Affording Real Food

Real Food Economics 101: Strategies to Reduce Food Costs

This post is part of a series, Real Food Economics 101. The series covers the cost of real food and applying the 80/20 rule to managing your time and money in the kitchen in depth. Click here to start at the beginning.

Last week in “Real Food vs Average Food Budgets” we compared several real food budgets to the USDA average food budget and found that on average real food budgets are the same or cheaper than the average household food budget. This leaves many wondering just how this is accomplished? On the face of it it looks impossible … most real food items are more expensive, substantially more expensive than the similar real food item. Raw milk is more expensive than pasteurized, raw cheese is more expensive, grassfed milk is more expensive, condiments more expensive, produce more expensive, and so on. On first glance it looks like moving to real food will cost much more. Yet many real food bloggers are managing to eat real food for less, my own family included. Let’s talk about some of the strategies employed to reduce the cost of real food.

Cook from the Pantry not a Menu Plan

This is strategy I learned back in the 90’s reading The Complete Tightwad Gazette. As a young mother this was the very first kitchen saving skill I learned. I started it in an effort to save money but quickly learned that it is a major time saver too. In the series “The Pantry Principle” I discuss working from a pantry mostly from that time-saving perspective. Most people stock up to save money and it is definitely the easiest and most effective way to save. It’s kinda a double whammy … on our Good-Fast-Cheap triangle it moves the balance toward quality while reducing the cost AND the amount of time spent!

It does require an investment up front however. I know this can be pretty discouraging, but there are ways to deal with it. In the “The Pantry Principle” series I talk some about how to find the money for equipment like a freezer. And how to gradually build up a pantry by buying a little extra here and there. This first stage passes fairly fast though, and soon you’re reaping the benefits. For instance, it took me a little while to get a large used freezer. Now that I have one I can buy a side of beef from a local rancher. I have a $6 a pound cap on what I’ll pay for meat at the moment. Most cuts cost more than this separately, but when I buy a side of grassfed beef I get many more expensive cuts for less than this. Now we have a lot more variety in our meals. I’ve bought a few large plastic containers to hold bulk grains and a Nutrimill grinder. Now my cost for bread is roughly 20% of what I was paying before for a good quality unsoaked whole grain bread. My new homemade bread is a healthy sourdough made from freshly ground flour at a much lower price, much lower than buying whole grain flour. This sort of thing across several food categories adds up to major savings!

Work from Master Recipes

This is another of Amy Dacyczyn’s tips to save money on food and it works just as well in the real food world as it does shopping at the grocery store. Real Food for Less Money has an excellent ebook on this idea called “Design a Dish”. The basic idea is to look at recipes in a flexible light, substituting less expensive ingredients you have on hand for things that may be more expensive for you to get. For instance, you can get a great deal on honey and have a lot on hand right now. Change up your baked goods to use that inexpensive honey. A month or two from now maybe there’s an opportunity to buy maple syrup or sucanet at a great price. So then while that supply lasts you switch to the cheaper sweetener. Or your food coop is going in to buy a lot of chicken and the price is quite good. Make lots of chicken broth instead of beef broth for awhile and use it as a substitute where it works.

Prioritize Where High Quality is Critical

Spend your food dollars where they count the most and sweat the less critical items less. In my view before any other considerations healthy fats come first. Food Renegade mentions high quality fats as her first priority too. I’m in complete agreement with her list of priorities. It is:

  • High quality fats
  • Raw or fermented dairy from grassfed animals.
  • High quality meat, fish and eggs.
  • Organic fruits and veggies.

Notice that organic fruits and veggies are the lowest priority. Pound for pound, calorie for calorie, produce is expensive. Prioritize more nutrient dense food first.

Think in Terms of Categories

Don’t try to find the cheapest sucanet you can get. Instead find the least expensive quality sweetener you can. Don’t look for cheap organic apples look for opportunities to get quality fruit, any quality fruit at a price point you can afford. Same thing for meat … think in terms of protein and not specific meats. Or if you need to tighten the budget even more think about including more eggs or dried beans.

The point is no specific food is set in stone. You look for the best buying opportunities for each category of nutrients. You need fats in your diet. That need could be met by any number of fats available at many different price points. Coconut oil, butter, beef tallow, lard, olive oil, etc. Any one of these could fit the bill in any number of different recipes. One or two may be quite inexpensive from time to time. When you see that then the time is right to stock up! Which brings me to my next point …

Buy When the Price is Right

Another great tip from The Complete Tightwad Gazette … can you tell I’m a fan :-)? As much as possible try not to shop with the idea in mind of buying specific needed items. Instead shop with the idea of finding quality items at a good price. And if you’re lucky quality items at a great price! When you find these good prices stock up to the extent that your budget will allow. For instance, last year I happened to find good (not great) quality butter on sale for 50 cents a pound. And they had about 50 pounds marked at this price. I bought every bit they had and froze it! Or a couple of weeks ago I was Natural Grocers and happened to notice a large ham in the freezer all by its lonesome. When I checked the price it was about $2.50 p/lb. Score! While I hadn’t planned to spend $25 on ham that day I bought it. $2.50 a pound for good (not great) quality meat is pretty good!

