A Reader Asks for Help

I recently received the following comment from a distraught and discouraged reader, and it simply cries out for the collective wisdom of Casual Kitchen's readers. Read on, and share your thoughts:
I'm responding to your post about the costs of "junk" and healthy food. Unfortunately, I've found that boxed mac and cheese sells for about 49 cents in my area, but each time I buy HEALTHY food, i.e. lean meats, fresh fruit, whole grain breads, etc. I can't get out of the store without spending at least $80. However, if I were to buy a few packages of boxed mac and cheese, some instant (boxed) potatoes, Hamburger Helper boxes, etc. - i.e. foods that are found on the shelves of the dollar thrift store, where many poverty stricken people shop, I could easily get out of there spending less than $20.

Even when I use coupons and shop the sale aisles at my local grocery store, I STILL can't get away with spending any less than $80 - $100 each time I shop for groceries. I've noticed that the HEALTHIER the foods I buy, the MORE expensive my food bill is.

And unfortunately, I DO know people who have a lot of money, and these folks toss money around like it's confetti. I happen to know a woman who spent several THOUSAND on a three year old's birthday party! It was ridiculous what she spent on the cake, alone, not to mention all the side dishes that the children couldn't have cared less about. Most of the food went uneatean at the end of the party, but it was "only money" so why should SHE care?

I wish this were not the case. People living in poverty are lucky to be able to buy a small birthday cake for their children, so it burns me up to see people go to such extremes in an attempt to impress somebody.

I'm so sorry to sound so negative, but unfortunately I've witnessed these things, and really wish I had NOT.


Now, Casual Kitchen readers are some of the best experts out there on beating grocery stores and the food industry at their own game. What advice would you give Julianne?

Related Posts:
How to Get the Benefits of Organic Foods Without Paying Through the Nose
Dumb and Dumber: The Flaws of Measuring Food Costs Using Cost Per Nutrient and Cost Per Calorie
Let That Other Guy Pay! Saving Money in Two-Sided Markets
Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food

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amybeth said...

i would suggest going for the less trendy/easy healthy foods and buying in bulk. Lentils, dried beans, whole grain flour to make your own bread, rice in bulk, frozen fruits and vegetables (which can be fresher than the "fresh produce" that sits for days and weeks)... also serving no-meat or low-meats meals which will make the lean meet last longer. Do you stock up and freeze meat when its a loss-leader? For instance, the cheapest boneless skinless chicken breast gets around here is 1.88 lb. So I always buy a ton when it's that price. But you can get whole chickens even cheaper (and a little dark meat here and there doesn't hurt like years of hydrogenated oils in prepackaged foods would.)

Nil Desperum! you can be thrifty and healthy! And healthy bodies cost a lot less to maintain.

But don't feel guilty about the occasional box of mac and cheese. You're family will live through it. ;-)

amybeth said...

ps. my blog has a few vegetarian meal ideas, not all super healthy but its a start.


Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

Well, you are going to have to cook a bit. Think of healthier substitutions. At most general grocery stores, a box of whole wheat pasta is around $1 for 13-14 oz. A box of regular mac n cheese is 6 oz. You can make stovetop mac n cheese using a handful of sharp cheddar ($2 for 8 oz.) and a splash of milk.

I have a whole series I did on my blog called the Food Stamp Challenge - feeding my family for less than $2 per person per day. I tried to stay away from processed food - my son can't have food dyes or MSG so canned soups, Mac n Cheese, etc. were out. I have 40 weeks of grocery trips and menus blogged.

I also have a recipe for homemade hamburger helper - it's actually cheaper just to buy a bag of egg noodles and add in your own "fix-ins".

Try replacing meat, some or all, with beans in recipes. White beans work well in chicken recipes, black or pintos in beef recipes, and I use lentils and rice as a substitute for ground beef. Here's a recipe:

Lentils and rice also makes a tasty sloppy joe!

Also, do the math. A whole chicken might cost $3.50 (if you buy conventional poultry) but it's at least 10 servings of food, easy. You can cook the chicken, pick the meat and freeze it for later - chicken tacos, enchiladas, chicken salad, stir fry, etc. So really it's 35 cents per serving - and that's not counting if you use the carcass to make your own broth (another cost savings, homemade soup is so cheap and so much healthier than MSG/sodium filled canned soups.)

I also have another post on how to save on produce:

and another one on how to make dried beans, and how to make them convenient.

Harness the power of the internet. Check out frugal blogs, vegetarian blogs, health food bloggers and see how they shop and put meals together.

Good luck!

Julia said...

