How to Eat Healthy on a Budget (but not skip on the good stuff)

Most people balk at the idea of spending anywhere between $25- $35 dollars on a pasture raised broiler chicken since they know they can get a bird at the grocery for less than $5. If you are on an extremely tight budget, you can use that store bought bird, but there are some rather unsavory reasons why that bird costs as little as it does. A pasture raised chicken has had a good life filled with sunshine, company, and anything it has scratched up for its own dinner resulting in a healthier animal with healthier more nutrient packed flesh. Allowed to access a natural diet, pasture raised chickens are richer in beta carotene, retinol, and omega-3 fatty acids than their factory-farmed $3.99 counterparts. The point of this blog is to show you how your more expensive meat can be stretched to include at least four meals with a variety of recipes. In our first case we’ll talk about the chicken first. Just doing some quick math, $35/bird divided by 4 people eating four meals is $ 2.18/meat/meal.

To give you an idea of how the chicken can be used in an effective fashion, I am going to walk you through your meal plan that will use ALL the chicken.

Meal 1: Roast that Chicken! Our favorite recipe is the Sticky Rotisserie Chicken which bakes in the oven at low temps for a long time. Included in the recipe are onions which are put in the body cavity, but we have also used other veggies such as carrots, potatoes, and parsnips. Root vegetables are great and hearty side dish. To further stretch the meal and fill our bellies, we usually add a green salad or rice too. Carve up the breast and the legs for dinner and make sure to have plenty of side dishes. Remember that the US recommended protein serving size is 3 – 5 oz, but most of us often eat three to four times that recommendation. Leftover larger pieces are perfect for sandwiches the next day. MOST people declare the chicken done after one meal, but in our humble opinion they are missing out on some of the best to come.

Meal 2: Chicken Sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and whole wheat bread.

Meal 3: Strip the chicken body of the rest of the large pieces of meat. One woman recommends making a chicken salad, but our favorite first leftover is to chop up all the pieces of chicken that are too small to make it into a sandwich use them in a stir fry. LOTS of veg and rice make this a filling and quick dish on a busy work night.

Meal 4 (and more): Put the bones and remaining meat into either your crock pot or in a pot on the stove and simmer it until everything falls away from the bones. Let it cool until you are no longer in danger of hurting yourself by touching the contents of the pot. You will be able to skim off the fat (if you have a pup they will love this stirred into their kibble) and then go to work removing all the remaining meat from the bones. You would be amazed how much meat there is still is even at this point. Much of it is on the back where we do not usually carve and is often forgotten altogether. You can keep reusing the bones and cartilage in your crock pot to make more bone broth or you can call it quits at this point. Depending on the week, we will continue to the use bones to make broth until there is nothing left. Use the shredded meat you picked from the bones and your first round of broth to make our “Oh So Simple Chicken Soup”. What is great about this is if you have any leftover roasted veggies from the first meal this is an excellent place to finish them up by putting them in the soup.

Another suggestion is to use the leftover chicken and vegetables to make a perennial favorite, chicken pot pie. Many of us would be happy just having that for our dinner, but you can make it last for serval meals if you have a salad or some additional steamed veggies as your side.

You should always be thinking 1. How much of this is healthy for me? And 2. How many meals do I want to enjoy this dish?

You could argue that in the case of the chicken pot pie, the cream used to make the gravy is not healthy for you, but you also need to stop and consider that if you ate the whole pie that is very true. However all things in moderation can work to maintain a healthy diet. The adage “Less is more” works perfectly in this situation since the smaller your portions the longer you will be able to enjoy your efforts.

A Side Note on the Benefits of Bone Broth: We have all had chicken soup when we sick and it turns out there is something to be said for the healing properties of the broth! It has been proven to help boost the immune system, help with joint health and even help with leaky gut syndrome. This is all thanks to the calcium, amino acids, and compounds that come from the breaking down of the animal bone and cartilage.

