We’re feeling the crunch – are you? When I’m shopping lately, I see different things in other people’s baskets – more basic foods and less superfluous foods. Higher end restaurants are feeling the financial crunch, taking advantage of happy hours is the new ‘in’ thing.
I wrote the following article a year ago at the soon-to-be-offline Creating Edible Landscape. It still seems very relevant, so I thought I’d share it with all you new readers here.
5 Ways We Cut Down On Food Costs
The following five changes include a double bottom line to food costs: costs to your pocketbook and costs to the environment and society. Some of these may be obvious, some may not. And whether obvious or not, hopefully this list will help you stick to doing them!
1. Buy in bulk. Rice, pasta, flour, oats and other grains, raisins, tea, coffee, soaps… a lot of daily items are available in bulk. Your regular grocery chain may not have very many of these items in bulk, so you might want to branch out and look at a store that does. We buy many bulk items at our local produce stand, several at our independent grocery store, and a few at our local health food store.
There are also a few products I still buy online. When I do buy online, I make sure to buy enough supplies for several months. The product is often discounted this way, and I pay less shipping charges in the long run. Not to mention fewer gas-guzzling trips UPS has to make to get it here.
My rule of thumb is that if we can handle it in our budget, we should invest in more now in order to save later. So, if I know I’m going to use a product in the future, and it has a long shelf life, I will buy a bigger amount. White vinegar, for example – we use it for cleaning, so I know we’ll go through a large bottle eventually. A large bottle will save packaging, and it will be cheaper than buying several smaller bottles over time.
2. Eat seasonally and locally. This is sometimes tricky, because our regular grocery stores have done their best to make all sorts of things available to us from all over the world. And some seasonal items are counter-intuitive. I had to convince my husband once that citrus really is in season in the winter. To him, fruit = summer. Generally true, but there are exceptions.
Our local independent grocery store puts local, seasonal foods right up front in the produce section (or even at the door as you walk into the store). Your store may do that as well. There is usually an abundance of whatever is seasonal, and often they are on sale. Here is a great link to find out what’s available in your area – enter your state and the month, and it will tell you what’s in season! The BBC has an awesome chart here, with some seasonal recipes here.
When you eat locally and seasonally, you cut out a lot of the processing, transporting, refrigeration and storage, and nasty preservatives. And instead you preserve the nutrients, the flavor, the environment, the local economy, and generally, some of your money.
3. Eat less meat and cheese. The bottom line is: meat that is good for you (and good for the environment) is expensive. I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years, and I’m not asking you to go cold tofurkey here. I eased my way into eating less meat over a year or two, by gradually phasing it out. For a long time I let myself eat my favorite meat dishes. Gradually, even eating those favorites seemed weird to me, and eventually it was easy to stop. But I digress. All I’m saying for now is to eat less meat.
If you’re worried about your protein intake, make sure to eat whole grains – which you’ve bought in bulk, of course! Also, beans are a great source of protein, and they are quite inexpensive. (Please see these posts by Crunchy Chicken and Chile Chews, for further information about beans.) But you don’t have to eat just beans – even vegetables contain surprising amounts of protein!
And, the second part of this is sooooo difficult for me, because I love cheese. But good-for-you organic cheese is really getting expensive. I do want to start making cheese, and cost will be a good motivation. But in the meantime, I am going to start eating less cheese.
4. Stop Eating Out. You’re tired, you’ve had a long day, the kids are past hungry and so are you. But it’s not good for either of you to eat out. Neither physically or economically. And I’ve found that eating out (particularly fast food) is sometimes more stressful, too!
So make sure you have some easy recipes in your repertoire. We eat a lot of pasta with simple tomato sauces and a side salad. Or roasted veggies with some quick cooking couscous. Taco night can be quite easy: open a can of beans, throw some tortillas in the toaster oven, grate some cheese and cut up a few veggies…. I’ve been encouraged by some of our readers here to write up some more recipes, so I plan to do that.
I try to keep in mind that eating out rarely saves much time. The time it takes to get to a restaurant, order, and settle down and eat – and then get back in the car and come home – is about the same as the time it takes to whip up a quick dinner at home and eat together around the table. And it’s more nutritious, tastes better, costs less, and is easier on the environment.
And the pleasure can be equally good, if not better. The photo at the top of this article is of a dish Matt and I sometimes treat ourselves to: fresh butternut squash raviolis from a local shop, sage from our window box garden, and mushrooms from a local farmer. A gloriously satisfying meal that costs around $5 for the two of us! It’s a nice treat, to be sure, at a fraction of the cost of eating the same meal out, and it only takes about 15 minutes to cook.
5. Junk the Junk Food. We eat junk food for the same reasons we eat out: because it seems easier at the time. And sometimes because it’s a treat (don’t forget it’s a short-lived treat!). Even the health food store junk food is generally quite processed, full of empty calories, highly packaged, and ounce per ounce quite expensive.
Junk food counts as “stuff” in my book, and I’ve vowed to stop buying stuff. My money can be put to much better use.
If you’re used to having a lot of junk food around the house, it won’t be easy to cut it out all at once. Particularly if you have kids. But slowly begin to cut back, phase it out, one by one, bit by bit. If your kids need a snack, feed them a whole grain snack, a fruit or a vegetable. They need these things to grow and stay healthy – they absolutely don’t need junk food.
6. Consume less alcohol. Better for your pocketbook, better for your figure, better for the environment. I know some of us need a drink occasionally to unwind, but just try to drink a little more sparingly.