How to Eat Well on a Budget

By ena ganguly

Like most everyone, I have a complicated relationship with food.

Going down the health aisle is faintly triggering to me. Whenever I do, I am reminded of how we, as people of color, nourished our bodies with what the earth gave us. Quinoa from South America. Salt from South Asia. Chia seeds from Guatemala. And how those very same resources are mined out of our homelands, branded, Americanized, trending, and made inaccessible to the very same people who used them for centuries.

I grew up without the means to access the food I needed. As someone with a chronic illness, eating mindfully became really important to me, because it allowed me to control my disease through my diet. In high school, when I finally committed myself to a vegetarian diet, I remember getting into fights with my mother as she refused to buy me the foods I desired. I wasn’t able to cook for myself till college, when I worked part time to pay for my rent, books and of course, food.

For the first time in my life, I went to grocery shop with the money I earned for myself, and got all the things I wanted, needed, dreamed about. Grocery shopping was an event for me. I perused up and down those aisles as if I was window shopping. Once home with my loot, I would cook, sing, dance. It was a whole experience. However, with this wonderful power comes great responsibility.

I found out that even though I could control my eating habits, I still had to practice mindfulness when spending money. I needed enough left over money to last me for at least one or two weeks, and way more than that if I hadn’t paid my rent.

My journey with food and budgeting continues to date. On good days, I will leave the grocery store with my week’s worth of groceries, only $25 lighter than when I came in. Other days, more often than I would like to admit, I spend a laughable amount of money on food. Why, you ask? For many reasons. One, because I’m the person who will not think twice about spending money on food. Second, because, investing in my weekly groceries is my way to restore my relationship with food. Third, because I love to treat myself!

Reasons aside, here are some ways to buy groceries while not putting a dent in the bank:                                       

1. Establish a budget

Creating a budget will help you stay within a certain dollar amount and keep you from over spending. Your budget can change every time you go to the grocery store, because you may not be going in for the same reason. For example, if you’re going to the store to get supplies for a cake or one particular dish for an event, then your budget will look different than if you were going to shop for the week.

For folks who have never created a budget and may want to know what that looks like, you can try out this Grocery Calculator.

2. Meal prep & make a list!

Before going grocery shopping, find a few recipes and make a list of all the things you need to make those recipes. I understand if you don’t want to try a bunch of new dishes in one week, since that can be pretty overwhelming. At least for me it can! I like to look up one new dish and one go-to dish for the week. Once I know what ingredients my recipes need, I jot them down on a sticky note and take it with me to the store. This really helps me stay focused, spend an anticipated amount for food, and not waste excess food.

PRO TIP: Put a grocery list on your fridge and jot down things you need as soon as you need them. This will help you curb trips to the store for only one or two things. When meal prepping, add to the list other things you need for the week.  

3. Eat before you go grocery shopping

I know this may sound odd, but if you’re hungry and go to a store full of food, you may want to buy everything! Don’t go into a grocery store hangry. Eat a snack or bring something to eat while you shop, so you don’t end up buying stuff that you didn’t anticipate buying (i.e. that box of Cosmic Brownies).

4. Invest in things you cannot go without or need to sustain your body

If brownies are indeed a snack you cannot go without, make sure to invest in that need! For pricier things, like buying aloe vera juice or those fancy bars, don’t feel guilty for including them in your grocery budget. You are allowed and encouraged to eat the snacks, foods, drinks that you love! Investing in those things decreases the possibility of eating out or quitting meal prepping.

5. Splurge deliberately on one or two items

As a personal rule, I do sometimes get the vegan ice cream or some fancy chocolate, but those are splurges I anticipate and use to validate myself. You’re allowed to do the same!

I think many of us want to eat well on a budget and it’s possible! There is so much power in food, creating our own meals, and budgeting accordingly. I really hope that we can all work towards a future where resources are made accessible to all of us, so we can build healthy and restorative lives that empower us, but until then, may these tips and tricks guide us as we navigate through health aisle.