What To Eat When You’re Broke

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What To Eat When You're Broke



The lower your income is, the more difficult it is to be particular about what you feed your family.

This probably isn’t an earth-shattering revelation to anyone, but if you feel like experimenting, try to buy a week’s worth of healthy food for a family on a budget of, say, $50-75.  Food manufacturers that target lower income shoppers with more affordable products tend to include more GMOs and toxic ingredients in their offerings.

It just isn’t possible to stick to  my usual food restrictions.  Generally speaking I avoid:

  • Non-organic dairy because of the hormones and antibiotics as well as the GMO feed given to the animals
  • Non-organic meat because of the hormones and antibiotics as well as the GMO feed given to the animals
  • Anything containing corn, soy, or canola in any form because it is almost certain to be GMO
  • Anything with chemical additives like artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives
  • Anything that is likely to have been doused in pesticides
  • Anything containing neurotoxins like MSG, fluoride, or aspartame (along with other artificial sweeteners)

It is a matter, then, of weighing the pros and cons, and figuring out what things, for you, are the most important, while also deciding which standards can be sacrificed.  These decisions will be different for everyone, based on their personal health concerns, their genetic propensity for certain diseases, and the members of the family for whom they are buying the food.

Sometimes, when you’re looking at someone else’s situation while you are comfortably backed by a loaded pantry, it’s easy to be judgemental and tell them what they “should” do. The thing that we  must all remember is that when times are tough, a person may be down to these two options with a two week grocery budget:

1.) Buy strictly healthy organic foods and feed your family for perhaps 8 out of the 14 days.

2.) Carefully select which standards you will relax to keep the tummies of your family full throughout the wait for the next paycheck.

Very few people are going to choose option one.

Usually, I have an enormous stockpile of non-GMO dried foods and a flourishing garden to serve as a back-up for whatever non-toxic items are being offered at a reasonable price that week.  Because I’ve recently moved and am rebuilding my pantry from the ground up, I have no such stockpile right now. I am at the mercy of the food manufacturers.

When your budget is extremely limited, the normal healthy eating suggestions of shopping only the perimeter of the store or visiting the farmer’s market will not suffice to feed a family.  As much as you may want to dine only on locally grown, fresh organic produce, a $50 farmer’s market spree will only get you through a few days if you are totally reliant on only this food.

The Lesser of the Nutritional Evils

So what is a broke, but health-conscious, shopper to eat?

After strongly considering the list above, I decided not to cut corners on the organic dairy, neurotoxins, or the GMOs.  I have a growing child and these things are at the top of the toxic pyramid for her development.  This isn’t to say that the pesticides aren’t harmful, or the preservatives are not a  chemical minefield.  In a perfect world, I’d avoid all of it, and you should too.

If you are in a situation where you have to feed your family and don’t have a lot of money to do it, you need to do your research well before looking at those brightly colored packages with the false promises of nutrition within.  While this list isn’t comprehensive, here are some things to consider about conventional grocery store offerings.

GMOs: Genetically modified foods have not been tested for long-term effects on humans.  There is a great deal of evidence to indicate the GMOs can cause a host of illness.  Peer reviewed studies implicate GMOs in the development of grotesque tumors, premature death, organ failure, gastric lesions, liver damage, kidney damage, severe allergic reactions, a viral gene that disrupts human functions…you can read more HERE.

Hormones and antibiotics: Livestock animals that provide meat or dairy products are tainted with growth hormones, antibiotics, and GMO feed.  These items pass through the food chain to the consumer. Growth hormones can cause opposite sex characteristics in developing children, early puberty, the development of cancer, and infertility. Furthermore, the world is quickly becoming immune to the effects of antibiotics because of constant exposure through the food supply, which means that there is the potential for things that should be easily treated to become deadly due toantibiotic resistance.

