Shopping on a Student Budget
Planning is the key to the challenges of student finances
Carla Gibson, DC student
I was recently invited to speak to the Better Half of Life group on campus about the techniques I use to feed my family (mostly) organic and natural foods on a limited student budget. As an at-home mom on a modest income, I decided early on that organic and natural foods were going to be a priority. Over the years, I found resources and developed habits that helped us feed our family of five, (sometimes six, when we had an exchange student living with us– a teenager no less!) organically for about the same price as other families spent on their conventional foods.
“No one plans to fail, they only fail to plan.” If you keep finding that your grocery budget has been blown by week three, this is probably the case. In my experience, the first principle of eating healthy and economically is planning. If you went into your favorite restaurant and they didn’t hand you a menu, ordering would probably be a frustrating experience and the place wouldn’t last long. Without a menu and a plan, a restaurant couldn’t manage its expenses and provide a quality experience for its guests. Neither can you. Here are some rules to live by, if you’d like to eat healthy and stay within a budget.
Rule #1 – Always start with a (meal) plan, and always shop with a ‘shopping list’
Meal planning can be a challenge, especially when you want to ensure that you’re getting enough variety in your foods, but not buying expensive ingredients you’ll only use once. (Why do I have that plum sauce in my cabinet?) Many online meal-planning services provide weekly menus complete with recipes and a shopping list. Each week you only need to scan your pantry and cross off anything you already have on hand, then go to the store and buy only what is on your list. Just having a list and sticking to it will immediately save you money, since modern grocery stores are scientifically set up to encourage impulse buys and to lure you into purchasing expensive convenience foods.
Since my goal was always whole foods in the most natural state possible, I liked the menus I find on Savingdinner.com, (and also in the book of the same name by Leanne Ely) or on cookingtf.com (the ‘tf’ stands for ‘traditional foods’). Both sites provide recipes that are simple and don’t use ingredients that come from packages. Savingdinner.com has a variety of options from vegetarian menus to menus that avoid certain allergens, which are sized for two, four or six people. The menus are mailed to you on Sunday of each week and include six recipes the shopping list for six main courses, and suggestions for sides and dessert. Cookingtf.com sends a similar plan, with recipes based on the book Traditional Nutrition by Sally Fallon. The author includes reminders to soak the grains or start fermenting carrots that are in the plan for that week. Cookingtf.com’s menus are also gluten- and casein-free. Both sites pay attention to seasonal eating, (Savingdinner.com even has menus tailored for subscribers in Australia!) and rotate the recipes so you don’t get bored. Using a service like this gives you great variety in your meals, but the recipes use similar ingredients. Once you’ve been using the service for several months, you’ll start to notice you are shopping for less because your pantry is stocked. Prices for these menus are minimal and once you’ve subscribed for six months to a year, you can probably reuse them for several years without getting bored.
Rule #2 – Buy direct and buy in bulk, whenever possible
I purchase most of my natural groceries directly from the distributor through a buying club. In a buying club, members pool their time and talents to essentially run a co-operative store that is only open once or twice per month. In my buying club, we worked collectively to order items by the case, meet the truck, sort the order and do the accounting. Buying this way gives you access to special pricing, helps you build a community of people who care about their food, allows you to get your fresh food at its freshest, and saves you money by keeping you out of a store designed to stimulate you into buying things you don’t really need. It also allows you to buy in bulk, which saves on packaging, lowers prices and gives you the opportunity to stock up on pantry items at good prices. UNFI (www.unitedbuyingclubs.com), the country’s largest natural foods distributor, offers buying clubs in the Marietta area, but I was unable to find a working produce co-op. I did find a produce distributor that welcomes buying clubs, so if there is interest on campus, it would be possible to get one started.
Rule #3 – Grow it yourself or buy it locally, freeze it, then cook it slowly
When you find a sale, stock your freezer. The book “Frozen Assets” by Deborah Taylor-Hough is a great resource for learning how to use your freezer, and how to cook your meals ahead and save them for a busy day. If you are a meat-eater, buying local, grass-fed meats in bulk is the most economical way to eat ‘clean’ meat. Vineyard Farms delivers beef and other farm-raised products to LIFE on Fridays. Get details at vineyardfarms.blogspot.com/. One of the best ways for a busy student to come home to a hot meal is to use a crock-pot. Most slow cooker recipes just require you to toss everything in and leave it on low for most of the day. Check out crockpot365.blogspot.com for a ton of great ideas.
Finally, you might want to check out the LIFE ‘support group’ for these challenges. It is the Better Half of Life Club, and it is open to the spouses and significant others of all LIFE students. The purpose of the club is to create friendships and provide support to those whose loved ones are going through any of the grueling and time-consuming programs at Life University. Find us on Facebook!