How To Eat Sustainable Clean Food On A Budget

Healthy. Local. Seasonal. Organic. Our best tips on buying sustainable food for less.

1. Drastically reduce the amount of processed foods you buy

Processed foods can cost five times as much as home made, and often the ingredients are low quality.  Even certified organic processed foods can actually contain more filler, sugar and dubious additives than you ever need to consume. Organic processed foods are not necessarily healthy.

Cut out almost all processed foods and learn to cook from scratch.  Chose whole, unprepared foods and you’ll not only save money, but you’ll cut down on packaging and avoid all the chemicals, fillers, thickeners and sugars.

Make whole, real, unprocessed ingredients the foundation of your diet.

2. Banish junk food from your diet

Give chips, candy, soda and most snack foods the boot.  They are bad for your health and you are paying for worse than empty calories, since junk food has a negative affect on your body. Focus on eating wholesome, satisfying meals and get out of the snack habit.

3. Cook more and eat out less

If you are like most Americans, you eat one in four meals out.  Eating out is expensive, and you have little control over the content or quality of your food.  Most restaurants use factory food ingredients, and a lot of it comes out of cans or is frozen to begin with.  Make eating out an occasional treat.

Click here to read about sustainable restaurants

Learn to cook and if you already know how, expand on your skills.  Make your own bread, pickles or yogurt.  Try your hand at pasta making, or making your own pot stickers from scratch.  It’s fun, you can involve your friends or family, and you’ll be eating higher quality food than most restaurants use for less money.

4. Buy in bulk

Check out the bulk bins for just about all your pantry items, including seeds; nuts; flours; dried fruits; honey; olive oil and even sea salt.  Buying in bulk costs considerably less than branded, packaged goods.

Another way to buy in bulk is buying by the bag: a bag of lemons, a bag of avocados; a bag of potatoes.  When buying fresh foods in bulk, have a strategy to store and use it.

Shop bulk beans, rice and grains

5. Cook two or three multiple portion meals per week

Plan to make a large pot of soup; a stew, a curry; a casserole; a quiche; a shepherd’s pie; risotto.  If you make two or three large one pot meals every week, you can easily enjoy the leftovers and avoid having to cook every single meal.  Cook once and eat multiple times.

6. Prioritize the highest quality meat, eggs and dairy

Unless you want to eat meat, eggs and dairy from animals that have been fed everything from arsenic to sewage sludgenot to mention the abhorrent conditions endured by factory farmed animalsyou need to make eating ethical, humane and traditionally raised animal products an absolute priority.  And in the case of animals, organic is not always the best.

When it comes to animal products, you need to educate yourself beyond the slogans and labels and figure out exactly what is at stake and what factors are most important to you.

7. Eat smaller portions of highest quality meat

Once you know what you are looking for and have found good sources of high quality meat, you’ll notice the cost of these excellent products is considerably higher.  Americans have become accustomed to enjoying meat as the center of their meal.  Start thinking about meat as a side dish or a flavoring for most of your weekday meals, and enjoy a gorgeous roast or something special for your Sunday dinner.

8. Learn how to cook butcher’s cuts (less expensive cuts of meat)

Talk to your butcher about less expensive cuts, such as beef cheeks and roasts that need a long, slow cook.  The popular cuts like ribeye, top sirloin and New York strip steak are going to be more costly than lesser known cuts or cuts that only become tender and delicious after a long cooking time.

When it comes to poultry, buying a whole bird is cheaper than buying pieces.  You can ask the butcher to cut it up for you, or learn to cut up a bird yourself at home.  Freeze what you don’t need for later use.

Some butchers that cure their own meats will also have such things as ham and bacon ends, which are just as delicious, but irregularly cut…and cheaper.

How about offal?  It’s not for everyone, but organ meats are higher in nutrition than steaks and muscle meats, and they are a lot cheaper.  Try liver, fried with onions and herbs, or made into a pâté.  Gizzards, heart and tripe are delicious in traditional recipes such as menudo.

Learn how to braise less expensive cuts.

9. Learn to cook vegetarian and vegan meals; learn to substitute ingredients

You don’t have to identify as a vegan or vegetarian to benefit greatly from learning to cook meals that are meatless or free from animal products. Learn to cook a few really delicious dishes that are vegetarian or vegan.  Even substituting a couple of vegan meals per week can noticeably lighten your food budget.

