Buying Better Food on a Budget (Grocery Geek)

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Finding affordable sources, stockpiling, and readjusting my shopping mentality all help me buy better food on a budget.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and eating this week.

In my brain are ideas of food sourcing. Four years ago my grocery shopping was dictated by the bottom line. We had limited funds, a growing family and a heap of debt to clean up. I bought what was cheapest, even if it wasn’t all that healthy.

Today, our funds still have their limit, our kids are practically eating down the house, but the debt is gone. And that, thank the Lord, gives us breathing room. Now that we’re paying for today and tomorrow —  instead of yesterday — I can put a little more thought and effort into what I feed my family.

Learning more about food

Four years ago, I didn’t pay much attention to health issues and nutrition. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. But, I knew convictions would then wage war. I would have to choose. And, really, I did have to choose, anyway.

I chose money and fiscal responsibility. And I’d still make that same choice today. However, one thing that I’ve learned is that healthy food choices and frugality can peacably coexist. And I’m learning more about food and determining what I want the new normal to be.

In 2008, we spent a tight $400/month on groceries. Meals out were few and far between. We ate little meat. Our oldest child was a mere 11 and one child wasn’t even born yet.

Today I think it’s safe to say that our food costs have doubled. However, my people are a lot bigger! The market has changed dramatically. And we enjoy more meat and eating out than we did. We’ve also increased the quality of the food we buy.

It’s really not a question of “Should we eat healthy or not?” Rather, it’s finding the right sources, reading labels, and be more intentional about what I buy. Depending on where you live, this can be more challenging or not.

Avoiding pink slime

Costco = $127

Lately, hubs and I have been talking up the pink slime issue and figuring out what our choices are. I’m the crunchier of us two. I was already thinking of buying a side of beef for a myriad of reasons. But, his objection is more to the “bait and switch” of the product. You’re not buying what you think you’re buying.

So, I bought organic ground beef at Costco this week. It’s about $4.50/pound which is the cheapest I’ve seen. Their conventional ground beef is supposed to be slime-free. So, we may revert to that. The jury’s still out. But, overall, Costco does seem like an easy source of some organic meats: chicken pieces, whole chickens, ground turkey, and ground beef.

I’m also finding hormone-free cheese at affordable prices there and their whole turkey breast is just that. No nitrates or nitrites are listed on the ingredients list.

My $127 worth doesn’t look like much, does it? Thankfully, they are big bulk packages of each item.

Sourcing organic produce

Abundant Harvest Organics – $37

One of the benefits of living in Southern California is the long growing season and, as I’m coming to find out, more sources of organic produce. In August I started subscribing to Abundant Harvest Organics, a produce co-op, thanks to a reader’s suggestion. It’s been a wonderful adventure.

While I am forced to cook things I would never buy (parsnips, anyone?) it’s been a fabulous source of affordable organic produce. Coming from a long line of Minnesota farmers, it also makes me really happy to get closer to the source. And even the crazy things, like parsnips, have been a great education for me and the kids.

I’ve also had some amazing meals. Those eggs up there? Poached on a bed of spinach, leeks, and pea tendrils (yes, really), those eggs were some of the best I’ve ever eaten!

Stay tuned for the post on pea tendrils!

This week’s box included carrots, potatoes, beets, Swiss chard, asparagus, green garlic, TOMATOES, oranges, cabbage, broccolini, lettuce, pea tendrils, and dill. Fun! I feel like I get the benefits of a garden without all the extra work.

Sprouts – $35

Anticipation buying

While I didn’t “have to” buy anything this week, I’m trying to apply the “buy ahead” principle (aka stockpiling) to my healthier eating goals. Pineapples were a great price at Sprouts, $0.99 each. I didn’t “need” pineapples, but at that price, who can resist? Organic eggs were on sale for $3 and organic potatoes were $0.50/pound. (The yogurt was to replace a container that I returned that was bad.) The mushrooms and tomatoes were for recipe testing.

