Cut Cost, Not Quality: How to Afford Better Food

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There’s growing evidence that industrial food just ain’t what it oughta be. Lucky for us, the path to super-nutritious food at affordable prices offers many entry points.
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Buy food locally to ensure that more of the money goes to the farmer who grew the food.
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You can bake your own fresh bread for just 50 cents per loaf.
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Growing your own food saves tons of money on the grocery budget. Pictured is 'Tennis Ball' lettuce growing in Thomas Jefferson's vegetable gardens at Monticello.
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Fresh salsa is easy to make and can at home, and tastes better than store-bought salsa.
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The price differences between packaged foods and plain, whole foods sold in bulk can be astounding.
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Take your own lunch to school or work to save money on groceries. Homemade soups are easy to make and travel well.
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Pastured eggs are tremendously more nutritious than their industrially farmed counterparts.
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Foods from animals that were raised humanely on healthy pastures offer superior flavor and nutrition.

There’s growing evidence shows that industrial food just ain’t what it oughta be. Lucky for us, the path to super-nutritious food at affordable prices offers many entry points. let us pilot you through the diverse options in this guide to shopping smart and eating better food.

Buy In Season

WHY? Like most goods and services, foods cost less when they’re abundant. Eat foods during their peak season for scaled-down price plus amped-up quality. Foods that get to you quickly lose less flavor and nutrients, and you can enjoy varieties of produce that can’t survive long-distance shipping. Buying in-season foods directly from farmers is the easiest way to save money on better food — especially at the end of market day, and especially if you’re willing to buy less-than-perfect items. Buying in season is also the best way to get good prices on more-expensive organic produce.

HOW? Arm yourself with strategies for eating fresh during any season with the comprehensive resources we’ve compiled for you on our website at How to Eat Seasonally.

WHAT’S NEXT? If you eat seasonally, it’s easier to …

Buy Locally

WHY? When you spend $1 on supermarket food, not much of it goes to the actual producer. Some of your dollar goes to the person who grew it, while some goes to the person who picked it. Some goes to the companies who processed, packaged and transported it, and some to the firm that designed the packaging and advertising. Finally, some of your dollar ends up in the hands of the grocery store owner, and also in the hands of the store’s employees. The fewer middlemen, the less the seller will have to charge you.

HOW? Find farms, restaurants, co-ops, farmers markets and other great local-food resources on our website (see How to Find Local Food and Farmers). In addition, locally owned specialty shops can often help you find things that local farmers can’t grow, such as fresh-roasted coffee.

WHAT’S NEXT? Money spent locally stays in your community, which is ripe with resources to …

Join Forces With Community Supported Agriculture

WHY? Community supported agriculture (CSA) programs used to be charming novelties in certain neighborhoods that enjoyed eco-abundance, but their huge surge in popularity in recent years means CSA programs are now available nationwide — more than 4,000 are listed in the Local Harvest database. A CSA program is essentially a local-farm subscription service, in which a group pays the farmer directly for the food she delivers. You can save money on super-fresh, high-quality produce, and many CSAs also offer meat, eggs, dairy, honey, flowers and herbs. Some offer free or lower-cost subscriptions to those who donate time or qualify for low-income shares.

HOW? Find a CSA program in your area through the Robyn Van En Center or Local Harvest and start buying better food now.

WHAT’S NEXT? Now that you’ve acquired so many great ingredients, you’d better believe you can start saving big if you …

Cook Your Own Food

WHY? The absolute fastest route to grocery savings is the path to your kitchen. Avoid eating out or buying packaged foods by cooking your own meals from whole, unprocessed ingredients. Simple breakfasts of whole grains, fruit and eggs eaten at home will kick-start your day with long-lasting energy. Take your own lunch to work or school for a meal guaranteed to be much more flavorful than fast food or vending machine fare. Save time at dinner by spreading the work among family members and prepping double batches of dinners that freeze well. And save money all around by making your own staples, such as stock, pasta sauce, butter, condiments, yogurt and many others. You’ll learn quickly that you can make better food than any of those packaged versions at the grocery store.

