Healthy Food on a Budget

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Deciding it is possible

When I first looked at the details of the dietary reset in A Mind of Your Own, I knew I needed a plan. Like so many others struggling to get by yet living below the poverty line, my food budget was very limited. In fact, my food budget was only what I received from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), otherwise known as food stamps. Whenever you are working with an especially tight budget it pays to be organized, and I knew I would have to do some extra planning to stretch my allowance enough to buy the kinds of healthy foods that, at first glance, appeared to be out of my reach.

Some of the methods I used relied on the fact that I have access to different grocery stores and farmer’s markets. I also have a way to store and prepare food, and I know my way around a kitchen. However, my hope is that these suggestions will be applicable to a wide range of budgets, and make the task of doing a month-long reset seem a bit less daunting for those with limited means.

Get your priorities straight

Well-sourced meat can often be the most intimidating part of a limited food budget, but you don’t have to compromise on the quality of the meat you are buying. I look for the cheapest cuts of meat, and I don’t waste anything. Bone-in cuts are often the best deals and more flavorful than other cuts. They can take a bit longer to cook, but are worth it for the taste. The bones can also be saved to make bone broth – healing by itself or a great base for a soup. Don’t be afraid of organ meats either! They are nutrient powerhouses, and often fairly inexpensive. It can also be a good idea to find out when your grocery store marks down the meat close to the sell-by date, because often you can get high quality meat and a variety of cuts for a fraction of the regular price. That meat can either be cooked the day you buy it or safely frozen for up to three months.

Picking and choosing your produce

For produce, I began using the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists. I try to buy as much local and seasonal produce as I can. Seasonal produce is not only priced better, but it also tastes significantly better than out-of-season produce. Frozen fruits and vegetables can be a great option as well. Often you can get great prices, and some discount markets even sell organic frozen fruits and vegetables. Just like the meat, produce that needs to be used soon is often marked down. One of my local grocery stores fills mixed bags of organic produce and sells them for only $2 per bag.

Again, I don’t let anything go to waste. If I can bulk cook from what I buy then I prepare things like soups, sauces, and casseroles. I freeze the leftovers, or I purposefully freeze portions for days when I’m too busy to spend much time in the kitchen. Some vegetables and fruits can be sliced and frozen in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and then transferred to an airtight container in the freezer. Vegetables can be fermented, which not only gives them a longer shelf life but also provides you with gut-healing foods for the month. Canning and dehydrating are also great options for storing food if you have the necessary equipment.

It pays to shop around if you have access to different stores, because you can get different deals at different places. Take advantage of bulk bins when you can find them. They are great sources for things like spices, nuts, nut flours, sea salt, and quinoa. Those items are often cheaper per pound than buying them prepackaged, and you have the advantage of only buying what you need.

Do it yourself

Sometimes making your own staples can be beneficial (and cheaper) as well. You can make your own almond milk from bulk bin almonds.

Ghee can be very expensive, but it’s not too difficult to clarify your own if you can source good quality butter. You can also prepare your own animal fat for cooking by purchasing suet or leaf lard (both relatively inexpensive) and rendering it yourself. Some of these things take a little longer to prepare, but can save you significant amounts of money.

Get friendly with your farmer

Farmer’s markets are amazing for so many reasons. Supporting local organic farmers is incredibly important, and there are often many deals to be had at the markets. I like to go towards the end of the day. Often farmers are eager to unload the last of their produce so they don’t have to haul it back to the farm. They might be willing to negotiate on the price, especially if they know you are a regular at the market. Sometimes farmers will also put their prettiest produce on the table for display, but have some of the not-so-pretty produce behind the table to sell. It never hurts to ask if they have any cast-offs that might be a bit cheaper. They will still taste just as good and add some wonderful nutrients to your diet.

Many farmer’s markets not only accept SNAP, but some even have programs that will match up to a certain amount if you are paying with this method. Some of my local markets will match $5-10 each week towards produce, which helps make it more affordable.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) can be a great option for saving money as well. You purchase a share from a farm, and receive fresh produce each week of the growing season. Certain farms accept SNAP as well, allowing you to pay a portion of your share each month with your benefits instead of paying the entire amount up front. Some areas have matching food dollars for CSA’s too. My area has a program that will match up to $200 towards your CSA if it is your first time participating in one and you are paying with SNAP.

Local farms often have sales too. Many local farms have email lists, and you can receive notifications when they have special offers available. You can get certain meats at much lower prices, and get amazing deals on bulk produce near the end of the season. Often farms have lower prices on U-pick items, or produce you pick yourself. Websites like Local Harvest can help you locate farmer’s markets, CSA’s, and U-pick produce in your area. It can also pay to know your neighbors. Backyard chickens are becoming more popular, and often the eggs from those backyard chickens can be significantly cheaper than the ones you find at farmer’s markets.

Planning for a new lifestyle

If you have additional time to plan or to save up, there are a few other options to consider as well. Buying meat in bulk from local farms is often the cheapest way to get high quality meat per pound. You do need a chunk of cash up front and enough freezer space to handle the purchase, but if you have these resources it’s a great option. You can also consider going in with a group of friends on a bulk purchase. That means less money up front and less freezer space needed per person, but you still reap the financial rewards of bulk purchasing. Growing some of your own produce, if you can, is also a great way to supplement your budget. Even a few potted plants or a hanging tomato basket on a back porch can be a nice addition. SNAP can also be used to purchase seeds to grow your own food, and it’s one way to make a small food budget stretch even further.

The most important thing when you are on any kind of budget is to plan. Write up a menu each week, shop with a list, and keep your budget in mind. I found it useful to prioritize my purchases based on the things that were the most important to buy organic, and with the rest I did the best that I could. You may not be able to buy one hundred percent organic to begin with, but any changes you do make can have a huge impact on how you are feeling. The more you eat this way, the better you will become at finding deals and getting creative in the kitchen.

The task of making this work seemed a bit overwhelming at first, but it became doable once I started getting organized. I was fed up with feeling miserable, and I knew something had to change. Yes, it required a lot of extra work to make this happen on such a limited budget, but I was willing to do anything in order to heal. I put my faith in this process. I put my trust in myself that I could figure out the details. I looked at this as a way to save my life. When I took that view, all the extra steps didn’t seem so insurmountable.

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More