Cut out the Middle Man and Buy Locally

The overwhelming majority of money spent on food in the western world goes directly into the pockets of agribusiness. They set the market prices for unprocessed foodstuffs extremely low simply by being the largest purchaser. They then process that food and sell it to us the consumer at a very high markup. To save money simply cut out the middle man and go directly to the farmer. This benefits you the consumer … you get higher quality unprocessed food for less. And it benefits the farmer who will now receive a fair price for the food grown helping to ensure that they will be able to continue farming. It’s a win-win all the way around!

This means cutting out processed food wherever possible. Whether it’s conventional or organic virtually all processed food is produced by agribusiness companies complete with their high markup. Organic processed foods have even higher markups! So avoid these to save money.

And this means buying seasonally as things become available. You’ll need to buy in bulk to plan to have enough to last until the next time the food is available. Some things are available pretty much all the time. Others are more abundant and cheaper certain times of the year. Others are only available once a year. Plan ahead to preserve the harvest by freezing, fermenting or canning it. We buy meat, milk and cheese and the lion share of the produce we eat locally.

More Widely Used Strategies

These strategies are frequently mentioned in addition to the ones I’ve talked about already. Some are used by practically everyone. Others can be taken advantage of in special circumstances when opportunity arises.

Reduce Food Waste

This has been the focal point of many articles on how to save money on food for a good reason … it really helps! Most of us are pretty vigilant on this I’m sure but there is probably still room for improvement. In our home we still have a problem with time getting away from us before all the produce from the CSA is used up, for example. Maybe in your home it’s leftovers uneaten or half emptied cups. The USGAO estimates that roughly 10% of household food dollars are lost as waste.

Reducing Animal Products

Personally, I use this one only when money is very tight since I don’t like to see the availability of milk, cheese and meat reduced in our home. But at times when we’re strapped I’ve reduced the number of meat based meals for a while. Usually, I serve meals that stretch meat at these times, like the skillet dishes Wardeh at Gnowfglins mentions here. You could also consider eating more liver and organ meats. These are highly nutritious are very inexpensive. I’ve been eating liver stew for lunch quite often for the past 8 months or so. Very economical and delicious!

Raise some food yourself

This can help a great deal or a little around the edges depending on how much you choose to do and what you choose to raise. Personally, I love handling animals but I’m not a great gardener. I’ve had a few large gardens and some smaller in the past. I enjoyed it! But for now it takes more time than I have at this point in my life so we’ve shelved gardening for the time being. Also, we don’t eat a lot of fresh produce so the savings wouldn’t be huge in our case. But we do eat a lot of eggs … we love eggs! And we live in a little old Texas farmhouse on the edge of a small town where it’s okay for us to raise chickens. We love animals and happily care for our small flock. Part of the year we get lots of eggs … the rest of the year the hens are just fun for us without producing a lot. Chickens easily pay for themselves in high quality eggs many times over. We’ve also raised goats and milked them. We didn’t find it very economical since we didn’t have a lot of forage for them and had to buy all their food and hay. But we did very much enjoy their company and loved the arrival of the baby goats each year! We thought of them as pets that basically paid their way :-).

Pick your own farms, foraging and gleaning

Many farms offer opportunities for visitors to pick their own fruits and veggies at a substantial discount. In some areas there are opportunities to glean fields after harvest for free food. Then there is foraging. Around here it’s been a yearly tradition in many families to go on family outing to pick the dewberries that grow wild throughout southeast to central Texas. Families bring back buckets which are then turned into delicious jams and jellies, pies and cobblers. If you have the time these methods can lead to substantial savings.

Different Strategies for Different Situations

Many of these strategies can work for everyone. A few can be used only in specific situations. Feel free to pick and choose according to your circumstances remembering that you know your situation best. I hope you find these strategies helpful in reducing the cost of real food!

Next week we’ll take a look at the ways a real food diet helps to save money in the long run, making real food as a lifestyle even less expensive!

32 thoughts on “Real Food Economics 101: Strategies to Reduce Food Costs

  1. I’m really enjoying reading this series, and I learned a lot from The Tightwad Gazette, too. Do you have a recipe for the liver stew you mention? I’m looking for new ways to use liver.

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    1. I do indeed :-). I’ll put it on my list to get online for everyone. So glad you’re enjoying the series!

