Grocery Geek: The New Normal?

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As I try to improve the nutritional quality of our diet, I find myself having to play with our grocery budget and find the new normal. This week I went over budget. Oops!

A few years ago, I set out on some baby steps to improve our diet. This was after we paid off our consumer debt, all 18K, and found that we had a little more wiggle room in our budget.

The first thing I endeavored to improve was the sweeteners I used. Over the last couple years, I’ve tried to source sugars that are less processed than regular beet or cane sugar. There are lots of choices in this area, but we landed on maple syrup, honey, and evaporated cane juice (like regular sugar, but less refined, with a light molasses flacor) as the three whose tastes we enjoyed and whose costs we could stomach. I buy my maple syrup and honey at either Costco or Trader Joe’s and order ginormous bags of evaporated cane juice from Azure Standard.

Along with sweeteners, I addressed the fats to use in cooking and baking as well as increasing our whole grains. Regulars on my grocery list are butter, olive oil, coconut oil, rolled oats, brown rice, and quinoa. This list once contained some strangers, and now they are close friends of ours.

Next, I started looking at my dairy labels a little more carefully. I’d always avoided hormones in our milk, but, duh! forgot to check other dairy products, like cheese, butter, or yogurts. Now, thanks to reading The Unhealthy Truth, I read labels and am getting more familiar with the brands and sources that sell hormone-free dairy products.

Next on the list was moving my produce purchases from all conventional to mostly organic. Discovering Abundant Harvest Organics was the only way that I could pull this off without choking on the ticket price. As you know, I’ve learned a ton from getting a produce box every week.

Currently, I’m looking at being more selective in our meat purchases. We grocery geeks have discussed this in-depthly over the past few weeks. I am not sure I can “go organic” with our meats. The price is currently pretty high, but I’m going to keep my eyes open. Never say die. I’m just going to be sure to avoid pink slime.

With these things in mind, I present to you my purchases of the past week. I’m a little nervous to do so.

I went over budget.

Thankfully, I’m able to siphon money from one category to another and save face. But, in the efforts of full disclosure, I say that, yes, I spent a lot this week. But, I had some good reasons.

Here’s how:


On a very rainy day I headed to Vons for chuck roast, chicken, and cheese. All three were on good sales: Tillamook bricks for $6, whole chicken for $0.77/pound, and chuck roast for $2.99/pound.

I couldn’t get the cheddar that I wanted, so the other varieties prompted the other purchases: tortillas, chipotle peppers, enchilada sauce, and some spices (Buy 2, Get 1 Free) for next month’s freezer cooking. I’ll be cooking up several pans of enchiladas during my next cooking session, so I bought ahead.

Total spent: $44.56

Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s tends to be my go-to source for foods that I know don’t have extra “stuff” thrown in as well as the easy breakfast, lunch, and snack items that make the week go more smoothly. I bought bread, milk, eggs, rice cakes, bacon, cheese, yogurt, butter, beans, rice cakes, cereal, pasta, chicken, mushrooms, and some fun food.

Total spent $121.19

Azure Standard

Every few months I place an order with Azure Standard, it’s a health food co-op that sells a huge range of products. Typically, I usually find the best prices for flour and evaporated cane juice there. This month I bought more sweetener (25 pounds!) as well as their organic popcorn.

I also tried out their apples. I wasn’t impressed. They arrived in very poor shape. Won’t be doing that again.

Total spent $48.35

Abundant Harvest Organics

Our produce box from Abundant Harvest contained: apples, avocados, oranges, leeks, cabbage, cilantro, kale, arugula flowers, carrots, sorrel, parsnips, spinach, cauliflower, potatoes, and leeks. Sigh, no pea tendrils. Love those!

Total spent $36.80

So, the week’s purchases totalled a whopping $250.90. This was way more than I had originally intended. And there’s still one week in the month. (We need milk and bread!)

In my defense, several of these items will last well into April and 25 pounds of sugar much longer than that.Β Thankfully, we haven’t eaten out a ton, so it all works out in the end.

I went over my monthly allowance of $800 for this month, but my yearly average is still below that. So, I need to do some reassessing. And we may be eating from the pantry a little more next month. Again, it’s the delicate balance between spending wisely, eating healthfully, and staying sane. Our home is a busy one with 8 people coming and going and 4 ravenous BOYS in the mix. Some days I need something quick and easy like sunbutter sandwiches or boxed cereal.

My plan going forward is to do a lot of baking this weekend, including rolls and artisan bread dough so that I can stay out of the store. I’ll pick up a gallon of milk and the produce box and try to keep us under $900 for the month.

MTD: $846.90 with one week left!