Did you know you could save at least half the cost of fancy fresh cheese by making it yourself? Plus, it’s fun, I promise. And what about fancy artisan bread? Whoa nelly! Delicious rustic loaves from fine bakeries can cost up to $7 a loaf, but you can make your own loaves of comparable quality — again, I promise — for about 50 cents each. You’ll also be able to use more nutritious flour made with whole grains. Really serious about getting high-quality food at awesome prices? Grind your own grains for peak freshness and flavor. Grain mills start around $25 (though some nicer ones are in the hundreds), and if you buy 50-pound bags of whole grains, you could make that back with your first grain purchase.

HOW? Just search for “whole grains” at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS website, and keep reading for links to several fabulous homemade bread recipes, plus easy tips to keep more lunch money in your pocket. Check out a long list of our reader’s excellent grocery budget tips in How Do You Save Money on Groceries? and while you’re on our website, visit our Real Food page for all kinds of recipes and cooking information.

WHAT’S NEXT? If you want to get in even closer contact with your food, why not …

Grow Your Own Food

WHY? A sure way to rock your world with superior flavor and better nutrition, and still save money, is by growing your own food. Rosalind Creasy, author of Edible Landscaping, saved $700 on groceries in 2008 when she grew a simple, 100-square-foot garden. Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, saved $2,000 from a 1,500-square-foot plot in 2009. Just think — grocery prices are even higher now.

Accumulating evidence is revealing the sad truth that today’s commercial fruits, veggies and grains contain fewer nutrients than their counterparts of yore, and many heirloom varieties are nutritionally superior to modern hybrids. Growing food yourself — with time-tested heirloom varieties, in healthy soil — is the best way to get those nutrients back into your diet.

If you’re unsure, start small! Try radishes, greens, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes to start. Even a modest herb garden could save you big bucks, as fresh herbs are usually pricey. If you’re adventurous, start big! You can grow whopping quantities of food by using your front yard, too (if your community doesn’t forbid it). Many edibles, such as rainbow chard and climbing beans, are as beautiful as they are useful. No sun? Join one of the 18,000 community gardens dotted all over North America. Live in an apartment? You may be lucky enough to find a rooftop garden sprouting up near you.

HOW? Learn to grow better food and find gardens that need you with our deep archives (see Learn to Grow Food).

WHAT’S NEXT? Whether you grow it or buy it fresh, you can make that garden goodness last all winter long by learning to …

Preserve Your Own Food

WHY? Even if you’re not growing food yourself, you can save up to 75 percent on home-canned and up to 80 percent on home-frozen foods if you buy the produce fresh during peak season. They’ll taste better than store-bought convenience foods to boot.

Drying foods is another way to concentrate flavor and nutrition. Dried fruits and veggies make wonderful, easy snacks, and you can save quite a bit on pricey mushrooms by buying them when you spot a sale, then drying them yourself to reconstitute later.

HOW? Search for “canning,” “drying” and “freezing” at MOTHER EARTH NEWS online to find plenty of articles about the basics. Download our canning app for smartphones and tablets at Free MOTHER EARTH NEWS How to Can App. You can learn how to ferment delicious beverages at home, too (see Home Brewing), and you’ll find a neat kit for a hybrid solar/electric food dryer at All About the SunWorks Solar Food Dryer Kit.

WHAT ELSE? Just as you can preserve fresh foods for out-of-season eating, you can purchase seasonal dry goods at deep discounts and store them for later use. So why not …

Buy In Bulk

WHY? The price differences between packaged foods and plain, whole foods sold in bulk can be astounding. For example, you can save about 50 percent on pasta and peanut butter, and up to 70 percent on oats and popcorn. You may be surprised at how much you can find in bulk sections these days — everything from spices, herbs, tea and coffee to beans, grains, flour, olive oil and more. Buying clubs and food co-ops also offer tremendous savings to grocery shoppers who don’t mind planning ahead and working with others.

