If your household is similar to ours, the grocery slice of the budget pie is sizable enough to get your attention. Most “experts” recommend budgeting 14-20% of your take home pay for food (groceries, lattes, eating at restaurants, etc.). A recent study shows however that Americans are spending less on average than ever before on groceries – 11% of income. That might sound like good news, but consider the story behind the numbers.
A separate study from 2012 shows that while prices – for meat in particular – have gone down, American consumption has in fact gone up or remained the same. What happened? The advent of the factory-farm has succeeded in pushing the price of meat way down. A 2012 article by Tom Philpott (The American Diet in 1 Chart) explains the phenomenon well:
“American eaters have gotten a windfall from the the era of cheap meat that dawned in the early ’80s. Meat prices tumbled as small farms shuttered, to be replaced by massive factory-scale farms that stuffed animals with cheap, subsidized corn and soy and kept them alive and growing to slaughter weight with daily doses of antibiotics. Regulators looked the other way as these gigantic facilities created messes they didn’t have to pay to clean up. Meanwhile, as Mother Jones’ Ted Genoways showed in his blockbuster piece last year on Hormel, corporate meatpackers managed to bust unions, speed up kill lines, and drive down employee wages. It all added up to bargain-priced meat.”
Consequently, our consumption of processed (read: cheap) food has skyrocketed. In 1982, 11.6% of a family’s budget was spent on processed food and sweets. Today processed food tops the budget break down at 22.9% of the budget, followed by meat (21.5%), fruits and veggies (14.6%), Grains and Baked goods (14.4%), beverages (11.1%) and dairy products (10.6%). So in layman’s terms, we spend less money on food now because the bulk of our diet is ‘food’ processed and engineered with more regard to its cost than its quality.
Save Money, Eat Healthy
So what do you do if you’re interested in saving money AND eating healthy? Don’t despair – here are some tips.
Cook at Home
When you buy pre-packaged food or eat at a restaurant, you’re paying for more than just the ingredients you consume. (Someone has to pay to keep the lights on, right?) With practice, cooking at home can be just as delicious (sometimes more delicious!) than eating out. Eating at home can save you up to $2,600 a year! And with some savvy, budget-friendly tips (like the tips you’re about to read) you can save even more money! If you’ve never been much of a cook, don’t let that stop you. (Everyone has to start somewhere, right?) I recommend beginning your journey into homemade meals by using a crock pot. It’s so easy – I promise – and the great-tasting meals you produce will give you a boost of confidence to try something new!
Make a Plan
Like a lot of things in life, it’s hard to win without a plan. Your grocery plan starts long before you jump in the car to head to Meijer. Here are some tips. First, keep a pad of paper in an accessible area (on the side of the fridge?) so that you can keep track of grocery needs on an ongoing basis. Did you use the last of the olive oil? Write it down now so you don’t forget it later. The next two tips go hand-in-hand – make a menu and check for sales. Making a menu (meal planning) helps you make purchases that will form complete meals rather than buying a bunch of things that sound good but don’t add up to a complete meal. Having a pre-made meal plan saves time as well because you don’t have to figure out what to make each night. Planning a menu around what’s on sale will naturally save you money. The next tip is to take stock of what you already have so you don’t buy unnecessary duplicates. All of this should be complete by the night before you’re going shopping: Menu created (check!); Inventory taken (check!); List created (check!). Now when you get to the store, you’ll be able to stick to your list without worrying that you’ve forgotten something, and perhaps with a little more resolve to skip over impulse buys! (You can also decrease impulse purchases – like a candy bar at the checkout aisle – by having a small snack before you go shopping).
Buy (and Preserve) Produce In-Season
There are lots of great reasons to buy produce when it is in-season. First of all, the taste is so much better than out-of-season veggies that you may never want to go back! Second, buying in-season, local produce (check out your local farmers market) is great for your community and area farmers. And third of all, it costs less to buy food in-season than it does to buy it when it has to be grown hundreds of miles away and shipped to you through the snow. And if you team up with tip #9 below, you could save even more money at the farmer’s market; Many sellers are willing to give you a discount for buying large amounts of produce if you ask politely. Worried about what you’ll do with all those [fill in the blank here]? If you can’t eat it all now, preserve some of it! Can it, freeze it, dry it. Don’t be intimidated – you can find tons of how-to help on the web (or by asking your Grandma). Then in January when you want wholesome [fill in the blank here] you can skip the trucked-in-from-California produce section of your grocery store and turn to your pantry instead.
