Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

Eat Well, Spend Less: Food Sources in Michigan and the Midwest

April 19th, 2011 · 37 Comments · Frugality

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?

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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

cherry almond coconut crepes (9)

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

salsa canning (4)

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. Winking smile

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:

Tomatoes for Canning

canning tomatoes (4)

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. Winking smile

Fruits and Greens for the freezer

peaches to freeze (1)

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, both included and updated in The Everything Beans Book.

Summer: U-Pick Fruits

organic strawberries

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

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:

  1. We are planning on moving, and I don’t want to end up driving ½ hour every week just to get my CSA share.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

roasted winter vegetables (12)

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

If you live in a climate with cold weather, embrace the cold with the joy of imageexpanding your refrigerator and/or freezer exponentially, and for free!

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!

Adrienne of Whole New Mom discussed how and what she purchases there and has some great discussion going in the comments of her guest post on Frugal Pantry Storage Tips.

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!

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37 Comments so far ↓

  • Wendy (The Local Cook)

    Great ideas! I just started a Classified Ads section on eatlocalwestmichigan.com which I hope will be a source of those emails you were talking about – who has what in season or excess available.

  • Rita

    Katie,
    Thanks for all the great info. I love reading about bulk food purchasers from someone who lives close by. Reading other bloggers who talk about buying in bulk sometimes I think well Meijers sales are better than some bulk prices I have seen. Also it is good to know where to bulk order from close by. Thanks!

  • Heidi

    I moved from Michigan last summer up to north eastern Alberta. Believe me, I miss how readily available all the fresh produce was. I also miss Meijers and Country Life. I’m still looking for suitable places to get things. Just a quick thought, have you ever tried freezing tomatoes. I used to do that all the time and I think they work great. I much prefer them to canned tomatoes, as they have a still fresh taste. In my opinion, you can’t beat cooking with the fresh tomatoes. And it’s a way to quickly get through all the produce without letting it go to waste if you don’t have the time to get it all processed. You can dice them, peel them, freeze them whole…just process in the way that’s easiest for you.

    Katie Reply:

    Heidi,
    I keep reading about that method, freeze and smash into chili and such, but I just don’t have the space in my little freezer right now. Someday… ;) I yen for a big freezer with shelves so I don’t have to go “freezer diving” for the frozen fruit that may or may not be at the bottom! ;) Katie

  • Aimee @ Simple Bites

    Love that you say you’re a backwards budgeter. I do the same thing!

    Great post, Katie. I love that you are so wholeheartedly dedicated to real food, and local, sustainable eating. It’s an inspiration.

    Katie Reply:

    Oh, I fumble along all right! I still buy plenty of things that are neither local nor sustainable, I’m sure, but we’ve made incredible changes. Your food shopping was an inspiration as well!! :) Katie

  • JanaC2

    I also do not have access to a natural foods store that marks foods down, but I have become very savvy at remembering unit costs of natural foods and am able to take advantage when I see a great sale. My goal for this year is canning… seems intimidating, but just freezing applesauce doesn’t get us through the winter!

  • Katy

    Thanks Katie!! Great article as always!
    There is a local bulk food store that has CLNF beat and Meijer beat. The only problem is not any organics. The store is American International Bulk and it is on the southside of Lansing. I get a lot of beans and oatmeal there. They have CHEAP Feta cheese and a lot of herbs and spices. Quinoa is cheap there too!
    Thanks again for the great article! I started my garden yesterday and I have 150 chickens for meat, process date is 7 June!

    Lisa Reply:

    Hi Katy,
    Can you share where you get your chickens processed? We are also in West MI and are thinking of adding meat chickens to our hobby farm, but only if we can find a place to process them for us. Thanks!

    Katy Reply:

    Hi Lisa,
    Last year we processed them ourselves. There is a guy from GR that comes to the house to do it. Let me know if you want his #. This year I am going to try something different and take them to R&B in Corunna ph#989-743- 3337.

    Lisa Reply:

    Thanks, Katy! Yes, I would be very grateful for the phone number of the guy in GR. Is he more expensive than R&B?

    Katy Reply:

    he is the same price (I think) Brian Chisholm 616-682-1275.. They are a great family!

    Lisa Reply:

    Thank you!

  • Diana

    I love to make freezer jam with all the fresh fruits (strawberries, blueberries, and peaches). We love our peanut butter and jelly on toast :) And you can buy certain types of pectin that will allow you to use honey instead of sugar in the jam, I think. Also, I just discovered that if you put the frozen fruit in a blender with plain yogurt, it’s delicious. (It mixes up the sweet with the sour yogurt more, which makes me like it better.) Thanks Katie, for all these good tips about what/when/where to buy stuff!

  • Kate @ Modern Alternative Mama

    FYI, I am in Central Ohio, and there is a local health food store here that sells maple syrup (also local) for $4.95/lb. Do the math, it’s just under $40/gal. :) I have access to REALLY cheap maple syrup and raw honey!! And decent prices on most other real foods too, all local. For me it doesn’t usually make sense to buy in bulk because I can buy as needed and still get the same price. With my current system I COULDN’T buy most things in bulk (besides meat, and this summer I’ll be doing some produce, too). But I don’t buy any dry good in bulk at all.

