Saturday, January 5, 2008

Weekend Extra: Eating Well on a Budget

I have been asked several questions in the real world that I thought would make interesting post topics sometime. A few of them ask about some of my favorite things, or a cooking technique, but today I thought I'd address the often-asked question of how I manage to feed my family in those times when there just isn't enough cash to go around. I certainly am not an expert, and I don't have all the answers, but maybe someone can use what I've learned- or perhaps I'll need to look back on this post and remind myself what I did and what works best. This could get a little long today.

The first thing I have to say is that a lot of what we eat has been based on having a well-stocked pantry. And that takes time to do. Andy's always been in seasonal work, and it may have taken a few years to get used to the cyclical nature of it, but at least now I know. I know that when he is working and bringing home a paycheck, I need to take a tiny measurement of my grocery budget and buy something for the pantry. Even if it's just one extra can of tomatoes,or one small bag of dried beans, every little bit will help in the lean times to come. When I stock the pantry, I also mean the freezer. Something that has also taken me a long time to learn is about the quantity of meat we eat as a family. I would buy a family pack of pork chops, cook them all up, and then the leftovers would sit in the fridge until they started to smell. Now, I am more precise. I know that I'll eat one chop, the kids will split a chop, and Andy may have two. When a family pack is 8, that should be a no-brainer. I take four out of the package to cook, and the other four get wrapped in foil, and placed in a freezer bag for another time. Always label things that go in your freezer!

When I am often looking for new tips for shopping on a grocery budget, I always come across people who say things like how much they shop at a warehouse store like Sam's to save money, and also do some of their shopping at places like a dollar store. To each their own I guess, but those places don't always save me money. You really have to be careful. The number one thing to avoid at a Warehouse when shopping with a budget is the prepared food. I know- it can be so tempting! But the prepared foods are never as healthy for you as they could be for one, and secondly, you can always make a homemade version much cheaper than the store bought version. When I go to Sam's, I go to check out the fresh fruits and vegetables, and I also buy a few pantry goods like pasta or canned corn. Sometimes I'll pick up meat there and then when I get home I'll separate it out into smaller packages for freezing. It would be very easy to spend an entire week's budget at a warehouse club in one shopping trip, so when I go there, it's always with a list. You can get some good deals at Sam's, but there are some dangers. For example, you can look at that jumbo bag of salad mix and know that is a very good price for it, but look at it's size! You will never be able to eat it all before it goes bad. And secondly, it really is cheaper to buy your own heads of lettuce and make your own salad. It takes mere seconds to chop lettuce, and it tastes better. The same goes for all the vegetables you can buy prepared for you. Bell pepper strips, cauliflower florets, celery sticks (to name a few) are far more expensive in their cut-up-and-ready-to-eat stage than if you'd bought the original creature.

The Dollar stores have their own peril. I know so many people who swear by buying their home goods there- things like laundry detergent and paper goods. It seems like a good deal. But the problem is that it really isn't. That box of laundry detergent may have a lower price, but did you look at the box? It's much smaller than your normal box that you buy elsewhere for just a little more. And then there's the paper goods. I actually did my own experiment on this one. I bought a 3-pack of the cheap Family Dollar brand of paper towels for cleaning the church I clean once a week. I have a lot of windows to wash each week. I would go through one roll of that paper towel in 2 or 3 weeks. The towels were of a cheap quality, and I would have to tear off fresh ones for each window or door I washed. I went through the whole 3 pack in less than 2 months time. Then I went and bought a single roll of Brawny paper towels from the grocery store. I paid more per roll for the Brawny, but let me tell you! That one roll of Brawny lasted me almost six months of window washing! I could tear off two towels from the roll and use them to clean almost all the windows before they started shredding and falling to pieces. Quality makes a huge difference, and in the long run, you end up saving money. This is a very small example, but the idea is there. For one year's worth of the cheap paper towels I would spend $6.00. For one year's worth of Brawny, I would pay less than $3.00. It's the initial outlay that's more, and that can be hard to get over sometimes. Sometimes you do need to make the choice to choose quality over quantity, and when you're pinching pennies, it's easy to get trapped with choosing quantity.

Now let's talk about that shopping list. You do make one- don't you? I make mine for about 10 days at a time. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but I always plan out ten days and shop accordingly. You have to make a list to save money- and you have to stick to it. I have developed my method for times of financial peril. First, I make my menu plans, and then I make my list, leaving off things that I have in the freezer or the pantry. Then I go back through the list and assign each item a dollar amount. Most things I do know what the price is- or should be. Then at the end, I total it all up. If it's over my budget amount, I know I need to go back and thin the list out. If it's under, I'm doing great.

Next, I stop at the bank to take out the cash I need to go shopping. Yes, cash in hand. Using cash to pay is a great way to keep myself from plunking extra into the cart- there's nothing worse than having to put back groceries because you don't have enough money on hand. Once at the store, I take out the list and make my way around. I will pay attention to my list and the prices on it. If something seems inordinately high to me, I'll not buy it and choose something else. Red bell pepper comes to mind. Sometimes I can get them for 69 cents a piece, but sometimes their $1.99 a piece. I'll budget for the 69 cents, but if they're more expensive, I'll choose the green bells instead, or leave them off entirely. It takes time, but I do keep track of what I'm spending while I'm in the store. That way, if I find a great deal on something, I'll know if I have an extra dollar or two to put that in my cart as well. Again too, you have to keep in mind quality and what you're buying. Did you know that baby carrots are just large carrots that have been spun on a lathe to become baby shaped? So why are you spending twice the price on "spun carrots"? When you're in a budget crunch, you need to really think about your purchases. Fresh herbs would be wonderful- but you get this tiny clamshell for about $3.00, or you could make your way over to the dried spices and buy plenty for less than $1.00- it won't be as stellar or wonderful as fresh, but it will still be delicious and you don't have to worry about using those dried herbs up-they'll keep in your pantry nicely. If you love fresh herbs as much as I do, consider an herb garden next spring, they grow in pots very nicely.

I could really go on and give more tips and suggestions, and ideas from my experiences, but I think I'll stop there for today and maybe to another post down the road. You'll notice I didn't even get into things like shopping sales flyers or couponing. And seasonal eating! That really helps me stay within my budget. I'd also like to do a post on "alternative" uses for pantry staples. So watch for more to come on the weekend extra posts. Next week though, I think I'll be talking about the spice cabinet, and what my favorite spices and spice blends are. Stay tuned!


JEP said...

Thanks for all of your insider tips! Even as a single person, I am careful with my food dollar!

Erika W. said...

It's been on my mind a lot Jep, I've had so many people ask me how to trim their budget...I'm certainly no expert, but I've been living it, so I might as well share.

I just hope it doesn't come across as too...preachy or know-it-all, these are some of the things that have worked for me.