Jan 29, 2013

Real Food on a Very Tight Budget

The focus of my blog is to help the average person, especially one on a very limited budget, know how to eat a real food diet. I was going to title this post "real food on a real budget" but I've read other posts on other (albeit great) food blogs with the same title, and honestly, the kind of "real" budget they are talking about is a little different than the one I'm working with. Plus I have yet to find any that were super practical for shopping at normal grocery stores. In time you may learn about food co-ops you can join or where to buy local produce. I have lived in this area for a year now and am just learning about a handful of these things in my area. It takes time and you do have to be looking. For some people on the real food journey, you may always just get everything from the grocery store, and that's okay. But I also have a few tips at the end of this post on how to begin finding food from local farmers and such. 

For those who have come to this post looking for tips for real food shopping that do include food co-ops and buying from local farms, this post from Passionate Homemakers is the most practical I've seen for that kind of shopping. Plus I am very impressed with how little their grocery bill is for eating such quality food items: A Peak at our Real Food Budget. (Updated; A reader pointed out this blogger has a more recent post on real food shopping that you might find helpful.)

According to this official 2012 report by the USDA, American's are spending a lot more than I thought on groceries. And these stats aren't even specific to healthy eaters.

This is how much money the average American family of two is spending on groceries:

Thrifty plan =  $376  Low-cost plan =  $481 Moderate-cost plan = $579  
Liberal-cost plan = $748 (Are you kidding me?!)

This is how much money the average American family of four (with kids ages 6-11) is spending on groceries:

Thrifty plan = $629  Low-cost plan =  $821 Moderate-cost plan = $1024 Liberal-cost plan = $1244

The kind of budget I am working with is one that is even less than the "thrifty plan".  And we eat good, real food! I'll call it the ultra-thrifty plan.

This is the ultra-thrifty grocery budget for my family of two adults and a toddler (who does not eat much). I am still nursing so eating a little more than usual.

Approximately $225 a month. 

I shoot for $200 a month, but I have trouble sticking to it with my love for cooking and trying out new recipes. I think $200 is a good goal for me because I like the challenge of trying to keep our grocery bill as low as possible, but I also don't want to not eat something really nutritious I find on sale because we were over budget by a few dollars.

Now, I know some hard-core real foodies would disagree with me on my definition of real food since we don't eat organic and most of our meat is conventionally raised (as versus pastured). If finances allow you to eat even better than we do, then great! If you know where to get fatty pig organs to render your own lard, awesome!....Not everyone is there yet (or ever will be) on this real/traditional foods journey. Right now I just don't know where to find inexpensive local organic produce and meat so we don't eat organic. I know I am not alone here. People argue that by eating healthy you will save tons of money on medical costs and thus you really can afford free range chicken and pastured butter. While I do indeed believe eating the very best now will save money later, that does not make the money appear now. Buying a quarter free-range, grass-fed cow is no doubt the cheapest way to get super healthy beef, but many families simply don't have the money up front (even if there is a local option to do this.) Add to this the super expensive eggs we're supposed to get, the organic veggies, fermented cod liver oil, and the coconut oil that I believe we should squeeze into this budget, and the grocery bill could easily be double that of your average middle or lower income families. I have had several people find my blog after searching for "how to afford the Weston A. Price diet". I don't know how anyone affords a flawless traditional foods diet when following it perfectly. But this is my best efforts to help ordinary, lower income families now how to eat as close to this diet as they are practically able. Down the road of life, after learning more about nutrition, after knocking down some student loans, I hope you will start doing even more to eat healthy. But if this is the farthest you go, you will be doing so much better than the Standard American Diet (appropriately called SAD).

Okay, here's my list of the places I get my food the cheapest I've found anywhere local. (We live in South Carolina.) Over time you may learn of other places that are more cost-effective in your area. Some of the items I've listed you can buy cheap in multiple locations.

Note: I do note coupon at all. The main reason for that is that most coupons are not for real food items.  You have to spend a long time looking online and other places to find real-food coupons. The second reason is that Aldi is usually cheaper than most coupons. Careful (and time consuming) couponing can indeed save lots of money for people on the standard American diet. That's not me.

I am not going to go into detail why some items are on the list and not others. For more details on these things (for example, why breakfast cereal is never part of my shopping list and what to eat for breakfast instead) please see this post:

I get the majority of my groceries from Aldi. If you have never been to an Aldi I encourage you to look online for your closest store and start shopping there, if possible. Stores like Save-Way, Save-A-Lot, and similar low-end grocery stores would be comparable in prices to Aldi if you don't have one in your area. I, however, have been very impressed with the the Aldis in our area. They are almost always very clean, well-stocked, and have a huge selection of items. I get about 90% of my groceries here. Wal-Mart would be a good substitute if you have no Aldi or Save-Way.

