Real Food Meals on a Budget
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
Feeding our families healthy, nutrient dense options that are convenient, easy to prepare, and also affordable can be quite the challenge these days. It seems like everything from the price of gas to the price of grapes has skyrocketed. After having been quarantined for over a year, we are finally starting to pick up the pace with our work, school and family lives, and family dinner time is at risk of becoming lost to us again. Everyone is busier now, and while most of us want to add more fresh, whole foods to our diets, we aren’t sure of where to start. Throw in the exorbitant costs of some items, and we are ready to grab the easiest and cheapest meal in a box we can find off the shelf. How can we find the time, resources, and variety we want and need without breaking the bank?
One way to find quality items is to shop locally. Buy shopping at our local farmer’s market or produce stand, we can avoid extra costs incurred with shipping and packaging, support local businesses, and give our families a better quality product by choosing meat and produce from farms which use more sustainable or environmentally safe practices. We should always consider the quality of the foods we purchase because “we are what we eat”. Whatever that animal ingested or how that food item was treated enters our bodies as well, so if we want to support healthy systems within us, we need to track the source of our foods in order to give our bodies what they need to function properly.
So, whether you are strapped for time, constrained by your budget, or restricted by picky eaters, I hope you find the following suggestions to add affordable, nutrient dense solutions to your weekly menu to be helpful and easy. The meals listed below cost $15 or less (4 servings per meal), and those prices include higher quality items like organic veggies or grass fed, grass finished beef or pasture raised poultry, and were all made in 30 minutes or less with minimal prep work. (This price doesn't include standard pantry items like salt, pepper, or olive oil as I assume most households have those items on hand. If not, you'll need to add that into the total cost.)
One easy strategy to provide our families with real food meals is the 1-2-3 Method. It is pretty straightforward: you pick 1 (or 2) item from each column and voila! You have a simple, affordable, real food meal, prepared in 30 minutes or less. Simply prepare the carb according to package instructions (grains) or roast, steam, grill, sauté your veggie (in fat), or leave them raw! Your proteins can be grilled, sautéed (in fat), or prepared in your favorite instant pot or crock pot device.
Batch Cooking: For this method, I've included a few of my own tips as well as a couple of recipes from different sites that incorporate nutrient dense options. Beth Manos, an NTP from the website Tasty Yummies, created a super easy and tasty protein filled dish. This option is perfect for taco night or served over rice with a fresh green salad for a quick weeknight meal.
Here is her recipe for Easy Hawaiian Kalua Pork.
Julia at The Roasted Root has a great batch cooking recipe for chicken and veggies!
Batch cooking other meats can be a huge time and money saver as well. Check sales at your local store, or visit your local wholesale club like Costco or Sam's Club and pick up a few pounds of your favorite cut of meat, set aside a couple of hours on the weekend, and cook it for future meals. Buying these items in bulk can save you quite a bit per pound. You can roast, grill, sauté, or bake it, or use your favorite appliance like an instant pot or crock pot. Once cooked, cool and store in the fridge for up to a week, or portion them out into containers to freeze until needed. I find that if I prepare my meat in advance that I am more likely to consume it and to consume all of it even in the form of leftovers or re-purposed meals. For example, I may make a batch of 5 lbs ground beef, purchased on sale, that I season only with salt and pepper that I can turn into easy spaghetti with a jar of sauce and pasta, or into tacos with some taco seasoning. I can use leftover meat sauce and pasta to make a casserole another night, and take the remaining taco meat and make a lovely taco salad for easy lunches. Whatever meat I do not use can be frozen for future use. By using all of the groceries I purchase in multiple ways, I save money, and in doing so, free my budget up for better quality meat or produce purchases.
Whenever possible, choose local or organic meats. If you don’t have access to it or you simply need to cut costs, look for what is available, preferably in this order: first, check for locally grown, next look for organic, and then look for pasture raised or grass fed. If these options are still too pricey for your budget, just do the best you can with what you have. One option I found that worked for my family was to go in with a couple of friends and buy a whole, grass fed/grass finished cow directly from a local farmer. The farmer took care of the butchering process and we simply paid for and picked up our meat. You do need a freezer space to store it, but sharing with friends is a great way to cut costs, buy just the amount you can store properly, and get high quality meat. By doing this, we stocked our freezer with 80lbs of meat that cost us an average of $8/lb- which may be slightly more than you want to pay for ground beef, but I promise it is much less than you’d pay for a nice ribeye! When you buy meat this way, you do not usually get a choice of specific cuts and get a wide variety of cuts in your package. Talk to the butcher or farmer directly, as they may be able to accommodate your requests for exact cuts and amounts.
One additional protein boost that is also very cost-saving is to add beans to your ground meats to not only stretch the protein and save money, and this step also increases necessary vitamins and minerals from those beans into your diet.
Once you get home from the store, wash and prep your produce for the week. This makes dinnertime assembly go by so much faster! Also, if we take the time to prep these foods, we will be more likely to use them- thereby saving tons of money from the typical "buy it and throw it away a week later" because I has spoiled, which if we are honest, happens to most of us! If you think about it, throwing groceries away is literally throwing the money spent on them away! Also, buying produce that is fresh directly from the produce bins with minimal packaging and processing saves you money on those very processes and packages. Similarly to shopping for meat, start with what looking for what is local, then organic when possible. Also, get to know your farmers! Even rural areas offer farm stands or weekly farmer’s markets with local produce for sale. Shopping locally cuts down on shipping and productions costs as well, plus you are supporting a family in your community!
Finally, plan a few leftover nights to use up those groceries- simple stir fries, salads, or sandwich nights can help save time and money, and clean out the fridge too. Everything we buy and then throw away is money lost, so be creative with those leftovers! With a little bit of consideration and preparation, we can feed our families healthy, quick, easy, and affordable options.
Nutritional Therapy Association. (2019). 8 Paleo Instant Pot Recipes: Great for Meal Prepping with Minimal Time. Retrieved from https:// nutritionaltherapy.com/8-paleo-instant-pot-recipes-great-for-meal-preppingwith-minimal-time/
The Roasted Root. (2020). Meal Prep Chicken and Vegetables (Paleo, Whole30). Retrieved from https://www.theroastedroot.net/ meal-prep-chicken-and-vegetables-paleo-whole30/