Practical Paleo: Eating Clean on a Budget

As most of you know, one of my New Year’s Resolutions was to eat 100% Paleo for the month of January. Unfortunately, on the last day of our family vacation, everyone elected to stop at a burger place on the way home and I was forced to eat a hamburger. With a bun. And cheese. And a milkshake. (okay, not forced, haha!). But I’m still determined to stick with it, and I wanted to do a series on Paleo eating for those of you that are interested and wanting to change the way you eat.

Throughout this month and next month, I hope to write posts about Paleo on a budget (this one), Paleo in social situations, Paleo with kids (by then, I’ll have one. A tiny one, granted, but still…), time-friendly Paleo cooking, and any other Paleo subject that comes to mind. I want to make it as easy and simple as I can for you to transition to eating Paleo for life!

So to start off, I think one of the biggest questions I get about eating Paleo (other than “But… if you can’t eat sugar, can you eat fruit?” Fruit is a food, people. Repeat it with me. Fruit. is. a. food.) is about the money side. People ask whether it’s more expensive to eat Paleo, how they can afford all that healthy food on a budget, and complain that any time they’ve ever tried eating healthier, it’s cost them a whole lot more.

And I understand why. In the world of low-fat, whole-wheat, sugar-free, point-racking, calorie-counting diets, purchasing “health” food usually is more expensive. Your diet requires you to buy granola and low-fat yogurt and whole-wheat pasta and sugar-free creamer and pre-made meals with the right amount of points and only organic vegetables, plus energy bars and snack foods to keep you going, and on top of all of that you add in meats and maybe a few extra cheat foods, and by the time you get to the checkout your cart is full of lots of “health-food” options that can rack up quite the bill.

So when you hear about Paleo, buying organic, getting all those veggies and meats and seeing lists of exotic ingredients in cookbooks or things like coconut oil that seem expensive… of course in your head, you wonder how you could afford yet another diet chock-full of expensive food.

But here’s the thing: I am tired of people using the excuse “I’d eat healthy, but it’s just too expensive.” I hear it all the time. People discuss the way I eat, admire it, and then say “oh, but I just can’t afford to eat that way.” Or people secretly feel guilty they’re not eating well, and use the excuse that purchasing health foods is way more expensive than buying regular food.

And obviously, if you want to live like a college student off of Hot Pockets, Top Ramen, and Hamburger Helper, then yes. It’s more expensive to eat actual, real food than it is to buy the five-for-a-dollar Ramen that will last you an entire week. But if you compare the cost of an average grocery list to a Paleo one, there’s not much of a difference, if any! I still purchase my husband the odd non-Paleo item since he’s not as convinced as I am that Paleo is the way to go, and on average we spend about $80 a week on groceries. Sometimes we go as low as $60, sometimes up to $100. But generally, it’s around $80. According to the Official USDA Food Plans Cost Average, that’s smack between thrifty and low-cost.

So how do you do it? How do you purchase Paleo ingredients without breaking the bank?

Here are my top five tips.

Step One

Most people tend to forget that there’s a lot of food they will no longer purchase on a Paleo diet. But you have to remember: unless you’re the only one in your house going Paleo, you won’t be buying milk, butter, half-and-half, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream, cheese, bread, wheat, pasta, cereal, granola, pancake mixes, syrup, pre-made lunches, prepackaged dinners, frozen sides, boxed foods, chips, jelly, peanut butter, pasta sauce, candy bars (you know they sneak in there), soda, granola bars, canned soups, beans, rice…

You get the picture. Once you free up your grocery list of all the foods you won’t be buying, suddenly, you’ve got money to purchase all those health foods you thought would cost you too much to buy. And if you still want to purchase the random non-Paleo food, put it at the end of your groceries at the checkout. If the rest of your groceries come up to budget, you can always slide the non-Paleo food off and decide not to get it. For your budget and your health. 😉

Step One

This is a big one. Most die-hard Paleo eaters seem to buy everything organic, grass-fed, farm-raised, free-range, cage-free, non-GMO/only-eats-bugs-and-grass/has-no-toxins-that-will-turn-you-into-a-three-headed-monster. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing! Supporting your local farmers is good. Avoiding the possible toxins that can get into your foods through pesticides and whatever it is that farmers do to their cows is probably smart. But the thing is… Paleo eaters tend to also make everyone else feel really guilty that they’re not going organic. You’re destroying the economy if you dare purchase eggs from caged chickens. You’re killing the farm industry if you get those cursed vegetables that didn’t grow in a field that wasn’t crop-dusted. How could you?

So take a deep breath and say it with me: you don’t have to purchase organic to be a good person.

