Eat better without breaking the bank

By Mir
June 6, 2011

The lovely Jean writes:

Since you are so pretty and smart, I thought you would be able to help me with this question. I am currently in the process of changing my son’s diet. I am trying to remove all HFCS, all dyes etc from his diet. Also, I’m getting him to eat more fruits, veggies etc, as much of it organic as possible. I can and do cook from scratch, but I also work full time. Baking tons of goodies and crackers that he can eat doesn’t fit to well with my commute and work schedule. He will also be heading off to day camp this summer (we send his lunch and snacks with him). My question to you is, where can I get some great snacks that fit into these restrictions without taking a second mortgage on my house? Any websites out there that might be useful, or stores? Additionally, any brands that you love and I should try?

Jean is singing my song, because this is something about which I happen to be pretty passionate. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for the “occasional treat” and all of the unnatural dyes and HFCS they may contain, but in general, I strive to feed my family real food, hold the chemicals. And as Jean is discovering, that can be harder than it sounds.

So let’s talk about this.

The first thing I tell anyone wanting to go “greener” with their diet is that it’s not necessary to go pure organic; that’s expensive, and in some cases it’s no better than “conventional.” For example, bananas have such thick skins, the extra money for organic is often said to be a waste because the conventionally-grown fruit is protected from pesticides from the peel. Learn about which produce you should be buying organic and which doesn’t matter and then keep that in mind when you shop. Also bear in mind that those are general rules, and if you’re lucky enough to have a local farmer’s market and other small growers, you can ask about how they grow their food. Becoming USDA certified organic is an expensive process which smaller farms can’t afford, although they often follow organic practices without the label.

The next thing to remember is that any food product which does bear the “organic” label is free of HFCS and artificial colors, because there’s no such thing as organic corn syrup or chemical dye. (Organic dyes are food-derived, like beet juice.) Most supermarkets have a “house” organic brand—at my local Publix it’s called Greenwise—and those products tend to be slightly cheaper than name-brand organics, while still being free of the things you’re trying to avoid. Now, of course remember that this isn’t a free pass to “healthy,” because cane sugar and the like are still sugars and sugar isn’t healthy, period, but it’s a start. Also start really reading labels—many non-organic brands are adopting healthier recipes, and just because it’s not organic doesn’t mean it’s “bad.”

Let me slip in a quick plug here, too: I totally understand the time thing. I do. When I worked full-time out of the house and was a single mom with two kids, the last thing I wanted to do was spend my free time playing Betty Crocker. One of the things I did was one cooking project each weekend—and I enlisted the kids’ help, too, so it was family time. We’d make a monster batch of cookies or muffins or granola bars or something, and then freeze them. I could pull them out for lunches for weeks (sometimes months!) without fear of food going bad before we could eat it. If you can’t or don’t want to cook, I feel you, but maybe a family project will change how you feel about it.

I would also designate one hour a week to miscellaneous food prep, and here I have to tell you that this Rubbermaid produce saver set has changed my life. What are the chances that I feel like cutting up vegetables at 6:00 a.m. when I’m packing lunches? Zero! But if I can cut up peppers and carrots and celery and cucumbers just once for the whole week? Easy-peasy. Just grab what I need (they really do stay fresher longer). I started selling my kids on cut veggies with the ubiquitous ranch dressing, early on, and now I have one kiddo who prefers veggies naked and one who likes hummus or an easy dip made with Greek yogurt. Totally easy, totally healthy.

Okay. Now, the reality is that sometimes we need things quick and easy; shelf-stable, in a box, ready to go. Crackers, cookies, snacky things. I get it. Brands I love, many of which can often be found on special at Amazon: Annie’s, Cascadian Farms, Barbara’s, the “Booty” snacks (Pirate’s Booty, Veggie Booty), Clif Kids, Pop Chips, Newman’s Own, Bob’s Red Mill. Also I am a fool for Trader Joe’s because most of their stuff is natural/organic and cheap. (If you don’t have a TJ’s, I’m sorry.) The key to keeping the bill manageable is to stock up on sale, and pass it by when it’s not. I am never joking when I highlight a ridiculous sale on some reasonably healthy snack at Amazon and tell you that I bought three cases. My kids can eat, and they take their lunches to school every day.

Readers, what am I forgetting? Any tips for Jean on great junk-free brands and healthy snacks in general?


