Let’s face it. Most of us twenty-somethings are not millionaires yet and, whether we like it or not, are on a budget. And unless you’re living at home where good-for-you meals magically appear on the table, this budget’s got to include food.
That said, do NOT let not being able to shop at Whole Foods be an excuse for not eating clean. While the bulk of my shopping certainly doesn’t happen there (enter: Trader Joe’s), I still manage to keep a pretty clean diet most of the time. And yes, my diet includes more than just chicken and broccoli.
Oh, and you know what I hate more than anything?! When I hear people say, “but it’s from Whole Foods.” For whatever reason, people equate Whole Foods with all things health. No! False!! Sure it’s shelves are stocked with a whole lot of all-natural this, gluten-free that. And don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the place (and do make a weekly trip for a few staples), but just because it’s got “whole” in the name does not mean you can go balls out and eat whatever the hell you want. I hate to break it to you, but your vegan-friendly dairy-/gluten-/soy-free cookies and organic non-GMO tortilla chips #lovessalt will never beat the nutrient profile in a bag of baby spinach, organic or not. If only…
So maybe you’re a poor college student, or like me and a recent grad with a job, supporting yourself, just trying to save a little while you find your place in the world. Funds are not unlimited, and you’re trying not to let that impact your waistline. Here’s how I do it:
1. Create a budget. I’m talking the basics here, guys. You don’t have to be a Wall Street guru to be smart with your money. First things first: know how much money you have coming in, then evaluate where it’s being spent. Priorities will differ, but it is important to set both short-term and long-term financial goals. BE SPECIFIC. We must learn to differentiate needs from wants. You need food, clothing and shelter. But as much as you may want it, you do NOT need the big screen that is probably too big for your box of an apartment anyway. If you’re like me and love the organization that a spreadsheet provides, here’s an easy formula to keep track of your money: fixed income-fixed expenses-variable expenses=discretionary money a.k.a money leftover. Try tracking your numbers consistently for a month or two. Can you identify any trends? Whatever you do, practice setting aside something each month/paycheck to SAVE. Remember, we’ll carry with us HABITS we develop now into the future. And saving never hurt anybody. Every little bit counts 🙂 Also, do NOT be afraid to INVEST in yourself (yes, I’m talking actual $$).
So now you have this budget, but you still have to decide for yourself how much of it will be allocated to food. Food is expensive, yes, but I always tell myself I’d rather spend money on good food than on medical bills. NOTE: Despite it being a breeding ground for everything bad, I was sick only once in college sticking to my own advice, so yeah…
[DISCLAIMER: I am by NO means a financial advisor/consultant/whatever you want to call it (that’s one of the many things my dad’s good for), but I DO love to crunch numbers to make things work]
2. Organic, grass-fed, local, conventional- is there a difference? With all the antibiotics, hormones and pesticides used in the production and/or processing of our foods these days, knowing where your food is coming from is something to consider. Sure, I buy organic, grass-fed, local when I can, but can also not justify $4.99/lb on apples and so try not to get too hung up on it. The quality of the food you eat is far more important than it’s organic [or conventional] label. *Example* In the case of the all-natural (but maybe not organic) skinless chicken breast and the organic doughnut, the protein-packed chicken breast will always win. Organic is NOT the end-all-be-all. Trying to decide where to splurge? Consider the “Clean Fifteen” and “Dirty Dozen.” If you’re interested in learning more, this is a great read.
3. Learn to cook. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to “screw up.” Plus, screw-ups can turn out to be delicious. I’m definitely no Martha Stewart and only ever follow a recipe to a tee when I’m baking, but the rest of the time I just throw together what I think sounds good. I don’t always have on hand what a recipe calls for, and am always looking for modifications to up the fat-loss friendly factor without compromising taste. Pick your PROTEIN and VEGGIES first, then base the rest of your meal around that. If you’re really stuck, invest in a couple of good cookbooks for some inspiration (or ask me!). Honestly though, you don’t need recipes. Oh, and use spices to go from bland to bold in seconds! I keep mine within an arm’s reach when I’m cooking. Ignore the fact that they’re in alphabetical order (hey, easy to find!), and that I’m running low.
