“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

03 October 2013

Affording Good Food

This is the second part of my advice on eating well with Crohn's Disease. Although it applies to everyone, regardless of whether you eat a restricted diet or not. I'm going to talk about how I keep our food costs low without sacrificing our morals or our health. It was challenging in the beginning, but it's gotten easier over time.

Our dinner last night.

We spend roughly $50 per week on groceries. Sometimes it's a little more--usually if I'm stocking up on a good deal--and sometimes a little less. Once in a while, I do have to load up on staples like flour and rice, and that can cost more. We don't include alcohol in this amount when we're budgeting because only Casey drinks it and it has no nutritional value. It qualifies as a recreational expense.

This amount covers breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the two of us. We eat out once a week or so together and Casey often eats lunch with clients at work. Even if we didn't do those things, we could eat every meal for the entire week on that amount.

To put it in prospective, the average person on food stamps receives $4.50 per day to spend. That's $0.93 more than we're spending to eat whole, healthy foods. Of course, it's not a one-to-one comparison because many people on food stamps don't have neighborhood access to a grocery store, don't have the knowledge (or the fully-stocked spice cabinet) necessary to make whole foods taste good, and don't have the time to cook from scratch because they're working multiple jobs. Just because a person can afford to eat well doesn't mean they can. So I'll share what I know about budgeting, but I realize that it isn't the only factor at play.

Our secret to eating on a limited budget is meal planning. A lot of people have just tuned me out because I used the word "planning." I get it; it's pretty intimidating when you're getting started. But I really believe in it. When you find a system that works for you, it becomes second-nature.

So. Here's what I started with this week:

Empty fridge.

That big glass bowl is full of fresh chicken stock.

Totally out of smoothie ingredients. Sad.

This is slightly emptier than normal. We were out of town for half the week, so we have not purchased groceries in about 13 days. Casey's parents sent us home with tomatoes, apples, bell peppers, and ground beef from their family farm. Those tubes in the freezer are all ground beef, and I cut up and froze most of the peppers as well.

My version of meal planning starts by selecting five dinners for the week. I assume that I won't want to cook for two nights a week, so we'll eat leftovers or eat out. I pick those meals from my collection of recipes; we have four of our favorite meals, and I often try one that is new. I take those recipes and check to see what I have in the cupboards. I create a shopping list with only the ingredients I need to make those meals. Then I add to that list anything we're out of that we use every day--milk, lettuce, bread, and so on. I don't repurchase an item until it is gone; if I plan to make a frittata, and I have 10 eggs in the fridge, I don't buy more eggs until next shopping trip. I know I'll be totally out but that's okay, because I had what I needed for the week.

So. If we're not going to load up on extras, what do we do instead? We shop smart.

Our grocery trip yield. Cats not included.

I believe in voting with my wallet, and I'm pretty brand-loyal. This flies in the face of all other budgeting suggestions I've read. We're fairly picky about the brands we use--Casey's finickiness is dictated by taste and mine by a three-pronged desire to treat animals humanely, respect the planet, and limit our consumption of additives. These things do not always align. We have figured out a way to meet in the middle.

The haul, unpacked.

I always start with fruits and vegetables. I buy just what we need for my recipes, salads and snacks. Because I care about consuming chemicals, I pay attention to the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. We buy berries and grapes, in season, and apples the rest of the time. We always have carrots and frozen corn. I often buy bananas, cut them up, and freeze them for smoothies. I stock up on berries, fresh or frozen, when I can find them at the right price. I pick a well-priced green (spinach in this case) and freeze it for smoothies. My last bunch of greens lasted almost six months. Green smoothies are one way I can get nutrients when I'm in a Crohn's Disease flare-up.

Part of what makes this work is to be flexible about the protein you use. Chicken thighs are cheaper than breasts, and ground pork is often cheaper than beef. I regularly use pork in tacos and pasta sauce. And if we can't afford pork, I make black beans tacos instead. We eat eggs at dinner in frittatas. Sausage is often on sale, and is so flavorful that you can use less in your recipes. I only buy ground beef and bacon (without added nitrates or nitrites) on sale, so we purchase those very rarely. I do make organic or free-range meat and eggs a priority, but there are times when we just can't afford it. When that happens, I try to buy local.

(Sidenote: We have access to free beef through Casey's family farm, which is wonderful. However, even without that meat we could still get enough meat on this budget.)

Once in a while I buy a whole chicken and roast it. The meat will feed us for two days, and I use the bones to make chicken stock. Once it's made, I freeze it in ice cube trays and store it a gallon freezer bag. It lasts a long time (six months or so), unless I make a big pot of soup out of it. I make turkey stock out of our Thanksgiving bird as well. I haven't tried to make beef stock, yet. I want to. But I don't bother with vegetable stock because the organic versions aren't that expensive, and I rarely use it.

