Tag Archives: produce

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!

Holey Sheet

This post regards was previously my favorite sheet set. Then the cats came along a couple years back and slowly, over many months, their little claws caused little holes that, with some unintentional help by me, ended up as huge gaping holes.

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It’s not that they mean to do this. Unfortunately one of my cats is a little on the corpulent side and he needs a little grappling assistance to scale the mattress.

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There’s the culprit. It’s a flattering photo. He actually quite massive. In any case, this past Sunday, I finally took scissors to the sheets. I could have made pillow cases…but that is so expected (and I thought maybe too challenging?). I decided to make bulk produce and grain bags.

1) CUT OUT THE CLOTH YOU WILL WORK WITH: I started out with the established side seams thinking this would give me an already finished edge and less work. I cut about sixteen inches down the entire length of the side seam. It seemed like a good size. Lucky for me, my sheets had stripes.

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2) IRON: I then debated about whether I really needed to iron this for several minutes. I hate ironing. I am much more the spray and hang kind of girl. But the more I tried to lay the sheet flat to cut my panels, the more I realized this would be easier if I just ironed the darn thing. So I recommend it. If I can do it, so can you.

3) CUT INDIVIDUAL PANELS. Back from ironing, I could lay my sheet flatly on my cutting board and decide how big I wanted my bags. Here is where I remind people that I am not a sewer. At least not a good one. I am not even sure I am using the terminology correctly. Please correct me (nicely) if I am not. Also, I was kind of winging this project as far as size goes. But in the end, it really doesn’t matter that you make one the same size as mine, so I am not going to tell you to cut panels that are 16″H X 11″ W (11″ being the seam side) like I did. I am going to tell you to cut equal panels for the size bag you want to make, remembering that you might lose about an inch from both height and width after sewing. I ended up cutting 16″ X 11″ panels because that’s about the size of my cutting board and I found this long piece of cardboard that helped me cut a straight edge. If I had not come across this piece of cardboard, I guarantee my panel would have been much smaller. Also, I debated about whether I really needed to make two panels per bag, or one panel twice the width that I could fold in half and have one less seam. I finally decided to go with two panels because I like the idea of have a definite seam at each side. BUT, you could definitely save yourself some cutting and sewing by making one long panel (i.e, using my measurements above, 22″ W X 16″ H.)

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3) MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A CLEAN SEAM ON TOP: I then placed my two panels together. My sheets really didn’t have a front or back, but if yours did, you would want to make sure that the good side was facing in at this point. NOTE: if you decided to go with one long panel, skip to step 4, unless you need to stitch the top, then see the next note. NOTE: If you did not cleverly use a pre-made seam at the top of your bag, then the very first thing you want to do it fold each panel about 1/8 ” down and sew a seam across both tops separately. When putting the panels back together, the seams will be facing out (the good side will be facing in).

4) CREATE FINISHED EDGE FOR THE DRAW STRING: Once you have a clean edge on the top, you take both corners on one side and flip them back (away from each other) about a quarter inch. Sew down each side separately about an inch and a half. You are not sewing these two panels together, you are creating a finished edge on each panel, the purpose for which you can see in the last photo even though that is jumping several steps ahead.

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5) SEW SIDE SEAM (on opposite side): After sewing these little seemingly random seams above, go to the opposite length and sew the panels together down the entire side.

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6) TRIM YOUR SEWN SIDE: At this point you can trim the entire side seam or just notch it like I did below. You do this to make the next step easier, which is going to be adding your draw string. You can, of course, add your draw string later, but only if you want to plan a thoroughly aggravating and frustrating project for yourself. Add it here, it’s much easier.

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7) ADD DRAW STRING: Once you have either trimmed or notched the seam you just sewed, spread out the now-connected panels seam side up. Spread your draw string across the top of the bag. I used a thick, candy-cane colored twine for your easy viewing pleasure. However, any substantive string or ribbon would work. Make sure it is about six to nine inches wider than the bag on EACH side (or at least a foot longer than the combined width of the bag). Fold the top down about 1/2 inch. You want to make sure and push your draw string all the way up into the crease. I would recommend pinning the draw string at the very top to make sewing faster, especially if you are using a flat ribbon that you cannot feel through the folded fabric. The important thing is to NOT sew the string. Sew below the string so that it will continue to move freely.

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8) SEW REMAINING EDGES: Once you have completed sewing and confirm that your draw string moves freely, fold the bag back, good sides facing in and touching. Since you have already sewed back the remaining side by about 1/2″, I found it helpful to actually sew only about 1/4″ seam on this side now, otherwise the top where your drawstring comes out bulges a little too much. Begin sewing just under your top seam all the way down the side. Finish up with a final stitch along the bottom to close up the bag. Trim it up, flip it outside in, and you have a bag great for produce or bread! Here’s a tip since they’re not see-through:Take the sticker from the produce and apply to the outside of the bag to make the cashier’s life a little easier. Also, since these bags can be a bit weightier than polyester bags you can buy on-line, when you first get into a store with a digital scale, weigh the bags without anything in them so you know how much you have to take off the total weight.

