There is a common misconception that following a Paleo diet is expensive, and some people think it’s not a realistic option for their family given the price. I’m here to tell you that is simply not true, and sticking to Paleo foods doesn’t have to break the bank. Even in these challenging times there are multiple ways to work within a reasonable budget, but still eat high quality, real food for every meal.
You can begin formulating your food budget by working on 2 main categories:
- Your shopping habits
- Your cooking style
Adjusting Your Shopping Habits
Produce is at its most affordable (yes, that means organic produce too) when it’s in season in the area/country you live in. Planning your meals around what in season in your area is bound to save you on your grocery bill.
This is the best way to buy produce at reasonable prices; when something is in season, it is cheaper and easier to produce, more nutritious and more abundant than shipping it in.
For more on what’s in season in your area, read on here
Be Selectively Organic
When following a Paleo diet, every little bit counts. It is not a zero-sum game; you are not either perfectly healthy or a total train wreck. The key is to get the most bang for your buck, literally and figuratively, and organic is definitely more important for some foods over others
Organic candy, for example, is still candy. Skip it.
Of course, it would be ideal to have a 100% organic diet, but that might be financially unrealistic. Pay extra for organic when it counts the most. As a general rule, anything with a thick, non-porous skin or rind that you throw away, like citrus (unless you plan to zest it), mango, or pineapple, is not worth buying organic.
Anything with a thin skin that you either eat, like apples, cucumbers, bell peppers, and berries, is worth the organic price tag.
For a more specific guide, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen (buy organic if you can) and Clean Fifteen (conventional is fine if you’re trying to stretch your dollar) lists, which get updated annually to reflect changes in growing conditions.
Support Local Farmers
There is no better way to know how your food is grown than by buying it straight from the farmer, or from a service that works with the farmer. When you buy from the supermarket, food has passed through many distribution channels on the way from the farm, and every person at every step of the process has to get paid. That means extra costs built into the price.
The closer to the source, the fewer middlemen who need to be paid, so the cheaper your food should be.
You can buy directly from a farmer by joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or shopping at the farmer’s market. CSAs may not look cheap at first glance, since many of them require an upfront cost (you pay for the season or year ahead of time). This initial cost more than pays off in fresh, local, often-organic produce week after week, at prices lower than what the exact same fare would cost at the store. Many CSAs will allow you to save on the delivery fees by picking up your box at the farm, a local farmer’s market, or another central location.
Because food is in transit for so long before it gets to the grocery store, you are not going to get the same quality or nutrient density for that cost at any supermarket. CSA and farmer’s market produce is usually picked less than 48 hours before it gets to your door.
Buy In Bulk
Along with nuts, seeds, dried fruit and other things you might find in the big bins or oversized bags at the grocery store, meat is the best candidate for this.
The best way to save on meat (including fish and poultry) without sacrificing on quality is to buy in bulk. Join a warehouse club (for food and non-food items), shop farmers’ markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture) and buy pig and cow shares. All of these are typically cheaper than grocery stores.
Reaching out to your local farmer and buying portions of a grass-fed cow or pastured chicken or pork directly from them seems to be the absolute best way to purchase quality, hormone-free protein with no question about how it was raised.
This trick also applies to freezer-friendly fruit and vegetables, like berries, pineapple, mango, and even bananas (think smoothies or Paleo banana bread) or green beans, peas, spinach, or kale. Thoroughly wash and dry them, peel/stem and chop if necessary, and freeze in airtight zip top bags with the extra air squeezed out.
Before you go out and buy a freezer full of food, do the math. Make sure you don’t look at prices alone, but rather at the price per pound or ounce and compare the regular price for the average sized container to the bulk price.
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Frozen fruits and vegetables are typically frozen at the height of their growing season, and shortly after being picked, which translates into greater nutrient density and lower prices than buying the fresh version in the off season.
Frozen meat and fish are also cheaper than their fresh counterparts because it is easier to transport and store these foods when frozen, and there is less costly spoilage and waste.
Beware that all frozen foods are not created equally. Shop carefully and read the ingredients to make sure that there are no unwanted ingredients, fillers and flavour enhancers in your package (this is most common with mixed vegetables).
Similarly, confirm that you are buying fish fillets, not fish sticks. If possible, choose organic chicken, grass fed beef, and wild-caught fish – all of which you can usually find in the frozen section if you look carefully.
Check for discounts and coupons on Paleo foods. You can eat Paleo on a tight budget by checking online and in the newspaper for coupons on Paleo foods. Scan the coupons for discounts of fish, meat, eggs, and produce. You may also find discounts on certain bulk nuts. There are apps you can download that provide the coupons and discounts on certain food items in one place. Using these apps, you can track these discounts and use them at your next grocery store visit.
Adjusting Your Cooking Style
Explore New Cuts
High quality meat can be a huge expense. One of the biggest mistakes that people tend to make when switching to a Paleo diet is assuming they need to fill up on a giant steak every night.
Premium cuts like chicken breast come with a premium price tag. Luckily, the leaner cuts are usually the pricier ones, and when following a Paleo diet, you might want and appreciate richer cuts with more fats because naturally occurring fats are nutritious and delicious (and keep you full!!) full!
You can buy less-premium cuts of meat and slow cook them for hours, and they will turn out delicious every time. Consider switching your chicken breast recipes for recipes using drumsticks, or thighs. Likewise, make steak a special occasion food and plan to make meals that call for cheaper cuts of beef or less expensive meats like pork.
We discuss Paleo meat on a budget in greater detail here
Avoid eating out as much and cook at home instead. Cooking at home means you know exactly what goes into your meals and you can be assured your meals are nutrient dense and follow your Paleo plan. You can also budget out your food more carefully when you cook at home and have leftovers to eat later in the week
One way to ensure you cook more is to have other Paleo friends over and cook together. Maybe you have a dinner party once a week where you all get together and prepare Paleo meals with a limited amount of ingredients or within a strict budget.
If you have a meal plan for the week, you know exactly what to buy at the grocery store, waste less money on foods that may end up in the trash, and are not as tempted to throw in the towel and order in
Use the contents of your fridge, freezer, and pantry as a starting point – particularly if already are buying in bulk to save money. You will have a well-stocked pantry and can save money simply by making use of what you already have on hand.
If planning and prepping entire days’ worth of meals is too much for you, focus on dinner. For lunch, all you need is leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, so no need for dedicated planning there either. Breakfasts are simple, quick and easy to prepare and many people eat something similar at the start of each day.
Planning ahead, and even prepping some elements of your meals on a specific day will often set you up for success in sticking to the dinner plan, which ultimately means sticking to the budget!
You can even prep a week’s worth of meals and freeze them ahead of time. This is ideal if you are going out of town and don’t want to be eating out for an extra week when you get back.
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If you want to make your Paleo diet a priority, you might want to consider changing your spending habits to reflect that. That might sound challenging but in order to make real changes in your life, and start focusing on eating healthily, you’re going to have to allocate more resources to your food budget. Instead of seeing the extra money you might be spending on your diet as an “expense”, reframe it as an investment, and focus on the long-term health benefits it could bring and the expenses of avoiding dire illness it could help you avoid.
With this in mind, eating Paleo on a budget is definitely achievable.