How to Afford Real Food

This is such a fantastic guest post from one of dearest online friends. She is passionate about eating real foods and giving her daughter a good nutritional foundation. Thanks so much, Cassandra!

Despite what might be said by many of the people who write about good nutrition on the internet, it does, in fact, cost a lot of money to eat healthy when you don’t have much money to begin with. When people talk about how it’s not really that expensive to eat high quality, whole foods, they pretty much always fail to mention that it’s because they’re averaging the costs of buying in bulk or for producing their own food.Although it’s true that buying in bulk and producing your own food saves a ton of money and can bring the weekly costs per person down to a pretty low amount, those people clearly have no idea what it means to be truly financially strained. When you’ve only got $100 (or $50, or even $20) in your pocket to feed your whole family for a week, or you’re on food stamps and WIC checks, it gets downright painful figuring out how to eat right. Not to mention the cost of your time and effort in procuring and preparing whole foods! And couponing definitely doesn’t help matters because you will almost never see coupons for something that is not processed and/or laden with chemicals.

Go easy on yourself! Learning about good nutrition and how to implement the principals of good nutrition in your life is like learning a new language. You’re suddenly immersed in this whole culture based on food and it can be so overwhelming trying to navigate all these ideas and terms you might have never really heard before, not to mention the sticker shock in the organic section. It’s ok though, because nobody expects you to become fluent in a new language overnight, or a month, or a whole year.

Be filled! One of the important ideas to understand as you make these changes is that when you’re eating the right quality foods in the right amounts, you eat less overall. Usually this is due to eating high amounts of healthy fats, but I’ve found even a farm fresh tomato was more filling than one from the store. Good food gives you more bang for your buck.

Get social! Human networking is the single best way to get your hands on good food at a good price. Coming from someone who grew up basically crippled by social awkwardness and anxiety, suggesting this at all says a lot. If you put yourself out there, you may be shocked by the rewards.

For an easy first step, check out a Weston A. Price Foundation chapter in your area. Many have online communities and regular meetings making it easy to connect with others. Even if there isn’t one reasonably close, go ahead and talk to one or several chapter leaders to let them know you’re on the lookout for resources in your area. Don’t forget chapters across state lines!

Join a buying club! Most buying clubs do not cater solely to bulk buyers. It’s usually possible to buy only a small amount at a time and even if that item is rarely offered, a little savings here and there can add up. You can usually find a buying club by talking to your Weston A Price Foundation chapter leader.

A buying club can also connect you with other people without much money to spend and you may be able to organize small, frequent bulk buys such as a whole cow shared amongst 20 people. I’ve even seen someone sell off the more expensive cuts of meat and used the “profit” to subsidize the costs of the cheaper cuts for everyone else.

Meet some farmers! Find out about local farms and what they sell. Visit the farm and talk with the people there, even if you can’t buy anything. Getting to know the farmer may open up the opportunity to barter your time, a craft or a service from your regular job. See if they know of anyone else nearby who has resources. Some farms accept food stamps and WIC checks as well.

Farmer’s Markets are of course another option and will quickly teach you the value of buying seasonal items as well as local items. Becoming a regular customer at a Farmer’s Market may provide discounts or get you in on special buys. Most markets are also now taking food stamps and WIC checks.

Utilize your neighborhood! You can check Craigslist or Eatwild to find small nearby farms or backyard farmers. I get pastured duck eggs from a backyard farmer in my town for the same price or less as “Certified Organic Eggs” at the store.

Talk to people in your neighborhood with fruit trees or bushes and if they might be willing to let you “clean up” their yard for them.

Find a local foraging group or look up books at the library about foraging. All those awful dandelions? Some people pay a premium for those nutritious salad greens.

Readjust your focus! Most of us have been raised to look at calories or fat content when we shop, if we look at labels at all, but making good food choices is about the quality of ingredients, not the quantities. Doing this cuts out a huge chunk of the selection from the average grocery store, naturally forcing you to stop spending your money on the packaged expensive junk and instead buy real, whole foods. You especially want to look out for extruded grains, industrial oils and MSG.

