My Grocery Bill Rant

making bread

I’m really trying to get our grocery bill down or, at the very least, keep it where it is at in spite of rising food costs and growing bellies.

I find this hard.

Rationalizing a lifestyle change, with math

Between enjoying cooking and eating lots of whole foods, we spend a lot of money on food. Easily $1200 per month (Canadian dollars) for our family of four. I have a friend who feeds her family of five on about $200-225/week and we spend more like $275-325/week. We rarely buy processed foods and I will go so far as to include pasta in the “processed” category (even though we make at least half of our pasta from scratch). If I could spend as “little” as her (even though we technically have one less mouth), that’s at least $50/week saved (and as much as $125!) which works out to $2600 (to $6500!) per year. It’s nuts. Actually, it’s amazing and I’m jealous.

I know that she does a lot of in season preservation, so I don’t know how this factors into the family food budget, but say they preserve for 6 weeks of the summer at $125/week (the upper end of what we spend more than they do per week throughout the year), that’s an extra $750 to add to their annual budget, which is still approximately at least $2000/yr less than us. I also don’t know how much they eat out, which could significantly lower their grocery bill because it would be in another budget category. We pretty much don’t eat out which, in a sense, raises our grocery bill (not relative to eating out, itself, of course).

grocery bill

I make almost all of our bread, tomato sauce, meatballs, noodles, baked goods like bars and cookies, applesauce, jam – you name it. I freeze berries when they’re in season. The kids don’t care for dips, so they have plain veggie snack plates. One of my kids more or less hates cheese so we don’t eat a lot of it. We go meatless at least once per week these days. We don’t buy juice. We do buy fruit. We don’t really eat things like crackers, occasionally I will make them. It drives me a bit batty. I go through periods of accepting our situation and being grateful that we are able to earn this money to pay for our food; whereas, other times I want to slash the bill in half and stash the rest for travel or getting rid of our mortgage (and then travel)!

We have been eating a lot of organic (and my friend does not, unless that’s what’s on sale, of course) or local and try to support local meat producers who sell directly to consumers. Some times we eat organic because it’s the only version of what I’d consider “real food”, i.e. the product that isn’t full of sugar or thickeners and stabilizers. Plain yogurt, for example. So hard to find a non-organic brand that isn’t full of that stuff! Why? I just want the good, thick cultured dairy. I’m okay if some whey separates out; I’m not afraid of the reality of food! But, really, I should just be making my own yogurt, too…

My plan of attack

I’m trying to get off my privileged high horse now and get our grocery bill lower. There are the usual suspects – food waste, meal planning, grow your own, etc. – but there are a couple of different approaches we are taking and I will let you know how the experiment goes.

  1. Local over organic.
  2. 80/20 rule.
  3. Quaxing by bike.
  4. Seasonal food preservation.
  5. Packaging free.

These are five steps that have been rattling around in my head for years. Some of which we already adhere to. Some of which we’ve tried before but not necessarily consistently. And, some that I’ve been thinking of tackling for a long time but have lacked the follow through (at least on a complete and consistent level), like #3 and #5. I’m hoping that all together they will prove to be our holy grail of grocery bill savings, if not a good challenge and good exercise!

Local over organic

This one gets me a bit. Ever since “local” was gentrified, I find that it is not necessarily cheaper. But, it can be and I like to support local growers and producers because they’re in my community, close to my community, or thrive in areas I love (i.e. I consider BC to be part of my “local”!). And, local kind of goes with seasonal food preservation here: buying bulk in season and canning or freezing things is definitely a money saver.

Organic carrots from California taste like crap, everyone. Alberta grows some DEEEEElicious carrots. We buy 10 pound bags of Lund’s carrots every few weeks. They’re sweet even throughout the winter.

I need to embrace a few more Albertan root veggies, like turnip and beets because they are plentiful and fairly cheap at this time of year, even if you want organic.

local vs organic

This year, my big goals will be to make even more applesauce to freeze (and I may even try canning it this year) and instead of making our own marinara sauce out of canned tomatoes from the store, I am going to buy a few boxes from the market when they are at their peak and hopefully make a year’s supply then (which will help out with #5, too, by reducing our tin can consumption on that front).

And, I will continue to grow a substantial vegetable garden in our backyard. About as local as you can get!

