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Cooking on a Budget, Co-op Style

Sometimes it feels like there is just too much craziness happening in the world.

Between the highly polarized political scene, the weird weather, world-wide economic crisis, and the more general struggles in the day to day, I must confess that there are days when I feel completely overwhelmed. For me, stepping away from disillusionment into empowered action happens first in the areas of my life that I have most control over. And that includes where I spend my dollars, and what I spend them on.

Here’s where the Co-op comes in. I like supporting a local business, especially one that pays their workers well and supports their community. I like supporting local farmers and producers by buying their products at the Co-op and farmers’ markets. I really like supporting production practices that are sustainable and just, to people, the planet and the other creatures who live here with us. Most personally, I like putting food in my body that supports all of these things while also helping me become my best, most healthy self. It’s a win-win-win-WIN, all too rare these days.

However, my food budget isn’t exactly superabundant. Like most people these days, there are a lot of bills to pay and sometimes it is tempting to let my food choices fall a bit by the wayside—to buy into the myth that sustainable, nutritious food is unaffordable and compromise on some of my food purchases. Except, with my dollars being so hard to come by, it irked me to put them toward food that didn’t line up with my values. Even more than before, I wanted my precious, hard earned funds to go to people and places that I care about, not big corporate players who are trying to change the rules of the game so none of us can win. I decided that something had to change. That something was me.

Last fall, when the purse strings really got tighter, I started changing my shopping habits, scrutinizing my spending and made a happy discovery. Buying food that I can believe in and enjoy doesn’t have to break the bank. I use a three-pronged approach to eating well for less that looks at the following main areas: Food Procurement, Food Preparation and Food Preservation. I hope some of the tips and tricks I share with you today will come in handy in your own life!

Save Money as You Procure
The first step to cooking on a budget is saving money as you actually procure your food.

I say, “procure” because I think that saying “shop” is too limiting. There are lots of ways to get quality food that go beyond buying it at a store or at a farmers‘ market. Growing your own food, having a worker share at a CSA, bartering, etc. are all excellent and effective ways to fill the belly with local, sustainable and amazing food. Though I won’t go as much into those areas here, I wanted to make sure to put them out there.

Also, I feel it’s important to note that I am not an advocate of buying the cheapest food/ingredients out there. I think quality is incredibly important in food, since we really are what we eat on multiple levels. Fortunately, it is entirely possible to buy healthy, quality food without going broke.

1.) Set a Budget
This may seem incredibly obvious to some of you, but this was a surprisingly hard lesson for me to learn. First, decide what you want to have included in your budget. Is it just food? Household items, like laundry detergent? What about pet food? I cannot tell you how many times I’ve totally goofed on my own budget by forgetting things like deodorant and shampoo in my calculations. Set a reasonable, but specific amount that you really could live with. Once you have figured out what you can spend for the month, break it down by the number of shopping trips you plan on having. Voila—you have your budget for each trip.

Now for the trickier part... keeping to your budget. My top recommendation is to come to the store only with your budgeted amount in cash. Do not bring the checkbook, a credit card, etc. Only your cash. This will prevent you from going over budget like nothing else can. Plus, there’s something about handing over cash money that brings home how much I’m really spending, as opposed to the magical swipe of a card.

2.) Plan Your Meals, but Be Flexible
Meal-planning has definitely upped the “yum” factor of many a weeknight. Sitting down over the weekend, or even Monday morning and combing through a couple of cookbooks/food blogs while perusing the Co-op’s specials and my pantry staples is fun for me. I usually decide on one or two new dishes per week, then plan filler meals in between that make use of the same ingredients, or my leftovers. I like planning meals that can also become lunch the next day—it feels like a two-in-one. Once I know what I want to make, I make a list of what I need.

The savings from meal planning comes in a couple of different ways. It is less likely that something will be purchased and forgotten in the back of your fridge, because you have a plan for all of these ingredients. Shopping from a specific list is a great tactic to use in the store because it helps steer us away from impulse purchases. It can also save some time—I have definitely spent many an extra cumulative hour wandering the aisles of the Co-op, too hungry to make any decisions at all, let alone frugal ones.

