Yesterday I talked about the basics of making a budget. For today’s urban homestead boot camp, I wanted to give you my best tips for saving money on your food bill while still eating well. Some things, to really save money, do take some investment up front, but the pay off in the long run is well worth it. Other things are simpler, they can be started right away. But first let me share what I think eating well means.
By “eating well” what I mean is eating real food. Food that doesn’t come out of a box, that was raised and prepared with care. Top Ramen is not eating well. To me, sustainability is important, as is cost. Eating sustainably means different things to different people. To some, it means eating all organic, even if your bananas came half way around the world. To others, local is most important. And I know what it’s like when you have really limited funds. Sometimes whatever is cheapest starts to look appealing. For me, the most sustainable means locally grown without chemicals and pesticides. An organic certification is optional.
So, how to get those things while not breaking the bank?
Things that take some investment upfront:
A freezer. This is a tool that can save your bacon. And beans. And everything else. You can freeze most things. If you find a really great deal on some chicken, it makes sense to buy a little extra and put what you’re not going to use right away into the deep freeze for another day. Freezers are pretty inexpensive and run more efficiently than most refrigerators. Check craigslist or freecycle. You can get a great deal. Even our chest freezer from the 80’s runs more efficiently than our fridge did. We have two. Both were given to us; hand me downs from relatives.
Joining a CSA. Community Supported Agriculture, where you buy a “share” of a farm’s predicted crop before it is even planted. You and the other CSA members front money for a farmer to plant and then, along with the farmer, share in the risks and rewards of the weather. In my experience, this is an incredible investment. The farm we’ve been with for the last five years has never had a bad year. Of course you are betting on nature, a crop might be totally wrecked by hail. But you are also sharing in the reward when things are good. Some are bumper years for bell peppers or corn, while the beans didn’t make it. But we always get WAY more than we paid for. Local and organic. Our CSA also sells optional shares of fruit, honey, eggs and meat.
Oh, and when you are getting way more than you can eat in a week, you can put the surplus in your freezer for the winter. January is the time to call CSA farms. Farms are filling memberships as I type this, so check around. Some farmers will even work out a payment schedule with you if the fee is too much for you to pay all at once.
Hunting or buying meat in bulk. Both of these methods do the same thing; receiving a whole animal at one time. You better have a freezer first. When we bought a hog a couple years ago we paid about $400 for the whole animal. This worked out to about $1.33 a pound for bacon, hams, pork chops, shoulder roasts, pork loin, lard, everything.
Hunting requires a skill set, equipment, time and licenses. It’s not complicated, but you will need to attend a hunter’s safety course and get access to land (and a gun) in the fall. The cost is slightly harder to figure, but not counting the gun my husband already owns to hunt with, we spent about $360 on licenses and gasoline for various hunting trips. We have an entire elk in the freezer to show for it. Roughly $1.44 per pound of lean red meat, said and done. Some years, it’s much less expensive, depending on success rates. And some years, we’ve gotten nothing.
For either meat option, now is a good time to look into it. Local farmers and ranchers are taking orders, and you need to buy hunting licenses in advance (April here in Colorado).
While I’m talking about buying in bulk, I’d also like to mention that once a year we drive to an orchard to pick peaches. It’s a far drive, to the western slope, so we make it count. We spend about $400 on 300 pounds of peaches, including gas. We race home with the A/C blasting and then spend the next week slicing and preserving peaches. The majority of them get frozen, though we jam and can some too. But these peaches last us a whole year. So investigate local U-Pick farms. We do the same on a smaller scale for berries and cherries.
Things that everyone can do now:
Make a meal plan for the week. I used to plan a month’s worth of meals at a time, but that can be daunting, and over time I’ve realized that weekly works better for us.
Plan meals that are in season. This is easy with a CSA. Apples are least expensive in the fall, strawberries are cheapest in the spring. If you want asparagus in August, you’re going to pay a lot for it at the market (and it won’t taste all that great). This puts us eating things that are in season the majority of the time. In season means relatively inexpensive. We pretty much don’t eat bananas.
Use up what you have. Until you get into the habit, it’s easy to keep ignoring the beans in the back of the pantry or the sausage in the bottom of the freezer. Get into the habit of planning meals the use what you’ve already purchased. You’ll spend less at the grocery if you aren’t buying what you already have.
Plan to eat less meat. Meat costs more than other forms of protein. Use meat more like a side dish. Try adding one more vegetarian meal to your menu per week than you normally make. Try making chili with black beans or stir fry with eggs. Over the last few years we went from eating meat at dinner every night to eating meat only three – four times a week.
From your meal plan, make a grocery list. And stick to it. This keeps me from impulse buying. Also, it cuts down on incidental/emergency trips to the store which end up costing a lot more over time.
If the store that I’m going to has a double ad day, I’ll go on that day, but I don’t usually plan my meals around the ads. I just figure if I go on that day I double my chances of finding things on sale.
I don’t use coupons at all. There are never any coupons for bulk rice or apples or pork loin. I can’t recall seeing one for milk. Coupons usually make me feel compelled to buy things that I would not normally put on my list. They are always for things in boxes or bags, things with weird ingredients. Things that are processed and full of chemicals…
Buy whole foods. Processed foods are expensive. Potato chips cost more than potatoes. Rice-a-Roni costs more than rice. Pasta and milk is cheaper than a package of noodles with a powdered sauce. Not to mention a billion times better for you.
Buy foods from the bulk bins. When you buy a pound of rice or oatmeal in a box or bag, guess what. You care paying for that box. And for the marketing of that box. It’s much less expensive to buy oats from the bulk bin. There is no packaging to pay for. No labels, no marketing, and no weird ingredients. And if you buy or make your own reusable bags, there is no waste either.
There you have it. Those are my big tips for saving money on food. Between the meat in the freezer, the vegetables from the garden and the CSA, and eggs from the chickens, there are times I can spend $30 at the store for the week. All I’m buying at that point is dairy and grains. But it takes time to get to that point. And I’ve already invested money up front.
What does your family do?