Eating the best food for your health doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg. In fact, you'll understand after you read this article why I think the better you go for your health, the cheaper it gets.
The good news is that with some commitment and preparation, your food bill can be lower than your average food bill on a regular Western diet. This article is written with a poor college student in mind so it won't be about variety and fancy flavors, but no concession was made in terms of food quality.
In fact, I have to admit that I don't follow all these tips myself and that my food cost is higher. I allow myself pricier options to please my palate. Even if you end up spending more on food, which is likely to happen anyway, you're still making the best investment possible for your health and the health of your family. You'll save on medical costs, drugs, supplements and you'll enjoy vibrant energy and a long, disease-free life. I'd rather put my money in that than on clothes, shelter or a car any time of the day. What about you?
Some of the Paleo savings tips presented here will ask you to be more involved in your kitchen for preparation. I think that this is actually a good thing.
Spending some time in the kitchen playing with food can be quite therapeutic. It gives you a way to disconnect with your otherwise busy life and to turn off your brain, play with food and flavors, listen to your favorite music, sing and anticipate the taste and satisfaction you'll have from your creations. If your skills in the kitchen are less then optimal and it's stressful for you, know that it can only get easier with time and practice. Don't be scared to follow your instincts and creativity and never feel forced to follow a recipe too strictly. The best cooks only follow recipes as general guidelines.
Don't despair if you're short on time or simply hate cooking because some of the money saving tips presented here will also allow you to actually spend less time in the kitchen.
I also wanted to add that these tips have nothing to do with factory farmed animals because I believe free-range, pasture-raised and grass-fed should be a first priority and can often be sourced for less than you'd imagine.
Now without further ado, here are my tips to live the healthy Paleo lifestyle without breaking your wallet.
Buy in bulk
For a lot of items, you can save a lot by buying in bulk. One of them is olive oil. Buy those big 1 gallon or more instead of the smaller fancy glass bottles. As an extra, it has less chance of being oxidized because it's not exposed to sunlight. I recommend you keep the gallon in the refrigerator and pour a smaller quantity in a jar you'll keep handy so this way the bulk of your olive oil stays fresh longer.
The other area where you can save big bucks, and this is probably the most significant savings you can make, is buying your meat in bulk direct from the farmer. You'll literally pay pennies on the dollar for your investment and you'll get the best meat money can buy. What you want to do is buy a half or quarter of either beef, lamb, pork, bison or any other animal that might be available at one of your local farmers. You'll need a chest freezer big enough for the meat, but I'm sure you can find a used one for very cheap. When buying meat in bulk like that, you'll often have portions of all the cuts available so you can vary your meals and use different cooking methods. You'll have to learn how to cook those cuts, but the resulting dishes will be very rewarding.
When you buy your meat like that you can often visit the farm and see the animals so you know for sure that they are well-treated, have free access to pasture and eat grass.
I highly recommend you buy your meat in bulk if you want to save and have access to the best meat, but I'll also show you tricks if you can’t.
Choose cheap cuts and buy bone-in
Most people choose tender cuts that they can cook and eat right away. This is why the tender cuts are more expensive. Choose cuts like the shoulder, hocks or shanks that are much cheaper and slow cook them in a liquid for a delicious and easy to prepare meal. It takes longer to cook, but no more investment on your part. After cooking those cuts of meat you also have a delicious free stock for soups, stews and sauces.
If you always chose your meat bone-in, you'll have a steady flow of bones to make stocks all the time. Same thing for chicken. Whole chickens end up being much cheaper, are easy to roast and will leave you bones for a wonderful stock. I much prefer roasting a whole chicken and munching on it than cooking individual parts.
Having stock as the basis of most of your meals won't just cut your bill, it's also very healthy. Stocks are full of nutrients that we only find in good quantity in bones. In fact, eating only muscle meat is not optimal and one should always try to have bone broths and organs incorporated in their diet regularly.
Some of the extremely healthy traditional communities studied by Weston A. Price always drank broths instead of water. It's no wonder they have strong bones!
