Thursday, July 10, 2008

Earth-friendly eating on a family budget?

Over the years I've made feeding my family one of my top environmental priorities. Feeding children seems to connect with my deepest maternal instincts. Choosing organic, locally grown, and unprocessed whenever possible reduces our family's fossil fuel consumption, minimizes chemicals going into the land and water and supports sustainable farming practices. This choice has made groceries our biggest household expense after mortgage.

I've justified it knowing that I was paying the "true cost of food", not passing the cost to other taxpayers or asking migrant workers to work for nothing so I can eat cheap or asking my grandkids to pay to clean up the world we trashed for them. I've justified it by knowing that for $6, I not only know that the milk I drink is better for the earth, but is also healthier (and tastier) for my kids, puts more money in Wisconsin farmer's pockets, is healthier and kinder to the cows, reduces the trend toward antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and helps preserve the Wisconsin landscape of family farms. Looking at it that way, $6 is a deal! Certainly anyone who has tried to feed their family from a backyard garden knows that we significantly underpay for the food we eat given the labor that goes into food production. Factor in processing and packaging and shipping and it seems impossible that you could buy a box of Cheerios for a few bucks (I heard recently that the farmer that grows the wheat gets 10c).

Given all that, I should be content, even proud of the $900 we are now spending each month to feed a family of 5. In fact, I will admit that when fuel and food prices started rising, I did at first feel smug, thinking to myself "now people know what food/fuel is supposed to cost" and hoped that this would drive society changes (which it has a bit). However the last few times I've gone through the check out line, I have felt nauseous with anxiety. It seems like the tab for my weekly trips keeps going up and up, all during the gardening season when it should be lower than at other times of the year. Like most other American families right now, we need to make some drastic changes to our family budget.

Here are a few tips that I've used over the years to keep my food costs low. I am desperately looking for more tips from others as I just can't seem changing over to food filled with preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and pesticides after all that I know.

1. Eat low on the food chain. Less or no meat/animal products is cheaper, and better for the earth. Whole grains and legumes are cheap and healthy.

2. Join a buying c0-op. I have done this for years and it does save and is fun way to network with others about healthy food resources. This also allows you to buy in bulk which saves money.

3. buy in bulk. Less packaging=less cost and better for the earth. Pick and Save and Good Harvest have bulk food options. Pick and Save also gives a 10% discount if you buy a case of something.

4. meal plan and head to the store with a list. Oh, and you have to stick to it which means the kids should stay at home!

5. eat leftovers. This is usually our Fri night meal. Anything that didn't get eaten for a lunch goes before the weekend shopping trip. I am thinking that maybe cooking less quantity so there are fewer leftovers might be better. Having a salad or sandwich for lunch would be cheaper and healthier than the leftover turkey picata from the night before.

6. grow it yourself. Not sure if this is cheaper for me, but it technically should be.

7. shop on the outside aisles of the grocery store (most of the junk is in the middle)

8. buy up bumper crops from the farmer's market and freeze. I did this with tomatoes last year and made pizza and spaghetti sauce all winter.

9. Cook and bake. Why pay for someone else to do what you can yourself (well, except on nights where there is soccer or track practice).

10. Eliminate non-essentials like soda, junk food, alcohol etc.

11. eat less. OK, this is probably where the problem is for our family.

So what else am I missing? Don't tell me my only choice is Sam's Club or Walmart. I want to believe that I can keep keep my values and pay my bills. I am especially looking for cookbooks or websites that have family friendly recipes that are healthy, simple and inexpensive. I have lots of great cookbooks but most are too involved for the average busy weeknight and involve yummy expensive ingredients like pine nuts and capers. Most of the simple cookbooks I've seen involve lots of processed food. I'd be especially interested in vegetarian options that kids would love (I have lots of great ethnic recipes that I love, but the strong spices etc don't always appeal to my kids). If you have been reading and not commenting, this is your chance. I know you are likely also trying to cut costs and may have found things that work for you that I haven't tried.


linda said...