80/20 rule

Although I ranted about yogurt and its various fillers, I’m coming around on the fact that if we eat good quality food 80 percent of the time, it’s okay to slack on the other 20%. We won’t die of cancer or get heart disease or whatever. Heck, it’ll probably even be liberating and stress-relieving. I really believe that food is medicine. But, there’s a certain point when eating “healthily” almost becomes an eating disorder (or at least obsession) in and of itself. And that seems wrong. Food is supposed to be enjoyable and bring us together, in addition to nourishing us.

So, now that my kids are over getting lumps of cream from the tops of the glass bottled whole milk we were buying for awhile, I think we are heading back to $5 4L jugs of whatever brand the store carries, which should save us $7/week. (Besides, Canadian dairy doesn’t face the same issues as American dairy with growth hormones, etc. so far as I am aware.)

I’m sure that there are a few other items like this in our grocery bill that I can switch over for cheaper.

Quaxing by bike

Some people believe in meal planning and shopping once per week and there is a certain reasoning behind it. But, I think that it can lead to food waste. Things inevitably get lost in a fridge with enough produce etc for a family of four or more. There’s something to be said about combining meal planning with more frequent shopping and using up what you have before getting more.

grocery bill

I think that walking or biking is a great model for this and now that I have one kid in school all day a few days per week, I’m riding down to a new-to-me local grocery store and quaxing!

It was pretty great the other week when it was Chinooking outside; but, last week there was too much snow more me to lug the CETMA, 40 pound toddler, myself, and our full load of groceries home. I was lazy. But, I laughed when I saw that the downtown cycle tracks were quite nicely cleared (in better shape than most roads), so the only really arduous part of the ride would have been coming back up the hill to my house, from the pathway network.

Sigh. I will learn.

Seasonal food preservation

This one is a no brainer, really. But, for somehow who has little canning experience, let alone pressure canning know-how, it has been daunting for me to attempt this task with young kids, heat, and a lack of equipment. Luckily, we have a large chest freezer in our basement. Still, I would like to can more and now that our eating patterns are stabilizing as the kids get older, I think I can do some math on how many cans of marinara we need to get through the year for pasta and pizza nights. I’d also like to try salsa, canned apple sauce (instead of my usual frozen), and, I dunno, what else should I do? I generally prefer freezer jam, so I don’t think I will bother with that (unless you have an amazing recipe to share…).

grocery bill

This year I bought a giant bag of 3 dozen ears of corn and the girls helped me to shuck it and then I sliced it off the cob and froze it on trays before transferring it over to plastic bags. We are out of it because we ate some of the ears fresh; next year I will freeze the entire bag! (Frozen corn or peas act as great non-flavour-diluting “ice cubes” in soup, for kids, FYI!)

Packaging free

I read this post eons ago on “Hum of the City” about their family going waste free and that “it can be done on less money than a California family can get in food stamps” and it has haunted me for years. Between kids and grocery shopping with said little humans, I could never wrap my head around getting my glass jars pre-weighed prior to shopping in the bulk section at our local natural foods store. I’m close to doing this now.

I’m newly inspired by hopes of spring, signaling renewal and growth, and “Born to be Adventurous”‘sย Green-Up series. I find it extremely challenging to escape packaging in foods even though we eat littleย “packaged” food. Styrofoam with meat. Plastic bags of apples. Let alone the actualย stickers on the apples! Yogurt containers. Many of these things are recyclable but I’ve got enough plastic containers to reuse around the house for painting and screws, I need to tackle the reduce aspect of the recycling triangle.

I seriously hope that I can link up the ideas of these two awesome bloggers, lowering our grocery bill and ecological footprint. I have a thought that non-organic but packaging free would have a smaller footprint? Or, perhaps not, as most of the footprint of a loaf of bread can be attributed to certain farming practices according to this summary of a recent life cycle analysis on a loaf of bread. Intriguing.

I clearly have lots to learn, especially on this more nuanced aspect of consumerism and consumption.

Takeaway

Laugh or cry with empathy or frustration at my privileged grocery bill as you will, I’m curious to hear your reflections especially if you struggle with this issue or have found a way to learn and overcome it.

I hope that this less-than-typical approach to slashing my grocery bill may help you, too, if this is a path that you are walking down.

12 Comment

  1. Depends what format you buy, but my Mum uses her yogurt containers for the freezer for all the applesauce she makes. She got really annoyed that my sister recycled too many of her stash, so she even started raiding my recycling for more! Cheaper than bags, Glad containers, etc.

    Canned beets are awesome as well. Grew up with Mum making that every year.

