Unfortunately, real food can be more expensive. That is, if you shop in traditional ways. However, if you follow these steps, you might find that real food can actually be cheaper than what you're doing now!
Step One: Swap a Processed Product for a Real Product
This is the simplest way to save money on real food. Look in your cart and find one processed thing that you already buy. For example, find that box of cereal in your cart for at least $2.50. Coupons can make it cheaper, but coupons are usually for the "breakfast candy" types of cereal. If it's a truly healthy version, it's probably closer to $4 or $5. Buy a box of oatmeal for the same amount or less than the cheap box of cereal, and serve more meals with greater variety.
Step Two: Make Your Own
It is true that not every product can be that simply replaced at the grocery store. Bakery items like breads, tortillas, and muffins can almost always be made cheaper at home. Many breakfast items like granola, pancakes and waffles can as well. I love to make my own soups and sauces as much as possible. They are pretty easy, taste much better and cost much less!
Step Three: Grow Your Own
Fresh produce is the staple of the healthy diet. It is so satisfying to be able to pick tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce from your own backyard or from a pot on your porch. This cuts down on cost considerably, especially if you grow enough to freeze or can.
Step Four: Purchase Directly from the Source
If you aren't able to grow your own, it is often cheaper to buy from a farm or a farm market. Many farmers grow produce organically even though they are not officially certified. Since they don't have to pay for the certification process, they can pass on organic produce to you at a much lower price. Pick-your-own farms are also great for this. We have a tradition of picking strawberries every year and freezing them to enjoy during those months they are $4 a pound!
Step Five: Buy in Bulk
Two discoveries have helped us to provide our family with healthier foods on a budget. One is the bulk bins in the health food store. I can try new things in whatever amounts I choose, and the cost is really minimal since I don't have to get the big bag or fancy packaging.
I like to buy raw nuts this way, since really I only need a small amount for snacks. Though they are expensive per pound, I can buy just what I need for no more than a bag of chips that would be void of nutrition and last half as long. I've taken this a step further and purchase things I know we enjoy like brown rice and rolled oats in 25# bags, driving the cost down further.
The best thing to buy in bulk is meat. This can be a large initial investment, so we don't always get to do it. However, when we can set aside some money through the year, we buy half a cow. Grass-fed beef not treated with antibiotics is $4.99 per pound or more in the health food store, and that is just for hamburger! I can purchase all my beef from hamburger to sirloin tip roast to porterhouse steak for less per pound than I would pay for hamburger in the health food store. Actually, when I buy in bulk, the cost is very comparable to what I would pay in a regular grocery store for the hamburger.
Although I can no longer be a "coupon queen" while buying real food, my grocery budget (which includes all paper products and toiletries but not diapers) has only doubled in the 12 years since I married and we lived on Hamburger Helper, canned soup, ramen noodles and coupon-purchased cereal. This isn't too bad since our family size has tripled since then and I don't buy many boxes, bags or cans anymore.