Shopping list:

ShopRite Bread – Whole Wheat $1.99

ShopRite Natural Mild Provolone Cheese Slices $3.29

ShopRite Rice – Long Grain Enriched $1.29

Fresh Grape Tomatoes $2.99

Red Leaf Lettuce 5 oz (avg.) $2.49/lb $0.78

ShopRite Baby Bella Mushrooms $3.99

Fresh Russet Potatoes 5lb bag $0.99

Fresh Onions – 3 lb Bag $0.99

ShopRite Baby Carrots 16 oz $0.09/oz 2 for $3.00

Estimated Subtotal $19.31

This grocery list includes almost everything you will need to make these meals possible (everyone has different opinions on what to put in their stir fry), but this shows how inexpensively you can shop and still have lots vegetables and goodies to work for multiple meals. If you have a membership at Costco or BJs you can purchase many of these items in large quantities for greater saving. My husband and I have been known to make huge batches of soup and then freeze them for a winter’s day.

Admittedly the price of your shopping list will go up when you begin shopping for all organic food, but one way to lower that cost is to shop year round and get to know your local farmers. This means purchasing and freezing food when they are at their most bountiful (and therefore cheapest) and storing them until unseasonal months. We have done this with a large amount of our fruit and veggies and it cuts down on year round food costs. By getting to know your farmers, you can ask them about their farming practices. Many farmers are farming organically, but have opted not to get their certification due to the expense and hoops they need to jump through to prove that everything IS organic. One thing farmers never seem to have enough of is time. However, you can benefit from their practices without paying for the cost of organic food that has been shipped to your grocery store.

Perhaps you are not interested in eating chicken on a weekly basis, but would prefer to have a rotation of meat options. Next up is the bone in ham. One bone in ham can happily take care of a family for an entire week without everyone getting totally sick of it. You do this by having a bunch of different dishes that have ham either as a center piece or “as an addition”.

Meal 1: Roast your ham for Sunday dinner with some rosemary potatoes and a large salad to share. You can also make a batch of cornbread whose leftovers will pair nicely with soup and act as the bread for your breakfast ham sandwich. As you are carving you will find that you are able to get bigger and smaller pieces depending on the cuts around the bone. Use the big pieces for the meal, but save the smaller pieces for either…

Meal 2: Ham sandwiches. These sandwiches can be made up of leftover cornbread and a fried egg for breakfast or your standard cheese, lettuce, and tomato on whole wheat bread. Or….

Meal 3: Dice up some of the smaller pieces of ham with mushroom, onion, and leftover potato to make a Frittata. This wonderful dish can work for breakfast, lunch, or dinner!

Meal 4: Ham, Beans and Rice. Go for this filling dish that is perfect for a winter’s night. You do not need a lot of ham for this dish since there is a lot of protein in the beans and the rice is nice and starchy. This slows down your digestion giving your body more time to burn the calories.

Meal 5: Put the ham bone and any last pieces of ham into the stew pot and STEW! Lentil Stew with Ham and Greens and substitute the pork broth for the chicken broth in the recipe. Another good one is Split Pea Soup with Ham.

You can also invest in a Boston Butt and do wonderful things like pulled pork which can be used in a ton of dishes. You can use if for Carnitas, Burritos, Sliders, Pulled Pork and Rice, and Tacos… you are getting the idea. This is fantastic with rice, beans, some veggies, and can be made either made to suit Mexican, Southern, Mediterranean, or Asian cuisine. One of our most popular recipes for our pork shoulder is Bo Ssam which can be used to feed an army. Each night you can have a different recipe from another part of the world for your dinner.

Your shopping list for your ham/Boston butt/shoulder week will look very similar to your chicken shopping list depending on what recipes you choose to stretch your food.

When it comes to beef, I am relying on the online food bloggers since they have far more experience than me. (I am allergic to beef) Part of what you need to remember in all of this is that the meat starts of as the star of the meal and then becomes more and more a team player with all the other ingredients. As a result the larger cuts evolve from roast, to sandwiches, to ingredients in a meal, and finish off soup. This is the best way to get bang for your buck.

This means you will be paying more up front, but it will also stretch further. Most people who are trying to make their dollars stretch are going to be interested in these cuts:

  1. Chuck: From the front portion of the animal; look for chuck roast, shoulder steak, boneless chuck roast, chuck shoulder pot roast, chuck seven-bone pot roast, or beef chuck arm.
  2. Brisket: From the breast or lower chest with long strands of meat; the flat cut is leaner, and the point cut has more fat; brisket is best sliced against the grain of the meat for maximum tenderness.
  3. Round: From the rear leg area of the animal; look for rump roast or bottom round.