    As for organics, you might reduce cost by only buying the Dirty Dozen organic and opting for the “normal” of the rest?

    Other idea would be replacing more of the meat with lentils and beans. You can cook a bunch in the slow cooker and freeze them into recipe or cup quantities. Combined with rice or bread you have complete proteins there.

    1. Mmm pickled beets! Yes, they’re fabulous. My girls are cucumber pickle fanatics so I should have no problem swinging them over to the “dark” side… ๐Ÿ™‚ Great ideas, thank-you!

  2. I live in AB,too. Buy groceries on Nutters 20 % off only. Safeway & Save On have 15 % off 1st Tuesday of month. Buy only on sale items & then create meals from that. I can tons & buy all meats bulk from farmer. Usually cut up meat vs whole chicken breast for example. Flash freeze produce also. I buy clean dozen organic & find most organic little difference price wise, especially on sale. Have freezer & made canning section out of old bookshelf to place under stairs. I am very diligent no plastics to store food & big reduce before recycle so find costco helpful for some items. Biggest saving for our family is not buying cereal. No way I spend what you do…probably 1/2.

    1. My mum has been raving about the Nutters monthly promo, too! Unfortunately, we don’t have one in Calgary and the other similar stores (Community Natural Foods and Planet Organic) don’t offer the same savings that I’m aware of ๐Ÿ™ But, I will have to check out Safeway & Save On. The Safeway near us is awful and expensive and old and poorly stocked, but maybe I’d have better luck elsewhere. I have started shopping at Co-Op because I get an annual rebate, but it’s not 20% ๐Ÿ˜‰

      I, too, do the whole chicken trick and we mostly only eat ground meats that I buy bulk from TK Ranch, but perhaps there’s a cheaper local farmer out there – I will search around some more. We didn’t buy cereal for years but now I buy about a box per month because my husband is a cereal fan (but I wish I didn’t have to buy it!).

      I will have to check out Costco again. It’s been awhile since I’ve shopped there – thanks for the idea.

      Including the cost to produce all of your canned goods, do you find you still spend 1/2 of what we do? I’m amazed and jealous because it sounds like, aside from the dedication to the monthly sale promos, we do a lot of things similarly. I think I need to pick up my game on the sales and canning side to catch up, so I’m encouraged to read that it could really help us out! Yeesh, if I could get our bill down to $600/mth I’d be laughing. Giddy.

      Thanks so much for the motivation and ideas!

      1. Co-op actually has some really good deals that can rival Costco if you keep an eye on their flyers.

        Also Safeway at 8th & 12th is miles and miles above Moscow Safeway (Mission.)

        1. Good! I noticed when I was shopping at both Costco and Superstore that prices were on par at the latter without a membership for a lot of the things that I was specifically going to Costco for, so I gave up on the big C. But, I’m glad to hear/see that Co-Op seems pretty decent. I tried it a few months ago and didn’t fall in love, but I’ve gone the past two weeks and it’s been good to us and the budget, so far! I’m going to have to check out the Safeway on 8th & 12th; I’ll have to hit up their first Tuesday of the month sales that I’ve just learned of. Glad to hear it’s heaps better than the Moscow Safeway (because my gawd…).

  3. 1200 dollars is a lot of money! I’m curious as to what how much of that is because of your farmer-supplied (though totally worth it) meat?

    1. It IS a lot of money! There are 4 of us now, though ๐Ÿ˜‰ And Des is still a lean mean eating machine and at least one of his kids has inherited that capability, eek. But, I’m guessing you spend less than $300/mth per person in your household? Our food costs sky-rocketed after leaving Montreal by at least 150%, if not more. Fernie was bad; Vancouver was okay; Calgary has been the worst/most expensive. There is nothing akin to Segal’s here, nor are there really any green grocers, aside from Farmer’s markets, but most of these so-called Farmer’s markets are pretty upscale and gentrified, although there are some deals to be had. We have been drinking away the dollars with local milk (about $12/4L jug vs <$5/4L jug conventional) and I could pay $4-6/lb ground beef but had been buying farmer direct grasfed at $8/lb. So, yes, changing up our milk and meat will make a big difference. Say, $10-12/week. Oh, and my coffee habit has gotten expensive... $17/lb? And, this $1200 includes pharmaceuticals and cleaning supplies (but, we really don't spend much on that stuff). So curious to read about to cost of food in Montreal ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Hey. I’m useless at budgeting of any kind, and we eat out a lot so our food budget would be a bit skewed anyways, but I’m inspired to do more of these things for other reasons-less waste, healthier food etc. So thanks! We do a fair bit of canning, including apple sauce, should you ever want to discuss ๐Ÿ™‚
    Also, my sister wrote an interesting blog post awhile back about eating organic on a budget (https://amandashankland.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/eating-organic-on-a-low-budget/). It’s about organic, but some of the tips are useful regardless. You might find some money saving inspiration there!