Pesticides: The use of pesticides in conventional farming is rampant.  Even the hijacked the Environmental Protection Agency has to admit that the ingestion of pesticides can cause health problems.  They warn of the risk of “birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time.”  (Keep in mind, however, that despite this warning, the EPA just RAISED the acceptable limit of glyphosate at the behest of Monsanto.) Especially at risk of harm from pesticides are prepubescent children and fetuses.

Neurotoxins: Our water supply is spiked with fluoride, a neurotoxin that  lowers IQs, causes infertility, has been linked to cancer and causes hardening of the arteries. Nearly every packaged food on the shelf is seasoned with MSG in one of its many names, and many lower calorie foods and diet drinks are sweetened with aspartame.  Both of these are excitotoxins that cause brain cell death instantly, causing decreased IQs, headaches, depression, and seizures.

Assorted chemical cocktails:  The length of the ingredients list in your food is often a direct indicator of the unhealthiness of the item. When an item contains a host of additives, colors, flavors, and preservatives, you can safely bet that most of the nutrients are gone.  These highly processed foodlike substances are very difficult for the body to break down so that the few remaining nutrients can be used. If you can’t picture what an ingredient looked like in it’s natural state, it probably isn’t something you really want to eat.  When is the last time you saw a tertiary butyl hydroquinone grazing in a field, or a calcium propionate growing in the garden?

What should you eat when you’re broke?

Grains: If you can’t swing organic grains, look for whole grains with few or no additives.

  • Wheat flour
  • Brown rice
  • Pasta (with recognizable ingredients)
  • Couscous
  • Quinoa
  • Barley

Meats:  If you can’t afford grass-fed organic meat, at the very least look for options that are guaranteed to be hormone and antibiotic free.  The USDA does not allow the use of growth hormones in pork, which makes it a slightly better option.

Here’s a little primer on those confusing meat labels:

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  • Hormone-free: This means something with beef, but is nothing but a marketing ploy when you see it on poultry or pork, as the USDA does not allow the use of hormones with those animals.  Hormone-free does not mean antibiotic-free
  • Antibiotic-free: Because of poor and stressful living conditions, factory-farmed animals are very susceptible to illness.  Antibiotic-free means they were not prophylactically treated with antibiotics. This does not, however, mean that the animal is hormone-free.
  • Grass-fed: Grass-fed cows are allowed some access to the outdoors and are not fed grains or corn.  This does NOT mean they are organic, because the grass they are grazing on may have been chemically fertilized and sprayed.  Unless you have actually seen them roaming around the farm, keep in mind their access to the outdoors may not be the lovely rolling pastures that you have in your mind, but a crowded corral with hundreds of other cows.
  • Free-range: This label doesn’t mean diddly squat.  It means that the animal is allowed a minimum of an hour a day outside.  This could mean that they are crammed into an open area with a billion other chickens, still, without room to move, or that their cage is put outside, leaving them still tightly confined. Like the grass-fed cows above, unless you actually see the farm with the gallivanting chickens or pigs, take the label “free-range” with a grain of salt.

Your best options, if you can’t afford organic meats, are to go for the hormone and antibiotic free options as a supplement to vegetarian protein sources like local eggs, beans, and organic dairy products.

Fruits and vegetables: If organic produce is not an option, look for the items with the lowest pesticide loads.  (This list by the Environmental Working Group is based ONLY on pesticide loads – some of the items they recommend could be GMOs).  Fruits and vegetables that can be peeled often subject you to less pesticides than thin-skinned items. If you must buy conventional, wash the produce carefully and peel it if possible.  Look to these stand-bys:

  • Apples (peeled)
  • Asparagus
  • Avocados
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Eggplant
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi
  • Mangoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Onions
  • Oranges
  • Pineapples
  • Rutabagas
  • Sweet Peas
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Turnips

 Dairy products: Conventional dairy products are absolutely loaded with hormones.  Dairy cattle are given high levels of female hormones to make them produce a greater quantity of milk. This makes little boys develop female characteristics and makes little girls hit puberty at a far younger age than normal, which is the reason you see 4th graders with large breasts and hips.  These hormones can also trigger obesity in both genders.  Because of the public outcry, some dairies have pledged not to use rBST, the most commonly used of the growth hormones.  Do your research to discover if there are any such brands available to you.  The Lucerne brand from Safeway is guaranteed to be hormone free. (It’s interesting to note that Monsanto, the company that pushes rBST, wants the FDA to disallow dairies to put this on their labels, and that the FDA forces those who label their products rBST-free to also put the following disclaimer on the containers: “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST treated cows.” (source) )

Organic dairy is still better, because the cattle are fed a healthier diet and are free from antibiotics.  If you can’t swing it, at the very least, search for rBST-free dairy products. For products, you can save loads of money by making your own from untainted milk.  Learn how to make yogurthow to make yogurt cheese, and how to make cottage cheese.  Plain yogurt can also be used as a healthy substitute for sour cream.

Water:  If you are on city water, chances are, your water is loaded with chemicals, from fluoride to ammonia to chlorine.  I won’t drink this water, and I won’t let my children drink it either.  The large 5 gallon jugs provide the least expensive way to buy water.  Also look for sources of spring water to fill your own containers. (This interactive map can help.)

Other Tight Budget Tips

Build your pantry. It’s hard to think about building a pantry when you have barely enough food in the cupboard to make it between paychecks.  But if you can purchase one bulk item per shopping trip, in a few months you will have a pantry that will allow you to make higher quality grocery purchases on your weekly trips. At that point, you can start going to the farmer’s market, which in many locations is very reasonably priced, buying in enough bulk to preserve your foods, and have the occasional splurge.  Go HERE to learn more about building a whole foods kitchen on a half price budget.

Be scrupulous about food hygiene.  Wash your produce very thoroughly and soak it in a baking soda bath.  Also remember to careful wash your beans and rice. (Click HERE to see some photos of the dirt that comes off of a cup of rice!)

Get growing.  Even if it is the off season, you can sprout some seeds on your counter to add fresh nutrients. You can grow some salad greens and herbs in a sunny windowsill.  Invest a few dollars each week in some seeds and you will soon be able to supplement your diet with nutritious, organic, home-grown veggies.  Go HERE to get more ideas for growing your own food on any budget, in any location.

Visit outlet stores.  Sometimes places like Big Lots or grocery clearance centers have organic options at good prices. You might be able to pick up canned goods, cereals, and crackers at a fraction of the normal grocery store price.

Forage for freebies.  In many locations, even the city,  there are free delicious foods just waiting for you to pick them.  Dandelions, wild berries, nuts, and nutritious leaves abound. Just be very sure you know what you’re picking and then enjoy your wild foods.  Check out this excellent guide to the nutritious goodies that may be in your backyard masquerading as lowly weeds.

Plan on at least one extra frugal meal per day.  Have peanut butter and crackers, a bowl of oatmeal, or soup for one meal per day – not every meal has to be made up of protein, veggies, and grains.

 Don’t give up.  If you are feeling financially defeated, it is sometimes easy to say, “*bleep* it!!!” and just get some Ramen noodles or macaroni and cheese and call it a meal.  Don’t do it!  Do the very best you can with the resources you have available. Remember, if you can’t afford good food, you definitely can’t afford bad health – it’s even more expensive.


 The Simple Truth

There are a lot of things that readers may find to pick apart in this article – and that’s good!  By thinking critically and discussing these things, sometimes we can come up with solutions that may not have occurred to us previous to the conversation. I’m not some expert that shouldn’t be questioned – I am just a mom on a budget.  Some of the suggestions here were gleaned from the comments sections of previous articles.

Do your research and do the best that you can with what’s available given your resources.  Create a plan to provide better options in the future. Don’t go down that toxic trail laid out by Big Food without fighting, kicking, and screaming.

About the author:

Daisy Luther is a freelance writer and editor.  Her website, The Organic Prepper, offers information on healthy prepping, including premium nutritional choices, general wellness and non-tech solutions. You can follow Daisy on Facebook and Twitter, and you can email her at daisy@theorganicprepper.ca

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Comments: 25

  1. Ginger March 5, 2014 at 10:17 AM Reply

    In general I think this a great article but I have major issues with a your stance on water. First, telling people to stay away from city water is ridiculous. Unless you are a private well, the water coming out of your tap is regulated by the EPA (and many hard working operators who make sure the water coming from your tap is safe). In all systems that water is tested on a regular basis for a wide range of primary and secondary standards set forth by the EPA (in larger system, for some constituents, it may be tested as often as daily). While there are cases of drinking water contamination depending on where you are and some specific concerns to be aware of linked to the addition of fluoride to your water, I would highly encourage people to (a) find out where their water is coming from and (b) request a copy of the Consumer Confidence Report from your water district. CCR’s are required to be published on an annual basis for larger water systems and detail the water quality and any potential health hazards associated with what may appear in your water. In addition to that, in the US, bottle water is considered a food product and is regulated by the FDA. Therefore it is not required to pass the same drinking water standards that the water coming from your tap is required to pass. While responsible companies ensure their water passes those standards, I wouldn’t assume the water you get in a bottle is better than what is coming from your tap. In addition to that, drinking water from 5 gallon (presumably plastic jugs) is irresponsible. Plastic has been linked to diseases from diabetes to cancer, not to mention the environmental effects of the production and disposing of that much plastic over a lifetime.

    • Val July 16, 2014 at 6:32 AM Reply

      FDA regulates GMOs too and Drugs with too numerous side affects to list and you ask me to trust them? As for water, I buy filters for my water as I don’t care for the taste of the cholorine that has been added. I don’t need extra fluoride. And I would rather see someone refill a 5 gallon jug that’s kept in their home, not out in the sun, than buy a bunch of small bottled water, which are more likely to be in hot cars, out in the sun, etc. You don’t have to agree with everything here or her political views to come away with some good, intelligent, information to start the steps towards eating a more nutrient dense every day diet. Any steps towards this is better than no steps at all.

    • Kathy August 2, 2015 at 5:08 AM Reply

      Ginger…. you are so willfully ignorant, I found it hard to read your comment. Idiot!!!!!!!!

  2. Sara March 9, 2014 at 7:02 AM Reply

    How funny. I had the OPPOSITE reaction about the water. WAY TO GO! It is refreshing to see water in the list of budget friendly must haves. We go through A LOT to make sure our children don’t drink traditional tap water. Most of our friends think we’re crazy, but the information is out there and easy to find. Fluoride is a poison. It is that simple. I understand that you weren’t suggesting to buy traditional bottled water. This is a great article.

  3. Lynn March 16, 2014 at 8:29 AM Reply

    Nice article, and I came very close to following you until I saw some of your political comments about our “arrogant” (you mean “uppity”?) first lady and that the Air Force owns weather. Really? Anyway, I won’t be following, but thanks for the information here.

  4. Mariah April 7, 2014 at 12:15 AM Reply

    I have found this very helpful! I already did some of the things you suggested when it comes to the pros and cons, especially with the meat, so reading it here made me feel even better about the choices (and sacrifices) I have to make! I shared this with my friends, so hopefully it will help others who are trying to live a healthier life on a cheaper budget!

  5. Jo June 16, 2014 at 3:45 PM Reply

    So… What exactly did you buy to feed your family for $50-75 a week? I’d love to see an actual shopping list for that price following your “pared down” restrictions, because I sure can’t seem to manage organic dairy and all antibiotic and hormone free meats at that price point, even shopping at discount stores!

  6. Alice June 16, 2014 at 5:54 PM Reply

    If you are getting assistance via SNAP (food stamps) you can use the benefits to also buy fruit and or veggie seeds. Some farmers markets also will give double the amount of produce when you use your EBT card. Check with your local market.

  7. Lisa kwnny August 18, 2014 at 3:51 PM Reply

    This was not helpful. It did not guide me to where I can find the foods I need the most NOW.
    You mentioned peanut butter but said nothing about buying peanut butter with One ingredient, peanuts! Buying anything else is poison. Bread these days is NOT the same bread that was made in the 50 ‘ s or earlier. Bread is poison. Everything has changed but you did not say where to find what we need. I’m so tired.

  8. Eva Bee August 18, 2014 at 8:16 PM Reply

    Cooking skills and knowing how to use up leftovers is essential to cooking on a budget. Knowing how to cook seasonally with what is cheapest at the moment is part of that. We must reclaim those forgotten skills. This includes butchery, preservation, bread making, etc.

  9. Shelly August 18, 2014 at 8:55 PM Reply

    It must be said that you skipped a section. While you included the fact that you grow some of your own fruits and vegetables, what about all the other DIY stuff that can help a grocery budget? Making your own bread has become doable, as are tortillas. Another budget thing that must be added is what your food can become. I have a friend that makes amazing salsa from tomatoes and chilli pepper that she grows. This could cost. 3-4 dollars ever time if she purchase it.
    I really saw benefit in getting one bulk item every time you go grocery shopping. I’ve been trying to do this so my bulk bins get filled faster. Lentils are a good staple as well, as they contain protein.
    As for budget and gardening, only because so many dont think of it and it could be of help, if the ability to compost exists it could help with plant growth. And composting from kitchen scraps eliminated a lot of waste. It’s not directly related to the grocery budget but it can have a direct effect of food if someone eats for their own garden.

  10. melanie August 23, 2014 at 3:49 PM Reply

    good article. one or two example shopping lists and meal ideas would have fleshed out the article better and made it easily applicable.


  11. Becki Miller September 18, 2014 at 6:48 AM Reply

    Great article. While we grow a lot of our food, forage and shop at the salvage grocery, tips are always appreciated.
    I agree about the water. City water is so toxic.
    Have a blessed day!

  12. Mary September 18, 2014 at 8:54 AM Reply

    Feeding a family on whole foods can be so expensive .I can ‘t imagine doing it for indet $100. I usually sprnd around $250 for 4 in New York. I buy mostly organic but some things like bananas, avocados and melon I buy conventional to save$ and still have a hard time! Wonderful article.

  13. GingerBeachy October 16, 2014 at 5:43 AM Reply

    There are alot of Good ideas in this article…. Thanks!

    I agree with a lot of the comments too. Over the last 2 yrs I have transformed my kitchen to almost completely scratch made….it’s a lot of work, but it’s allowed me to stay home with my children longer than I thought I could!!

    I recently began making my own bread…..white bread is easy to start with and waaay yummier than the store bought air, I mean bread, that costs $3 a loaf.

    I purchased a ZeroWater filtration filter for my tap (awfully full of stuff here in central, coastal FL) because tap water can still have pharmaceuticals and other nasty things in it.

    I am pretty strict with buying all organic and Non-GMO and I definitely spend at least $150 – $200 a week on food and it’s straining my budget! I’m definitely going to investigate the bulk food sections and try to make more items at home (salsa was a great suggestion!).

  14. Max October 16, 2014 at 9:23 AM Reply

    There’s no point to avoiding MSG, and it’s pretty much impossible anyway. The author shouldn’t have called it a “neurotoxin,” especially when glutamates are important neurotransmitters.
    There is absolutely zero evidence that it will do anyone any harm; this is just (slightly racist) paranoia left over from a 1960s placebo effect over Chinese food.

    • dvm April 21, 2015 at 2:03 PM Reply

      My son is living proof that MSG is VERY bad. Just a small amount gives him massive migraines. And it is possible to avoid MSG – read the labels.

