100 Days of Real Food: Healthy Food Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank

Yes, it's possible to feed a family on $125 a week—without turning to packaged and processed foods.

a wife, mother, foodie, and blogger who chronicles her family’s journey on her blog, '100 Days of Real Food'

This is the second installment of a new monthly column by Lisa Leake, a North Carolina wife and mother who is attempting to eliminate all processed foods from her family's diet. Here, Lisa will talk about her triumphs—and failures —as she tries to turn her grand experiment into a permanent lifestyle change.

After we completed our original “100 Days of Real Food” pledge (where we avoided all processed foods and refined ingredients) there was some resounding feedback from our blog readers we could not ignore. Commenters wanted to know how they could eat real food without breaking the bank. So we took those comments to heart in developing our next plan of action, “100 Days of Real Food on a Budget.” We turned to our readers to help us determine our budget, and their votes left us with $125 per week—less than what a family of four would receive on SNAP (if they were not receiving any other assistance/income)! Check out our “Day 1” post to see what we were able to buy on that tight budget.

I am not here to say this challenge was a piece of cake, because it was difficult at times, but with careful planning we were able to go the full 100 days without going over budget or resorting to cheap, highly processed food. As a foodie, though, the main thing I struggled with, aside from budget constraints, was having to frequently cook somewhat boring, repetitive meals in an effort to utilize the limited ingredients we had (or could afford)—certainly a first world problem. And regardless of culinary boredom, we managed to complete the pledge with plenty of sustenance along the way. I also learned many valuable lessons, including lots of great budgeting tips, none of which involved coupons or store sales!

  1. DIY Fiscal Cliff
    Simply saying, “Let’s not spend a lot of money” typically doesn’t work! Here’s how to structure a workable budget:
    • Pick a realistic spending limit that you will adhere to each week or month. I personally think a weekly budget is better, as in the course of seven days you can’t go too far over budget before realizing you are in trouble.
    • Consider setting aside your weekly food budget in cash so going “over budget” isn’t even possible. Also, no matter what, make a commitment that if you do for some reason go over budget you will deduct that amount from the following week or month.
    • Strictly define what will and will not be included in the budget. Will it just be for food or for household items too? What about alcohol, entertaining, and going out to eat?
    • Keep track of all your expenses on paper whether you use cash or not. It is important to see where your money goes.
    • Share and discuss the running budget total with the other adults in your household—accountability is key!
  2. Stick to the List
    Be organized and plan out your meals for the week. Last-minute purchases that you haven’t put a lot of thought into can add up fast.
  3. Waste Not
    Minimize waste by saving all uneaten food instead of throwing it away. Know and use what you have on hand, especially if it’s perishable. Even consider keeping an inventory list of food on your fridge or freezer so different family members can check off items as they use them. I know my husband is more likely to eat something in the fridge if I leave a note telling him it is there—don’t ask me why!
  4. A Smidge, A Dash
    Make substitutions in recipes to reduce how many new things you have to buy—or even leave out a small ingredient altogether.
  5. Cheap to the Max
    Ingredients like bananas, beans, and pasta are both cheap and nutritious. We utilize them in some of our favorite super-cheap recipes:
  6. Double Down
    When making inexpensive meals like soups and pasta dishes, double the recipe and freeze the leftovers for when you have one of those days where you just don’t have time to plan out a good dinner. Having a meal on hand makes it easier to avoid those impulse purchases!
  7. Water, Water, Everywhere
    Make sacrifices in the beverage department, like drinking water instead of milk and even skipping juice and other flavored beverages altogether. If you really have trouble kicking the juice habit, at least cut each glass with a bit of water so a bottle of juice lasts longer.
  8. Meatless Monday (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday . . .)
    Reduce your consumption of meat and desserts. Meat can be a big-ticket item, and while dessert is certainly nice to have, it is by no means a regular necessity (sorry)! Also, experiment with “stretching” your ground meat dishes by mixing in veggies and/or beans.
  9. The Late Bird
    Buy produce that’s in-season, and if you like to frequent your local farmers market, try going just before closing time to get some great deals on items the vendors won’t want to haul back to the farm.
  1. The Dirty Dozen
    If you can’t afford the organic version of everything, try to avoid fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue.
  2. Measure Twice
    Check your receipt to make sure your money was spent wisely (most grocery stores accept returns!).

Be sure to check out our homepage to see what we are up to now, and please share your budgeting tips with us in the comments below!

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