Feel better? Good! Because I have a confession to make: I rarely buy organic unless it’s cheaper. The two reasons I purchase my produce from our local farm stand when they’re open are: 1. their produce tastes better and lasts longer, and 2. it’s usually cheaper than imported vegetables from the grocery stores. That I’m also supporting the local farm life and purchasing organic vegetables is just a nice bonus, and that’s it.

Like I said, it’s not a bad thing to eat all organic and grass fed and whatnot, but it’s not essential. In my opinion, any change you make is a good one. If you’re worried about toxins, buy lean cuts of meat (the toxins in meats is stored in the fat) but make sure to supplement with healthy fats from other sources, memorize this list of the dirty dozen veggies and fruits most affected by pesticides, and purchase those ones organic. Otherwise, don’t worry so much about getting organic if you can’t afford it.

To reiterate, just in case I’ve offended someone (for which I am sorry! I didn’t mean to!), purchasing organic in order to avoid toxins and support local farms is an awesome choice and I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that. If I could afford to purchase only organic, grass fed, cage free, etc… I would. But I do not have an expendable budget, and in the race between buying organic or staying on a budget… budgeting wins.

Step One

The more Paleo cookbooks I purchase, and the more I research Paleo recipes online, the more I’ve noticed something: many Paleo cooks tend to spice up their foods with exotic/expensive ingredients like ground bison, vanilla beans, saffron threads, or palm oil (not expensive, but where the heck do I even find it?) and honestly… while it’s fun to try new foods, there’s no way I can afford to purchase two vanilla bean pods for $15 when a bottle of pure vanilla extract is half the cost and will last me much longer.

So don’t get sidelined by the fact that a recipe you like might call for an ingredient you either can’t find, or can’t afford. Substitute it. When my Paleo recipes call for ground bison or ground lamb, I use ground beef or ground turkey. A recipe called for celery root and none of the grocery stores stock it this time of year, so I got a different root vegetable instead. And you know what? It tasted just fine.

In fact, I have one Paleo cookbook that I love that commonly calls for ingredients I can never find, so I’ve probably substituted the heck out of every single recipe… and they have all been good anyway. Even the most everyday of ingredients can taste entirely new when you start using your imagination and pairing them with different flavors. And so far as I’ve found, when you have a well-stocked spice rack, you don’t really need the exotic stuff.

Step One

Most people like variety in their meals, and I understand that. My husband always claims he could eat the same lunch every day, but when it comes down to it he gets bored of his food pretty quickly, and needs lots of options to keep him eating (and get him to eat enough.) So I do have to be creative. But one of the biggest ways I have found to keep from going over-budget is to plan several meals that use the same ingredients.

Sweet potatoes, for instance, are probably one of the most versatile things I get. I can make them into fries, slice them into chips, bake them, mash them, cube them in stews, shred them for a morning hash, and who knows what else. Ground meats can be made into burgers, taco meat, sausages, spaghetti sauces, or chili, used in salads, or put into omelets. And chicken… do we even need to talk about chicken?

The point is, if you’re purchasing five of the same main ingredients to reinvent for the entire week, it’s going to be a lot cheaper than buying separate and unique ingredients for every single meal you make.

Step One

This one is partly just common sense. Every family has food they will and will not eat, and that’s just fine. So figure out what foods work best for you, and don’t waste your money on the ingredients you find consistently molding in the back of your fridge.

When I first started Paleo with my husband, I was swayed by all the fancy new foods that we generally never ate — the salads we could make, the fruits we had rarely bought before, the vegetables we rarely tried — but here’s the thing: I am not a salad person, and I generally only tend to eat fruits that are easy to prepare and not very messy. So my lettuce was constantly going bad, my squashes started turning soft (even though I love squash), the grapefruit (although we love it dearly) was constantly getting all dried out.

Whether because of the effort we didn’t want to take, or flavors that we knew were good for us but we just didn’t really want, for a few weeks there were foods I was always throwing out.

So, figure out the foods that are staples to your everyday meals (we eat lots of sweet potatoes, spaghetti squash, and ground meats), and stick to them. Your family (and your budget) will thank you.

Step One

Before I wrap this up, there are a few things you should know as you get started in this new lifestyle.

First, your initial grocery-shopping trip to stock your kitchen with Paleo goods will probably be more expensive than you expect. You’ll need to re-stock your newly bare-of-bad-foods pantry with the basic supplies, and you’ll probably be purchasing quite a few goods that you didn’t have before. Things like coconut oil, light-tasting olive oil (if you plan to make homemade mayo), spices, and canned goods (olives, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, pineapple, etc) will last in your pantry, but you’re going to have to get them sooner rather than later if you don’t want to be constantly running back to the store for more stuff you didn’t realize you needed.

