How to Eat Clean on a Budget

Image by cgalvin233 Colleen

“My biggest question about the crunchy living business is about prioritizing.  My husband and I are trying to get out of debt, but we’re also trying to clean up our eating habits.  

We found a raw milk and grass fed meat source, which is fantastic, but much more expensive than we’d been paying previously.  How did you go about keeping your menu clean when you were also trying to stay on a budget?”

Today I’m answering one of the most common questions I get: how do I save money on healthy food?

I’ve been tweaking my strategy for the last few years, leaning heavily on principles I gleaned from The Complete Tightwad Gazette (best Mother’s Day gift ever…).

Even though many of the recipes/tips in that book are far from what I consider healthy (or can tolerate with my food allergies), I’ve still been able to apply a lot of what I’ve learned to feeding my family.

But enough about me, let’s talk healthy grocery strategy!

Eat More Veggies

Eating more vegetables allows you to stretch meals containing meat, while providing you with essential vitamins and minerals.

Just imagine a plate divided into fourths. One fourth is meat, the other quarter is a starch of some kind (vegetarians and paleo eaters, feel free to weigh in with how you fill your plates!), while the remaining half is filled with veggies.

Veggies are delightfully inexpensive, compared to meat and, contrary to popular belief, not all need to be organic. Ours certainly aren’t. Check out the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists for more info.

Eat Less Meat

We really don’t need that much meat to get adequate protein at our meals (and I know some would argue none at all). Imagine enough to fill the palm of your hand.

We do a lot of stir fries, soups and fajitas, eating our meat with lots of veggies. We also get plenty of protein from free-range eggs (thanks Mom!), legumes and dairy we eat.

Go Ethnic

So many other cultures do a fantabulous job of turning inexpensive ingredients into flavorful, nourishing dishes. We looooove Thai food and eat a lot of Mexican, either at home or my parents’ house.

(Did you know that growing up, I thought Spanish rice was just rice? I only saw white rice when we went out for Chinese ;)).

Buy in Bulk

Buying in bulk is great for saving money. That is, if you’re buying something you know you’ll eat. We buy a lot of food in bulk: carrots, spinach, organic chicken, granola, applesauce, raisins, etc. The larger the amount, the lower the cost per ounce, typically (make sure you check that!).

Avoid Processed Food

Like the plague. Even if they’re on sale with a double coupon, processed foods are still a bad deal. The sugar, preservatives, excess sodium, high fructose corn syrup and nutrient deficit will cost much more in the long run with increased healthcare costs.

Plus, when you compare the prices, home made alternatives cost much less. (And you know it tastes better).

Buy What You Will Use

It’s fun to buy fancy fruits and vegetables. Doing so just makes me feel healthier … until I find them, weeks later, fit for nothing but the compost pile. When you try something new, buy it in small amounts first to test it out.

I’ve bought far too many things in bulk only to find that the family wouldn’t eat it (myself included). Bulk bins in stores are great for this – you can even just buy what you need for a single recipe.

Research Buying Clubs

A lot of natural health food stores offer these. I live in a very small town, but fortunately, we have a health food store. That store offers a weekly buying club.

It’s great because the food is much cheaper and the store has a higher order volume, lowering their cost as well.  The food is typically in bulk (we use it to buy coconut oil by the gallon) and there’s normally a minimum order, like $50.

Check Out Costco

Or Sam’s Club, or whatever is in your area. I save a lot of money buying a few things in bulk at Costco – organic carrots, pure maple syrup, Tillamook cheddar cheese, frozen berries, vanilla, vinegar, baking soda.

I do not enter Costco without a list (a lesson I learned painfully a few months ago) and usually spend less than $100. To pay for the membership, I set aside $5 each month.

Compare Prices

I get some food at Trader Joes (almond meal, bacon), some stuff at our local restaurant wholesale store (fish sauce, rice noodles, coconut milk), bulk bin stuff at Kroger, other items at Costco and some through our local health food store buying club. I’ve learned over time which store has the cheapest stuff and plan my list accordingly.

Yes it would save me time to just get everything at the same store, but it would cost a lot more money. Since I’ve been doing it so long, I can quickly get through each store with everything I need. Except for Kroger, it’s like entering a time warp there.

Using these strategies allows me to feed my family healthy, nourishing meals for as little as $475/month. Finding ways to save money on most of our food allows me to splurge on certain items like bulk raw honey.

With some planning and intentional shopping, it’s simple to eat clean on a budget.

How do you eat clean on a budget?


  1. says

    Nina, you’ve addressed such an important issue!
    Since our youngest ended up with severe food allergies, our grocery budget has skyrocketed. After doing an elimination diet (for the whole fam), we discovered that 5 of our seven children have acute food allergies or food sensitivities. We stay away from gluten, dairy, corn, soy, MSG, food dyes…and keep sugar to a minimum. Needless to say, processed foods are OFF the grocery list!

    We’re also partial-vegetarian – we have organic eggs & wild-caught or sustainable fish like herring. And yes, we keep to the ‘clean 15′ & the ‘dirty dozen’ lists for buying veggies.

    I love your practical ideas of ‘go ethnic’ & ‘buying clubs’ & ‘compare prices.’ I’ve found great prices on staple-items (gluten free pasta, nut flours, etc) from stores like Vitacost, where I can save time & money by ordering online & getting free shipping!

    You are always a wealth of knowledge & encouragement!!

  2. says

    We have made the transition to real foods and the journey continues as I learn more and more about it. But lately, I’ve been feeling a bit like I’m chained to my kitchen because everything has to be made from scratch. Anyone else feel that way? I do try to meal plan, but we’ve all been in uninspired and it’s hard to think that far in advance…especially with 3 picky kids who would rather eat shells and cheese for every meal. Despite all this, I’m not going to go back to buying junk and processed foods just to make life easier. No way!

  3. Stephi Anderson says

    Oh, man, Dana–chained to the kitchen is right! I miss out on a lot of family time and wear myself out every evening (usually leaving the dishes for the next day, which puts a damper on my mornings.) I do absolutely bring my four kids in to “help”, but you know that’s more about me teaching them than them helping me. :) I did put my family through “Dinner Bootcamp” for a few weeks a while back, where all I did was buy seven new vegetables and seven cuts of meat each week, and only used butter, olive oil, salt and herbs to prepare simply on the grill or in the pan. No fancy casseroles or hiding veggies in homemade cheese sauce. It did take less time that way, and their palates broadened a little bit. Now that it’s summer, the older two prepare lunch wraps for everyone while I work on other stuff in the kitchen. I just pull out some fruit, veggies, cheese and tortillas and let them create. I used to meal plan like crazy, but I found I was spending more each week just to make sure I had every single ingredient to make each complex dish. Now I have a standard week-by-week list that I use each month. It provides me with all the basics and I just create meals from what I have on hand. They tend to be simpler, which is good, and I don’t leave the grocery store with gourmet guilt. Our grocery budget is only $425 a month for a family of six. It’s a struggle sometimes, but we’re just fighting the good fight.


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