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!