Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On the Cheap

This article, "40% Report Eating Less Nutritious Food" made me wonder about what happens to families and people who already are paying more for food. If you are eating gluten-free there is a good chance that you are making a higher percentage of your food at home and from scratch because of the cost of gluten-free replacement ingredients and foods. So, when the time comes to be even more cost cautious, what gets cut?
For me it tends to be fresh fruits and veggies, meat, coffee and packaged cereals, cookies, and crackers.

Freezer section
Frozen vegetables can actually be of better quality - they are frozen when vegetables are ripe, opposed to being picked early so they can withstand shipping - and often are cheaper. Frozen peas, spinach, and okra are three of my favorites. I also love frozen blueberries, raspberries and cherries for baking or creating a quick sauce for pancakes or waffles.

I thought I hated coffee till I met espresso; espresso changed my world. That said, espresso costs money and its a luxury I allow to creep into my wallet a few more times a week than it should. Brewing coffee via French press and icing it in the fridge the night before, has become my financial compromise. (Good espresso cannot be made at home, well not for less than the price of a small compact car.)
Buying beans on sale forces me to try new roasts and origins in addition to saving $1+ a pound. When I do splurge, I try to bring my own travel mug, and most coffee shops offer a discount for reusable cups.

Bringing Bags
Saving $0.05 to 10 cents when I reuse a bag or backpack to the grocery store is a small savings, but it adds up.

Boxed goods
I try to only buy cookies, crackers, cereals and almond milk when they go on sale. If you a have room in the cupboards, its a really easy way to save on your weekly and monthly food expenses.

Shop around
Its become a bit of a joke that I am the Rain Man of food shopping. I am lucky that I have this sort of built-in memory for these numbers - I cannot do it for phone numbers and I don't remember any of my friends' birthdays, but I can tell you the current price of eggs, in three different stores.

Shop by unit, ounce or pound
Beyond sales, its really important to look at the unit price or price per ____. (Its usually the price in the orange box on the store shelf.) This gives you a better comparison and can save you money. Usually buying in bulk is more cost effective, but not always. Check the per unit price and make sure you are getting a good deal.

Fresh produce
When I do buy fresh produce, I do so in smaller quantities and again look at the price per pound. Seasonal items are usually a bit cheaper, especially things like tomatoes. Tomatoes have been banned from my shopping basket after reading this article.

Meat and fish
Buying meat and fish on sale is something that I will occasionally do, but it usually means that the store is trying to move the product out and fast. It doesn't necessarily mean its of lesser quality, but there is a good chance that its nearing the end of its shelf life or the store has too much. While I do sometimes buy fish on sale for grilling or curry, I more often will purchase a larger piece of meat and use it for multiple meals. A whole chicken is a great example of a way to save money per pound and have the bones to make stock after you roast it or use the other parts.

Cook at home often and in larger quantities
I am not always great at doing this but I try whenever I can to make more for dinner than I need, take the rest for lunch the next day and make one extra serving to throw in the freezer. This way, when I cannot cook ahead, I have backup meals waiting.

Rethink staples
Pantry staples are the go-to, must haves in your kitchen. For me these are: rice, beans, spices, canned tomatoes, sugar, gluten free flours, millet bread, almonds, olive oil, vinegar, mustard, hot sauce, etc.
Millet bread, for example, is $4.59 a loaf and it never goes on sale. Soft corn tortillas on the other hand, do go on sale and are around $1.29 for 12, and even cheaper at Market Basket. Corn tortillas are versatile, as long as you heat them up first, they work great for tacos, wraps, enchiladas and my favorite breakfast.
Canned beans are cheap, Goya brand are right around $0.99 a can, but dried beans are a fraction of the cost. Yes, they take longer to cook and need to be soaked overnight, but they are a great source of fiber and protein and are pennies a serving.

Serving size
This is something I am not good at adhering to. If I do not portion out a helping of a food I can plow through a bag or a box at an alarming rate. (see: potato chips and Pamela's Cookies*) Grabbing a handful or a few cookies then putting the rest away is a good way to keep treats as treats and make them last.
*I bought a box of Pamela's ginger almond cookies last night and only had 2. That is what I call progress.

I am bad at saving and using coupons, but $5 Dinners has a good post about find and using them on perishable items.

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