This article discusses how to spend less than $7 a day eating, while still being able to enjoy an abundance of whole, delicious food. It is possible to be healthy without spending a great fortune!
Personally, I am not a fan of penny pinching – the less I worry about money, the less it seems I need to. That being said, I don’t spend frivolously in any area of my life. When it comes to grocery shopping, this means that I don’t spend my money on unnecessary pre-packaged food and treats, and instead opt to cook many things from scratch. The most important thing to me, when it comes to food expenses, is eating lots of fresh, high-quality food. While you will definitely save money on a mac and cheese diet, that’s not what this article is about – I want to show you that it’s possible to eat healthfully while still spending less than the average person on groceries.
For one person living in Canada, the average monthly food bill is $300, which includes dining out. That’s about $75 a week. It’s been shown that around 30% of our total food bills are spent at restaurants and fast-food joints, though this does depend on your level of income – generally speaking, if you make lots of money, you’re likely to spend more of it at restaurants. Either way, most of us spend a lot of money for this convenience. Eating out frequently is not ideal from a health perspective, as many restaurants improve the flavour and richness of their food by adding lots of oils and fats. Even salads often come smothered in oily dressings. Many restaurants also encourage excess consumption, like massive hunks of meat and heaping portions of greasy fries. In addition, I hardly need to delve into the health problems associated with habitual eating at fast food restaurants, as we all know that the food is of poor quality, nutritionally devoid and heavily processed.
I will not be suggesting coupon clipping in this article, and other methods of high frugality. What I’m offering is how to spend less on food than the average person, as well as how to eat healthier than the average person. I spend approximately $200 a month on all food and food-related costs ($400 for two of us) – this includes all groceries, dining out, and non-edible groceries like dish soap. This is without limiting myself unreasonably. Sometimes I will splurge a little on a food-related item that interests me. Recently I did this with raw coconut oil, because I wanted something that wasn’t full of toxic chemicals to use on my dry skin. Purchasing items like this do make our bill a little higher, but it’s not that significant and has a lot of benefits – it’s not splurging on take-out because we’re too lazy or tired to cook. Our food costs generally amount to a little under $7 a day per person, which is quite good, especially when you consider that a single meal at a restaurant will cost around $10.
Here’s what a typical seven-dollar day looks like:
Breakfast – big fruit smoothie
$0.50 – 2 bananas
$0.40 – frozen fruit
$0.10 – flax seed (two heaping teaspoons)
$0.25 – $0.50 – soy milk
$1.25 – $1.50
Lunch – Sandwich with tofu salad filling, and broccoli on the side
$0.13 – 2 slices of homemade bread
$0.42 – tofu salad portion (1/6th of total recipe)
$0.16 – spinach (for on the sandwich)
$1.00 – broccoli (a very large portion)
Supper – Dahl with brown rice and veggies
$0.18 – rice (1 serving)
$0.44 – dahl (made from split peas, onion and spices)
$0.58 – mixed, steamed veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, carrot)
Snack – Chia seed pudding
$0.69 – chia seeds (1/4 c)
$0.25 – soy milk
$0.30 – agave nectar
Total cost of sample day = 6.55
In this sample, I did not include condiments that I used miniscule amounts of. I also didn’t include non-food items that were inevitably used, like dish soap and garbage bags.
Now, let’s dissect my monthly bill. The following charts were created from my total January and February grocery and food expenses.
As you can see, the most money in each month went toward what I call ‘cupboard stuff’ – grains like rice and pasta, canned goods like tomatoes, olives and coconut milk, all condiments, nuts and seeds, herbs, flour and beans.
The second most expensive item is the veggies. It’s not so much that they’re expensive; it’s that we buy more veggies than anything else on our grocery trips. In that sense, veggies are one of the cheapest things you can buy. For example, on a $40 grocery trip in February, I bought carrots, parsley, romaine, broccoli, bok choy, green onions, onions, ginger, peppers and a tomato for $14.33. I spent only 1/3rd of the total grocery bill on veggies, but the veggies made up the bulk of the trip. Aside from fruit, the only other items I purchased that day were tofu, bread, tomato sauce and spaghetti.