As I learn the best prices for organics, I’ll be adjusting what I buy to match this new way of thinking. While it might not be as cheap as the conventional prices I’m used to, I figure it’s a reasonable way to make the switch. It will just take time to learn the new pricing structure.

Grocery spending MTD: $596

Last week’s grocery tally ended at $397 month to date. This week’s purchases bring it up by another $199. Next week’s produce and Azure Standard purchases will bring it close to an $800 cap. That may be the new normal? I’m not sure.

Quite honestly, these numbers seem extravagant to me. I know I could spend less. But, I would also be buying different things that I may or may not want to feed my family. I still have a little grocery-budget envy when it comes to comparing myself to other folks. But, as we talked before, it’s not a competition. I have to remind myself that it’s not a race. Just gonna do the best I can with the information I have.

How do you buy better food on a budget?

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  1. This is a very balanced approach. All we can really strive for is doing the best we can within our own circumstances and with our own convictions concerning nutrition, and other things.

    If I told you what I spend on groceries each month, you would faint! But I feed 10 to 12 Big People at most meals. And sometimes my sons’ college buddies come by to fill up too!! 😉

  2. Our story is similar to yours. A few years ago, the focus was on debt-reduction. I bought groceries that were the cheapest, although I still noticed that our cart held healthier foods than many others.

    Over the past year or so, we’ve begun to focus on healthier foods. For us, the big savings is in hunting and eating deer meat. My husband isn’t one to go out and buy new guns or hunting clothes each year, so our cost for venison is just the cost of deer tags and some ziploc bags. We process our own deer, so we KNOW there is no pink slime in it. Last year, the meat worked out to about 58 cents a pound.

    We bought a humanely raised hog from a local farmer last year and had it processed. That came to $2.60 a pound for all cuts. If we don’t get any deer this year, we’ll buy a side of beef from the same farmer.

    We grow much of our own produce.

    All of those things allow us to afford things like free-range organic chicken, coconut oil, milk from a local dairy, etc., from Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, etc.

  3. Forgot to add that we currently get our eggs from a different local farmer. However, she and her family may be moving, and if they do, that is probably when we will keep laying hens of our own. We are allowed to have 4 within city limits.

    • @Annie, I would do that in a heart beat! It used to be that I could just buy organic farm eggs from friends for $1.50/dozen. Not so anymore! And the cheapest I can find is $4.

  4. I am a homeschooling mom of 3, with a husband who is a hard working blue collar man. Money is tight; we live paycheck to paycheck. However, we eat well, and I’d say 90% of the time, organically.

    Here’s how we have learned to afford to eat well: we started our own produce co-op. We found twenty people to go in with us, we buy direct from a local distributor, my family does all the work, and we get our enormous share of produce free each week. The members also get an awesome savings, so it’s a win-win for everyone.

    Second, we found another distributor that sells bulk items like flour, oats, beans and the like. A handful of friends go in on a quarterly order. For instance, in the store I would buy 2 pounds of organic spelt flour for nearly $5 where we live. I buy a 25 pound of local, organic spelt flour for $22. Huge savings!

    Lastly, we found sorces for pasture raised beef and pork. They are local and I can drive by the farm. I know they are “clean” and fed well. Again, I found a few friends to go in with me and we get grass-fed beef for under $3 a pound (that’s butchered and all). I’m still searching out affordable poultry.

    All of this took some time and some doing on my part. It still takes work to organize, collect payments, and split up items, but doing all this allows me to feed my family well. Totally worth it.

    Even if you don’t do any of those things, cooking from scratch and trying to avoid the processed foods cuts down on food bills. We also deal with multiple food allergies in my home. Some items I have no choice but to spend a lot on. My kids can only drink goat milk. I spend nearly $7,50 per half gallon, but I know that I have to (we don’t do rice, soy, or almond milk).