Another good replacement for tender cuts is ground meat. A lot of people think they have to buy those fancy schmancy cuts, but ground beef is cheap and perfectly fine when it comes from a healthy pasture-raised and grass-fed animal. Don't be scared to go with the fatty kind either. Use it to make delicious meat balls, Paleo spaghetti with spaghetti squash or Paleo shepherd's pie with pureed cauliflower or turnip instead of potatoes.
So next time you shop at your butcher's, choose tough, bone-in cuts, whole chickens and ground beef instead of tender cuts, steaks and roasts.
Eat organs regularly
Organ meats like liver, kidneys, heart or brain are not only very cheap, but are also a nutrition powerhouse. They should be part of a healthy Paleo diet and traditional cultures always preferred them over muscle meat, showing that they really are the important parts.
It's definitely an acquired taste and not everybody has an easy time learning to love them, but there are plenty of ways to prepare them so they end up being absolutely delicious. Liver pâté is one such example. Who doesn't like liver pâté?
Render your own tallow or lard
Paleo should really be high fat, moderate protein and low to moderate carbs so if you can save on the fat portion, it'll make a good difference. It turns out I was able to make significant savings with fat. Butter and coconut oil are all fine and tasty, but not very cheap, especially when having huge quantities. If you change your main fat source from butter and coconut oil to tallow and lard, you'll save so much money you won't believe it.
You'll have to do a little more work though to render it. Your butcher or local farmer will sell you a hard white piece of fat with all the connective tissues. Back home, cut out any remaining meat or blood vessel and cut out the piece of fat very finely (you can use a food processor). Put those pieces in a pot or crock-pot on low heat and let the pure fat get extracted for a couple of hours. You then remove the small browned hard parts to get the pure rendered beef tallow or pork lard. It will harden at room temperature and can be used everywhere. Don't be scared to cook with it, it's highly saturated and won't burn, even at high temperature.
Just to give you an example of the kind of savings possible, a local farmer recently sold me a piece of pasture-raised heritage pork fat for $2 that lasted me about 2 weeks once rendered into lard. That's a dollar a week for my main macronutrient intake, fat. If coming from a well-treated and well-fed animal, those fats will also contain plenty of fat-soluble vitamins.
Buy whole or canned wild fish
With this tip, you'll never have to buy farmed fish. I find that Alaskan wild canned salmon is very affordable while being the best source of salmon possible. Compared to that, fresh wild salmon will cost you your bank account. Canned sardines are also very affordable.
Those canned products are also often on sale so make sure to buy a huge quantity when they are.
Another great technique with fish is to buy it whole from your fishmonger. It's really not that hard to prepare whole fish, it will taste fabulous, thanks to the skin and bones and it's cheaper. As an added bonus, the nutrient value is much higher when you eat the skin and when the fish cooks with its bones. Whole fishes tend to be fresher and have less exposure to bacteria. You can at least get a better idea of their freshness by the way they look, which you can't with fillets. Even if you buy whole fish, your fishmonger will still gut it, remove the gills and scale it so you save all this work and only need to cook it. Make sure the fish you buy is wild caught and don't be scared to try new things.
Fresh mussels can also often be bought for a very reasonable price and are delicious.
Buy in season from your farmer's market
When you buy fruits and vegetables in season and locally either directly from the farm or from your farmer's market, you'll often get amazingly low prices and very fresh and natural produce. Focus on the vegetables and fruits of the hour. At specific times of the year, farmers get a surge of some fruits and veggies and have to sell them fast or else they will be lost.
When in season, local lettuce and cucumbers, for example, are very, very cheap. At that time, I buy lots of them and make lots of salads and lacto-fermented cucumbers.
If you get to know your farmers a little bit, if you buy a lot from them or if you go near the end of the day, you'll often be able to bargain a special price. This is especially true at the end of the day when everything unsold would go to waste. Don't miss that chance.
Buy frozen fruits and vegetables
When you have no option other than buying your produce at the grocery store, frozen produce is a good choice. It's cheaper, it's often on sale and can often be much fresher since it was frozen shortly after it was picked. The other added bonus is that it's likely that they were picked ripe instead of unripe, which makes for a more nutritious produce.
Where I live, frozen berries are the only way to get them all year round at a reasonable price and quality. I can even get wild blueberries that where picked right here in Quebec.
