This year, if I had a dollar for every time I came home from the grocery store and said, “Wow! $80 for two bags of food”… well, I could probably buy another bag of groceries.
2022 has been the year of global inflation. The cost of living has risen considerably and not just in the US. Most of us experience this deeply in two areas of our lives: food and energy. If like me you live on a frugal budget, you’ve likely had to do some magical mathematics in your monthly spreadsheet.
According to the UN, global food prices increased by nearly 30 percent this past year. During the same time, food prices have soared 9.4 percent in the US. Food banks are experiencing increased demand with food insecurity expected to rise from 35 million people to 50 million in 2022.
Food is a necessity and in our culture, healthy food is more expensive than less healthy food. In this article, I share some of the changes I made in both my diet and shopping that have helped reduce the cost of food while maintaining my commitment to healthy food.
1) Cook at Home & Track Your Spending
This may seem like a no-brainer but according to a recent survey 56% of Americans eat or order out food 5x a week! It’s easy to justify when you are tired after working all day. Many eaters have convinced themselves that eating out is cheaper than cooking meals and that simply is not the case. Even the prices of unhealthy fast food have risen. Implementing some of the ideas in this article will not only save money but your diet can be as healthy as you want it to be.
Do you track how much you spend on food? I didn’t for decades but when I left the big city for my mid-life rural adventure and reduced cash income, I realized that I would need to track how I spend money. I created a simple monthly expenses spreadsheet and record all of my household purchases. It only takes a few minutes each week and it can be a powerful way to see how much money is spent eating out (did I really order three pizzas last month?) and how much is spent on groceries.
2) Avoid the Danger Zone
The Danger Zone occurs on most weekdays between 5 and 7 pm. You are tired but need to cook dinner. The healthy meal you planned requires 15 minutes of chopping vegetables and 30 minutes to cook.
You open your refrigerator door and stare at the uncut vegetables and your mind immediately thinks…order a pizza.
That’s Danger Zone Thinking.
3) Rethink Your Protein
I buy sustainably and humanely raised meat from local ranchers and it’s expensive. This is an important value to me but I had to reduce the amount of meat I eat in three ways: portion size, type of animal, and the number of times consumed each week. I seldom eat beef which has a large environmental footprint, instead focusing on the more affordable local pasture-raised pork and chicken. Reducing portion sizes and my weekly consumption of meat protein has resulted in spending less than $100 per month on animal protein. I do invest in an annual share of Alaskan salmon which continues to be a sustainable fishery and offers many health benefits.
4) Eat More Plant-based Protein
Dry beans are a primary item in my diet. Far more affordable than animal protein and a healthy source of plant-based protein, beans also contain fiber, minerals, and prebiotics. I buy bulk sizes of black, pinto, navy, chickpeas, and cannellini beans, cook in water until just barely tender and freeze them. There are many recipes for cooking with beans and once I started exploring the many varieties of beans, I became more curious about the many types of beans NOT sold in the grocery system. My revised 2023 garden plan now includes several beds dedicated to growing unusual or heirloom beans.
5) Planning Makes the Biggest Difference
Plan your weekly meals and stick to your list. I devote an hour each week to planning the next week’s meals and I do it a bit differently than I have in the past. First, I look at my calendar and plan meals based on how busy I am which keeps me away from Danger Zone thinking. I then check my freezer to see what I have and need to use up – this includes previously frozen sauces, stews, and soups, which are perfect for busy days. I do the same with my pantry. And then I inventory my refrigerator. This has resulted in far less impulsive buying, less waste, and rotates my pantry staples and freezer items. Most importantly, I stick to my list. I read an article a while ago about why grocery stores have weekly sales on meat, sometimes at ridiculously low prices: to get people into the store because they will impulse buy while there.
I also try to group recipes with similar ingredients. For example, I love roasted vegetables so if I make a large batch on Sunday I can use them as a side to protein for one meal, top grains or pasta with them for another, wrap them in a tortilla, and freeze any leftovers for a future lunch. The same can be done with stir-fried vegetables.
In my article, 5 Tips for Healthy & Affordable Eating, I share a weekly meal template that I use to ensure a diversity of healthy meal ideas to help with planning.
Lastly, planning on leftovers is key to my healthy eating plan. I am busy and don’t have Julia Child kind of time to dedicate to gourmet meals. I package leftovers immediately (unless they won’t freeze well) for both future lunches and dinners.
6) Prepping Pays Off
Prepping healthy and inexpensive meals takes time – there is no getting around that reality. I use several strategies to set up a week’s worth of time-saving, healthy, and waste-free meals.
I try to prep for meals and snacks by cutting vegetables early in the day and/or on a non-work day. I use glass bowls with lids to store them in the fridge. Throwing together a stirfry, soup or stew now takes only minutes of prep time. I use a lot of fresh garlic and ginger but it irritates me how much time it takes to peel and mince them. One easy solution is to peel and chop large amounts in my mini-food processor and then store them in small containers in the refrigerator. If I am really ambitious I process enough to store in the freezer.