In third place for expenses comes fruit. Like vegetables, fruit isn’t necessarily expensive, but we do buy a lot of it. In the same grocery trip mentioned above, we bought avocados, bananas, apples, pears, oranges, a mango and a lime for $13.69. Keep in mind that we bought nearly 30 pieces of fruit – about 5 avocados, 7 bananas, 6 apples, 4 pears, 4 oranges, 2 mangoes and 1 lime.
Non-food items are an inevitable part of everyone’s grocery bills – we all need garbage bags and dish soap. However, compared to other costs, they don’t add up to much.
The other food costs, being bread, soy products and frozen food, are marginal. Notice how the cost of bread plummeted in February – toward the end of the month, we started making our own. In March, we’ve almost completely eliminated this expense by making all of our bread from scratch.
Also, notice the 6% slice of February’s pie dedicated to ‘eating out’. Since it totals 6% of our total food costs, you might think we splurged and went out a few times, but in reality we only went out once in the entire month. On that meal, we spent $27.97. Think about how many of us eat out at least several times a week and you’ll see how these numbers quickly add up.
Below, I’ve compiled my best advice for keeping your food costs low, while eating lots of great, fresh stuff. This is advice based on my own personal experience, as I have spent quite a bit of time and energy learning how to fill my grocery cart with lots of inexpensive, energetic food.
1) Stop eating out – restaurants are pricey. Fast food is cheap, but in more ways than just cost. Why spend $6 for an empty-calorie, salt-filled, grease-laden meal, when you can whip up something cheaper, healthier, and more delicious at home? Eating nutritionally empty, highly processed food is very taxing on our bodies, leaving our immune systems compromised and more prone to illness. Fast food restaurants also target young children in their advertising, in order to hook them on their product from an early age – meanwhile, childhood obesity skyrockets. There are just so many problems with fast food – books and many articles have been written specifically about this – that I don’t feel I need to go in-depth with this point any further.
2) Learn to cook your own meals. I’m not talking about opening a box of mac and cheese or a can of soup – I mean getting a decent, health-promoting cookbook and using fresh ingredients. You can also browse online for recipes and photos of amazing food. On the sidebar of this blog, I have linked to some delicious recipes, and you can also view the most recent posts by my favourite food bloggers.
If your cupboards are bare, expect to spend a few extra dollars building up a collection of spices and other staple pantry items. What you want is an ample supply of grains, beans, spices and canned goods so that you can whip up a healthy and delicious meal fast, based on whatever fresh produce you have on hand.
Plan to spend about an hour in the kitchen daily, or several times a week, depending on how much you make and how many people you’re feeding. That might seem like an awful lot of time, but consider life prior to the era of convenience food – I can’t imagine 5-minute meals existing way back when, unless you count fruit. Animals in the wild spend a good portion of their day collecting, hunting, and looking for their food. So think of this extra time spent as an investment in your health – the increased energy and heightened sense of well-being make this time more than worthwhile.
3) Avoid meat and dairy products. A brick of cheese is not only expensive, it’s also laden with saturated fat and casein, an animal protein convincingly linked to heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Dairy products are like glue in your digestive system – a visit to your local colonic practitioner will allow you to see this first-hand. Two-thirds of the planet’s population is unable to digest it at all, and they experience abdominal cramping, bloating, constipation and diarrhea after consuming dairy products. Also, please remember that cow’s milk was designed by nature for baby cows, just like human breast milk is for baby humans, and cat’s milk is made for kittens.
With meat products, you have a few options. You can purchase expensive, ‘high quality’ (free from antibiotics and hormones) meat, you can buy budget-friendly, low-quality meat, or you can simply not buy meat at all. If you’re trying to spend $200 per month on food, the first option isn’t reasonable unless you only eat animals once or twice a week. The second option is by far the popular approach, but is problematic in several ways. Let’s use ground beef as an example. If you have a package kicking around your fridge, do take a minute to check out the nutritional information – I think you’ll be shocked to see how high in fat and cholesterol it is. Lower-quality ground beef is usually made from spent females, cows about 5 years old who are no longer considered profitable by the dairy industry. They have been fed an unnatural diet of grains (instead of grass), plus just enough antibiotics to keep them alive in their hellish conditions, though many still succumb to disease. Cows (and other animals) are also fed plenty of hormones to increase their production, and thus, their value. When we consume their flesh, we consume all of this. The third choice may not be popular, but it is better for your health, the animals, and your grocery bill.
