Eating Clean on a Small Budget

I recently read a couple articles whose titles promised tips for eating clean on a small income, but they then proceeded to suggest buying organic everything. Umm…I don’t know where these authors live, what their other bills are, or really what they’re even considering a small income but in the realistic land of inflated prices where I live, buying all organic is not remotely a possibility for a one-income family like mine. And so I’d like to offer a few real life tips by a healthy eater who is legitimately on a small budget—me!

You may not agree with my thinking or may even want to send the “eat clean police” after me, but I’m doing the best I can on a ~$400/month grocery budget for my family of 3 and a half. I can’t use coupons since they don’t exist for real, God-made food, so I rely on educating myself in nutrition to ensure I’m making the healthiest choices with the money I have. I can’t emphasize enough that I very, very, VERY strongly believe the ultimate goal is to eat fruits, vegetables, meats, full fat dairy, nuts, seeds, and little to NO processed foods. If it’s not organic, good! If it is organic, great!

A conventionally grown apple with pesticides is still an infinitely better choice for your overall health and well-being than a handful of CheezIts. 

12 Affordable Eat Clean Tips

  1. Reduce packaged foods…This is number one because all arguments about GMO and organic aside, it describes everything that eating clean is about, and where I feel most strongly about good nutrition. Pretty much all packaged foods are crap. The absolute worst “foods” you can consume is any chemically-altered junk that says fat-free, low-fat, sugar-free, reduced fat, <latest health buzz word>, etc. This is where GMOs, shady practices, and “food” industry science experiments lurk. Not only will your health thank you, but so will your wallet which will then free up money to spend towards produce or your savings account. I could reduce my grocery bill in this area even further if my son and husband weren’t Goldfish-aholics, but I counterbalance by buying next to nothing in the gluten-free aisle, short of pasta. Aside from parties or a few pregnancy cravings over the past 9 months, I do not keep cookies, muffins, bagels, soda, or chips in our house—gluten-free or not—so it’s where we save a lot. I buy rye bread for my family every 1-2 weeks, and gluten-free bread for myself maybe every 8 weeks. I do get frozen waffles and frozen pancakes for my son, brown rice wraps, and the usual items on an as-needed basis: condiments, tomato sauce, canned beans, dry garbanzo beans, salsa, spices, cereal, coffee, organic cold-pressed coconut oil, household goods, etc.
  2. Skip organic veggies and fruitoh no she didn’t! Oh yes I did! And here’s why: pesticides wash off. It takes some extra time to prepare your produce, but as long as you’re not buying GMO, those pesticides will come off with water and a little bit of vinegar, or buy one of those fancy sprays like Eat Cleaner which uses all natural fruit enzymes and antioxidants to remove the pesticides. Additionally, check out the Dirty Dozen as there are some produce you should never even bother buying organic, including some of my personal favorites, like bananas, avocados, oranges, and broccoli.
    • To be completely transparent, I do still buy organic greens (spinach, kale, lettuce, etc.) but that’s because I find it more difficult to clean individual leaves than a large piece of fruit.
  3. Buy in-season fruits and vegetables…This is a good rule across the board since seasonality impacts both quality and price. You can even buy extras at their peak (particularly berries in the summer) and freeze them for smoothies in the winter. Plus, in some cases, you may be able to get the organic kind if you plan it accordingly. For instance, I was able to affordably buy organic strawberries and corn for most of the summer because they were at the height of their season and thus lower in price.
  4. Buy organic chicken…Number one reason? You can’t wash away antibiotics, arsenic, and other nasties that the chicken ingested on their scary excuse of a farm. The FDA even just admitted that they’ve allowed cancer-causing arsenic in our chicken for decades, so it’s an undebatable topic for me.
  5. Buy nuts and seeds in bulk…Not only can you control exactly the amount you get, but when you ditch the brand name and fancy packaging (i.e. Diamond walnuts) you can get more for less. My pantry is always filled with almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and peanuts. I don’t have to buy them weekly and I can get them to last for awhile. Plus my Trail Mix is an easy, affordable, filling snack of protein goodness! Additionally, my husband loves salty almonds so instead of buying some over-salted-and-mixed-with-an-unnecessary-chemical-oil packaged blend, I do 1/2 scoop salted almonds and the rest as unsalted almonds.
  6. Buy organic eggs…Same reason as #4. The chickens laying the eggs are still exposed to the same pharmaceutical nightmares. And if you really want to see what eggs are supposed to look like, buy local organic. 
  7. Skip organic beef except for special occasions…This one and number 8 kill me the most, but I just can’t justify consistently buying organic, grass fed beef at this time. It is the difference between like $4 per pound at my local grocery store. We actually don’t eat that much red meat, so it’s not too much of a health concern for me; however, if your family eats more red meat than chicken you may want to swap the two tips (though organic beef is still considerably more.)
  8. Skip organic dairy…We go through 2 gallons of milk each week and since I have already cut back on groceries every way possible, organic milk is unfortunately not an option at this time.  For peace of mind though, the Wegman’s milk I purchase clearly labels, “from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones” and that has always been my main concern, so I just have to trust it at this time.
    • I also buy non-organic Greek yogurt, butter, sour cream, and cheese because organic would absolutely double my grocery bill. By the way, if you’re still buying any dairy 1% or lower (aka sugar water) just stop right now. And if you’re still buying organic skim milk: walk over to your toilet, toss in $6, and flush—same nutritional benefits. 2% or higher, people! 2% or higher!
  9. Buy organic frozen veggies…Since you can’t exactly wash frozen foods, I make the exception here and buy organic. Frozen produce is much cheaper in comparison to fresh, and the difference in pricing between organic to non-organic in the frozen food section isn’t too bad.
  10.  Make a big dinner on Monday…I’ve saved a lot of money by making a big crockpot meal or casserole at the beginning of the week so that we have leftovers for lunch for the rest of the week. I think I’ve used the crockpot more in the last two months than I did all last year! This has primarily helped me reduce costs at the deli counter, which I can confirm is RIDICULOUSLY overpriced here in PA compared to when we were in NH this summer.
  11. Don’t buy produce from your local supermarket…Where I save the most is by going to a separate produce-only store instead of buying at my supermarket. If you follow me on Instagram (@Belowthefork), you will have seen just this week I saved at least $26 by going to a place called Produce Junction (local to my area) instead of Wegman’s. That is a HUGE savings! This just gives me such satisfaction and pride that there really are ways for families to eat healthy, clean food without breaking the bank.
  12. Get creative on lower budget weeks…The week the mortgage comes out is an absolute killer on my grocery budget, but I’ve learned to get creative and frankly, that’s the week my son eats all his dinner and deems me a rockstar. Mainly because dinner is simplified to a preschooler’s dream: an omelet bar, banana pancakes, pasta and sauce, Naked Burritos, and an awesome opportunity for cleaning out meats in my freezer or cans in my pantry, like my Throw-in-a-Pot Vegetable Soup.

