Inexpensive, Healthy Meals: How to Eat Sustainably on a Budget

It’s a constant battle:

How can I eat healthy?

How can I eat healthy on a budget?

And how can I eat healthy on a budget while also living a sustainable lifestyle as an urban homesteader? GAHHHHHHHHH…

Wuf. I feel ya.

It isn’t easy to eat healthy and sustainably in a world full of “quick and easy” meals—quite aptly named fast food—and inexpensive food trucked from hundreds of miles away.

In the last chapter we talked about ways we can grow some of our own produce. In this chapter, let’s talk about cheap, healthy meals—the best, most sustainable and budget-friendly ways to eat healthy as an urban homesteader from all the food sources you’ll encounter.

Healthy Food is Sustainable Nutrition

If you’re healthy, you will save money at the doctor and the pharmacy. Saving money at the pharmacy means ingesting fewer pharmaceuticals that are unsustainable to make and distribute and that damage your body’s ability to naturally fight diseases. And to be healthy—and therefore avoid the pharmacy—you need to have good nutrition.

In other words, healthy body = sustainable nutrition = saving money.

When we eat non-organic, pesticide-heavy food, our bodies enter a toxic state. Our bodies don’t know what to do with the toxins, so they are pushed into our fat stores. Our cells build up thick walls to protect against the toxins in our blood streams so we cannot even absorb necessary vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function.

And the same happens when we eat meat treated with antibiotics or drink water full of chemicals from crop runoff and water treatment facilities.

All the food, water, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and other environmental factors around us create a toxic equation. We live in a constant state of toxicity.

So how do we rid our bodies of those toxins? We already talked about replacing toxic personal care products with natural, DIY products. Later in this series, we’ll talk about using herbal remedies to replace pharmaceuticals.

You May Also Enjoy: “8 Ways to Detox Your Personal Care Regime”

With some simple switches in our food and water intake, we can begin the detox process.

  • The first step in detoxing is to increase hydration. But don’t just start downing tap water. Most tap water contains chemicals that will continue adding toxins to the equation. Drink filtered water. Most nutritionists suggest that we each drink half of our body weight in ounces of water every day. One way to jump-start the detox process is to drink at least twenty ounces of water right when you wake up in the morning. Drinking water after a nighttime “fast” will get everything moving and help flush out toxins.
  • Then, eat small portions of healthy foods multiple times throughout the day, plus lots of water to keep toxins moving through your body.
  • Also, consider adding therapeutic-grade essential oils to your daily routine in your personal care products and cleaning supplies, or to your diet in your food or water. Essential oils can help oxygenate your blood and can be absorbed in cells with even the thickest membranes.

It will take time for your body to detox, but once you do, you’ll find you’re able to eat less and that your body craves only healthy, organic food—food that will fill you up faster and leave you fuller for longer.

If you’ve been eating healthy, organic, toxin-free food for a while and your body seems to be going backward in some ways (e.g., if you have aches and pains or your digestion is arguing with you), DON’T STOP. That is your body’s way of telling you it is getting rid of the toxins it has been storing for years!

You’re almost there.

Keep feeding your body what it needs!

Budget for Organic, Budget for Sustainable

So what are those “healthy foods” we should eat small amounts of multiple times a day, and how can you fit them into your budget?

First, eat less meat. Meat is expensive. Organically raised meat is off-the-charts expensive. Try observing a Meatless Monday for a few weeks; you may be surprised how much money you actually save by simply cutting out meat one day a week.

Buy in bulk. Many organic grocery stores or regular local grocery stores have an area where you can buy bulk dry goods. My local store even has a place where you can grind your own peanut butter and fill your own honey jars! Buy in bulk and make sure you can preserve your purchases for future use.

Eat seasonally. Out-of-season fruits and vegetables have to travel from areas of the country or world with different growing seasons, so they are going to be more expensive (and less sustainable because of their use of fuel). Find a seasonal produce calendar for your region and buy only produce that is in season. Buying local will be mostly “seasonal.” Keep that in mind and support your local gardeners!

