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Beating the Food Budget Blues

We’ve all been there. You go to the grocery store to grab a few things and walk out having spent $100 and carrying only 1 or 2 bags. “I can’t afford this food. What did I even buy?” you say to yourself.

Although it seems like we’re spending a fortune, according to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), North Americans only allot between 6 and 9% of their household expenditures on food. In comparison, most other countries spend anywhere from 20 – 50% on food, and that’s not only in developing countries; in Russia, for example, people allot 29% of their household expenditures to food—and it’s one of the top ten wealthiest nations.

North Americans value cheap food, and over the last century, many in the food and farming industries have done everything possible to feed us that food. But we all know cheap doesn’t mean good quality. None of us wants the cheapest car or cell phone, so why is it that way with food?

Of all things to value, healthy food that keeps us energized and nourished should be a priority. That being said, we all have to consider the bottom line, and there are ways to make healthy food more affordable.

Buying locally and seasonally can make produce more affordable, especially if you’re striving for organic. Leafy greens should be a regular addition to your grocery cart, and a bunch of greens only costs $2 –$3…that’s less than your latte! Also consider growing some greens or herbs in your garden or on your patio this year; seeds cost next to nothing and the energy you expend is also health promoting and extremely rewarding.

If you focus on whole grains, rather than processed grain products, you can also save a bundle. Think how far a pound of barley will stretch, as opposed to a seasoned, packaged side dish. Making steel cut oats in the morning will also cost much less than a box of granola.

Meat accounts for 1/5 of our grocery expenditures, but when it comes to protein, there is no more affordable source on the planet than legumes (beans, peas and lentils). Make meatless meals more often and you’ll see your food dollars stretch further. When you are having meat, keep your portion in check. You only need 75 grams cooked, 120 grams raw (about the size of your palm), to get an adequate level of protein. It’s easy to consume double the portion and spend double the dollars! If you’re buying less, you’ll be able to afford the organic or specialty meats that are better for your health and that of the planet.

Instead of planning your meals around meat, as has been our tradition, base your meal around a different vegetable every night. Think stuffed peppers, gratins, stir fries or Buddha bowls, soups, stews and casseroles…the list could literally go on and on. If you need to, use meat or dairy as a garnish, and then you’ll be consuming (and spending!) significantly less.

It also can’t be ignored: 33% of our food dollars in British Columbia are spent eating out at restaurants. Try to cut back to only once a week (including your coffee and muffin or sushi for lunch) and watch your wallet stay wider. Cooking at home can be a delightful—even meditative—way to ground yourself and connect with all that (literally) nourishes us.

Looking for more ideas on how to beat those food budget blues from Nicole, one of Choices’ Dietitians? Email her at