Use Sales and Coupons
I confess – I missed the Extreme Couponing movement. I’m not coupon-wielding expert, but I do know that the Sunday paper is full of coupons. As long as those coupons are for things you will actually use, you can save money by using them. Consider taking advantage of frequency type clubs for items you usually buy or places you usually shop (i.e. “buy 10 get the 11th free”). Meijer has a great website (and a great app for your mobile device) for looking up sales. Planning meals around what’s on sale can save you big bucks. If you can swing it, try keeping a “Sale Fund” set aside (perhaps $50 or $100) so that when a great sale comes up, you can stock up and fill your freezer. (Earlier this year we scored some unbelievable Buy One, Get Two type deals at Harding’s… our freezer has never been so full of meat!) Just remember – using a coupon to buy something you otherwise wouldn’t buy doesn’t save you money, even if you get 10% off.
Buy in Bulk
Our favorite place to buy in bulk is from Country Life Natural Foods in Pullman, MI. It’s quite a drive (about an hour) from our home in South Portage, but if you buy several things at once, the trip is worthwhile. We’ve saved money on organic Quinoa (a year’s supply for $30), a year’s worth of honey (1 gallon for $38.50) and 7 pounds of coconut oil ($12.90). They have practically everything you can think of and some of it is Michigan-made. Check out their catalog here. To save even more money, carpool with a friend (thanks Darci!) or take orders from each other and take turns doing the pick up. I’ve never tried it but apparently they also deliver for certain order sizes. We also now save money by buying our herbs and spices in bulk at Sawall Health Foods in Kalamazoo.
Leftovers? What Leftovers?
A great way to save on food is to avoid wasting it. Plan your meals to make the most of leftovers. Here’s an example from our life: Every other Sunday we have a roasted chicken for dinner with carrots, potatoes, peas, beans, onions or other in-season veggies. Monday I use the leftover chicken and veggies in a meal like chicken salad over spinach or a chicken pot pie. After that, I turn the chicken carcass into stock and make soup with it (sometimes using remaining veggies from Sunday’s roast). Even sour milk can be saved from going to waste! You can’t stretch everything that far, but there are lots of leftovers that would go great in an omelet, a salad or soup. If all else fails, send unwanted leftovers to the compost bin rather than the garbage can.
Brown Bag Lunch
A great way to bloat your food budget is to eat out for lunch every day. When my day job involved working from an office instead of working from my living room I discovered some tips to making the brown bag lunch work. I don’t know about you, but there were typically three reasons why I ate lunch at a restaurant instead of from a lunch bag. The biggest hurdle to jump is just remembering to bring a lunch. If you’re serious about saving money, taking a few minutes the night before to pack tomorrow’s lunch is key. Another issue: What’s in the bag just doesn’t sound appetizing. The simplest way to avoid that conundrum is to bring food you’ll look forward to eating! My main way of addressing this was to make fabulous dinners and make sure there were always leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. The other reason I skipped a bagged lunch was because I just needed to get out of the office! In warm weather, you can accomplish the same thing by taking your lunch to a nearby park. In yucky weather, sometimes just sitting in your car provides enough peace and quiet to count as “getting away.” I also made sure to bring or keep healthy snacks at work to curb my desire to buy a little something in the afternoon. I always had something sweet (yogurt, a cucumber, dried fruit, etc.) and something salty (crackers, mixed nuts, etc.) on hand to keep my snacking healthy and cheap.You could save more money by stashing homemade snacks like granola.
Frozen and Dried
Frozen and dried fruits and vegetables are less expensive than fresh and in some cases contain the same amount of nutrients. Resealable packaging helps you avoid waste. For tips on how to store frozen vegetables so they keep as long as possible, click here.
Use Cheaper Protein
Meat is expensive. If beef and chicken are choking your budget, try getting your protein in other ways such as beans, eggs, quinoa or legumes. If you grow your own (including raising backyard chickens for eggs) think of all the money you could save by opting for non-meat alternatives. For fabulous egg recipes, click here.
Shop at Home
Starting this spring, we hope to transition to a family that produces more of our food rather than buying it elsewhere. What if you could remove vegetables, fruit and herbs from your grocery list because you’re shopping in the backyard? Now think about what a difference it would make to take eggs, milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, bread and maybe even meat off the list? We may not all be able to raise our own meat birds or raise goats for milk, but almost everyone (even apartment dwellers) can grow fresh herbs and vegetables. By using an intensive planting method (like Square Foot Gardening) you can grow a surprising amount of food in a small space. Start small with a garden size you’ll be able to easily manage. I think you’ll be amazed at how much you get – and how much you’ll save!
Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.