the plate are filled with plant-based foods. Now think about how your dinner plate typically looks. Most Americans eat a meat heavy diet, with the protein being the main course and the vegetables and fruits being “sides.”

If you need further evidence, watch the documentary, In Defense of Food, or read the book with the same title by Michael Pollan.

Time to rethink the way we eat…and hopefully soon because the health epidemic in our country is quite literally frightening. But the good news is, eating more plant-based foods is CHEAPER!

Also, according to the chart below by health.gov, over 85% of the population is not eating the recommended amount of vegetables…

C’mon, people. Let’s eat some more veggies!

[Someday I’ll go into greater detail about how to eat healthy on a budget. It is not hard, folks. I promise you!]

4. Buy less food.

This might sound obvious, but apparently it needs to be stated anyway because we have a bit of an overeating problem in America.

According to the CDC, 39.8% of adults in the US are obese [read about it here.] And, shockingly, according to this article by NPR, 75% of Americans believe themselves to be eating healthy…so why are obesity rates so high?

There are lots of factors that contribute to the obesity issue, but no matter where you look, portion size and overeating are partially to blame.

Nutrition scholar Marion Nestle at New York University says portion size β€” just eating too much β€” is an issue. “I’d vote for that as a major cause of obesity,” Nestle told us by email.

“Some of the problem is that individuals pay more attention to getting good things in their diet than they do to limiting overall intake,” adds David Just, a behavioral economist who studies food psychology at Cornell University. – npr.org

The accessibility of food in our society has made overeating too easy. Yes, restaurants serve us too much food, but we also serve ourselves too much food at home. We also stock too much food in our kitchen, making it too easy to eat whatever we want whenever we feel like it.

Let’s all do ourselves a favor and buy less food. There is no reason to stockpile canned goods as if we are fearing an imminent apocalypse…unless you are fearing an imminent apocalypse…in which case, there is no need to save your money because it will be useless when the zombies take over.

Some basic ways to buy less food is:

Go grocery shopping once a week and only buy what you need for that week.

Buy fresh produce so you CAN’T stockpile it. Fresh food is healthier, more likely to be local, and tastes WAY BETTER!

Don’t buy [or buy very little] unhealthy snacks and treats. Don’t spend your hard-earned money on food that is going to make you sick and unhappy in the long run.

Avoid processed and packaged foods – for the sake of your wallet, your health, and the planet.

5. Eat all the food you buy.

Again, this seems obvious…but apparently it’s not because 40% of food in America is thrown away.

In 2012, NRDC published a groundbreaking report that revealed that up to 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. That is on average 400 pounds of food per person every year. Not only is that irresponsibleβ€”it’s expensive [emphasis mine]. Growing, processing, transporting, and disposing that uneaten food has an annual estimated cost of $218 billion, costing a household of four an average of $1,800 annually. – NRDC report by Dana Gunders, source

And before you go blaming it all on grocery stores, this infographic created by the NRDC says that households and restaurants are the biggest generators of food waste [at least in Denver, Nashville and New York].

Of course, on the other hand, we have lots of families in our country who struggle to put food on the table.

So besides the cost of wasted food, I feel just plain terrible knowing that I am throwing food away when some people are not eating today. And I feel like a terrible hypocrite if I talk about our grocery budget being “tight” while I’m throwing food in the trash – or even in the compost bin.

In my home, we do everything we possibly can to avoid wasting food. Some of the ways to reduce our food waste are:

Eat all the leftovers. I set designated days at least once but often twice per week to eat whatever we have that is close to expiring.

Only buy what you need for a week. You may not know what you need for a week, but if you find yourself throwing food out, then you know for next time that you need less. Obviously some things with longer shelf lives, like dairy products and dry goods, don’t need to be purchased weekly. That leads me to the next tip:

Don’t buy more if you still have food to eat. I don’t know why we do this but it seems that it’s totally normal to go buy a full cart of groceries when we still have enough food in our home to feed our family for the next six months. I’m not joking. When we got ready to sell our last home, I started using up all the food that we had in our cabinets and pantry and – oh my gosh – our second freezer. Lo and behold, we had enough food to feed us for months. I decided then and there that stocking so much food in our house was wasteful and expensive and I stopped doing it.

A word on frozen and non-perishable foods: Some people prefer to buy non-perishables because they feel like they throw out more food when they buy fresh – which they really might. The problem is not the fresh food – it’s that there is a disparity between the amount they are buying and the amount they are eating. As I said previously, fresh food is healthier, more likely to be local, and tastes WAY BETTER! Buy fresh food – just not so much – and then EAT IT!