4) Drop the convenient, pre-made meals. That’s right, KD and Campbell’s, all of it. Most pre-made meals have seriously compromised nutrition, don’t yield much food, and are expensive. While KD (mac and cheese) is affordable to many, it’s still more expensive than brown rice and beans, which creates more food for an equal price, not to mention more nutrition. TV dinners might seem like a good idea since they include several food groups, but come on, guys – we all know how limp and lifeless that broccoli is. 😉
5) Learn how to cook ethnic food. Whether it’s a Chinese stir-fry over rice, an Indian curry or dahl, Japanese sushi or a Moroccan stew, budget meals are everywhere across the globe, if only you look for them. Eating at various ethnic restaurants is a fun educational course when you’re learning a particular type of cuisine.
6) Eat seasonal produce. You’ve all heard this a million times but one more can’t hurt. In a Canadian winter, strawberries have to travel a long way to get to our stores and usually don’t taste that great. Buy frozen berries instead, which are usually cheaper and go wonderfully in smoothies. Apples, pears and citrus are all good choices in the winter, and don’t cost very much. Tomatoes are sad in the wintertime, and peppers are overpriced, but cold-loving greens like kale and even romaine are affordable and delicious. That’s not to mention all of the root veggies, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and winter squash. There’s a ton of fresh, delicious food available in the winter if only you know what to look for.
Take advantage of summer’s abundance of produce. Go to a berry-picking farm and stock up – you can freeze much of what you pick for use in colder months. Many people also grow their own food in the summer, preserving much of it for use in the winter months.
7) Avoid junk food. Pop, chips, cookies and other such treats are not real food. Instead of spending $4 on that box of cookies, you could spend $4 on a huge bag of apples. You can get a big sack of potatoes for about the same price as potato chips, which you can use to make oven-baked fries or hash browns instead of purchasing them in the freezer section.
Avoiding junk food can be difficult because of how addicting it is. Many of us have fond feelings toward cookies, chocolate or sweets after a meal, or chips and salty snacks in the evening, or pop in the morning (or afternoon, or evening). Instead of banishing these treats from your life, I think it’s important to learn how to replace them with healthier choices. That way, you can still satisfy your desire for sugar and salt so you don’t feel deprived. Check out Chocolate-Covered Katie’s fudge babies, which have all of three ingredients and satisfies a killer chocolate craving. She also has a whole army of other cheap, easy and healthy sweets on that page. Logan and I sometimes make our own corn tortilla chips, which have the benefit of no added fat. Recently we made cookies that used whole wheat flour, no refined sugar and no added fat. You have a whole host of options, and it only takes a little creativity and a bit of research to discover them.
8) Buy lots of flavour-enhancers so healthy eating doesn’t get dull. Stock up on onions, ginger and garlic as they keep well and are among the cheapest things you can buy. Invest in spices. Hit up an Asian or Indian grocery store and buy spices like cumin and cinnamon in their whole form, which you can grind in a coffee grinder. If you have whole spices, you can make delicious spice blends like curry, garam masala and berbere for far less money than the pre-made versions in the store.
9) This may seem like an obvious one, but when you’re buying boxed or packaged food, avoid brand names. I pay $4 for no-name frozen berries, while the competing brand charges nearly $7 for the same size of bag, and the no-name berries taste perfectly fine. No-name nut butters, canned goods, rices, grains and most other foods are completely acceptable and will knock a fair chunk of change off of your bill.
10) Here’s a small suggestion that will make a big difference – do not buy cereal. Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cheerios, Shreddies, just avoid the entire aisle. I say this for two reasons. First, cereal is expensive. Second, it’s very highly processed. Cereals like to give an illusion of good health – we’ve all admired the side of the box that proudly displays all of the nutritional information. However, all of that ‘nutrition’ is just a result of the food being fortified. Most cereal products are made from refined grains (mainly wheat) and have virtually no nutrition prior to fortification. This will not keep you satiated throughout the morning, because the carbohydrates in refined grains have already been broken down through processing, which allows your body to digest them very quickly. In contrast, when you consume whole grains, your body has to break down the fiber, which leaves you with a slow but steady energy burn, causing you to feel satiated for longer.
Cereal also contains a ton of sugar – good ol’ white, refined sugar that we’ve been told to avoid. I used to think that my stomach was very sensitive in the morning since I often felt queasy after eating, but I discovered that it was the cereal, and all of the sugar in it, that made me feel sick.