I certainly feel your frustration too! The challenge is that processed foods are artificially cheap -- i.e. the gov't pays for farm-subsides that make a lot of the "inputs" less expensive than the organic counterpart. With organic/all natural, you are paying the total cost at the grocery store, whereas the commercial processed products you pay partially at the store and partially in your taxes. So until the subsidy bill is revamped....

In the meantime, Amybeth and Milehimama have it right -- you'll need to cook more from scratch and rely less on convenience products.

Another thing to consider -- Operation Frontline offers free 6-week cooking classes for eating healthy on a budget. And each week, you get a bag of groceries to try out the recipes prepared in class. Check out their website to see if they offer classes in your area. http://operationfrontline.org/

Amber said...

I've also noticed that it is possible to get *very* good deals on a lot of *very* unhealthy foods. At first it was hard to resist but after eating that stuff for a while, it was very easy not to buy it - it *tastes* bad for you.

Here's how I keep down my grocery bill:
-We eat very little meat. If you serve appropriate portions (which are much smaller than almost everyone is eating), the meat will go a lot farther
-We eat lots of rice and beans, as others have said. Cook dry beans instead of canned - cuts down on chemicals and is cheaper. If you don't have stock, just use water to cook them. It will taste better than super-salty "broth" from the store (plus, it's almost-free).
-Buy veggies that are on sale and *don't* buy the veggies that aren't. This is likely to lead to seasonal eating, which is healthier and cheaper. This was a big shift for me. I always served tacos with chopped up tomato but tomatoes are not in season all year. Now I serve tacos with whatever *is* around - squash in the winter, for instance.
-In the same vein, don't stick to recipes, especially those calling for produce from different seasons! If a recipe calls for spinach (Spring) AND butternut squash (Fall/winter), make something else. Eliminate, substitute, etc.
-Look for bags of marked-down produce and consume them quickly.
-Shop at an "ethnic" market. In my town, the Chinese grocery has a lot of produce that I don't recognize but it also has produce that I do recognize - at a huge discount compared with my normal grocery store. If you experiment with the other stuff there, you'll likely find other bargains that taste great and are good for you too.
-I'll second frozen veggies/fruits. I can frequently find these for free with sale + coupon and stock up for leaner veggie times.
-Make your own bread. If you're not a big baker, I'm sure you can find a used bread machine for under $10 at a garage sale or thrift store. This will pay for itself in about 3 loaves. Flour is CHEAP (try Costco to cut even more, especially for yeast). Plus, you know exactly what's going into your bread and it's nothing but goodness!
-Stock up on things you can freeze when they go on sale. Butter is the major score here - when it's under $1.50/package, I fill up my freezer.

Also, the reader really needs to stop comparing her family to wealthier families in the area. Everyone makes do with what they have and some people just have more. She'll only make herself sick worrying about what other people are doing with their money. Plus, the best birthday cakes are homemade anyway (and a lot cheaper and tastier than Betty Crocker). Frosting is just butter and sugar...

chacha1 said...

Has the LW tried a slow cooker? You can get the cheapest cuts of meat to deliver a very tasty meal or four. I only have two adults to feed so a 4-lb slab of chuck lasted a week.

I am wondering if she actually does know how to cook?? And how many people she is feeding for that $80? Is she buying canned or bottled beverages in addition to all the boxed factory food? A copy of a typical receipt would be enlightening.

I mean, I routinely spend $80 at the grocer myself, but I buy expensive stuff since (counting my blessings) food is not an area we have to strictly budget.

Finally, I agree with Amber that comparisons are odious.

Joanne said...

I agree with what everyone here is saying. Beans, rice, and pasta absolutely get me through, even on NYC prices. A pound of beans that costs around a dollar feeds probably around 12 people, maybe more.

I don't eat very much meat and when I do, it's whatever is on sale.

And while I use coupons, I don't just buy things because I have a coupon for them. There's no point in buying something that you'll never use just because it's on sale!

I also bake all my own bread, which has saved me a TON of money. Now if I could only get myself to make my own peanut butter....

Julia said...

Just came across another blog and book that might help: Poor Girl Gourmet http://poorgirlgourmet.blogspot.com/p/where-to-buy.html

Daniel said...

These are excellent insights and ideas so far. Thank you.

I completely agree that you have to try to ditch the comparisonitis mindset. It's cancerous. Furthermore, most people who compare themselves unfavorably to others have others who compare themselves unfavorably to them. If you wrap your mind around that for a minute or two, it becomes pretty clear how arbitrary and pointless comparisonitis really is.

Honestly, we are all as fortunate as we allow ourselves to think we are.

What other ideas do people have and want to share?


Anonymous said...

Look at the sales ad before you go to the store. Maybe try checking out cheaper stores, usually ethnic stores like asian or latin stores sell cheaper vegetables. Grocery Outlet, Food Maxx, Winsco are some cheaper grocery stores.
After looking at what is on sale and reasonably priced, think about what you need or if it is a really good deal, then make a list of what you want to get.
When you are at the store, keep to what you wrote on the list. It's hard to keep to the list when you see something tempting, but remind yourself what you are actually there for, which is getting what is on your LIST.

Also, maybe you should evaluate what kind of recipes you are making. For the protein in the recipes, usually vegetarian recipes that use a variety type of beans or tofu are less expensive than buying meat. Use less protein in recipes and increase the amount of vegetables. A good amount of protein in one meal should be like a side dish, not the main part of the meal.

Evaluate how much you are eating too. Eating less portions could save you some money and stretch out your food supply.

Think about what you are eating. Breakfast can be inexpensive like oatmeal or cereal. Lunch can be a sandwich stuffed with lots of vegetables. Dinner can be simple like vegetable soup with lentils or
Rice with beans and vegetables

Hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

I have found just the opposite of the commenter. In the past few months I've have extended stay guests at my house and have had to buy food for these people. Not alot of people, just 2 adults at different times. My husband and I eat mostly whole foods that I cook from scratch with 80% being vegetarian. Our guests were "typical" in that they ate all meat and more processed foods. My grocery costs went from about $50-60 a week to over $200! Eating unhealthy is not cheap. Meat is crazy expensive and it seemed the more crap I bought I would have to up the quantity to fill stomachs. For me in my area I find if I stick with foods that don't have an ingredient label, its' pretty cheap. Beans, whole grains, chicken sometimes, fish. Easy peasy. And they don't have labels, the only ingredient in dried beans is beans.

Abbie said...

So many good tips have been shared here. I want to add shopping farmers' markets, "putting food up" by freezing or canning and making your own. Bread has been mentioned. That is a great one. I make my own yogurt by heating organic milk to 180 degrees F, cooling it to 115 F, mixing in some plain yogurt culture (.5 to 1 cup per gallon of milk) and sticking it in an oven for 8 hours with the oven light on. That is all the heat you need in the oven. Then, voila! You have delicious and cheap plain yogurt. This can be used as sour cream, as a butter substitute in baking and as a base for smoothies.

I also buy lots of things when they are on sale and then freeze them. Like peppers or strawberries.

It feels good to eat well. Stick with it and you will feel the benefits.

Laura said...

So many great tips here that I will be checking back on, but I wanted to add that when you first switch over to eating healthier foods, it can be expensive. But as you get a stock of staples on sale (whole wheat pastas, brown rice, beans, etc.), your food bill will go down. We are trying a meatless week this week, which saved us money anyway, but even so, because we already had things on hand for the menus we planned, our total grocery bill for the week was around $65 for four of us, which was spent mainly on fresh fruit and veg and other perishables. Good luck!

Unknown said...

First of all, I'd tell her to ditch the concept that food has to be pre-made, or even pre-cut. I showed a friend when we were at Costco that she could buy a package of pork chops for around $16 (Canadian) but if she bought the entire loin, not only would she save two dollars on the cost of more meat, she could cut it into a couple of roasts, plus have more chops than were in the package. I cut it for her, and yes, the chops were a little smaller than the ones she would have purchased, but there were no bones and because they were smaller, there was no waste, either, as in "this is too big, I can't finish it". Then I'd suggest she check out your "laughably cheap" recipes, and learn to cook delicious meals that will feed her family's souls as well as their bodies. I'd tell her to enlist the help of family members in meal preparation - even quite small children can help set the table, while older teens can even cook entire meals, and are often more thrifty, and nutrition minded than their parents once they start to do so. There are a plethora of food blogs on the net with recipes her family can try - there's no need to rely on packaged mac & cheese and complain that she can't afford better.

A_and_N said...

There are a ton of great comments here.

I must say that our food budget is limited. But we get fresh produce - veggies, fruits, beans, bulgur, different oils, couscous, some herbs and spices ( dry herbs only) for around $40-60 every 3 weeks. All this from the Farmer's Market.

We shop for pasta, flour, tortillas (which are amazing and filling) and frozen foods at Costco and find it totally worthwhile!

We alternate beans cooking with the produce because that way, we actually cover 4 weeks. And we are not scrimping. We are major foodies and bake and eat and entertain a lot.

We are Indians but eat a variety of cuisine and Indian once a week, so I guess we belong to the majority of people eating different foods here.

Janet C. said...

Just in case no one has already mentioned it: consider growing your own....if you have time and land. ALSO, I second the recommendation to seek out ethnic markets. In my town, the Mexican markets have fruits and vegetables at dirt cheap prices...sometimes a half of the price in the supermarket (or even less!), and they are of decent quality.

