Having a garden and putting by our own food is the ideal for which many of us strive. It’s the optimal way to save money on groceries; the food source doesn’t get any more local, the cost is low, the flavor is incredible, and the carbon footprint is not much more than a muddy footprint on your doormat. But it's not the only way.
Shopping at Local Farmers Markets
Not everyone has the time or resources to tend a big garden, so we wondered: What if you bought your produce in season at a farmers market and preserved some of it for winter use?
To find out whether you’d still save money, take a look at the Organic Fruits and Veggies: Store-Bought vs. Home-Preserved chart, which compares the cost of canning or freezing produce bought in bulk at local farmers markets with the cost of buying canned or frozen organic vegetables at the supermarket. We found that buying at the farmers market and preserving at home yield substantial savings.
Many canned foods show a savings of 25 percent, while the best deals can save you as much as 75 percent. For frozen produce, the numbers are even better, with many of the home-preserved foods saving you 50 to 80 percent over the store-bought versions!
To get the best prices, always buy produce when it’s at the height of the season. Tomatoes in early summer cost far more than they would in August or late summer, and their cost will rise again when the season winds down. Try shopping the farmers market at the end of the day, and seek out farmers who have a surplus of something they would rather not cart home. Or, talk to farmers about special prices on surplus produce when it becomes available.
Is It Worth the Effort?
Preserving your own food requires some labor, but you can reduce the workload and make it fun by working with friends or family — you could even throw a freezing or canning party. And there’s another benefit to home food preservation: Looking at a pantry full of one’s own home-canned food is incredibly satisfying. To find a local farmers market, community supported agriculture program, or farms near you that sell direct to customers, visit Local Harvest.
Buying Staples in Bulk
Americans spend their paychecks on cleverly packaged food products that cost way more than necessary. When you buy in bulk, you buy food without the extra costs for packaging and marketing. If you focus on buying bulk dry goods you can store, you can save thousands on your annual grocery expenses. For examples in savings, see Dry Goods and Staples: Costs for Packaged vs. Case vs. Bulk, and read on for tips on how and what to buy in bulk.
Where to Shop
How much money you save depends on how much time you invest in bulk-buying. There are easy options that save pennies on the pound and more complicated options that bring higher savings.
Start small. Even supermarkets may have some bulk bins. Natural food stores and co-ops almost always offer bulk goods aisles, where you can buy anything from flour to spices to beans.
Buying in bulk from a store is a cheaper option than buying prepackaged foods, but you’re still going to pay for labor. Stores get bulk goods in giant bags and pay workers to break things down, and that labor shows up in the price of the food.
Most natural food stores and co-ops also offer case discounts for 10 or more packaged products. You usually can save between 10 and 20 percent off the retail price by buying a case of organic macaroni and cheese, for example, instead of buying it a box at a time. A 25-pound bag of beans costs 50 percent less per pound compared to smaller bags.
Another option is to join or start a buying club. Buying clubs buy directly from the same regional food distributors that service grocery stores, so they cut out the price of the middleman. If you ask around at a co-op, you usually can find an active club in your area, and you also can check Co-op Directory Service and United Buying Clubs. To join a club, you often pay a modest fee to the club’s organizer. Also, you probably will be asked to volunteer to help unpack the monthly delivery.
If there isn’t a club available, you can start your own. (Many distributors don’t even mind a single buyer.) All you need is a delivery space and a commitment to meet the minimum order of the distributor, usually $250 or more.
What to Buy
Focus on your staple foods. Before you put in a big bulk order, keep a record of your eating habits. Look at what you buy every week or two. Buy that to start out.
Flour is often a good bet if you like making your own bread. You can save big on pasta, too. It’s safest to stick with dry goods that won’t lose flavor or spoil, although a 10-pound container of peanut butter is a good buy for a family of four or more. Laundry soap and dish soap also are likely to be good choices, because there always will be cleaning to do.
More importantly, there are some things to avoid buying. Don’t try a new product with a big bulk order, or order huge quantities of something you only eat occasionally. Otherwise, you may end up trying to use brown rice lasagna noodles for the next five years. Be conservative. One spoiled bulk order could erase your whole savings.
Bulk Food Storage
Don’t wait until you get a 50-pound bag of beans home to figure out where you’re going to keep it. Have your storage infrastructure ready before you put in your first order. Plastic bags are handy to have for breaking down big bags into usable quantities, and they can seal bugs out, too. Your storage containers should be mouse-proof, bug-proof, and sheltered from weather. Avoid damp storage areas. If possible, keep at least part of your bulk goods accessible in easy-to-see containers so you know what you have and what you need for the next order. Start small with your bulk orders, but start with your next shopping trip.
Invest in a Pressure Cooker
Another way to reduce your food costs is to use a pressure cooker. Using a pressure cooker lets you cook all kinds of foods in much less time, saving you up to 70 percent on gas or electricity costs. Brown rice, for example, often takes about 40 minutes with conventional cooking, but using a pressure cooker cuts that to 15 minutes. Beets, winter squash and most other veggies can be prepared quickly in a pressure cooker.
Your savings won’t stop with just costs for cooking fuel. You can buy budget cuts of beef and quickly make them tender and juicy in the cooker. Or, instead of buying beef, eat more beans. They’re an excellent, low-fat source of protein. Most types of beans typically take up to an hour to cook, but with a pressure cooker, you can cut that to 6 to 8 minutes (and pre-soaking is optional). This makes dried beans almost as easy to prepare as canned, and they cost only about a third as much — plus, they taste much better! A pound of dry beans (about 2 cups) will give you about 3 pounds (6 cups) of cooked beans. Buy your beef or beans at bulk prices and your savings can be even greater.
— Cheryl Long