It’s a question I’ve asked myself more than once: Am I spending too much money on food?
There’s no sugar-coating it. Eating a “special” diet can definitely be hard on the old wallet. There are times when I’m at the store paying for my load of gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, sugar-free, grain-free, legume-free groceries and think to myself how ridiculous it is that I’m spending what I’m spending on food.
Even though I view food as my medicine and “prescription” for treatment, a part of me still wishes that I could be giving more money away to those who don’t have the luxury of buying specialty food—or food at all. As easy as it is to swipe my card or hand over a few bills to the cashier, guilt still finds me and can sting hard.
But, at this point in my life, I don’t really have another choice. My “special food needs” are what keep my health issues under control. I’m sure plenty of people would think I’m an elite, holier-than-thou food snob if they knew me and my eating habits.
Truthfully, I’m not an eager spender. In fact, in most areas of my life, I’m actually pretty frugal. I don’t have a TV, I don’t buy clothes unless I need them, I never buy a book if I can get it from the library, I rarely eat out, I plan to drive my car until it drops, and I’d just as soon take a hot bath and read a book at home as I would go out to movies or sporting events.
(I’m now the most boring person you know, right?)
Even though I choose to spend a fair amount of money on food, I’m still always looking for ways to trim back my bill. These are the strategies I use to keep my grocery bill down while eating well:
- Get rid of the gluten-free specialty products. No (or very limited) packaged crackers, bars, waffles, bread, etc. Because I don’t eat many grains, this is pretty easy for me. But I’ve noticed that eating this way also eliminates some opportunities for big spending. A small package of sprouted gluten-free crackers runs around $5 at my store. This is a special occasion splurge to me, but not something I’m willing to spend money on every week.
- Make your own snacks. Huge savings! Buying pre-made trail mix, hummus, muffins, fruit and nut bars, and granola will drain your wallet fast. These are easy things to make at home—and YOU control the quality of ingredients, which is always a plus. My favorite snacks are found in the produce department and bulk bins: carrots, celery, pea pods, apples, clementines, almonds, pumpkin seeds, etc. Real food!
- Minimize dried fruit. I used to be a big dried fruit eater. Seriously, I could go through a package of dates or figs in a few days. This seems harmless at first, but the cost adds up. (A bag of dried apricots at my store costs between $4 and $7 depending on the size.) Cutting way back on dried fruit has saved me a lot.
- Say no to stuff on sale that you weren’t planning on buying. This will seem like a weird tip if you’re a bargain hunter. Shouldn’t we stock up on stuff that’s on sale? Not if you weren’t planning on getting it in the first place. We often buy items that we wouldn’t normally buy, just because they’re on sale. Big mistake. If it’s not something that you know with certainty you will use up, don’t buy it.
- Avoid out-of-season produce. I can’t always do this because sometimes I’m testing recipes for future issues of magazines and have to buy unseasonal produce, but for the most part I try to live by this rule. It basically means: Don’t buy asparagus in November or fresh strawberries in January. You’ll pay through the nose and chances are that bunch of asparagus traveled all the way from Peru to get to your cart.
- Opt for less expensive proteins. Chicken thighs are cheaper than chicken breasts. Ground beef is cheaper than ground chicken. Frozen wild-caught salmon is cheaper than fresh halibut. If you can eat eggs, EAT them! Even great quality pastured eggs are less expensive than most meats.
- Cut down on nuts. It’s taking me a while but I’m working on this one. An average jar of almond butter at my store costs $10.99+ (and even more for organic). A pound of non-organic almonds is $8.99. Cashews and pecans are even higher. I love nuts, but they’re not friendly on the grocery budget if you’re eating a lot of them. Since I can’t have grains, eggs, dairy, or legumes right now, I’m okay with shelling out a little more for nuts if I have to, but on a whole I’m working on cutting back.
- Minimize condiments. You can waste a lot of money on jam, salad dressings, savory spreads, marinades, and sauces—most of which are so easy to make at home it’s silly. Invest in good olive oil, apple cider vinegar, mustard, and honey and you’ll be able to make homemade dressing for weeks. (Plus you can use the honey on your toast instead of jam.) My condiment staples are: olive oil, coconut oil, Dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, honey, maple syrup, and dried herbs. All of these things last a long time and have an endless variety of uses.
Food Spending & Guilt
I want to mention one more thing that relates to food spending and guilt. If you’re like me, there’s a good chance that eating a healthy, whole food-based gluten-free diet has you feeling guilty from time to time when it comes to the expense.
I know it can be difficult to spend so much of your hard-earned money on good quality food, especially when there are people out there who shame us into thinking that our food restrictions are “all in our head.” I personally know people who scoff at the idea of spending more money for organic food, and who think the gluten-free movement is a fad.
This makes me sad. (And the whole topic of people judging other people because of their diet is deserving of another post altogether.)
If you’re feeling guilty about your food choices and expenses, try to remember that this good quality food is your MEDICINE. The most powerful drug in the world is what you put on the end of your fork. You have lifelong access to it and it will help heal your body every single day for years to come.
Nothing has helped me overcome my health issues like nutritious food. And even though I still struggle with some health stuff now and then, I know that eating this way is the single most important habit I can keep up for my health in the long run.
Plan your meals, shop smart, and trim back the bill where you can. Be a savvy shopper. But when it comes down to it, don’t feel bad for being a person with “expensive special food needs.”
It’s your life and vitality we’re talking about it. Your body that you have right now is the only one you’ll ever have. It’s the only home your heart, soul, spirit, mind, abilities, gifts, and talents will ever live in.
Treat it well.
I’d love to hear your strategies for trimming back your food bill while still eating well with dietary restrictions. Leave a comment below.