    Be encouraged, you can eat well, on a budget. It ultimately takes some creativity, foot-work, and time.

  5. Great post. Thank you for the link to the pink slime article! I was happy to see Kroger on the list of no-slime stores — that’s where I do most of my shopping. Great info.

  6. Christina says:

    I really enjoy your Grocery Geek posts. Thank you for taking the time to do these. I am trying to feed my family more natural foods. We have 5 children aged 7 to almost 16. We still have our house to pay off, but other than that, we are debt free. I have recently increased our food budget to $700/month. I am buying more organics and thanks to these posts, I have an idea of what prices I should look for. Granted, I know things are different considering I am in NE Tennessee. This week I signed up for a share in a local CSA. I am so excited about it. CSA’s around here run from May/June to October. The one I joined is 20 weeks. I will be getting a 1 1/9 bushel box of organic produce for $30 a week. So excited! There will be a few items I have never eaten or prepared, but I am looking forward to the challenge. I will buy from the Farmer’s Market (starting in April) until the CSA starts. Now to find a local farmer I can buy a hormone free side of beef from…

  7. We are facing the same issues and making many of the same choices you are. We also rely on Costco for many organic meat and produce items; combined with our participation in the Bountiful Baskets produce co-op we’re able to eat well for a fairly reasonable cost.

    I love the organic ground beef at Costco. It’s slightly annoying that the three-pack totals FOUR pounds, though – our family of three never uses more than a pound at a time. The way Costco has it packaged, I end up re-bagging the beef into four 1 lb. packages. We try not to eat ground beef more than once a week, so this gives us a month’s supply.

    I didn’t realize that Costco’s whole turkey breast was nitrate-free. Do you slice the breast for sandwiches, or use it in other ways? I am curious. I would live to slice it for sandwiches, but we don’t own a meat slicer, so this might be tricky.

    • @Mamie, we have only bought the whole breast twice. It is amazingly good. I slice it by hand. It’s a pain to do, so I need to make hubs the slicing man. We have talked about getting a slicer for a long time; this may push us to that point.

  8. Angela Shrader says:

    I have been in transition of planting a huge garden (last year’s was much smaller). I have my canning jars (400 quarts and 200 pints). We bought a side of beef with our tax refund (it cost us $3.99/lb) it was very well worth it. We had never had “fresh” beef before and it is so very good! Stockpiling is an ongoing process as well. I buy dry beans, flour, cornmeal, sugar in bulk from food distributors that sell to the public. Loving my life!

  9. Jane Cox says:

    I sent an email to Trader Joes about the pink slime and was reassured that NONE of their ground beef products contain the stuff. There 1 pound packs are about the cheapest ground beef I can get here (2.49/lb). I was quite happy with that information!

    • @Jane Cox, thanks for reporting back on that. In-N-Out burger has been the only one I’ve contacted; no pink slime there. You can tell what my priorities are. Hehe.

  10. I save money on groceries a couple ways
    1. I always always buy meat when its at its rock bottom price and stock up the freezer and I’ve started canning meat as well. I also buy grass fed pastured meat as an extra from my CSA group. They sell packages and I usually stock up then. Its not cheap, but its a decent price (lower than Costco or other retailer) and its good beef.
    2. I use coupons mostly on canned or bottled products from the grocery store. Our grocery store doubles 99c & lower coupons, so I can get great deals on that sort of thing. I have stockpiled health & beauty items so I dont really need to buy any for a long time.
    3. I belong to a 10 farmer CSA which has a 20 week offering which equals to $32.5 a week. The price went up this year but I payed for my membership before Christmas so I got it at last years price. 🙂
    BTW, I LOVE parsnips, so I’d be thrilled to find them in my box. 😉
    The CSA also has add ons from an extra winter CSA for 6 weeks or longer if they have produce available, and they also have add ons of extra meats, eggs, honey, breads, cookies, pies, jams & jellies. They also have chickens, ducks, & turkeys in the late summer & fall.
    4. I take advantage of local produce when its in season and at its rock bottom price.
    For example, last fall when the pepper harvest was heavy, I bought huge amounts for little money, and blistered & cleaned the large New Mexican type chilis and froze them. I sliced & diced up both red & green bell peppers & dehydrated them and put them in canning jars. When I want to cook with them, I just grab a handful and toss it in the pot. I also freeze & dehydrate jalapenos and serrano peppers. I still have quite a few winter squash that I bought seriously cheap at a produce market last fall. They stay good for a nice long time in a cool dark location and I payed something like 10 or 20 cents each for Sugar Dumpling, Carnival, Delicata, & Butternut squashes. These are normally like 89-1.29/pound here regularly except a couple weeks in the fall. You’ve got to jump when you see the deals though, because they dont always last. These too can be frozen, canned, or dehydrated.