Dried fruit
Natural peanut butter (Stay clear of regular peanut butter in general. It usually has hydrogenated oil in it!)
Real maple syrup
Cocoa powder
Baking soda
Quick cooking, old fashioned, and steal-cut oats

Masa corn flour 
Dried pinto beans
Canned beans for occasional use (Not economical for large families. Making your own from dried beans is healthiest and far cheaper).
Canned tomato products
Dry spices
White flour and sugar for use in moderation

All vegetables except herbs
White potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic
All fruit

Whole milk
Blocks of cheese (The shredded kind has additives to prevent molding and caking.)
Sour cream
Cottage cheese
Feta cheese
Blue cheese
Whipping cream
All your frozen vegetables
Frozen fruit for smoothies and fruit based desserts

All your beef, pork, chicken and seafood
Bacon, polish sausage and pork sausage. Note: These three meats contain nitrates and other unhealthy additives. Sadly I love them too much to forgo them completely. I have found a good all natural pork sausage that does cost more (but tastes SO much better, so it's definitely worth it) at my local Earthfare that I have started getting, but I still have not found inexpensive nitrate-free bacon and polish sausage.

Sam's Club (and possibly Costco, though I've never been there):
Note: if you have a very small family getting a Sam's Club membership may not be worth it, especially if there is an Aldi nearby. I get a few items with my mother-in-law's membership, which is the way to go if you have a friend or relative with a membership and you have a small family.

Nuts (Best price anywhere)
Olive oil
Some dried fruit (Specifically the Craisans and dried apricots which are also both a much better quality here than from Aldi).
Vanilla extract
Some frozen fruits and veggies
Some meat

Sometimes their eggs, butter, and milk are cheaper here than at Aldi.

Whole wheat flour
White flour and sugar (For use in moderation. I don't use enough of these with my small family to make it worth getting the huge sacks.)
White rice

I've heard that Cosco has some really good prices on pastured butter and coconut oil, plus organic produce, which is great news for those who have a Cosco in their area!

Ethnic Food Stores (I have a big hispanic supermarket near me):
Whole cane sugar
Beans (Best prices anywhere!)
White rice
Brown rice
Palm oil (I have a few recipes that call for it which I'll be posting soon).
Palm sugar (Great prices on this, plus a variety of options.)
Fresh coconuts (For those looking for the adventure of opening them!)
Assorted roots, tubors and potatoes
Fresh produce
Beef liver, knuckles (for bone broth) and other random organs
Look for coconut products at your local ethnic food store, especially Asian markets. My local hispanic store does not have a big variety.

Regional grocery store or Wal-Mart:
Olive oil
Fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro
Dried beans
Brown rice
Dried fruit
Unbleached all purpose flour
Whole wheat flour
Aluminum-free baking powder
Table sea salt
High fructose corn syrup free ketchup
Coconut milk (Gold Star brand is about a dollar cheaper than Thai Kitchen and has no added ingredients.)
Spectrum brand organic coconut oil (Non-virgin kind. The virgin kind costs an arm and a leg!)
Palm shortening (Wal-Mart does not have this but your regional grocery store might).

Trader Joe's:
Pure maple syrup (Best price anywhere.)
Pastured butter (Best price I've seen anywhere!)
Free-range organic chicken. A whole chicken was only $2.75 a pound! By making chicken stock with the bones the increased cost (more than an Aldi chicken) will be very worth it for me.
Organic fruits and veggies - the best price anywhere I've seen.

This other blogger shared about how she eats healthy on a budget. They get a lot of their food from Trader Joe's. I thought her budget was fairly realistic. If you have a Trader Joe's nearby (I have to drive aways to get to mine so don't shop there often) you'd probably be interested in seeing what kind of stuff she is able to get at Trader Joe's from her post A peek at our real food budget.

To order online:
Coconut oil. I order my coconut oil from Vitacost which has the best deal I've found anywhere, especially considering it is free shipping on Vitacost brand items. 
Vitacost brand coconut oil ($21 for 54 ounces.)
Vitacost brand raw apple cider vinegar
Vitacost brand supplements or vitamins you might be taking

Vitacost also has an amazing "refer a friend" program where if I refer you (by clicking here, or on any of the Vitacost links you see) you will get $10 off your first order (and I get $10 off my next order!)

TT has great sales on a number of healthy food items, but on a regular basis their costs are too high for us ultra-thrifty shoppers. Sometimes they are having a big discount on their coconut oil, or offering free shipping. That's the time to buy. Watch their deals by signing up for their newsletter.

What Tropical Traditions does have is the greatest price on coconut flour I've seen anywhere, especially during sales. Coconut flour is hands-down the cheapest flour to use in gluten-free, grain-free, or paleo baking.