Make room in your budget to purchase organic produce on the “Dirty Dozen” list. Remember that list?

The Dirty Dozen

Dirty Dozen

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Cherries
  • Grapes
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Potatoes

Eating healthy means being careful not to ingest harmful chemicals like pesticides. Buying organic produce from the Dirty Dozen list—while slightly more expensive up front—will save you money in doctors’ visits and pharmaceuticals over time.

You’ll be healthier, and your bank account will thank you for it.

Cheap, Healthy Meals From the Grocery Store

If you’re working with a particularly tight budget, you may decide to purchase some conventionally grown produce from your local grocery story. If that is the case, purchase less expensive, non-organic produce from the “Clean Fifteen” list.

The Clean Fifteen

Clean Fifteen

  • Sweet Corn
  • Avocados
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Onions
  • Sweet Peas
  • Papayas
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Honeydew
  • Kiwi
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Grapefruit

But even produce on the Clean Fifteen list can be coated with some pesticides, so make sure you wash all produce you purchase from the grocery store.

Find or make your own produce wash that will remove as many potential pesticides and other toxins from the list as possible.

For produce with skin, soak for one hour in plain white vinegar. Then scrub gently and rinse.

For leafy greens, add two tablespoons of sea salt to two cups of water. Also add a little lemon juice. Spray the cleaning solution on the greens, then soak in a diluted vinegar solution for fifteen minutes. Rinse in cold water to plump them up (they’ll probably wilt a little bit in the cleaning process) and then dry them completely using a salad spinner before storing.

I like to add a few drops of lemon essential oil to the vinegar solution when I’m cleaning produce. The extra cleaning power helps me feel safe eating non-organic produce. Also, therapeutic-grade lemon essential oil is one of the least expensive essential oils, so it is a win for both your health and your budget!

Eating cheap, healthy meals from the grocery store doesn’t mean eating unsustainably. Many grocery stores purchase local produce. If the products aren’t clearly marked, ask the management what is locally grown. If you can’t afford organic, you may at least be able to afford local and then clean the produce at home.

Another way to eat sustainably from the grocery store is to cut down on your food waste. Set up your apartment homestead compost unit and dispose of your food scraps there. Then, use that compost in your patio or indoor garden.

You May Also Enjoy: “5 Cheap and Easy Solutions For Small-Space Composting”

Remember also to be conscious of your trash production. When you purchase produce from the grocery store or buy in bulk in the organic sections, make sure you have your reusable bags and avoid plastic and cardboard containers as much as possible.

Healthy, Budget-Friendly, and Sustainable Food Prep

One way you can be sure you’re saving money, eating healthy, and tracking exactly where every part of your meal is coming from is to cook meals at home.

My favorite recipes are the simple ones: roasting vegetables in the oven on a sheet pan, freezing fresh frozen fruit and making smoothies, or baking a whole chicken and using it for chicken quesadillas, chicken salad, and chicken soup throughout the week.

If you keep it simple, you’ll be more likely to stick to your health-food plan, your budget, and your commitment to sustainability.

Meal Plan to Waste Not

If you don’t have one yet, create a weekly meal plan. Consider seasonal produce, evaluate what food your garden is producing now or what you have left of your garden preserves, and check ads for anything you have to purchase from local vendors or from the grocery store.