    If anyone is in Central Ohio and wants my sources, just email me. :)

  • Rana

    Katie,
    Thanks for all the great tips. Espcaially on canning. I’m going to take the plunge and can this summer. I have always wanted to. My grandmother used to send us all kinds of fruits and vegetables canned. Your seasonal lists are going to be a great help. Also do you have a master list of what you can freeze? Does anyone? Thanks again for all this great information.

    Katie Reply:

    Rana,
    This one is pretty comprehensive: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2010/01/05/how-to-store-and-freeze-fresh-produce-grains-and-more/
    Have fun canning! :) Katie

    Rana Reply:

    Oh this is good. Thank you. I have been slowly reading through a lot of your older posts, this will be very helpful.

  • Julie

    Thank you so much for these great ideas! I have been thinking of this so much lately, as the cost of food is killing us, but I refuse to go back to eating conventional foods!

  • Adrienne @ Whole New Mom

    Katie,

    Great tips! I LOVE the garage fridge! I stored quite a few things in the garage this winter but now I have to move them inside….and so we are in the market for a 2nd chest or standing freezer.

    Wow….we really juggle a lot to make the money thing work, don’t we? And by the way, I pretty much backwards budget too. Or I don”t, but I should :).

  • Linda

    Katie, you have a lot of great info here. I will save this post so I can come back later to check some of those links.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen prices that low for food specials at my grocery. Nuts for 2.99? I don’t think so. Are you buying raw nuts?

    Linda Reply:

    I also meant to say I am trying to find a good place to buy beans, legumes in bulk. No where in my town!

    Katie Reply:

    Linda,
    Mail order is always worth looking into, but those 99c/lb beans at my local store were a better deal than the bulk buys I’ve seen, so keep your eyes open (it was an unadvertised deal)! ;) Katie

    Brittany Reply:

    I find this to often be true. I’ve yet to find a bulk bean/rice price that doesn’t exceed my store price per pound, especially when you add in shipping costs. It pays to do the math first! :) I try to keep an updated list of my normal prices per lb. or oz. for all of my staple ingredients. Then if I find a “good deal”, I can quickly check to make sure it really is a good deal.

    Katie Reply:

    Linda,
    They’re not organic nor probably “truly” raw, but they’re sold as raw almonds. I emailed the store and found that they’re steam pasteurized, at least no chemicals in the process. Better than nothing! :) Katie

  • renee @ FIMBY

    One of my favorite posts in this whole series, on all the blogs I’ve read. I appreciate that you value local. We do also and it definitely increases our costs (I don’t shop for the cheapest food) but we really value that. So we spend less in other areas.

    Thanks for breaking this all down for us.

    Katie Reply:

    Thanks, Renee! I’m so glad these thoughts were helpful for you! :) Katie

  • Kassie

    I loved this post! So many good ideas, and I’ll admit I stayed up wayyyy too late following your links about what to preserve and how. We are growing our first big garden this year, and snagged an upright deep freeze from Craigslist. We live in central Illinois so its kind of the same situation in terms of availability. Although we are super lucky to live a whole 3 miles from a farm that is offering CSA shares, and we purchased one. They are slowly expanding beyond produce, to chickens and eggs and this year, beef. Woohoo!

    Katie Reply:

    Kassie,
    Sorry to keep you up so late! I know how that goes, though… ;) Katie

  • susan

    I feel somewhat suspicious of Meijer organics now, after looking at the ratings of organic dairy brands here: http://www.cornucopia.org/dairysurvey/Ratings_Alphabetical.html

    Katie Reply:

    Susan,
    I checked this link out, too, and Meijer is only rated for milk and eggs. Basically the explanation is that the food is raised on organic factory farms and the organization doing the rating doesn’t know how the birds/cows are treated. That’s about what I’d expect from a big store like Meijer, which in my opinion is better than white eggs but certainly a compromise – anything in a store is – over local farms where you can talk to the farmer. I don’t know anything about their tomatoes or beans and other shelf organics, though. I wonder if there are ratings for that? Thanks! :) Katie

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  • Barb from Allendale

    Katie, adding to local sources, I recently found my new favorite farm/CSA : Visser Farms in Zeeland
    http://www.visser-farms.com/
    They have a CSA that delivers to Spring Lake, Holland, Zeeland and Grand Rapids; plus they have ‘Friday boxes’ available weekly at their farm. If you’re not ready to commit to a full CSA season (or if you missed the sign-up deadline), the Friday boxes are a great option (that’s what we do right now). Lots of info at their website, including produce available, eggs and even custom-raised beef and pork. I really like the many options here.

    Katie Reply:

    Barb,
    Thanks for the note! I sometimes buy a few things from Visser at the Farmer’s Market on Fulton, but in conversation they’re a very conventional farm, all the regular fertilizers and pesticides, so I generally avoid their produce when other farmers who are making organic efforts have the same thing, usually for equal or less money. Hope I’m not bursting a bubble! One thing I can say – their stuff is beautiful! ;) Katie

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Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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