Lessons From my Fabulous Frugal Mom, Part 2: Eating Healthy on a Budget

Eating Healthy on a Budget is the second post from my special series: The Best Money Saving Habits I Learned From My Fabulous Frugal Mom. If you haven’t already stumbled across this series, I recommend starting at the beginning with Habit 1, Shopping Luxury for Less, which also introduces frugal mom and her unique approach to spending (and saving) money.

Mom’s Simple Guide To Eating Healthy On A Budget

A higher price tag for fresh and healthy foods is blamed for poor diets among lower income families. And coupled with lack of food education, false marketing from large food corporations, and busy schedules, this is often the case. But for most of us, it doesn’t have to be.

Thankfully, by changing the way we shop, prepare, and enjoy our meals, we can improve the quality of the foods we eat, while reducing the amount of money we spend on healthy eating each month.

A homemade roast chicken is easy and affordable
Enjoy a home cooked meal with friends and family around the dinner table

Eating Healthy at Home with Fabulous Frugal Mom

It used to take a lot of begging before my fabulous frugal mom would agree to buy me some overpriced and unhealthy breakfast cereal that I’d seen on TV.

Kraft Dinner Mac & Cheese? Forget about it.

I’m very lucky that my mom instilled healthy eating habits around the house from a young age. And fortunately, because of her FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) lifestyle, she had enough time at home to reinforce her ideas. Although she would let me eat candy until my stomach hurt (lesson learned, smart lady!), she was always willing to prepare a tasty, home-cooked meal for dinner and a packed lunch for school – plus lots of leftovers so that she wouldn’t have to cook every evening. For breakfast, frugal mom eats porridge, which she makes in batches for the week ahead. This is followed by a decadent cappuccino from her luxurious at-home machine. Her savings from drinking coffee at home add up to over $1200 per year, compared with a daily Starbucks habit.

Today, my fabulous frugal mom prides herself on the fact that she spends less than $150 (CDN) per month on groceries, while living in what is considered an expensive neighborhood, especially for food. And she does this without sacrificing her strict standards for high-quality, fresh ingredients. Her diet is not extreme (in case you were wondering). She still eats meat, enjoys the occasional glass of wine, and goes to nice restaurants. For her, it’s about enjoying everything in moderation.

Here are her best kept secrets for eating healthy on a budget.

Plan Ahead & Prepare Meals From Scratch

Processed foods are expensive. They also usually contain a bunch of unhealthy ingredients with zero nutritional value. On the other hand, cooking with ingredients that have not been processed, such as fresh vegetables, a fillet of trout or whole grain rice, offers so many benefits. First of all, you get much more food for what you spend. Unprocessed foods tend to be much better value for your money. Second, these foods are also so much healthier for your body. Au revoir muffin top, hello six pack! They also tend to be better for the environment. And finally, you can use your ingredients to create delicious and gorgeous-looking meals that couldn’t come out of a box. #foodgram.

Eat healthy for less by cooking with fresh ingredients at home
A delicious and budget friendly home cooked meal at home

For example, I used to spend $4 for a small plastic container of average humus from the supermarket. Now I prefer to make my own dips at home. I don’t own a blender right now, but it’s still quick and easy to do. Plus I get to fine-tune the ingredients to get the taste exactly how I like it. Today for the same $4 I spend on ingredients, I enjoy a giant and very pretty bowl of homemade hummus, without any of the suspicious ingredients and preservatives lurking inside. As usual, what’s good for you, is good for your budget and good for the environment.

The truth is, yes, eating healthy and cooking from scratch is a time commitment. But it really is the only way to control the quality of the meals you eat, and the price of the food you buy. There is no easy way around it. So I recommend to simply start small. As you find ideas and tricks that work for you, eating well will become an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience for you and your family.

Save Money by Hacking the Fancy Supermarket Chains

Now that I buy my own groceries, I’ve noticed just how much my weekly trips to the supermarket add up. As I mentioned earlier, food and beverages tends to take up a large chunk of most people’s monthly budgets. But eating healthy on a small budget is something we can all achieve.

The nice organic supermarket

My mom has always been very conscious of the price of groceries at the store. As she’s pointed out to me many times, prices can vary so much from one store or neighborhood to another. Fortunately, because frugal mom buys very few processed foods, she rarely needs to grocery shop at large supermarket chains. And when she does, it’s to stock up on promotional items, like meat and seafood. This weekend she bought 10 packs of Pacific smoked salmon for $2 each at Loblaws (regular price $8 a piece). Yes, she’s that good! She is always keeping her eyes open for special discounts on her favourite things, which she will buy and store in bulk.

For several years she also shopped at Costco. Only to buy a few choice items in bulk that she knew she would eventually use up. She wouldn’t get tempted by all of the delicious free samples and snacks. And she quickly learned to leave me at home!

Search For Private Label Supermarket Brands and Other Secret Steals

You can also use fabulous frugal mom’s bulk buying strategy for shopping at conventional and fancy supermarkets. When I was living in Manhattan, I used to do most of my grocery shopping at Whole Foods of all places. Their 365 private label store brand was good quality and retailed for considerably less than what I could find in cheaper supermarket chains around the city. So you never know what deals, lost leaders and awesome generic brands you can find in the nicer stores around you. Just remember: When you find healthy foods you love at a great price, stock up! That way you won’t have to go back to the shop every week for just one or two items. It’s all about strategy people!