Eat simple! Unless you already cook a lot from scratch, you might have to eat simple dishes for a while and you might even have to relearn how to cook. I thought I was a great cook until I realized I only knew how to put packaged ingredients together. If you’re confused about shopping for good food, do yourself a favor and stay away from the cookbooks! It’s better to just eat simple dishes until you get the hang of shopping and budgeting first.

Replace common items! Not all staples will be easy to afford or make at home, but always keep your eye out for ways to replace them with healthier, cheaper alternatives. As an example, for the cost of sugar and flavoring, you can completely eliminate soda and juice by making kombucha or water kefir. While good quality stuff definitely helps, it’s not the end of the world to use regular white cane sugar (not GMO beet sugar!) and juice since the bacteria and yeasts will eat most of it up. It’s still better than high fructose corn syrup and will benefit rather than harm you!

Check the bulk sections! Again, even if you’re not actually buying in bulk, it’s possible to buy small amounts from places meant for bulk buying. Not to mention if you’re on a weekly budget, you can save money by getting precisely the amount of the ingredient you need. A lot of basic items are cheaper, like dried beans, and quite a few higher quality items are only slightly more expensive, like evaporated cane juice.

Pay attention to your health! If your family thrives better on certain foods, don’t waste your money buying stuff that does them no favors and may even end up thrown out because no one will eat it. My husband and daughter both thrive on meats, so we buy lower quality produce in favor of higher quality meat. This idea is more true when allergies and sensitivities are concerned. There’s no use buying high quality bread if your family is allergic or sensitive to grains. Just don’t buy bread at all.

Consider raw milk! Introducing raw milk into my household was the single best decision I could have ever made for the health of my family. No matter how little money we might have to spend on food, I always make sure we have enough for the milk. On average a gallon of raw milk costs about $10, which sounds truly exorbitant, but it is such a filling, nutrient dense food that you can basically make a pint of milk a meal in itself. It is so nutritious that many people have actually lived for years on just milk. If you can afford no other good food, raw milk is something you should definitely look into trying to get. This is a good option for bartering!

Choose the lesser of two evils! This premise has been at the crux of my changes in learning to eat healthy on a really limited budget. Decide which foods are important for you to have and figure out what other foods it wouldn’t be totally awful to go cheap on. For example, I would rather afford pastured eggs than a high quality sandwich bread. Considering it’s hard to find a truly healthy bread in the first place and frequently, the white bread doesn’t have many more bad ingredients than the expensive stuff, this is a pretty easy compromise.

Be realistic! For many people with financial limitations, time, energy, and even pleasure can be a major factor in eating healthy. Sometimes when life is just dreadfully awful, eating some store bought cookies is the only thing that feels good. Maybe you can only take a bus to the store and it’s not feasible to go to 3 different places looking for the best prices. And if you don’t have any time to make food from scratch, how does that matter at all?

This articleby the acupuncturist Chris Kresser sums it up really well: There’s more to health than food, and there’s more to life than health.”

Thanks again, Cassandra. You make such great points. I know this will help lots of families start integrating healthier food options into their routines and make it possible. If you are looking for a good book to help you get started on figuring out exactly what Real Food is, check out Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.

So how do you make it work when buying real food? If you’re looking for more Real Food resources, check out this page!

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  • Emily @ Random Recycling
    February 2, 2012 at 7:58 PM

    Awesome post! I have Nourishing Traditions checked out from the library and it’s a worthwhile read. So far I’ve made the yogurt cheese and whey, the cheese is a big hit with the kids.
    I also recommend Nina Planck’s books too for more info on how to prioritize your money to buy the healthiest food. Start with the largest protein source (like meat/chicken) and choose the best and then see what else you can afford, like organic dairy and organic produce last.

    I’m on a farmer’s market board and I’m pushing to get us to accept WIC/SNAP coupons for our opening season. I think the more we make local, healthy food accessible to all, the more we can prevent healthy issues for our country in the future.

    • Stephanie
      February 2, 2012 at 11:00 PM

      That book sounds interesting! I will have to check it out soon. Thanks for all your hard work on the farmers board, we need more people like you!

  • Julie
    February 2, 2012 at 9:53 PM

    An essential companion guide to Nourishing Traditions is Meals that Heal it really helps break down all the steps involved if you are just getting your feet wet in real food cooking.

