With the increase in knowledge about the documented effects of chemicals and additives in our food, many parents want to know what they can do to protect their family's health, while still being conscious of their food budget.

I've been on my healthy living journey for almost two decades now. I went from being a child-free healthy eater when I took my health into my own hands as a teenager, to a low-income single parent, struggling to figure out how to feed myself and my child the unprocessed, organic foods I'd grown accustomed to. Now as a family of four, my husband and I make our food budget a priority; we think of it as a big investment in our long-lasting health. My desire to learn more about natural, healthy living led to my certification as a wellness coach, with an emphasis on helping busy moms.

I have had to refine my family's diet a bit in order to afford healthy foods that are, unfortunately, sometimes more expensive. But in many cases, you get what you pay for, and it truly is an investment.

The Standard American Diet consists largely of foods that are almost entirely empty of nutrients. We fill up on bread, cereal, cookies, pizza, pasta, etc. and fail to realize that a healthy diet -- a diet which has been proven to extend and improve the quality of life -- is mainly comprised of fresh, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and nutrient-dense sources of protein.

I want to help others reach their health goals, so I'm sharing the main budgeting tips I've learned over the years. This article does not address the extremely important issues of food deserts, nor the impact that poverty has on dietary choices. These issues are critical components of fair access to healthy food, and there is admittedly obvious elitism in the "healthy food movement" (of which I am a part).

Instead, this article is aimed at those for whom this information is valid, those who may have some wiggle room in their budget, and those who are able to afford some amount of organic food, but may not be sure where to turn. Those of us who are able to can vote with our dollar, hopefully creating change that not only affects our ecosystem, but our fellow humans as well.

With that in mind, here are my top tips:
  1. Keep it simple
  2. Shop from your pantry
  3. Buy in bulk
  4. Buy frozen
  5. Keep the "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" in mind
  6. Eat to live; don't live to eat
Keeping it simple is my biggest tip. I don't experiment with a lot of recipes that call for a dozen different ingredients, partially because I don't want to be running around to a bunch of different grocery stores looking for organic versions of all the ingredients needed, and also because it gets more expensive that way.

Instead, I buy the same basics regularly and I "shop" from my pantry. For example, on any given day, I will have chicken breast, rice, and a wide variety of spices. Those basic ingredients could be turned into anything from Mexican chicken and rice to Asian chicken lettuce wraps to chicken, rice, cream of mushroom casserole. I also keep organic ground beef on hand, with which I can make taco salad or burgers or spaghetti sauce. Yum!

These are the foods you could find in my kitchen/pantry on a regular basis (all organic):

  • Chicken (breast as well as whole chickens for roasting/making bone broth)
  • Beef (ground)
  • Eggs (lots and lots of free-range eggs-- great cheap protein!)
  • Nuts (we get nuts in bulk at a local grocery store for a good price)
  • Beans (soaking dried beans is very economical)
  • Frozen veggies (broccoli, green beans, corn)
  • Fresh veggies (carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, spinach, kale, celery, cabbage, cucumber)
  • Frozen fruit (blueberries, mango, strawberries)
  • Fresh fruit (apples, bananas)
  • Quinoa
  • Brown rice
  • Oats (I use oats SO MUCH! Grind them for gluten-free baking flour, make oatmeal bake, bars, granola, batter chicken nuggets, etc.)
  • Cane sugar
  • Raw honey
  • Dates
  • Salsa, non-GMO corn chips
  • Sea salt, fresh black pepper, herbs and spices
  • Butter, coconut oil, olive oil
  • Tamari, mayonnaise, mustard
  • Pickles, apple cider vinegar
Keeping it simple means I've cut out most of the non-essentials from my family's diet, for our health as well as our budget. Pesticide-free foods and other "specialty" foods can get really expensive if you're spending a fair amount of your budget on packaged snacks. Organic breakfast bars, crackers and chips, cereal, organic gluten-free mac-n-cheese, etc.- these will add up quickly without adding much nutrition to your diet. They certainly are handy to have around, but if you have the time to prep some healthy snacks to have on hand, it can impact your food budget quite a bit.

Every week I bake a batch of oat flour muffins, and I make a supply of homemade LaraBar-like energy balls, made with dates and nuts. I also make a big salad full of colorful veggies for the week. Chopped cabbage, lettuce, carrots, sprouts, and cucumbers with an Asian-style dressing is one of my favorites. I usually make a big batch of chicken salad, egg salad, or tuna salad to throw on some lettuce for a protein-packed, quick and easy meal. With a simple breakfast of eggs, smoothies, or oatmeal, most of our meals are taken care of without much thought, and without extra expense.

For snacks, I make a lot of non-GMO popcorn at home with real butter and sea salt, which is a healthy and affordable option. We munch on bananas and apples a lot, and I keep easy foods like hard-boiled eggs and salad fixings around.

Dates and raisins are a popular easy snacks in my household, and I will sometimes splurge on a treat like homemade coconut oil fudge, because the coconut oil and cocoa make it a nutrient-packed dessert, meaning we only need a small amount to feel satisfied, and it's actually good for us!

I used to do gluten-free baking with almond flour, but while incredibly delicious, almond flour is one of the most expensive gluten-free flours out there. So these days I use gluten-free oats, which I grind at home into flour with my coffee grinder. Since I can buy oats in bulk, this saves a good amount of money.

