Monday, May 12, 2008

Food Budget Issues

I'd like to divert a wee bit from my regular format to talk a little bit about feeding your family economically as food prices increase drastically. A recent article on Frugal Upstate got me thinking about this.

It's a difficult subject--because everyone's idea of economy is a little different, and people have different ideas about what is acceptable nutrition.

Although this is not a frugal or financial blog in any way, let's face it--most of us are on a budget. My grocery budget is $50/week, and that includes dog and cat food, paper/cleaning products and any foods prepared for this blog (which are always made as part of a meal). It's just Mr.W and myself here; we also provide food for different functions and gatherings weekly or so, either inviting friends or family members for a meal or bringing something to a potluck or church social gathering.

The best article on this subject that I've read lately is Cheap Healthy Good's Ultimate Guide to Understanding the Food Crisis: How it Started, Who it Hurts Most, and How to Solve the Problem. What a great perspective--it's certainly true that here in the United States we are not in danger of going hungry any time soon.

But our food prices are increasing, and many people on fixed incomes are having to choose which items on their grocery lists to do without. Those of us on strict budgets AND trying to eat as healthy as possible are learning how to be more creative. When is buying organic and locally-produced food no longer possible? What about the people on budgets that ate nutritionally-bankrupt meals before prices started going up? What are they going to do?

I have to admit that my main concern is for the poor. I personally know people who don't have the money to purchase in bulk--the financial outlay is just not possible. Heck, I've even had to make those choices--not having an extra $10 for the jumbo package of toilet paper at a better price per roll is a real issue for most people I know in real life. I also know people who don't have cars--or money for extra gas--to drive to a slightly farther store to find the best deals.

And what about all those people who just don't know how to create a nutrtionally-balanced meal? On a budget or not, they just have no idea that 50% of your plate should be (let's all say it together, now) vegetables! The remaining 50% should be (for people without dietary restriction) a carb and a protein. Four ounces of lean meat is a portion size. That's about the size of a deck of cards, or the palm of your hand.

So let's talk about some ways to make your grocery budget stretch:

- Read your receipt! Make sure you're not being overcharged.

- When comparing the best price for an item, look at unit price; also consider gasoline/travel cost if you have to go to many stores. Is it worth saving three cents?

- Don't waste food. Only make what you can eat. Freeze leftovers for future meals. For example, remove all remaining meat from a rotisserie chicken and make chicken salad for lunches; then take all the bones, cartilage and skin and freeze it for a future batch of broth. Ditto with a few stalks of celery, half an onion, a few bits of carrot, 1/2 cup rice, a few slices of roast beef, etc.

- Build menu plans based on what's on sale at local grocery stores. Check those sale flyers! I find it's useful to spend that $1.50 for the Sunday newspaper (we don't purchase regular paper delivery) for the flyers and coupons. Most big-chain grocery stores also publish sale flyers online.

- Plan convenient and snack foods so you can manage how much you're spending. For example, mini crustless quiches or muffins in the freezer are a great take-along breakfast for the commuter!

- Troll grocery stores for meat that's marked down for the last day of sale; use that same day or freeze immediately for future use. DO NOT LEAVE IN THE FRIDGE BEYOND THE DAY OF PURCHASE.

- Talk with friends and family. Maybe sharing a bulk-sized package of meat or toilet paper can work for you. I have a great friend that calls me from the store if she finds an item that she knows I use on sale, and will offer to pick it up for me to save me the trip if I want it.

- Sharing a ride to the store with a friend saves gas. Better yet, if you're going anyway, bring a less fortunate friend, neighbor or family member and save them the taxi fare.

- Visit your local library to review depression-era cookbooks. You'll be surprised how many inventive and tasty recipes you'll find!

- Implement a meatless meal day, such as spaghetti with marinara (don't forget a salad!) and garlic bread, or rice-and-beans.

- Learn recipes that utilize dried legumes. They're high in protein and fiber, and very filling.

- Learn about different cuisines. For example, vietnamese pho is delicious, good for you, and uses very little meat. With a little planning and time, you can make a delicious broth, serve with rice or cello noodles (under $2 at walmart) and 1/2 pound thin-sliced meat of choice feeds 4-6.

- Buy ahead! If you know you'll be making lots of, say, bread in the coming several months, go ahead and buy that 50-pound bag of flour now, if you can. Chances are the price will increase over the summer.

- Buy frozen vegetables instead of imported out-of-season ones. Frozen fruit are also a good quality alternative to fresh.

