People seem to love knowing what others spend, don’t they? Whether it’s to assure yourself that you’re doing okay, compare and wonder what the other person knows that you don’t, or just to have a peek into someone else’s life, it’s amazing what a hot topic budgets can be, especially grocery budgets.
I’ve often been asked to share my family’s grocery budget.
I never have, because quite honestly, I’m a backwards budgeter. I have always spent as little as possible, then entered receipts into a tracking program at the end of the month, and it always stayed in the black. I knew what my monthly budget should be in each category, and if I overdid it one month, I knew to settle down the next.
It’s not exactly something for others to learn from! However, I’ve been deadly curious for a while about how our food expenditures have changed as I switched from a somewhat standard, couponing existence pre-2009, still with quite a few homemade foods, to beginning raw milk in early 2009 and then continuing to make changes as the past two years have gone by.
I finally got the numbers, and I will spill the beans (and the expensive meat and eggs) today! Here’s “How Does Your Real Food Budget Grow?”
Making Use of the Four Seasons
First I want to share some tips with you about utilizing your location to the benefit of your food budget.
I live in Michigan, where we have all four seasons, sometimes three in one day. If you’re in the Midwest as well, I hope there are some tips here to inspire you; if not, do take away some ideas for poking around your own community to find the secret deals and the food gems hidden there.
Winter/Spring: Random Deals
As I mentioned in the first Eat Well, Spend Less post when I wrote about finding real food in unexpected places, one key to finding real food super deals is building your network. Talk with others in your area, make an email list of like-minded people, and when you see a good deal on something, ping your friends to see if anyone wants to save on shipping or share pick-up duties.
Suddenly you’ll find random food offers in your inbox, like $40/gallon maple syrup or organic frozen cherries for under $2/pound. We can also order raw cheese from Brunkow in Wisconsin for $22/5-lb brick, since shipping works out in the wintertime.
Summer: Farmer’s Market
As you’ll see when I get to the last 3 years of food budgeting, my reliance on the Farmer’s Market in our city has vastly increased as I’ve committed more and more to eating real food and buying locally.
Sometimes I know I pay the farmers more than I would at our local grocery store, and this summer, I decided to be okay with that on a philosophical level. Most of the time, buying direct is actually a good deal, especially when you know what to buy in bulk and preserve for the winter, when you can only get cherries and cheese.
What I buy in big old baskets:
All kinds of peppers
(sweet, chili, hot) Fresh peppers in late August get so cheap, about 3/$1 or a whole basket for $5. Compared to wrinkly reduced produce peppers in the winter that are still $2/lb, it’s worth stocking up!
How to preserve peppers: The easiest way, if you have the space, is to freeze them. No blanching needed, just slice or dice, package and freeze. You can freeze half peppers, seeded, for stuffed pepper meals, and the little hot ones can go right in whole if you’re crunched for time. I also dehydrate diced sweet peppers and whole chili peppers.
Recipes for peppers:
- Spicy Southwest Dressing – I use my whole jalapenos for this baby twice a month!
- Chili (Recipe available in The Everything Beans Book)
- Pepper Steak
- Fajitas and stir fry
- Black Bean Soup
- Veggie Bean Burritos
Tomatoes for Canning
I swore I’d never can again after my first experience, but once I read about how the acid in tomatoes makes them the worst possible food to buy in a can because of the leaching BPA…well, I gave it another go last summer. I’m so very happy to have organic, home-canned tomatoes all winter long. It’s worth it!
I also can salsa since we go through a TON of it, and I make it spicy! I have ended up buying mild salsa for the kids this winter because I overshot the jalapenos a bit.
- Canning Basics
- My Tomato Canning Method and story of how I came around
- Katie’s Canned Salsa (spicy!)
Fruits and Greens for the freezer
We pick a lot of fruit ourselves, but sometimes it’s just worth it to buy a basket at the market. I also like to buy fresh greens like spinach and kale in early and late summer. I use some for dishes like Sausage, Bean and Kale Soup or Sausage Spinach Pasta Toss and then immediately lightly blanch and freeze the rest in ice cube trays for green smoothies.
I also like to slice, lightly sugar, and freeze peaches for a mid-winter treat.
Zucchini is another gem that freezes well without blanching (shred it or dice it), and I can make zucchini bread all year round. I also toss zucchini into about any soup, but especially Veggie Bean Burritos and Turkey Vegetable Chili (Recipe available in The Everything Beans Book), both included and updated in The Everything Beans Book.
Summer: U-Pick Fruits
Picking our own is not only usually super frugal, but a fun family outing and tradition if you play your cards right. I’m so proud that my kids will know all their lives that strawberries grow on low plants, apples and cherries on trees, and blueberries on bushes. They learn the value of real, hard work, and I usually let them set aside whatever berries they pick in a special bag “just for them” to reinforce the rewards of a good day’s work. Not to mention the fact that self-discipline is an important lesson, too – don’t eat them all while you pick and you’ll have some later.
Here’s what we’ve picked in the past:
- Strawberries, both organic (small and frustrating) and conventional
- Blueberries – although I’ve become more thoughtful on that one, calculating the cost of gas…if my husband can’t join us to make a large haul, it’s the same price to buy 10 pounds at the market
- Raspberries – probably the largest cost savings here. Because raspberries take so long to pick, they are pricey to let other people do the work for you.