You May Also Enjoy: “15+ Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint”

Make sure your meal plan doesn’t stretch your budget. Cheap, healthy meals are easiest to come by when you prepare them yourself at home, but if you’re still strapped, consider these tips for creating a budget-friendly, healthy, and sustainable meal plan:

  • Eat less meat. Refer to my post on conserving fuel in your urban homestead for more reasons to go meatless.
  • Eat less dairy. Animal products are expensive to produce—especially organically.
  • Substitute half of your meat each week with vegetable proteins like beans and lentils.
  • Buy in bulk when you can and preserve the products for future use. (For example, buy a whole chicken, bake it, and shred it. Store serving sizes of it in individual—reusable—containers and freeze whatever you don’t use that week for future meals.)
  • Double your recipes and freeze your leftovers for an easy go-to meal when you’re strapped for time or lack the motivation to cook a fresh meal. It’s easy to cave and go to a restaurant when you’re feeling unmotivated to cook, and that lack of motivation will cost you money and sustainability.
  • Make sure you preserve the food you buy so that it lasts as long as it possibly can. Use raw vegetables and fruit early in the week so they don’t go bad, or freeze what you won’t use right away. Research ways to keep produce, nuts, dairy, etc., fresher longer and implement those practices in your kitchen.

“Healthy,” “Sustainable,” and “Budget-Friendly” are three terms that can easily go together with a little bit of planning and a commitment to the process.

Find more tips, tricks, and inspiration in The Urban Homesteader Facebook group! Join your fellow urban homesteaders here









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This post was written by The Grow Network


  • Annie says:

    Thank you for the article. I just want to underline the fact that organic vs. conventional is about much more than whether or not the food is laden with chemical pesticides, although that is a large part of it, of course. The growing practices of conventional foods makes the food also much more nutritionally deficient than organically grown foods. While organic foods are still not necessarily as nutritionally dense as they could be, they are much more so than conventionally grown foods. Just something else to keep in mind when making the choices. For us, who are on a tighter budget, it often is just a choice of what part of the budget will go to what source of protein. We often choose to just have plant sources as our protein, legumes with rice, etc. taking the money we save on not buying animal proteins (which we only purchase from farms that raise the animals humanely and free-range/grass fed, so quite expensive meats) and choosing to buy only organic fruits and vegetables, for example. It all depends on priorities.
    Anyway, to anyone reading this, just keep in mind the nutritional differences of the foods, too. It may look like the most green and healthy head of lettuce, yet if it was conventionally grown, it may have as much nutrition as a piece of cardboard. Ok, that may be exaggerated, but not by all that much.
    Have a wonderful day, everyone!

    1. Hi Anne, Wow that is such a good point. The nutriton is a bigger issue than the toxicity.

      One tip I didn’t see was ‘gleaning’. We just shot a video “TGN On The Road episode” at a commercial farm in Durango, CO. The farmer was harvesting his beets for the season – and leaving tons behind. When I asked him about it he groaned at the ‘waste’. But with his market, system, and resources he had to have nice large beets, and it wasn’t cost effective enough for him to go after every little bit. Also, he couldn’t do much with the smaller ones, or blemished ones.

      I was travelling or I would have picked up a 50 lb. bag (hah, lets see what TSA would say to that, huh?). The farmer was going to reach out to folks he knew that did gleaning. But even those phone fcalls were a lot for him. So another great source of organic, local food, is simply pick up the seasons end at your local farm. And you go ahead and initiate it, thy will likely thank you.


    2. Gail Gardner says:

      Saving on organically produced, grass-fed meat and poultry does NOT mean doing without it. Just eat differently. For example:

      Cook up a big pot of pinto beans. (Or use your crock pot – that’s what I do.) Eat them plain first. Then brown 1 lb of ground beef or bison and add it to the rest of the beans. Bingo: a little meat goes a long way this way.

      Put a whole chicken in your crock pot. Surround it with potatoes and carrots cut as you would for a roast. Add some onions, bell peppers, garlic if you wish + salt, pepper to taste. Cover all the veggies with water, but not the entire chicken. Cook on low overnight or all day or on high until chicken is done. Eat the veggies and white meat on a plate like roast chicken.

      Then, add more veggies – I like to do different ones like cubes of sweet potatoes or butternut squash, more onions, more peppers, green beans (frozen or canned from summer). Cook until those are tender. Then toss in some dehydrated summer squash slices – just enough for that meal so they don’t get squishy. (Summer squash tends to be too soft when frozen, but much better dehydrated.) I fill the crock pot full of veggies like this, cover with water, and let the chicken cook down into a wonderful home-made chicken soup. Just watch out for bones! And since you didn’t bake them, the bones are soft and safer for your dogs and cats to eat.

