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How We Afford to Eat Clean on a Small Budget

Updated on January 10, 2016

What is 'eating clean' anyways?

By eating clean, I don't mean we eat only organic foods. We do buy organic sometimes, but this depends on the food product. 'Eating clean' to us means not eating any processed foods. For those of you who are new to this whole food revolution, processed foods refer to foods that have added sugar. When we grocery shop, we buy foods have that zero added sugar, only natural sugars allowed. Learning how to read nutrition labels is central here. You need to not only look at how many grams of sugar are in a certain food, but also the ingredient list. Food companies are experts and sneaking in sugar in secretive ways, such as by labeling it "dextrose" or "cane syrup." For a lengthy list of all the names that sugar hides behind, see the link to the Pop Sugar site below.

Now, eating clean at all times is a challenging task. Therefore, we don't worry about what we eat when we go over to others houses for dinner or if we go out to a restaurant. We simply have cut out processed foods in our home and with what we serve to others. If you want to learn more about why it's important to eat clean, I highly recommend you check out the documentary "Fed Up" on Netflix. It was a game-changer for us. For more specifics on how we eat clean and what we eat on a daily basis, keep reading!

Choosing Your Budget

Let me start out by saying that we are a family of three, and one of us has four paws, so there are only two of us who actually utilize the grocery budget. However, I will also say that hubs is an athlete and actually eats for two, so I think this budget could work for a family of three or four. For those of you with children or others living in your home, you will likely need to increase this budget (especially those of you with teenagers!). I recommend overestimating at first - budget at least $50 more than you think you will need and, after a month or two, downscale from there. This creates a more pleasant surprise than realizing you underestimated.

Keep this budget in mind before you head to the grocery store. If you're not used to budgets, keeping an envelope of cash that has your exact budget amount in it might be helpful. If not, make sure you check to see where the monthly budget is before your shopping trip. We use an online budgeting system, so I can check the app on my phone when I'm at the store in case I forget. At the beginning of the month, try to plan out how many grocery runs you'll need to go on that month and budget even further this way. I typically go to the grocery store once a week, so on a budget of $250 a month I can spend about $60 each time. If I spend more, I'll have less to work with the next week. Sticking to the budget is key here.

Prepping Your Grocery Trips

I have a lot of friends who are able to save money by checking the weekly ads at all the local stores and shopping the sales. If you have time to do this, great! It is a savvy way to work the system. My lifestyle, on the other hand, doesn't allow for me to hit three or four stores in one shopping trip. If I have time, I may try to go to two, but usually I'm rushing trying to get through one giant supermarket. Even if you only have time for one store, though, checking the ads and searching for coupons can still be very helpful. Because of where I live, I usually shop at Meijer. They not only have weekly ads, but they also have an app where you can virtually "clip" coupons and then use them by entering your phone number on the pin pad at the store. A lot of stores will also give you more coupons with your receipts based on what you bought that day. Take advantage of these - it might only be a dollar or two at the time, but it can add up!

Another tactic that helps to save money at the store is meal planning. I know several people who plan out every meal for the week - breakfast, lunch, and dinner - before heading to the store because it ensures that you won't buy junk you don't need. It's extremely easy to go to the store and buy an overabundance of groceries because you haven't planned out your meals and are getting slightly ahead of yourself - been there, done that! Planning out meals truly helps to save money in this sense and keep food from going bad.

Again, because of our lifestyle, I don't have time to cook dinner every night (let alone prepare breakfast or lunch!). We typically eat the same things for breakfast and lunch, and we're fine with that. It takes a lot of preparation to create new and exciting meals every day, especially one's that are clean. If you have the time to commit to this, more power to you. If not, you may have to get used to eating a lot of the same foods every day. For dinner, I typically plan to cook two to three meals a week, factoring in eating leftovers and eating out at least once each week. However, I also buy staples that I know we can depend on if we need a quick bite and don't have time to cook. Whatever you do, plan your meals around your lifestyle. Don't set unrealistic expectations for yourself as far as preparation; instead, find what foods you can depend on if you're in a crunch.