    1. Thanks for the link! She has some good points. I’m baffled about bulk though; in Calgary it seems to hardly be cheaper. We buy a massive flour-bag size of rolled oats, for example, and I think we maybe save $5, but that’s not the holy-grail of 89% that she referred to. I need to hunt down those items!!!

      I will definitely chat you up about apple sauce when we get there this fall. I’m also fortunate to have made a friend in the neighbourhood who is an awesome preserver.

      No budgeting, eh? Your SIL hasn’t convinced you of the virtues of YNAB yet? ๐Ÿ˜‰ If you ever do any tallies, let me know, I am super curious of the different food costs around the country, especially Ont/QC vs the west as we noticed an expensive shift heading back this way.

  5. Okay Lindsay, I’ll bite (sorry I couldn’t resist ๐Ÿ™‚ ). I just checked last year’s YNAB. Our combined groceries+household, CSA payments, and eating out categories in 2016 came to $9,000 or roughly $750/month. This includes everything we eat/drink except alcohol (which I’m not going to post on the internet). So I’d say we’re in the middle. As you know my household last year was just the two of us, but we were pretty hungry last year with me growing a baby and Chris bike commuting. We do a lot of the same things as you (like bake bread and make crackers). Here are a few specific things we do:

    – Subscribe to a good CSA and learn to cook with all of it. We’ve used Noble gardens for years. They supply us with veg, eggs, chickens, and fruit (from BC) for about 35 weeks/year.
    – Subscribe to a fish co-op. We used to get whole fish from them but now we value the convenience of fillets and pay a little more (probably 2x more actually) for it.
    – Do some preserving but only what you will actually eat. For us this is peaches and applesauce. I used to do tomatoes but find they are too much work.
    – Try to get the preserving fruit for free or very cheap. There is so much free fruit in this city.
    – Make your own sausage. We buy pork trim from Ryan’s Meats and make about 50lb at a time, at about $1/link. If we were better organized we could get the costs down further. This isn’t really about saving money, though. It’s more about making good food.
    – Trade labour for turkey (if Des is interested let me know).
    – Shop less ‘brand name’ grocery stores for spices and ‘exotic’ things. Shallots at the Asian grocery near our house are 20% of the cost of buying them at co-op. And tortillas are way cheaper at LaTiendona. Sometimes I go to NoFrills but I like to call it “No Service”, so bring along some patience if you go.

    The next frontier for us is pressure cooking! I just got one for my birthday and find I can make pretty tasty stuff with cheaper cuts of meat.

    Phew. That was longer than expected.

  6. Marcus Riedner says: Reply

    In terms of proteins, one way to save a lot of money if you want to get local and support small farms is to buy in bulk. Local and organic meats bought by the cut are crazy expensive; even for what are often thought of as lesser cuts.

    If you are willing to flex on the feed a cow gets (allowing grain feed over a pure grass fed, for example) you can get half a cow from a local producer for around $4/lb (that is about 250-300lbs of meat for $1000-1200). For you want an ethically raised grass fed to finished hormone and antibiotic free beef you will pay a premium, and it will cost between $6-9/lb depending on the farm and their practices. We get half a cow from Trail’s End Beef and it is phenomenal quality; as good or better than top cut steak house. It costs about $2000/half cow (250-300lbs of meat.) I know that is a big hit for folks, so if budget is tight to do that I recommend Earth Works Farms out of Alex, Alberta. They do a ‘Meat Account’ where you can pay a monthly installment and prebuy over the year for a half cow. Same price range as Trail’s End, similar quality, but without a lump some price. Earth Works also does some of the best pork in Alberta in my opinion, but pork is pound per pound much more expensive to produce at the small farm scale. ($500 for 50-60lbs or so).

    When we moved to bulk meat in our freezer our food costs dropped and we were able to enjoy more meat in our diet at a better quality and sourcing.

What have you gleaned from this? Questions? Comments? Please reply here: