I hate shopping. No, really. I hate it. I am not one of those women who looks forward to payday so that she can go out and get new clothes or shoes. The love of shopping should be in my blood. My grandmother loved shopping – food shopping. And when I lived in a dorm she used to bring me all of the cool new products off the food shelves because although she loved to buy it, she never ate it.
But I hate it. And out of that extreme distaste for shopping came a rather strange love – for the supermarket or even, dare I say, the Super Wal-Mart. Yes, I admit it. Because I so hate to shop, being able to go to a store where I could get everything my family of then six people could possibly need in a week – or sometimes even a month – was extremely alluring. At a Super Wal-Mart we could get all of our “food,” plus our paper products and even soccer cleats – and a new cup for one of the boys if we needed to. Husband needs a new battery for the car? No worries, just send the oldest to the back of the store while I continue to shop in produce.
I wish I could say that I came to an epiphany of some sort and stopped shopping that way because I am so strong. But the truth is, I stopped shopping that way because I moved back to my hometown in Vermont and there isn’t a Super Wal-Mart in the entire state. And the nearest supermarket is 30 miles away. My epiphany came when the local farmer’s market came to town each week during the summer. So happy was I that I didn’t have to drive 30 minutes away for fresh produce (at $3 a gallon in my 1992 Suburban), that I happily purchased a week’s worth of food right there on the common.
My kids were a little skeptical and my husband was certain I blew the weekly budget on “fruit and nuts” but after several quite excellent dinners and the constant distraction of the Boston Red Sox – I was left to my own devices without complaint.
The first problem I had was with my preconceived notions of organic food. I am no hippie. Yes, I like my trees, but I also like a medium rare steak on occasion and have always preferred my Corn Pops to granola. I do drive a Volvo now, but only because it has seven seats and costs way less than the Suburban to drive. We are also not rich – and for some reason, eating organic, all-natural foods has become associated with the “rich.” In fact, I know a couple who throws parties and when trying to impress the rest of us, brings out the “expensive” locally-cultivated salsa or cultured butter.
Let me just state right up front that as a writer and the mother of five – I am the queen of frugal. We often have to make due on less than $30,000 a year – and sometimes less than $20,000. I have had months where my food budget was as much as $1,000 – and am appalled that I let things go that far. We are way under that now, between $300 and $500 a month – depending on the month and what our needs are.
Without having major stores right around the corner, I have had to rediscover shopping. My husband often regales me of tales of his time living in Ireland when he had to visit several small stores to complete his food shopping. Riding his bike, he visited the butcher, the produce market and a general store that provided various sundries. Sometimes these stores delivered. We are not quite so lucky here in the states to have such stores, but I have found a variety of ways to eat organically on the cheap.
First, you have to dispel yourself of the notion that eating healthy food is more expensive or requires a lot of cooking. And second, you have to stop letting the children dictate what goes in the pantry. Yes, my children would think I was a goddess if I let them have gummy, sugary, cartoon-character “fruit snacks,” but I don’t care. They alternately think I’m goddess and hate me on any given day anyway, so I’ve decided that I’m in charge of what goes into their bodies and they’ll just have to live with it. And you know what? They do. They might roll their eyes (my 13-year-old daughter is especially good at this) that there are no pre-fab “granola” bars in the pantry, but she gives me just as big a hug when I put mangoes in the fruit basket. Relying on the approval of children is a silly way to shop.
Children will never, ever choose an apple or a yogurt after school if there are chocolate chip cookies or Ring Dings or “Easy Mac” in the house. But they will choose an apple, orange or organic granola bar if that’s all there is.
I also stopped, in an effort to save both money and the health of my family, buying “snack cakes” and other desserts. Now, if we are going to have a sugary treat after dinner – I either make it from scratch, or buy just enough for that evening. It has reduced the amount of money spent on such items greatly in our house, and keeps kids from snagging the two left in the box after school or stashing them in their backpacks for during the school day.
Part of the reason I hated shopping so much, I realized, was because I would go the big store once every couple of weeks and spend something obscene like $500, have ten or fifteen bags to lug into the house and unpack and then have children complain three days later that there was nothing to eat in the house. No more!
