When I was in college, I was content to open my kitchen cupboard and find it full of Ramen. Every flavor – except shrimp (yuck) – was represented after a trip to the grocery store. Not only did I know where my next meal was coming from, but I had saved money. Never mind that the instant noodles were high in sodium and had no redeeming nutritional value. They filled up this hungry college student.

Many years, several jobs and two children later, the thought of all those instant noodles horrifies me. I ate dreadfully during my younger years, because of my mistaken assumption that I was saving money by eating nutrition-poor food. Yes, processed food prices can be hard to beat, but over time, the habit of eating poorly is likely to cost more in medical bills, weight issues and general health.

I still occasionally slide a frozen pizza into the oven to feed my dear family, but more often than not, I find I can find nutritious food and without breaking our family budget.

Patronize Farmers’ Markets: The boon of spring, summer and fall is the Farmer’s Market. Local farmers bring their wares to a central location and sell it for less than the retail stores. What could be better? Shoppers can count on finding really good quality produce, jams, jellies, honey, salsa and more. Our local market also shares recipes and has a customer reward punch card.

We eat a lot of produce these days, and this is also a great way to eat from the local economy without putting a mile (or too many miles, at least) on the car. We have stayed close to home this summer like many others, and are able to walk to a Farmer’s Market without getting in the car and driving to the farms surrounding our town.

Buy in bulk: My local, fancy grocery store has surprisingly good deals on its bulk food items. Despite its lovely cheeses and designer breads, this store offers a good break on the items it sells out of the bin.

For the uninitiated, stores can offer bulk foods in bins that allow shoppers to fill a bag and tag the item with the bin number. The checkout clerk weighs the item on a scale and charges the price per pound for the item. The concept is designed to offer shoppers a financial break while getting rid of some packaging.

Some of my favorite foods to get from bulk foods are nuts, spices, pasta, oats, beans and dried fruit. Of course, there are several things to ask yourself:

  • Is this item actually cheaper than its packaged alternative?
  • Is this food that your family will eat by the time it reaches the end of its shelf life?
  • Do you have room to store the food until it is eaten?

Use the slow cooker: Even though I work from home, the last thing I want to deal with is cooking dinner at the end of the day. My lifesaver is the slow cooker. Happily, this can also save money.

It helps to be consistent about planning a menu around items that are on sale at my market. If I have shopped well, I can put the meal in the slow cooker at the beginning of my workday so it is ready at dinnertime. I can add a salad and vegetables from the produce I bought earlier that week, and whole-wheat bread I bought at discount at the day-old store.

On the unplanned nights, I find I make unscheduled trips to the store to pick up something quick and convenient. This is usually the night the frozen pizza makes it into the oven.

Bartering with friends/neighbors: One neighbor is an exceptional gardener and another raises chickens. If you’re so lucky as to have talented neighbors like this in your town, why not ask if you could barter some of yours for some of theirs?

Perhaps you make great bread or jam? Did you just pick a flat of berries that you’re willing to share? In our case, our family likes to fish, so can offer salmon, trout and sturgeon to our neighbors to trade. It can take a little negotiation to come to a fair “price,” but it is worth it to just walk down the street and trade for a dozen eggs from chickens you know.

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