I think you have a lot of good ideas and are on the right track already, but hear your frustration! I have a teenage boy in the house who frequently has 5 friends over for dinner! We have gotten back to basics at our house. Using what we have in the pantry and freezer and getting creative with that and whatever is in the garden or at the farmer's market. I have started making my own breads again using bulk flours and yeast. I received a meat slicer for Christmas and have eliminated the Deli by slicing my own turkey or meats and cheeses.Sounds crazy, but they charge a premium, and I like knowing what is in there. Sam's does have a few good organics-one being a big block of vermont cheddar--not local, but at least organic and a very good price. We make our own ice cream and popscicles in the summer. Tasty and no packaging, and quite simple to do with the machine (another gift). I have several good cookbooks I use often. Better Homes and Gardens cookbook has basic good recipes, Moosewood cookbooks are pretty tasty and kid-friendly, Local Flavors by Madison is a new purchase and Farmer's Market cookbook by Ruben is coming soon..will let you know about that one. There are used copies on websites or we could swap books some weeks! We eat vegetarian 2-3x per week, especially in the summer. I also will be canning jams, pickles,salsa, tomatoes/sauce etc. very soon. An old dying art, but very appreciated in the middle of winter! (BH&G cookbook has lots of canning recipes). My neighbors and I also cook together in bulk on occasion and share. A fun day and nothing is wasted. "Cleanout the fridge" pizza or quiche day is another kid favorite. I have learned a lot from you gals and have saved $ on bags, laundry soap, cleaning supplies. Thanks for all your wonderful info. and I hope there is something here I can offer you!
You know our life/income has changed greatly in the last 2 years...we have had to get very creative with the budget and I truly think I have increased the quality of our food and life in general by going back to a slower pace and making most things from scratch whenever possible.

Kris said...

Linda, you are so inspiring! I can't imagine how you keep a teenage boy fed! I never thought to slice my own deli meat. Mostly I'd like to do this to avoid standing in that long line at the Pig! I freeze lots but have just started trying some canning (Jam) and am still a bit fearful. I go in spurts on bread making. Seems to work well for rolls, soups and pizza dough but the family likes sandwiches with sliced bread. I think a big thing is to cut out the snack food. Sometimes I feel like my kids just eat between meals and the crackers are more expensive and less nutritious than the food I cook for meals. I love the cooking with friends, I did this when my kids were babies and it was very fun and a time saver. I have been talking about trying my hand at making mozarella cheese, so I am going to make that a goal. I don't only buy local and organic, but I do like to do what I can and certainly avoid highly processed foods etc. Thanks for the cookbook suggestions. I checked out a few at the library yesterday so will post any recipes that I think are especially good or that get 5 stars from my family. Keep those suggestions coming, it is sharing ideas that was the motivation beyond this blog and what can make it fun for all.

Anonymous said...

A great cookbook is "More with Less" - and "Extending the Table" is similar but with international recipes. Both focus on frugal, resource-conserving food traditions.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kristin,

Just browsing the blog and this post really struck a chord with me. Food is very time-, energy-, and money-intensive in our household as well, but I know the personal and environmental benefits are worth it. Not to mention, I just simply love truly good food and can't go back to eating any other way. I'm excited to learn to garden, but I also need to take cost saving strategies for shopping up a notch. Our food bills are, let's just say, NOT sustainable :) so I need to get even more budget saavy and I'm always on the lookout for tips from families who try to eat similarly to the way we eat. I'm doing a lot of what you've recommended, except I've only recently heard of a buying co-op...I'll have to look into that. But considering you are feeding a family of 5, I can tell that you must have some tricks up your sleeve that I haven't learned yet. I'm also on a mission for easy, healthy, economical vegetarian dishes (I'm not vegetarian but I'm aiming for more vegetarion dishes), so if I find real winners I'll send them your way. Thanks for this post.

All American packaging said...

These all are very important and crucial tips on family budgeting as well as eating all the earth friendly and green products for your health & wellness for sure.