Learning to substitute foods, such as home made coconut milk instead of dairy, can save you lots of money without leaving you feeling that you’re giving up something.   In fact, you may end up liking it just as much or better.  Plus, you will be including more variety in your diet.

Another benefit of learning to substitute high quality non-animal products is convenience.  There will be times when you may not be able to afford or even find certain animal products that meet your new higher standards.  If you are flexible enough to cook and enjoy your favorite dishes with a substitute ingredient, you won’t be as tempted to use low quality animal products when you can’t find or afford better.

Delicious everyday vegetarian recipes.

10. Grow your own food

What do you think about (almost) free food?  Growing your own food, especially if you grow from open pollinated seeds, and then save your seeds at the end of the season, is like getting your food for free.  Plus, you have control over how that food is grown and can eat it at peak ripeness.

Even if you have limited space, you can grow your own herbs (a huge money saver).  With a little more space, try lettuce, kale, spinach, strawberries.  A dwarf lemon tree will pay you back many times over.

And don’t forget sprouting and micro greens, which are very nutritious, inexpensive and require no outdoor space at all.  Anyone can grow food.

Read more articles on how to grow your own food.

11. Start or join a community food exchange

Imagine what it would be like if everyone within walking distance of your house grew food in their yards instead of lawns, and got together once a week to share their harvest with the neighborhood…for free.  Sound like a great idea? It is.

Check to see if your community has a free food exchange. If not, why not start one?  You can read about one such food exchange here.

12. Eat foods in season

Buying food that is in season is healthier and less expensive.  Many people are no longer in touch with what seasonal food is, which is why shopping at farmers markets, joining a CSA or growing your own food is a great way to go: the only food available is, by default, seasonal. Seasonal food is often less expensive. When you find great deals on foods in season, take advantage of it by buying more than you need and preserving it for later.

13. Use everything

Chicken and meat bones and vegetable end cuts become broth; cheese rinds are frozen to enrich soups; leftover bread ends are dried and used for breading.  There is very little that needs to go into the trash, and traditional cuisines give a second and third life to just about everything.

14. Join a CSA, local food co-op and shop at farmers markets

Learn more about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes.  There are even CSAs for sustainable, pasture raised meat.

Resources to find a CSA near you


ACORN Canada
British Columbia CSA
CSA Ontario Directory
Equiterre Quebec CSA


EcoDirectory Australia
Food Connect Australia


Farm Locator Rodale Institute
Local and Regional Food Systems
Local Harvest


Soil Association CSA UK

Find a farmers market near you.

15. Learn food preservation techniques

Canning, fermenting, pickling, and dehydrating will help you buy large quantities of fresh, local food at the peak of the season, when it’s cheapest.  Take full advantage of bumper crops and fill your pantry and freezer.

Learn how to preserve food.

16. Make your meal plan for the week and stick to your grocery list when shopping

Unless you see an incredible sale on something you really need or can stock up on in your pantry, just say no to impulse buys.  If it’s not part of your plan for the week, it may end up going to waste.  Or worse, you may have fallen prey to temptation by some slick marketing.

17. When organic or high quality non-perishable pantry staples go on sale, stock up

If you see pantry items that you use regularly go on sale, stock up. But do make sure the discount is significant enough to warrant it.  To do this, you’ll need to have a good idea of what the price normally is, and what your other options are.

18. Invest in some kitchen appliances that make DIY easy

Some people will tell you that kitchen gadgets are not essential, but there are certain appliances and tools that will greatly aid you in making just about everything from scratch, and thus, saving lots of money.  Some of them are inexpensive and some are a real investment: all of them will pay you back many times over.

Food Saver
Food Processor
Slow Cooker

19. Have strategies to avoid wasting food

Learn how to cook or assemble dishes that can use up leftovers, such as soups, salads, stir fry, tacos, casseroles, stuffed potatoes, pasta and crepes or wraps, enchiladas.

20. Learn to cook simply

Many recipes have more ingredients than they really need. When you feature a few high quality, fresh ingredients, you don’t need to add much more. Learn to make delicious foods without using lots of high cost specialty ingredients. Eat simply on a day to day basis, and save your feast food for the weekend.

Many of us would benefit from retraining our palates to enjoy simple, clean flavors.  Especially in the US, there is the cultural bias towards adding everything all at once: bacon, truffles, cheese, butter, etc.  We may need to overcome a lifetime of overstimulation.

Deconstruct some of your recipes and start taking out ingredients that don’t really need to be in there.  Learn a few delicious, simple food combinations, like a salad of fresh summer tomatoes and basil.