It has been our experience that most people get excited about the steaks and filet mignon, but we have come to the conclusion that any part of the cow can be delicious if you learn how to cook it well. In the case of these cuts, the proven method to get the most flavor from your meat is to cook is slow and steady for a long time. The easiest way to do this is pull out your trusty slow cooker or crock pot and put it to work. We do recommend though that you familiarize yourself with the difference of cooking grassfed vs. commercial beef. Videos and explanations can be found online.

Meal 1: Slow Cooker Pot Roast is one recipe that comes highly recommended and starts with a 5 lbs roast. That is a lot of meat!!! Remember your daily recommendations for meat are about 3-5 oz, but even if you splurge, you will still have oodles leftover for more tasty creations. Enjoy with traditional fare of a mashed potatoes, gravy, and some kind of steam veggies like broccoli.

Meal 2: Beef Pot Pie: Use some of the leftover shredded beef, 1 bag of frozen mixed veggies, and leftover gravy.  Pour into a premade or homemade pie crust and bake until golden. Remember these dishes were created by people for people who were working in the fields and needed to replace a lot of calories. Moderation and lots of veggies are what make this a healthy option.

Meal 3: We can’t forget the sandwiches! Roast beef hoagies: Sauté some onions and bell pepper to put on top your shredded beef. Top hoagie rolls with provolone cheese, beef and onion pepper mixture. Voila.

Meal 4: Using your leftover broccoli and beef you can make a fantastic stir fry. Toss in some of the onion and red pepper from your hoagies. Serve over white rice and enjoy!

Meal 5: Towards this point you should be getting pretty low on beef, but there is still enough for a fantastic breakfast of Roast Beef Hash! Chop up your leftover roast.  Dice some potatoes.  Fry the potatoes and fry on a hot griddle (like hash browns) or in a sauce pan in a little vegetable oil.  Add in leftover beef and continue to cook until warm.  Pour over some leftover gravy in and cook a minute longer.  Serve it up with fried eggs and toast for a breakfast that should keep you going all day.

Meal 6: The final stage of any good roast is stew. Put everything that remains; roast, gravy, and potatoes in a crock pot with water, veggies, and any seasonings that you prefer and let it slow cook to death. Let it cool and remove any bones and bay leaves that might be in the pot and eat this hearty stew until the very last drop is gone.

I have shown you how you can make your expensive meat stretch over the course of the week and become cost effective ingredient to your diet, but how can you still get the most from your money?

  1. Pay attention to your grocery store:
    1. Check when things go on sale. Some days will be more deeply discounted than others and depending on the store they might have a section for produce or other products that are perfectly ripe or fine, but are nearing their time to be cycled out. So much of what is at the store ends up in a dumpster, but is still perfectly good. Snag what you can find on clearance. Try to time your shopping for the days of deepest discounts.
    2. Watch the sales. You can get a lot of your staples such as rice, beans, flour, sugar (limit your intake), pasta etc. when they go on sale and store them for down the road. The wonderful thing about them is they have a long shelf life.
    3. Buy in bulk. As crazy as it sounds sometimes buying MORE of something is the most cost effective method. Just remember that you need to have space to store it.
    4. Clip Coupons. I am not suggesting that you go overboard like some people, but you would be amazed at what has a coupon for it. When you are counting your pennies and trying to eat healthily, it is nice some times to have a little variety so a $1 off on 4 avocadoes can really change your nibbles for a week.
    5. Purchase Store Brands when you can. A lot of people shop for easily recognizable names and pay more money for that name recognition. The reality is that in many cases the same manufacturers are producing both the name and store brands. However, the name brand needs to charge more for its flash marketing. Cereal is one example and another is milk. Caveat: If you are fortunate enough to live near a dairy, get your milk there if possible since a lot of people who normally have milk intolerance have found that they are able to digest raw milk. Another option is to find a goat dairy as goat milk is typically easier to digest. When you are saving pennies elsewhere, local dairy is a good place to put your money as smaller dairies take far better care of their cows and goats.
  2. Build a Pantry: If you are going to be purchasing items in bulk, you will need a place to store them, so make sure you have enough room in your freezer and cupboards. It is incredibly helpful to have things on hand such as rice or pasta to fill out a meal