7) Reduce Waste
Americans throw away more food than any other country! If you find yourself tossing rotting produce each week, it’s time to rethink how you are planning and shopping. Cooking with the food you have on hand will slash food waste and save money and time because you’ll make fewer trips to the grocery store.
The weekly plan and prep routine saves money and waste. It is easy to lose track of lots of fresh produce each month especially when you buy impulsively: a 2 for 1 pineapple sale may sound like a great deal but what will you do with them? The mantra: if it’s not on the plan and the list, don’t buy it.
8) Buy Bulk, Frozen and In-Season
Start at the bulk section. Beans, peas, grains, nuts, seeds, and cereals can be purchased for a lot less than cans, packages, and boxes of the same. To cut down on the plastic bags I purchased small cloth bags for bulk buying. Once home, I transfer the bulk items to canning jars for storage. It really does make a difference: a few months ago, I bought two pounds of organic brown rice from the bulk section where it was $2.89 a pound. I then checked the price for the same amount in the brand/packaged aisle and it was $3.99 per pound.
Frozen vegetables and fruit can save time, waste, and money if you can catch a sale. And they are often more nutritious since the produce is usually processed and flash frozen within 24 hours of harvest.
Buying when local produce is in abundance and spending a bit of time preserving it can usually save money and waste material. I freeze a flat of blueberries (12 pints) (the current price is $25) on baking sheets and then package them in reusable quart freezer bags. I use these in smoothies and yogurt breakfast bowls throughout the year. Each August I buy ears of corn to make a double batch of Summer Vegetable Chowder that I freeze for winter eating.
9) Make Your Own
Averaging between $4-$6 a bottle, condiments and sauces are convenient but expensive. They are also filled with all sorts of extra ingredients, some of which have little or no nutritional value. So what are you paying for? With a little research and effort, you can easily make salad dressings, mustard, and stirfry sauces. With a bit more time and energy, you can make and can ketchup, salsa, and pepper sauces.
Fruit can be expensive, especially for families. If you live near orchards, buy ½ a bushel or bushel of apples and pears in the fall. Make pints and quarts of fruit sauce and fruit butter. I also dry a good amount of apples, cherries, and pears which are perfect for snacks, oatmeal, and homemade granola.
I seldom buy soup stock. I save bones from meat, bits of animal fat, and scraps of vegetable parings (including skins, leaves, and stems), herb stems & leaves, and store them in the freezer until I have a few hours to make broth. I dump everything into a stockpot, add chopped onion, carrots, and celery and fill the pot with water. I simmer it for 60 minutes, strain and pour it into different-sized canning jars and freeze (after cooling in the refrigerator).
10) Grow Some of Your Food
Depending on your circumstances, growing certain food crops can save you money. I recently saw a post of a woman who lives in a condo and has a south-facing patio. She collected large black nursery pots (the kind shrubs and small trees come in) from her community (lots of us have these sitting unused in our garages), bought some packaged soil and seeds, and grows lettuce, carrots, kale, green onions, spinach, and herbs from early spring through late fall. I added up a week’s worth of these organically grown vegetables if purchased at my local store and it came to over $20.
Growing food is not hard to do, and it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Start small, grow something in a pot on your patio, plant strawberries on the edge of a landscaping bed, buy half a barrel, and grow a salsa garden of cherry tomatoes, peppers, green onions, and cilantro. What’s stopping you?
But if you have been thinking about creating a home garden, or renting a bed or two in a community garden, now is the time to plan.
Food prices are not going to get cheaper. Cattle ranchers are selling and killing their livestock because of drought and the costs of feed. Conventional farmers are also facing drought, natural disaster damage, and high costs of synthetic fertilizers.
Inflation, the higher costs of energy for transportation and farm inputs, and the damage from extreme weather conditions will continue to affect the cost of feeding our families. The Zero Waste Chef compiled this list from the USDA forecasts for price increases for 2022:
- Beef and veal: +16.2 percent
- Pork: +14 percent
- Poultry: +12.5 percent
- Fish and seafood: +10.4 percent
- Eggs: +11.4 percent
- Dairy: +5.2 percent
- Fats and oils: +11.7 percent
- Fresh fruits: +10.6 percent
- Fresh vegetables: +4.3 percent
- Processed fruits and vegetables: +7.6 percent
- Cereals and bakery products: +7.8 percent
The best commitment you can make to yourself and your family is to eat nutritious food that is grown in your bioregion, sustainably (without synthetic chemicals), and freshly harvested. Like any kind of commitment, it requires time and energy. Growing a few crops can be the start of a healthy food revolution.
Do you have other ways you are saving on food? Please share them with me!
In nature, plants and animals adapt to evolve. We will have to do the same. I believe developing a homesteading mindset, regardless of where you live, is the way forward.
You don’t need acres of land to practice homestead thinking; the homesteading mindset is about abundance, purpose, and ethical living. Permaculture’s ethics, principles, and strategies are changing the lifestyles and lives of millions of people on this planet.
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