I don't make everything from scratch. Not even close. There are a few foods I never bother making myself. These include pizza and pie dough (unless it's a special occasion), bread, and yogurt. I used to make my own yogurt, and if I had a yogurt maker I still would. I make some of our sauces (ketchup, pasta sauce) but not others (peanut butter, dressing, barbecue). We eat a lot of rice and potatoes with our meals, and we like tortillas. I used to make my own granola and snack mixes but found it wasn't actually cheaper, once I ran the numbers.

Sometimes homemade does cost you more.

But you don't need to buy lots of different kinds of products, either. We used to buy both creamy and chunky peanut butter because Casey and I didn't like the same kind. That's nuts! It's just peanut butter! You really don't need a box of each family member's preferred cereal cluttering up your life. Pick one kind, and everyone can choose to eat it or make toast instead. If it's really a point of contention, then rotate what you buy so everyone gets their favorite at some point during the month.


free-range or organic meats -- these hardly ever drop below my target price, but when they do I buy as much as I can store

coffee -- if coffee beans drop below $4.00 per pound, I buy four or five pounds at once

almond milk -- when I find my brand for less than $3.00, I buy three or four cartons because it keeps

canned goods -- if I can find these for less than half of their usual price, I buy three cans or so

canned organic soups -- I can find these for $1.00 or less on the clearance racks, and I buy up to six

frozen veggies -- or veggies that freeze well (organic, if I can find them) under $1.50 for 16oz.

fruit and berries -- fresh or frozen, any time they're under $3.00 for 12oz.

almonds -- I buy several pounds, if I can find them shelled under $5.00 per pound

snack bars and granola -- if I can get a brand like Annie's for the same price as Quakers, I buy several boxes

Important to note, though:

Stocking up isn't that important to me. It's not worth blowing my budget for the whole month in one trip, even though I'm sometimes tempted. I can't store the excess, for one thing, and who knows whether circumstances might change? What I mean is... What if I develop an intolerance to, say, walnuts, and we've stocked up on five pounds of them? What if Casey tries the soup I bought and hates it? If you're tempted to buy an extra four boxes of granola bars, might I suggest putting the cost of those extra bars into your savings account? Make a conscious choice to save instead of spend.

You can't save money by spending it.
No matter how good the deal is.

This style of shopping helps us prevent waste. At the end of the week, my fridge and cupboards are pretty bare. A lot of people I know never run out of anything; they've restocked before it's actually gone. I used to do that, too. I bought two cartons of almond milk every week because if I bought one, it'd run out on day six. I always had two in the fridge. But I had a lightbulb moment about this kind of consumerism:

Why was I taking so much more than we need?
What gave me the right?

Okay, yes, it sounds a bit philosophical for the dairy aisle. But we're so accustomed to excess in the United States. We are used to having so much food in our kitchens that we couldn't possibly eat it before it goes bad. We're used to extra bedrooms and closets full of shoes and three-car garages. And I'm not saying it's bad to want those things. But maybe it is bad to think we need them.

This is part of the reason I don't believe in extreme couponing. According to the store staff, we have a couple extreme couponers in my neighborhood. When I find that my local shelves have been cleared of products I buy every week, just because they're on sale, it really aggravates me. Using a coupon is great! But how can one family need twenty cartons of almond milk? Are they even lactose-intolerant? They buy up everything like it's a game they can win, and that sucks. It's rude. It implies that other people's needs matter less than your own, that we're competing for resources instead of sharing them.

And you do not have to do it to eat well on a limited budget.

Ah, yes. The full fridge.

I got my peanut butter, Casey got his salsa.

Frozen berries make me smile.

None of the planning will work, though, if you go off the rails once you get to the store. If I go in to buy jasmine rice, I have to avoid being tempted by something easier like Uncle Ben's or Zatarain's. It's okay to get those things, but they'll cost you more and you must plan for them. I never add anything to my shopping list; occasionally, I do remove something, if the price of avocados or chicken breast just isn't reasonable that week. I'll have to reorganize my meals a bit when I get home, but it always works out fine.

$100.54 for two weeks worth of groceries and beer.

Plan your meals. Make a list. Respect the list.

It takes practice to plan meals, and it takes time to adjust to an empty pantry. It can be disconcerting at first--"What if there's a natural disaster? Won't we starve?" Probably not. But if you're worried about it, then create a disaster-preparedness station and only restock it when necessary. You don't need to throw away food every week. You don't need to "stock up." Learn to live with less.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? I'm all ears.

Eat well, friends.

"We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun."  -  George Orwell