As much as possible, I strive to eat well-sourced, high-quality, organic food. I've read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma at least three times, as well as a bundle of other food-policy-focused books. I shop primarily at farmers markets, food co-ops, specialty food stores, and my local butcher. And as an animal lover, I care deeply that the animals I consume lived as happy of a life as possible, and were humanely dispatched. (While I don't love the term, I am what most would call a foodie.) I can also guess what you're probably thinking: all of this is well and good, but a bit elitist, no? While there's some nugget of truth to that, to put things in perspective, I am also a 20-something, with a 20-something's budget to match.
So how do I eat this way without going completely broke? Well, for starters, I allocate more of my budget than most towards food; naturally, this means cutting spending less on other things, but I'm OK with that. Yes, I realize everyone's financial situation is different; no, I'm not blithely suggesting that everyone can (or should) follow suit; this is how I live my life, and how I make it work. I also (crucially) employ a handful of shopping strategies that significantly reduce my grocery bill without compromising on quality:
- I eat seasonally: While I'm not 100 percent a stickler with this — sometimes a strawberry craving needs to be satisfied, Winter be damned — most of the time I stick to eating what's in season. Generally, this ensures what I'm eating tastes much better and is less expensive.
- I brown-bag my lunch: Except on the busiest of weeks, I pack my lunch four days out of five (on the fifth, I treat myself to something special). Buying lunch adds up fast, especially in San Francisco, where most options downtown run about $10-15. I love to cook, so this is an easy lifestyle choice to make, as what I prepare is typically at least as tasty as what I can grab near my office. This also leaves more room in my budget for going out to leisurely dinners, where I can truly enjoy my meal and the company I'm with.
- I eat less meat than most Americans: Well-sourced meat is expensive, there's no doubt about that. While I'm not a vegetarian by any means, I eat like a vegetarian at more meals than not. I consume meat or seafood at about four or five meals in a typical week.
- I typically stick with less expensive cuts of meat: While I'll sometimes splurge on wild king salmon, sole, or a New York strip steak, most of the time I purchase more affordable cuts like hangar, skirt, flap, or flank steak; whole chickens, chicken thighs, or wings; mussels; pork shoulder; sausages; and short ribs.
- Beans and other legumes are a staple of my diet: Not only are these relatively-inexpensive sources of protein, but they're also extremely versatile, and some of my favorite foods. I typically buy dried legumes — I'm a bit obsessed with Rancho Gordo — and cook them gently in a slow cooker. I also keep a couple cans of chickpeas and black beans stocked in my pantry to use in a pinch. (This chickpea soup recipe is a bare pantry savior.)
- I'm a big fan of putting an egg on it: When I'm not sure how to turn a pile of grains and vegetables into a well-rounded meal, my answer more often than not is to put an egg on it. (I'm also a big proponent of going the breakfast-for-dinner route, a veggie-packed scramble being my go-to.) Even though I splurge on farmers market eggs, they're still a much more economical source of protein and fat than meat, at less than a dollar an egg.
- I skip most convenience foods: This is as much a matter of taste as it is economy. While I have some guilty pleasures, for sure — I'm not giving up Fudgsicles, Peppermint Patties, Cheez-Its, or Annie's macaroni and cheese any time soon — the bulk of my purchases are whole, minimally-processed foods. This means shopping primarily from the outer perimeter of my supermarket, and also extends to buying whole fruits and vegetables and prepping them myself.
- Bulk bins are my friend: Most of the grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and other pantry staples I purchase come from my market's bulk section. Since I'm not paying for packaging, it's more affordable from the get go; additionally, I only purchase the amount that I need, reducing food waste. To keep things neat and tidy, I store my spoils in pop-top containers and mason jars.
- I shop the farmers market as it's about to close: This has nearly as much to do with enjoying leisurely weekend mornings at home as it has to do with budgeting, but it's a great farmers market shopping tip regardless. At the end of the day, the pickings might be a bit more slim, but many farmers are willing to part with their wares at a discounted price.
- I make good use of my freezer: Food waste is sad on many levels, particularly when you're trying to stick to a budget. I use my freezer to keep foods like nuts and whole-grain flours fresh longer (the oils oxidize much faster at room temperature). And I also freeze everything from leftover bread to homemade stock to overripe bananas. This way I can use them when I'm ready instead of tossing them out.