So, this has been a book. If you’ve stuck with me, I hope you’ve found some useful information and, hopefully, some motivation to improve your spending and eating habits.

These are all things I wish someone had told me a lot earlier, but everything I found about saving money on groceries revolved around making a list, not shopping hungry, and clipping coupons. I wanted something that saved me time AND money AND made me a healthier consumer.

For me, this is it.

If you’ve found a method that works for you, share it in the comments! We all have room for improvement!

Happy grocery shopping!

πŸ›’ πŸ›’ πŸ›’

Karis

[Nearly] Zero Waste at Fresh Thyme vol.2

[Nearly] Zero Waste at Fresh Thyme vol.2

Fresh Thyme Farmers Market finally opened a new location close to my home!

Yes, I was there on opening morning waiting in line with some one hundred other people.

No, I am not ashamed.

Though…I did accept the bag of free groceries that was FULL of packaging.

I am slightly ashamed of that…

Still, I was glad to show my support for a grocery store that encourages customers to reduce their waste by putting bulk bins front and center and by making it easy to bring your own containers.

I’ve been a few times since they opened, but most recently I made my first bulk liquid purchase.

I brought my own jars [and a dry erase marker] and weighed them with the cashier before filling them with maple syrup, local honey, and freshly ground peanut butter [it literally ground the peanuts right into my jar – doesn’t get any fresher than that].

Fresh Thyme also sells bulk oils, vinegars, nut butters, and even kombucha – which I fully intend to purchase in the future.

I frickin LOVE this store.

And on top of that, the prices are reasonable. I paid less for the maple syrup than I do for a jar of pure maple syrup from Aldi.

They also don’t give me side eye for checking out with cloth bags and my own jars. My cashier even said it was “so cute.”

πŸ€·β€β™€οΈ

Just doin’ what I do. Being cute AND saving the planet.

The only waste from the purchase was [once again] produce stickers and the receipt.

All in all, a huge success!

Karis

Are you using AmazonSmile?

Are you using AmazonSmile?

Nowadays, everyone seems to shop Amazon…for pretty much everything. So, I’m just making sure that everyone is using AmazonSmile for their purchases.

AmazonSmile is the same Amazon we know and love, but is found at a different url: smile.amazon.com

Just log in with your regular account information, choose a charity, and place your order – then Amazon will donate .5% of the purchase price to your charity [eligible purchases only – but I haven’t even come across any items that don’t qualify yet].

I added a quick link to my phone’s homepage so that I am certain to make all my purchases through AmazonSmile.

Here are the instructions for you to do the same:

To be clear, .5% is not much. I don’t spend that much on Amazon, and I’ve been spending less and less as time goes on, but if I’m going to order something, my charity might as well get a little kickback. As it says below, “every little bit helps.” Over the course of time and with everyone using it, the amount of money can be significant.

Here’s my impact since I started:

Ok, so $13.67 seems a little underwhelming, but that’s $13.67 that wouldn’t have gone to this charity and I didn’t have to do anything other than make my regular purchases through smile.amazon.com.

So, why not?

Please, please, please tell me you are already using AmazonSmile! And what charity do you support?

Happy Smiling!

πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€

Karis

February Clothing Donation

February Clothing Donation

This month, I’m donating [or recycling] 27 items of clothing plus three maternity pieces. [Maternity clothes don’t count towards my total because I didn’t count them in my original clothing inventory].

It’s crazy how much my perspective on my possessions – especially my clothes – has changed over the past ten months. I look in my closet now and I still have way too much, even after giving away more than 270 items from my wardrobe. How on earth did I ever justify buying new clothes? And at the same time I was probably complaining about money being “tight.”

I must have been crazy.

There have been moments when I could have bought more clothes. Believe it or not, I have actually worn my maternity workout pants straight from the washer a few times because I only have one pair and I exercise six days a week, so sometimes when I haven’t had time to dry them [or I forgot about them in the wash…oops], I just put them on straight from the washer. Other times I just wear them over and over again until laundry day. I’ve thought about how nice it would be nice to buy another pair. But I’m only going to be pregnant for a few more months and I don’t really need need them.

So I just do without. And I’ve been doing just fine. [I might be a little smelly…but hopefully no one notices.]