Participate in farm shares and CSA programs
This way of encouraging local farmers and getting fresh produce has become very popular over the last few years. The way it works is that you buy a share of the farm's production before the season starts and you then get a steady flow of very fresh, seasonal and natural produce as the farming season progresses. This is either delivered in a box right at your door or at a nearby pick-up location. This is a very good way to get close to the farm and to get fresh, local and seasonal produce for a fraction of the regular price. Like with buying your meat in bulk, you pay a higher fee up-front, but save a lot down the road. If you do both, you'll end up with almost zero weekly expenses once the initial investment is made.
Grow and pick your own produce
Growing your own small garden can be a very therapeutic and rewarding experience. You get to spend time outdoors, exercise, get fresh air and sunshine and get really close to the earth all at the same time. You'll also learn a lot about food by growing it yourself. Some vegetables are so easy to grow that you won't even have to think about them.
If you don't have access to a yard where you can start a small garden, your county might offer a community program where you can get a small piece of soil to grow your own vegetables.
If those two options are off limits for you, something you can almost always do is grow your own fresh herbs indoors. Some of them are really easy to grow given some sunlight and will be a perfect addition to make your meals taste fantastic. Growing your own herbs can also be a great experience for kids. It's very enjoyable for them to see a plant grow from the fruit of their labor and they learn skills that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Another thing you should consider doing is pick your own fruits when in season. Where I live, there are specific times of the year where I can go in fields and pick fresh berries or go pick apples directly off the tree for very cheap. You can of course enjoy them right away, but you can also preserve and freeze them, which leads to my next tip.
Preserve, ferment and freeze
When we get cheap access to produce, our instinct is to eat more of it during that time, but preserving and freezing are great ways to benefit all year long from the delicious fruits and vegetables.
Berries, for example, are easy to freeze and enjoy at any time. Another example is when you get so much tomatoes that you don't know what to do with them. I recommend you make huge batches of Paleo spaghetti sauce and freeze it. This way, every time you need a quick meal fix, you only have to get a jar of sauce out of the freezer.
Pesto, when fresh basil is plentiful, is also very easy to prepare, freeze and enjoy later.
Another great way to preserve produce is to ferment it. It's a process called lacto-fermentation and almost any fruit or vegetable can be fermented that way. The most well-known version is fermented cabbage, or sauerkraut. Cabbage is also very cheap, by the way.
Lacto-fermentation is not only a great way to preserve produce for a longer time, it produces natural lactic acid producing bacteria that is really good for your gut health and should be part of all healthy diets. Lacto-fermented vegetables are a staple in my diet and I try to have some at every meal. Once you get the trick, you'll see it's not very hard to prepare. Traditional cultures studied by Weston A. Price all ate fermented staples which contributed greatly to their good health.
Make your own dressings
A lot of people on the Paleo diet will stop buying commercial dressings because of the bad polyunsaturated fats, sugar, artificial ingredients, and preservatives used to make them. Another good reason to stop buying the commercial stuff is to save big dollars. All it takes is olive oil or some other good oil, an acidic like lemon juice, apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar and your favorite blend of herbs and spices. About 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, whisk, taste, adjust, enjoy! Much better and much cheaper.
Bacon 'n eggs
The famous bacon and eggs is a great way to start the day and both bacon and eggs can be bought for relatively cheap, even the good kind. If you buy your eggs direct from the farmer you could save even more, and remember that even at $5 a dozen you can still make 4 meals out of them if you eat three per meal.
Hunting and fishing
I won't go too deep into this subject because I understand it's out of reach for many people, but hunting and fishing for your own food is about the most Paleo you can really get. Other then the equipment you'll need, the food is free and Mother Nature approved (better than organic). You participate in the normal circle of life and you spend some precious time outdoors in nature. What's more rewarding than grilling fish you caught yourself for your whole family?
You saw in this article that with some basic commitment and preparation, you'll be able to have great food for a very low price.
The staples in my diet are lard, stocks (in soups and stews), slow cooked cheap cuts of meat, organ meat, salads and lacto-fermented vegetables. Those items can all be obtained for very cheap and are the basis for a very balanced and nutritive diet.
So to those who still say a Paleo diet is only for the more fortunate, I say that a Paleo diet is only for those committed to their health and longevity and who are willing to spare some time and creativity when their budget is low.