What We Actually Eat

As I mentioned, eating clean to us doesn't always mean eating organic. There are definite ways to cut corners and still eat affordable foods while eating clean. Here is a list of the most common products on our grocery list and how we can afford to eat them:

  • Fruit - this one is a staple in our household. Fresh fruit is the best snack because it's quick, portable, and completely natural. I always have bananas in our house, but besides that I buy whatever is in season. In the summer, it's berries, melons, peaches and nectarines. In the fall, it's apples and grapes. Winter is pears and oranges, and spring is usually leftovers from winter or the early-bloomers from summer, like strawberries. I probably spend the largest part of our budget on fruit, and we usually eat it with both breakfast and lunch, sometimes even dinner! We don't buy organic produce because we can't afford it, so I just make sure to wash everything carefully with an organic fruit and veggie wash before eating.
  • Vegetables - I usually try to get a few vegetables that can be eaten as a snack, too. Such as carrots, celery, sugar snap peas, edamame, and broccoli. The rest depends on our meal planning, though. If I have time, we love to get broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms and peppers to roast in the oven with olive oil. Typically, though, we get most of our vegetables through salads. I always buy a large tub of organic spinach whenever we go to the store along with some salad fixings, such as cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and whatever else is on sale. Salads are a very fast and easy dinner that definitely help you to get all your nutrients in.
  • Chicken - I try to keep a pack of chicken breast around that can be easily grilled or boiled to add to a salad or something fast. I buy chicken form the co-op in town because it's the only place where I can find free range, no hormone added chicken. I don't care if the label says organic, but I do try to make sure there has been nothing funky added to it and that it was raised humanely. It can be pricey but when it comes to animal products I think it's important to get higher quality.
  • Deli meat - This is another expensive item, as it can be hard to find with nothing added to it. I usually just price check between the deli meat in the plastic tubs and the deli meat that they cut for you in the deli and get whatever is cheapest and doesn't have anything added to it. A lot of brands do add sugar, so make sure you double check the list of ingredients.
  • Cheese - typically cheese doesn't have added sugar, so I'm not picky at all with this. I like to get a variety because cheese is one of my favorite foods. I usually buy some sliced cheese for sandwiches as well as some shredded cheese and crumbled feta for salads and other mixtures. I have found that the grocery store I shop at alternates what brands are on sale each week.
  • Bread - Bread is another item that is hard to find without added sugar in the regular store. We usually go with one of two options here, the first being the Ezekiel brand bread from the co-op. At our co-op, they keep it in the frozen section, which is nice because you can save it from going bad and it thaws out nicely. The Ezekiel brand has no added junk but a lot of nutrients. The other option we sometimes go with is buying bread from a local bakery. The bakery also does not add any sugar to their bread, and you get the added bonus of helping local businesses. I only recommend using this option if you can eat bread quickly, though, because since it is so fresh it goes bad pretty fast. We typically keep our bread in the fridge to prevent mold.
  • Oatmeal - I buy oatmeal frequently as I use it in a lot of recipes for breakfast foods or snacks. I usually buy the store brand organic oatmeal as it's not much more than regular oatmeal and there is no added ingredients outside of dried oats.
  • Greek Yogurt - This is a great healthy snack that you can also do a lot with. We typically eat it with honey, fruit, granola, and/or nuts, but you can also use it in baking. Regular flavored yogurt has a ridiculous amount of added sugar, but most Greek yogurts have no added sugar and the only ingredient is cultured milk. I prefer to buy the Dannon Oikos brand as it has the least amount of natural sugar, and I always buy it in the large, 32 ounce tubs because it's cheaper than the individual containers.
  • Milk - If you're really trying to save money, regular milk is just fine. I choose to buy expensive milk because I have the confidence that there is no added junk but also that the cows are treated humanely; that's just something I value. Sometimes I get local milk from the co-op, but lately my favorite brand has been Fairlife milk. It tastes great and has a normal texture, and they are all about making better milk and better lives for dairy cows. Unless it's on sale, it's usually about $3.99 for a half gallon. When it is on sale, I stock up because it lasts for something close to two months.
  • Eggs - I like to buy eggs that are cage free and vegetarian fed. Not only does this make me feel better about how the chickens were raised, but personally I notice a huge taste difference between regular eggs and organic eggs. I find that the brown eggs that are cage free and vegetarian fed have so much more flavor! Eggs are used in many recipes, but we also have scrambled eggs and omelets as a quick lunch or dinner food quite often.
  • Pasta - I always like to have pasta around because you can easily make any delicious meal with it if you haven't planned well! Spaghetti, lasagna, chicken parmesan, baked ziti, pad Thai... The list is endless! Most regular pasta brands don't have any added sugar, either, so you can buy this for cheap.
  • Canned Tuna - To find tuna that doesn't have added junk outside of salt and water, I have to buy it at the co-op. However, usually the regular kind at the store doesn't have added sugar, so it still could be considered clean. Tuna is a light protein source that can be a quick meal eaten on it's own or made into a salad or sandwich. You could even look into making your own pickles if you wanted to spice it up a little!
  • Honey - We always buy local honey from independent dispensaries or from the co-op if our go-to "honey lady" is out of stock. Local honey is much better for you, and being exposed to local pollen can also help with seasonal allergies if that is something you struggle with. Honey is a natural sweetener that you can put in just about anything to eliminate processed sugars!
  • Nuts - Yes, they are also expensive, but if you shop the sales you can usually get a good deal on them. I typically check between bulk foods, snacks, and the baking aisle. Nuts are a great source of protein and go well with yogurt, cereal, salads, or just as a snack. We typically by almonds, walnuts, or pecans depending on what's on sale.
  • Butter - Butter is one of my favorite products, it truly makes everything better! When we started eating clean, I was afraid I would have to give it up... But have no fear! There are some awesome brands out there that make "healthy" butter. My favorite is the Melt brand, which uses coconut oil to make a butter-like product. It has the exact same texture as butter and a very similar taste with a slight hint of coconut. If you can't find this brand at your store, look around and read labels to find out what's in them. There are several other brands that make this butter-like product without adding sugar.
  • Dressings, condiments, peanut butter, jam, etc. - The biggest thing to note with "shelf items" is: check the label! Read it carefully to make sure there is no added sugar. It can be really hard to find these items without added sugar, but shop around and try new brands until you find one that meets your standards. We like Earth Balance for peanut butter and Marzetti for salad dressings.