When it comes to healthy cereal grains such as pre-made oatmeal and granola, I still don’t recommend purchasing them. They’re usually very overpriced and you can make them both at home very quickly and easily, for very little money.
11) Make things from scratch. This is not as complicated or time-consuming as it may sound! Here are some things you can do:
– Instead of paying $6 for someone to make you a smoothie, spend under $1.50 making your own, which takes all of 5 minutes.
– Make a big batch of barbeque sauce – it keeps well and your taste buds will love you.
– Make pasta sauces inexpensively and quickly by cooking a can of crushed tomatoes, minced fresh vegetables like onion, garlic and pepper, and some herbs for 10-15 minutes, about the same amount of time it takes to cook the pasta.
– Make your own granola and oatmeal.
– Homemade hummus is as easy as cooking chickpeas and throwing stuff in a blender. Same goes for other bean spreads/veggie dips/sandwich spreads.
– Baking bread, something that has intimidated me for a long time, is surprisingly easy – buy a 9×5 loaf pan and a food thermometer and you’re good to go. You’ll build up some arm strength doing all of that kneading, too!
– Making your own soup yields many more portions than a can, tastes better and involves minimal effort – you just throw stuff in a pot. Yesterday I made enough borscht to last a year (slight exaggeration) for about $3.
– Instead of buying those pre-made salad dressings with ingredients you can’t pronounce, make your own. Dressing and vinaigrette recipes are everywhere so no excuses!
12) Plan your meals. This one may seem tedious, but you’ll benefit from this practice in a few ways. What I like to do is come up with about 5 meal ideas for one week, which is generally enough when you factor in leftovers, quick lunches, and the days where you just don’t have time to be in the kitchen. When you have a menu plan, you’re less likely to throw food in your cart at random, and you’ll end up wasting less because you will know what to do with that head of cabbage in your fridge. Doing this will also encourage you to try those recipes you’ve been meaning to for so long, but never got around to.
13) When you write your grocery list, stick to it. This one is closely related to #12, ‘plan your meals’, which is what will form the basis of your grocery list. So instead of wandering the aisles and deciding that you want those instant noodles, and fries, and awesome-smelling pastries, and…just buy what’s on your list. You don’t need to follow your list religiously – there have been many times when a recipe has called for, say, spinach, but the spinach available at the store is sad and limp. In this situation, I would opt for kale or chard instead, whatever looks nicest. Or, recently, there were fennel bulbs that were so completely perfect that I had to buy one, list or not. Give yourself a little leeway if it seems important, but still be firm with yourself. When you don’t buy those pastries and all you have at home are fruits and veggies, you will eat healthier – and spend less.
14) Spend 5-10 minutes chopping your own produce. Fruit trays, bags of spinach, and those bags of pre-cut veggies do save time, but they cost eight zillion dollars. It doesn’t take long to cut up some broccoli, cauliflower and carrot. All a cluster of spinach requires is some washing and de-stemming, costing around $1.50, while a bag of spinach is at least double that. So put in the effort – it’s completely worth it.
15) Buy in bulk. This, of course, depends on what we’re talking about. If it’s something you use a lot of, and can be obtained for less, then go for it! Recently when we were at the grocery store, there was a little bag of flour for around $5, and a massive bag for about $6. Since I’ve been making bread lately, I bought the huge bag. Beans are also way cheaper from the bulk bin – we filled a bag full of split peas for $3, where pre-bagged split peas would cost us around $6 for less. For items with a very long shelf life, and if you’re going to be using them often, then it pays off to purchase in bulk.
I don’t presume this to be a complete list, simply suggestions based on my own experience. Like I said earlier, I’m not terribly frugal, I only buy a few things in bulk and I never clip coupons. If that’s what you’re looking for, there are many articles online that will help you. I’ve seen articles that say you can live off $3 a day – even $1 a day. To me, this is far too limiting – it means I wouldn’t be able to eat fruit smoothies for breakfast, and I would have to restrict my green food intake too much. Plus, I like having special products on hand like flax seeds and chia seeds. This article was simply intended to show you that it’s possible to eat very healthfully on a budget. I hope I’ve been able to give you some ideas to implement on your next grocery trip. So until next time, may you experience good health and abundant energy!