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Top 5 Tips for Shopping & Cooking on a Budget

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As a self-proclaimed foodie and food blogger, you can probably guess that I spend a fair amount of money each month on groceries. Whenever I shop at Whole Foods (which I try not to do more than once a month), I’m always surprised by how little I buy and yet still walk out with a $100+ tab. Ouch! Now that I support myself financially, I’ve come up with some strategies for shopping and cooking meals that are wallet and waistline friendly. In fact, the reason I started 24 Carrot Life, was to inspire readers that eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive, time consuming, or boring. I figured it was time to stop being selfish and start sharing some of my favorite tips so that you can take control of your grocery list and budget too!

  1. Meal planning and Sunday food prep: This is my absolute #1 tip for staying healthy and maintaining a steady food budget. Meal planning and food prep ensures that I don’t buy more than I need and that I’m not eating cereal because I didn’t have time to cook and I’m starving after work. I’ve come up with my own schedule for meal planning, grocery shopping and weekly food prep that works for me, but I encourage you to experiment until you find what works for you. On Fridays, I’ll make a list of the recipes I want to make for the week ahead while traveling to and from work on the train. I grocery shop on Saturday or Sunday and then prep all my food on Sunday afternoon. Typically, I’ll make five batches of a breakfast that I can easily grab after my morning workout while I’m running out the door. Overnight oats, pancakes, and baked oatmeal are some of my favorite options. I portion them into individual containers so the work is done for the rest of the week. For lunch, I’ll have a big salad or leftovers from dinner the night before. Every week, I buy ingredients for salads like mixed greens and/or spinach, tons of veggies to eat raw or roasted (cauliflower, carrots, radishes, bell pepper, and avocado), a protein like turkey, chicken or eggs, and cheese. In addition to salads, I’ll make a casserole, pasta bake, or crock pot meal for the whole week.
  2. Buy seasonal and local: Last winter, I joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) so that I could have local and seasonal produce throughout the winter when many of the farmers’ markets are closed. I loved the CSA so much that I continued into the summer and I’m still loving it! For many CSAs, you get a share each week of whatever the farmers harvested, which can be a fun surprise and challenge. For my CSA, though, I am able to choose what I want from an online market so I can get ingredients that fit my meal plan for that week. Not only am I eating seasonal fruits and vegetables, but I’m also supporting local farmers and the local business that runs the program. And it’s all for about $30 a week!
  3. Set a budget and grocery list and stick to it: I have to admit that I haven’t actually set my own food budget yet, but I can roughly estimate about $300 or less for a month of groceries for myself. In addition to creating a realistic but helpful budget, my other piece of advice is to create a shopping list before you go to the store. Make sure you don’t go to the store hungry and do your best to stick to your list. This will prevent you from buying unnecessary things like those peanut butter stuffed pretzels or the latest pumpkin craze at Trader Joe’s (guilty!).
  4. Buy in bulk and make your own staples: Determine a few staples that you can easily make at home and buy ingredients in bulk for a fraction of the price of store-bought products. I buy nuts in bulk from a store in Philadelphia called Nuts To You! And almost always make my own nut butters (cashew, peanut, almond, hazelnut, pecan, you name it). You can also buy from the bulk section at Whole Foods, or from a site like Vitacost or Swanson Vitamins. The bulk bins are a great way to get just what you need for the recipe so you don’t waste food or money. Other staples I love to make myself include: mayonnaise, tomato sauce, hummus, lattes and flavored syrups, kombucha, granola, and snack bars or bites.
  5. Use your freezer and shop from your kitchen: I am really diligent about freezing and leftover foods after making a recipe or right before I travel so that I always have a full freezer with things like kale/spinach, frozen fruits, leftovers that I didn’t eat in time, or bread. At least twice a month, I take a look at what I have in my freezer and cupboards and I try to make a meal out of that. Occasionally I’ll have to supplement by buying one or two additional ingredients, but it keeps my grocery list so much shorter when I do this. I can usually make decent meat or veggie pasta sauces, smoothies and crockpot dishes out of the random ingredients in my kitchen.
  6. Bonus Tip: Be flexible with your grocery list and buy generic products or ingredients on sale to save a few dollars. Also, buy whole ingredients (like an entire watermelon or butternut squash) instead of chopped and prepared ingredients.

What are some of your favorite budget shopping and cooking tips?

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