To make at home:
Yogurt; Not that complicated and one gallon of milk is usually the cost of 1 quart of yogurt. Plus it is next to impossible to find full-fat yogurt. Read my post here about why that's important.
Bread; I am learning how to make bread with the sourdough method which is the most nutritious, but any kind of bread you make at home is going to be WAY healthier and way cheaper than storebought stuff, especially if you eat a lot of bread. You might consider getting a bread machine if you do eat a lot of bread. 
Beans; Cook your own from dried beans (using a recipe like mine here) then divide into portions and put into your freezer.
Bone broth
Salad dressing

Lacto-fermented pickles and other veggies. Don't be scared!  (As I was at the beginning). They just taste like regular pickles and are very easy to make.  I will be sharing some recipes soon. For now, I recommend recipes from the Pickle Me Too blog. She seems to really know her stuff. 

Needed Equipment:
A deep freeze (or two if you have a big family), They can be found cheep on Craig's list. We have the stand-up kind which is very helpful for not forgetting what you have in there.
Bread machine - if you are eating a lot of bread. I am going the sourdough route, which won't work with a bread machine. Some soaked bread recipes can be used in the bread machine like this one.
Yogurt maker. I don't use one, but if it will help you actually make your yogurt at home, then this is a wise investment.

Local items to search for, if possible.
Check Craig's list for eggs, meat, raw milk, seasonal produce, and raw, local honey.
Eggs; Through Craig's list you'll probably be able to find someone selling organic free-range chicken eggs locally. They are about $3 and $4 a dozen in my area. While this is about twice the cost of ordinary eggs, it is about half the cost of free-range store-bought eggs. Read this post here about how much more nutritious pastured eggs are than conventionally raised eggs.
Meat; I've seen postings for very reasonably priced cuts of meats, from quarters to per-pound options. None of them are close enough for me to get, but check your own area.
Raw milk from organic, grass-fed cows. Check also Realmilk.com for sellers in your area.
Raw honey; Check Craig's list. My grocery store also sells honey for a local beekeeper so I get it there. Raw honey is far more nutritious than normal store bought honey. 

Stop buying these items
 to save money and cut lots of corners:
All boxed breakfast cereal, even granola. We now only eat things like baked oatmeal and my healthy banana muffins for breakfast. (Click here for all of my healthy breakfast recipes.)
Yogurt.  Unless you can find a really cheap plain kind, even the kinds that are supposed to be healthy (especially the kinds that are supposed to be healthy!) are usually filled with artificial sweeteners, flavors, and thickeners, and are fat-free. 
Juice of all kinds (It's expensive, usually has high fructose corns syrup, and is not actually good for you. We just don't actually need it.)
Chips (Well, *confession* we do eat corn chips on Mexican night about once a month. )
Boxed snacks of all kinds, even granola bars
Boxed, canned, and frozen pre-made meals of all kinds
Candy! No one needs it, especially the kids!!
All yellow vegetable oils and of course margarine and shortening. They are so unhealthy. I now use coconut oil, butter and olive oil as my only oils. Coconut oil can replace vegetable oil in just about any recipe.
Boxed cake mixes and any boxed bread/muffin mixes 
Canned vegetables and fruit 

(Photo credit, 1, 2, and 3.) 

{This post is linked up at Natural Living MondayTitus 2 Tuesdays, Teach Me TuesdayFamily Table TuesdayReal Food Wednesday, Whole Foods Wednesday, Pennywise Platter Thursday, and Fight Back Friday.}

Are you on the ultra-thrifty real food budget? Please share any tips you have found to be helpful! 


  1. great and thorough blog! I have never used Aldi,I think I'll take a peek at it this week. I ALWAYS think you're in Charlotte! I forget you're in SC. We need to get together sometime..... Question: Where do you get most of your meat? this is my biggest expense. Also, do you coupon? what are your thots there?

    1. Thanks for your comment! No, I do not coupon at all. I updated that in the post here as it is something I was meaning to mention. (Thanks for asking!) Coupons are generally not for real-food items so it's a real waste of time for me to look for them.

      I get most of my meat at Aldi. The chicken prices are amazing, beef is comparable (tho still cheaper) to Wal-Mart. We eat meatless about once a week, occasionally twice a week, but financially we don't need to do more than that right now. Plus Kevin loves his meat!

    2. We have had the WORST experiences with Aldi whole chickens...you don't want to know all the nasty chicken parts we found still attached to them...I have returned a few and after the 5th one in a year I stopped getting them there. Their Chicken breasts though are good...just be sure you don't accidently grab the glazed ones! oopp that was a lot of added sugar to our meal! Walmarts chicken is similar in price here. And sometimes better quality.