Though my grilling skills are limited (read: George Forman) and I tend to overcook all meat, it’s a quick-and-easy relatively mess-free option to prep a bunch of protein and veggies at the beginning of the week. Think chicken breasts, fish or steak (though the latter two are tastier same-day, IMO). Grilled asparagus? Holy yum! Go try it. Now. Also, learn to roast vegetables. It will change your life.
4. Buy frozen. Frozen fruits and vegetables are just that. They’re frozen fresh, and if you don’t use them right away, they don’t go bad. I hate wasting food so this helps to cut down on that, but is an especially great option if you’re only cooking for one.
5. Shop the sales. If it’s on sale and something you use, buy it. Even if that means going over your weekly food budget by a few dollars. You’ll save later. Non-perishables will last in the pantry… a while, and things like meats, so long as they’re frozen fresh, freeze well. Produce can be trickier, unless it’s frozen or something that won’t go bad in a few days if you don’t use it. That said, some things are worth the extra money fresh.
6. Shop the perimeter first. What you need is on the outside: protein, produce (fruits & veggies) and fats. All the extras (i.e. chocolate, coffee, chips, salsa, trail mix… in no particular order 😉 lol) are in the middle so if you’re really trying to stick to your budget, start here. Only then wander into the abyss that is the middle of the store. Guaranteed you’ll leave those aisles with more than you budgeted for.
7. Online shopping. You can find some amazing deals on Amazon, iHerb and Vitacost, to name a few. They’re always running sales, and even offer promo codes for FREE shipping. So if you’re a supplement user, love your protein bars like me or are just looking to save on ingredients that cost an arm and a leg at Whole Foods, check ’em out. Even if Whole Foods everything is in your budget, this no-hassle option couldn’t be any easier. One-click and it’s delivered straight to your door. Oh, and GNC is expensive. The Vitamin Shoppe tends to be a bit more affordable.
8. Make a list. And stick to it. Even though my grocery haul is nearly identical week-to-week, I try to limit myself to one non-list item a.k.a impulse buy (usually flowers for my room, a pack of gum, chocolate or wine). [NOTE: Shopping hungry results in more impulse buys, always.] Budget aside, it allows you to be in and out in minutes AND you won’t forget what you went in for. Is is not the worst when you get home and realize you forgot one thing?
9. Discounts. The perks of being a college student (or grad that still uses their ID to reap the benefits of their former student status). For those of you in the land of Harris Teeters, I know you get a discount. Just show your student ID at checkout. If you’re in a college town, local eateries will often give you a small discount as well. Even if you’re not so lucky as to possess a university ID, bring your own bags. Most places now offer a few cents off for reusable totes. This is not a lot, I realize, but if you’re like me and just really hate paper/plastic bags, it’s a great option. And, you save a few trees in the process. Win for you, win for Mother Earth!
10. Water. I’m not a fan of tap water, but buying bottled water adds up quick when you drink as much of it as I do. If I’m out, I’ll grab one, but it’s definitely worth the investment to pick up both a filter – I love my Brita! – and a reusable water bottle to take with you everywhere.
11. Make meals out worth it. I love nothing more than a salad washed, chopped and prepped by someone else. Or my favorite weekend brunch. Sure, Chipotle is delicious but 1) it’s everywhere and 2) it’ll always be there. And isn’t eating out more fun when you have company to share it with? Make a lunch or dinner date with a friend. An even more budget-friendly option? Cook out (or in) with friends, or have a group over and do dinner potluck-style. Everyone saves, and no one does all of the work. A meal out here and there certainly won’t break the bank, but over time it adds up and is so much cheaper to eat in.
12. Eat local. Seasonal advice, perhaps, but shop the farmer’s markets. If nothing else, it’s fun to look around and see what all is out there. And, you know EXACTLY where your food is coming from. Farm-to-table fresh.
13. Don’t underestimate the power of Target, WalMart, etc. These places carry everything, including brand name and even some organic stuff, usually at a fraction of the cost. Also, read your labels. Oftentimes, the store brand product is identical to the brand name product, but with a lower price tag.
Do you budget for food? Or do you just spend whatever, and make adjustments elsewhere if and when need be? Let me know what you think and what works for you!