After months of dire economic forecasts underscored by rising prices on just about everything, almost everyone I know is feeling at least a bit of a financial pinch. Add in the extra money most of us spent around the holidays, and the thought of putting out hard-won cash for organic food can seem a little overwhelming. However, it is possible to continue to eat organic—and even locally grown—food and still stay within your budget.
Create a budget
One of the first steps to saving money on food is to create a grocery budget. Some people like to havea formal written plan for each month that details total income and expenses, others determine a monthly amount to be set aside for total food spending and some people prefer to designate one amount for groceries used to prepare food at home and another amount for eating out. In order to know how much money you need for food each month it can be useful to track your spending for two or three months—that means writing down every food purchase you make, no matter how small. Keep track of meals eaten out, too, and be sure to include snacks and beverages. Once you know where you are spending your food money, you will be able to determine how much to set aside each month and whether you need to make cuts in spending. You may decide to cook dinner more often and carry your own coffee and lunch in order to save the higher cost of eating out for special events.
Make a plan
Once you know how much money you have available for grocery shopping, it is time to figure out how you want to spend it. Most people spend less—or more realistically—when they know in advance what they plan to buy. When it comes to food shopping that means having at least a general meal plan in mind for the week. Some savvy shoppers like to map out an entire week’s worth of menus in advance and buy only the things needed to make those dishes. Others like to scan the specials first, see what the best buys are for seasonal foods and then shop to combine those factors. Some people are big believers in coupon shopping; others never use coupons.
Most experts recommend a few other key tactics to help keep food costs in line: never shop when you are hungry; use a list and stick to it; try to shop without your children (or spouse) if you spend more in their company; only shop the store aisles that stock the items on your list; compare price per ounce for different brands; buy in bulk when possible; and choose whole foods more often than processed products.
The USDA periodically publishes food plans that can help people learn which nutrients and food groups are important to consume for good health. In addition they also provide the U.S. average cost for preparing those foods at home (http://www.cnpp.usda.gov./USDAFoodPlansCostofFood.htm). The USDA site presents four different food plans for thrifty, low cost, moderate and liberal expenditures; the plans are set up for households of various sizes and ages. As the cost of the plans increase, so does the total daily food consumption, but all the plans meet USDA recommended nutritional guidelines. The newly revised plans include more convenience foods than those in the past. These reports can give you a baseline figure to plan your budget around, but you may want to add ten percent or so to their figures to cover the higher, unsubsidized cost of organic foods.
The cost of food
The USDA published a revised report on the cost of food in June 2008. At that time, the average cost for a household of two people under the age of 50 was $127.50 per week for the moderate food plan and dropped to $122 for a couple over 50; a family of four with children under six could expect to spend $184 on the moderate plan and if the children were a few years older, the cost went up to $218.60. I admit that I don’t track my grocery spending as closely as I probably should, but $122 is far more than I normally spend on local and organic food and we think we eat very well. Part of the reason we spend less may be that the USDA includes things that we don’t usually buy, like soda, frozen dinners, packaged sauces and generous amounts of meat and dairy products. In addition to cooking mostly from scratch with whole foods and a few “helpers” like canned tomatoes and commercially made tortillas, pasta and a few soy meat substitutes, we also limit restaurant meals and trips to our local coffee shop.
One of the best ways to stretch your food dollar is to cook, mostly from scratch, at home. Some cooksapproach this as a time to mentally distance themselves from the workday and make simple meals most nights. Others find that a marathon cooking session on the weekend helps get dinner on the table more easily on weeknights. In this model, you prepare batches of basic beans and grains and refrigerate them to use as building blocks for several meals; you also make a few main dishes like a casserole, maybe a roasted chicken, and a stew or soup to round out your meals for the week. Remember, cooking often goes more quickly with extra hands, so enlist your partner, children, roommates, or anyone you like—and don’t forget to keep them around for the meal and cleanup!
Foods that satisfy our sweet or salty tooth tend to cost more per serving than the basics, and most of us eat servings that are larger than manufacturers suggest, so if you like to have treats in the house, consider making your own. Homemade popcorn is a snack that most people enjoy; create some flavor variety with seasonings like chili powder, grated cheese, Italian herbs and olive oil, nutritional yeast, or anything that sounds interesting. Homemade cookies and muffins are always popular and can be healthier than commercial varieties if you pay attention to the ingredients. If you like good multigrain bread you have probably noticed that prices have climbed in this area, too, but you can make great bread at home for a fraction of the cost. Pita bread is a fun and easy way to start; kids—and kids at heart—love to watch pitas puff in the oven.
