8 Tips For Keto on a Budget
A criticism often leveled against the keto diet is that it’s more expensive than a “regular” (read: SAD) diet. There’s some truth to that. It does cost more to buy meat than ramen and beans. I personally spend more on groceries now than I did before finding Primal. Not only did I shift to buying different types of food, I also came to care more about food quality. I started choosing more pasture-raised meat and eggs, and more pesticide-free and organic produce and dairy.
However, my grocery bills haven’t changed noticeably since going keto. If you’re already eating Primally, your daily foods don’t have to change that much if you decide to try keto. You’ll remove some (okay, most) of the fruits and root veggies, and sub in more above-ground veggies and probably some healthy fats. It’s not a substantial overhaul. However, if you’re coming from a standard high-carb, lots-of-cheap-packaged-foods diet straight into Primal+keto, it can be a shock to the wallet.
Sure, I can tell you that this is an investment in your long-term health and spending more on food now means spending less on medical care later. I believe that. I also know that doesn’t help you today if you’re looking at your food budget and your fridge, now mostly empty after purging it of non-Primal, higher-carb foods.
If you’re committed to making Primal+keto work on limited funds, it can be done. Here are some tips for making it happen.
1) Buy What You Can Afford
With Primal+keto, there are ideals when it comes to food quality, and then there’s what fits your budget. Now is the time to call on the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Don’t stress about buying the best quality everything. Don’t forgo eating vegetables because you can’t always fit organic options into your budget. Non-pastured eggs still have more to offer nutrient-wise than a bagel for breakfast.
In terms of priorities, aim for better quality meat. (I’ll include tips for finding less expensive meat choices below.) Check the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to see which types of seafood are worth your money and which should be avoided altogether; don’t spend money on the latter.
For produce, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen—the vegetables and fruits they recommend buying organic—and the Clean Fifteen that are safer to buy conventional. Of note to keto eaters, spinach and kale should be organic, but many of our keto-friendly faves make the clean list. Don’t stress if you need to choose conventional avocados, cauliflower, and broccoli.
Remember, too, that it’s not always necessary to look for the organic label even for the “dirty dozen.” If you’re buying from local farmers, ask about their practices. Many small farmers are pesticide-free or use organic practices but simply can’t afford the process of becoming organic certified (it’s quite expensive and arduous). The same goes for meat.
2) Don’t Menu Plan
I’m going against the grain here. Most articles on budgeting tell you to make and stick to a strict plan. I find, however, that it’s more cost-effective to let sales be my guide. I’d rather check out my local grocery stores and farmer’s markets, buy what’s cheapest, and make it work. Use apps that tell you where the sales are and buy accordingly. Sign up for the customer loyalty cards at the stores you frequent so they can send you deals and coupons.
I realize that this might sound stressful if you don’t feel confident in the kitchen. If you’re beholden to recipes, this doesn’t always work. (Of course, you can always look up recipes on your phone in the grocery store—I’ve done it a million times.) Remember that you can always default to making a Big-Ass Salad or an omelet or scramble.
3) Shop Around
Get to know the various supermarkets, specialty stores, and farmer’s markets in your area. Learn what’s the freshest, cheapest, and most likely to be available at each. While it’s convenient to do one-stop shopping, it might be worth the extra time it takes to make two or three different trips during the week to hit up different stores.
Think outside the traditional grocery store box. In many smaller communities, a “big box” store may have the largest selection of meat and veggies, including organic, and a wide variety of specialty products. In my town, Grocery Outlet is the best place to buy organic coconut oil and olive oil, and they carry lots of other keto-friendly staples like nut butters, grass-fed meat, and cheese at low prices.
If you have access to a farmer’s market, definitely make sure you check it out. Sometimes farmers will mark down their remaining items at the end of the day so they don’t have to pack it up. You won’t have the same selection, but you might score some deals.
