Image credit: Brittany Chin

Image credit: Brittany Chin

Recently I got asked by two friends how to start eating a whole foods diet. No, I am not talking about how to shop exclusively at Whole Foods! In fact, I rarely shop there anymore. But making a shift in something as basic as your grocery shopping can be a daunting lifestyle challenge. And when you don't have the time, space, skill or magic that it takes to grow your own garden, what's a girl to do? [Ed. note: I firmly believe that magic is involved in gardening and I still have some magic education to acquire. ;) ]

Image Credit: The Atlantic

Image Credit: The Atlantic

For both of these gals, their motivation is health. But a reality for them (and all of us) is cost - $$ cold hard cash. As a Western Society, we have gotten used to things being "on sale", cheaper, low cost, two-for-one, etc. This is especially true when it comes to the standard American food system where you can get entire meals for 99¢! In reality we have begun to spend less on food (1), than on car payments, housing, apparel and for some even entertainment. In 1900 Americans spent 43% of their budget on food. In 1950 30% and in 2003 its down to 13% (2).

So part of this is mindset. We've become accustom to not spending so much of our hard earned money on food. But what has that cost us? We've exchanged it for poor health, chronic illness,  and medical bills. And if we really look at what we've been eating nutrient wise (you know the processed, non-organic, additive-filled 100 calorie packs that are so "cost effective"), it's not too difficult to see that the nutrient density, has suffered(3). 

So how do you adopt a whole foods diet and still pay the bills? Here are some simple tips to help you spend your money on nutrient dense goodness, but not break the bank!

1. Consider re-portioning some of your budget: For some of us, this is impossible as we may be just getting by. Others may have some wiggle room. Exchange some of your "treats" (Starbucks, anyone?) for your whole foods budget.

2. Eat locally: Foods cost more when there is transportation involved to get the food from where its grown all the way to you. This is why food typically costs more in Alaska, Hawaii or other more remote locations. Plus, the nutrients start degrading from the moment its picked to the time you eat it. So even though that organic carrot looks yummy, remember the average carrot has traveled 1,838 miles to reach your dinner plate (45). Local foods don't have that hidden transportation cost and retain more nutrients to boot!

3. Consider a CSA: This by far is one of the most economical ways to get food that is local, organic and costs way less than getting it through a grocery store. The veggie/fruit CSA we use costs us $16 per box and that is more than enough to feed two of us for an entire week, sometimes more. The same veggies from the grocery store used to cost us $30 for the same haul. So we cut our veggie budget nearly in half.

4. Use Craigslist or Freecycle to find a chest freezer: What, is she crazy? If you have the space, or can make the space, a chest freezer opens up even more opportunities to buy in bulk and save huge on food dollars. You can locate farmers and/or fishermen in your area that will sell you entire or half cuts of animals or fish in bulk at a much more affordable price. Our cost for pasture raised beef was ~$5/lb whereas at markets its typically $8-$12/lb. We have plenty of food to last us for the year, literally. You can even split a large purchase with friends so you dont have to purchase the whole thing on your own, but can negotiate the bulk price. 

5. DIY the foods that come in a package: Foods that come in fancy packaging also have hidden costs - I mean someone has to pay for all the marketing for that cute picture on the yogurt container, right? For those foods that you typically buy in packaging, consider making them yourself. You would be surprised how easy it is to make yogurt, condiments, cereals, energy bars, etc. Google for recipes and see for yourself. I can make a lot of foods from scratch, that while they take time, cost way less than what I can buy in a store.

6. Farmers Markets: Whether seasonal or year-round, Farmers Markets are fab! When you go, talk to the farmers, ask questions! That fancy sign that announces organic costs them a lot of money. So talk with each of them about their farming practices. You may find an "organic" farmer who just has not gone through the certification yet. Usually their foods are priced lower. Plus, you can negotiate bulk buys of most items when in season = cha ching savings! Also, this is a great place to learn if the farms offer CSAs - Usually CSAs are also less expensive than farmers market prices.

7. Put that freezer to use: Its not just for ice cream and ice anymore! Afraid you'll cave to the temptation of takeout? Double or triple your recipes and then set aside "ready-made" "heat and eat" meals in your freezer. This saves us a ton of time, but we have found that eating out typically is much more costly on the budget than eating in! 

Image credit: Liz Song

Image credit: Liz Song

8. Use it all: Start to think about what you can do with foods, or the parts of foods, you typically toss. Try to be as thrifty as your grandmother who talks about her times during the Depression. My friend Liz just posted about zero-waste on her blog and how she turned a 1/2 gallon of raw milk into yogurt, whey, buttermilk and butter! For me, I wash, steam and chop my beet greens and other "tops" that I used to toss.  I now freeze them for green smoothies. If you do get a whole or half animal, have some nose-to-tail adventures with recipes, like in this great book, Beyond Bacon. You can even soak lemon rind in vinegar and create a nice base for homemade house cleaning products.

9. Even Costco has organic! Im not a typical big-box store shopper, but recently some of my friends have been finding great deals on organic products, including produce at Costco. It's probably not local, but its not pest-laden chemical-filled food either!

10. Use lower cost proteins: We all love a good grass-fed steak or a fillet of Alaskan salmon, but let's face it, it's costly to have that every day! There are a ton of ways to use ground meats, rather than the more costly cuts. The book Well Fed 2 has a great section on how to turn normal ground meats into many many palate delighting dishes. Or, you can opt for pastured eggs, even organ meats. And, if you tolerate these well, beans, homemade yogurt or cheese, nuts, etc.

For even more tips, you can check out this fun experiment: 100 days of real food on a budget.

Do you have any savvy tips for not breaking the bank while eating whole foods? Share in the comments below.