      Do the same with turkey. Even though a coco-fed free-range turkey is pricey, I bake it in a water bath canner. The rack the jars go on is perfect for even a very large turkey! Put a little water in the bottom, cover (put the lid on upside down if it won’t fit on the regular way), bake as usual. It will take less time and stay more moist and no more trying to keep it from getting too brown.

      Slice off the white and dark meat you want for Thanksgiving + sandwiches and leftovers. Remove the rack, put the entire turkey back in the pot, cover with water and simmer overnight. Then the next day, boil to remove the meat and dissolve the smaller bones into the broth. Ladle hot turkey and broth into quart canning jars. If you will use it quickly, just add the lid and band and refrigerate. Or you can process in a pressure canner.

      Then just put 1-2 quart jars in your crock pot, throw in veggies, and instant healthy turkey soup.

      Organic food is all around us going to waste. But it when it is on clearance and can, freeze, dehydrate. (Search online to find out which method works best for each item.)

      Who do you know with fruit or nut trees? Did you know most people let a lot of the fruit or nuts just lay on the ground and never even pick it up? I have pear butter (made in a crock pot = so easy) and pears canned in water bath canner. And dehydrated pears are as good or better than fresh! Ask around and you may be amazed at what you can buy in bulk or get for picking it (or picking it up).

      Wild pecans grow all over Texas, Oklahoma and other places. Wild walnuts grow some places. Most landowners don’t even bother to pick the nuts up. Many will let you have them if you want them. Once a year, feed stores in Texas buy pecans and resell them. So even if you can’t pick them up you can get them cheap during that time. They freeze well.

      As this article says, buy in bulk and put up to eat later. Cook in bulk, and then you have healthy “fast” food.

  • Kathryn says:

    Conventional papayas are a GMO crop!! Not so clean?.

  • Jerry J. says:

    Here in Wa. St. the growers take advantage of a bill passed in 1995 allowing the spraying of antibiotics on apples and pears due to the blight fungus. I know this personally because a long time vegan and pretty healthy my body goes off the deep end when I do any antibiotics. Years ago, I took a script of antibiotics for a tooth infection and developed not only a very unbalanced gut biome of gut flora, but C-diff as well which didn’t allow the body to absorb nutrients, and lost 20 lbs getting pretty skinny. It took 6 months for the gut flora to rebalance and it was rough. Then 3 years later I had the same exact thing happen but I didn’t take any antibiotics, but the symptoms were the same. I looked carefully at my diet, which was very simple at best, and the only thing I had done differently was an organic pear on my oatmeal for the past 3 or 4 months. I researched Google and found the law that still allows antibiotics on organic pears and apples. The antibiotics are considered a fungicide and even though the organic stores say they know of the law the growers don’t use antibiotics. My reaction was of course they don’t have to say they’re using them, cause it’s legal. Anyhow berries here are now a big deal cause they’re available year around now, but not before, and when I tried them I had the same reaction. Cold storage probably works with the use of antibiotics and allows all year storage of berries. This is my personal view, and even though it could be wrong, what else could be happening. It’s still legal because of the blight law. Just be careful of antibiotics, cause I think it’s a dirty little secret of the growers. By the way, my MD after taking a culture said it was antibiotics that caused my problems with staff and C-diff after taking the series for the tooth problem.

    1. Kris says:

      Wow, thanks for this information -I had no idea about the antibiotics! I’m in OR and probably consume a whole bunch of “organic” WA state pears and apples. Do you know if it’s sufficient to scrub them with one of those vegetable rinses to get it off of there? thanks very much again –

  • Tag says:

    Spot on article. I have always said when challenged because of cost. “would you rather pay the farmer or the doctor?” I choose the farmer!

