Tag Archives: organic

Thought for Food

Several months ago I wrote an article extolling what an awesome grocery shopper I was. I boasted that my husband and I were rocking the $100.00 a week budget we set, even including toiletries, pet food, and alcohol. In that article, I wrote that “[t]he choices to substitute good, healthy choices with even better, healthier choices has to be deliberate and strategic.” What I meant was that while we were buying lots of whole grains, produce and meat at the grocery store, we were not at all concerned about organic, free-range, hormone-free, pasture-raised, etc. We were being good citizens, but not great ones. I wrote then that in order to stick to the budget we could not really put any organic, grass-fed, free-range, local items in the shopping cart since eco-friendly and organic usually meant wallet unfriendly. To have done so would have meant either buying, like, five things or blowing the $100.00 budget–or so I thought.

One night–I believe it was in late spring–my husband watched a documentary. These things happen when you cancel cable and get bored and start to flip through Hulu. You watch documentaries. That documentary happened to be Food Inc. and he was horrified. Rather precipitously, he decided we were done with buying food at the grocery store. He also caught a great TED talk by Vicki Robin that summed up many of the ironies and foibles of our current food industry. He then decided we were going to eat local. Local and organic–and all the other adjectives that really only serve to equal expensive?! I looked at him like he was nuts. He is nuts, actually. Not because he wanted to shop differently, but because he though we could do it still for $100 a week. I laughed. I mean, that was what had gotten us into the $800 a month grocery tabs–the increasing number of trips to Whole Foods and Trader Jo’s, dabbling in organics, and starting to care about hormones (Not mine–which are completely in balance, dear husband–but the ones they inject into all the animals we eat). He said, “Let’s just try it.” I rather smugly said fine, you go to the farmer’s market and see how much food you can buy for the week.

I forget what produce he came back with, but I do remember that he brought back a whole chicken. It cost about $16 and was frozen solid. I think this and a pound of ground turkey for $10 was the only meat he managed to get. So… almost $30 for about four pounds of meat. I think in total he spent about $50 between meat and produce. Sounds pretty good, right? Except, we still needed supplies and food for the cats, general toiletries, dairy, bread, pasta, and random “exotics” such as rice, olive oil, and bananas. And he really didn’t get that much food.

Back to this chicken. Previously, I would get a chicken for roasting when they were on sale for around $2-$3 from the grocery store. At that price, you don’t feel bad about roasting the whole thing and having it for one meal. However, at $16 for one smallish chicken, the damn thing has to stretch for 3-4 meals. My husband handed it over like I would automatically know what to do with it.

Well, of course I did. I was just annoyed that it meant a lot of work for me. It was the beginning of what I now call my Sunday “homesteading.” To work with this damn chicken, I had to partially defrost it enough for me to take apart the pieces. Luckily it was a “cut-up” whole chicken which meant that I didn’t have to hack it apart. Once it was defrosted enough to pull apart, I had the breast bone and ribs, two leg quarters, two wings and some on other bony part. I took the breasts off the bone and put them in the refrigerator for one meal, stuck the thighs and wings in the crock pot for another meal and got out my largest pot to make chicken stock/soup. I did manage to get 3-4 meals out of the little sucker, but it took hours to prepare!

After many, many months of undergoing this transition, we have done a pretty good job at staying around $100.00, though we are probably closer to an average of $110.00 per month. Not bad. Especially when you consider that our dairy alone is 20%-25% of the budget. We spend more on meat and eat less of it. And I get really creative with grains, beans and produce. Especially now in the lean Winter months. We have established certain rules that are still changing with the intent of finding local providers or better choices for those items that we still buy at the grocery store. Currently, we do not buy meat from the grocery store, though we continue to shop at the grocery store for some fruit that does not grow here, like bananas and avocados, and also for pet food and supplies, tea, coffee and natural peanut butter and jelly, etc. We even found that our local grocery store carries a few local, healthy products, like bread and honey. There are many things that we would prefer to buy local, but have not been able to find a reliable vendor, such as pasta and pasta sauce. I intended to have so many tomatoes this year that I would have a ton of freezer sauce on hand, but the weather and lack of experience in gardening conspired against me. I even tried making pasta once, and found that it was fairly easy, but time consuming. However, that is really the trick to eating really well on a budget–you spend a lot of time preparing and cooking. Like I mentioned above, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen on Sundays. Though I enjoy it, it takes up a lot of time. Did I mention it was time-consuming?

On the bright side, I am no longer daunted by making chicken soup from bones and I can make one 1 pound chicken breast stretch for three great meals. My husband, who previously refused to eat asparagus and squash, has gotten more adventurous in eating, which I very much appreciate. He even accepts that we will probably eat a completely vegetarian meal at least once, if not twice, a week, and that the remainder of our meals will have less meat in general. Best of all, on most days this past summer and fall, we can look at our dinner plate and know that almost everything we were eating was grown within 50 miles of our home–and more and more was grown by our own hands.

We’ll continue to get better at this as time goes on but we have made an excellent start and we have learned so much about where our food comes from. We have gotten to know local food growers and have started to pay attention to what is going on in the food industry. I am not a non-GMO, anti-Monsanto fanatic, but I do have a deep appreciation for farmers growing food to feed the local population and I feel that we need to support that. If you are not already supporting your local producers, start now!