- We grew up poor, so I know how to use a can of tuna a hundred ways! My favorite is creamed tuna on toast with peas or green beans. These kinds of meals are filling, family-friendly and budget-stretching.

- If you can, make donations to your local food bank.

- Reduce the amount of meat in recipes. A pasta sauce that your normally make with one pound of ground beef might work fine with a half pound.

- Start a garden. Even if it's only an indoor container of herbs or two tomato plants, it's something, and not only are you providing fresh food for your family, you're reducing the demand ever so slightly on that product making it more available to others. I know, it doesn't seem like much--but if enough people do it, it will make a difference.

- Consider buying a share or half-share in a local CSA. It's a good investment toward fresh, locally-grown produce for your family all growing season long.

- Donate or volunteer at soup kitchens or reliable charities (ones that do not exceed 10% administrative costs) that feed the hungry in your own country or globally.

Here are some things that I'm doing personally:

- Dusting off my oil spray pump. Why pay more for the stuff in cans, when I can buy oil on sale at my discount grocery?

- Combining shopping trips. In my town, there are 3 major grocery stores, my warehouse club grocery (BJ's) is a 15-minute drive out of town, and the nearest whole-foods/health store where I purchase bulk grains is another 15-minute drive in a different direction. I use one shopping day every other week to do my driving circuit--to the whole-foods/health store (with a farmer's market stop along the way), divert through another city directly towards the warehouse club for some bulk purchases and the lowest price gasoline.

- By limiting other trips out of town, we are able to make one tank of gas last two weeks!

- Choosing to consider this a way to eat healthier and be better stewards of our money; not succumbing to an inflation mindset.

How are you combatting the rising food prices in your life? What are some of your budget-stretching meals?


Mary said...

What a great post! Some of the things we do are that we go to Costco about 3 or 4 times a year and buy our meat in bulk. Since the cost of flour is skyrocketing we also buy our flour and sugar there and then ration it for a couple months. We also have our garden planted. And we walk instead of drive to most things in town.
(I also have a weekly grocery budget of $50 and can make a tank of gas stretch for 2 weeks! :) )

Amanda said...

Thanks, Mary! You are awesome--I'm so jealous of your garden, by the way. And garden-able family, as well. My folks and I all kill plants. I love that you choose to walk.

I am considering purchasing a used chest freezer to keep in the garage for bulk meat storage so that I can take advantage of good meat sales and warehouse club finds... I think that will be an added budget-saver here!

Ann said...

Excellent post! For us, the CSA saves us money-- it comes out cheaper per week than buying comparable produce does at a grocery store. We also try very hard to NEVER let any food get to point of needing to be tossed. Fortunately we quite like cobbling meals together from leftovers.

Kathy said...

This is a great post. We do a lot of the items already on your list and I also try to make the gas tank last 2 weeks. I am a big fan of foods that can be used for multiple meals - I often buy whole chickens when they're on sale, cook in the crock pot and serve with a veggie on the side for day 1, then use the resulting stock and picked-off meat for various soups for days 2 and 3. I read the grocery stores' weekly flyers and plan menus around whatever produce is on sale that week, and I also second the importance of keeping an eagle eye on prices as they are ringing up at the checkout line. Every other trip, I swear, I am overcharged on something. When I lived in the land of Krogers, they would always give me the incorrectly charged item for free when I would bring it up at the customer service desk. Alas, other grocery stores in the areas I've lived since then don't seem to do that.

Amanda said...

Ann--you are so right about CSA membership being cheaper in the long run. I have yet to purchase a half-share in ours--the price rose to $250!!--and of course that is still a good price, but the initial outlay hurts. I, too, have always enjoyed being creative with 2nd and 3rd meal creation from leftovers.

Kathy--you are a wise woman! I had the same issues in Krogerland. Target and Walmart also both require careful watching at the register!

andy said...

Great advice! I am going to need to shop frugally starting this July when I move out. It will be fun to see what I can make with the money I have.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Amanda,
Some really good advice here, thanks for sharing!

I am a big fan of working in a few vegetarian days per week, both as a source of extra savings (most vegetarian meals are laughably cheap to make) and as a way to eat healthier food.

Thanks for a really good article.

Casual Kitchen

Amanda said...

Hi, Andy. I'm sure you'll do a fantastic job shopping frugally. If you look at it as a challenge or a game, it's less stressful, that's for sure! At the end of the day, I know I won't starve--but trying to get the right nutrition on my plate while making the food around my husband's picky eating habits is always a bit of a challenge for me, but I like sneaking in the veg and telling him about it later--the look on his face is always a funny moment!

Thank you, Dan!

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