    3. Unknown, what parts are you talking about that were still attached? We've butchered our own chickens before, and the only thing that really would be bad is if the intestines/crop were not removed (can't imagine that being the case, as that is very basic!). I think it is pretty common to still have the neck, liver, gizzard, heart and those sorts of things come with the chicken, kind of like you get with a turkey. It will not hurt you, even if you cook them with the chicken. I prefer chickens from the farm, of course, but when trying to save money, it is nice to have Aldi as an option.

    4. Thanks for your input ForHisGlory. To Unkown, above, I have not had any problem with Aldi chicken and find them just as good as any other chicken that is not labeled organic or pasture raised. Being from Africa (and having killed chickens myself!) there's not a whole lot that would phase me here. But I'm glad you've found inexpensive chickens that you are satisfied with. I know that's important.

  2. Love Aldi. I have a family of 7 and we shop with a budget of about $500. I try to aim for less than that, sometimes it is around $400 and sometimes closer to $600. Teenagers eat a lot! I bulk shop when it is reasonable and locally shop from neighbors or local farmers. Over the summer we shop at local farmer's markets and then can and freeze food to last over the winter. This year I am digging up the lawn to grow food instead. :) I make my own bread and we have slowly let go of pretty mush every thing that is processed, comes pre-packaged, or pre-made. We eat meatless about two to three times a week and that helps as well.
    Great Post! We can't all buy organic, but we can all eat healthier. :)


    1. Thanks for your comment, Gretchen. I m very impressed with how little you are able to feed your family with! I know when we have more kids we will buy more in bulk and that will cut down our expenses some. Right now we live in an apartment, but I dream of a garden some day! I liked your last line the best, "we can't all buy organic, but we can all eat healthier."

    2. I find myself back at your wonderful blog! I am your newest follower now! Good stuff here! :)

  3. Thanks for posting this. We too are on a budget about what you are, and have to mainly shop in an actual store, not from a co-op or through local farms. We are in Oklahoma, and locally grown produce is hard to find.

  4. Love your "stop buying these items" at the end of the article. Sometimes it can be easier to know what not to do(lol).

  5. What a great article. What recipe do you use for making bread? So far that has been the hardest thing for me to get right, a good sandwich bread.

    1. This is the recipe I use for my homemade sourdough bread. It holds up well for sandwiches and toast. http://sweetbasilnspice.blogspot.com/2013/04/basic-sourdough-loaf.html

  6. Wow. Thank you so much for this! I have been trying to save money everywhere. I had to sell my structured settlement loans because I had so much debt, and I still need to watch my spending. I didn't want to sacrifice my children's diet, but I didn't know how to cut back while keeping things healthy. This is such a great guide, and it puts things into perspective. This will help me so much. Thank you!

  7. What a great post! New follower. We are on an extremely tight budget but we manager to eat real food. Even though our budget is teeny tiny, we still manage to eat majority of organic. I make so much from scratch but I love to cook. People think I'm crazy, for "wasting time" but it is so much more healthier. They think it's cheaper to buy prepackaged. If you really think about it, it really isn't plus with all the additives, it's just not healthy. We have an Aldi but I've never been. I'll have to check it.

  8. Thank you all for your comments! I love hearing how this post has been helpful to people.

  9. Great Post Melodie!Timely for my yearly update of my price sheets. I have found very similar things to you. Although our local Aldi is SO tiny, but a bigger one opened up recently so will price the stuff you listed there! These lists are SO helpful! I do buy manysome of the things you listed for walmart and other stores. Costco is same distance and better quality food for the same price here for me so I do costco for the large portion of my monthly shopping and my weekly produce shopping when farmer's markets are closed for 7 months of the year here.
    Coupons: couldn't agree with you more! I have looked at and tried to use them many times, and even spent hours today trying all sorts of websites for coupons and amazon deals etc. that people said worked for them and save them money. Most I just don't buy those processed foods, but even some for things like diapers--i do disposable much of the winter--it was cheaper to do costco with their discount/coupon months-the send a flyer of coupons but you dont have to have them u just tell the cashier and the scan a main copy which deducts all "coupon" things...
    Only thing on your stop buying list that we still buy is BREAD. We didn't buy much until our wonderful Italian exchange student came...now my monthly bread budget is over $30 to $40--when our total food budget is under $400 for all 7 of us thats a lot...learning how to make more bread...but not fast enough...Italians eat bread at EVERY meal and with everything...and the of course we all eat the bread...So looks like that is one to really improve...but probably not realistic until he leaves in June...I guess that $40 can be some of teh $50 a month tax right off we get for caring for him. :)

  10. Re: Trader Joe's the link you gave was actually her budget 3 years ago...here is the up to date one she wrote 2 years ago. It is also helpful, Still for us her budget is way higher than what we can do...I like yours better. :) http://www.passionatehomemaking.com/2012/01/simplifying-by-buying-groceries-online.html

  11. Winter has returned. I do not like because I can not stand the cold. But wearing loud clothes also quite interesting. I look like a cute bear