    I save the most money though by staying out of Costco.. haha.. I love that store & I dream of going in there & buying everything my heart desires, but I did that for a time & wound up with a whole lot of debt. 😉
    These days, I try to go in for the specific items I want and if its just one or two things, I dont get a cart.. that way I can only buy what I can carry. 😉

  11. I buy most of my meat from our local university. It’s a big ag university, so they have their own farms and students butcher the meat.

    I’ve also started making my own ground chuck in my food processor. It’s really easy and makes the best burgers. All you do is take a boneless chuck roast, slice it into 1-inch cubes, and then pulse it in the food processor.

    • @Jen, You wouldn’t by any chance be in the midwest would you? Purdue University is a BIG ag school, but I never thought to see if they raise/sell meat or veggies.

      Thanks for the great idea!

      • @Jen, Purdue does sell student butchered meet to the public. Just google boilermaker butcher block. When I was a student the sold wednesday and friday afternoons in smith hall. The prices and products available varied from week to week, but I enjoyed shopping thier occasionally.

  12. Demetria says:

    One place I usually find insanely cheap prices on hormone-free, antibiotic-free, natural meats is Target. They often are reducing these for quick sale with coupons on the item. Couple that with a sale and I’ve bought high quality chicken fryers for $1.99 (retail $7.99), Laura’s ground beef for $1.99 (retail $4.99), and many other deals like it. I’m able to stop by the Target in my house and I buy and freeze most of these meats or get the crock pot and oven going as soon as I get the chance to get the best use from them. It’s a great way to go as natural as possible with meat at incredible prices. Our family of 5 budget for all groceries including food, toiletries, household, etc. is never more than $350. We did the Dave Ramsey plan and paid off all our debt making these choices, but we don’t have to eat poorly along the way…even though there are super nutritious ways to do beans and rice to reduce expenses as needed. It just depends, I think, on what one’s priorities and time budgets are to pull this off, but no one is forced to eat poorly on any budget.

  13. What is the brand name on the turkey breast? I’m not sure if our Costco will carry the same brand, but I always like hearing brand name recommendations. And, what hormone-free cheese brand is the one you’ve landed on for now? Thanks!

  14. Thanks for this post. We’ve been thinking a lot about this lately…more food for thought!

  15. I enjoyed reading what your family spends its food budget on. I’m still stuck (in some cases) in the conventional price mentality too. We’re in a bit of a unique situation in that we’re able to raise our own steer, goats for diary and hens for eggs. Seems like that would reduce costs, but hay prices have tripled in the 3 years since we got our first goats! We’ve bought a house that has 2 pastures, so hopefully that cost will go away, if not at least down considerably. It’s also cross fenced in such a way as to be able to keep a garden too, w/o wild or domestic critters getting to it. Looking forward to that! All that to say that clean eating is a great goal, IMO and keeping costs under control is too. I shared this post in a forum at CafeMom, hope that’s OK!

    • Absolutely. Thanks! I dream of livestock and garden, but that won’t happen for quite some time. How fun!