However, I strongly encourage planning either around the specials of the week, or preparing to be flexible during your shop. A former partner and I tried planning out our meals without doing either, and it ended up costing us more money. Instead of looking to see what was on sale, we stuck to our list... and thus ended up buying a lot of ingredients at a higher price than we could have. Furthermore, we did not plan around what we already had in the pantry (rookie mistake, I know), nor were we flexible with our ingredient list. Don’t repeat our mistakes! If, for example, you know you want to make a stir-fry on Tuesday, bring your list but cruise the Produce Dept, picking up whatever looks freshest and/or is on sale. Planning on making something with pinto beans but find that black beans are on sale in the bulk aisle? Make the switch. The last thing you want is for your list to be too rigid, calling for ingredients that are expensive when a cheaper substitute is right at hand.

Another strategy is to plan around ingredients rather than around a recipe. If you know what staples you always have on hand and have some simple stand by recipes, picking up an additional ingredient or two while shopping might be all you need to buy.

3.) Buy Only What You Need
When something is on sale, I almost always feel like I really ought to buy it. After all, it’s such a good deal. It’s on sale. I’m saving a whole dollar! Unfortunately, a dollar saved on a completely unnecessary three-dollar purchase is really just three dollars lost. Le sigh.

Before shopping, make a really good list of what you want to buy. I highly recommend planning out your meals for the week before you hit the aisles (see above).

Stick to that list! Ignore the alluring sale items and the last minute impulse buys. Ignore the tasty but completely superfluous things that you want, but know that you don’t need. As much of a bargain as it is, it will almost certainly derail your careful budget work.
Also, I have found great success in avoiding the temptation to buy in mega-bulk. Usually a couple of things would happen.

  1. I would get completely sick of whatever the food was, which really takes down my enjoyment factor (a very important consideration in my food).

  2. Things will sit in the pantry forever, until I sadly throw it into the compost bin. This can be avoided with good meal planning around the pantry, but when you take the first point into account, things become a bit trickier.

  3. It’s not actually very good for my personal health, because when we buy more food, we tend to prepare more food. And when we prepare more food, we will usually eat more food. Brian Wansink, Cornell University Researcher and Professor of Student Behavior, has written extensively about this phenomena in his book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. He explains, “We all consume more from big packages, whatever the product. Give people a large bag of dog food, they pour more. Give them a large bottle of liquid plant food, they pour more. Give them a large shampoo bottle or container or laundry detergent, they pour more. In fact, with the 47 products we’ve examined, the bigger the package, the more they use.... As all of our studies suggest, we can eat about 20 percent more or 20 percent less without really being awareof it. Because of this, we look for cues and signals that tell us how much to eat. One of these signals is the size of the package. When we bring a big package into our kitchen, we think it’s typical, normal and appropriate to mix and to serve more than if the package were smaller. Although we may not finish the two-pound box of spaghetti when we make dinner for two, it makes us think it’s normal to take a few more bites than we would if it were a one-pound box. It bumps up our consumption norms and leads us to bump up how much we serve ourselves.”

  4. Overbuying perishables increases the likelihood of the food going to waste, which of course means our money molds/spoils right along with it. And there go our savings. Dang.

4.) Shop the Sales/Use Coupons
I’m a huge fan of Co-op sales, especially since quality, staple products routinely get marked down. Here’s a break down of the different kinds of promotional programs at work in the Co-op.

  • ESP “Everyday Sale Prices”: These are staple items throughout the store that stay at a low price every single day. Examples of this include, but are not limited to: kale, carrots, yogurt, and olive oil. These are all quality products, and even when nothing else appealing is on sale, you know that the ESP products will be there for you.

  • Owner Rewards: Sale prices for Willy Street Co-op Owners only. Really, annualownership dues pay for themselves very quickly with this program. You can find Owner Reward sale items throughout the store. These sales run for 2-3 weeks, depending on how the weeks fall.

  • Weeklies: These are sale prices open to anyone who shops at the Co-op. They change on a weekly basis and can be found throughout the store.