    1. Kathrin Herr says:

      Agreed, Tag! 🙂

  • Becky says:

    Thanks for the ideas. In your first paragraph you mention our cells making walls to protect themselves from toxins. Animal cells don’t have cell walls. My biology students would be confused by this statement and it limits the credibility of your quite reasonable aversion to toxins.

    1. Kathrin Herr says:

      Hi Becky! Probably what I should have said instead of “cell walls” was that the cells in our bodies begin to reject nutrients when they are over exposed to toxins. Perhaps “Our cells develop thick barriers against toxins and nutrients” or something like that instead. Thanks for the clarification! 🙂


  • An excellent site to check out is freshandalive.com. This is Ken Rohla’s site. He gives lectures and interviews people on his site, one of which is how to grow high nutrient food using ormus. One the persons he interviewed had developed a way to get rid of mold using an ozone generator and it was mentioned that ozone can also be used to remove anything that was sprayed on the produce i.e. fruits and vegetables, such as insecticides. That way there you can buy regular fruits and vegetables for less than the price of organic and save money. I have a small ozone generator that hangs on the wall and I use it to decontaminate regular grown blueberries. I put the blueberries in a glass bowl and fill the bowl with well water, put the ball of the generator in the water, set the timer for 15 minutes. When the machine stops pour the bowl contents into a strainer over the sink and you have insecticide free blueberries or other fruit or vegetables.

    1. Kathrin Herr says:

      Thanks so much for this info, Edward! I’ll check it out!

      I like the idea of cleaning the produce. I hate to think that we will simply waste so much food if we don’t buy commercially grown produce, but I’m not willing to ingest all the junk.

      Great idea! 🙂

  • Josh says:

    Tap water can be high quality, depending on where you live. Also tap water is sometimes gravity-fed, and requires no plastic containers, rather than transported by trucks in plastic bottles.

    If you are in fact drinking distilled water, you may want to be proactive to consume the minerals that are absent in distilled water.

    1. Kathrin Herr says:

      Thanks for the comment, Josh!

      You’re absolutely correct. Perhaps I should have been more inclusive, saying “some” tap water is not safe to drink.

      And thanks for commenting on the fact that we need to replace minerals absent in distilled water. I appreciate it!


    2. Gail Gardner says:

      Even if your tap water is not fluoridated it will be chlorinated. Even when I lived in a rural area with a deep co-op well, that water had to be chlorinated. If you have your own well, it doesn’t.

  • A says:

    Canned fish can also be a cheaper substitute for more expensive meats. I like salmon and sardines best. Keep in mind that buying brands that include the skin and bones adds extra nutrition. Choosing salmon labeled “Alaska” salmon will guarantee it was wild and not farmed.

    Another tip not mentioned in this article is foraging wild food. Sure, it takes a little more time than going to the grocery store, but whatever you find will be free. Just be aware of where you’re gathering has not been sprayed with pesticides and isn’t too close to a busy road (those plants may absorb car exhaust!). And of course don’t eat anything if you aren’t sure what it is! Start with dandelion leaves/flowers, black/blue/raspberries, and pine/spruce/fir needles (for flavoring or a Vitamin C rich tea) if you’re just beginning. When you learn more wild plant species, you’d be surprised how much money you can save. No more having to buy salads for example. Plus wild plants are almost always more nutritious than domesticated varieties, especially conventionally grown ones.

    1. Robert says:

      Please avoid the Alaskan Salmon and Pollack. They’ve been living in Radioactive sea water ever since Fukusima. & it’s probably still pouring more Radiation into the sea causing mass beaching of dead fish around the Northern Pacific.

  • Wenderella says:

    I’m astonished that you think corn is a ‘clean’ vegetable. With a few notable exceptions, much of the world’s corn (maize) crop for animal and human consumption is now genetically modified. I would rather eat a little bit of chemical residue than any vegetable which has been modified by gene splicing with the introduction of genes from another species.

