Budget is not a Four-Letter Word
Many people avoid the topic of budgeting just like some folks get all weird and bent out of shape when talking about their own personal food philosophy. Instead of becoming passionate and preachy, though, they clam up... Their hands sweat, they avoid eye contact, and they can't wait to switch the subject.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend over $7,700 on food costs per year! That's one of the largest expenses for the average family, right after housing and transportation. With the economy being stretched due to a global-pandemic-which-shall-not-be-named and stores struggling to offer adequate selections of food, there's never been a better time to pay attention to your financial health alongside your physical health. And let's also not avoid the elephant in the room... When you are worried about finances, it can make you physically ill. Stress is a huge risk factor for heart health and can lead to nutritional deficiencies due to overeating or undereating.
Ok, now we know that it's important to pay attention to food cost to reduce overall stress, but where does one even start?
First, there should be an actual budget set... A number to shoot for. This amount will be different for everyone, considering that all households have many different factors to consider: amount of people living there, household income, total of all bills/expenditures, etc. It is probably a good start to look back at your last month's spending on food. When you add it all up, you might be pleasantly surprised... or shocked! I warn you, do not avoid this step. Ignorance is not bliss when it could be affecting many aspects of your health.
Once you know the month's total amount available for food, there should be a division of "dining out" and "groceries". Dining out, which includes drive-thru pickups or delivery, should be considered a treat. Not only are prices higher to have someone prepare your food for you than if you made it at home, but food from the average restaurant is not low in calorie and high in nutrition. Keeping these trips to restaurants limited to special occasions rather than the mundane same old, same old, you are able to spend your money and calories wisely at the same time.
After you've established your budget goal for groceries and dining out, that's where you get the flexibility and freedom to purchase your food more wisely! Here are some helpful tips to get you started:
Make a plan for the week; I talk about this in another blog post. Not only are you able to keep yourself on track without getting distracted by unhealthy food, you are able to stay on budget! Look through your pantry and freezer to use up food that you've already purchased. Make it differently than you did last time; use your cookbooks to get creative with your planning!
This might seem simple, but buy items that are on sale whenever possible. Going through the weekly sales ad and coupons are a great place to gain inspiration and a plan!
Do not purchase any food that is not on your grocery list for the week. I REPEAT: DO NOT PURCHASE ANY FOOD THAT IS NOT ON YOUR GROCERY LIST FOR THE WEEK. Grocery stores are notorious for distracting shoppers and encouraging them to make impulsive buys. That's why you aren't going to be distractible... No, sir. You're going to be armed with a plan!
Do not grocery shop hungry or thirsty because chances are, you will be more tempted to buy something that you otherwise might not.
When I was a child, I used to want to get fast food all of the time, while my mother would say, "We have food at home." I'm sure many of you can relate to this, but meal prepping so that your planned meals are ready to go when you are with limited effort is important to keep you on track with physical and financial health. Tell yourself, "I have food at home."
Eating something for breakfast and packing your lunch before leaving for work can save you from making an impulsive decision that could cost you in more ways than one. Breakfast doesn't have to be eggs, bacon, and toast every day. Breakfast could easily be a healthy cereal with skim milk. Lunch doesn't have to be complicated either- think soup, sandwich/wrap, and/or salad. Having vegetables pre-cut in plastic baggies, yogurt cups, and an apple to grab on the way out results in a small time commitment that I think anyone could meet.
When reviewing your menu for the week, take note of the ingredients that you could use in multiple recipes. Limiting your inventory= limiting your expense.
Consider having theme nights at your house. This allows you to purchase items that you know are going to be used often. Why not a Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Soup & Salad Wednesday, Thai Thursday, Fish Friday...? Give you and your family diversity in the week but also something consistent to look forward to. This also allows you to develop a common pool of recipes that are enjoyed by your family and planning becomes easier in time.
Leftovers don't have to be boring! You can make them into something completely new that your family would also love. For instance, why not take the lean ground turkey that you used for Taco Night and turn it into chili the next night?
Make large amounts of your favorite items and freeze them in smaller containers so that you have them available in a pinch.
Listen to your family's food preferences. If you buy food that not everyone likes or is not easily modified for them, you will be spending more money at the end of the day. I hate to hear of mothers who seem to spend all evening in the kitchen because they are trying to eat healthy and each of their children has different preferences. Avoid making multiple meals at one sitting at all cost by having your family participate in the meal planning for the week.
Consider buying canned or frozen vegetables/fruit over fresh, non-organic foods, store brands, and staple shelf foods (like rice) in bulk. There is nothing nutritionally wrong with using canned or frozen vegetables/fruit, as long as sodium is not a factor. These items last longer and are more economical. There is also no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic food... This is merely a food philosophy question, and when considering the financial factor, there is no comparison. Store brand food items might not have the household name brand on the label, but they are generally not much different in actual content, with a more reasonable price tag. Purchasing staple shelf items in larger quantities is also a great idea because they are sold cheaper by the pound in that format. It might be more of an investment for one week, but without needing to purchase any the next, it would come out in the wash.
To really save more money, cut back on convenience items. This means that you personally have to take more time or effort to prepare your foods, but only because you're not paying someone else to do it for you. Anytime someone else takes the time to cut your vegetables, filet your fish, package your guacamole into 100 calorie cups... You're paying for that convenience. Devoting more time to prepping raw foods can save lots of cash.
I hope this post was some food for thought as well as two cents worth. You can eat delicious, healthy food on a budget! I promise that it's not impossible. It does take effort, but it is worth doing, literally. You've got this!