Eating real food while on a budget is hard. It really rubs me the wrong way when I hear people say that eating organic or eating good quality food isn't more expensive...it is. In addition to the higher price tags, you also aren't usually going to find as many sales, or applicable coupons, when your cart is mostly meats, eggs, fats, and produce.
But wait! That doesn't mean there aren't some great ways to save money (and time) while also preparing delicious and nutritious meals for your family.
1- MEAL PLAN. Everyone says it, and there's a reason...it works. Not only does it save you the headache of trying to figure out what to make for dinner at 5pm, it allows to you incorporate sale items, prep ingredients, utilize leftovers, and not end up getting convenience food because there is nothing to eat. I like to first take an inventory of the stock I already have in my pantry and fridge. Anything that needs to be used right away? Work it in to your meal plan. Then I briefly look at the ads for the stores I usually shop at (which, right now, is Frys, Whole Foods, and Costco) and see if there are any great bargains I want to take advantage of. After that, I write out my meal plan in my planner so it's handy and I know exactly where it is if I need to consult it.
2- Don't reinvent the wheel. It's fun to be spontaneous and adventurous sometimes, but there's also nothing wrong with having a tried-and-true favorite in the regular rotation. A normal week for us includes one night of tacos, one night of baked potatoes, one night of roasted potatoes, one dinner that includes rice, and leftovers. I can mix up the variables, like the protein, or switch up some sides, but these are meals I know my family will eat well, and I don't have to spend a lot of time looking up recipes or shopping for unusual ingredients. I try to reserve one night where I can try a new recipe or be a bit more creative, but the other meals are my "autopilot" ones.
3- Try shopping online. Hear me out...I'm not a huge fan of services like Instacart, because not only are there a lot of fees involved, but oftentimes, the items themselves are marked up as well. For us, at least, this option was never economical enough to make up for the convenience. Enter Amazon Prime. Most people I know have a Prime subscription...did you know you get free delivery from Whole Foods along with it? And while Whole Foods has a reputation for being pretentious and pricey, I've found that if I shop the sale items and just stick to the basics, I'm not paying more than I would otherwise. The huge advantage, to me, about shopping online, is the ability to clearly see a total estimate and easily remove items from your cart. No weighing cauliflower on iffy scales and trying to keep a cost tally on your phone. No walking across the store...again...to return that bag of chips to the shelf because you're over budget. It is SO easy to edit to fit the money you have to spend. The only additional cost is a tip (always tip your delivery people!) so I think it is well worth it.
4- Follow the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen rules. You can find these lists here. Ideally, I'd be buying all my food from local farmers and markets. I mean, if we're talking dreams here, I'd be growing and raising it all on my homestead. But in the meantime, I need to purchase the best quality food I can while also making sure it fits in our budget. The items on the dirty dozen list I always buy organic...everything else, I choose by cheapest price. Sometimes bulk organic is cheaper (like at Costco) than conventional produce at the grocery store, so I just always check the prices to make sure I am getting the best deal. 5- Buy frozen. If you're super diligent about using what's in your fridge and prepping your produce the minute you get home from the store, this tip may not be for you. For me, I'm the queen of buying a bunch of fresh, on-sale broccoli, with all the good intentions in the world....and then ending up spending the week in survival mode because of a teething baby and having it turn to mush in the drawer. Sometimes, life just happens to throw a curveball, and that's why I find it super helpful to keep some of our regularly used vegetables in the freezer instead of the fridge. While we've had a hard time finding these items consistently in the past year or so, we can usually find frozen peas, broccoli, and green beans at a good price at Costco. I love that it's there for when I plan for it, and it's still ok if I don't end up using it. We also like to buy frozen fruit to supplement when fresh fruit prices are pretty high. on that note.....
6- Freeze your own food. *Most* foods are ok being frozen and reheated, and it can help save those spoiling leftovers from ending up in the trash. Look up videos on how to blanch/prep and freeze your own produce if you have some that's turning. One serving of meatloaf left with a tiny dollop of mashed potatoes left after dinner? Freeze it! I've actually found that having even "too small" servings of real food in my freezer, that are easy to heat up, helps me to turn to wholesome options instead of junk food when I need a little something to eat but have no time (or desire, let's be honest) to make anything. (any other nursing moms out there feel like the Very Hungry Caterpillar on Saturday? Anyone?) 7- Use cash back apps. There are quite a few different options out there. One of the most popular is Ibotta. I used to use this app a lot, but I don't really find it helpful anymore because it's mostly for name-brand items and doesn't really cover the generic meat and produce I primarily buy. However, the rewards can be pretty high, so I will check it occasionally (if I remember) to see if there is anything I qualify for. My favorite apps are Fetch and Receipt Hog. All you do is take a picture of your receipt. Done. Fetch features extra rewards for qualifying items as well, BUT the app does the matching for you, so you don't have to waste time scrolling through offers. Receipt Hog is for ALL purchases, not just groceries, and awards "coins" or sweepstakes entries depending on the store and amount. Neither of these will make you rich, but redeeming a $20 gift card every once in awhile with the only cost being a couple seconds to upload a picture is a nice way to pocket a little extra cash.
Cooking wholesome meals while on a budget isn't easy, but it IS possible. Sometimes it just takes a little extra creativity, some repurposed leftovers, and planning ahead.
And coffee. Lots of coffee.