I think we all wish we could eat 100% organic (or more specifically, that there was no GMOs or shady food practices in the US to even be concerned about!), but if you have a set budget that doesn’t allow that, realistically ask yourself: what’s most important to me? People might think I’m crazy that I buy $6 worth of almonds each week but skimp on organic milk (and honestly, that’s the first thing I’ll buy again should our income increase) but I have to make decisions based on my family, income, and personal convictions. It can get overwhelming how a food is praised one year as a “superfood”, slammed the next, and then have shady FDA practices exposed the following year. We’re all doing the best we can and there should be no guilt in eating non-organic versus organic because ultimately, the best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to just eat clean!!

I really want to hear tips from you! What is your organic versus non-organic breakdown? Please leave me a comment below.


Meridith Oram
Meridith Oram is an ACE-Certified Health Coach at Below the Fork where she encourages women to love themselves towards healthy. She is married with two boys, and lives outside of Philadelphia. She earned a B.A. in Communications from Villanova University. Meridith writes about FASTer Way to Fat Loss, fitness, nutrition, Celiac Disease, and easy (but delicious!) gluten-free recipes at Follow her @belowthefork on all social channels.
  • Jennifer Clark

    I honestly do not have any advice on how to eat clean on a small budget, but I am feeding 2 people and 2 dogs on about $400 a month, which is proving tough. I am learning and I do appreciate your article. To date, I have been doing all my shopping at Walmart Superstore. I buy mostly fruits and veggies, the frozen chicken (can’t afford the organic at this time) and pasta. I’m a huge lover of Silk Almond Milk and the Soy Almond Milk. It’s my favorite and the only milk I drink any more. Please keep the tips coming…I appreciate them.

    1. Mimi sky

      I buy certain veggies and fruits organic. The big mistake is not buy organic dairy. You should switch to soy or to coconut milk it’s better than cows milk for you anyway. I vegan so I don’t eat any meat or eggs or fish. So I save a lot of money not eating any of those products. I went from spending 200 to spending 95 on me and my sons food. I lost a lot weight being vegan and my skin is amazing. Even my eyes are changing color because how clean I eat. Happens to a lot of vegans. Good luck it’s hard to eat healthy but great to eat clean.

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