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Friday, August 2, 2013

Frugal eating

Last year we did the $25 a week grocery challenge.  I was at a camping festival recently and when I mentioned that we budget only about $300 a month for groceries (for a family of 5), I was asked to present a workshop on it for next year with what our tricks are for cheap, healthy groceries.  Trust me, we are not eating ramen every night.  We've probably only bought ramen once while living here, though I'm not dissing the ramen.

Anyway, rather than wait a year to tell people how we do groceries on the cheap, I'll tell you now.  There's no magical way here, just common sense stuff you've likely heard before. 

Buy in bulk.
The local natural food store has bulk bins and we like to buy the things from there that we use often.  Organic cornmeal is only $.87/lb.  We also buy quinoa, couscous, and several other things from the bulk bins.  When the store has a 10% off bulk sale, we make sure to load up and store extras.

We also buy in bulk when wanting to freeze or otherwise preserve fruits (since our stuff at home is not old enough to produce yet).  This you can get from buying clubs, farmer's markets, flea markets, or even grocery stores when on sale.

Know where to go
Though I understand those who do, I do not do the price matching at WalMart, mainly because I don't support the store.  We tend to shop at Aldi for many of our groceries.  They have even started carrying organic foods in limited areas.  We stocked up on organic spaghetti at $1.19 a pack.  I know that it is possible to get it cheaper (I've seen infrequent ads for Cub Foods for $.88 a pack, which is a good price and I'd probably still buy a few, but that's for conventional food pricing).

We also shop at Target.  I get 5% off with my Red Card.  If we happen to get prescriptions, we get an extra 5% off card every time we fill 5.  When I have that coupon, I stack it with my Red Card and get 9.75% off.  I don't buy a lot of food at Target, but we do buy stuff like toilet paper.  In fact, I will buy TP every time I stack the discounts, because it never goes bad and I have the space to store it.  Often enough, Target will send out $5 off a $50 purchase coupon.

We stop off at 7 Mile Fair, a large flea market, a few times a year when we are visiting family. A large organic provider happens to sell off extras there, and we reap the benefits.  Recently, we bought a crate of sweet corn (maybe 40 or more cobs) for $8.  We've also bought blackberries, peaches, avocados, raspberries, mangoes, and much more, all at prices less than 1/4 of what you'd pay at the grocery store.  This particular flea market also sells spices, cheeses, and bulk coffee. 

Try out one of the pick-your-own places.  We've gone strawberry picking for the last 5 or so years.  You go when it's the peak of the season and then freeze or otherwise preserve what you don't immediately use.  You cannot get the real taste of fresh strawberry unless you've eaten one just picked.  Having red throughout, rather than white in the center as you'd get in most stores, makes for a delicious taste.  While strawberry season is over this year, blueberry season is still going on, and we picked nearly 20 lbs. It's the best taste at the best prices. 

The picture is a couple years old, but it's the same strawberry place we always go

Farmer's markets have food straight from the farmer (well, most of the farmer's markets), and often have the best prices, especially the last hour or so before it ends.  No one wants to be hauling home all that produce.  Some will even have local meats and eggs.  We buy our meat from my mother, who raises her own cattle.  We also have a bison ranch nearby, for local lean meat.  I haven't tried it yet, but may someday.  We buy chicken either from a farmer I work with (he offers a 10% discount for more than 25 lbs) or from an Amish farmer.  We are finally getting our own eggs from our chickens, but we otherwise buy eggs from either the supply store or the Mexican restaurant that both sell free-range eggs for about the cost of conventionally sold eggs. 

Grow It & Preserve It  
Not without a time commitment, but this is really the cheapest option, and the one we do the most of.  It's really why we can keep our budget as low as it is.  We tend to fill up the freezer and cold room and eat out of there most of the year.  It means you've got to garden, maintain the garden, harvest and preserve.  You can freeze, dry, can, or otherwise store your produce until you're ready to use it.  You won't get a better taste than what is freshly picked. 

Garden goodies from a previous year

Expand your Palate
Figure out what recipes you like that have low cost ingredients.  And by low cost, I also mean what you have preserved and put away in your freezer or cupboard.  In our home, we love polenta (creamy or baked), falafel (a Mediterranean vegetarian favorite made with chickpeas that we can also put some of the massive amount of zucchini in), pastas (with pesto, or alfredo, or tomato sauce), and egg foo  young (using eggs, obviously, and whatever veggies you have on hand).  Obviously, these meals are mostly vegetarian.  We do eat meat often enough, but when we do, we plan for it to make certain that nothing is wasted.

Waste nothing/Meal planning
Leftovers should be used up for lunch the next day, or rolled into another meal.  For example, use up your burgers or taco meat and put it in chili.  Use leftover rice (in our home there isn't such a thing) and make rice pudding.  Old bread (no one really wants all those ends) can be made into bread pudding, or dried for bread crumbs.
When making a meal out of a main dish, use the leftovers from the main dish for later dishes.  You should get 3-4 meals out of a chicken or turkey.  It may be the main attraction for one meal, but for one to two meals, you should have that meat in something else as a complement, like a noodle salad or in a sauce.  Always save your carcasses.  If you haven't learned yet, you'll need to learn how to make stock.  It's a very simple process.  Whether saving them up by putting them in a container in the freezer or making stock with each carcass, you'll end up with a lot of delicious stock to use for bases for risotto, rice, couscous, etc. or for soups.  This also ensures that you have only what you want in your stock (adding in those veggie peelings like carrots and potatoes too), and having no artificial ingredients. 

Turn stale bread into bread pudding

Make It
Make things from scratch.  Not just your meals, but other things you would use at home too.  Maybe it's not time effective or cost effective to make everything from scratch, but pick a few things.  The things we almost always make are bread and yogurt.  I can buy a premium loaf of bread for $3-4 or make it for $1.  I can buy yogurt in individual serving cups, at about $.60-$1 a serving, or make a quart of yogurt for about 1/8th of that, again without the unpronounceable ingredients.  With the yogurt, we'll add honey or maple syrup or jam.  We'll often use it for tzatziki to go on our falafels.

Redefine Food
We've all heard not to eat CRAP (Carbonated beverages, Refined, Artificial colors and sweeteners, processed foods).  But, there is a lot more in the food category if you're willing to be a bit more adventuresome and become a budding wildcrafter.   Some delicious foods are commonly called weeds.  Even if you don't feel like seeing what's available outside of your sphere (and you definitely shouldn't if there's a change it might be sprayed with chemicals), there are many things that are likely growing in even your yard that you don't realize are edible.  Dandelions, violets, purslane, and lambs quarters are just a few that we have in our own yard.  There are so many recipes for a lot of great foods to make.  It's not that you have to dive in and do an entire meal out of wildcrafted foods, but even replacing ingredients for an item or two will expand your palate and cut the budget.  For example, lambs quarters can be used interchangeably with spinach, and tastes very close to it. 

Socialize the frugal way
Everyone loves a potluck.  

Though not under the food budget, making your household cleaners also helps to keep money in your pocket.  There's really nothing you need to clean for most household jobs but for baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and vinegar.  I do like to buy Dr. Bronner's castille soap because we use that for hand soap.  It can also be used for shampoo if you don't otherwise use baking soda and vinegar for that. From personal experience, I can tell you that vinegar is the best conditioner I've ever tried.  I also like to get Dawn dish soap, but buy it in a 5 gallon bucket for $25 at the flea market, because it's useful for many cleaning jobs.  I especially like it along with baking soda (and sometimes hydrogen peroxide) for carpet cleaning.

Happy frugal eating!

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