How to Save Money on Food

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Discover budget-friendly ways to save money of food without sacrificing nutrients or flavor.

Depletion and Abundance(New Society, 2008) by Sharon Astyk explains how we are living beyond our means with or without a peak oil/climate change crisis and that, either way, we must learn to place our families and local communities at the center of our thinking once again. Astyk presents strategies to create stronger homes, better health and a richer family life. In the following excerpt, she provides solutions for saving money on food while still providing delicious, nutrient-rich meals.

How to Eat Cheap

And, like everyone else, I buy food too, something that is increasingly tough on the pocketbook. Food prices are up dramatically, and some staples, such as flour and milk, have doubled or more in price. I store food in fairly large quantities, so our family is still eating on older prices; but I’m not convinced that the crisis has occurred, so we will end up buying more.

How do you cut back your food budget when things get tight? Well, your friends are going to be beans, lentils and grains. They are nutritious, tasty, simple, accessible and store well. If there’s any way you can come up with the money, buy them in big bags — a minimum of 10 pounds; 50 is better. Whole grains and dried beans store nearly forever (brown rice is an exception—white stores better, but is less nutritious). You say you can’t use 50 pounds of beans? I bet you can—over five years. They will still be good, just need a bit longer to cook. You have to think ahead a bit and soak the beans or throw them in the slow cooker or on the back of the stove the night before.

Your other friends in the fresh food department are root vegetables and cabbage. At the grocery store, these will be among the cheapest items available. If you can get to a farmers’ market or farm stand, they will be even cheaper. Again, bulk is better—my local farm stand is selling cabbage at 10 heads for 10 dollars. Even a single apartment dweller might eat cabbage twice a day — raw in a salad, then sautéed with garlic and pepper. Three heads will last two weeks sitting on the counter in place with reasonably low heat. If you can afford your fridge, two more heads can be crammed in.

The other five can be turned into sauerkraut or kimchi and will last even longer. Ten heads of cabbage could easily provide a large portion of you vegetable needs for eight weeks or more for one person.  Potatoes, beets, turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes, onions and carrots are generally fairly cheap. Roasted vegetables make a superb cheap staple meal. Squash are also often reasonably priced, and they have the advantage of requiring minimal preparation. Most can be baked in the oven until soft, with oil or butter, a few spices, and then spread on bread. Or puree them and turn them into soup.

What about meat? Frankly, I don’t recommend buying any kind of meat that is cheap — it is almost certainly industrial meat and not good for you. But if you are accustomed to meat, other options are to learn to hunt or to raise your own. If there is one absolute rule that I recommend to everyone it is that we all stop eating industrial, confinement meat — period. The costs to our society, our health and our culture are too high. Either find a better alternative or do without. You might buy very small quantities of healthy meats and stretch them. (My favorite ground meat stretcher is grated zucchini — you can use it 50–50 with ground beef or turkey.) Or simply use the meat as a flavoring, as many cultures do. A small bit of chicken in a stir-fry can transform it to a heartier-seeming meal. A delicious chili can be made with a half pound of beef for a large pot of beans, making enough to feed a crowd and take leftovers to work. A wonderful sausage soup can be made with cabbage, carrots, onions and a half pound of intensely flavored sausage. Or consider talking to your local pastured poultry producer about buying the parts they often can’t sell. Chicken feet make terrific soup stock, and are a delicacy in some cultures. Livers are rich in vitamin C and iron, and absolutely wonderful tasting. We love cooked chicken livers pureed and spread on toast. Bones are often discarded by butchers, and can make wonderful, meaty tasting broth. But remember, meat is not necessary to good health, and if you are poor, you probably won’t be eating a lot of it. That’s okay — it isn’t necessary to make food taste good, either.

Use up every scrap of food. Do you have leftover garlic bread? Make it tomorrow’s salad croutons. Stale bread? Bread pudding. Better yet, add some bananas gone black — either the ones you shoved in the freezer or some on the day-old table at the grocer’s for 10 cents a pound. Did you peel the broccoli stems and cook them? There’s another meal there. Don’t forget sprouts. Sprouting seeds bought in bulk are cheap and can cover much of your nutritional needs. What about vitamin C? Rose hips bought in bulk are cheap, but cabbage will take care of that too. Wild greens are a great source of nutrition, and many, like plantain and dandelion, are growing in your yard or the park. (Just get them from places that don’t spray.)

Cut your use of coffee, tea, sugar, salt and fat in half. You’ll get used to the taste and you will be healthier for it. What’s for breakfast? Oatmeal, bought in bulk. Or if you don’t like oatmeal, apples are cheap in the fall, and you can make applesauce easily enough. Then warm it up on the stove and mix in raw oats and a little cinnamon — yum! Or how about rice pudding, if you have milk or soy milk? Or what about polenta — cornmeal boiled to a thick porridge. It can be eaten with sweetener or fried with garlic and oil.

If you have children under three, please nurse them. The US makes breastfeeding enormously difficult. We provide little support, little time and often separate infants and mothers very quickly. But it is worth trying hard to do this, particularly going into difficult times. Many of us watched dehydrated infants suffering in the Superdome — babies who, if they could only have been nursed by their mothers, might have been spared harm. The food you make for your babies and toddlers is the best possible food for them and can help insulate your kids from the worst results of hunger.

Consider accepting dinner invitations or attending events with free food. You might dumpster dive (Google “freegans”) or consider just asking politely of your co-workers as they toss half their meal, “Can I have the other half of that sandwich?” It takes courage — our society looks down on the poor so much that advertising your need seems shameful, but it isn’t. The truth is that much of the growing poverty has little to do with the choices of ordinary people.

If things get really desperate, there are further options. First of all, consider applying for any poverty support programs you are eligible for. I know a lot of people resist accepting charity, and that’s honorable — up to a point — but don’t be foolish, and risk your health or that of your children. If you are eligible for food stamps, WIC or some other program, apply. Or consider visiting your food pantry when you need to. Healthy adults may be able to go to bed hungry once in a while — children should not. Talk to people at your synagogue, mosque, church or temple, or at your community center if you are hungry — they may know about resources or be able to offer help.

The simple truth is that the times we are coming into may bring many people to desperation through no fault of their own — don’t let shame prevent you from eating.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, published by New Society Publishers, 2008.