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9) USE BAG: My Husband, the (reluctant) hand model.

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Other good uses: a shoe bag for travel, a lingerie/underwear bag for travel, a gift bag (great with pretty ribbon), or lunch bags.

And I realized that by starting small, I could now totally handle making nice pillow cases.

BAG TWO

I also ended up making a cloth “sandwich” bag. I wanted to re-create that fold-over concept for bulk grains and dried fruit so that they wouldn’t fall out. I had two small-ish panels left over from what I had cut out above. These panels had no finished edge because I had to cut around some holes.

1) CREATE POCKET: So I started with one panel folded it down about 1/4 inch. I sewed a clean edge. (I should also have serged this edge, as I found out later when I flipped it back.) I then folded this side down about two inches, so that the clean edge is facing up. I then pinned this down and forgot about it for a while. DO NOT SEW THE BOTTOM EDGE OF FLAP TO THE PANEL. EVER. You are creating a pocket here.

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2) CREATE FINISHED EDGES ON THE NON-POCKET PANEL: I then took the next panel and folded the top down 1/4″ and stitched and serged the top, and then did the same to each side (though not to the bottom.) Too late I found this fabulous link to make nice corner. Maybe next time. But I included the link above if you are feeling ambitious.

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3) PUT BOTH PANELS TOGETHER: I then put both panels together. My pocket is facing in. On the other panel, the clean side is facing in. I then stitched both sides together. I flipped my panels over so that my previously sewn panel was on top so that I could follow those stitches down. If you are a better sewer than I am and you left yourself room on the outside of your previous stitch, you could do a nice double stitch. What you do not want to do, however, is sew on the inside of the previous stitch.

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Finally, I stitched the bottom and flipped it inside out.

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I decided I didn’t like the way the top flipped in on the sides, so I just sewed them down. Remember, I am not the world’s greatest sewer. But they turned out nicely.

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I welcome comments and suggestions!

The Grocery Game

When my husband suggested we review the budget on groceries, I immediately took offense. I mean, I was the one that always did the grocery shopping. I thought I was shopping conscientiously. Plus, it was my husband who ate so much and who needed diversity. I could live on eggs, rice and beans for the whole month. When he pointed out to me that we were spending around $700-$800 dollars a month, I didn’t believe him. I kept saying that the month he was looking at was an anomaly. I told him to just look at the month before. Yet, it never really went down, and sometimes was a lot more.

I am going to have to admit that I didn’t have any idea of what we were spending. But the next thought was, “well…what should we be spending?” The answer to this questions varied and vague. According to an online article by NBC the USDA estimates that for a family of four “spending ranges from a “thrifty” $524 per month to a “liberal” $1,014.

We are a household of two adults…and two cats. We only entertained about once every other month, and I’m talking dinner with another couple, nothing lavish. Plus, we did not spend a lot on liquor.

I was stubborn and insistent that we weren’t overspending, not based on our salaries and lifestyle. Plus, did I mention how much my husband eats? No, he’s not fat. But he does exercise and weight train and he needs to consume a lot of food to keep his weight up around 180. He is also a bit fanatical about healthy eating. And as we were trying to eat healthier my costs kept increasing. I was now buying ground turkey instead if ground beef, wheat pasta, a lot more fruits and vegetables, Greek yogurt, and gallons if milk, for example these things were all more expensive than their less healthy counterparts.

I then got to the point where I was looking at the amount of protein rather than price and I was also looking for a lot of convenience items that would be easy for my husband to grab if he were looking for lunch or a snack, like protein bars and sandwich fixings, since he always looked into our full fridge and said there was nothing to eat since we had ingredients versus meals. We also had started making runs to places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. In my mind, I blamed my husband. Though have you ever tried to walk out of Trader Joe’s or whole foods without stocking up on wine or cheese? Maybe it was partially my fault.

My arguments weren’t swaying my husband. He acknowledged we ate well, he thanked me for the efforts I made to keep him fed, and asked, can we cut this in half? I began to see that he had a point, and begrudgingly answered that we could, of course. He challenged me to bring the spending down to $100 a week. I said fine, but he had to come with me.

Now, this is not a story about advocating extreme couponing. That stuff takes too much time and space. You don’t end up buying what you need, and it’s usually processed and not good for you.

However one of the time-tested techniques which we did abide by was checking out the circulars before we went shopping. Around our house we have the choice of over a dozen chain and independent stores. I would normally go to Jewel, which I always valued for what it was: a big grocery chain that would have a lot of loss leaders, hence great sales. And I could shop there consistently because I wasn’t married to a set list of items.