My family eats a lot of eggs, because they are a cheaper yet wonderful and healthy source of protein and good fats. I often make egg bakes, where I use plenty of veggies like broccoli, tomatoes, and spinach, a sprinkle of cheese, and bake it all together, or freeze it raw to thaw and bake later. I make scrambled eggs, fried eggs, hard-boiled eggs, egg salad, omelets, etc.- I turn to eggs when I don't feel much like cooking dinner.

I make a lot of soup as well, using homemade chicken stock, tons of garlic, onions, an assortment of veggies, herbs and spices, sea salt and black pepper, and usually some diced chicken breast from the chicken we buy in bulk. My family loves soup during the cold season, and it is easy to make large batches to freeze some for later. Soup and a salad is a nourishing, surprisingly filling meal for a good price.

Buying in bulk can be a huge cost-saving benefit. I get most of the foods listed above at Costco. If you're not familiar with Costco, it's a store that carries a lot of bulk food (think: big boxes of mac-n-cheese), but it has started carrying a lot of organic options -- hooray!

I apologize if you don't have one near you, because it's a great resource for organic food on a budget. I feel ambivalent about shopping at a chain store like this, I'd much rather support the smaller family-owned natural food stores in my area, but they are sometimes double the price.

The eggs, spinach, frozen fruit/veggies, and meat I get at Costco are in bulk, which feeds my hungry family of boys well. We get a huge box of spinach to use in smoothies, with eggs, for salads, etc. And we also regularly eat steamed broccoli and green beans, because I can find it organic, frozen, and cheap at Costco. Sam's Club is also an option for organic bulk food.

Also refer to this Real Food Resource Guide for online bulk options. Take some time to explore the guide-- Swanson's is where I get my coconut oil in bulk and it is much cheaper than buying at a regular store. The resource guide also includes information about Community Supported Agriculture, farmers' markets, and other options that can help reduce the cost of healthy food. Be sure to check it out!

The fresh fruits I regularly buy are apples and bananas. These are staples in my household. We can get many more apples and bananas than fresh strawberries, for example.

Buying frozen fruits and veggies can help cut costs as well. I regularly buy big bags of frozen organic fruit; strawberries and blueberries are my favorite. Wyman's wild-picked blueberries are pesticide-free, but they are not certified organic, which actually makes the price cheaper.

Frozen fruit is going to be much cheaper than fresh fruit in most cases. Apples and bananas suffice for fresh options, and we still get plenty of nutrients from our smoothies made with frozen fruit, or frozen berries mixed into yogurt. Frozen organic fruit can actually be more nutritious sometimes, because it is picked and packaged shortly after, while fresh fruit is picked, then stored, then transported, then it sits at the store.

Frozen vegetables are a similar healthy and economical choice. I get big bags of organic frozen vegetables like broccoli, green beans, and corn, for a great price at Costco. Buying in bulk whenever possible is a great way to keep food costs down. Look for large bags of organic brown or wild rice, quinoa and oatmeal, either online or at your local bulk goods store. I buy my coconut oil in bulk (in a 54oz tub!) because the price is significantly lower than purchasing smaller jars one at a time.

Couponing can work on a real food diet too! This is a great resource for natural food coupons.

The "Dirty Dozen" and the "Clean Fifteen" produce lists are good to know if you are trying to buy pesticide-free food on a budget. The Dirty Dozen are twelve of the foods covered in the most pesticides (so you'd want to get these organic for sure); the Clean Fifteen are foods that have the least pesticides (so organic might not be as important). They consist of:

The Dirty Dozen:
  • Potatoes
  • Apples
  • Bell peppers
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Celery
  • Pears
  • Grapes
The Clean Fifteen:
  • Onions
  • Sweet peas
  • Cabbage
  • Pineapples
  • Avocados
  • Mango
  • Kiwi
  • Sweet onions
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe
  • Watermelon
  • Grapefruit
  • Sweet corn
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Asparagus
So, if you have a limited budget for organics, choose from the Clean Fifteen list for less risk of pesticide exposure at a lower cost.

My final tip is: eat to live, don't live to eat. Food should be enjoyable! But not at the risk of your health nor your budget. I have made sacrifices -- for instance, I am a dairy fiend -- I love cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc. But raw dairy is the most nutritious and it's also very expensive, so I rarely get it. I have learned to do without, and be grateful for the healthy, nourishing food I can afford on a regular basis.

I try to make sure that 99.9% of my family's diet is nourishing. I want almost every bite we eat to be benefitting us. Not just as a pleasing taste, but as a healthy choice for our bodies.

Living to eat means making food choices based on what tastes best, regardless of its impact on our health and our budget. Living to eat does not consider the effects of nutrition, but rather fulfills cravings, even at the detriment of one's health.

Eating to live means making food choices that benefit us; choices that supply us with essential vitamins and minerals, heal our bodies, regenerate our cells. These choices are nourishing and delicious and help us live our best life!

I recently splurged on a bunch of fresh fruit like cherries, plums, and peaches. It was such a treat! Refining your diet for the benefit of your health and your budget can really teach you how to appreciate the simple things. The beautiful color of a strawberry; how cherries taste like nature's candy; how romaine lettuce is so delightfully crunchy.

I hope these tips for budgeting for real food and simplifying your diet are helpful to you!

In good health,