4 Tips for Eating Ethically on a Budget

Try these 4 tips for how to eat ethically without breaking the bank.

It’s no secret that the economy and culture of the United States are driven by consumption. We are consumers of pretty much anything that’s put in front of us: clothing, food, home goods, media, and so on. Consuming is not inherently bad. But it can certainly be unhealthy if we buy into the narrative that if I have X or Y or Z, I will be more fulfilled than I am now

Unfortunately, this is exactly the narrative that our culture wants us to buy into. Which makes sense. After all, it’s a money-making narrative. But this narrative becomes dangerous for everyone when we lose sight of how we consume — and the ways, as a result, that goods and people become easily expendable, a means to an end. And that goes for food, too: Produce, animal products, and packaged goods — and the systems that bring these things to our tables — are being exploited for profit.

But the bright side is that, when it comes to food, many of us want to consume in a way that is ethical and life-giving for ourselves, the environment, and our communities. We know that how we spend our money at the grocery store or farmers’ market can have a real impact on the lives of people and the planet we call home. And we don’t want to take the $72 billion diet industry’s word on how to shop anymore. 

So, how do we buy products that are good for us and responsibly sourced, without breaking the bank? Here are a few ideas.

1. Buy more whole foods

One simple place to start is to buy more whole foods: Seek out food that has been minimally processed. Buying less-processed food positively impacts our wallets, our bodies, and our communities. These foods — including produce and certain kinds of dairy and protein — are found on the perimeter of most grocery stores. 

When we choose to buy whole foods like produce, we can choose to shop seasonally. That means buying zucchini, berries, corn, and tomatoes in the summer; and root vegetables, kale, brussels sprouts and citrus in the winter. Visit your local farmers’ market to ask what is in season. 

When we buy fruits and veggies that are in season, they are both higher in nutritional value and less expensive. Figuring out what produce is seasonal also requires that we remember where our food comes from, and who produces it for us. This conscious acknowledgement of food sources is one step toward reclaiming a more life-giving relationship with food and the systems we participate in when we prepare meals.

2. Buy less meat

Another simple step in consuming more ethically is to buy less meat. A recent study explained that “eating meat is generally considered bad for the environment because its production involves huge amounts of pesticides, fertilizer, fuel, and water, and its distribution releases greenhouse gases into the air.” So, when we choose to forgo eating meat, we are doing something positive for the environment. 

In terms of personal health, committing to a “Meatless Monday” (or whatever day works best for you) helps us create healthy habits that are sustainable. And if you participate in the Meatless Monday movement, you’re more likely to reduce meat beyond that in some form during one additional day of the week. 

In addition to its environmental impact, meat has a pretty high price point. This means that when we reduce the amount of meat we consume, we put money back into our wallets. Those extra funds could be used to prioritize ethical shopping in other areas, or to buy meat from your local butcher when you do choose the carnivorous option.

3. Buy intentionally

For many, it’s a luxury to be able to buy everything organic, fair-trade, locally sourced, and sustainably caught. This doesn’t need to be a deterrent, though, to doing what we can. If we’re thoughtful and intentional in considering what we buy and its impact, ethical shopping can find a home in our lives. We just need to name what we can commit to. 

If you are a chocolate or coffee lover, can you commit to buying those items from fair-trade sources? If shopping at a farmers market isn’t in the cards every week, can you shop at a farmers’ market once per month? Thinking about your pantry staples (oats, rice, trail mix, nuts, beans, etc.), can you reduce cost and waste by buying in bulk? What we can do depends on our priorities and states of life, but by being thoughtful and mindful we can certainly all commit to something to benefit ourselves, our environment, and our communities. 

4. Make it Yourself

Finally, when we think about shopping and consuming in a way that is life-giving, seeking out local products is always a fundamental goal. But many people don’t realize that “local” can be as close as our own kitchens. We sometimes rely so much on convenience and habit that we ignore our ability to create. And creating at home can be both sustainable and affordable.

In our home, pizza is a favorite meal. But we also want that pizza to taste delicious and fresh, which comes with a price tag. Baking with yeast was a terrifying proposition for me until I came to terms with the fact that a $20-$30 pizza simply wasn’t in our budget. I talked with baker friends and studied Bobby Flay’s techniques, and (to my disbelief) learned to make some pretty good pizza dough. Now, pizza night (two homemade doughs cost all of $1) is a regular event in our home. Plus, I got to experience the joy of gaining a new skill. 

When we bring the craft of cooking back into our kitchens, we reclaim the reality that food is something to be shared and celebrated. And, best of all, when we cook ourselves, we have control over the source and quality of our ingredients, which allows us to be more ethical consumers. 

Popular culture can lead us into mindless consumption or consumption for its own sake. But, in the face of that, being ethical and intentional in the ways we shop for and treat food has the capacity to create meaningful connections. It’s an opportunity not just for personal health, but for restoring some of what is just, good, and beautiful in our world. 

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