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How To Eat Well When Money Is Tight

My whole philosophy about eating healthily hasn’t changed much over the years.  I’d love to buy only organic foods, but sometimes my budget won’t allow it. I hear people say that we should go ahead and buy expensive organic food because we’ll save money in the long run with fewer Dr bills.  I agree with that, but I don’t always have the money in my hand with which to buy food like that.   I’d love to grow everything we eat, but sometimes I can’t. What it comes down to is doing my best and trusting God with what I can’t manage to change. meal

Almost everyone likes to eat well.  And by “well” I mean healthily.  I’m no food snob, I don’t mind buying what I can afford. But I do prefer to put together the healthiest meals I possibly can for my family. When money is tight, that’s a challenge. You can find cheap food, but you know its not the healthiest option.  And then you try to buy organic but its blowing your budget. Velveeta and canned soups, as my husband says, “Beats eating snowballs.”

Its often cheaper, and admittedly easier, just to grab pre-packaged foods off the shelf and out of the freezer and prepare those instead of putting together a meal that you have to cook. But there are ways you can improve what you prepare for your family and stay within your budget.

I’ll try not to ramble and go on and on here but to offer you some real ideas and help.   I have come up with 6 truths about eating healthily when you’re low on money.

  1. Make meals from scratch
  2. Avoid multi-ingredient recipes, keeping meals simple – 5 ingredients or fewer
  3. Buy healthy ingredients
  4. Only prepare what your family will eat at one meal unless you know you will eventually eat the leftovers. This is a biggie because some families don’t like leftovers.
  5. Stock up on the pantry items that you know your family eats when you have a little extra money
  6. Plan your menus AFTER you go grocery shopping. Yes! After. When money isn’t as tight its nice to make your menu and then shop for the food needed to prepare the menu. But when money is tight, its best to pick up foods you know your family will eat, stock your pantry and cook from the pantry. How to do this will become clearer in this article.

1. Make meals from scratch. You knew I was going to say that. There’s just no way around cooking from scratch if you want to save money.  Cooking from scratch means using whole food ingredients. Whole foods are foods that are as close to the way God created the food as possible. So instead of choosing a package of breaded, frozen chicken nuggets that have other ingredients in them, you should look for fresh chicken that you can cut up and bread and make your own nuggets.

2. Avoid multi-ingredient recipes, keeping meals simple – 5 ingredients or fewer.   Five ingredients is an arbitrary number, but it works to help me get across the point that including herbs and spices you can make delicious, easy, healthy food with very few ingredients.  Some casseroles contain 15 ingredients or more. In that number of ingredients there are usually very unhealthy choices like cream soups, fake cheese, canned milk or packaged foods that have preservatives and other unwanted ingredients like MSG.

I’m not opposed to eating some Velveeta now and then and I’m not against people using convenience foods.  I’m just trying to show you that you can actually save money and be healthier by cooking simple meals instead of putting tons of processed foods together for every meal.

3. Buy healthy ingredients. Ideally, that means organic, locally produced food.  You may not live in an ideal world, but let me assure you that there are ways you can eat like this at least for some of your meals.

Grow you own vegetables and fruit. You’ve heard that over and over all over the internet and other places. Its true. I grow and preserve a lot of what we eat.

Buy meat that is raised organically if you can. I am not a grass-fed beef kind of person. I think its confusing when people say that cows aren’t meant to eat grain. My husband has a masters degree in ruminant nutrition, we were both raised on farms, we understand that cows are created to eat grain as well as grass.  So I don’t have a problem with beef that has been finished off (meaning the last two weeks of its life) on grain. It makes the meat have a little more fat and taste better.

The bigger issue is knowing that most of that beef was finished off on GMO corn. That’s a problem for me.  So I look for local beef, elk, bison that is raised on grass and then finished off on non-gmo corn or not finished on corn at all.  Not an easy thing to find if you don’t live in a predominately agrarian area.  So look for grass fed beef, organic beef and pastured chicken. Buy as good a quality as you can afford.

A little more about buying these kinds of foods; They are usually more expensive. You will have to weigh the cost and the benefits of eating healthily. Also, if you’re being frugal in the kitchen and not wasting food, you’re going to end up saving money. Buy the best you can afford and then rest in the knowledge that you’ve done your best!

