Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Food Frugality

My darling friend Megan made the egregious error of sending me an email asking for ideas to save money on food. Whoops. In return, she got a full-length novel. Since I spent all that time writing her I figured I'd just post it up here. .

As background, this year I've had a goal of studying the Word of Wisdom (our religion's health code, click here for more explanation) and creating and implementing what I learned in a family eating plan. I think this is the only New Year's resolution I've ever kept and it has been SO MUCH FUN! I have collected dozens of fun recipes, read all sorts of wild and wacky books on nutrition (some I agree with, some I don't) and had a general ball in the kitchen. Michael has been remarkably supportive and game, even when he comes home to a meal consisting of raw sunflower seed spread and veggies in seaweed rolls. Mmmmmm! (Actually, we both LOVED it, I need to put that recipe up here.) Most of our meals are more tame, promise.

Anyway, before I compose another tome, here is what I wrote to Megan:

Dear Megan,


Here is my brilliant plan. Back when we were on a tight budget last year we could eat for $50/week this way. Now I spend more because we have a little more breathing room in our budget and $50/week doesn't give you much variety. But I still like to keep it in the $65-75 range (with a extra investments for food storage essentials.)

Strategy 1) I don't do coupons. My time is worth more than coupons, especially since they don't work with my plan (whole foods are almost NEVER on coupon.) That being said, I DO shop where the prices are cheapest on average. Usually that means Walmart for staples. Usually that means somewhere else for fresh foods. Costco for bulk. When I lived in UT I was on this rotation
Week 1) Maceys or farmer's market for fresh produce
Week 2) Walmart for household goods and packaged foods
Week 3) Fresh produce
Week 4) Costco for bulk items (honey, meat, pasta, etc.)
Also, the cannery and Macey's bulk foods are a great gift from above and now I weep when I realize how much I took them for granted. No stuff like that here.

Strategy 2) I plan a whole weeks worth of meals and buy everything I need. On this rotation I had to plan two weeks worth of meals. Not that hard to do, really. We have certain things on the same days... for example, pizza every Friday, family dinner every Sunday, something simple that doesnt' require any preparation on Wednesdays when M goes biking right after work, etc. Then leftovers for both of us for lunch the next day.
I try really really hard to not buy things that aren't on my list but it is sooooooooooooooo hard! Sometimes I make changes on the fly depending on what produce is on sale. (I'm the woman who buys like seventy pounds of peaches when they are on sale for 50c/lb. Embarrassing, but so worthwhile!)

Strategy 3) Buy only foods with one listed ingredient. So that would be yes to milk and canned corn but no to chef boyardee. Essentially, I try to buy only whole foods, no processed foods. This saves an astonishing amount of money, but does require some major recipe rehauling for most of us. Life without cream of mushroom soup and spaghetti sauce is still surprisingly fulfilling. I've collected some fantastic, cheap, quick recipes. I have also invested in lots of spices that dress up simple foods. I use almost exclusively vegetarian recipes, since they call for the most whole ingredients and are easy to add meat if I have some on hand. I also grind my own wheat and grow a garden, which of course saves a ton of money and keeps us centered in whole foods.

Strategy 4) Try to shop around the outside of the store as much as possible. Around the outside you find the produce, dairy, and meat. Within the aisles you find the wicked, expensive, tempting treats. I probably do 95% of my shopping around the outside of the store, though I do frequent the canned fruit/veg and baking aisles. I almost never shop anywhere else. This is pretty much the same as strategy 3 but helps me check myself.

Strategy 5) The cheapest way to eat is vegetarian. This year I've been on a WoW eating goal and we've cut waaaaay back on our meat intake and vastly kicked up our bean/rice/grain intake. Meat is SO EXPENSIVE that even when I do want to buy it I spend about twenty minutes agonizing over whether that one breast of chicken is really worth a dollar fifty. I carefully monitor our diet to make sure that we get plenty of protein, which we do easily with whole foods. When I get pregnant (someday) I will probably reintroduce more meat into our diet but for regular dietary intake I've found that other sources work great. Michael complains occasionally but on the whole I try to make things tasty and tempting enough that he doesn't notice. Now he likes it.

A website that I like is www.hillbillyhousewife.com She has tons of good ideas and a $45/week eating plan for a family of four that I found most inspiring. I also like her section about foods that are always a bargain.

Where you live I strongly recommend checking out the Mexican markets. I shopped in them on my mission and they have AMAZING deals. I wouldn't be surprised if that was cheaper than walmart.

The downside of all this for you is that when you work you don't have as much time to cook and plan as I do. This plan didn't work as well when I was working as it does now that I'm at home. But the same principles can apply. I bet if you got a lot of good crockpot recipes you could throw them in in the morning and they are usually all whole foods. I bet it would take less time than clipping coupons (I know, I'm such a coupon downer. I just don't get it. With all that time sorting and arranging and searching and looking online you could probably cook and freeze enough pinto beans for the next millenia. :c) And they taste better, too!)

OK so if you actually made it this far, I thank you for your time and attention, my apologies for the extreme boredom. Hope there's something in there that helps.

So what do you guys think? What is YOUR brilliant plan? To see what responses Megan got, check out her blog.


Tasha and Doug said...

You have a lot of great ideas! It took me a couple years of married life to start doing a bi-weekly menu. The menu and sticking to a list have been really helpful. I don't do coupons either. I end up buying things I normally would not have. We're also trying to eat less meat. I'll have to ckeck out that website you recommended. Groceries are so expensive!

Blair said...

Vanessa --this is fabulous. I have been trying to do the same thing. You have probably read, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver, but if not, I bet you would like it.

Brooke said...

Wow. I need to start doing more whole foods... We could certainly stand to save a bit on the grocery bill!

Kim said...

You have some really good ideas. I thought I was doing well with my menu planning, but this goes above and beyond all that!
Coupons - funny thing is, I clip them, because my mother clipped them, and I rarely use them. I buy store brand of most things, so coupons don't apply.
Thanks for the tips. We'll be using them!

Elise said...

Vanessa. These are great ideas. My buying was a little different (and extraordinarily unhealthy) because Albertsons always has excellent two-for-one deals on meat. I was able to keep to 100 a month only by baking and baking and baking and eating a LOT of processed meat. I found Walmart produce seriously lacking and Albertsons produce WAAY too expensive. It's a good thing we didn't all die of scurvy. Thanks for the new, very helpful, HEALTHY shopping ideas.

Jan said...

You're brilliant.

Amy Melynne said...

I love that Hillbilly Housewife site! It's being added to my collection. Thanks!

Tania said...

I'm amazed that you can do it for that! We spend WAY more than that!

I was telling myself we do have TWICE as many people as you, and we live in a very expensive place .... then I realized that we spend like 6 times as much, so even that doesn't seem like an excuse.

I kind of hate Wal-Mart, but after reading your post I am wishing there was one closer than 60 miles from me!