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  1. I usually love Azure Standards apples, but the ones I got this month were just okay and I probably won’t order apples again until fall. I think they are one of those things that are best ordered more in season from Azure, so I try to order apples in the fall and early winter. Same thing with pears and then I get the citrus in the winter from them. So, don’t give up on their apples, try them again next fall. πŸ™‚

  2. Having recently found some good deals on fish and ground beef, my great savings from January’s pantry challenge have been erased and I’m $20 over the budget for year-to-date groceries. Avocados are on sale until Wed, so I might spend just a little bit more. After enjoying fresher foods the last couple weeks, I’m definitely going back to eating from the freezer again next week.

  3. I love this series. I’m in the middle of a similar process and the cost has really been freaking me, the hubs and the checkbook out. I think a lot of it comes from finding our new normal – foods we know we like versus experimenting (which leads to more waste than normal), sourcing the stuff we do like at the least cost, etc. I appreciate your sharing your experience with this similar journey.

  4. Ground beef at Costco last week was 2.99 a lb. they didn’t even have organic out. I buy conventional but sure noticed the price.

    • @Brandy, that’s the regular price at our Costco. Or it’s gone up!

      • @Jessica, It’s been around $4.49/lb for a few months now, which is why I haven’t bought any. Ours was also $2.99/lb last week, and I bought a couple pounds. I really wanted more, but had to counsel myself to use discipline. It might be a great price, but my budget just does not have much wiggle room for overages right now, so I just have to hope there is a decent price again next time. Ours did still have organic available, and I think it was around $6/lb but not sure. I do hormone-free milk products, I get organic produce from the farmers when I can get to their markets, but to eat meat at all, I have to buy conventional. Such is life!

        • @Sandi, I wanted to put in a Costco update. Still no organic ground beef at our location (which is in a very $$$ of Maryland – we drive to go to this location because we prefer it so much over a closer Costco). The organic beef patties (maybe also sirloin, can’t recall) in the freezer section were around 4.20/lb.

          BTW Jessica, chicken shrinkage is usually related to its salt content. Do you remember if it was injected with salt solution?

          I have been watching the ground beef prices for a few months just out of curiosity since the news stories about beef prices going up. It was at 2.59 for quite some time but shot up in the last month. I haven’t bought any this whole time – we actually don’t buy it that frequently!

  5. Oh right they also had organic patties in the freezer section.

  6. Oh, I totally understand the need to eat healthy but also be wise with the budget, too. I still struggle with that…but I think with meat, you really should eat organic, only because you don’t want to consume meat that has been treated with anti-biotics or hormones etc..or pink slime πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ In our family, that’s what we’re doing. The meat is expesive. We usually buy it at Whole Foods, but it’s cheaper at Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s does have whole, organic chickens for just $2.49 a pound…a great deal for organic meat. In my family, we feel that we can’t compromise on the meat. So we make sacrifices in other areas. We don’t eat meat everyday…and there are certain produce items that you can afford to buy “regular” versus “organic” In any case, I’ll be interested to see how things continue here!!!! Love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather πŸ™‚

  7. I can’t get over the price differences from region to region. I pay close to $9 for the same size Tillamook brick, 1.29 lb is a great deal here for chicken, and my last chuck roast 4.99 lb. on sale (just plain old non organic meat!). Up State New York is very high on our groceries it would seem. I don’t even want to ask what your gas prices are though, that might make me cry. We are currently at 4.07 regular unleaded. Major sticker shock from Colorado where we moved here from.

    • @stacey,

      Where in NY are you? I have a good friend in Potsdam and she’s always complaning about the high prices.

      I paid $4.17 for mid-grade gas this past week (in Wisconsin). Made me realize I need to be much more intentional about how much I drive.

      • @BethB, gas is in the mid 4’s here.

      • @BethB, We are central between Albany and Syracuse. We live in a tiny touristy community but I drive about 30 miles to Oneonta to get lower prices (may start rethinking that due to the gas prices). We moved here a year ago from Denver and I just can’t get over the price differences in nearly everything.

    • @stacey, I think that is probably the regular price for Tillamook at the grocery store. This was a special price that I couldn’t really pass up. The cheese keeps, so, no harm, no foul.

  8. @stacey, Yikes! I paid $3.67 a gallon yesterday for reg. unleaded gas here in NH and thought that was bad. I can always find whole chickens at $.89/lb at one of the grocery stores. We buy locally raised meat in the fall at slaughter time. We are in the process of getting ready for goats so that in the future we will have our own fresh raw milk. After reading your comment I realize how blessed I am!

    • @Sue R, I think it’s all in the sourcing. If you can find a good source, you’re in.

    • @Sue R, We were in Vermont yesterday and it was only 3.89 but cross over into Albany/Troy area and it was in the mid 4’s. I think we may have some additional taxes. As far as the Chickens go meat here locally is just high if I go further away if drops dramatically. I have seen it as low as .99 mid summer with a good sale.

