Eating Naturally on an Unnatural Budget


jars of food and money“Feeding three kids on one income can be tough,” says Shari Fisher of Andover, Minnesota. That is especially true when you want your kids to have the healthiest choices available. Like most Americans, Fisher is prevented from buying more of her family’s food from the organic section of her local market due to the price difference over conventional food.

If this story feels all too familiar, you’re not alone. In fact, more than half of all Americans who frequently consume organic foods are living on an annual budget of $30,000 or less. It is fortunate that increases in organic and natural food popularity have created new ways for families on a tight budget to buy more of the things they like. Here are some of the best ways to afford healthy foods without committing to endless hours in the kitchen or getting a second job.

Buy in Bulk

Stores with bulk foods are one of the biggest blessings to financially strapped families. These stores are not limited to natural food stores and co-ops; various local supermarket chains have now also started selling natural and organic bulk items. In many bulk sections, you will find a large variety of flours, an array of whole grain rice, sugars, pastas, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, snacks, and even oils. Not only are prices usually much cheaper than buying packaged selections of the same product, but you can buy only how much you need for a week at a time. If you buy from a store whose bulk supply is replenished frequently, your food will also be much fresher.

Many people stray from bulk sections mainly because of the unfamiliarity with such a concept. Experiment at first, and just make a couple selections to get a feel for it. Soon you’ll find yourself skipping over many of the aisles you previously shopped from and half of your groceries will be in the store’s plastic bags or containers! If your store has plastic containers for its bulk items, please make sure to reuse them. Aside from being better for the environment, it’ll save the stores money and in turn keep your prices lower.

Take Advantage of Local Farmers

Another gift to families on a budget is the local farmers’ market. It is likely that you have access to at least three farmers’ markets within a 20-mile radius. If you live in the South, you are fortunate to have a longer growing season and a much larger variety. Either way, buying from local farmers will not only save you money, but also give your family the benefits of the freshest, healthiest options available. Many farmers at local markets opt not to use chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on their crops, but make sure to ask. While they may not have spent the extra time and money on becoming certifiably organic, they most likely maintain comparable, if not higher, standards. Also, by supporting local farms, less of your money will go toward the fuel and energy used to transport produce over long distances.

Just as with conventional stores, shop around to find vendors with the lowest prices. For example, one vendor might sell his watermelon for one dollar less than the big stand just down the row. If you arrive toward the end of the market day, try offering sellers a lower-than-advertised price as farmers prefer not to have any leftover products at the end of the day.

As a final benefit, young children are more likely to try fruits and vegetables that they got outside of a brick-and-mortar grocery store, especially if they picked it out of the field themselves. There may be farms close to you that offer pick-your-own opportunities. Also, be sure to check for local farms that sell things such as eggs, milk, cheese, and organic meat. This is usually a much cheaper way to go than buying these same items from a natural foods store.

Make Quick Homemade Items

This isn’t going to be about making things like homemade breads, yogurt, and soup stocks that take hours of work. There are many things that can be made quickly and also save you a lot of money. For instance, organic salad dressings can cost as little as around 50 cents to make, compared with at least three dollars for organic store-bought dressings. Dressings are usually just a matter of whisking three or four ingredients together quickly. Picking recipes that use things like yogurt and mayonnaise instead of eggs and buttermilk will maximize your savings. Instead of buying organic pancake or waffle mix, find a recipe you like, buy the ingredients in bulk, and mix all the dry ingredients for a double batch or so. Store in an airtight container with the directions for mixing labeled on it.

One of the most expensive investments families make each week is on organic cereals. A family of five can go through a lot of cereal, especially packaged boxes. While making homemade cereal does take a little bit of time, buying the ingredients in bulk and making a large weekly batch can cut your breakfast bill in half, depending on your family size. Most granola recipes mainly consist of using rolled oats, sugar, oil or butter, and dried fruit and/or nuts and don’t require much hands-on time during cooking. Buy a large storage container and, as a minimum, double a granola recipe for a week’s worth of cereal.

Consider Cutting Back on Meat

For 2004, the USDA reported that the average American consumed 216 pounds of meat, poultry, and fish. This is 23 pounds per person more than in 1990 and 78 pounds more than in 1950! That adds up to a lot of money, especially when you’re buying organic meat. There are many meals that people find just as good without meat, such as pastas, eggs, and soups. Sometimes, the side dish could be made into the main dish. For example, baked potatoes topped with a number of ingredients and complemented with a salad make a wonderful meatless meal. For Mexican dishes, consider using pinto beans, black beans, or both to replace meat. A can of organic black beans can be found virtually anywhere today for under a dollar, while a pound of all natural ground beef starts at around four dollars, with organic prices starting even higher. If done a couple of times a week, your grocery bill will start diminishing drastically. Try alternating meatless recipes with your traditional dinners throughout the week.

Eliminate Organic Snack Food Purchases

While definitely not the easiest to do, try to refrain from loading your cart with organic snack food. While it may be organic, it isn’t necessarily healthy. Just as with conventional foods, chips, candy, chocolate, fruit bars, fruit wraps, and cookies are OK on occasion, but can really rack up the grocery bill and your sugar or fat intake. Find the willpower to reduce these purchases and replace them with healthy alternatives that are cheaper and acceptable as daily snacks, such as organic peeled mini carrots, grapes, applesauce, and homemade air-popped popcorn. (Organic popcorn kernels can be purchased in almost every bulk section for under one dollar/pound.)

With time and practice, you’ll learn how to get natural and organic foods for the same price as conventional groceries without having to make everything at home. Shop around; be sure to look for the best deals on bulk and organic items. Consider getting your groceries from different stores, depending on prices. One store may have something that the other one doesn’t have or may have it cheaper. You will likely find it worth the extra time to collect groceries from various sources. The extra time spent on shopping for deals and following this advice will give you the satisfaction of feeding your family healthy meals, and it’ll take less time than having a second job!


by Sarah Jo Poff