However, around the time that we decided to meet the challenge, Dominick’s came out with this amazing app (also the same company as Safeway). I had never really shopped at Dominick’s, but this app really appealed to me. It was the kind of app I wish Jewel had come out with. With this Dominick’s app, we could load coupons right onto the card from the smart phone. We could check out what was on sale and plan what we would buy for that week. The app didn’t just have the circulars, it also had items that were deal matches from other stores, specials just for me, coupons, and sometimes free items.

Prior to this app, I would do what most people probably do…cut out coupons and then forget about them. With this app, I didn’t have to clip coupons. Now, the savings were right there. The only thing they could do to improve this app is allow me to scan my coupons from other sources right onto my cars…but hopefully that is around the corner.

Nonetheless, that one step of looking over everything on sale that week, was a big psychological prep. With my husband in tow we set aside a specific time to go to the store.

I quickly realized that this was also one of the problems. Previously, I would go to the store a couple of times a week, either on my lunch break or after work. My shopping trips were unscripted and too numerous. While I didn’t spend a ton each time, it added up quickly. This was part of the reason I didn’t feel I was overspending…because I never was on individual trips. Plus, my husband would also sometimes make a run if he was out of razors, deodorant, or hair stuff.

I was leery of having my husband along. He has the attention span of a five year old and easily gets bored. Luckily, he now saw these trips as a challenge. He kept engaged and interested by running the calculator. This also helped keep to the budget.

On very rare occasions do we go over $100 a week. We stay on budget by buying ingredients rather than processed or boxed foods and by being flexible with the grocery list. Brands do not matter. We just want the best deal. And we are willing to put things back if we go over $100.

We always check our receipt before we leave and have lost our embarrassment about going to customer service and asking for rain checks or refunds of a couple of dollars. One of the things we have learned is to not be afraid to ask. A few weeks back at Dominick’s, we realized that we had lost a $10 coupon we had earned the week before. We looked for it, blamed each other and then basically figured we were SOL. We decided to go to customer service anyway just to see if there was something that could be done. There were a couple more hoops we jumped through, but in the end, they were willing to give us a $10 gift certificate. Incredible.

We are also willing to go to more than one grocery store if we can find a great deal on meat or produce, though we try to avoid that to prevent the temptation to over shop. But to be fair to places like whole foods, there is no better or cheaper place to buy bulk, diverse whole grains, beans and rice. And can you beat three buck chuck from Trader Joe’s for consistent cheap wine?

There were lifestyle changes that we made that helped us save. There were little things like my husband converting to a vintage double edged safety razor and getting rid of the Tassimo. I also don’t buy juice anymore. We just drink water, tea and coffee (we have milk, but we don’t drink it straight). I’ve started to make my own all-purpose cleaner and I have stopped using plastic wrap. We are not willing to give up meat, though we tend not to eat much red meat. I’ve also explored making things like hummus and breakfast bars, which were things that we previously bought thinking that they weren’t expensive. However, when you realize that a bag of dry garbanzo beans costs around a dollar and yields about four cans of beans at around a dollar a piece, or about six tubs of hummus at around three dollars a piece, it’s a huge savings.

At this point we have successfully cut our grocery bill almost in half. But I know there is more we can do. Many people may be reading this thinking that $100 a week is high (though keep in mind that this budget includes toiletries, cat food and litter, household needs like TP, garbage bags, etc). What is important is to take an accounting of what you spend, then take steps to reduce it. Set a goal. It’s easier to make changes gradually as you realize the benefits of making those lifestyle changes. You can’t make comparisons to other families, because everyone is different. But, more than likely you are buying a lot of crap you don’t need, that is not particularly good for you.

According to my own smug advice, now that we know we can shop, with all of our personal, household and feline needs met, at $100, the next step is to reduce it. There is room for improvement, and it may not all be in food consumption. For example, if we can really reduce our waste, we’ll need garbage bags less often. Or, if I can make a pleasant, effective laundry soap, I wont have to buy detergent every other month.

As far as food goes, I am looking forward to summer when we can grow and pick our own produce. I need to learn how to can or freeze foods so I can use what I grow and pick throughout the year. Right now, I buy some frozen fruits and vegetables to supplement our needs because I really haven’t thought through the freezing of fresh items. But if I just freeze the stuff I grow, or at least when it’s in season, then that would be a nice chunk of monthly savings.

We are also committed to increasing our intake of produce and need to decreasing the amount of meat we consume.

Do I miss really good cheese? YES. Do I wish I could always have a bag of brown rice in the freezer without having to cook and divide it? Sure I do. But we are talking real numbers here, not just a couple of lattes, which is my usual measurement for whether saving is worth it. We are saving thousands of dollars a year! And I know we can do better.