Even though my clothing ban technically ends in two months, I can’t imagine needing to buy any clothing for a very long time. I originally was planning to purchase something from Patagonia, which is one of my preferred ethical brands, as a way of ending the ban in May, but I can’t even justify that because I literally don’t need any clothes. When I do need something though [as in really need something], I look forward to using my consumer dollars to support a company who is transparent and ethical in its treatment of all members of the supply chain AND committed to sustainable and eco-friendly practices [like Patagonia].

If you haven’t read Cait Flander’s book, The Year of Less, or watched the documentary The True Cost, both of which inspired the start of my clothing ban last May [and my subsequent transformation], YOU SHOULD DO IT ASAP. They will not leave you unchanged.

Karis

January Clothing Donation

January Clothing Donation

Three notable things happened this month regarding my clothing ban:

1. We sold our bedroom set and moved all of our clothing into our closets.

I have these six drawers [still hanging around from my college days] which contain all the clothes that currently fit [all seasons] and a top shelf that holds all of the clothes that I can’t fit into while pregnant but that I will [hopefully] fit into again someday. I also have some hanging dresses/skirts/cardigans [maternity and regular].

This feels like a big accomplishment – and also makes our bedroom feel MUCH larger in the absence of the huge sleigh bed with storage, two full dressers, and two excessively large nightstands, which of course we thought we needed when we got married.

My, how we’ve changed. Now, our bed is on the floor, two plastic storage bins serve as nightstands, and we have a laundry basket against the wall. That’s it.

[Well, we also currently have a huge collection of items headed to charity along one wall.]

2. Brett bought me a sweater.

I mean, look at this thing! It is basically a Snuggie that I can wear out of the house without ridicule! Would you say no to this level of comfort???

This is the first new piece of clothing I have bought [indirectly] since last May. I’ve received a new work uniform, two race shirts for the Chicago Marathon, and a dress that was a Christmas present, but this is the first piece of clothing to come from our money.

I kinda feel badly about it. [But only kinda.] It was new and it was from Express. Neither would be my preference. But it’s so soft and so comfy and I have worn it literally every day since I got it.

And I technically didn’t buy it…

As penance, I’m giving away an extra ten items from my wardrobe this month for a total of 36.

Hey, I never said I was perfect.

3. I mended some clothes instead of tossing them.

By “mended” I mean I used a travel sewing kit to [very poorly and by hand] stitch a few holes and tears in a couple of clothing pieces that I would like to wear again. A year ago, I would have tossed these and just bought a replacement. [I wouldn’t have even recycled them! Egad!]

Now I’m wondering whether I should try to fix my socks with holes…

[googling “how to darn socks”]

Additional thoughts…

We are in the middle of the “polar vortex” here in Chicagoland with temperatures in the -20s, which has me thinking of all the less fortunate people in my community without warm clothes, without winter coats and hats, and everyone living on the streets who hopefully found somewhere warm to stay today.

It made me think, Why should everyone in my family have multiple coats, hats, and pairs of gloves when there are people in my own community who have none?

So, I am going to give all of our extra winter gear to local shelters who are providing safety and warmth for the less fortunate in my town. We only need one winter coat. And the extra coat that just sits in the closet most of the time might make a big difference to someone this winter.

If you are as privileged as I am to always have a warm place to sleep and lots of warm clothes and several warm coats, I hope you’ll consider doing the same.

Karis

[Nearly] Zero Waste at Aldi

[Nearly] Zero Waste at Aldi

A few months ago, I stopped shopping at Aldi – partly because every other grocery store in my area has better sales each week and partly because [nearly] all of Aldi’s produce is wrapped in plastic.

BUT, today was one of those days when a killer avocado sale happened to coincide with my desperate need to restock toilet paper and the promise of being in and out in ten minutes sealed the deal.

[I also appreciate that I can seat both of my toddlers next to each other in the front of the cart. AND I don’t get a bunch of weird looks when I bring my own bags.]

For being the first big grocery chain I have ever heard of to not offer bags, I’m surprised that they aren’t a little more eco friendly in the produce aisle…but I don’t know a thing about the grocery business. I’m sure there is a reason that a 2lb plastic bag of honeycrisp apples costs $2 and two pounds of loose honeycrisp apples costs $4.

Anyway, I did what I could and here is what I got:

Gallon of milk – plastic carton will be recycled. I am still unable to convince my husband to trade milk for a non-dairy variety. And I still haven’t convinced myself to buy milk in glass containers – but that day is coming. I would really like to find a refillable situation from a local farm, but haven’t found one yet. Does that even exist anymore?

Cartons of eggs – cardboard containers will be recycled or composted. I plan to buy my eggs as part of my farm share this summer and just refill my carton each week, but in the meantime, we buy only cardboard cartons.