  1. Thank you sooo much Mir!!! I am doing the prep once a week thing and the mass baking. also enlisted my soon to be retired mom who will do anything to help her precious grandson and baking cookies from scratch? a done deal for her. Thanks for the tips and as always I will be here to look for the best deals 🙂

  2. And this is why I love not only pretty you…but your pretty readers too! This post was perfect timing as I’ve been working on the same thing for our family. We too bake lots of things at once and freeze them for later use. I even make extra pancakes or waffles and freeze them – then you just pop them in the toaster for a quick & healthy breakfast.

    Don’t forget about Costco. They have a great selection of organic & natural foods and although you have to buy a large amount at once, it is normally at a discounted rate. Produce is great there too – and my girlfriends and I will split it up each week or so since it is hard for a family with small kiddos to eat it all at once.

    Finally – if I ever have any produce that cannot be frozen and is on the verge of becoming “too ripe”, I’ll cook it, puree & and freeze it in ziploc bags so that it can be added to foods at a later date.

    Looking forward to what other readers have to say too!

  3. I second stocking up at Amazon, but only when it’s a snack you already know your kids will eat, not that I’ve made that mistake…

    Also, my brother, who is a specialist this area, recommended that I purchase all organic dairy, all the time. It’s especially important in the items you eat the most – e.g. milk, cheese, yogurt. I don’t flinch over the prices because I don’t even consider non-organic dairy as an option anymore.

  4. There are some great facebook pages, too: (Food Facts. Find out What’s REALLY in your food compares common foods and gives each a ‘health score’.) It’s a good place to start, and you will find links to many more like minded pages. There are pages about GMOs and how to avoid them, where HFCS may be lurking in your food.

    Good Luck!

  5. When I first saw this headline, somehow I read it as “Feeling better without eating the bank,” which seemed strange. 🙂 Do not eat the bank.

    Cheap alternative to the fancy new produce-saving storage: When you slice carrot sticks, put them in a container you already have, and cover with water. My kids love the fact that the carrots begin to curl after a day or two. The 5 year old begs to drink the “carrot water” after they’re gone. Cheaper than “baby carrots” and still gives you the chop-once/week option.

    Re: dairy. If you have a local food coop, check their options and prices. Mine carries both organic and non-organic (but rBGH-free), local (<100 miles), family-farm produced options as well as larger national brands. I can buy local, rBGH-free milk there for pennies more than the bottom-run option at the big grocery store, and for less than half the cost of national brand organic milk at the big grocery store. The local coop even incentivizes healthy choices by making skim gallons <1% <2% <whole milk.

    A lot of things are more expensive at the coop, but staples like milk, in-season produce, and bulk grains/cereals/dry goods are not. Reasonable minds may vary about whether the more expensive but organic/free-range/grass-fed meats and specialty items are worth it.

  6. We have lots of food allergies that we deal with in our home. Scout out some local distributors in your area. We deal with one that is a few hours away but makes deliveries within our area. Often there is a minimum amount that you must spend, but if you can get a handful of friends together, you will meet the minimum in a snap. We can’t have wheat. If I purchase the flour we can use in a store, it runs me about $5 for 2 pounds. I can buy 25 pounds of the same flour for just under $22. I bag up the flour into 4-5 ziploc bags and pop them in my freezer. This saves me a ton of money. I typically place an order 2-3 times per year and I am set! Some of the “official” co-ops are pricey, but if you can make your own informal arrangements with a distributor you will do well. You can ask some of your favorite stores what distributors they use as well.

  7. Check CraigsList in your area for small-time farmers looking for shareholders, or other families wanting to share a cow, pig, etc. In the summer, you can sometimes find people desperately trying to get rid of excess veggies, too.

    I also sourced my pastured eggs from CL, for only $2/dozen, when at the Farmers’ Market, they are between $4-5!!

  8. HFCS is also not kosher. (Pun intended but still a true statement!) If your grocery store has a dedicated kosher section, check it out for popular treats. My family thinks kosher mini marshmallows are the best! And other countries are not as in love with the stuff as American food producers are so check out the international section as well. You are in luck in that the trend is moving away from HFCS and you’ll probably get some pleasant surprises as foods switch back to plain old sugar.

