We all must eat, but how do we draw the line between healthy and affordable food? Can we have both? Here’s a look at food spending in America and how to achieve eating healthy on a budget.
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Food Spending in America
Eating healthy, nutrient-dense food and staying out of debt arguably should be two of the most important components of any lifestyle. They certainly affect our present vitality and our future prosperity.
Most people would not dispute this, but historically we’ve had a tenuous relationship with food, and a misguided notion that good food is expensive.
Fact: Americans spend less of their household income on food than anyone else in the world.
Essentially, what we think of as ‘expensive’ is normal for other global citizens. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that buying real food is easy. But I am wondering if our priorities are a little jaded.
I mean, how do non-Americans cope with their high food prices?
The answer is that, when compared to Americans, global citizens spend less money buying stuff and entertainment, and more time just being–enjoying the company of friends and family, being outside, etc. Culturally, we Americans have a sense of entitlement about our spending. We expect to be able to have every possession or social experience we desire, and we mostly get what we want (by global standards).
But we get it at the expense of what’s most important. We might have a hobby of going to live music concerts and hit 10 of them a year, for example. Meanwhile our house is falling down and our kids are eating tasteless, nutrition-void school lunches.
I had a conversation with the owner of a local gas station recently, an older gentleman from India. He complained to me–as he counted all of the pennies from a young teenager who was buying a Mountain Dew:
If you don’t have any money, why do you need a Mountain Dew? What is wrong with Americans? We should be so thankful for the roof over our heads, good food on the table, and good family relationships.
What could be more important than those three things? Americans are always living with a sense of scarcity, like their lives are horrible because they don’t have x,y,z and can’t do x,y,z. But they are forgetting to nurture the three most important things”.
In order to buy the things we want (disguised as needs), we have to make sacrifices in other areas, which often leads to buying cheap food. Cheap food at bargain basement prices is not a deal. Just because I clip 100 coupons and have a ‘cost savings’ line at the bottom of my receipt, doesn’t mean it was a deal.
That’s because our bodies need nutrients to function properly, and there aren’t any nutrients in cheap food.
Economics 101: It’s not a good deal if what you buy is devoid of what you’re buying it for.
One *could* buy cheap food and spend all of one’s time driving to various medical specialists, paying deductibles, and buying prescriptions…but why would one, when one could pay for good food and then sit back and enjoy life?
I’m stumped as to why we–as a society–don’t make the connection between nutrients from real food and health.
There are people in my life who whine about being victimized in one way or another and make excuses about why they can’t buy real food. Certainly there are temporary and tragic situations out there. But the bottom line is that *most* people don’t plan or budget for real food. Then they throw in the towel by saying, ‘well, I’m not as lucky as you. I’m dealing with x,y,z.’
Deflecting the blame to others only goes so far: Your spending history tells the real story about where your priorities lie. (You can hide it from others, but you know the real secret!)
Also, we’ve all been there! You can choose to turn the bus around at any time! It’s painful and it’s hard to take charge of spending…but it’s so worth the amazing sense of accomplishment and financial freedom.
There has to be a desire and commitment to have nutrient-dense food more than the urges for ‘wants-disguised-as-needs’.
It’s true, some governmental policies shape the affordability of real food. But in the homesteading world, we don’t complain about things we can’t change. Rather, we think about creative solutions that empower us.
For example, did you know that SNAP benefits can be used to purchase seeds for a garden? You could grow a family’s entire year’s worth of tomatoes with just one seed packet. This is a really great economic choice considering the potential nutrient density that could come out of a packet of seeds.
Have a Food Budget
Our daily lives are so busy that we tend to think we’re doing the best we can.
Never mistake motion for action. – Ernest Hemingway
Perhaps our busyness is in many ways inefficient and misdirected. I fall into this trap myself sometimes when I mis-prioritize which tasks during the day are essential, and which are not.
But it’s important to examine how we spend our time and money, because it’s the only way for us to catch ourselves justifying bad habits or behaviors that don’t ultimately help us achieve our true wishes and goals.
Most people I know who complain that they are powerless to change their situation can’t show me a household financial plan. ‘What’s your plan? What’s your budget?’, I ask. Crickets. No plan.
If you’re having trouble budgeting and affording basic necessities, I recommend checking out Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps. They definitely changed our world. If your excuse is that you can’t afford good food but you don’t have a plan to make your financial life different, it’s not that you can’t have good food, it’s that you won’t have good food.
Here’s a crazy example: If you’re in danger of having your electric turned off because you can’t pay your bill and are eating fast food because it’s all you can afford, then you probably don’t need to buy Halloween presents for all of your grandkids. This example may or may not refer to someone I know 🙂
It’s when we don’t have a plan that we don’t realize where the extra money is going (Halloween presents–‘a want-disguised-as-a-need’), because we’re not recording our spending. It just flows away like water.
How to Afford Good Food
Now, that rant aside…WHEW! There are lots of things we can do to save money AND buy good food. Here are just a few suggestions.
1. Grow your own food.
We save money on food by eating what we grow and putting some up for the winter: Homegrown organic vegetables, fruit, and herbs, harvested and processed at the peak of freshness.
The garden is our number one priority that saves us money and gives us good food. Responsibilities around the house get pushed aside for this one.
2. Make a weekly meal plan.
Now, you may not be able to grow all of your own food, so you have to be smart about what you choose to eat and where you purchase it.
We saved $1,000 in one year by creating two-week meal plans, recording what we actually ate, and sticking to the following suggestions.
Get my meal-plan template and read about our big savings at the same time!