  • Coupons are another great way to save money. I’m kind of a terrible coupon user myself. I am constantly forgetting them at home, or in my wallet, or really any place that isn’t the checkout lane. Fortunately, the Co-op has recognized the need for coupon-challenged people such as myself to have easier immediate access to coupons.

There are booklets of coupons in the front of the stores by the Customer Service desks that have some great savings for various items throughout the store. I like to pick one up when I walk in, flip through it for the items I’m looking for, and take the coupons I need right then and there. Co-op staff also put some relevant coupons in the aisles themselves. Of course, if you are better at the coupon game than I am, manufacturer’s websites often have fantastic coupons. Check them out before you go shopping and you could save quite a pretty penny.

5.) Shop in the Bulk Aisle
Full disclosure: I absolutely adore the Co-op’s bulk aisle. When I go to grocery stores without a bulk aisle, I become confused and sad. Shopping in the bulk aisle tends to be cheaper for a number of reasons. You avoid the costs of packaging, labels, etc. Grocers can buy more for less, and pass those savings on to you. And you get fabulous, high quality food, because the products you find in the bulk aisle are minimally processed, meaning they have few to no additives. At the Co-op, the bulk bins are shopped so frequently that their contents tend to be fresher than what you might find in a packaged item.

I use the bulk aisle for my staple legumes and grains, as well as for spices, baking supplies, snacks (nuts, granola, dried fruit, etc), oils, and materials for various DIY culinary pursuits. I can buy exactly the amount that I want, without being tied to a pre-packaged size determination. And the prices are really hard to beat. The Co-op offers a fabulous (and free) Bulk Aisle tour that highlights all of the best that the bulk aisles have to offer.

6.) Buy Seasonal Produce
I’m a local food lover, so cooking in season is a great passion of mine. Happily, this also makes good financial sense. When produce items are in season, they are more abundant and thus less expensive. Not only can you find amazing local deals in the produce aisles, but our many local farmers’ markets also offer an extraordinary range of delicious, local and sustainable goods at completely reasonable prices.

7.) Buy Less Meat and Try New Cuts
Meat is expensive, especially if you pay for meat that was humanely and sustainably produced. For me, buying the right kind of meat is non-negotiable. As a result, I buy a lot less of it, using it more as a supporting actor in my meals than a lead role. To further reduce my cost, I buy cuts of meat that are perhaps less “prime” but just as tasty. There are also health advantages to eating less meat, especially since it usually forces us to eat more vegetables!

8.) Shop Often
Shopping once a week allows me to completely use all of my produce before it goes bad, and also gives me a chance to check out the new weekly specials. I have found that shopping less often leads me to over buy, which in turn leads to more waste (as discussed above).

Save Money As You Prepare Food
OK, I have made fabulous purchasing decisions and am now home with all of my reasonably priced foodstuffs. Now it’s time to keep on saving money through smart and efficient food preparation.

1.) Use the Same ingredient in Multiple Meals
Especially with produce, we go through periods of Boom and Bust. When a particular perishable is booming, make the most of it. If you pick up some really great mushrooms on sale, use them in a casserole, then in an omelet, then on a pizza. Stretching out your ingredients is not only cost effective, but it’s also fun! At least, it is if you’re a bit of a food geek like me.

2.) Prepare More Vegetarian Items
I have found that some of the best, most satisfying and most cost effective recipes I have are vegetarian. Not only do you save money when you don’t have to buy the meat, but many veggie recipes I have call for using low cost grains and legumes in delicious and innovative ways.

3.) Cook from Scratch/Make it Yourself
 Nothing will save money quite like cooking from scratch. Canned beans? Get outta here. Pre-made salad dressing? No, thank you. You can save a lot of money by switching over to making food from scratch. The weight of your trash bag can also significantly decrease, since you eliminate a lot of packaging waste by buying in bulk. Some of my top DIY items are:

  • Beans: Available in the bulk aisle, bulk beans are a key component of my eating well on a budget. Soaking them the night before greatly cuts down on cooking time, and you get a lot more bang for your buck than the ones that come from a can. Plus you avoid the extra salt, preservatives and anything else that might be included in the canned varieties.

