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Many families today are becoming more concerned with what’s in their food. And they should be. The negative health effects of highly-processed foods, wide-spread usage of antibiotics and pesticides in our food system, and genetically modified ingredients are becoming more understood. So, it’s no wonder that families are trying to eat healthier. That’s a very positive trend. But one of the most common perceived roadblocks to eating healthier for most people seems to be cost. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people lament about the cost of fresh fruits, organic vegetables, or unprocessed whole food.

Can you break the bank on organic, fair-trade groceries? Of course you can. But you don’t have to. And while there’s no shortage of advice out there telling you what healthy foods to eat, there aren’t a lot of folks who can tell you how to do it on a tight budget. So, I’m going to give it a shot. Is this the be-all, end-all of advice on healthy, frugal eating? Hardly. But our family of 5 (soon to be 6) manages to enjoy a healthy, well-fed, vegetarian lifestyle on a VERY tight budget, and I like to think that we’ve learned a few tricks here and there. So, I’ll pass them along to you for what they’re worth. Happy eating!

PICK YOUR STORES WISELY: Understand that when you go into a high-end grocer, you’re paying a premium for the experience. So while it makes sense to go there for the specialty items on your list, you may want to look elsewhere for your staples. I’ve been amazed at the wide range of healthy foods – like almond milk and fresh produce – popping up at “bargain grocers” lately. So shop around; you and your wallet might be very pleasantly surprised.

GO WITH THE SEASONS: In-season produce costs less. A lot less. So even though you might enjoy strawberries in the middle of winter? Enjoy them during the summer when they’ll cost half the winter price.

GO LOCAL: If you’re fortunate enough to have a local farmer’s market (and there are more and more of them popping up across the country), than take advantage of it! Your produce will be much fresher, locally grown, often organic, and much cheaper. Plus, the market is a great experience with all the sounds, colors, smells, and getting to know the people who grow your food. And the same goes for meat.  If you include meat in your diet than go for quality, not quantity. You’ll pay a lot for “free-range, organic” meat at your grocer, but there are likely farms in your area who offer the same products locally for a fraction of the store price. Many of them sell at farmer’s markets, or sell direct to local gourmet restaurants. Ask around and find the local source; they often sell direct to customers.

CHOOSE THE CHEAPER VARIETY: Ever notice that green peppers cost half what red peppers do? They’re both super healthy, and red is (in my humble opinion) a better color, but if you’re on a budget than go with the cheaper variety. Grapes (green -vs.- red) are another common example where one color often costs half what the other does. They’re both packed with healthy nutrients, so choose the cheaper one.

DO IT YOURSELF: Want chocolate chip granola bars for your kid‘s school lunch? Stop buying pre-packaged ones. Go online, find a simple recipe and bake your own. Not only is the cost of ingredients a lot less than buying them pre-packaged, but they won’t be full of preservatives your kids don’t need. You can do the same with bread, yogurt, pizza dough, and the list goes on. Yes, it requires some time management, but it’s very doable. And while not everyone has time for a full-blown garden, there are very simple herbs (like basil) and vegetables (like tomatoes) that you can easily grow yourself in a pot out on the back deck. In fact, putting your kids in charge of a small container garden is a great way to give them some responsibility, while they get to have fun and get dirty in the process!

THINK SIMPLE: Organic food is great if you can afford it, but you don’t have to go organic to eat healthy. Just think simple. Is it simple ingredients or does the side of the package read like a chemistry lesson? Simple food is usually healthier food. Produce? Buy local (or grow your own) when you can, because it’s often organic and often cheaper. Otherwise, just wash it well and don’t sweat it. Well-cleaned, non-organic produce is still a far healthier choice than pre-packaged, highly processed junk food any day of the week.

This is the latest installment (for the week of 5/26/2013) of my weekly syndicated column “THE PARENT ATHLETE” – a Health & Wellness Column for Busy Parents – published in over 20 print and online locations, reaching over 270,000+ readers each week. If you are interested in carrying my column in your own paper or website, please contact me at

Image by gairid1791, Flickr. Used by Permission Under Creative Commons License.

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