  16. I have recently subscribed to Abundant Harvest. They deliver right to my work site so it is super convenient (my day starts at 5 and I often don’t get home from work until 6 or later). We are a family of 5 adults (4 generations) and 1 six month old baby. I’m happy we have organic produce as the baby is starting to eat veggies and fruits and everything tastes so good! I’m interested to know how you cooked your pea tendrils. I’m going to add mine to a stir fry tomorrow. I try to eat things that come as close to it’s natural source as possible. I eat the slow carb way so it has really changed the way I shop and what we eat. I’ve lost over 30 lbs. and feel sooo much better! I’ll have to look for that turkey breast in our Costco (central CA).


  17. Rachael Waller says:

    Just curious where in Minnesota your family is from. I’m originally from eastern North Dakota!

    • Mostly the southern part of the state, between Albert Lea and Winona, though my very disreputable grandfather was from St Cloud. I think he got run out of town. 😉

  18. Karen Bailey says:

    I still can’t believe that you have to look for hormone free cheese, butter and meat products in American. And it amazes me that pink slime is being sold in stores and put in school lunches.

    Coming from someone that doesn’t live in the States I can only say as consumers everyone needs to stand up to the big companies are demand a better quality of food. The stuff that they are selling on your shelves in not accepted in most of the world other than the US. Europe, Australia, NZ and lots of other countries banned hormones etc 15 years ago. Why oh why does the american public have to eat such dangerous food. As for the pink slime, after Jamie Oliver showed the public on his Food Revolution program what was in it, public pressure forced the likes of McDonalds to stop using it in their products. Pink slime has never been used by McDonalds anywhere except the US. Why are american consumers getting fed such a sub-standard quality of food?

  19. Regarding purchase of a side of beef: I don’t know the farm-raised fresh beef situation on California, but there must surely be cattle farmers in your area just as there are in N. Georgia where I live. I purchase a half beef for our freezer each year getting 200-400 lbs. of custom cut and packaged high quality beef for under $2.00/lb. I’m fortunate in that I know both the farmer and the slaughter-house/packer having had their children in school, but the flavor and quality is outstanding. I don’t have to worry about pink slime (at home, anyway), nor do I have to be concerned with what the animal was fed, medicated with, or how the animal lived. I strongly encourage you to investigate resources in your area. We have friends who are producing organic broilers, eggs, cheeses, and hydroponic lettuces and they simply cannot keep up with the demand for their products. We purchase locally grown fresh produce at small weekly farmers markets and freeze for out of season consumption (another use for the freezer you have for your beef). I’m getting very wary of any/all commercially produced food.

    • There aren’t too many cattle ranches as far south as we live (San Diego county), in fact, I’ve only heard of ONE. Still waiting on the details of that. But, there are plenty in Central CA and the Central Coast, though the prices are not as good as yours. We’re looking at grass-fed, but the price is about $7.50/pound. While this is a great price for steaks, it’s not for other cuts. So, I may take the approach of using less at a higher price. Not sure just yet.

  20. Ya know Jessica,
    I’ve been thinking on the “bait and switch” of it all too. I paid $4.65 for three (3) chicken thighs from Abundant Harvest Organics. Maybe it’s just my crazy thinking, but I was expecting it to taste “different” from traditional chicken I buy elsewhere. Like with organic apples and oranges, I taste a differnce. So I guess I was expecting a difference in taste with chicken too, but didn’t. I’m a little worried about that and am debating paying $8.65 for 2 – 3 chicken breasts or continuing with traditional chicken. I figure, if I can’t “taste” the difference why pay more? Especially since Zaycon Foods is offering chicken at $1.89 per pound- cheaper than sales I ever see in my town.

  21. This is inspirational!
    We got married just over a year ago and were on quite a tight budget initially, so food costs won over quality foods! Now we have a good deal more breathing room in the budget, and I feel like we need to revamp the grocery buying. This is totally inspiring to get healthier, fresher foods in our home!

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