6 Ways to Eat Well on A Budget

Eating Healthy on the AmeriCorps Budget

- Brittany Merriman

For many members new to the AmeriCorps lifestyle, one of the hardest aspects of the program can be the budget. Interviewees and incoming members often reveal their trepidation by asking me variations on the question, "Yeah but...what do we eat?".

Budget living and environmentalism truly go hand-in-hand. This is an important aspect to many of our members, who come to us looking to spend a year serving in the great outdoors. One way to be more environmentally conscious? Eat cheaply. Yeah, for real. 

Living near the poverty line is one of the staples of the AmeriCorps life: we want you to spend a year experiencing the hardships that many members of our society must face every day. However, we do want you to eat (really), and we want you to eat in a way that promotes good health for you and the environment. For Members, as well as anyone wanting or needing to live frugally, the following 6 tips and tricks can help you on your budget-friendly, pro-Earth journey:

 
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1) Eat In Season

Getting certain ingredients like avocados might be good for your health overall - but when you buy them out of season you not only are spending more money for the product, but you're also probably not getting that great of a product in the first place. Getting food out of season means shipping food in from somewhere else - and that often means shortages and high prices.

 We've all been there, standing in the produce section trying desperately to find a ripe avocado for your potluck guac and failing. Different fruits and vegetables have different growing seasons - and to make matters more complicated, different varieties of the same product can have different seasonality (Remember that avocado? Most varieties grow in the fall and early winter, but Hass avocados grow year-round. Yup. Confusing.). 

To save time and brain-space, start with your favorites and go from there: citrus fruits in the winter, berries in the summer. Gourds and apples in the fall, leafy greens in the spring. 

PRO TIP: Seasonal produce will save you money. To save even more, visit your local farmers market. Don't be afraid to ask for a discount on "ugly" or wilting produce, and then make sure to use that produce quickly. My local farmers market even has a section in the fridge for "unpretty produce" that is already heavily discounted -it still tastes the same! Plus, in Kansas and Missouri, farmers markets can double your food stamps when you ask. Oh yeah, that's serious saving. 

2) Eat Locally

Look, when you're traveling the country on this disaster or that one, you should take advantage of the local cuisine. Absolutely! Where are you going to get better Gulf Oysters than...well, in the Gulf? There won't be cheaper seafood than the stuff you find along the coast, and I know from experience: corn is much better in Missouri than it is in the mountains (much cheaper, too). Eating like a local can give you all sorts of new flavor experiences, as well. Flathead cherries and huckleberries are beloved favorites in Butte, Montana but you will be hard pressed to find them elsewhere. Missourians love selling home-grown black walnuts and pecans in the autumn, and why wouldn't you eat oranges in Florida? 

The less distance your food has to travel to get to your plate - the less that food will cost you, and the less of an impact that food will have on the environment. Plus, everyone loves giving back to local growers and the economy!

PRO TIP: Roadside stands are your friends, and you often get to meet the people who grew and picked your food. How cool is that?

3) Avoid Canned Food

This isn't the most popular tip among food bloggers and the like. We'll go ahead and say it for you though: canned food is deceptively cheap, but it could be doing horrible things to your innards. Studies suggest that even the high-end brands have unacceptable levels of BPA leaching into your food. Ick. Why not just avoid that mess? 

Most people buy canned food for convenience reasons, or because they think it is cheaper to do so. In reality it's cheaper to make the food yourself. Take canned beans, for example. One can of black beans is about $1. Seems cheap, right? Well you could instead get a bag of dried beans for about $1 a lb. Yeah that's actually much cheaper, as a lb of dried beans is about 6 lbs cooked. 

I can hear you griping now: But Brittany, I don't want to cook them and soak them, and that all just sucks. Ok look, soaking beans isn't that big of a hassle. Pro Tip? Soak them overnight or (gasp) put them in water before you leave for project in the morning  - when you get back - cookable beans (they take about an hour to cook now). 

The bean example is just one of many. What other things can you simply take the time to make on a weekend or with your Team one evening, instead of buying it pre-made? You might be suprised how much fun you have and how much money you save (for ice cream).

4). Buy in Bulk

After my lengthy monologue about beans, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. When you have the money (or the coupons?), buy staples in bulk. You can store them easily, and it's really a gift that keeps on giving. Bring a large bag of rice back to the office pantry, and every team who brings in their own reusable baggie can benefit on Monday. Pasta, rice, beans, root veggies, the possibilities here are endless. 

5) Eat Less Meat

Ok there, I said it. Big surprise that the vegetarian is pro-vegetarian, but c'mon: we all know by now that vegetarianism is better for the planet. It's also quite a bit cheaper. Red meat, especially, is super pricey these days. When compared to the cost of a protein-packed meal of beans and rice, going meat-free is a bit of a no-brainer. 

However I'm not of the belief that everyone needs to entirely forego meat to live frugally or environmentally. In fact, eating mostly meat free or skipping meat a few days of the week will let you save up for that "splurge meal" of T-Bone steaks for Saturday night, and going meat-free one day a week can do wonders for Mother Earth (plus Paul McCartney is doing it, so why not?).

One pro tip: make meat an exception, not the rule. When you do buy meat, get what's on sale. 

6). Scratch-Cook

Ok, ok, I don't want to hear any of this "BUT I'M A LUMBERJACK. WE DON'T COOK, WE DEVOUR MEAT PRODUCT PACKETS EN MASSE". Not that it doesn't sound...lovely, but you're going to run out of money real quick if you decide to only eat prepackaged foodstuffs and red meat (plus it sounds like it'll get old). Put down the bachelor chow.

Learning to make things from scratch is hugely beneficial - besides knowing exactly what's going into your food, knowing a few staple food items is both impressive and practical. Usually it's incredibly easy as well. Take cooking stock as an example - no matter what you're making it from, it's freakishly easy to make. Throw everything into a crock pot, let simmer for 12 hours. Strain and viola, that's one less thing you have to buy, and it will add flair to all your meals ("Oh yes, I made this soup from scratch, including the stock. It was no big deal"). 

Even something as simple as learning to make pasta sauce instead of buying the stuff from a can will save you money, and once you start perfecting your recipe maybe it will start being a source of pride for you. 

 

There you have it! 6 easy, no fuss ways to start traveling down to road of healthy and planet-friendly, even while being hopelessly poor. Make the most of your year, and take this bonus tip: Utilize the skill sets of you new friends, and re-discover cooking as a social activity. It will make those dollars stretch far enough that you can convince your team to splurge on those Oreo's you've been eyeing up.