And do shop the sales, as others have mentioned....

edj3 said...

I keep seeing comments that the farmers markets have such great deals but I have to be honest--ours do not. They are significantly more expensive for produce items than shopping the sales at our grocery stores or going to Costco. That may be due to us living in Boston (IN the city, not a suburb)--and yes, I'm sure the quality is better. But for us for now, cost dictates what we buy.

Stan Hansen said...

Chicago Farmers Market's are also expensive. My advise, avoid purchasing any box that says the word "healthy." It is a marketing tool used by food companies to sell processed food (in general). Frugal advice: Frozen fruit and vegetables can be very cheap, making your own dishes from scratch is usually the most cost effective, think like a restaurant and use cheap filler ingredients (rice, beans, romaine, bread, etc..), all meat is "dirty" unless you buy it directly from a farmer so you might as well buy it on sale.

Diane said...

1. Know your grocery stores. Shop and cook like an immigrant - shop the (cheap!) ethnic markets with lots of turnover. Me, I would never buy eggs at a regular grocery when I know I can get them for $3/flat at one particular local farmer's market. I buy fish at Chinese grocery stores where it is screamingly cheap and very fresh. I buy wine at TJ's. I buy rice at the Indian store in bulk.

2. Menu plan, but take advantage of sales when you find them. I recently found apples for 50 cents a pound and made a whole bunch of applesauce. I bought "going bad" bananas for 0.39 for ten of them and made banana bread. Bought a bunch of chicken thighs when I saw them on sale last month - they are now in the freezer for later use.

3. Explore other cuisines. And break the breakfast bind. I think boxed cereal is the single biggest rip-off ever. I usually have savory food for breakfast - Indian most days. I eat things like: Thai fried rice with chiles and leftover veg/meats, Indian egg curries over rice, Indian kicheree, Italian frittata sandwiches, etc etc. I eat very well for cents each morning, vs. that big, expensive box of boxed cereal. For me, the money I save I use to buy other stuff.

It's hard to figure out work-arounds sometimes, and it can be challenging or frustrating, but it can be done. I spend under $40 a week and eat tons of fresh food and vegies, and I rarely buy processed food. For me $1000 would feed me for 6 months, not one weekend!

Diane said...

Also regarding farmers markets - some are expensive some are not. Sometimes even within one market there are great bargains and total rip-offs. Know what the price points are various places.

Here for instance you can go to the very, VERY pricy (but loads of fun) San Francisco Farmer's Market. Or troop on down to the Civic Center Market or the Oakland Friday market and join the people buying super-cheap, tasty food. Or show up at the end of the day at a market (as I did recently when I met someone for coffee at the SF Farmer's Market 10 minutes before closing) and see what you can bargain for. Many times people will be practically giving things away just not to have to haul it away.

Daniel said...

I have to say I am grateful for all the ideas and solutions here. Thank you. It's wonderful to see so much successful, positive and solution-based thinking.


Lo said...

So much great wisdom on this post already -- but I just wanted to throw in another 2 cents. Because trust me, I can relate. We've lived through two extremely difficult lay-offs in the past five years... and we've learned a great deal about scrimping on our grocery budget (which, for me, is the hardest thing I've ever had to do).

I love to cook, but when it comes to healthy eating and frugality, I think that often we have to opt for nutritional superiority over choice. Bulk beans cooked from scratch may not be a favorite -- but they're a high quality source of protein. Vitamin C rich cabbage that's on sale for $0.25/lb may not be the flavor you're craving on a particular week -- but it's a great source of nutrients.

This post inspires me to think about all the reasons why I'm inspired to support local artisans and food sources... first, right now I can afford to (so that's where I'm putting my money) and second, if more people focused on local consumption, the cost would be dramatically lower. And we'd be able to feed far more people for far less.

Anonymous said...

thank you for all of the very helpful comments. I'm being told by my doctor to INCREASE my meat consumption, especially organ meats because I'm low on iron. I also need to increase raw veggies to increase several vitamins I'm low on. I've lost weight without trying, and the doctor says my diet needs to be improved. I'm anemic, also. I guess I diet too much.

I'll certainly bear some of these things in mind and hopefully start to save money, too.


Oogie McGuire said...

For less expensive on a per serving basis meat contact a local farmer and buy a whole or half animal. You can select how it's packages and it doesn't take much freezer space for smaller animals like sheep, goats and pigs. Look for local farmers at www.localharvest.org

For example, one of our whole sheep will yield about 30-35 pounds of meat. At a cost to you of $10.50/lb. Grass finished and tasty and you can't touch that price at any market.