Real Food On a Budget – Coupons Can’t Help!

Basket of fruit and vegetablesEating real food can be a problem for your budget.  Because the federal government heavily subsidizes large conventional agriculture, it’s hard for small sustainable farmers to compete in price.  Although the good healthy food is worth the price, it can be a hit to the budget.  There are many web sites and newspapers offering coupons that say they can save you money on your food.  But can they save on real food?

My gut feeling was that coupons were mostly for highly processed junk food, but, just to be sure, I used today’s Sunday newspaper (Houston Chronicle) coupon inserts to find out.  There were two booklets of coupons, a total of approximately 180 coupons, not counting mail-in offers.   After eliminating the ones for non-food, supplements, pet food, medicines, and restaurants, there were about 65 coupons left.

Well, I was right, we can’t save much on real food; only 5% of the 65 food coupons (3) were for real food.  9% of the food coupons were for foods that had at least some nutritious ingredients and fewer bad ones.  But wow! You could really save on the junk.  86% of the food coupons were for low nutrition, junk-type foods you should rarely, if ever, eat.

Here’s how I grouped the food coupons.

Mostly good food

  • canned tuna
  • natural deli meat (no nitrates or nitrites), but even these have some added sugar
  • $1.00 off on beef if a jar of pasta sauce is bought

Foods with some nutritional value (none are for organic foods): these I gave the benefit of the doubt since I couldn’t actually read the labels.

  • green and herbal tea
  • orange juice (it would be better to eat the whole orange)
  • frozen sausage crumbles (probably includes additives that are not real, but I’m assuming there’s some meat in it)
  • frozen fruits and vegetables; those with sauces should probably be avoided
  • frozen meatballs (I really hesitated about this one, most commercial meatballs/meatloaves have a lot of additives that we shouldn’t eat)
  • jarred tomato/spaghetti sauce (not so good if served with white flour pasta or if it contains added sugar, which most do)

Junk food

  • all foods with sugar added (white sugar is highly processed and has no significant nutritional value)
  • all foods that are highly processed, such as canned soups, frozen entrees, anything with sauces
  • all foods that have been fried (almost all commercial foods are fried in highly refined/processed oil that is unhealthy)
  • all foods that include white, refined flour or white rice (these are highly processed and have limited nutritional value)
  • all foods labeled “low fat,” “diet,” or “high fiber” (all of these are highly processed to remove some natural part of the food or to add some unnatural ingredient to the food)
  • all foods that probably contain soy oil, such as commercial salad dressings and mayonnaises

If coupons can’t help, how do we save money?  Here are some ways I try to save on my food budget:

  • Buy in bulk: if you can afford to buy a side or quarter of grassfed beef, you will save a lot on the per pound cost
  • Buy vegetables and fruits at farmers’ markets from local farmers
  • Eat eggs, the most nutritious are from locally raised, pastured chickens. The per serving (2-3) cost of pastured chicken eggs is very reasonable, even at $4 or $5 a dozen.
  • Cook soups, stews, chilis, homemade meatloaf
  • Spend food money on highly nutritious food–grassfed meats, eggs, local organic vegetables and fruits, local unprocessed dairy. I don’t spend money on such low nutrition foods as boxed/packaged cold cereals, soft drinks, packaged/bottled juices, and any foods marketed as “snack.”

Here are just a few additional suggestions from the Nourishing Traditions cookbook by Sally Fallon:

  • Don’t buy high price per ounce boxed/packaged breakfast cereals; cook your own cereals from whole, soaked grains. The processed cereals are “poor in nutrients and difficult to digest.”
  • Make your own salad dressing with good oils, fresh ingredients, and NO additives. This is cheaper, healthier, and, best of all, tastes better.
  • Use less expensive vegetables; many are very nourishing. These include potatoes, cabbage, carrots, zucchini, onions, and greens.

Nourishing Traditions is a great cookbook and nutrition resource. It has many more food budget and time saving preparation suggestions, as well as recipes for preparing foods in the most nutritious way.

Update February 17, 2014:  A Phylly.com reporter reviews a study that agrees with this post. “Most Supermarket Coupons Promote Junk Food, Sugary Drinks: Study.” This study, published in Preventing Chronic Disease, was much more extensive than mine, but came to the same conclusion.  They looked at more than 1,000 online coupons offered by 6 major food chains and found:

Processed snack foods, such as chips, crackers and desserts, made up the largest slice of the coupon pie (25 percent). Meanwhile, 14 percent of coupons were for frozen dinners and other prepared meals; 12 percent were for beverages (half of which were for sugary juices and drinks); 11 percent were for cereals; 10 percent were for condiments, such as salad dressing and mayonnaise; and 8 percent plied customers with discounts on processed meats, such as hot dogs and bacon.

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3 Responses to Real Food On a Budget – Coupons Can’t Help!

  1. Valerie says:

    I’ve been working towards more whole foods and less processed junk for a while at my house. Unfortunately, I have not found the very common advice “buy at the Farmer’s Market” to help the budget at all. Most of the time, in fact, I find that the prices are higher – sometimes 2 or 3 times higher – than at my local Whole Foods market. For instance, I purchased a bunch of organic green onions at the farmer’s market one day for $2.50, and a pound of cremini mushrooms for $6 / pound. The same day, I went to Whole Foods and saw an organic bunch of green onions for only $1.25, and the same cremini mushrooms, from the same vendor, even, for only $2.99 / pound.

    So I’ve become very suspicious of farmer’s markets. I think there are *some* bargains to be found there, but you have to watch carefully and know what things cost at the store. The farmer’s market vendors know that everybody online is telling people to shop there for better prices, but without anything to compare against right there, we’re getting taken. It’s unfortunate, but true.

    I actually don’t even mind paying a *little* extra for fresher, local produce at the farmer’s market – but 2 or 3 times more is more than my budget can handle.

    • Carolyn says:

      Hi Valerie,

      You’re going in the right direction by eating whole foods and avoiding processed junk, but I understand that eating real food can cost more. Unfortunately, as you have learned, farmers’ markets, and their vendors, aren’t all the same. Some farmers’ markets have vendors that just buy for resale–like the mushrooms, at a higher price. However, the good ones have farmers selling what they grow themselves–those are the best bargains, both for price and for health since usually the produce has just been picked. I’ve found that prices from vendors selling their own local produce are fairly close to what you would pay for organic food in the grocery store. Also, the local produce should be fresher and healthier. You will need to talk to the farmer/vendor about his farm–where he lives, how he treats his land (organic practices, etc.). Is he really local, where did he get his food, does he welcome visitors? I would guess that the mushrooms you bought are not local (rarely does locally grown produce even have a brand name). If they’re not local, you’re not getting true, local farmers’ pricing. If the ones in the store are the same brand and organic, just buy the less expensive ones at the store. Buy truly local produce at the farmers’ market. You will need to be careful even at Whole Foods, not all of their produce is organic, which may be one reason it is cheaper.

      You may have seen my post about my favorite farmers market–Love That Farmers Market Produce! It’s my kind of farmers market, and the prices are usually very reasonable.

      Carolyn

  2. Aaron K says:

    Valerie,
    I suggest bringing a sales price listing from a local Co-Op found in the paper, or print one out to bring with you to the farmers market! also, making an excel spreadsheet and keeping track of how much you spend on common goods will give you enough info to feel more confident in the prices found at the farmers market.

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