The lower your income is, the more difficult it is to be particular about what you feed your family.
This probably isn’t an earth-shattering revelation to anyone, but if you feel like experimenting, try to buy a week’s worth of healthy food for a family on a budget of, say, $50-75. Food manufacturers that target lower income shoppers with more affordable products tend to include more GMOs and toxic ingredients in their offerings.
It just isn’t possible to stick to my usual food restrictions. Generally speaking I avoid:
- Non-organic dairy because of the hormones and antibiotics as well as the GMO feed given to the animals
- Non-organic meat because of the hormones and antibiotics as well as the GMO feed given to the animals
- Anything containing corn, soy, or canola in any form because it is almost certain to be GMO
- Anything with chemical additives like artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives
- Anything that is likely to have been doused in pesticides
- Anything containing neurotoxins like MSG, fluoride, or aspartame (along with other artificial sweeteners)
It is a matter, then, of weighing the pros and cons, and figuring out what things, for you, are the most important, while also deciding which standards can be sacrificed. These decisions will be different for everyone, based on their personal health concerns, their genetic propensity for certain diseases, and the members of the family for whom they are buying the food.
Sometimes, when you’re looking at someone else’s situation while you are comfortably backed by a loaded pantry, it’s easy to be judgemental and tell them what they “should” do. The thing that we must all remember is that when times are tough, a person may be down to these two options with a two week grocery budget:
1.) Buy strictly healthy organic foods and feed your family for perhaps 8 out of the 14 days.
2.) Carefully select which standards you will relax to keep the tummies of your family full throughout the wait for the next paycheck.
Very few people are going to choose option one.
Usually, I have an enormous stockpile of non-GMO dried foods and a flourishing garden to serve as a back-up for whatever non-toxic items are being offered at a reasonable price that week. Because I’ve recently moved and am rebuilding my pantry from the ground up, I have no such stockpile right now. I am at the mercy of the food manufacturers.
When your budget is extremely limited, the normal healthy eating suggestions of shopping only the perimeter of the store or visiting the farmer’s market will not suffice to feed a family. As much as you may want to dine only on locally grown, fresh organic produce, a $50 farmer’s market spree will only get you through a few days if you are totally reliant on only this food.
What should you eat when you’re broke?
If you can’t swing organic grains, look for whole grains with few or no additives.
- Wheat flour
- Brown rice
- Pasta (with recognizable ingredients)
If you can’t afford grass-fed organic meat, at the very least look for options that are guaranteed to be hormone and antibiotic free. The USDA does not allow the use of growth hormones in pork, which makes it a slightly better option.
Here’s a little primer on those confusing meat labels:
- Hormone-free: This means something with beef, but is nothing but a marketing ploy when you see it on poultry or pork, as the USDA does not allow the use of hormones with those animals. Hormone-free does not mean antibiotic-free
- Antibiotic-free: Because of poor and stressful living conditions, factory-farmed animals are very susceptible to illness. Antibiotic-free means they were not prophylactically treated with antibiotics. This does not, however, mean that the animal is hormone-free.
- Grass-fed: Grass-fed cows are allowed some access to the outdoors and are not fed grains or corn. This does NOT mean they are organic, because the grass they are grazing on may have been chemically fertilized and sprayed. Unless you have actually seen them roaming around the farm, keep in mind their access to the outdoors may not be the lovely rolling pastures that you have in your mind, but a crowded corral with hundreds of other cows.
- Free-range: This label doesn’t mean diddly squat. It means that the animal is allowed a minimum of an hour a day outside. This could mean that they are crammed into an open area with a billion other chickens, still, without room to move, or that their cage is put outside, leaving them still tightly confined. Like the grass-fed cows above, unless you actually see the farm with the gallivanting chickens or pigs, take the label “free-range” with a grain of salt.
Your best options, if you can’t afford organic meats, are to go for the hormone and antibiotic free options as a supplement to vegetarian protein sources like local eggs, beans, and organic dairy products.