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  2. Speaking of eating out of the pantry I have a terrible habit (acquired from my mom) of buying stuff on sale and just hoarding it. I swear we could live off of what’s in the house for over a year. I know some people strive to store food in case of emergency – maybe thats my mom’s motivation since she grew up during the Depression. She’s 87 now and only recently weaned herself from buying too much. But now my brother has the food hoarding bug. He grows a ton of food in his garden and freezes/cans it. He’s got SIX freezers now and they are all full. They are just now eating tomato sauce from 2007. Yikes! I cook from scratch all the time, but never seem to make a dent in my pantry. A family illness!

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    1. Wow that is a lot! Definately possible to store too much considering that some nutrients are lost over time. Plus some things are just better tasting fresh. But on the whole it seems like most families are shopping week to week and could benefit from a larger pantry.

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      1. My goal when I buy something on sale is to buy enough to last until it goes on sale again. I’ve overdone it a few times, with a few items. Like the 5 gallon container of pinto beans that are hard as rocks and take forever to cook. But then… I was eating butter from my freezer for .99/lb for several years when the cheapest sale price was $2/lb – was sad to see it go.

        Overall, we save a LOT of money by having staples on hand. Because of inflation, food in the freezer and pantry is more valuable than money. The food becomes more valuable over time; while cash becomes less so.

        Also, having enough to last for a year or two is NOT a bad thing with many items. I became disabled a few years back, and when hubby was out-of-work for six months, my freezer and pantry were a lifesaver. When he went back to work, it took almost a year to build back up to where it had been before.

        The only stuff stocking up doesn’t work for is stuff like fresh produce (which I do buy seasonally for the best price) and raw dairy (which never seems to go on sale here).

        I recently scored a great deal on pastured chicken neck and backs, because the farm I buy from had a lot in the freezer and is ready to start slaughtering their new batch and needs the freezer space. So I bought 20 lbs dead cheap. Cooked up half of it and wound up with a couple gallons of very dense broth, plus about 10 cups chicken meat… and still have half in the freezer to do again later. As a matter of fact, I used some to make chicken soup today, and plan chicken with dumplings and corn-on-the-cob for our next couple dinners.

        Also, I just want to add… pastured eggs are a GOOD deal. Yes, compared to supermarket eggs, they’re expensive. But I compare them to pastured meat, a good protein with healthy fat and full of vitamins A, D3 and K2, and as such they’re very nutrient dense and cheap. When money is tight, I stretch protein with beans and lentils a lot, but also try to do egg dishes for dinner 2-3 times a week, and sometimes for lunches too. Fritattas and omelets are a great way to “save” by using up leftovers too.

        I generally get whole chickens and turkeys, freeze extra meat after the few main meals, and use the carcasses for bone broth. I also buy bone-in butt or shank hams so the bones can be used for broth (though it’s salty, so less versatile). But for beef broth, I am fine with cheap bones from anywhere; broth is mostly for the minerals and gelatin, and if the animal had bones and joints, it has that. IMO, bones do not need to be pastured since the main nutrients are there regardless.

        My first priority is pastured butter, cause it is so nutrient dense, and one of the only good sources of vitamin K2, plus a decent source of vitamins A & D3 also. My second priority is raw milk, as it lowered my bp better than meds. My third is pastured eggs as it is the cheapest healthy protein. My last priority is fresh produce, cause I just love it, especially local, organic stuff. But if my garden is not producing and I don’t have enough put up, and money is tight, I will buy what is on sale, even if it’s frozen or canned. I can live without fresh produce, but I need my butter, milk and eggs.

        Staples are never ACTUALLY a priority cause I just buy them dead cheap on sale and have lots. Knowing that I have grains, beans, dehydrated veggies, canned tomatoes, sauces, herbs, spices and condiments… (and about 50-100 canned or frozen meals when I’m not up to cooking), this just makes life a lot less stressful.

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  3. I’m enjoying your series! I especially liked the idea to think in terms of categories. I usually focus on specific ingredients that I need, but I can see how being more flexible can lead to big savings.

    I would also add that, especially when you’re first starting out, it’s helpful to ask around for good food sources. Farms and food coops can really fly under the radar sometimes so talking to other real foodies may be the best way to find those affordable, quality food sources.

    By the way, your commentluv seems to be broken. For a while it’s been displaying an “internal server error.”

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    1. Thanks for the heads up! I’m in the process of moving to a new host and hope to get commentluv fixed at the same time.