Things to include:

  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Rice (Brown is healthier but it does take time to cook)
  • Old Fashioned Oats (Fantastic for breakfast or add it to your muffins)
  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Spices
  • Dried pastas
  1. Plan Your Meals:
    1. When you plan out your meals for the week you are less likely to do impulse shopping and can also choose ingredients that can be used in more than one meal. Not only will you not have that moment of “What are we having for dinner” you can also make sure that you won’t have anything spoil in your fridge before it is used.
    2. This also means that you can shop more effectively for seasonal fruit and veg. If you have the storage for it buy things when they are cheap and either freeze it or can it for later.
    3. One way to make sure that you stay on budget and do not succumb the quick and easy take-out is to make larger quantities of your food. You can portion them out and put them in your fridge for a quick reheat on nights with limited time. There are those who use one day of their weekend to make all their meals and then put them in containers for the rest of the week.
  2. Leave the Soda and Sugary Juices on the Shelf: Although most people do not consider soda or juice to be overly expensive, think of it as an expense towards your long term health. Check out the ingredients and the sugar content of both and you will shocked at how much sugar is crammed into those bottles. If you still want to have a beverage aside from water (drink more of this) select fruit or vegetable juices that do not have any additional sugar aside from the natural fructose.
  3. Consider Your Fruit, Veggies and Starch: Consider shopping for fruits, vegetables, and starches that have a longer shelf life and store them properly. Instead of purchasing those delicate berries that seem to cost an arm and leg and fuzz right after you bought them, consider instead getting oranges, apples, and pears that store more easily and for longer. Bananas are pretty inexpensive, but always have a backup plan for them such as pancakes or banana bread so they do not spoil. When it comes to veggies, look to the chard, kale, cabbage, and spinach for greens that pack a punch. I had one cabbage that managed to survive in my fridge for six months and even began sprouting. Carrots, potatoes, and celery are inexpensive and are fantastic with roasts and soups. Sweet potatoes and yams are also quite filling and store for an incredibly long time.
  4. DO NOT SHOP WHEN YOU ARE HUNGRY: This is something that is repeated over and over. If you are hungry, the grocery store can be a mecca of choices, but it also means that you will find yourself making more impulse purchases and straying from your grocery list. To stop yourself from doing this make sure you’ve had a snack or meal before heading to the store.
  5. Do your homework: With a little bit of time and cruising the internet, you can find a lot of amazing resources about how to eat more healthily AND how to do it on a budget. Figure out for yourself the areas that are really important for you to purchase the highest quality products (we recommend spending your pennies on good meat and vegetables) and those other areas where you can save by purchasing generics.
  6. Make Time: This might be an odd one to have on the list, but it works for a number of reason. In order to reduce your food budget and stay healthy, you need to have time to; research recipes, plan your shopping, cook your meals AND take the time to actually enjoy what you are eating. Just slowing down and chewing your food will help you reduce how much food you need to feel full. Too many of us are guilty of giving ourselves a tiny amount of time to consume our meals and this means our body does not have the time to recognize it has been fed and keeps sending the “FEED ME” signal past the point of being sated. Drinking a glass of water before eating will help the process of getting the stomach to stop sending hangry signals sooner.
  7. Lastly consider having a small kitchen garden and learning how to can: Even those of us who do not have green thumbs can find at least one varietal we can grow well. My husband is wonderful with peppers from the mild wax pepper to the world’s hottest pepper, the Carolina Reaper. I can grow heirloom tomato jungles and do quite well when it comes to herbs. Our small permanent herb garden produces sage, oregano, two types of thyme, lemon balm, tarragon, and in the summer basil and parsley. These are dried and put into our ever expanding spice cabinet. Additionally, I have scouted out patches of wild raspberries and black berries, apple trees, and pear trees that have been forgotten. All of those I harvested when the time was right and either canned, dehydrated, or froze them. Canning is a fantastic way to save perishable food and is a skill worth having.
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