Cooking, for Michelle Li, is as much a necessity as it is a hobby as it is an escape. The Richmond mother of two loves making meals, and when her husband comes home from work, time in the kitchen gives her a chance to decompress after caring for her young kids all day. Food is also something she likes to indulge in; as far as spending is concerned, she pretty much lets loose at the grocery store. Or at least she did until she and her spouse figured it was time to see a financial planner.
“He looked at our budget and said, ”˜What are you spending on groceries?’ Li explains on the line from her home. “His jaw just dropped at how much we were spending.”
To be fair, Li wasn’t exactly Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman after she gets her hands on the rich guy’s credit cards, but until recently she never gave too much thought to how she could cut back on her grocery bill. Once she decided she wanted to stay home from work to be with her children, however, her family had to adjust to a single income.
With the recession taking an ever-increasing financial toll on individuals and families, more and more people are coming to the conclusion, as Li did, that now is the time to learn how to eat well at home on a budget.
Li discovered from her financial planner that the amount of money people should spend on food, including meals out, is about five percent to six percent of their income. She was sometimes inching more toward 12 percent.
Part of the reason Li’s bank account was being depleted is because she buys organic foods. As a volunteer with the Richmond Pesticide Awareness Association who also blogs about raising a green family, Li says she’s committed to protecting her family’s health by avoiding pesticides and doing her bit to preserve the environment.
“My dad introduced me to The Wrath of Grapes,” Li says of the 1986 documentary about the use of toxic chemicals on California farms. “That got me started. I cannot buy nonorganic grapes now.”
There’s no denying an organic diet can get pricey. But Li looks for organics-distributors’ clearance markets, and in her freezer she keeps bags of frozen organic vegetables and berries that she buys at big-box stores. It’s a myth that produce needs to be fresh to be nutritious. Fruits and vegetables that are canned or frozen are picked at the peak of ripeness, so they’re high in nutrients.
Li has adopted other strategies to stretch her food dollars.
“We have a lot of beans instead of meats, and we eat a lot of grains,” she explains. “I love making this mushroom-barley soup, which is really stewy and delicious. I love making soups. At the beginning of every week, I’ll make a lentil dahl or split-pea soup. My husband loves it, and he takes it for lunch.
“We also eat a lot of rice and pasta,” Li adds. “They’re cheap. I’ll get big bags of those. For pasta, I’ll make a salmon with lemon-cream sauce. It’s cheap too, because you just need a single filet of salmon.”
Li concedes that she and her family have cut back on eating out so they can continue to eat nutritiously and deliciously at home. But she treats herself too: her favourite goodies are the dark-chocolate cookies she makes with organic cocoa. And her food-focused financial diligence has paid off.
“It’s been about two months now,” Li says of her revised spending, “and I can already tell it’s working out.”
One of the most important lessons she’s learned is to plan her meals in advance and to use what she has on-hand instead of constantly running to the store.
“Otherwise, I end up grabbing something we probably didn’t need,” she says.
Meal planning is crucial when it comes to eating healthily on limited funds, says registered dietitian Crystal Dow.
“Most people go to the grocery store without a plan in mind, but if you think about your meals ahead of time, you’ll avoid impulse purchases,” says the head of Nuvo Nutrition in a phone interview.
Other ways to keep costs down are to buy produce that’s in season and have frequent vegetarian meals. “Substitute tofu for chicken breasts. Do a vegetarian chili with kidney beans instead of lean ground beef, which is more expensive.”¦Kale is one of the best vegetables for you.”¦It’s thicker than spinach and it helps for bulking up foods; add it to sandwiches or wraps or in soups or stews.”
Dow encourages people to brown-bag it at work. “Eating out at work is a product of business culture,” she says. “People want to get out of the office. But there are ways around spending money. Get a group of people together and go outside with your lunch and sit on a bench, then go for a walk after. It takes planning, but you are going to see a few extra dollars at the end of the week.”
Certain foods prove that a little can go a long way, says Stephanie Hodges, a registered holistic nutritionist who offers family-nutrition programs at Pomegranate Community Midwives and runs Vitalis Nutrition Designs.
“Brown rice is nutritious, filling, and inexpensive, especially when bought in bulk,” Hodges says. “If you are making brown rice for dinner—with a wild salmon filet and braised garlic chard—make extra rice. Use the rice in the next day’s meals. It can be added to lunches, in whole-wheat vegetable wraps, and to the soup for the following night’s dinner.”
Potatoes are another great example of a cheap nutritional powerhouse: when they’re baked, boiled, or steamed (not deep-fried), they’re loaded with vitamins and minerals. Take the idea from that fast-food chain and dress it up with different toppings, like cheese and chopped bacon. Beans are a winner too: high in iron, protein, and B vitamins, they’re inexpensive and low in fat.
Hodges suggests joining a food co-op, and, if you’re pressed for time, getting your groceries delivered so that you don’t end up ordering takeout.
Times might be tough, but with a little foodie foresight, you won’t be so broke that you’ll have to resort to stone soup.