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How To: Afford Real Food on a Budget

This post is part of the Tips From a Student series. The student lifestyle can sometimes be non-conducive to health. In this section I share my own strategies for balancing health, school, and social life.

One of the most difficult parts about a switch to a Real Food lifestyle is learning how to deal with how expensive real food can be in comparison to processed alternatives. When you’re on a tight budget, it can be really tempting to just grab a bag of pasta and a can of tomato sauce (which will cost only a few dollars and will feed you for days), but in the long term that sort of diet could lead to all sorts of nutrient deficiencies and other health problems. On the other hand, the price tags on fresh vegetables and meat can definitely make you think twice about making healthy choices. In the last year, I’ve learned a few things about how to make healthy eating financially feasible on a student budget.

Budget Priorities

The first thing to decide is what level of priority food has in your budget. How important is it to you? This is different for everyone, and sometimes it changes over time. If you have very little income and a lot of student debt, you’re probably going to be looking for the least expensive options for everything, including food. However, if you have some flexibility with your budget, maybe you’ll decide that buying more tender cuts of meat or opting for organic vegetables is something that matters to you. It may cost a little more, but if you feel it’s important to your health, maybe it’s worth it. The important thing is to evaluate those priorities so that you know what to spend your money on once you get to the grocery store.

Eating Out

Eating out (or ordering in) is generally a major part of the student lifestyle. It’s an easy way to meet up with friends, and it’s often more convenient than cooking something at home (because who has time to cook or do dishes when there’s a paper due?). However, it can often get VERY expensive, especially when a dinner out turns into an evening of drinks with friends. Plus, for the type of food that can usually be found at a student pub, you’re being massively overcharged. If you’re looking to be more healthy on a budget, eating out is a great thing to cut out: you save money, and you can redirect that $20-30 you would have spent on one meal with a drink towards a quality real food meal at home.

If you usually eat out with friends, try inviting them over to your place for a meal instead. It’s pretty easy to make a large meal for under $20, so you wouldn’t be spending any more money (probably less), and you would get to keep the leftovers. Your friends will probably love saving the money too, and they might even chip in for ingredients, bring over a side dish or dessert, or reciprocate sometime by cooking dinner for you.

Meat (and other protein)

Now I’ll give you some practical tips for grocery shopping. The first thing to do is find a good grocery store: one that frequently has good deals on produce or sales on meat, and preferably one with a 10% student discount (many Loblaws stores have student discounts on Tuesdays). Convenience stores ARE NOT a good place to buy food: even if they have anything worth eating, it’s going to be marked up outrageously. (Yesterday I was in my local convenience store and saw canned bamboo shoots — which I buy from Loblaws for less than $2 — for $3.99!). Definitely find a real grocery store.

Protein can be one of the most expensive elements of any diet. Meat and fish, especially, are hard to afford on a budget. Eggs are a great, inexpensive alternative, with a dozen usually selling for between 3 and 4 dollars. For meat, the best options are usually ground meat and organ meats. Conventional ground meat (the type from grain-fed animals that can be found a grocery stores) is usually sold for $3-4 per pound, and organ meat is even less expensive because it’s not very popular (though it is the most nutrient-dense meat available). Fresh fish is generally very expensive, but canned fish is usually more reasonable, and it often goes on sale. Canned fish like sardines and wild salmon ($1-4/can) are excellent sources of omega-3 fats and calcium.

Grass-fed or pastured meat is generally more expensive than the conventional type, so it depends on your budgeting priorities whether you think its health benefits are worth it. This is a useful post from The Paleo Mom which ranks the health benefits of various different types of meat and fish; it can help you decide if something is worth the price. If you do decide to eat good quality meats sometimes, try to get them directly from the farmer. Some butchers will carry grass-fed beef, but it’s usually more expensive than getting it from the farmer. A grass-fed beef farmer who I met at my local farmer’s market sells me 5 pounds of ground beef for $20 and organ meat for $2/lb.

If you prefer more expensive cuts of meat like steaks or roasts, I recommend waiting until they’re on sale at the grocery store and then stocking up. Often grocery stores will give big discounts for any meat that’s approaching its best-before date; buy it and freeze it until you want to use it. That goes for any type of meat on sale: chicken thighs and whole chickens go on sale frequently for as little as $2/lb. I periodically go to Costco to stock up on inexpensive meat; the picture below is about $400 worth of meat at an average of $4.50/lb.

What my freezer looked like after my last Costco trip.

What my freezer looked like after my last Costco trip.

Vegetables

Vegetables are a little harder to budget than meat because most types of veggies are harder to freeze and save for later. However, vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cauliflower, and broccoli are always good ones to chop up and keep in the freezer. Similarly, tomatoes can be made into huge batches of tomato paste and sauce to be preserved or frozen and kept for later. This can be useful in cold climates where very few vegetables are in season over the winter.

The best idea for buying vegetables on a budget is buying seasonally. Usually, if something is in season and local, it will be less expensive than something that had to be shipped a long way. Plus, if it’s in season, there is plenty available to meet the demand, so the prices will be lower — unlike when you’re looking for strawberries in December. Most grocery stores will have signs that tell you in which country the vegetables were grown. If you’re in Canada like me, opt for veggies from Canada or the US instead of from Chile or China.

Alternatively, find a few staples that are inexpensive all year round to use as go-to options. Things like cooking onions, carrots, mushrooms, and bananas don’t vary in price much during the year and are all fairly inexpensive. Similarly, squashes are generally sold for about $1/lb for a large portion of the year.

If you have the time and/or inclination, growing some of your own foods would be a useful budgeting tool. However, if you’re a student, you probably, like me, don’t have enough time or space to do any gardening.

Pantry Items

Pantry items are things that can really tie a meal together. It is important to have a stock pile of herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, cooking fats, condiments, etc. on hand to make a meal really interesting. These are the sorts of things that you don’t need to buy every week: you can stock up on them once and then just replace them gradually as they’re used up. Unfortunately, they tend to cost a lot when you do need to buy them.

The most important thing to do when stocking pantry items is to keep an eye out for sales. If you have a favourite brand of olive oil, buy 2 or 3 bottles when it goes on sale. Also try buying in bulk when possible. Spices, especially, can be bought in bulk and are less expensive that way than when they are sold together with jars or containers of any kind. Buy the spices in bulk and store them in reused condiment containers or jars from the dollar store.

The type of pantry item that I have found to be most unnecessarily expensive is baking ingredients. “Healthy” baking (with grain-free flours and natural sugars) ends up being a very expensive undertaking. If that’s important to you, try finding the ingredients in bulk (Bulk Barn is a great place to look). Personally, I just don’t bother baking except on special occasions, and I save my money for the vegetables and meat that I care more about.

 

These are the tools I use to eat real food on a student budget. If you have any other ideas, please post them in the comments below. I’d love to hear more suggestions 😀