  • Bread: Ever since I discovered the bulk flour bins, bulk yeast, bulk sugar and the book Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day or Less, bread has been taken off my shopping list. When my best friend bought a bread maker for $10 from Craigslist, bread left her list as well. Not only do you save a lot of money, but you also have the satisfaction of smelling delicious, freshly baked bread in your home. Fragrant savings.

  • Crackers: Crackers are shockingly easy to make, and packaged ones quite expensive. Hurray for making them at home!

  • Yogurt: So so so easy to make at home.

  • Sprouts: An excellent addition to any salad or sandwich, sprouts are simple to make at home. Check out the bulk spice area to find seeds for sprouting, and look in the Housewares area for either a sprouter, or a simple mesh cover for a mason jar.

  • Salad Dressing: Salad dressing is expensive. It is also often filled with some pretty out-there ingredients. Making it at home gives you all the control, is amazingly simple and is a great way to keep this condiment fresh and interesting. There are tons of recipes all over the internet, but my favorite is a simple olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a pinch of grated garlic and a dash of sea salt. Shake well in a jar and serve.

  • Granola: Making granola is a lot of fun. You can personalize your own special mix, adding only things that you would like. And most, if not all of the ingredients you need can be found in the bulk aisle. Genius.

If you find something in the bulk aisle but are not sure how to prepare it, check out the Owner Resources Area. There is a ton of information available on ways to prepare various beans, grains, etc. There are also wonderful books out there, like Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson, and The Whole Nutrition Cookbook, which have great resources for cooking a variety of staples. There is also my dear friend the internet—food blogs are free and fantastic sources of information, just one search engine click away.

4.) Keep it Simple
Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to cook food from scratch. I like to keep a couple of simple food preparation techniques on hand for nights when it all just seems like too much to handle. I also like to keep my recipes, when I use one, to five to eight ingredients or less. Not only does it make shopping a lot easier, it makes food preparation a breeze.

My top 5 food prep techniques are:

  • Frittatas and Omelets: Like at the birthday party in Bridget Jones’s Diary, sometimes a simple egg dish saves the day. These are both fast, easy and can make use of whatever other ingredients you have on hand. Eggs are also a cheap and richly flavored source of protein, and available in bulk in the dairy section of the Co-op.

  • Stir Fry: Throwing some rice in the rice cooker and quickly chopping up whatever veggies I have on hand can usually yield a flavorful and inexpensive meal.

  • Kitchen Sink Soup: Similar in concept to the two dishes above, Kitchen Sink Soup is a mix of all the random veggies I find in my fridge, usually combined with some chopped onions, garlic and lots of dried herbs. A soup can be a very satisfying ticket to several cheap meals—make a big enough pot and you have dinner, lunch and maybe even dinner again.

  • Roasted Veggies and a Grain: I take my veggies, toss them in oil and perhaps some herbs, add a dash of sea salt and roast at 350 degrees for a good 20-40 minutes (depending on the veggies). In the meantime I whip up some quinoa and a little vinaigrette and boom—dinner is served.

  • Crock Pot Magic: I am still learning the art of the crock pot, but it is a magical device indeed. Crock pot meals are great because you can follow a relatively simple recipe, throw all the ingredients in a pot and by the time you get home at the end of the day something delicious is waiting for you. For the meat eaters out there, the crock pot can also make even those lesser cuts into something extraordinary.

5.) A Little Something Extra
I have another confession to make- I love assembling food as I eat it. I love burrito bars, salad bars, and sandwich bars. I like personalizing my food right before I eat it with a little dollop of this, sprinkling of that. It makes even a bowl of soup, or a simple green salad feel fancy.

To up my food enjoyment factor, I like to indulge myself by buying small amounts of really nice stuff to add to my simple meals. A little bit can go a long way and completely transform a meal. A fashion analogy comes to mind. Like the perfect accessory can transform a look from ordinary to fabulous, so too can a little morsel here or there make a meal really pop.

