According to Michael Pollan, Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food (and 16% on health care). Now say what you want about the high cost of health care (sick care, really) and the high cost of quality food, but he makes a valid point that people who can afford to spend more on food really should do so. I often write about the power of voting with your money and making ethical consumer choices whenever possible. I also write about the health reasons for choosing real food and traditional foods over the standard American diet. Food choices are such a priority for my family that we spend a large portion (as much as 25%) of our income on food.
Wait a minute, 25%! Let’s step back and look at that number. Can my low-income family afford to spend so much on food? Can we possibly spend less by compromising on quality? If you are looking at your own grocery budget and wondering the same thing, take a moment to consider the real costs of food eaten at home, according to the USDA.
The USDA has a handy chart that tells us the average cost of food eaten at home. First of all, I want to point out that the “average” US consumer is purchasing and eating at home a number of processed food-like products. With that in mind, take a look at what the average American is spending to eat at home. According to this chart, my family of three should spend between $480.80 (Thrifty) and $920.80 (Liberal) on food every month. The lower of the two numbers is actually pretty close to our food budget, which also happens to be 25% of our income. What does this tell me, besides that I need to make more money? It tells me that we are already thrifty eaters, even though we prioritize organic real foods.
These costs are only for food eaten at home. They do not take into consideration that most Americans eat out several times a week. My own family eats out less than once a month. This means that we don’t head to the fast food drive through after a long day of work. We take food with us when we plan to be away from home for more than a few hours. If we do have to eat on the road, we seek out natural food stores or ethnic restaurants. Whenever I’m tempted to just head to a restaurant, I remind myself that I could get an entire pound of grass-fed hamburger for the cost of that fast food hamburger. It only takes a few minutes to cook up a healthy hamburger and garnish it with fermented veggies from the fridge. Here are some more tips that have helped me save money on food this year.
Stock is a great way to get maximum nutrition from simple ingredients. You can use up wilted bits of produce and things like onion peels and celery leaves that normally would go in the compost. If you’re pressed for time, simply throw bones, veggie bits, water and a splash of apple cider vinegar in the crock pot on low. Let it cook overnight or while you are at work for the day. Sally Fallon writes in Nourishing Traditions that broth has a protein sparing effect. This means that broth helps you utilize more of the protein you take in. It provides minerals and amino acids in an easy-to-absorb form. Use it to cook your dried beans and rice. It will add flavor and nutrition to simple meals.
Salad on a Budget
I enjoy cooking, and this does mean that I can spend too much time in the kitchen making very complicated meals. Still, eating at home needn’t be complicated or time-consuming. There are a few things you can do on the weekend to help make meal preparation easier during the week. For example, if you love those pre-washed salad mixes but don’t love the price, make your own.
For best results, invest in a salad spinner. (I got mine at a thrift store for $1.29.) Look for one that has a solid bowl, so that you can wash veggies right in it. Purchase organic or local lettuce at the store or farmers’ market. Tear apart the lettuce with your fingers and put it into the basket of your salad spinner. Put the basket into the bowl and add water. Swish the lettuce around. Pick up the basket and pour out the water. Repeat the washing and draining two more times. If desired, add some apple cider vinegar, food grade hydrogen peroxide or a few drops of grapefruit seed extract to the first or second wash to kill germs and parasites. After the final wash, put on the lid and spin the water out. Use a dish towel or paper towel to blot the lettuce if you don’t have a spinner. Store the washed lettuce in a zippered bag in the refrigerator. I like to add chopped veggies, such as carrots, peppers and radishes. It will provide you with easy salads for several days. Of course, making home-made salad dressing is another easy way to save money. I follow the same washing process with other greens, such as kale and chard. If I have them already pre-washed, it’s much easier to use them in quick meals throughout the week. Produce that gets wasted because you didn’t use it in time is a big food budget offender.
Plan Your Meals to Use What You Have on Hand
Sometimes I wonder what we ever did before the internet. I love finding recipes that utilize the ingredients that I have on hand in my kitchen. Instead of running to the store, I’ll do a search that includes the ingredients that I want to use up. For example, I was out of gluten-free flours except for almond flour. I wanted to make banana bread with three brown bananas. By searching “banana bread, almond flour,” I was able to find a recipe and avoid waste. Another option that works for me is to think of recipes as guidelines. Instead of searching multiple stores for a list of hard-to-find ingredients, I try to substitute things that I already have in my kitchen. Chili can be made with black beans or lentils instead of kidney beans. Brown rice can substitute for wild rice. Dried kale can substitute for parsley. Pizza can feature various meats and veggies with other cheeses besides mozzarella. Don’t be afraid to start substituting with recipes. The internet has tips if you are unsure of a substitution. For example, look up “substituting honey for sugar” if honey is what you have on hand. You will find tips on how to reduce the liquid in your recipe and the cooking temperature. In soups and main dishes, simply use the best ingredients that you enjoy and have on hand.
