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Whole food eating on a junk food budget

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We get it. Eating local, organic, and sustainably can be expensive. Especially if you live anywhere but the West Coast. Sure you can find farmers' markets east of Lake Tahoe, but for most of the country, fresh local foods are strictly a seasonal pleasure.

Most of us better hope there's a Trader Joes or even a Whole Foods Market, within an hour's drive or that we've got a pantry full of canned garden produce and a site to order dry goods online.

As such, eating well on a budget can be daunting, but we’ve compiled a list of ways you can easily trim the cost of a healthy diet, when you're living on a junk food budget, as inspired by EatLocalGrown.com :

1. Buy local whenever you can and stock up. Local Harvest.com provides a list of “farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.” Buying local means you receive your produce at its peak quality, perfectly ripe and optimally nutritious. Getting to know your farmer also enables you to know just how your food was grown or produced. Many small farmers use organic practices, even if they haven’t gone through the expense and paperwork of becoming certified organic growers. In addition, buying directly from the farm allows you to purchase far higher quality meat or produce at substantial savings, compared to what you would pay in the store.

2. Join a food co-op or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture.) Food co-ops, like the one in Ashland, or Medford, OR offer great deals on organically and naturally grown food and health supplies, usually for a substantial discount or at least impressive quality. With a CSA, typically you'll pay in advance for a season’s worth of fresh produce at a fraction of the price of grocery shopping. Many farmers throw in (or offer for a great price) fresh eggs, home-made cheese, or grass-fed meats. Once a week you’ll pick up your box filled with abundance from your own area. Granted, you get whatever was grown, and ripe, that week, but most of the produce will consist of what you’d buy normally, with a few items that will be new to your palate – what a great way to introduce your family to novel ingredients!

3. Buy only the produce currently in-season. It’s cheaper, likely to be locally grown, and is more readily available. Again, local food is likely to be fresher, and costs less money and fuel to transport to the store. Fresh food is definitely more nutritious, having been picked ripe, instead of sprayed with artificial ripening agents, and transported for days on end. Tip: most tropical fruits are in season during our winter and spring months, not the summer. Bananas grow year-round.

4. Grow as much as you can. There are lots of ways to optimize small spaces. Try Postage Stamp Gardening or Square Foot Gardening; both methods use intensive feeding and planting techniques. If nothing else, plant a sunny window-sill with salad vegetables and herbs, grow a container garden on a balcony, or replace your lawn with raised beds filled with rich compost and soil.

5. Plan your menu after shopping, not before. This allows you to take advantage of sales and bulk opportunities instead of shopping for special ingredients to make pre-planned meals. You can often push back grocery shopping a good week by simply working with what you already have in your fridge, freezer and pantry.

6. Drink purified tap water instead of costly sodas, specialty waters, juices, or trendy teas and coffee drinks. Get a BPA/CPA-free reusable bottle and flavor your own water with lemon or lime juice, or even flavored Stevia. You will be amazed at how your grocery bill will shrink just by cutting out these items, or saving them for a special treat. Your health should also improve by cutting out the accompanying sugars and artificial sweeteners, flavorings, preservatives, and colors.

7. Buy staples in bulk. Organic grains like brown rice, wheat berries, cornmeal, barley and oatmeal can be purchased in bulk quantities, cutting your costs dramatically. Typically these products come in smaller sizes, with a hefty price tag for packaging. Buy in bulk, then store at home in glass Mason jars with lids. Look for WinCo stores, Food 4 Less stores, Grocery Outlets, or food co-ops for great deals. Costco is another place that offers organic packaged foods in bulk, if you can keep yourself from getting sucked into buying everything but the kitchen sink.

8. Look for deals on marked down, close-to-the-expiration-date meat, then wrap well and toss into the freezer. Also, look for deals on frozen chicken breasts, frozen fish, and frozen turkey breast. Fish is nearly always cheaper frozen. Make sure to read the label so you can avoid farm-raised (fed with feces) fish or potentially polluted fish from the Pacific Ocean (radiation danger) or the Gulf (danger of oil contamination.)

9. Buy meat in quarters, halves, or whole from a farm. You will pay one price per pound, regardless of how much is hamburger and how much is ribeye steak, which results in an overall savings. In addition, you will know how your food was raised, whether or not antibiotics or hormones were used, what kind of feed was given, and if the animal was humanely butchered. Farmers are usually happy to pair you with another customer who’d like to go in on a bulk purchase, so you can buy in bulk without buying the whole hog, so to speak.

10. Switch the high-priced free-range chicken and grass-fed beef for some beans, farm-purchased eggs, nuts, or home-made cheese, a few days a week. Chili sans meat, a vegetable and cheese-filled frittata, or some nut pate’ will taste just as satisfying, while saving your budget for the healthiest meats later on.

11. Eat at home more often. I can buy groceries for a week with what my husband and I spend on an evening out. Enough said.

12. Load a cooler with healthy snacks, water, or some sandwiches and fruit, when you are spending the day running errands, or going on a field trip with your kids. Send your kids to school with a home-made lunch. Take a bagged lunch to work. It’s ready when you are and you control what you’re eating.

13. Cook from scratch. Consider the price difference in homemade goods: homemade tortillas, pizza dough, peanut butter, oatmeal cookies, trail mix, and granola bars, for example. This stuff is literally pennies on the dollar in comparison to the same goods store-bought.

14. Ditch the processed, artificial food-like items and you will eat less while saving money. Real food contains the complete nutrition your body needs to both be healthy, and feel satisfied. Most processed food is full of excitotoxins like MSG, which make you think food tastes better than it does, and makes you crave more of it. These chemicals have been linked to migraines, seizures, ADHD, headaches, nausea, and more. They reduce your brain’s sensitivity to body indicators that you have eaten, so instead of feeling energized, satisfied, and comfortably full after eating something out of a box or a drive-through, you will feel hungry, depressed, and bloated. No thanks. RealFoodWhole Health.com has a list of all the sneaky names manufacturers call excitotoxins (like hydrolyzed yeast extract, Ajinomoto, maltodextrin, malt extracts, etc.)

15. Preserve food. Whether you grow it yourself, or buy it by the bushel from a farmer - canning, dehydrating, and freezing are all methods that enable you to extend the summer harvest for use all year long.

16. Eat leftovers. One day a week we clean out the fridge and make a smorgasbord of all the leftovers. If I don’t put it on the table, those perfectly good, and often better tasting for the time in the fridge, foods will go to waste. If your family just won’t eat left-overs, make them into a new meal by freezing small portions to blend into a soup later in the week. Think of it as free food.

17. Eat what nature provides. Edible plants grow all around us. Granted, I wouldn’t pick mushrooms unless I knew very well what I was doing, but many foods that were staples to our grandparents, are thought of as weeds by most folks today. Unsprayed young dandelion leaves make a detoxifying tea, and a tasty salad green. Many parks have trees from which you can glean fallen nuts. Mustard greens and watercress abound most fields, and just about any bend in the road offers up blackberries and raspberries in the summer and fall. Finally, if you are a hunter, you can provide humanely killed, grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat to your family for not much more expense than the cost of a few days in the wilderness (assuming you’ve got the basics already purchased.) And since most of your hunting supplies are reusable, it's an environmentally friendly option as well. Check out this list of 52 common plants you can eat.

That’s it: 17 ways you can dramatically decrease your grocery budget, while eating the most nutritious, healthy, and natural foods available. Get eating!

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