I like to keep some fruity olive oil on hand for drizzling on soups or salads, some sriracha for adding a little kick, pitted olives to add here or there. My cheese and meat use almost always falls into this category as well. A bit of crumbled feta here or there can make that purchase last for quite awhile, without feeling like I’m scrimping. A small bit of meat to lend a certain flavor to a dish is surprisingly fulfilling. A quality sea salt or freshly ground black pepper can add a certain je ne sais quoi to the whole dining experience. These small things can add whimsy and pleasure to your meal without busting your budget.

6.) Use Everything You Buy
When we buy food, we pay for all of it. That means the stems on the parsley, the bones in the chicken, and the base of the broccoli. To really get the maximum value of my dollar (and reduce my household waste) I try to use every bit of the food that I buy.

Sometimes it takes some creativity, internet searching and phone calls to my mom, but once you get in the habit of using the total product, it becomes more of a habit. Here are a couple of tips that I learned when I got started.

  • Broccoli stems are actually delicious. Peel, chop and throw them in a stir-fry. Add them to a tray of roasted veggies. Save them in the freezer and add to soup. Since you’re paying a good chunk of change for those stems, you might as well enjoy them!

  • Chicken bones can be used to make some really awesome soup stock.

  • Veggie scraps can also be used to make excellent soup stock.

  • Freeze leftover fresh herbs with water in an ice-cube tray. They can be used later in soups, casseroles, etc.

  • Carrot tops make a great soup addition.

  • Use the stems of herbs in green smoothies.

  • Even the water used to cook/steam veggies can be reused—there’s a lot of nutrient content in there! Either throw it in a soup or let it cool off and use it to water your plants.

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we can’t use all of the perishable food that we buy before it passes its prime. If you can, save what is left. Freeze things like produce, yogurt, juice, etc. If you have, say, tomatoes that need to be used ASAP, consider putting them in the dehydrator and making your own “sun dried” tomatoes. If you are a person who hates eating leftovers, freeze a portion of your meal ahead of time. A week later it won’t feel like you’re eating leftovers—it will be an instant meal.

Save Money By Preserving Food
1.) Go Gaga for Seasonal Foods

This is the one exception for my “buy what you need” rule. When local produce is in, it is in. Take stock of your time availability during the week and see what kinds of preserving you can do at home. Not only is this produce at its lowest price, it’s also at the height of its quality. By stocking up during the harvest months you can enjoy top-notch flavor at the best possible price all year round. Freeze it, dry it, can it—just be sure to keep a record of what you have (and where) so you won’t forget to use it!

Not sure how to go about preserving your food? Check through the Co-op’s article archives online for tips from Willy Street staff. Keep an eye on the Community Room calendars as well—there are often classes on canning and other ways to preserve your food once the growing season is underway. There are also numerous books on the subject available in the Co-op’s book sections. My personal favorites are: Putting Food By by Greene, Hertzberg and Vaughan; Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage and Lactic Fermentation by The Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante; and How to Store Your Garden Produce by Piers Warren.

2.) Package Food Well to Make it Last
I’ve learned the hard way that it is very important to package your food well if you want it to be there when you’re ready to use it. Moths invaded my pantry this past fall. The insects got into every single container that wasn’t completely airtight. It was a minor fiasco in the Ricketts household. Rest assured, my pantry is now under the guard of tight mason lids, with bay leaves taped throughout (for some reason they act as a very effective bug deterrent). When it comes to produce, I find it helpful to look into my copy of How to Store Your Garden Produce or From Asparagus to Zucchini to learn/remind myself how to best store my fresh produce. I now buy my mushrooms in paper bags (prevents the slime factor), and put a paper towel in my bags of greens (another slime reducer). There are countless tips and tricks out there for keeping your food fresh as long as possible, which of course results in the best value for you!

Grocery co-ops like the Willy Street Co-op were founded by people who wanted to support a just food system while also being able to eat well themselves. Co-op shoppers have been and continue to be some of the most inventive, resourceful and, yes, frugal that I have ever known. What tips do you have for eating well on a budget?

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