Fruits and vegetables
If organic produce is not an option, look for the items with the lowest pesticide loads. (This list by the Environmental Working Group is based ONLY on pesticide loads – some of the items they recommend could be GMOs). Fruits and vegetables that can be peeled often subject you to less pesticides than thin-skinned items. If you must buy conventional, wash the produce carefully and peel it if possible. Look to these stand-bys:
- Apples (peeled)
- Sweet Peas
- Sweet Potatoes
Conventional dairy products are absolutely loaded with hormones. Dairy cattle are given high levels of female hormones to make them produce a greater quantity of milk. This makes little boys develop female characteristics and makes little girls hit puberty at a far younger age than normal, which is the reason you see 4th graders with large breasts and hips. These hormones can also trigger obesity in both genders. Because of the public outcry, some dairies have pledged not to use rBST, the most commonly used of the growth hormones. Do your research to discover if there are any such brands available to you. The Lucerne brand from Safeway is guaranteed to be hormone free. (It’s interesting to note that Monsanto, the company that pushes rBST, wants the FDA to disallow dairies to put this on their labels, and that the FDA forces those who label their products rBST-free to also put the following disclaimer on the containers: “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST treated cows
Organic dairy is still better, because the cattle are fed a healthier diet and are free from antibiotics. If you can’t swing it, at the very least, search for rBST-free dairy products. For products, you can save loads of money by making your own from untainted milk. Learn how to make yogurt, how to make yogurt cheese, and how to make cottage cheese. Plain yogurt can also be used as a healthy substitute for sour cream.
If you are on city water, chances are, your water is loaded with chemicals, from fluoride to ammonia to chlorine. I won’t drink this water, and I won’t let my children drink it either. The large 5 gallon jugs provide the least expensive way to buy water. Also look for sources of spring water to fill your own containers. (This interactive map can help.)
Other Tight Budget Tips
Build your pantry. It’s hard to think about building a pantry when you have barely enough food in the cupboard to make it between paychecks. But if you can purchase one bulk item per shopping trip, in a few months you will have a pantry that will allow you to make higher quality grocery purchases on your weekly trips. At that point, you can start going to the farmer’s market, which in many locations is very reasonably priced, buying in enough bulk to preserve your foods, and have the occasional splurge
Be scrupulous about food hygiene. Wash your produce very thoroughly and soak it in a baking soda bath. Also remember to careful wash your beans and rice.
Get growing. Even if it is the off season, you can sprout some seeds on your counter to add fresh nutrients. You can grow some salad greens and herbs in a sunny windowsill. Invest a few dollars each week in some seeds and you will soon be able to supplement your diet with nutritious, organic, home-grown veggies. Visit outlet stores. Sometimes places like Big Lots or grocery clearance centers have organic options at good prices. You might be able to pick up canned goods, cereals, and crackers at a fraction of the normal grocery store price.
Forage for freebies. In many locations, even the city, there are free delicious foods just waiting for you to pick them. Dandelions, wild berries, nuts, and nutritious leaves abound. Just be very sure you know what you’re picking and then enjoy your wild foods. Check out this excellent guide to the nutritious goodies that may be in your backyard masquerading as lowly weeds.
Plan on at least one extra frugal meal per day. Have peanut butter and crackers, a bowl of oatmeal, or soup for one meal per day – not every meal has to be made up of protein, veggies, and grains.
Don’t give up. If you are feeling financially defeated, it is sometimes easy to say, “*bleep* it!!!” and just get some Ramen noodles or macaroni and cheese and call it a meal. Don’t do it! Do the very best you can with the resources you have available. Remember, if you can’t afford good food, you definitely can’t afford bad health – it’s even more expensive.
The Simple Truth
There are a lot of things that readers may find to pick apart in this article – and that’s good! By thinking critically and discussing these things, sometimes we can come up with solutions that may not have occurred to us previous to the conversation. I’m not some expert that shouldn’t be questioned – I am just a mom on a budget. Some of the suggestions here were gleaned from the comments sections of previous articles.
Do your research and do the best that you can with what’s available given your resources. Create a plan to provide better options in the future. Don’t go down that toxic trail laid out by Big Food without fighting, kicking, and screaming.