Saving Money and the Environment: How to Eat Sustainably on a Budget

[ This article is part of our series of articles on sustainable food and eating ]

There are many ways - small and large - that people can work on helping the environment, especially in this day and age. Many people think that saving the environment means spending a lot of money: getting an electric car, only using reusable straws, eradicating all plastics from your life. While certain actions that help the environment do involve spending money, there are also ways to save your wallet at the same time. Given the global food system generates approximately 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions, one of the core personal initiatives anyone can undertake to help both the environment and their pocketbook is eating sustainably. Eating sustainably sounds a lot more daunting than it really is. Before diving into sustainable eating on a budget, you have to understand what sustainability is. While it isn’t an easy thing to define, the UN defines sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs. To eat sustainably, you have to have a diet with a low environmental impact that optimizes the use of available resources. The real question is how? Fortunately, that’s what we are here to find out!

Planning and Prep

The first step to eating sustainably on a budget is planning. It may seem daunting, but once you start, it gets pretty easy. One large step is to meal plan - and later meal prep. Meal planning is an approach to organize your meals ahead of time. Yes, it really is that simple. Lots of people do meal planning in small ways they don’t even notice; when you decide on Wednesday that you will have mac and cheese on Friday, that’s meal planning! Granted, it’s a very small form of meal planning, but it helps lead to a bigger change. After you plan your meals for the week, you can also prepare all or some of those meals at once; this is meal prepping. Meal planning and prepping helps eliminate food waste because you are being more mindful of what ingredients you are choosing. It also helps save money because you don’t end up buying ingredients you won’t use; meal planning helps you plan your grocery lists and therefore, save money. Meal prepping then helps you save time later in the week so you don’t have to end up buying fast food. To learn more about meal planning and to start on your own meal planning journey, head over to this article

The next planning step to eating sustainably on a budget is making grocery lists. No, the mental one in your head doesn’t count. By physically (or digitally) making a grocery list—and sticking to it in the store—you reduce the amount of unnecessary and unwanted food you buy. This not only reduces how much money you spend, but it also reduces your future food waste. When you waste food, you are also wasting all the energy and resources it took to produce and transport said food. By reducing your food waste, you are ensuring that energy does not go to waste and avoiding unnecessary emissions. 

Choosing Sustainable Foods for Your Diet - And Where to Buy Them

In order to eat sustainably on a budget, you need to know what foods are more sustainable and where you can get them for cheap (while still making sure they are tasty!). Typically, plant-based foods are more sustainable as they overall use fewer resources to produce. By switching over to a plant-based diet, you can aid the reduction of carbon emissions and help save the environment. Of course, plant-based diets aren’t for everyone and might not make the most sense for you personally. You can still make the effort to eat more plant-based foods and eat less meat, especially red meat. For a deeper look at sustainable foods, head over to this article. Consider learning more about and following a sustainability based diet such as the Regenivore, Climatarian, or Flexitarian diets, which focus less on abstaining from animal products entirely and more holistically on eating in a planet friendly way.

When trying to eat sustainably on a budget, there are multiple options for places to shop. One of the best is local farmers’ markets. The markets offer affordable, fresh, and seasonal produce that comes directly from local farmers; this cuts down on transportation emissions and supports people in your area! Plus, there is a sense of community at farmers’ markets that is unlike grocery stores. Another option is to grow your own herbs and vegetables. Even if you live in an apartment or a small space, you can grow many types of herbs easily on a balcony or a windowsill. The seeds can be a lot cheaper than buying the ready-to-eat produce and allows you to grow them how you want. This can also help you add sustainable ingredients because you know exactly where they came from—and as we previously covered, plant-based foods are more sustainable and healthier. If both of these options are unavailable, there are plenty of affordable grocery stores that still carry sustainable ingredients and engage in sustainable business practices, such as Aldi and Giant Eagle. Even stores that you might not think are sustainable will probably have something hidden on their shelves that are still relatively cheap. These days you can also source produce directly from businesses like Imperfect Foods and Misfits Markets that help prevent food waste by selling oddly shaped produce at bargain prices. If you can get your food through any of these methods, you are one step closer to eating sustainably on a budget. 

What About Leftovers? 

Another big way to reduce your food waste is to use your leftovers. While there is the option of eating the same leftovers at a later date, there are a lot of creative ways to repurpose them into new meals as well. If you have extra meat, put it in a soup or a pot pie. Turn fruit that is about to go bad into a topping for ice cream, or make a jam with them. Extra mac and cheese? Make fried mac and cheese bites! Even your cereal milk could be used to make different drinks or desserts. There are many ways to reuse leftovers by reimagining them into new dishes. All it takes is a little bit of extra thought to create something even tastier. 

If you have leftovers you don’t think you will be able to reuse, turn to compost! Many cities in the US have different ways that you can compost either municipally or through private companies. Even if your city doesn’t have those options, composting is still a great tool. It helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and regenerate soil fertility. If you have your own garden (another great way to eat sustainably on a budget), you can use your compost in your soil to help your plants thrive. It is a win all around.

Eating sustainably on a budget isn’t as difficult as it sounds. In some ways, you are probably already doing it! The real trick is to put in the research. If you aren’t sure if something you regularly eat is sustainable, look it up! It’s that easy. Plus, if you encourage friends or family to join your sustainable eating journey, you give yourself a community to turn to. With a bit of know-how and motivation, anyone is more than capable of eating sustainably on a budget.

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Are you interested in reducing your food waste, saving time, and money? Check out our app. We create personalized meal plans that consider your budgetary, dietary, taste, and cooking preferences, incorporate ingredients you have on hand, and generate easy to use grocery lists that don’t break the bank.

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