The easiest first step (ala Vicki Robin–you really should watch that TED talk ,it is short and funny) is to go to your grocery store and figure out which local, small producers have made it to your grocer’s shelves. Even in places like Whole Foods and Food Co-ops, this is surprisingly small. I know that our grocery store carries local honey and bread. Your purchasing power carries a lot of weight and the more those items fly off the shelf, the more the grocery store will carry local items. You can even request that your grocery store carry a certain local product.

Second, visit your farmers market and/or check out your local CSA (community supported agriculture). You may have to do some basic research on which vendors actually grown their own food (just because it shows up at the farmer’s market, doesn’t mean that it was grown locally.) Support those farmers that had their hands in the dirt that morning to cut your fresh head of cabbage. To do this, you will probably have to understand what is in season. A vendor in Illinois that has cucumbers in March probably did not grown it himself/herself. Don’t forget checking out your local agri-tourism industries such as the places you can pick apples or strawberries.

Finally, grow or find your own food! Replace your useless ornamental bushes with bushes of herbs or fruits. Plant fruit trees. Start or expand the garden, or include vegetables interspersed with the flowers.

If you have started a shift from blindly buying items at the grocery store, I would love to hear some of your accumulated knowledge and experiences.

 

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Supermarket Sweep

The “Financial Independence-or bust” trip my husband and I are on doesn’t always mesh with the other life-style goals on LifeImproved. In fact, often times the goals are down-right conflicting. For example, our household budget for groceries each week is $100. For us, this includes cat food and litter, alcohol, toiletries and cosmetics. It also includes any entertaining we want to do, such as inviting friends over for dinner. Let’s just say, we don’t end up handing out too many invitations–but when we do it’s an intriguing challenge and we really hope they like boxed wine.

On normal, non-entertaining, no-special-occasion weeks, in order to stick to the budget, or to come in under budget we cannot put too many organic, grass-fed, hormone-free products in our basket. Who am I kidding?! We can’t put any of these in the basket. Eco-friendly and organic quite often means wallet unfriendly.

I want to shop local. I want to shop organic. I really do. I am a huge believer in it. But the truth is that right now I am more of a believer in sticking to the budget. And I really only choose to shop local or organic if the choice is equally convenient and comparably priced– or not much more inconvenient or expensive than the alternative. This is something we are working on, though ,because we want to shop more Eco-consciously.

The good news is that we are making some real strides. The idea is that we eventually will have such control over our groceries that we can get higher quality meat, grains and produce, as well as the eco-friendly products.

Luckily, the goals of being eco-friendly, healthy and, well, cheap aren’t always divergent. The goal to produce less waste has helped shave a fair portion of the grocery budget in the form of not buying paper towels and napkins, not to mention Swiffer wet mop pads. Also, in my goal to create less waste and be more healthy I switched from store bought laundry detergent and cleaners to home made versions, and I also stopped buying boxed rice and pasta mixes. I have to admit, though, that my goal to reduce waste was only acceptable because it was an inexpensive alternative. I can make ten meals or side dishes with a 2 pound bag of brown rice for $1.50. So win-win-win. But if it had come down to a choice? I would have chosen to win on the budget issue first. I have been considering lately switching from cheap store-brand pancake mix to a home-made choice but the recipes call for too many other expensive ingredients that I would have to buy just for the mix and the cost is not justifying the healthier, less wasteful option… Not yet. Right now we are nailing the $100 a week budget. We spend about 30% of the budget on produce, 10% on meat, 10% on the cats and the rest on everything else. I cook using whole foods and we eat a diverse and healthy diet. The choices to substitute good, healthy choices with even better, healthier choices has to be deliberate and strategic.

These are my goals: get free range, hormone free meat; buy hormone free milk; buy fresh eggs laid by hormone free chickens; maintain or increase the level of produce we consume but get more organic varieties; replace the items that come in plastic bags with alternatives; and support local farms. But considering that to get the above in just a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, two pounds of chicken breast, two pounds of apples and and two pounds of bananas would probably be more than 30% of the budget (where as currently it is around 10%) some big changes are in order.

With those goals of getting more of the above, we have to continuously think of ways to reduce our grocery spending while still maintaining or increasing the quality of our products. We’ve been strategically planning all winter for this. Since we spend so much of our budget on produce, we just doubled our plot from last year and extending the planting season by starting a cool season in April. We should be harvesting radishes, lettuce and arugula by the end of May!

I am also researching the planting of edible perennials and annuals in my own garden. I already have a healthy herb garden and use and dry my own organic oregano, rosemary, chives, lavender, catnip, basil, parsley and sage. I plan to add more herbs and also replace some old burning bushes with edible currants or gooseberries. I just bought a black raspberry plant and a half-dozen strawberry plants.

You know what else helps save money at the grocery store? Free stuff. I am not talking about sending off for free samples, but I mean the stuff you can find in the great outdoors. I have big plans to kick up the level of my foraging this year. I highly recommend the book Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong. There are lots of books out there for edible plants but this one is wonderful! It has really clear photos, descriptions of the where to find the plants, how aggressive you should be with its harvesting, descriptions of how it tastes, and recipes!