    You could gather some like-minded friends and turn your batch cooking into a social event. Plan and shop ahead, collect everyone’s appliances and pans into one kitchen and catch-up while you’re turning out the treats. Or have everyone cook big batches at home and then hold a swap similar to a holiday cookie swap.

    Muffin, cookie, and cracker batters often freeze well. So while you may not have the time to bake a quadruple batch of muffins, you can make the batter in about 15 minutes and use an ice cream scoop to put it in the papers and freeze. For crackers and cookies, I’d either use a scoop and freeze on a tray or make the batter into rolls and freeze so you can thaw and slice when you need to. Buy enough muffin tins and cookie pans to fit in your oven so you can bake multiple pans at once. And those commercial scoops really speed up the whole process. I have a 1/4 cup scoop for muffins and a smaller one for cookies. I bought them at a restaurant supply store and I use them all the time.

    Whenever you’re going against the main stream: be it vegetarian, or allergen free, or hcfc and additive free, you’re going to either have to make your own convenience foods or pay a lot more to buy them. And since you’re just starting out, you’re not an expert on how your family eats this way. If you can, cut yourself some slack and just accept that food is going to be more expensive for a while and try to economize in other areas where you’ve got a better handle on things. Set a deadline if you’d like and revisit saving money on food once you know what works for your family. This definitely gets easier with practice so hang in there!

  9. My freezer is my BFF. The savings of not sending out for pizza or eating out when I don’t have time to prepare a healthy meal have paid for it many times over. I bake in quantity, so there is always a reasonably healthy wholegrain treat available. Every time I make a meal that freezes well — especially time consuming, dirty-every-pan-in-the-kitchen meals (lasagna, anyone?) — I make multiple meals and freeze the rest. My freezer is always filled with tasty, nutritious food that only has to be reheated.

    Brown rice is far better for you than white, but takes a long time to prepare. I make a large batch at a time — 2 pounds of raw rice will fit in my rice cooker — and freeze it into meal-sized portions. If I have 5 minutes to prepare dinner, I have time to nuke some brown rice. Same with quinoa — my family’s newest favorite food. I rinse and drain a large batch, cook it in my rice cooker, and freeze portions for both sides and main dish salads.

    If you can get your children turned on to them, sweet potatoes are better for you than white potatoes. In general, the “white” foods — refined flour, white rice, white potatoes, white sugar — should be avoided as much as possible. My now-adult offspring grew up on whole grains, and prefer them to processed foods.

  10. I can’t believe nobody has mentioned nuts yet. The ultimate portable snack, full of nutrients and just plain yummy, buy in bulk and divvy up as needed.

  11. I have an ebook that I LOVE LOVE LOVE – Healthy Snacks To Go by my good friend Katie at Kitchen Stewardship. Yes, it takes some prep time to make things from scratch, but I don’t think I’ve made a single recipe from it that we didn’t love. The larabar knock-offs are amazing and completely worth the price of the book. It’s $6.95, by the way. I’m not an affiliate, though I should be ’cause I can’t stop singing the praises. :>) I also get a lot of snack ideas from Laura at Heavenly Homemakers.

  12. I will second COSTCO and/or TRADER JOE’S for cheap/healthy/organic snacks!

  13. I am allergic to nuts, so finding snacks that are healthy and not loaded with sugar can often be a challenge (esp. as some “healthy products” use almond butter, almond flour, etc). We have learned just not to buy the junk – otherwise we eat it!

    My best suggestion is to learn to love your slow cooker. Many, many, many things can be cooked in one, and usually only requires to load a few things into it in the morning.

    I know Mir has mentioned smoothies on here more than once – I have started drinking those in the morning and I know I am getting plenty of fruits and veggies that way!

    Yes, it’s going to be more expensive for a while until you figure it out……but hang in there, it will be worth it!

  14. For cheap produce, check for a local co-op. I’ve recently come across You make a “contribution” and then get a share of what is purchased with that money. My first purchase was for “regular” produce – I figure I got about $25 – $30 worth of produce (if I had run all over town and bought what was on “sale” at each place) for my $16.50 contribution. I really got a lot for the money!

    I’ll be getting an all organic basket this week for $25. I’m anxious to see how it stocks up to the value I get vs. purchasing it locally, as well.

  15. When we lived in the States, we had a food dehydrator. If you have enough time to peel and cut banana slices, they make a great snack.

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