Shopping and eating on a budget

by Eli Penberthy

This article was originally published in January 2009

Home economics

How to cook and eat well on a budget is a popular topic. We talked with some PCC customers and found their ideas well reflected in many food and cooking Web sites and blogs.

Just Google the following sites for creative ideas (they’re hyperlinked below, for your convenience):

  • Chowhound. Features a special section of “budget recipes” and a thread on its Home Cooking forum addresses “recession cuisine.” More than 200 people have posted family recipes (everything from cabbage soup and Pasta Fagioli to falafel) and suggest inexpensive beans and potatoes every way imaginable.
  • Serious Eats. Readers of this popular food blog chime in about how they are grocery shopping and cooking differently during the recession.
  • All You Can Eat. Practical tips from Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson.
  • Rebecca’s Pocket. Blogger Rebecca Blood tries to eat on the USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan” of $74 a week for her and her husband — using mostly organic, local foods.
  • Eating Out Loud. Food blogger Allen offers several ideas for how to cook during a recession. “One-pot meals are your friend,” he writes, and he advocates canning vegetables, making jams, and drying fruits and herbs.
  • Cooking Better for Less. In this new blog on the recipe database, Regina Schrambling offers economical ways to eat well, with recipes for everything from frittata to smoked salmon pasta.

(January 2009) — No doubt the financial meltdown is causing us to rethink spending on even the most basic necessities — and food is no exception.

Some people are choosing more economical meats (indeed, sales of Spam are skyrocketing), while others are eating out less frequently; 45 percent of Americans report cutting down on the number of meals they ate out in 2008.

Some may be questioning whether certified organic foods are worth the extra cost (see The value of organic certification, Sound Consumer, January 2009).

Yet there are easy ways to trim your food expenses — without sacrificing your values. Here are some ideas suggested by the National Cooperative Grocers Association for how to do it.

Set a food budget and plan ahead
Calculate your current food expenses and decide which foods you can live without. An easy way to do this is to plan weekly meal menus and create a grocery list of items that you will need.

Then clean out expired or unused food from the fridge and freezer, and organize your cupboard. You can be prepared to make quick, nutritious meals by stocking your pantry with beans, grains, pasta and other staples.

Shop wisely
If you stick to your budget by purchasing what’s on your grocery list, you’ll avoid impulse buys such as processed snacks and sweets, which often are more expensive than fresh foods due to processing, packaging, and distribution costs.

In “What to Eat,” author and nutritionist Marion Nestle encourages “shopping the perimeters” of the grocery store where bulk grocery, produce and other basics are most available (more costly convenience foods usually are in the center aisles).

When you buy fresh fruits and vegetables, choose local and seasonal varieties, which often are less expensive than those transported from far away. Don’t be afraid, however, to use wholesome canned and frozen foods, such as tomatoes, corn and peas. These preserved foods are harvested during the summer at the peak of ripeness when they’re bountiful and cheaper — not to mention more flavorful and nutritious!

You also can cut costs by shopping special sales. PCC and other grocery stores always offer special markdown prices on different foods and the products on sale change periodically.

Be sure to stock up on your favorite foods when they’re discounted and take advantage of the opportunity to try new foods when they’re on sale. Remember that PCC members save additional money — getting 10 percent off one shopping trip each month and 5 percent off on the 15th and 16th of every month.

Change your patterns
Cooking is much less expensive than eating at restaurants or purchasing prepared foods, and making your favorite foods can be easier than you might expect. Homemade sauces, dressings and marinades are simple and cheap and often are tastier and healthier as well.

Get creative and try baking your own bread or muffins, or whisking together a little olive oil, garlic and vinegar for a simple vinaigrette. Try growing your own herbs in pots and brighten your cooking with inexpensive, flavorful spices (a wide variety is available in bulk at PCC). With a little time and effort, you can make from scratch anything that you usually buy.

Another way to control your food budget is to make sure your portions conform to the recommended amount. Keep meat portions to three ounces — about the size of a deck of cards — and braise or stew less expensive but flavorful cuts.

Try thinking of meat as a condiment rather than the centerpiece of a meal, and round it out with a variety of vegetables and grains. Instead of grilling steaks, for example, try simmering stew meat with potatoes and other vegetables for a healthy winter dinner.

Cook a whole chicken rather than the more expensive skinless breasts, and use the leftover meat in enchiladas or a casserole and the rest to make a rich stock for soup.

You might even find it easy to prepare completely meatless meals with other protein sources, such as tofu and tempeh. Experiment with nuts, beans, legumes and even grains (such as quinoa), which are high in protein and fiber, and versatile. They’re available in the bulk departments at PCC.

Just as you shop in bulk, you can cook in bulk, too. Prepare meals that can last through the week. For example, if you make a stir fry for dinner, make enough to heat up for lunch the next day (which also may save money if you otherwise eat lunch out). Double or triple your batches of pasta sauce, stew or soup, and freeze what you don’t eat right away for another meal.

Simple changes — buying in bulk instead of pricey packages, allocating an extra half hour to cook, eating one more vegetarian meal a week — can greatly lower your food bill. These changes bring other benefits as well; you undoubtedly will incorporate more nutritious foods into your diet and may invite friends and family to your kitchen table more often for home-cooked meals.

With the money saved, don’t forget to reward yourself every so often with a good bar of chocolate or a nice bottle of wine. After all, food may be a basic necessity, but it’s also one of life’s great pleasures.

Also in this issue

Your co-op, January 2009

Talk to the Board, Board meeting report, 2009 board candidate slate, and more

The value of organic certification

All natural? Non-GMO? No antibiotics or hormones? Aren’t they just as good as certified organic, just a little less costly? No doubt, when buying food the savvy shopper faces a dizzying array of labels and choices. Feeding the family never has been so complex.

Letters to the editor, January 2009

Changes in agriculture, Facebook feedback, Choices in sugars and sweeteners, and more