Make Your Own Fermented Foods
Store-bought fermented foods and probiotic supplements can be expensive. Making your own sauerkraut and fermented veggies is simple and cost-effective. Plus, you get a variety of friendly bacteria in every spoonful along with beneficial enzymes and acids that will actually help you digest your food. (Avoid the expensive digestive enzymes as well!) Remember that the healthiest food in the world will get you nowhere if your digestion is poor. Put the healthy bacteria to work for you. They will boost your immune system and even make vitamins for you. In that respect, even store-bought live ferments are probably cheaper than vitamin supplements.
One fermented food that is especially easy to make is home-made yogurt. Our local co-op even discounts their organic milk when it is about to expire. I like to get a half-gallon of organic whole milk at the discounted price and make yogurt. First I heat it to 180. Then I cool it until I can stick my finger in without being burned. I add about 1/4 cup of plain yogurt with live cultures to the cooled milk. I then divide the mixture into jars and put the jars in a small cooler. I fill the cooler with hot tap water and close it tightly. Sometimes I put in fresh hot water after a few hours. Sometimes I just let it incubate for six hours in the same water. If the yogurt has not thickened after six hours, I put in fresh hot water and incubate for 3-4 more hours. You may also just incubate the yogurt on a heating pad or in a food dehydrator set to warm.
Kefir is even easier if you don’t mind maintaining the grains. Kefir requires no heating and can be incubated at room temperature. It’s great if you have a good source of raw milk. An added benefit of making your own is that you get to control the amount of sugar that goes in it. Have you ever looked at the labels on store-bought yogurt and kefir? It’s not unusual to see 28 grams of sugar per serving. Some of that sugar is in the form of lactose, but one sweetened kefir that claims to be 99% lactose free still has 20 grams of sugar. My favorite easy way to sweeten yogurt is to use a spoonful of honey or jam.
Don’t Over Shop and Don’t Over Eat
I think the hardest advice for me to follow is to not over shop and not to over eat. I work at a farmers’ market, which means that I have access to the most beautiful produce and locally raised meat in town. Many a Saturday I’ve arrived home with a bountiful pile of groceries that requires my energy and attention. The reality, however, is that I rarely have the energy to wash veggies and cook after eight hours spent outside managing a market. If I’m going to shop at the market, it helps to have a menu plan for the week, especially one that doesn’t involve any actual kitchen work on Saturday evenings. I think a meal plan service is a great tool for saving money at the grocery store and farmers’ market. Many plans even break down the preparation steps and help you utilize all of the ingredients you buy.
As for over eating, I welcome your suggestions. My family still finds it hard to leave leftovers. If I make extra food in the hopes of having more leftovers, we will eat even more at one sitting. One thing that helps me is to set aside enough food for my husband’s lunch before I serve supper. I’ll put a decent serving size in a glass container and cover the food with a layer of parchment paper followed by a layer of foil. The parchment protects the food from the foil, which is especially important with tomato-based dishes. The foil keeps the moisture in and protects the food while it’s in the fridge at work. Taking a lunch saves us quite a bit of money. Not only does he not have to buy food at work. He also gets a good solid lunch in his tummy to help prevent over eating in the evening after work.
Clean Out Your Refrigerator Every Week
Cleaning the fridge helps you to make use of everything that you buy. There are few things more wasteful than losing perfectly good food into the back of the fridge until it is too old to consume. When I clean out my fridge, I sometimes find jars of stock and wilted veggies that can go right into a nice soup. Some veggies simply need to be “crisped” for renewed freshness. When you find that bunch of kale or chard in your produce drawer that you meant to use two days ago, don’t panic and don’t throw it away. Cut about a quarter-inch off the bottom of the stems and put the cut stems down into a bowl of warm water. After 15 minutes, replace the warm water with cold water. Soak for another 15 minutes and refrigerate or use in your favorite recipe. They will be as good as new, though the nutrition is always best within a few days of purchase.
These are just a few things that have helped me save some money at the grocery store without compromising on quality. What are your budget tricks for making real food a priority? Are you looking at your own food budget and wondering where you may be able to add more real food? Maybe you work fifty hours a week but can afford to spend more on your food. In that case, there are great time-saving quality foods available. You can get the bagged, pre-washed salads and greens. You can choose from wonderful fermented veggies and real stock made by a local entrepreneur. You won’t regret spending more to add these incredibly beneficial foods to your diet. If you are struggling financially, however, you can still eat good food. When you make real food a priority, you are making your health and happiness a priority. In fact, you may just start an upward spiral where you have more energy and impulse to follow your dreams and create the life you were born to live. I wish you all the best in your personal journey.