4.  Only prepare what your family will eat at one meal unless you know you will eventually eat the leftovers. When I got serious about saving money and eating healthy foods, I also cut down on our portion sizes.  If I have 4 people to feed, I prepare 3 potatoes because I know the two younger people won’t eat a whole one.  Preparing less food at one time saves me money because we don’t waste it. I may only save .05 by preparing three potatoes but if I can do that sort of thing for lots of meals it will add up.

5. Stock up on the pantry items that you know your family eats when you have a little extra money. Whenever you have a few extra grocery budget dollars, buy some rice, pasta, organic tomatoes, meats and fish you can freeze, dried beans, grains, flours, etc.  You’ll be glad you did! And once your pantry is built up, you can easily cook right out of it instead of going to the grocery for every  meal’s needs.

Where do you shop for groceries? It can be a huge savings to shop for groceries at discount stores, but find out where the food you buy comes from, what the ingredients are and whether or not it is organic if that matters to you.  Buying in bulk is a good idea too IF you have space to store your bulk food and IF you are storing it correctly so that it won’t spoil. 

6.  Plan your menus AFTER you go grocery shopping. Anyone who has visited here over the years knows that I usually recommend planning menus and then buying the food you need for the menus. When money is good  you can do that. But when money is tight, its best to stock your pantry and freezer and then cook with what you have. That means you can buy fresh vegetables that are on sale or in season. You can freeze or dry those veggies if you aren’t going to use them fresh. You can also take advantage of meat and fish sales.

This kind of buying and storing does require you to be imaginative in the kitchen.  You can either have favorite recipes on hand to use that you’ve bought groceries and stocked your pantry to make or you can just wing it and make what comes to mind. That means you just have to step out and try it if you aren’t accustomed to cooking this way.

Here’s how I do it:

I know that there are several recipes I’ve made over the years that my family likes. When I stock my pantry, I always make sure to buy ingredients to make those meals. I also buy foods that we eat frequently like fish, beef, root vegetables, asparagus, apples, lemons, cheese, fats and oils and eggs.  From my garden I have tomatoes, beans, herbs, peppers, onions, eggplant and winter squash. With those foods alone I can feed us a variety of dishes for a couple of weeks!

Here is an example of a simple skillet meal:

Ground beef and onion, browned and drained. Add fresh broccoli florets, a pint of tomatoes with juice (or use one can), season with your favorite herbs and spices, I often use cumin and black pepper, salt. After the broccoli is tender, you can add a can of unsweetened coconut milk or just serve it as is over brown rice.

The amounts of each ingredient depends on how many people you are serving.

Another great skillet meal:

brown some diced chicken breast in butter and olive oil, take chicken out of the oil and set aside. Add sliced carrots, onions, celery to the oil and cook til tender. Add the chicken back to the pan. Add some lemon juice and chicken broth, bring to a simmer, add your favorite herbs. I use a little rosemary and pepper. This is also great seasoned with curry. Serve over cooked pasta or rice.

And the simplest meal of all?

A simple meat and vegetable accompanied by a fresh salad or marinated vegetable. Very often I just put a piece of meat, either beef or chicken, in the slow cooker either with a vegetable or I cook the vegetable on the stove-top. I season the meat with salt and pepper and sometimes some garlic.Then I will slice some cucumbers and onions in vinegar and water, salt, pepper and a bit of sugar or make a fresh green salad from the garden.  That is a simple, inexpensive meal!

You can do this. You can reduce the amount of money you are currently spending on groceries and make healthier meals by being frugal and cooking simple meals.



  1. Laura

    I just love your site. Inspirational and wonderfully practical! God bless you

    • Sylvia

      Laura, I’m so glad! Thank you for your comment.

  2. Chelsea McCafferty

    Thank you so much for this blog! God bless you!
    Chelsea McCafferty recently posted..The Violent Nature of Divorce

    • Sylvia

      Chelsea, it is my pleasure! Thank you for commenting.

  3. Vivian

    Ah, Sylvia. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. You and this old Kentucky mountain mama have so much in common. I am convinced we could spend a lot of time swapping recipes, talking about gardens and our shared faith.

    • Sylvia

      Vivian, thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I think chatting with you about gardening and recipes would be splendid!

  4. Nora

    Awesome article! We already implement most of this in our day to day lives.

    • Sylvia

      Thank you, Nora!

  5. Lori Lindgren

    Once again you have written something is so needed and relevant. Thank you for helping us learn so much about how to be good homemakers!

    • Sylvia

      Awwww…you’re a sweetheart, Lori. I’m glad to help.