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).
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.
- Local over organic.
- 80/20 rule.
- Quaxing by bike.
- Seasonal food preservation.
- 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.
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!
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.
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…).
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!)
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”‘s Green-Up series. I find it extremely challenging to escape packaging in foods even though we eat little “packaged” food. Styrofoam with meat. Plastic bags of apples. Let alone the actual 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.
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.