  15. Karen January 18, 2015 at 6:33 PM Reply

    One thing you didn’t mention when you talked about meat. A great way to make your meat stretch is buying bone in, and making broth. A whole chicken could make two or three meals: roast chicken the first night, remove the leftover meat for salad, pot pie or any other dish that needs cooked chicken, put the bones in a pot of water and make a broth for soup. The same can be done with a bone in roasts and ham.

  16. mtmomof5 January 18, 2015 at 8:15 PM Reply

    Soups and casseroles are a great way to stretch a budget. Also wild game.

  17. Linda January 19, 2015 at 10:07 AM Reply

    We had six daughters and four sons…it was a challeng e for me being alone as a child (my only brother was 20 yr.older) I learned to be a very creative shopper. I had a list of essentials in a particular order to purchase. First was a fifty pound bag of potatoes…then largest bag of onions…then carrots…then…eggs usually from local farmer and six to eight dozen…It is amazing how many meals you can get from just these items and if I was out of money at this point we could manage for the whole month. I was able to get the soup bones free from the butcher and made many soups and stews and casseroles. I bought oatmeal when on sale in large packages and also got cream of wheat and corn meal so we could always have hot breakfasts. (French toast, egg in a hole, oven cooked eggs, etc) NEVER bought cereal….bought Six large boxes from fruit trucks when they came to town…or more if possible. I did canning as we had no electricity (by choice for peacefulness). Our children were healthy and happy. I chose not to make desserts except for special occasions such as birthdays etc. So the children filled up on food. Not empty calories. When I did make desserts I always tried to use fruits. Hope this helps…Later we were able to live where we could have a garden and chickens for eggs and goats for milk and raise pigs and calves for meat. Were able to buy half a beef and half a pig each year and always kept all the bones for making broth.

  18. Linda January 19, 2015 at 10:31 AM Reply

    I am new here and didn’t notice to check the boxto notify me of follow up comments..that would be nice to hear back if anyone found my comments useful…hope it helps someone. It is terrible to be struggling to feed a family…I appreciated the article. Now we are retired and enjoying our 25 grandkids.
    We are visiting one daughter and I just made a huge Stockpot of chicken soup last night and five of the family woke up wanting more for breakfast lol. It is almost gone…and I thought it would last all week…guess they liked it.

  19. Wayne Kenneth Seymour III January 20, 2015 at 9:33 AM Reply

    Great article, sharing with my family now.

  20. rd January 24, 2015 at 12:57 PM Reply

    If you’re trying to buy enough food when you’re broke, you have ignored the obvious option- no meat. Organic meat is very expensive and you could buy a lot of produce and other filling nutritious food with no meat on the shopping list. I am not a vegetarian, but when money is tight, meat is the first thing to go on my list.

  21. Salixisme April 14, 2015 at 9:33 AM Reply

    One thing you did not mention is organ meats – they are ridiculously cheap and are some of the most nutrient dense food that you can buy. and despite popular opinion organs like the liver do NOT store toxins. They store the nutrients that the body needs to break down the toxins (that is why they are so nutrient dense).
    While I would normally recommend grass-fed or pastured organ meats, in a pinch, antibiotic and hormone free organ meat is a good, economical choice.
    Something like pigs liver is very lean (most toxins are stored in fatty tissue), is nutritious, and can be turned into something like a pate, which helps to disguise it for picky eaters.

  22. Lindsey H April 15, 2015 at 9:23 AM Reply

    Some good tips here and in the comments. I’ve found a huge thing for me has been just not going to the store as much. If I’m missing one or two ingreds for the meal i wanted to make, i just make something else or get creative – if i go to the store I’ll probably see something on sale and grab extra stuff.
    Also, trying not to buy tons of fruit (except cheap, filling bananas) in the off season. The Clean 15 may be ok to buy non-organic, but even conventional avocados are kinda spendy for each piece.
    And sacrificed some ideals of eating less/no grain or starches, for the time being.

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