HOW? Look for the bulk section in your grocery or natural foods store. Connect with a food co-op or buying club through Coop Directory Service or United Buying Clubs. Go to Dry Goods and Staples: Costs for Packaged vs. Case vs. Bulk to see a detailed look at the cost savings of bulk items. See Get to Know the Wonder-Working, Timesaving Pressure Cooker to learn how you can save even more by preparing foods efficiently with a pressure cooker.

WHAT ELSE? Buying food in bulk is a great way to save grocery dollars, but when it comes to the smartest money savings, you’ll want to …

Choose Wisely

WHY? Supporting a reduction in our nation’s pesticide dependence by choosing organic foods is worthwhile — the effects of industrial, chemical-based agriculture reach much further than what we ingest as individuals and the toll our consumption has on our personal health. But sometimes we must make strictly budget-conscious decisions. If you can only access organically grown food some of the time, you’ll want to make the best choices. For example, fruits with permeable skin, such as strawberries, absorb more chemicals than thick-skinned onions and eggplants. And did you know that apples and celery top the list of pesticide-laden foods, while mushrooms and sweet potatoes are consistently clean?

HOW? The Environmental Working Group maintains the most up-to-date list of which conventionally grown foods are likely to be contaminated with pesticides and which are safest to eat: EWG’s 2011 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

WHAT ELSE? While we’re considering the health of our bodies and of the soil beneath our feet when making purchases, we should also consider the health and well-being of the animals that offer up their eggs, dairy and meat products. This means you’ll want to …

Go Grass-Fed

WHY? Foods from animals that were raised humanely on healthy pastures are no doubt more expensive than their factory-farmed counterparts, but that cost is coming down as more consumers become aware of the multiple benefits (tell your friends!). Along with top-notch flavor, products from pastured animals offer better nutrition than industrial animal products. You can save money by choosing cuts of meat that are less expensive but still healthy and flavorful, such as bone-in chuck roasts, shoulder and shank cuts, round roasts, stew meat, and organ meats. You can also save a bundle by buying larger portions directly from the farmer, or by choosing to pay for what you value and simply eating meat less often. You might also consider investing in a deep freezer so you can store that quarter of a cow, half a pig or whole lamb that will provide many meals. Or split a large meat purchase with friends.

HOW? Use Eatwild to find farms and butchers in your area, or check with your local county extension for potential sources. For more information on sourcing and cooking all cuts of meat from grass-fed animals, check out Good Meat by Deborah Krasner and Pasture Perfect by Jo Robinson.

WHAT ELSE? You can save money on meat by buying the right cuts, but you’ll save even more if you …

Raise Your Own Animals

WHY? Meat, eggs and dairy from pastured animals are tremendously more nutritious than their industrially farmed versions. The meats are leaner and have a fatty-acid profile that helps combat heart disease rather than contributing to it. Eggs from pastured chickens also contain these beneficial omega fatty acids, plus vitamins and minerals that are deficient in factory-farmed eggs, including vitamin D, which many Americans may not realize they are lacking. Most importantly, homegrown meats usually taste better than products that come from the animals raised in crowded, stressful conditions in feedlots and factory farms.

Taking care of chickens is not much more complicated or expensive than taking care of a dog, and many urban and suburban areas are now allowing residents to do so. Plan on harvesting about one egg per hen per day. Sustainable agriculture expert Gwen Roland has raised her own flavorful broiler chickens at a cost of only $1 per pound of meat produced. If you decide to keep a dairy cow and calf, you’ll spend up to a couple grand, but will recoup between $4,000 and $6,000 in delicious, healthy, grass-fed milk and beef. Plus, you’ll be among the lucky few who truly understand all that is required to bring meat to our tables.

HOW? Learn about grass-based farming at Choosing Natural, Grass-fed Meat and The Chicken and Egg Page. You’ll also find a wealth of information about raising pastured animals through one of our favorite magazines, The Stockman Grass Farmer, and via the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.