You may find that you need to invest in some kitchen equipment if you want to begin cooking more at home. Before you fill your countertops with gadgets and appliances, try to borrow equipment from friends for a test run—you might decide you really don’t need much fancy stuff. For example, I prefer using a good knife rather than a food processor when it comes to chopping vegetables and I thoroughly enjoy the tactile experience of bread-making, so I don’t have the urge to own a bread machine. If you need timesaving appliances, or a food processor feels less threatening than a chef’s knife, then go ahead and use them—in the long run youwill recoup the money spent on useful tools by cooking at home rather than eating frozen dinners or restaurant meals every day.
My favorite time and money saving gadget is a pressure cooker; stews and soups are ready in almost no time, vegetables like beets can be steamed in less than 15 minutes and dried beans are a cinch—most varieties cook in less than 20 minutes in a pressure cooker. Most dried beans measure about two cups per pound, but they double or triple in size when you cook them, so spending a couple of dollars on a pound of dried organic beans is more economical than purchasing canned beans and the flavor can’t be beat. Cooked beans will keep in the refrigerator for a few days; for longer storage freeze them in one and two-cup containers. Do the same thing with whole grains and dinner will be almost instant and reasonably priced. Beans and grains are also easily cooked in a pot on the stove and some cooks really like to use a slow cooker for these foods, so consider that if it fits into your lifestyle more comfortably.
Maximizing your money at the Co-op
We can suggest several ways to maximize your food budget when shopping at the Co-op. One of the best places to start is by buying staples in the Bulk aisle. This is the place to find a huge array of whole grains, several kinds of rice, an assortment of pasta and a rainbow of legumes. There are spices galore to perk up your meals, as well as sweeteners, oils, flour, cereals, dried fruits, nuts and seeds. The beauty of Bulk is that you can buy exactly as much of a product as you need, so no money is wasted on extra kamut or quinoa if a new recipe doesn’t meet your expectations. Bulk products normally cost less per pound because of the reduced packaging and lower labor expenditures needed to keep the shelves stocked.
The concept of reduced packaging applies in other departments as well. Eggs are available in bulk in the dairy aisle, but remember to bring your own carton or other container; olives are a popular bulk item in the Deli. The Produce department is filled with choices that are not prepackaged so you can choose just a few apples, a handful of shiitake mushrooms, or a few ounces of spinach, for example.
The best buys in Produce are usually found on fruits and vegetables that are in season. This time of year, look for hearty root vegetables—these are delicious when roasted to tender sweetness, or you can combine a few into a warming stew or layer them in a savory gratin. Many of the root vegetables that are harvested locally in the autumn can be stored in a cool place for weeks, so next fall think about where you might put some carrots, spuds, squash, or turnips for winter eating. No matter what the season, when you find a good deal on local produce, try to put some away while prices are the most reasonable, so you have it to enjoy a few months down the road.
Preserving the harvest
One of the easiest ways to preserve the harvest of any season is by freezing; investing in a chest freezer also allows you to take advantage of special sales on many products and gives you a place to store extra batches of homemade casseroles, soup or baked goods; a supply of soup or casseroles in the freezer is budgetary insurance against unplanned trips for takeout. A small chest freezer is about the size of a dishwasher and can be stashed almost anywhere you have an electrical outlet; used freezers are fairly easy to find and usually reasonably priced. Another easy and economical way to preserve local produce is to dry it. Food dehydrators are easy to use and inexpensive to buy, and dried food requires very little storage space. Dried fruits and vegetables make great snacks or can be used in your favorite recipes. Canning is a time-honored method of saving the harvest and can take the form of jams and jellies, pickles, salsa or just plain fruits and vegetables. Home-canned meats used to be very popular; my grandparents continued to can meat long after they’d purchased afreezer to save their garden produce. Canned meat becomes very tender, allowing you to quickly turn inexpensive cuts of meat into delicious stews and casseroles. Be aware that meat, poultry, seafood and other low acid foods require pressure canning, not just the hot water bath method, for safety.
The price of meat
Meat is often the biggest part of a family’s food budget. According to a recent article in the New York Times, each American now consumes almost 200 pounds of meat, poultry and fish each year on average; fifty years ago, our per capita consumption was 150 pounds. These numbers do not include eggs or dairy products. This works out to be two to three times the amount of protein that experts recommend, so reducing the amount of meat in the typical diet should not have a negative impact on health. In fact, many studies implicate high meat consumption in a variety of health problems including cardiovascular illness, some cancers, obesity and diabetes, whereas vegetarian diets have been shown to have positive effects on health.
In addition to going meat-free a few times each week, you can reduce the amount you spend on meat in a few other ways: buying a larger, complete piece of meat usually costs less per pound than specialty cuts, so buy a whole chicken rather than boneless, skinless breasts. Cut up the bird yourself; skin and bone it if you like. Use the chicken breasts in your recipe and save the remaining pieces in the freezer for another meal or two. You can make stock from the bones, skin, wings, backs and necks and save any meat from the stock for casseroles or soup. The same strategy can be applied to a turkey, roast or ham—roast the big cut for a main meal and then cut thin slices to save for sandwiches; freeze some of the leftover meat for future casseroles;and simmer the bones and trimmings into soup.
