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Budget Gourmet: Clean Eating on a Dirty Budget

In the last issue of Sparrow I wrote about my journey embracing the Clean Food Challenge. My return to deliberate eating brought discoveries of new recipes, moments of deep nostalgia while re-creating old staple dishes from early in my mama days, and, dare I say, the best complexion I’ve sported since I was pre-pubescent.

This journey also brought a thorough cleaning and organizing of my pantry as well as many trips to supermarkets and health food stores. While I was deliberating about the kinds of foods I wanted to put into my body, I was nagged by the economic argument we all know so well: It’s cheaper to eat highly-processed foods with low to no nutritive value than it is to eat well.

*Disclaimer – I know this to be untrue over the course of a lifetime if you factor in illness and injury, but I’m speaking to the ability of a person to feed a family.

I set out to challenge the premise that it is too expensive to eat healthy food. Could I complete a Clean Food Challenge, include my entire family in most meals, and survive with my budget intact?

I wanted to know how create an arsenal of CFC approved, delicious, and satisfying meals for the least amount of money possible.

Here’s a review of the CFC, a cleanse created with love and adventure by my friend and co-worker, Emilie.

The Clean Food Challenge

Eat well, for one week, following these guidelines:

  1. No processed foods. None. Zippo. Zip. Whole foods only.
  2. No dairy.
  3. Only lean, organic meats or fish.
  4. No refined sugar – agave, honey, and maple syrup are okay.
  5. Eliminate all potential allergens or irritants – milk, dairy, peanuts/nuts, eggs, some fruits – anything else you suspect you may have a sensitivity to.
  6. No alcohol.
  7. Drink 1 gallon of water per day.
  8. Visit your doctor, of course, if you are receiving treatment for a pre-existing illness.
  9. Be mindful of caloric requirements – if you don’t have weight to lose, adjust accordingly.

Hours of cookbook reading, coupon clipping, and receipt analyzing later, this is what I learned!

Ten Tips for a Successful, Satisfying, and Frugal Clean Food Challenge

  1. Go vegetarian. Your body works hard to digest meat anyway, so go ahead and give it a rest. If you want a treat (or your family cannot go meatless), choose a cheaper cut of hormone- and antibiotic-free meat to use in a stew or soup.
  2. Juice sparingly. Fresh juice is dee-li-cious. I was a reluctant juicer, but was immediately hooked. I long for carrot apple juice like a teacher thirsts for a glass of wine during mid-term week. From a budgetary perspective though, when you ingest only the juice from the fruits and vegetables you throw away beneficial vitamins, minerals, and fiber, unless you are REALLY on the ball and turn the leftover pulp into broth for soup.  But for most of us mortals, juicing is a budget breaker, unless you have a thriving garden or belong to a CSA program.
  3. Join a CSA. Community Supported Agriculture provides a (usually) weekly delivery of produce for a yearly or seasonal fee. This saves money on your grocery bill and in your gas tank. It also saves the time it takes to think about what to make on any given night. You check out your allotment, then you figure out what to do with it. Most CSA programs, here in Maine at least, are seasonal. They may take a few months off during the hardest months of winter, but it still offers a great value. Save money, save time, support your local economy.
  4. Plan. Plan. Plan. Prepare some meals you know will work and some you’d like to try. Bribe your children to help you inventory your refrigerator and pantry. Make a list. Check it twice. Choose cost-effective foods high in fiber and water (legumes, sweet potatoes) to pair with grains or vegetables for a base meal.
  5. Have a contingency plan. What if you break your leg and your partner has to do the cooking? What if you work late? What if you forget that it’s mid-term week? Have two or three quick meals ready to throw together. Keep some grains pre-cooked and in the refrigerator. Grains + veggies + spices = unlimited possibilities. This combination is also nearly always edible. Also, because we’ve cut down on convenience foods, I have a little bit of financial wiggle room. I give myself $5-$10 dollars to spend on treats and “what if” foods like pre-made organic smoothie juice drinks, Lara bars, and off-season fruit.
  6. Option organic. I feel safer eating organic foods. I fall into paroxysms of guilt when opening a bag of non-organic corn. However, my budget doesn’t have room for an organic-only diet. Choose to go organic for the “dirty dozen” or 12 produce items most likely to contain pesticides, when possible. The dirty dozen, listed at The Daily Green, are apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines and grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce, and kale. When I can’t buy organic I simply wash, scrub, and peel.
  7. Do your homework. We are all conserving time as well as money. Fifteen minutes on the internet can hook you up with savings rewards program from your local supermarket. Our closest chain grocery, Hannaford, has a program that provides rewards and coupons ranging from $1-$10 for certain purchases. Two dollars off my next produce purchase? Yes, please! They also send recipes and coupons. Smaller groceries and health food stores run specials of their own, so check yours out. You can also visit the websites of your favorite brands ( will take you to coupons for SoDelicious products) for coupons and rebates. You can also find smart phone apps like Saving Star and GeoCoupon that provide electronic coupons – read: no cutting and filing! I’m not nearly organized enough to coupon, but with these strategies I’ve shaved at least $10 off my grocery bill every week.
  8. Hit the freezer section. Frozen fruits and vegetables retain much of their nutritional value and can significantly pare down your grocery bill. This allows you to stock up when you find a great sale, or even save produce from your summer garden. I pick, slice, and freeze strawberries in June that last the entire year. The go-to item in our house is a bag of frozen spinach. I can throw a couple of cups into a frittata, soup, or rice-based dish. As long as I account for the extra water, no one’s the wiser.
  9. Buy in season. When you buy what is in season it is cheaper, fresher, and generally cleaner. Because our local grocer carries produce from in-state farms, I am able to stock up on Maine potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cranberries and apples between late November and early December.
  10. Enlist support. Tell your co-workers, friends, and family members. Post it on Facebook and Twitter. Your friends will send you recipes and kudos and encouragement.

Our culinary overhaul was an eventual success. While we went through many dishes before we found a core set that would work for everyone, my family and I had fun getting there. There is something so cathartic about creating something nourishing for yourself – even more so when it’s a family affair. Here is a deliciously affordable recipe we’re especially fond of. Enjoy!

Sweet Potato and Wild Rice Soup

Ingredients (what I had to work with):

All measurements are approximations

  • Olive oil
  • 1/2-1 onion
  • garlic
  • 2 sweet potatoes – peeled and diced
  • 4 small white potatoes – peeled and chopped
  • 4 c. organic vegetable broth
  • 2 cups of spinach or other greens
  • 3/4 c. wild rice
  • 1-2tbsps natural peanut butter
  • thyme
  • cayenne
  • parsley
  • ginger
  • salt and pepper.


Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add diced onion and cook ‘till translucent. Add garlic and stir ‘till almost brown. Add water, broth and sweet potato. Bring to boil, and then lower to simmer. Add white potatoes, rice, and spices. Simmer until broth looks creamy – the sweet potato will break down and create a nice consistency- and the white potatoes and rice are tender. Stir in PB and spinach. Serve hot.

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Category: Body

Heather Webb

About Heather Webb:

A Maine girl through and through, Heather cannot resist mercurial seasons, mud, or her grandfather’s bean hole beans. She lives in Bangor, Maine with her car-obsessed partner, budding-musician son, and two high-energy dogs. When not working as a high school English teacher, Heather prefers to be running, reading, writing, playing Scrabble, cooking or doing yoga.