      • @stacey, I am seeing a big range depending on how close one is to the coast. By the beach it’s 4.39, farther inland, about 20 miles, I saw it for 4.19.

  9. I’m having a hard time staying within budget lately too. Honestly, I think it’s baking supplies that are pushing the costs higher. Things like coconut oil, coconut flakes, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, etc. really adds up even when you are getting good prices for them. My kids eat SO MUCH. I can’t imagine what it must be like in your household! I definitely need to push popcorn more as an afterschool snack.

    Not sure if it’s the same in the California but this is the time of year my grocery bill climbs a bit. I’m so sick of winter foods and crave lots of fresh fruits and greens. Different kinds of meat as well. So I get tempted to buy expensive things I normally wouldn’t like smoked salmon, shrimp, and lots of frozen fruit for smoothies. Those things are bad enough but I really entered the locavore hall of shame buy purchasing several container of coconut water for dairy free smoothies. They were yummy but not sustainable for the budget. Need to reign in that behavior quick!

  10. I love reading your Grocery Geek posts because it seems like we are both in the same stages of changing our family’s eating habits! I too am now feeding my family 100% organic produce and milk. Organic meat is so expensive that aside from some whole chickens (they really do shrink down a ton!), I haven’t purchased organic meat yet. But, after talking with my hubby, next week is the week that we are going to buy only organic meat. In order to make it work, I’ll make vegetarian meals 3 days a week, seafood 2 days a week, and chicken 2 days a week (we have never eaten red meat so that’s why it’s only chicken).
    It is going to raise our already high grocery budget, but I think it is worth it in the long run. Hopefully it will save on doctors bills in the future.
    Keep up the good work! I love this site and can’t wait for your cookbook to be released. πŸ™‚

  11. I think you’re doing a great job of feeding your family for $800 a month.. I tend to spend a lot sometimes, and not at all other weeks. I didnt buy much of anything in Jan & Feb besides milk & eggs, mostly eating from my freezer and pantry, stocking up on meat when I ran into a great price, and now my freezer is stuffed full again and I’ll probably spend the next couple months eating from it. There are only 3 of us here now & one only eats at home one or two days a week, so its much easier for me these days than when I had 4 hungry teens & all their friends to feed.

  12. breanna b says:

    I never paid attention to what part of the country you’re in, but it just clicked now that you mention trader joes and tillamook cheese in one blog post! you must be somewhere NW πŸ˜‰ I live in the pdx metro area. I’ve been reading for 6 months and it makes me happy to know its been a somewhat local blog this whole time!

  13. Chuck Roast here was $4.69lb yesterday when I went to the store. Needless to say, I skipped it.
    Gas is $3.59 here in the mtns of SC, and I thought that was bad.
    I never thought about hormone free cheese. I will be researching that this week. Thanks for the posts πŸ™‚

  14. Eckert S says:

    You can reduce your dairy budget by making your own cultured dairy products. I have had great success making my own yogurt and kefir. It is super easy and you use the type of milk you are comfortable with. I usedwhole milk and add 1 cup of non instant powdered milk to get a gallon of the thickest creamiest yogurt ever using my crockpot. I use it with fruit, honey, and or granola for breakfast,snacks or dessert. I use homemade yogurt as a substitute for sour cream. I got milk kefir grains from a friend and I’m totally thrilled with the breakfast smoothies I make every morning now. Kefir sells for $4 a quart at my local Whole Foods, but I make it for the cost of milk (and it is easy and fun). I also use kefir as substitute for buttermilk. Next on my list…homemade mozzerella cheese!

  15. I’m not sure if any of you know about Zaycon Foods, but they are now offering their chicken breasts right now. As a person unable to afford ALL ORGANIC meat, I have to continue with conventional and they are selling it for $1.89/lb with 40 lbs in each box. I guess some families purchase a box together and split the cost so the bill doesn’t seem quite so high. $75 for a box of chicken can be difficult to fit into my food budget.

    • @Nia, have you tried it before? I’ve heard of it. But was curious about the quality and taste. Any input?

      (And for the record, I can’t afford ALL ORGANIC meat, either. Unless we don’t eat any. LOL.)

      • @Jessica, No, Haven’t tried the chicken yet. This will be our first order. We did order their ground beef last month and were VERY satisfied. Even though, I’ve since heard there is pink slime in the beef, I don’t regret our purchase. So I’m going to try it out. At best in my opinion, it shouldn’t be different from what I’ve been getting at the grocery store (pre-frozen), except for the lower price.

      • @Jessica, I just purchased my first box of Zaycon chicken (here in West MI the price was $1.69/lb) and we have been very happy with the taste and quality. The breasts were HUGE, at least twice the size of the frozen ones I buy at my local grocery store. They are supposed to be hormone-free, and have only 3% water added to them instead of up to 15% like the frozen breasts.

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