Box of pasta – I didn’t have to buy this, but I wanted it to make lemon butter shrimp pasta later this week with shrimp we were given…and the box will be recycled. I don’t have the tools necessary to make any pasta noodles besides lasagna at this point.

Toilet paper – plastic wrapping will be recycled via store drop off and the tubes will be recycled or composted. I am still working on bringing my husband around to the bidet idea…

Loose produce – bananas, pineapples, avocados, cucumber – all loose and at decent prices. In general, I have found Aldi’s produce prices [even on sale] to be pretty terrible compared to local produce sale prices. Every part of these foods that aren’t eaten will be composted. The stickers are the only waste.

Romaine lettuce – I couldn’t find a single type of lettuce that wasn’t packaged in plastic, so I got this bag of romaine which seemed to have the greatest lettuce to plastic ratio. The plastic bag will be recycled via store drop off – but it still makes me kind of sad.

Sauce, pesto, syrup – all in glass bottles. Aldi offers cheaper pasta sauce and syrup in plastic bottles, which I passed on. Glass is a great material than can be continually reused and recycled.

As I was shopping, I passed all the usual stuff that I used to buy every week – pretzels, applesauce, salad dressing, yogurt, cottage cheese, bread, buns – but I make all that stuff myself now.

The stuff I can’t make, I buy. The stuff I buy, I try to find without packaging. The stuff that I can’t find package-free, I try to find in sustainable packaging like glass or cardboard.

That’s my [nearly] zero waste game plan. It has some weaknesses and I’m not perfect [still super far from storing my annual waste in a jar] but these small attempts at mindfulness when I’m shopping go a long way over the course of time.

Happy shopping!

πŸ›’ πŸ›’ πŸ›’

Karis

[Nearly] Zero Waste at Walmart

[Nearly] Zero Waste at Walmart

To be honest, this shopping trip was pretty far from “zero waste.” I’m admittedly using “nearly” very loosely here. The good news is that all of the waste, with the exception of the produce stickers, can be recycled or composted.

I don’t typically shop at Walmart, but when the closest bulk store is 30 minutes away and I have all three kids with me and we just spent the morning at the doctor and we really need some basics for baking and produce for snacks…well, sometimes I end up going to Walmart.

[This is actually the first time such a thing has happened because I try my best to always plan ahead and therefore avoid this problem.]

I don’t even have the time or energy to sort through my varied and complex feelings about Walmart in general. So, I had to do what I could, and I’m happy to report that, at the very least, I didn’t bring very much waste home.

Here’s a breakdown of what I got:

Flour and Sugar

I usually buy these from the bulk bins at Whole Foods or [recently] Fresh Thyme, but I just couldn’t get all the way to one of those stores. But, the good news is that these bags are compostable and I bought the largest bags I have space to store. My biggest bummer is actually that I’m not certain that the sugar is fair trade.

Extra virgin olive oil

We usually buy it at Walmart because it is a good price for a big jug [even though the jug is unfortunately plastic], BUT I will be buying my EVOO from Fresh Thyme from now on since they have it in bulk and I can bring my own container.

Toilet paper

I haven’t found a source of unpackaged toilet paper yet, so I buy the rolls in large packages and recycle the plastic wrap [grocery store drop off] and all of the cardboard rolls [curbside pickup].

I wish we were to the point of not using any toilet paper, but my husband is not a fan of the make-shift bidet [aka diaper sprayer].

Yeast

I buy my yeast in glass jars because I use a lot of yeast and glass is a sustainable material and good for reusing [like storing homemade baby food or making homemade candles] or recycling.

Milk

Ah, milk – the bane of my zero waste existence. I see why it is so much easier to be truly “zero waste” as a vegan. But my husband cannot live without milk. We could buy it in glass bottles, but I just can’t bring myself to do it yet. So, the downside is three plastic jugs to be recycled. BUT, on the upside, one gallon is for making homemade yogurt, and the other is for making homemade ricotta…so I’m saving the waste I would have if I bought those things.

[I’m trying to convince my family to switch over to the cashew milk I make and think is delicious – but change takes time…]

Produce

I picked up loose produce and put it in my own bags. The only regret is that the bananas are not fair trade – but I don’t even know where to find fair trade bananas. [Suggestions, anyone?]

Ironically, the produce is the only place where I brought home something actually bound for the trash can – the stickers.

But, I guess if this is all that goes to the landfill, that’s not too bad after all.

Karis