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  4. This series is FANTASTIC! I still struggle with not buying food with specific ideas in mind for a particular recipe, but I am getting better at it. One thing I have noticed . . . as my budget gets tighter, I am able to be more creative with what I gan find that is cheaper. I suppose that’s a good thing. I guess I need that motivation to think outside the box. 🙂

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  5. Love your tips. I have made a goal in 2012 of not wasting food. As a single gal it’s very hard because many food items I buy are just too big. And, even though I find ways to preserve many things I still end up with the cupboards and fridge full to the gills with food I have to personally eat myself!
    Enter a new goal:
    Cooperation/barter/sharing costs on large items. I think this is one tip that doesn’t get covered too often but is really working for me. I now fix two meals a week for someone I barter with for business coaching, (and we do the coaching during a long walk twice a week. Bonus!) This allows me to use up food and get something I want. Another thing I’ve been doing: Asking for help with large purchases like a whole or half grass fed animal. I don’t have room for a large freezer in my city apartment, but have asked my friends in the burbs to help me store the meat. (Gives me a reason to go and visit them and pick up a box of meat when I need it)
    What I really like about this solution is it allows me more variety in my diet, since I don’t have to eat all my leftovers. I get things I want by bartering my skills as a cook. I turn my friends on to savings and better food. And finally, I get the added social benefits when asking for help, of getting to visit my friends more often.

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    1. What a great idea! It’s a little like sharing a bulk buy, but you get paid back in services rather than cash. I’ve bartered some in the past for help with our fixer-upper and it’s generally turned out to be a good experience.

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      1. Yes sometimes the opportunity to barter just presents itself, which is great! With all I read about families struggling to afford real food I always want to remind everyone, including myself, that none of us is an island. There are so many benefits to extending your support network and reaching out. Like minded people are everywhere, so at the very least just talking to people is helpful. You never know if someone in your community is working on the same problem you are:)

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    2. Love the post!

      As the other half of Laura’s meals for coaching barter, I can say it’s one of the best gigs I have for online business coaching! I love food, and enjoy cooking, but am terrible at motivating myself to do so these days. As a result of the barter I get yummy, nutritious, home cooked food, which keeps my brain & body well fueled for my coaching business. Win-win!

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  6. I love Amy D and her tightwad books! They taught me to be frugal way back when frugal was oh, so very uncool!! I have always bought for the pantry – I am terrible at planning my menu out. I never know who will be home (anywhere from 15 people to only 2 of us could show up on any given night) or what I may be doing or in the mood for.

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  7. I am such a fan of the Tightwad Gazette! I try to reread the books once a year, which reminds me that I’m due for a re-reading.

    I love your tips and your approach. I need to revamp my food shopping this summer, and get more in depth with the Nourishing Traditions book and my new Paleo cookbooks. Thanks for the fresh inspiration.

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  8. There are some really interesting ideas in here. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t applicable to my situation, but great food for thought nonetheless.

    Because we live rather far out, I don’t shop very often. (The gas involved in going to town often negates the value of any good deals I’d find.) We also live in an area with no health food stores, no farmers markets, etc. I end up doing a lot of buying in bulk from places further away or online. That makes a menu plan my best friend! I write one two months out at a time, and it ensures that I’ve used and rotated through the items I have on hand, as well as being my reminder to pull things out to thaw, soak, etc. It’s working for now!

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  9. Pingback: Links I Loved in November | The Polivka Family
  10. Cooking from the pantry instead of a menu plan is a REALLY good tip. It’s so easy to run the budget up when your’e meal planning because there’s ALWAYS something you don’t have on the list, usually quite a few somethings.

    #TALU

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  11. I really enjoyed reading this. I enjoy trying to stretch my dollar and coming up with nutritious and tasty meals in the process. This gave me a few new ideas. ~TALU~

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  12. Oftentimes, toward the end of the month, I made Refrigerator Meals — pretty much poking through what’s left in the back and lounging around in the crisper and figuring out a way to put it together into something edible. As you say, cooking with what you have –as opposed to slavishly following a Menu Plan — is definitely more fun and workable!

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  13. You have included some excellent tips and ideas in this very comprehensive post. As you say, reducing food waste is absolutely integral to reducing food costs. And I agree, it’s also a great idea to cut back on meat based meals, both for your budget, your health and the environment. Buying locally as you do saves me lots of money too.

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    1. Buying locally is often a big money saver to be sure. Just to clarify on the reducing meat based meals my intent is for it to be a somewhat temporary measure while improving your ability to get local or cheaper good source meat. Like to help save for a freezer for instance. I don’t think it’s better for your health to do so.

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  14. I’m a Brit. Having created and plundered an empire, we don’t need a frugal life-style. That is, unless you’re sick to death of the superficiality of consumerism, and longing to revert to wholesome quality and a decent, dignified level of existence for even the poorest. And I think there are some clues to this ambition in this blog. I’m a fan.

    Best wishes to all and sundry, 2RM.

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  15. Love this series! Thanks for all the tips.
    There is a website I love called SuperCook.com. You type in the ingredients you have on hand and it pulls up recipes that include those items. Great for saving money or just ideas for using the box of turnips you don’t know what to do with in the CSA box.
    Also, my kids love Mexican food and I can throw almost any leftovers in a burrito or quesadilla.

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