Second, it might take a few weeks to figure out the balance of foods you use all the time, foods you only need for specific recipes, and foods you never eat. So you might find yourself overspending purely because you don’t yet know what is useful and what isn’t.

Third, you will not need snacks as much as you think you will, so don’t waste your money on a ton of Paleo-ified snack foods! If you are eating a properly proportioned meal three times a day — which I’ll cover in another post –, you will probably find that you’re not hungry between meals. When I’m eating the right amount of protein, fat, and veggies with my meals, I rarely need or even crave snacks between meals, whereas before I was constantly needing to refill my tank because my body wasn’t getting the right amount of nutrients, and the things I was eating just made me crave more food.

And fourth, you will definitely need to acquire the knowledge of which grocery store or farm stand has the best prices, if you don’t know that already. It’s immensely helpful to know who has what for the best price (or even just who has what ingredients, since some stores stock things that others don’t) when you’re working with a tight budget. So get familiar with your local stores and farm stands as soon as you can!

Any questions? Any tips to add? Please pipe in! And if you’re not sure what Paleo is, you can check out my previous posts What is Paleo? or The Whole30: What to Read, How to Cook, and What to Keep in your Kitchen, or reference for lots of great information!


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  • Nancy Francis

    Awesome! I actually started the whole 30 last week and its going well so far 🙂 To be honest, I’m only doing Whole 23 (I have a big even on Jan 25) and while I know the Whole30 thing repeatedly states that you either do all 30 days or don’t bother – I’m still convinced that 23 days is better than nothing!

    I made spaghetti squash pad thai the other night and it was phenomenal! So far the priciest stuff for me has been meat – I live in Toronto (3 million people) so access to Farmer’ markets especially in the winter isn’t great – and trying to eat grass fed can definitely be expensive. Some of the paleo stuff like Coconut aminos isn’t cheap either, but I made sure there were a ton of recipes I wanted to try before I bought it!

    Looking forward to this series AND to seeing little Asa 🙂

    • Eccentric Owl

      I think any change is a good one, too! And really, once you’ve done 23 days, you’ll probably find it a lot easier to go back to better habits after your big event, so it’s worth it!

      Yeah, meat is my most expensive menu item, too. All of our farmers markets are closed right now, but they usually are more expensive than grocery stores where meat is concerned. Weirdly. That’s why I go for ground meat (I can make easier and more meals out of it) and Costco bags of chicken! And bacon. I don’t think bacon is Whole30 approved, but we can’t live without bacon. Haha!

  • Sarah Bluett

    I am so glad you posted this, I have recently changed my diet/lifestyle to be paleo to see if I can fix some health issues I am having. I know that you are a paleo lady and was going to message you for starting off advice. I am looking forward to the rest of the posts.. Thanks Kristina!
    Sarah xx

    • Eccentric Owl

      Oh, I hope it helps you, too! I know it helped me feel tremendously better and avoid all the “normal” uncomfortable pregnancy symptoms like heartburn and swelling and headaches and sleeplessness and all that fun stuff. It’s also helped my mom keep her blood sugar from rising to diabetic levels, which is awesome!

      • Sarah Bluett

        That is so good that it helped the pregnancy symptoms, and your Mom. I have been doing research into paleo and Endometriosis, and people seem to have been having great relief with it, so I am using that to help me not miss my Coke Zero : ) I think the soda and then cheese and crackers will be the hardest, but would love to start a lifestyle that can eliminate pain.
        Good luck for the last wee bit of carrying bebe round, nearly there : )

        • Mom

          I hope it is ok for me to pipe in here, I was addicted to fizzy anything before starting paleo and missed it terribly, but then found kambucha and now I have my fizz and it is tremendously good for you!

          • Sarah Bluett

            Hi Mom : ) that’s such a good idea, I didn’t even think of that! I tried it once from wholefoods and it was yum… Thanks! X

  • Mom

    Thanks, Sweetie! This was so helpful, even though I have been eating Paleo for 8 months now. I do throw out a lot of lettuce and squash. I just kept thinking I would force myself to eat them since they were healthy. Now I can throw them out and not buy them again. I do love veggies, just not salad. Yay! : )

  • mariecarolk

    This is awesome! I love that you found something that works for you and can share it with others so confidently and helpfully 🙂


  • Kristina

    I love that you touched on alternatives. I use alternatives in allot of my cooking. Glad to see I am not the only one 🙂

  • Becca Lee

    These are great tips! I don’t have any plans to go totally paleo, but I am putting in an effort to eat less carbs. I’ve been buying more meat and produce and keep getting all nervous when I get to the check-out stand but have been spending the exact same amount of money! It’s been a nice surprise!

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