WHAT ELSE? We hope you’ve found many of these tips and tricks for spending less on food helpful. And now that you’ve grown or sourced healthy, delicious produce at great prices, made your own bread, cheese and mayo, raised your own nutritious, flavorful and affordable meat and eggs — and more! — we hope you’ll …

Share Your Ideas

Submit your tips for saving money on better food to with “Save Money” as the email subject line, or post comments below.

One of the Quickest Ways to Grocery Savings? Pack Your Lunch!

The grocery budget is the third largest money hog in most household budgets, after housing and transportation. While it can be difficult to reduce your expenses on the latter, saving money on better food is easier than you probably think.

You’re in luck: There are plenty of easy ways to save a bundle on food. The surest way? Don’t eat out. Just don’t do it! Reducing the cost of lunch may seem like a drop in the bucket, but it’s a drop you can make every single day, and those drops will add up to buckets of savings.

Make Your Own Savory Staples 

Taking any kind of lunch will save you a ton over eating out, but don’t stop there. Get creative and enjoy the adventure, because you can save plenty more by making your own staples rather than settling for factory-made, flavorless and nutritionally inferior standbys. Think flavorful sandwiches on home-baked bread with fresh mayo; easy-to-make soups that freeze well; yummy, easy-to-build wraps; and delicious green and whole-grain salads.

Bake Your Own Bread. Follow the wildly popular, super-easy no-knead method to keep ready-to-use bread dough in your fridge at all times. You can bake amazing loaves for just 50 cents each this way. Check out these recipes for delicious, homemade bread:

Easy, No-Knead Crusty Bread
Five Minutes a Day for Fresh-Baked Bread
Healthy, No-Knead Bread Recipes
Homemade Bread: Truly Easy and Delicious
Almost No-Knead Bread: Also Worth Trying 

Roast Your Own Meats. Roast your own beef, chicken and turkey for significant savings, not to mention way better flavor. Just once a month, schedule a meat-roasting day. Slice it up, refrigerate a week’s worth, and freeze the rest to use as needed.

Use Seasonal Vegetables. Whatever’s abundant at the farmers market or grocery store will no doubt cost the least, and it’ll be at its nutritional peak to boot. Many veggies you may not consider sandwich and salad staples — zucchini, squash, bell peppers, eggplant — work perfectly between two pieces of bread, in a whole-wheat tortilla, atop crisp greens or with nutritious quinoa if they’re sliced, roasted with a bit of olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then refrigerated.

Forego Factory-Sliced Cheese. Is it really that much work to slice or grate your own cheese if it will save you money? Nope, didn’t think so. And if you’re out for super-fresh flavor and want to cut the cost of gourmet cheeses, try making your own.

Make Your Own Condiments. Mayo, mustard, ketchup, hot sauce and more — they’re all simple to make, and homemade condiments are most definitely tastier and more nutritious than anything in those jar aisles. (Find a recipe for homemade mayo at Homemade Mayo: Healthier, Tastier, Easier Than You Think)

Snack Attack

If snacking on vending machine buys throughout the day is your budget (and health) enemy, be sure to toss fresh fruits and nutrient-dense nuts, raising and dried veggies into your lunch pail, too!

Follow Your Own Soup Adventure!

When you tire of sandwiches, mix things up by taking piping hot soup to work in a trusty thermos. making a different soup every day is easy if that’s what you fancy, and it’s a superb way to use inexpensive staples.

The first step is to learn the building blocks. Usually you’ll start by sautéing some version of mirepoix — a mixture of celery, carrots and onions — then browning any meats, especially the cheap cuts. Next, add stock, which is easy to make at home in order to save over buying pre-made products. To this, you can add bulk with nutritious beans and grains, plus whatever vegetables you’ve got on hand (fresh or frozen). Finally, you can get fancy by adding herbs and seasonings, as well as flavor boosters such as mushrooms, nuts, miso, cream or even coconut milk.

From cabbage to cashews, it’s hard to imagine a food that can’t go into some soup recipe somewhere. Search by ingredient for recipes online, or visit How Do You Make Soup Stock? and Warming Winter Soups to learn the basics of soup-making. See Frijoles de Olla to learn how to make a super-cheap but heartwarming pot of bean soup.