Buying lentils in bulk will help you eat healthy on a budget

Another tip is to buy non-perishable foods in the bulk dry goods section of your local supermarket. Bring your own reusable, eco-friendly bag and fill ‘er up!

And don’t forget to check if the stores you frequent have a loyalty program. Believe me, it all adds up.

Shop Specialty & Ethnic Supermarkets

Try grocery shopping in different neighborhoods and at different types of supermarkets. Have you ever noticed that food prices downtown tend to be much higher than in the suburbs?

My mom and I love shopping at the huge Chinese supermarket chain T&T in Vancouver. They sell large bags of rice, fresh produce and exotic essentials at very reasonable prices. Plus looking around at their enormous assortment of things we’ve never heard of is heaps of fun. We also go to the small Indian shops across town for curry spices and exotic ingredients. These occasional trips, usually paired with existing outings nearby, change things up a bit from our ordinary grocery routine. And they save us money.

Do Most Of Your Shopping In Small Grocery Stores

Eating healthy on a tiny budget, Fabulous frugal mom doesn’t buy her fruits or vegetables at big supermarket chains. She prefers to frequent the smaller Iranian and Chinese-run grocery stores in our neighborhood, as well as the local farmers’ market on the weekend. These vendors offer competitive pricing (often half price compared to the big chains) and excellent, fresh produce. Plus, you get the added bonus of supporting a small business. Mom wouldn’t be able to keep her grocery budget so low without doing the majority of her shopping in these independently-owned shops.

Save money by shopping small independent grocery stores
Eating healthy for less by looking for deals at the market
Eating healthy and affordably by shopping small, local grocers for fresh produce

Try Out Your Green Thumb

And what about growing your food yourself? Even if you’re not a keen gardener, you can get a lot of joy and convenience out of growing a few herbs in the garden or on the windowsill of your kitchen. Have you ever noticed how much a small pack of basil costs at the supermarket? Not to mention all of that pesky extra plastic! Compare that to the satisfaction of fresh, home-grown basil that you can use whenever you fancy.

The plants will also make your home look warm and inviting. And since they keep growing all season, you will be able to enjoy eating herbs as often as you want, without spending another penny. Frugal mom knows best.

Monitor Your Spending on Dining Out

Sometimes fabulous frugal mom doesn’t feel like cooking and that’s fine too. She’s earned it. But you won’t find her ordering takeaway (full of single-use packaging ick!) or going out for a splurge meal. And she definitely won’t be making a habit of eating out either.

Aside from the occasional impromptu ramen or sushi, eating out is for special occasions with friends or family. Since she spends responsibly on food 95% of the time, she can truly enjoy going to restaurants without any guilt – or stress over the price. My mom will probably order something unique that she doesn’t make at home, like a slow-roasted piece of lamp or a decadent tuna couscous. Her philosophy: Why spend $15 on a small piece of burrata when you can prepare a big plate of it at home for a fraction of the price? I rest my case.

At restaurants, order something special that wouldn't make yourself
Order meals that you wouldn't typically make at home, such as a kimchi rice bowl.

When fabulous frugal mom does eat out, she is also mindful of what she orders to drink. Perhaps it’s her European upbringing, but aside from the occasional glass of wine with dinner, she will usually just order some tap water with her meal. Beverages, both regular and alcoholic, have an insane markup in restaurants. Tap water, on the other hand, is free and oh so healthy. If you’re just ordering a drink out of habit, and don’t really want (or need) something specific, opt for water. Over a lifetime you could literally save thousands.

Here’s A Recap Of Mom’s Tips For Eating Healthy On A Small Budget:

  • Skip processed foods and cook your meals from scratch at home (cooking in large batches will save you time)
  • Avoid food waste by monitoring expiration dates and not buying too much perishable food at once
  • Invest in a coffee machine and save coffee shop visits for socializing with friends (or better yet, invite them over to yours)
  • Grow fresh herbs (and vegetables) in your garden or kitchen
  • Purchase your favourite grocery items in bulk (whether on promotion at a fancy supermarket or at Costco)
  • Shop small local grocers and farmers’ markets for fruits and veggies
  • Participate in rewards programs when they exist
  • Try out supermarkets in other neighborhoods
  • Visit foreign (Indian, Iranian, Chinese, Korean, Latino, Polish) grocery stores for variety and amazing prices
  • Shop the bulk food aisle (with your own reusable container when possible)
  • Price compare between stores (there are some great apps for this)
  • Meal plan and make a grocery list in advance so that you avoid making impulse purchases that you won’t use or might regret (mmm cookies…)
  • Don’t eat out more than a couple of times per month
  • Order out what you can’t make at home
  • Learn to cook your favourite restaurant dishes at home
  • Make splurge restaurants the rare occasion
  • Invite friends over for a fancy dinner, casual potluck, or cocktail night (you can probably feed everyone for the equivalent of one person’s bill at the restaurant)
  • Order “just some tap water please…”

These eating habits may seem overwhelming at first, and they definitely won’t happen overnight. Instead, I recommend using them as inspiration for your very own (affordable and healthy) food philosophy that works for you. The idea is that you can gradually transition towards some of these money-saving foodie techniques as you discover the best prices and strategies in your hometown.

If you’ve enjoyed learning about eating healthy on a budget, stay tuned for the next post in this series: LESSONS FROM MY FABULOUS FRUGAL MOM, PART 3: MAKING SMART HOME & CAR PURCHASES.

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