In most places in the world, meat does not regularly take center stage on the dinner plate so look to ethnic cuisines for ways to economize on meat, too. In addition to discovering new meatless favorites, you will find that in many cultures meat is used only in small quantities or as a flavoring agent—think of dishes like fried rice or lo mein, spaghetti with meat sauce, or a meat-vegetable curry.
A big pot of soup
A big pot of soup is a great choice for thrifty eating this time of year and is easy to make, regardless of your kitchen experience. Most soups and stews improve in flavor after a day or two in the refrigerator; you can eat the leftovers at any time of day and by adding a salad or other vegetable and some good bread you end up with a complete meal in no time. The other nice thing about soup is the very reasonable cost. Soup doesn’t require the most beautiful vegetables or the most expensive cut of meat—or any meat—to taste great and by adding beans, pasta, rice or another grain you can easily increase the number of servings.
The Co-op maintains several discount pricing programs to help you save money. The first way to save is simply by joining the Co-op: member-owners pay shelf price on products, non-owners pay an additional ten percent; members receive a discount on pre-ordered case lots of merchandise and are able to special order products that we don’t carry in the store; and member-owners can take advantage of monthly Owner Rewards and the owner-only specials that are offered during Owner Appreciation Week every October. Owner Rewards items carry bright lime-green signs; these are monthly specials available only to owner-members of the Co-op. They are usually extra-special deals on popular products, so stock up while the savings are the best. Be sure to check the Essentials and Bi-Weekly specials, too. Essentials are basic products offered at special discounts each month and are marked with yellow signs. Bi-Weekly specials change every other week on Friday; their signs are red. Another way to save is through the ESP program. EverydaySale Prices apply to 20 basic products throughout the store everyday, and include items like Fair Trade bananas, tofu, bulk and packaged peanut butter, bulk basmati rice and more. ESP items are changed occasionally to reflect customer requests, availability, or major price changes, but for the most part, these are deals you can count on—everyday. ESP items feature a green and white bulls-eye logo. And don’t forget Wellness Wednesday—on the first Wednesday of each month, you will receive an extra ten percent discount on all supplements and body care products in our Health and Wellness department; these are not technically food items, but are often included in the monthly food budget. All of these promotional programs, except Wellness Wednesday, include products from each department in the store. You can find the specials posted at the front of the store each month and in every issue of the Reader, as well as on our website.
In addition to our in-store specials, we honor manufacturers’ coupons at the register. You can find coupons in magazines and often at manufacturers’ websites. When you are shopping at the Co-op look for Mambo Sprouts coupon booklets at the Customer Service desk. As a member you will also receive Co-op Advantage Program coupon books in your home mailbox periodically during the year, unless you ask us to remove your name from the list.
If impulse buying is your budgetary downfall, or shopping with little ones causes you to spend too much, you might save money using our Co-Shop program. With Co-Shop, you place your grocery order online and our staff will shop and pack your order for delivery or pick-up. And now that winter is making driving and parking a bigger hassle than ever, remember that you can walk, bike or bus to the Co-op, shop for your groceries before noon, and then have them delivered to your door. Visit our shopping website, http://shop.willystreet.coop/, for details or pick up a brochure at the Customer Service desk. Co-Shop is available every day (delivery days differ depending on your zip code).
This month we are launching a new program—$16 Squares—to help get you cooking and saving money. Each month we will feature two menus for home-style square meals, costing $16 or less, that will serve four, and maybe even include leftovers for lunch. Look for meals that are balanced, and give you ways to take advantage of seasonal produce and the special pricing we offer on some of the ingredients. The meal plans will assume that your kitchen is stocked with the basics when it comes to ingredients like spices, flour, oil, and condiments, but the cost of other ingredients, or unusual things, will be included. $16 Squares recipes will appear in the newsletter, on the website, and in the recipe kiosk near the Customer Service desk; look for the $16 Squares logo in the newsletter, on the recipe rack and on specials signs throughout the store. If you have economical recipes you’d like us to consider in future months, we’d love to print them—drop them off at Customer Service or email them directly to me:. Please remember to include your name and member number and tell me if the recipe is from a cookbook.
Finally, don’t forget all the resident experts you’ll find at the Co-op that can help you get the most from your food dollars! Staff members in every department are trained to help you find the products you need, and also to share information—if you want to try a Deli recipe at home, just ask at the Deli counter; our Produce staff will happily suggest storage and cooking methods for anything they sell and tell you how to judge ripeness; employees in the Bulk aisle can tell you the differences between types of rice, or suggest what to do with amaranth; our Cheese whizzes are waiting to talk about their newest choices; and Grocery and Dairy stockers will point you to new products, or show you where they’ve moved your old favorites!