- Cherries – we picked cherries once, and it was fun and shady, at least, but unless you have a pitter and really love cherries, the processing time wasn’t worth it for me.
We pretty much use this fruit all year round in our homemade yogurt – I just found out I’m down to the last bag of each and I’m hoping we make it through until June for strawberries again!
How to Preserve Fruits
- How to dehydrate fruits
- 3 Ways to freeze strawberries
- Freezing blueberries and raspberries – simply wash (or don’t, if organic – they hold up better) and freeze whole in bags.
- How to Store and Freeze Produce, Grains and More
- Freezer Primer Guide for Summer Produce
You can find the farms we choose and reasons why on my Local Grand Rapids Real Food Resources Page.
Summer: Grow Your Own and CSAs
I kept track of everything I spent at the Farmer’s Market, itemized, for an entire summer to try to get an idea of whether or not I’d save money using a CSA share, as well as to get an idea of how much produce our family could actually consume (would I need a half or whole share?).
If you want to do this, just keep a little notebook in your car and write it down immediately, then evaluate at the end of the season.
As I told you Monday, I haven’t yet joined a CSA, but not because I don’t think it would save money. (There are some other great tips and considerations in the comments there.) Three reasons:
- We are planning on moving, and I don’t want to end up driving ½ hour every week just to get my CSA share.
- I am just sure I’d still need to go to the Farmer’s Market to get some fruits, eggs, etc., so I wouldn’t save a trip.
- I tend to miss the deadlines – they’re really early, like last month or right now!
If you have the time and space, you can grow your own veggies. Use this organic gardening guide as a jumping off point.
Fall: Apples, Squash and Root Veggies
The last fruit we U-pick, and our personal favorite, is apples. We bought about 5 bushels this fall, and I canned 15 jars or so of sauce and simply ate the rest at a rate of 4-8/day! Here are 5 ways to preserve apples if you can’t eat them that fast.
Next year I’m determined to buy more squash and sweet potatoes in the fall, cooking, pureeing and freezing them, especially now that we know we like these grain-free pancakes with orange veggies so much. I spent $5 on one lousy spaghetti squash a few weeks ago whereas I get them for $1 each in the fall!
Whole squash, most of the time, will last through at least January in a cool, dry place like a basement. Spaghetti squash is a perfect grain-free, low-carb replacement for regular spaghetti, as long as this doesn’t happen to yours.
I also like to grab a half bushel or more of potatoes and onions, enough for a few months in the basement. I hate to fork out the double and triple cash for organic potatoes at the store, but they are on the dirty dozen list. I talked to the farmer and found out that although not organic, they’re so much better than storebought. At least they don’t have chemical root inhibitor on them!
Fall/Winter: Cold Storage
I call it my “garage fridge” and store bulk nuts, flours, those apples, and anything that overflows from my refrigerator (which is a lot!). It’s so easy to make a humongous batch of chicken stock and cool it quickly on the floor of the garage. I’ve even stored a plastic tub with nuts and flour on the back deck to ensure that they stayed frozen, whereas the garage, at least in milder weather, is just cold. Watch those subzero temps, though, or you lose the remainder of your apples!
A Midwest Store That Makes Effort: Meijer
Our local supermarket, which covers much of the midwest, is truly local to our town, as the founder lived here in Grand Rapids.
The Meijer Naturals brand is a great compromise when you can’t afford organics, as the brand promise includes “no GMO,” and Meijer Organics often offers less expensive and very tasty alternatives to big brands on things like frozen fruit, spaghetti sauce and more.
My store has a reduced produce section, where I’ve been finding potatoes for 20c/lb and apples, sometimes organic, for 29c/lb. If you don’t have a reduced section, ask for it! There are great organizations like Feeding America that collect aging produce and give it to the poor, so I wouldn’t fuss about getting reduced stuff if my store already participated in something like that.
Also be sure to watch for seasonal stocking up sales, especially on baking goods and nuts in the fall. For example, I bought about 60 pounds of almonds in October when they went on sale for $2.99/pound! A regular sale is $4.99/pound, and I knew that with the power bars from Healthy Snacks to Go being a regular occurrence around here and going grain-free both in the fall and this Lent, I’d need plenty. It pays to know your price point on basic supplies, since that deal was incredibly better even than buying in bulk.
Country Life Natural Foods
Again local to the Midwest, and especially Michigan, Country Life Natural Foods is my new source for bulk grains and beans, raisins, and a few other items. Check their delivery area to see if they come close to you, and go together with friends to get up to a $400 order so they come for free!
It’s still really important for me to price check with local groceries, though, because I can get raisins for nearly the same price when they’re on sale at Meijer, walnuts for less on sale, and I just scored a bunch of dried beans for under $1/pound, much less than the 5-pound bags at Country Life. I do love the convenience of having the large bags, though, and not worrying about running out and then having to pay full price at the store.
Does Real Food Increase the Budget?
If you’re curious about how this all shakes out in a real food budget, here’s my family’s real food budget over the past three years.
Be sure to pop back in tomorrow for the links to the other amazing ladies in the Eat Well, Spend Less series, with tips from across the continent for shopping well!
See my full disclosure statement here.