What We Actually Make

Nowadays it is easy to find clean-eating recipes on practically any website, but what was hardest for us when we initially changed our diets was finding breakfast, lunch and snack options or dinner options we could eat when we didn't have time to cook. The following is a list of the dishes we most commonly eat when we're in a pinch.

  • Greek Yogurt - just add some honey, granola, fruit, or nuts to make a delicious breakfast, lunch, or snack. Greek yogurt is a great source of protein so you can substitute it for a meat product.
  • Eggs - another source of protein. I prefer scrambled, but hubs prefers omelets. Either way, you can add sea salt, pepper, cheese, and any veggie to make your eggs nutritious. Whenever our spinach starts to go bad, I throw it in a Ziploc bag and put it in the freezer. The frozen spinach is what I use for eggs as it melts pretty quickly and forms a texture that you really don't notice when you're eating your eggs. You can also add mushrooms, peppers, and onions to give them even more flavor.
  • Salad - This is our go-to dinner when we're in a hurry. I always buy spinach or a spinach/kale mix because spinach has a lot more nutrients, including protein, than regular romaine or iceberg lettuce. I make my salads however I'm in the mood for them. If I'm feeling savory, I usually add tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms, and do ranch or Caesar dressing. If I'm feeling more sweet, though, I like to add nuts, cranberries, apples or pears, feta cheese, and a vinaigrette dressing. Pick your ingredients seasonally and get creative with how to make these salads more exciting!
  • Sandwiches - another easy fixing! Just add some mayo, cheese, deli meat, and vegetables and you hit almost all your food groups. If it's dinner time, throw it on the grill with some butter and make it a hot sandwich. To make your sandwiches a little more exciting, look up some homemade dressing ideas, such as homemade pesto. If I'm not in the mood fro deli meat, sometimes we do tuna melts with canned tuna, mayo, and cheese on a piece of bread and usually broiled in the oven.
  • Granola - Homemade granola is a staple in our home. We add it to yogurt for a yummy snack and even eat it as cereal. It's extremely difficult to find affordable cereal that doesn't have added sugar, so instead we use my homemade granola that is made with honey instead of sugar. Look for the recipe in future articles.
  • Protein Snacks - If you look up "protein balls" on just about any website, chances are you can find a good recipe for a healthy snack. Most of them use ingredients including oatmeal, peanut butter, honey, and chocolate chips or cranberries. These make healthy snacks and are very easy to make and quick to grab on the go! I use the recipe from the website Run Like a Girl, see link below!
  • Smoothies - We are smoothie addicts here. Smoothies can be a fixing at any meal, including dessert if you're craving something sweet after dinner! Another great source of several food groups as you can easily incorporate fruits, veggies, and Greek yogurt or milk for protein. We don't have a protein powder that we like as it's hard to find a "clean" one, but you could also use this if you have some already. My secret to making great smoothies is stocking up on berries over the summer when they're cheap and freezing them. This way you don't have to worry about buying that overpriced frozen fruit in the freezer section, and they can also substitute ice cubes in the smoothie! (If your fridge is old like mine and doesn't have an ice maker, this is actually exciting.) I like to add my own frozen fruit along with bananas, spinach, Greek yogurt, milk, and honey. If I'm feeling risky, sometimes I'll even put peanut butter in there, too!

I hope this helps y'all in your endeavors to eat better. Please leave questions or comments to let me know your thoughts and share more tips. Look for further articles on clean-eating recipes to come!

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    • Brinafr3sh profile image

      Brinafr3sh 20 months ago from West Coast, United States

      Great quality article. I'm starting to eat more organic foods again. My grocery store has bananas that are organic and some that aren't. I actually thought all bananas and fruit were organic.