I make recipes in large quantities that span at least two meals, and last much longer if I can manage it. If you haven’t made a meal plan before, the data you collect from meal planning/recording will help you discover what exactly your family likes to eat, what your go-to meals are, and where your pitfalls are for packaged convenience foods or staying on budget.
For more tips, see my post: 4 get-started tips for the homestead kitchen
WARNING: You need a weekly meal plan to go on to step 3!
3. Comparison Shop in a Day!
This is how we figure out what to eat and where to buy it for the best price.
Shop Day is a big event, so plan for it and clear your schedule. Maybe even make it a family event and plan a special ‘last supper’ out while you’re running around town!
Make it the day that your local farmers’ market is open–you’ll want to check there, too.
Cost Comparison Day, Step 1:
Look at your two-week meal plan/record and tally up a list of your 10 most-used items.
An aggregate of multiple weeks of meal plans will be even more helpful. Your goal is to get these top 10 items in their most nutrient dense form for the price you can afford. To find out what you can afford, create a written monthly budget a la Dave Ramsey 🙂
Cost Comparison Day, Step 2:
Check the Environmental Working Group for the Dirty Dozen List.
The “dirty” produce items have the highest amount of pesticides, and should be purchased as organic as possible, while other produce items can be purchased conventionally to fit within your budget. Note that frequently the organic prices are cheaper!
All animal products should be as local, pastured, hormone-free, and/or organic as possible. Remember, we’re not going after perfection, we’re just going to shift some of our 10 most-eaten items to better options.
In our house, after the Dirty Dozen produce, our money goes to clean meat.
Cost Comparison Day, Step 3:
Make a list of calls to make in your area to compare prices.
- grocery stores – regular and health/natural food stores
- membership-required big box stores such as Costco or Sam’s
- farmers’ markets
- specialty shops that sell local and organic food
- direct-to-consumer farm sales such as CSAs and farm stands. Here in Cincinnati I check my CinciLocavore yahoo group and Edible Ohio Valley magazine to find pastured livestock farmers.
- delivery programs such as my local Green Bean Delivery
Cost Comparison Day, Step 4:
Visit each of these places or call.
Don’t be afraid to tell them what you’re doing (creating your food budget). Farmers and small market owners are accustomed to answering questions about their growing practices–it’s your right to know what you’re buying.
For each location visited, note the price for each item (per unit) on your top 10 list, and whether it was organic, conventional, local, grass-fed, pastured, etc.
Cost Comparison Day, Step 5:
Tally it up.
Figure out where you will purchase your top 10 food items in their healthiest form, for the best price.
Is there a trend? Can you narrow it down to a few stops? Don’t worry about all of the food on your meal plan for now. If you can pick the top 10 things your household eats the most of and switch to the most economical nutrient-dense option, then you are taking some big steps toward health and prosperity.
Tip: I know you’re thinking that some of these specialty places for groceries are going to be more expensive than others. But have an open mind! It’s how I saved $1,000 in one year by switching where I bought my groceries, even though I was getting better quality food.
I make 5 stops per month to shop for my household, and I was surprised to find out that there were far more “deals” at my health food store than at the budget grocery store.
Cost Comparison Day, Step 6:
Evaluate how your nutrient-dense top 10 will affect your food budget.
Perhaps you found a local farmer selling grass-fed beef in bulk, which actually saves you money in the long run. Great! Everybody wins!
If your research indicates, however, that your food budget would go up significantly to eat more cleanly, and this is something you legitimately can’t afford, then there are still options.
Tips for making it affordable
1. Put something on hold.
Look at your overall budget and decide if there’s any regular spending item your family might want to put on hold. It should be a family decision. Maybe it’s Friday night movies (watch one you already own!) or fewer birthday presents.
Explain why you’d like to see better food as a priority. Is it health? Fewer doctor’s visits? Better moods? More connection to community? Environmental conservation? Animal welfare?
Perhaps the kids enjoy the trip to the farmers market and are willing to give up one of their many extracurricular programs in order to have this experience.
Maybe you decide to pick your top 5 foods rather than your top 10.
2. Change it out.
Snack food is the biggest money waster. Most store-bought snack foods are full of bad things and most are designed to make you crave them so you’ll eat more than one serving. Try making your own Lara bars or beef jerkey at a fraction of store prices, and without all the chemicals.
3. Choose Meat OR Veggies.
Switch your meat choices to healthier options, but keep your produce choices the same, or visa versa.
4. Eat from the Pantry.
Stick to the food budget! When we’ve spent our monthly food budget but there are still days left in the month, we don’t just go to the grocery store. On the contrary, we shop in our own pantry. We may not have the most exciting of meals, but goals take commitment and sacrifice.
Living debt-free while eating nutrient dense food is absolutely rewarding in the end. And I definitely feel like we’ve accomplished something at the end of every month.
5. Nix the Eating Out.
We have a strict eating out policy at our house: Once a week! Americans spend a third of their food budget on eating out. Remember, fast food isn’t a treat when you’re paying for food that is devoid of nutrients. That’s what we call a rip-off!
What’s your eating out policy?
More resources for affording good food and staying motivated to achieve your dreams:
- 5 reasons to homestead in the suburbs
- 7 ways to start a homestead (without being overwhelmed)
- How I started homesteading
- Is homesteading attainable?
- The romanticism of homesteading
- What if you can’t grow all of your food?
We can all do this, and it won’t be easy. It takes time, effort, and sacrifice. It takes research. It takes organization. It takes someone with leadership qualities who can guide their household toward healthier food and financial awareness. If you start with transitioning 5 or 10 of your top foods to nutrient dense choices, you can always scale up. But the results are amazing: A budget under control, a family eating nutrients, and a feeling of teamwork and accomplishment.
How do you manage to eat good food at an affordable price? What can’t you live without?