As I’ve reflected on our summer months, the fun moments and the misses, the rules and the freedoms, I’ve noticed that the money we spent on activities skyrocketed — paddle-boarding has legitimately become a family obsession — while the amount we spent on food plummeted. Perhaps we ate out less frequently or loaded up on more vegetables and not as much meat, or maybe the seasonal produce was less expensive. Could we possibly stick to this financial food plan all year long, even when we return to normal bedtimes, daily lunchboxes and the inevitably hectic nature of fall?
I believe we can. I just have to pay more attention when I grab items off the grocery store shelf, tighten my meal plans so we don’t buy any foods that go to waste, and admit that my kids just don’t like zucchini so I should stop buying so much of it in the hopes that tonight will be the night they change their minds.
In any case, any time of year is a good time to pocket a few pennies on food savings. So here are some ways to eat healthfully on a budget:
Eat seasonally. This is much easier during the summer months, when more foods are locally in season and therefore less expensive than when they are grown and shipped from another state or continent. Focus on hearty greens, winter squash and beets in the winter and stone fruit, zucchini and peppers in the summer. Offseason, embrace frozen vegetables.
Get organized. Plan your meals a week ahead of time, and write the ingredients on a weekly grocery list. Keep an organized fridge and pantry so you never buy anything you already have.
Set a food budget and stick to it. Keep track of your food expenses for a few weeks, then analyze where the money is going. Is it eating out? Shopping at a higher-end grocery store when you could buy the same products for less money elsewhere? Do you depend too much on prepared foods? Do vegetables or leftovers regularly go to waste? Once you have a sense of how much you spend and where you could cut, set a budget that works for you.
Be smart about leftovers. Repurpose leftovers into a second night’s dinner, plan meals that use similar ingredients so that the entire bunch of broccoli and the whole onion are consumed, and either eat your leftovers for lunch the next day or freeze them for a future meal. Rice bowls and burritos are helpful for catching the remains of last night’s meat and vegetables.
Be choosy about organics. Refer to the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists to know which fruits and vegetables are the most important to buy organic and on which ones you can save your pennies without exposing your family to countless pesticides.
Try Meatless Mondays. Eat less meat. Design meals around cheaper vegetarian foods, such as sweet potatoes, spinach, eggs, oats, beans and lentils.
Get help from the store. Many grocery chains now have in-store nutritionists who can help you eat well on a budget. Seek them out. And remember that store brands and bulk bins tend to be cheaper than private-label products. Most store sales are promoted online or through a phone app, so you can plan your meals around the cheaper items before you even shop.
Teach your kids to limit waste. Take a moment before meals or snacks to ask your children how hungry they actually feel and how much they might eat of each item, then encourage them to serve themselves accordingly. They can always have seconds, but it’s good for kids to observe how much they are scraping off their plates into the garbage.
Take the pantry challenge. Think of it as a winter sport: Every January, challenge your family to eat out of the pantry until it’s empty. Buy milk and selected fresh produce each week, but otherwise design meals around whatever grains, beans, pasta, canned tomatoes and other items you find hiding in the back of the cupboard or freezer. Some tips: Make soups; use flours to make cookies, breads and other baked goods instead of buying them; and batch-cook staples such as lentils and couscous so you can put them to work in different recipes on successive days. You can always restock in February, and you probably will appreciate the opportunity to buy what you really want after a month of staring at your diminishing supply. Compare your budget that month with other months and be prepared for some serious shock and awe.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, August 24, 2016.