How to green your grocery shopping on a tight budget
Three months ago, my husband and I took a magnifying glass to our finances, examining a mountain of bills and receipts. We had two main concerns: paying the lingering tab for the birth of our second son (now one), and finding a way to afford a year of preschool for our highly-energized, insatiably-curious three-year-old.
We pored over our monthly spending and came up with a budget we thought our family of four could live on. We made cuts all over the place. One major change was canceling satellite TV. That alone freed up $90 per month. We also scaled back on our phone plans, dining out, household spending, and we swapped cars to lower gas consumption. The biggest change, though, was bringing down our grocery bill from around $800 per month to no more than $100 per week.
Oh, yeah. We also decided it was time to start buying organic–because who doesn’t like a challenge?
Over the last five years, it’s become generally accepted that choosing organically grown foods, or foods “produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, irradiation or bioengineering” as defined by the USDA-FDA, isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for the body. Especially when it comes to children. Fortunately, mainstream grocers (think Kroger and Safeway) now have sizable organic sections both for dry goods and perishables. Really! Go look. Some even boast their own organic lines worth their salt when it comes to flavor. In my local Kroger, I can purchase organic fruits and veggies, dairy, meats, and grains.
I can even shop organic at Wal-Mart–and I can do it for $100 or less per week (tips below). The problem is, most organic options from mainstream grocers are imports from around the world.
While it feels good to buy organic, it feels even better to buy locally grown organic. Why? When you buy organic locally, you aren’t just cutting down on consumption of pesticides or supporting sustainable crops; you’re also potentially cutting down on carbons emissions by eliminating global shipping. Plus, by buying directly from the farmer, you ensure that your food dollar is staying in your community–and not leaking ot to a web of distantly owned distributors and the retailers. Think about it: local farmers are your neighbors.
But locally grown organic options–if and when you have them–are sometimes much pricier, meaning you pay more for less.
How can you get what you pay for, and still afford to pay for what you get?
You can do more than clip coupons, shop at low-traffic times and save the zest from your oranges and lemons. Here are a handful of tips for weekly budgeting success:
• Prioritize your list. Know what you can leave off the list if prices are higher than you expect. Follow the Environmental Working Goup’s advice on the “dirty dozen” items you should always buy organic (meat, milk, coffee, peaches, strawberries, etc.), and which items it’s okay not to buy organic (onions, avocado, mango, sweet corn, etc.). If you have trouble remembering or, like me, have a very small shopping companion who inevitably eats your list, get an app for your iPhone compliments of Environmental Working Group. No iPhone? Get the PDF version.
• Create a weekly menu. Plan to use the same ingredients in more than one dish. For example, I might use broccoli (one of the Clean Fifteen) as an ingredient in a stir-fry the first time, only to have it reappear later in the week as a side dish. Just keep it simple–at least at first. The simpler the dish, the easier it is to reinvent the leftovers.
• Eat mostly plants. Organic meat, egg and dairy selections are the priciest in comparison to their non-organic counterparts. Think about it; you’re paying for a lifetime of animal care. Take a hint from Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and “eat mostly plants.” For a dish like stroganoff, replace half the meat with mushrooms. Nondairy sour creams such as Tofutti can cost less than organic sour cream but offer strikingly similar flavor. As for eggs, try ground flax as a substitute when baking. (For one egg: 1 tbsp ground flax, 2-3 tbsp water, microwave in 15 second increments until the flax has an egg-like consistency.) You can buy a package of flax for nearly the same price as a dozen eggs, and it can last you several months instead of just one week.
• Buy local first. Many farms offer what amounts to shares of their farm. When you buy those ‘shares,’ you receive weekly, biweekly or monthly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes filled with seasonal goods, plant and/or animal. Visit LocalHarvest.org to search for a program near you. If there isn’t a nearby farm to support, or maybe you know you won’t eat their selections, start your weekly shopping trip at your local co-op or farmer’s market. LocalHarvest will help you find those, too. (A small aside: Local doesn’t automatically mean organic, so you should take advantage of the opportunity to ask farmers at the market about their growing practices. Don’t be shy.) No co-ops or farmer’s markets? Move–or cut yourself some slack.
• Reap what you sow. Most likely you can’t raise your own animals and wouldn’t want to, but you can raise your own veggies. Consider a raised box if your neighbors treat their lawns and you’re worried about runoff. You can buy one or build your own. Tomatoes grow nicely in larger planters. Keep an herb garden with your most frequently used herbs on your windowsill or front porch. This is also seasonally dependent, so think about the vegetables and herbs you use most, what kind of time and space commitment you can make, and maybe save your spare change in a piggy bank to get next year’s garden started.
• Buy what’s in season. You’ll find the best prices, and the best flavors, on the foods that are ready to be harvested today. Off-season greenhouse growth often comes with a higher price tag, and a higher economic footprint.
• Check the fridge, pantry and freezer before you shop. You may have a whole meal waiting to be reheated. You may only need one ingredient to create a main dish. Which brings me to:
• Shop dry. Some dried beans, some water, and a handful of herbs can be simmered on the stove one slow Sunday to produce a savory main dish. Pair with a simple salad and homemade bread or plain rice. While not necessary, a slow cooker is a great investment, especially as Fall and Winter approach. As appliances go, it’s green and economical, coming in at $1.22 for 40 hours of use on the Northeast Utilities System Appliance Usage List.
• Buy in bulk. Get grains, coffees, teas and cereals from bulk bins, and only buy what you need for the week unless the price is at rock bottom. Then buy as much as you can without going over your week’s budget. If you have some pennies left from last week (I call that rollover cash), use that to stock up. Apply this to produce too, like blackberries. You can easily freeze them for baked goods and smoothies later. If you can afford it, go for it.
• Pay with cash. I can’t tell you how many people gave me this tip before I tried it. The benefits are obvious, really. If you can only pay with what you have in your hands, you pay more attention to what you put in your cart and you don’t go over budget.
• Splurge–at the end of the month. If you get to the end of your pay period and there’s cash in your envelope, treat yourself or throw a party. You’re a success!
As for my husband and me, we’re getting better at this budgeting thing and are making better choices about how we spend our cash. Some weeks we only spend $60–on a family of four. (I know!) This means we can grab that Endangered Species dark chocolate bar we were staring at wistfully on the way to the checkout. We can hide it in the pantry and enjoy it slowly, after the kids are in bed.