Tips for Eating Healthy and Local Foods on a Budget

by heather

Here’s a sobering fact from the Huffington Post to chew on:

In 1949, Americans spent 22% of their income on food, whereas in 2009 they spent a meager 10%.

Why are we spending so little of our income on food?

The reason is because we’re buying more prepackaged food, and fast food, more than ever before. Yes, this food is cheaper. But it’s also loaded with fat, calories and sodium, and gives us very little nutritional “bang for our buck”.

The Huffington Post also reports these statistics…

In 1949, 2% of children were overweight. In 2009, 19% were overweight.

In 1979, 28% of adults were overweight. In 2009, 64% were overweight.


Plus, food prices themselves are going up, at least according to the USDA. They expect prices on produce to go up 3% in the coming months, with further rises in 2011.

We can help reduce the impact of all these negative stats simply by making a few simple changes in the way we buy, and consume, our food.

Tips for Eating Local and Healthy on a Budget

1. Buy Peak Season Food

One of the best things we can do both for us, our wallet, and the environment, is to buy food when it’s in peak season. This is when it’s at its most delicious, and cheapest.

How can we tell what’s in season?

I found this awesome online tool from Epicurous that allows you to choose your state so you can see exactly what’s in season. right now. You can also check other months to help plan out your menus or decide what to can and store for winter months.

If you have the time, it’s also a great idea to learn how to can your own food. I taught myself how to can this summer and can tell you that at least from my experience, canning is a rewarding and fun way to take advantage of cheap, healthy summer produce.

If you have a food dehydrator, drying is also a fabulous way to preserve fruits and veggies that are in season. Plus, you can easily dry herbs (which are often sold for $1/bunch at your local Farmer’s Market) at home and save money buying them at the grocery store this fall and winter. As I type this, I’m drying lavender, sage and basil in my office. I’ve grown all of it myself.

2. Eat Nutrient-Dense Food

When you eat, you need to get the most bang for your buck, calorie and price wise. This is why eating nutrient-dense food is so smart.

Nutrient-dense food is any food that is high in nutrients for its size. Usually things like whole grain bread, figs, apples and raspberries are nutrient-dense. They have vitamins, and lots of fiber which makes you feel full.

Any food that’s high in sugar (like cookies, candy, ice cream…) is a waste because you’ll be hungry again quickly, and you just consumed all those calories for nothing more than instant gratification.

There is a great list of nutrient-dense foods here if you want to learn more.

3. Plan Meals BEFORE You Go to Farmer’s Market

I’m so bad at this.

Sunday morning comes around and the first thing I love to do is head off to my local Farmer’s Market, two blocks away. I get there and it’s almost overwhelming how beautiful everything is.

The problem? I have no idea what, or how much, to buy. I did zero planning.

The past few weeks I have gotten better at remembering to create a menu before I go. I look at recipes so I make sure I know exactly how much produce to buy, and come up with several I can make in the days to come. I’m wasting less food because of this.

4. Time Your Market

There are two great times to hit the Farmer’s Market: very early, and very late.

If you’re early, you’ll get the best produce. If you go late, you can often get great bargains because the farmers don’t want to ship that food back to their farm.

5. Eat the Whole Thing…

Did you know you can eat radish tops and leaves? Carrot tops?

In many cases, we’re throwing away nutritious parts of our vegetables simply because we’re not aware that we could be eating them. Research ways to cook and eat every part of the vegetable you buy. You might be surprised at what you could be eating!

Tip: Vegetable trimmings can be boiled to make a tasty, nutritious vegetable stock. This freezes easily.

6. Don’t Forget to Barter

Many farmers are happy to hire you to “work for food”. You could be picking strawberries, and go home with several buckets to keep for yourself.

You can also ask the farmers at your local market if they’ll trade food for work. You could help them set up and take down their booth in exchange for some food. If things are tight, this could really help stretch your budget.

7. Forage

Here’s a great story: last night I rode my bike up to our local elementary school to go swing on their playground. I chose a set of swings closest to the property line since it was in the shade.

What did I find when I walked over there?

The biggest raspberry patch I’d ever seen.

Can you imagine my delight? No one had picked these raspberries! The sad part is that there were only a few left (the season’s over here), but I could tell all those raspberries had just been left to rot on the vine. If I would have found that patch just a week or two earlier, I would have had all the raspberries I could eat and then some.

Another great story: Last month I was combing through an abandoned lot here in Howell. I was collecting red clovers to dry. But you know what else I found there?

Chamomile. Tons and tons of chamomile.

The point here is that there are often surprising places where wild food is growing. Go exploring! Hit your local woods and empty lots. Buy a guidebook that teaches you how to identify wild medicinal plants and herbs. Keep a notebook to write down where that wild apple tree is, or where that chestnut tree is. This way you can come back when those things are in season and gather to your heart’s delight.

Last Word…

I think it’s safe to say that food prices are going to continue to go up. And, many of us our stretching our food budget to the limit as it is.

If we want to stay healthy then it’s up to us to get creative and take the situation into our own hands. This is not only empowering, but it’s also liberating.

If you have any tips you’d like to share about eating local and healthy on a budget, I’d love to hear them!


Jade @ Tasting Grace July 28, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Meal planning is key. I started doing that this past year and it’s really fabulous how efficient it help you become as a shopper. Shopping at local co-ops is also a good way to get quality food for good prices. And my favorite? Especially since I do a lot of Asian cooking, I shop at the local Asian markets. They have a lot of every day items there (not just Asian stuff), most of them cheaper than supermarket prices. It’s especially great for getting fresh produce and seafood cheaply. As long as you’re not squeamish about seeing whole fish. But then, I’m a big believer in being real about what you’re consuming. (Some larger stores have open fish tanks where you select the fish you want and the staff will clean and gut it for you.)

Plus, I’d recommend exploring the spice aisles in Asian markets because Asian cuisine is really great about adding loads of flavor to fresh, wholesome foods. So if you’re looking for a new way to dress up brown rice and veggies, some of the spice and flavor packets might just do the trick.
Ok, that’s my two cents! 🙂

heather July 28, 2010 at 2:26 pm

@Jade- Those are some awesome tips, thanks! I too love Asian markets (and Indian, and Middle Eastern). I can only hit them up when I’m in a bigger city like Ann Arbor, but it’s such a luxury. And you’re right, prices are often cheaper at these specialty markets than the supermarkets.

Thanks so much for sending that in!

Bellen July 28, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Just yesterday looked up the USDA’s Cost of Food, Family of 2 over 19, Thrifty Plan Monthly Cost.

June 2000: $243.10, June 2010: $332.60. If I did my math correctly that’s about a 25% increase. Doesn’t sound like a lot but living on SS (we have other resources but choose to live on less) which hasn’t kept up with inflation, 25% is a big increase. I worry about some of our neighbors who have nothing but SS.

In the 60’s Pres Johnson had the War on Poverty and being a Home Economics major in the 60’s, my course work was based on getting the most for your dollar. Food, clothing and housing classes all emphasized saving and doing more with less. Your hints are solid and should be used by everyone.

BTY found this link for Posters from WWI & II concerning food – I think it’s terrific and very applicable today.

heather July 29, 2010 at 7:36 am

@Bellen- Thanks so much for writing in with that great information! Those stats are wonderful.

I also checked out that link you sent; thanks so much! Those posters are wonderful. I’d love to have some hanging in my house. 🙂 I might use some for future posts too, so I’m bookmarking the site. Thanks again for the tip!

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