My new policy is to visit the food co-op or a local farmer’s market once – sometimes twice a week and buy two or three bags worth of stuff at a time. This keeps my out of pocket expenditures to somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 at a time. And then, for paper products and other sundry items – like those organic granola bars, I started doing something really crazy – I started buying them online. Now, the UPS guy delivers a couple of boxes to my door twice a month. This does three things – it keeps me from spending money on gas to get to the store; it keeps me to a list – instead of tempting me into things I really don’t need; and it allows me to shop slowly, examining labels so I know exactly what I’m getting – and my feet don’t hurt when I do it!
I also buy foods in bulk with a local cooperative, so I can get big sacks of whole grain flours and oats. I like to bake, so this is a great deal for me.
1. Shop Farmer’s Markets: They only last from spring to fall in most places, but you will find great growers who can maybe provide you privately with some foods throughout the year – particularly eggs, cheeses, preserved foods and root vegetables.
2. Join a Co-op. Many food co-ops will give you a discount just for being a member, and some will even allow you to exchange volunteer work for credit at the store or for your membership fees. Years ago, I worked at a small co-op so that I could afford one of the first organic baby foods.
3. Go CSA. Community Supported Agriculture is a great way to go if you have the money, but not the time to garden. Farmers in your area will, for a fee usually around $300 at the start of the growing season, provide you with one or two bags of in-season produce each week for 24 or 26 weeks depending on your area. Just remember, though, that this is homegrown produce – your tomatoes might be split occasionally and your peppers might have a funky curl on the end, but they will taste much better than anything you could get at your local supermarket and you’ll be helping support family farms. If you don’t have the money for this option – some will also let you exchange time in the garden for produce in a bag. Don’t be afraid to ask. Many small farmers are happy for the extra help in the middle of a weedy season!
4. Buy in Bulk. I know, I know, everyone says this, but it’s so true. Head straight for the containers of dried herbs, spices, oats, beans – you name it. I started keeping my dry goods in rectangular Rubbermaid containers so that I could stack them in the pantry. I used to think the buy in bulk idea was a bit of a scam until I bought several jars worth of spices at a fraction of the cost of the tiny jars they sell at the supermarket. We also have “Iron Chef” nights at my house where we try and figure out what to make on what we have in the pantry – we get lots of interesting dinners that way!
5. Buy in season in large amounts. But this doesn’t have to mean you’ll spend lots of hours over a hot canner. I am the queen of the Cuisinart and the freezer. I slice, dice, puree – you name it – in the food processor and then store the proceeds in gallon-size Zip-lock bags and freeze them. Consequently, I have julienned green beans fresh off the farm in January!
6. Plant a garden. But the weeding, you say. I know – I hate that part too. So I don’t weed often. I mulch a lot. I’m a lazy gardener. And even in those years – and there are many – when I’ve spent no time in the garden except to plant, I’m still surprised by the abundance. And my younger children don’t mind helping to pick – it’s like a scavenger hunt between the weeds!
7. Be flexible. Again, don’t let the kids dictate what’s in the fridge. Buy what’s on sale and do something with it. Buy what’s in season. Buy what’s cheap. If avocados are on sale – buy more than two and make up enough guacamole to serve at your holiday party. All you have to do is mush it up and freeze it and when you’re watching the Super Bowl with your friends, oh, you have fresh guacamole to go with those (organic) chips!
8. Go slow. If you’re afraid your family will think your crazy, buy a few things that are organic at a time. I started purchasing organic cereals (on sale) and all of a sudden Cocoa Puffs have no meaning in my house.
9. Cook more. It’s so easy to just stop at a restaurant on the way home from soccer, I know, but I’ve learned to become friendly with my crock pot and it’s just as easy for me to make two lasagnas at one time – one for tonight and one for the freezer. Changing how you look at food goes a long way to changing your habits. Have fun with food. Subscribe to (or go to the library and get) a couple of food-related magazines that have great recipes and you’ll start experimenting more.
10. Shop online. The kids think this is really cool because they love to get stuff in the mail. Even Amazon.com is now offering organic foods online. Throw a couple of boxes of Kashi granola bars in with your son’s next order of CD’s (bought with a gift certificate, of course) and I guarantee he’ll eat them!