    • Stephanie
      February 2, 2012 at 10:59 PM

      Thanks for the reminder Julie. I love that book too!

  • Kristy
    February 3, 2012 at 7:07 PM

    How do you make kefir water? What does it taste like?

    • Stephanie
      February 3, 2012 at 8:06 PM

      With water kefir graines. It is really easy. I have never been able to make kombucha, but water keifer I can do. It kinda of tastes like ginger ale to me.

      • Cassandra
        February 3, 2012 at 9:57 PM

        A couple tablespoons, a cup of sugar and a gallon of water is all you need. Even then the amount of kefir grains doesn’t really matter, just depends on how fast you want it fermented. I also add a quart of 100% cranberry juice to mine because the juice is sooo strong and tart that it evens out with the water and sugar, super good flavor. You can get flavor extracts or mix it with a bit of juice when you pour. We have some frozen apple juice concentrate left I’m going to experiment with because if kefir grains will work with that stuff, it would be absolutely amazing for people stuck on WIC.

        • Stephanie
          February 4, 2012 at 12:16 AM

          I have never tried adding cranberry juice! That sounds delish!

  • JackiGail
    February 3, 2012 at 8:12 PM

    I was at one time a young single mother on limited income in the days before food stamps. I grew carrots and strawberries in flower pots on my porch. Went shopping with other women to share bulk items. Bought chicken necks, and beef neck bones to have flavor of meat in dishes. Learned early frozen was better than canned for my health. Ate sugar sandwiches when we had no jam, sweeten beans so my child would eat them. Worked, came home and cooked from scratch and prayed there would be enough left over to make a meal the next day. Made cornmeal pancakes for a treat. Eating well when on limited income is difficult but with imagination it can be done.

    • Cassandra
      February 3, 2012 at 9:13 PM

      One obstacle I’ve encountered with young families today is not the inability to make things work, but the knowledge. Even 20 years ago, young people were still gleaning skills from older generations to cook from scratch and make things work on a budget, but now with so many young adults having grown up on prepackaged meals, fast food, etc. they not only have to teach themselves how to budget and how to shop, but also how to cook and manage their time to make it all work together. A complete lack of basic homemaking knowledge has definitely been one of my set backs in creating a better, healthier life for my family. Doesn’t mean it’s an excuse, it’s just an obstacle to overcome.

      • Stephanie
        February 4, 2012 at 12:16 AM

        A. Freaking. Men.

      • Erin
        February 9, 2012 at 2:00 AM

        I so agree. I am always taken aback when talking about food with other people and they look at my like I’m E.T. because I *made* something…without a can of condensed something or processed or packaged anything. But I think most of the people I know have the desire to eat well, to successfully feed their families–they just do not know where to start. I recently shared a homemade granola-bar recipe with a friend, and she felt too intimidated by it to even try. Unfortunately, a lot of our parents used a lot of shortcut, more expensive, less healthful foods to prepare meals, so that’s what we saw. It’s just knowledge. (I find especially that most women don’t know what to do with any sort of legume, especially if it’s not from a can, and spices and herbs.)

    • Audie
      February 9, 2012 at 12:49 AM

      I am a single mom as well. I am blessed to have grown up learning to cook from scratch and making everything stretch because there was very little money to buy the basics. My parents taught us how to plant a garden,and they showed us how to can and freeze the veggies. I am looking forward to showing my children how to do this. Knowledge is power! So stick to the basics and it can be really simple and fun.

  • Nikki Hitchcock
    February 6, 2012 at 7:48 PM

    I use occasional moments like “Wow I have fifty dollars left over this week?!” to bulk order things like grains and legumes. It means that I am never running out at the last minute for them (saving on gas AND frustration AND those little impulse buys) and I am always well stocked. On those days when all I have is some bone broth and my bulk items, I can always have real, honest food, even if it is simple.
    Also, we keep chickens, so we always have fresh eggs around.

  • Olivia
    February 6, 2012 at 10:47 PM

    This is a great article. 🙂 WIC also has put out a cookbook now with ingredients they provide which has helped me to be creative with my food. Learning to cook from scratch has been a little by little process and with 3 children under 4 it can be a bit time consuming but very rewarding. I also cook in bulk and freeze the meals and cook with friends which helps keep the cost down because we can buy in bulk.