    1. Kris says:

      She’s just publishing the dirty dozen lists. I agree with you – we should try to never eat non-organic corn. It is likely GMO (88% of the U.S. corn crop genetically engineered, circa 2013), and even if they do not detect chemicals on the surface of the corn, GMO corn is engineered for its own DNA to create pesticides. “Nearly all GM crops are described as “pesticide plants.” They either tolerate doses of weed killer, such as Roundup, or produce an insecticide called Bt-toxin. In both cases, the added toxin—weedkiller or bug killer—is found inside the corn or soybeans we consume.” . . “The Bt-toxin produced by genetically modified corn kills insects by punching holes in their digestive tracts, and a 2012 study confirmed that it punctures holes in human cells as well.[10] Bt-toxin is present in every kernel of Bt corn, survives human digestion, and has been detected in the blood of 93% of pregnant women tested and 80% of their unborn fetuses.[11] ” And if this isn’t bad enough news, there is preliminary evidence that contact with this pesticide-creating DNA by human DNA can actually turn our own cells into pesticide-generators. And, tragically, there is growing evidence of the links between these toxins and cancer – For more information, see http://responsibletechnology.org/gmos-and-cancer/

      1. Kathrin Herr says:

        Yes, thanks, Kris. I was reposting what the EWG claims to be the “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen.” I do agree that corn is most often GMO, but as an Iowan, I know that not ALL corn is GMO–especially if grown on small farms like my family’s. 🙂

  • Larry says:

    Filtered water – yes.

    Distilled water – no. Distilled water will pull minerals from your body (excreted in your urine).

    I use James Mccanney’s counter-top gravity-feed water filter. It removes almost all harmful substances, including glyphosates, chlorine, fluoride and even arsenic. With an additional filter it will also remove radioactive particles – all this while leaving those vital minerals intact.

    You can order it from his website http://www.jmccsci.com

    (Note to Marjory: Mr. Mccanney has an affiliate program if you’d be interested in marketing his top-of-the-line filter on your website.)

    1. Kathrin Herr says:

      Larry, Thanks for your comment!

      I’ll see about updating that information in the blog. I mistakenly used “distilled” and “filtered” somewhat interchangeably. I’ll get it fixed 🙂

      Thank you for clarifying for us!


  • Evelyn says:

    Very good article…I have integrated many of these ideas in our lives to keep costs down. Let me add one thing about the clean fifteen. I have an acquaintance in Costa Rica and I had heard that pineapples are being grown gmo now…well, I asked him and he said that it is not discussed there by the locals, but, they refuse to eat them…just fyi…I won’t buy any from Costa Rica. (: Thanks!

    1. Kathrin Herr says:

      Thanks for your comment, Evelyn!

      **Virtual High Five** for integrating these ideas into your sustainable lifestyle!! 🙂


  • Ran says:

    The article was a little confusing to read in the part that talked about eating the Dirty Dozen — on a 2nd reading I see that you meant (and you say) to eat the organic versions of the Dirty Dozen, but that is a little easy to miss — perhaps it needs a little more emphasis, maybe something like:

    Make room in your budget to purchase organic (instead of non-organic) produce on the “Dirty Dozen” list to avoid the pesticides.

  • harpiano says:

    What I like most about eating organically is despite the expense, and I don’t have to go to the doctor is the QUALITY of my healthy life and that of my husband. I have children coming to the house weekly for music lessons and not one of them eats organically. What does that mean for us? It means at least one of them and more likely most of them every week are sniffling, coughing, tired, or just plain sick. Most of the time the parents are very accommodating and don’t bring them when they have a cold or the flu, but most of the time they seem to always be just a little under the weather. We NEVER get sick! Occasionally I can tell something got into me from their germs, but I never come down with the illness but might have 1 day of feeling a little under the weather. I’m 66 and my husband is 69, right when we’re supposed to be susceptible the most we seem to be doing fine.

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