Also look into local CSAs, farm stands, and meat purveyors who sell direct to customers. Again, you can often find ones that offer sustainable practices and high-quality products without the expensive organic label. Check out Eat Wild and Local Harvest to find farmers near you. I’m a fan of CSAs that sell “ugly produce”—the items that aren’t pretty enough for grocery stores but that are still tasty and nutritious—so it doesn’t go to waste.
Finally, check Facebook marketplace, Craigslist, and so on for people looking to sell backyard eggs for cheaper than the store. If you live in an area where people hunt, you might be able to score some meat this way during hunting season, too.
4) Skip the MCT Oil and Exogenous Ketone Products
Unless you have a medical reason to have very elevated ketones, these expensive products aren’t a priority. You don’t need them to do keto “right.”
5) Reconsider the Keto-fied Baking
Almond flour, coconut flour, arrowroot powder, erythritol, and so on can also be pricey. From a nutrient perspective, there are better ways to invest your grocery dollars. You don’t have to give it up entirely, but consider how big a chunk it’s taking out of your budget and whether it’s worth it.
6) Eat the Stuff that Other People Don’t Want
I’m talking organ meat, bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks, sardines, and the like. The great irony is that these are some of the most nutrient-packed foods in the store, and you can often get them for cheap because the average consumer is looking for boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Good news for you!
Ask the butcher at your grocery store if they have organ meats or cuts that they aren’t going to put in the case because they aren’t popular enough. You might be able to snag cheap (or even free) bones for bone broth that way too—although probably less so now that bone broth has become such a trendy item.
If you’re squeamish about organ meat, remember that almost anything can be ground up in a food processor and mixed with ground beef for burgers or meatballs, or to be hidden in chili or meat sauce. Heart is an excellent place to start. It doesn’t have the distinctive strong flavor of liver or kidney, and it’s very affordable.
7) Your Freezer is Your Friend
Many items are less expensive if you buy them frozen—vegetables (especially off-season), berries, seafood—and they’re just as nutritious. Freezing also allows you to buy in bulk and freeze the extras, or prepare big batches of food and freeze smaller portions for later. If you have a chest freezer, look into splitting a cow or a pig with friends. This can sometimes land you a great deal on a pasture-raised animal.
Throwing away food is throwing away money. There’s no reason to waste food if you have a freezer. Most leftovers can be frozen if you’re not going to consume them immediately (though some things, like mashed cauliflower, don’t reheat well). If your avocados are on the verge of going bad, slice and freeze them. Blend fresh herbs with your oil of choice and freeze them in ice cube trays to add to soups and sauces later. Strain leftover bacon grease into a jar and freeze that, too.
My favorite freezer trick is to keep a large zip-top bag to which I add vegetable trimmings like the ends of carrots, celery, onions, and beets, and broccoli stems. I also keep the bones from all the delicious bone-in meat I’m cooking.
8) Make Your Own Bone Broth (and Nut Milk)
Bone broth is a hot commodity nowadays—no pun intended—and you can spend a pretty penny on it at the store… or you can just make it yourself out of stuff that other people are throwing away.
Whenever I cook a whole chicken (which is usually more cost-effective than buying just breasts or thighs), or when my aforementioned freezer bags fill up, I make a batch of bone broth in my slow cooker or Instant Pot. To store it, I freeze it in mason jars or silicone muffin cups. The latter makes broth “pucks” that are uber convenient for adding to dishes later.
Nut milk isn’t necessary for keto obviously. However, if you’re dairy-free and buying nut milk, you really have to try making your own. It couldn’t be easier, and I strongly prefer my homemade nut milk (a blend of almond, hazelnut, and Brazil nut) to anything I can find in the store. As a bonus, I use the leftover nut pulp to make pancakes, bread, and rolls. It’s a double bang for my buck, and no waste.
The Good News…
Despite the naysaying, it’s not only possible to do keto on a budget, but sometimes going keto actually saves you money. First, many people are able to reduce or eliminate certain medications—insulin, blood pressure meds—which can be a significant monthly savings. Second, once you’ve become keto-adapted, you might find that you’re eating fewer calories overall for the same amount of energy. Mark touts this benefit all the time.