Friday, June 1, 2012

Monthly Food Budget

(This is copied over from my Wisdom Nutrition blog)

The food budget is always a work in progress in my house. Eating mostly lower-carb and gluten-free whole foods is a challenge even with a liberal food budget but with our lifestyle choices (me being a SAHM) we have a tight budget and I am always working on how to minimize cost without compromising nutrition. Saving up leftover money from our budget allows us some luxuries like stocking up on some items at Costco.

We keep cutting back our food budget by finding new strategies and I was curious to see a national average. I wanted to see how we were doing. I came across the USDA Food Plans Average Cost of Food at Home which is updated monthly. It is fascinating how they break it down by different "plans". Even with our food restrictions we are still in the "thrifty" range so I'm patting myself on the back right now.

Here are some ways we cut back: (Please note this is only regarding food purchased to be prepared at home. The first thing you should cut back if you need to cut your food budget is eating out.)

Buying a Chest Freezer: This is a worthy investment. Don't buy all those bulk foods if you don't have a place to store them. How are you going to buy half a cow if you don't have a place to store it? How are you going to stock up when there is a great deal on anything that can be frozen if you don't have a place to put it? Of course, then you have to Cook out of the Freezer.

Getting smart about wholesale purchases: Costco (or whatever wholesale store you shop) is great but you go in there and drop $100 without even filling up your cart. That is not a problem unless you are buying empty calories, things that spoil quickly or things you wouldn't normally buy. Things I never buy at Costco: things I wouldn't buy a lot of if they came in a smaller package, produce, cookies, candies, empty calorie snack foods (I make an exception for whole-grain snacks for my daughter like Annie's snack variety pack), things I don't go through a lot of (examples: spices, or ingredients I only use for that one dish I make twice a year, etc.) Great things to buy at Costco: highly nutritious foods that have long shelf-lives or can be frozen (if you have the freezer space), and things you know you will use a lot of. Compare prices for everything, just because it is at Costco, doesn't mean you can't find it cheaper per unit somewhere else. Always go with a list!

Make the most of bulk foods: Maybe I'm spoiled but my local grocery store recently remodeled and expanded their bulk foods section. Herbs and spices are more fresh and SOOOOOO much cheaper in bulk. Just reuse the shaker bottles you already have, or find some glass jars at a yard sale or thrift store. I have been using mason jars to store things more and more. Compare prices because often staples like rice, pasta, flour, sugar, salt, etc are ALL cheaper in bulk.

Buy Local: Local beef, local eggs, local produce. Often cheaper than the free-range store-bought and more nutritionally packed too. Produce is especially fresh if purchased from a CSA or U-Pick farm. As I already mentioned beef, if bought as a portion of a whole cow usually comes at a fraction of the cost that you would pay if you bought some of the cuts you get individually. Check Local Harvest for one near you. Here in Oregon we don't get much local produce until June and it sometimes lasts through October, but get it while you can. We do a lot of freezing of our favorites like blueberries and peaches. I plan to do more canning this year, but mostly tomatoes as I am trying to get away from using store-bought canned tomatoes because of concerns with BHT in the packaging. Special note about eggs: for the price, it is more important that you know where they are coming from and that the animals are healthy than getting the best "deal" so ask the farmer what they feed the hens and check out their living space.

Price Foods Online: Some examples of high-nutrition-content foods I have found much cheaper online (often free shipping with minimum purchase) are: Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, Unsweetened Grated Coconut, Sesame Seed Butter, Extremely Fresh and Organic Herbal Teas (high mineral content), and non-denatured whey protein powder (we get Nectar brand.) Some people don't look online just because they expect to have to pay shipping. If there is a shipping cost, just factor it into your comparison calculation.

Read Labels and Try the Generic: Sometimes you will find that the generic or store brand has the same or better ingredients than the name brand. I actually prefer the generic versions of some items. Try new things. Did you know that credit card companies contract with Mattel to get their logos on their toys because studies show we are THAT loyal to brands that if we are exposed to them often as children we are more likely to stick to that brand as we get older. Think about that one...

Coupons: I had to throw this in even though I'm no expert. Some people can get into this and save a ton of money. If you have a good resource for this, please feel free to leave it in the comments. The grocery store we use has the cheapest prices of all of the other stores by far but they don't accept coupons so I don't use them often. I personally find that where I live it is not worth my time and gas money to go to all of the different stores to save just a few cents, but other cities might be different. I also have a hard time finding coupons for the things I buy since I don't buy a lot of prepackaged or name brand foods.

Meal Planning: I don't know how much money I save meal planning, as this was just one of many things I did to cut back our food budget. The fewer trips to the grocery store might  count for something. This frugal mom did find that she cut back significantly by meal planning for her large family. Meal planning helped me more with my stress level and organization than anything, but it also helped me to get more into a rhythm of using what I had first instead of just stocking up on foods I liked to cook with and getting creative when it was time to cook dinner (which I admit has been my strategy until more recently). Even if you can't stick to it from week to week, try meal planning as a way to reorganize yourself mentally. I try to plan Lunch and Dinner every day and breakfasts/brunches on weekends.

Planned-Overs: My mother-in-law taught me this term and I liked it. Instead of making a large pan of enchiladas, split it up into different pans for each meal you plan to serve, so there is only enough for each person to have their appropriately size serving. If I make a big pan, my dear husband (who LOVES enchiladas, his mom said that she never could make ENOUGH enchiladas when all the kids were at home) will eat much more than he should just because they taste good but then I don't have enough for another meal, so essentially messing with my plan. If I make two pans and I say "this one is for Friday", or BETTER YET! not even cook the second one and just freeze it ready to go in the oven then I have enough for two meals. Some people have different names for this and some working moms prep all of their dinners the weekend before. I have never been able to make that work, but when I do get inspired to make something, it only takes a little more time to make a second or third batch, saving me much more time later.

Children: Little ones are great at self-regulating so it can be frustrating when some days they eat twice as much as you do and other days they merely nibble. I don't believe in rationing food for children but do BEGIN with smaller portions so there is less waste. This also helps them to eat a balanced meal. 1 tablespoon per year of their age for each food group (protein, grain, vegetable, fruit or second vegetable) plus milk. Tell them they at least have to try some of the other food groups before they get more of their preferred food. This encourages them to try a variety and allows you to give them more as needed without having to throw away a large portion. I will reheat food once, same day only. Of course, make sure that uneaten food is not left out for long periods of time and follow food handling safety precautions. Err on the side of caution: when in doubt, throw it out!

Pregnancy, Breastfeeding and Children under 5: If you are struggling with your food budget, do see if you qualify for food assistance like WIC. They have a lot of great nutrition resources and education for young families as well as financial support for putting food on the table. They provide food assistance for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and any children up to the age of 5 if the family meets the income restrictions. Their Farm Direct program even allows beneficiaries to purchase locally grown vegetables and fruit directly from farms or farmer's markets that participate in the program. Their food choices have expanded recently to allow for gluten-free and dairy-free substitutions.

Do you have any strategies not listed here? How do these strategies work for you? 

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