Cut the salt, sugar and store bought marinades and sauces.  Become familiar with fresh herbs, which work like magic to highlight simple, high quality ingredients. Fresh herbs can be expensive though, so grow them yourself.  Excellent sea salt, lemon and a drizzle of highest quality olive oil will dress up just about anything.

Simple recipes

21. Eat less while prioritizing nutrition

It’s a modern paradox that most people eat more than they need to and yet don’t get enough nutrition. So how much do you really need to eat?  Most people would benefit from reducing their portion size by a quarter or a third.  If you reduce the volume, frequency and richness of what you eat slowly, over time your stomach will shrink and you’ll feel full without having to eat an overflowing plate of food.

But it’s not just about calories or volume.  After all, the primary point of eating is to nourish our bodies.  Scrutinize your eating habits and prioritize the most nutritious foods rather than eating a lot of empty fillers.

Try to include more raw foods in your diet.  Generally raw food will be more filling than their cooked versions because their fibers stay intact.  Raw foods also generally are higher in nutrition, since heat destroys many volatile nutrients.

On a daily basis, try to eat less, eat slowly, eat mindfully and eat simplyprioritizing high quality nutritious foods. You can live it up on the weekend with comfort or feast foods.

22. Re-evaluate your budget

Eating high quality, humane and chemical-free foods should be one of your highest budgeting priorities.  Americans in particular have become used to spending very little on food, whereas the French, for instance, spend much more on food as a proportion of their income.

If you are feeling like you can’t afford it, take another look at your budget.  If you’ve decided your health and peace of mind are at the top of the list of your priorities, then finding other places to cut back or get creative will become clearer.

23. Visit farmers markets as they are closing

Darren Bender-Beauregard of Brambleberry Permaculture farm suggests making offers to farmers who are about to wrap up and head back to the farm toward the close of the farmers market.  He advises, “Usually farmers love to give a big discount on items that would otherwise spoil instead of taking them home and feeding them to the pigs or compost pile.”

Articles from the Ethical Foods On A Budget series

Ethical food on a budget: CSA

Eating local, organic produce can really strain your budget.  Community Supported Agriculture schemes can help save you time, while providing local, organic and sustainably produced food at a cost you can afford. read more…

Eat organic tomatoes for less

Is growing your own food from seed a cost effective way to eat organic without breaking your budget? read more…

Learn how to get great deals from local farmers on produce that would otherwise go to waste

CropMobster has saved tons of food from being wasted by connecting excess farm produce with people who want it.  Farmers get paid for produce that would otherwise be wasted, while the people who step up to take the food get it for a significantly reduced price. read more…

Save money and increase nutrition by learning how to sprout at home

Sprouting is a great way to add nutrient and protein rich foods to your diet if you are cutting back on meat and animal products. Learn how sprouting can help you enjoy organically grown foods on a budget. Even urbanites with no outdoor space can grow their own crops for next to nothing. read more…

Cooking from scratch: how to make broth

Here are a few hand-picked recipes on how to make broth that will ensure that your freezer is always stocked with the most versatile, healthy kitchen staple to have on hand. read more…

DIY dairy and non-dairy yogurt recipes

Save money, reduce packaging and make sure you are eating the highest quality ingredients by making your own dairy and non-dairy yogurt from scratch. Here are some DIY yogurt recipes and suggestions to get you started. read more…

How to make your own coconut and nut milks

Nut milks are expensive, and if you look at the labels, you’ll find they have other, unwanted ingredients such as flavoring, sugar, preservatives and thickeners. All of this is unnecessary, as is the expensive price. It’s so easy, inexpensive and fast to make nut milk fresh at home. It also tastes worlds better. read more….

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  1. What a well written article. Very informative and useful tips. This is empowering because I have been practicing in this way for several years and know it to be effective. It is so good to hear it from another source so that we can continue to improve our food system largely based of fat, sugar and salt. Something I may add is choose what is on sale in the grocery store first if you are not a picky eater. And build meals around it especially if you have a constancy with bulk staples like rice and beans.(It can save quite a bit and is a different style of shopping) Also shop the produce section first. Go for more than you normally would and let yourself splurge in this section. Then eat out of your fridge at home according to what will spoil first. Experiment with what works for you and learn new ways for a healthier diet.
    Cleanses and fasting every year is another way to make you G.I. system more robust, resilient and receptive to healthier foods. : )

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