  • Julie @ PushingTwigs
    February 7, 2012 at 2:23 PM

    Great article…we are trying to be more conscious of what we purchase at the grocery store. I’ve been researching local farms and farmer’s markets, also. I’ve started making my own yogurt and that stuff is amazing compared to what you buy at the store.

    I agree that if you eat the portion-sizes that are more realistic, you won’t eat as much, and it really doesn’t take much to fill you up.

    I’m looking forward to checking out the farmer’s markets this spring/summer…thanks for the great post!

  • Ella
    February 10, 2012 at 5:26 PM

    I recently saw a documentary about child obesity in the USA and was shocked at people telling the price of junk food/fast food compared to fresh produce! I am from France, living in Norway and in both countries, most people can afford “real food” because fresh veggies and ingredients are not that expensive… Also here in Europe we have a strong culture for homemade food, slow food is still very common here fortunately 🙂

    • Stephanie
      February 10, 2012 at 7:14 PM

      Yeah, their are some horrific things going on in the USA in regards to food. GMO’s and processed food, it is just a nightmare.

  • Carpetbagvintage
    February 24, 2012 at 12:03 AM

    The whole time I was reading this and then especially in the last paragraph all I kept thinking about was an episode of Roseanne when she was trying to get Dan to eat healthy and he said something about junk food being the last joy he could afford! I so understand that over the last year or so! Very good post and much more realistic than I have seen in a while. I actually used to buy a local farmers overripe/imperfect tomatoes buy the box full and anything else he would sale like that…I just stopped by every few days to check…man those roasted tomatoes were awesome!

    • Stephanie
      February 24, 2012 at 5:05 AM

      That is great! I buy imperfect veggies sometimes and they taste just the same!

  • THeresa
    December 13, 2012 at 4:18 PM

    I buy dry beans at the bulk store. I had no luck soaking them any way and cooking for hours and hours (which takes too much time and electricity!) Then I discovered the pressure cooker! Put in 2 1/2 times as much water as beans (rinse them well first to get the dirt off!) Cook at the pressurized state for 5-7 min. cool. You end up with nice soft beans just like from a can. Then I freeze them in smaller packages (so I don’t have to do this every time!) My family loves black beans! I put them in soups (Taco soup is delicious and there are lots of recipes out there), chili, salsa…. I also make and freeze baked beans so that I have them on hand to throw into chili or soups. THey’re nice and sweet and my kids like them. I also learned to can my soups! THis sounds so difficult but you only need to boil the lids and seal; let the jars heat up in the oven to 200′ and make sure the soup is boiling when you pour it in – then put the tops on tight and wait for them to pop down! I always have healthy and inexpensive soup in my pantry now!

    • Cassandra
      December 13, 2012 at 5:11 PM

      That’s awesome! Thank you for sharing.

  • Annette Baker
    March 14, 2013 at 4:04 AM

    When making the Polynesian Chicken in the slow cooker freezer recipes, do you cut the chicken into pieces or leave the breasts whole? The recipe didn’t specify. Thank you! My daughter is pregnant with our first grand daughter and is on bed rest for the next 3 weeks or so until the baby is born, I am making freezer meals for her to have now and after the baby is born.

    Love the cookbook!

    Annette Baker

    • Stephanie
      March 14, 2013 at 1:30 PM

      Either way is just fine. 🙂

  • Jess
    June 2, 2013 at 9:26 PM

    What a lovely post. Thank you for thinking of those of us without a lot of money…I’ve found some shortcuts along the way, but learned quite a few more in this post.

  • Laura
    July 10, 2013 at 9:40 PM

    Loved this!! I am a college student paying bills on a part time job and sometimes it just seems WAY TOO HARD to eat right, when I can just eat crap for cheap! I’m big on organic foods but it has been so hard to afford organic foods and products. I recently started buying staples in bulk and it is truly worth it.

    • Stephanie
      July 11, 2013 at 3:21 PM

      Good for you for eating well in college! I started buying organic food when I was 19, and everyone thought I was such a wierdo. Keep up the good work!