Budget (and Eco-)conscious Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping | photo: BotMultichillT

Several times in the recent past when I've given a lecture to a parent group or other organization one of the questions I've been asked is about grocery spending.  Many people are noticing that their grocery bills are going up but the packages are shrinking, as reported in a March 28, 2011 column in the New York Times.

As they look harder at their grocery bills people also question how much they are spending overall.  Wondering what other folks are spending.  Several have told me they are curious but afraid to ask, it seems rather personal and it may not be an apples-to-apples comparison.  After all the chances of two families buying everything the same is pretty minimal.

There is one resource that you can use to help you determine your food budget.  The USDA publishes a Food Plan document which they claim represents categories that people can use to see if they spend in various categories (Thrifty, Low-Cost, Moderate, or Liberal).  The link is to the last available publication as of the time of this writing, February 2011.  Our household consists of two adults, one teenager, two dogs and a cat.  I do include the animals because I buy food for them, even though I know this is not factored into the USDA document.  Our family currently spends in the Low-Cost category.  I'm comfortable with that for a few reasons.  Obviously the aforementioned animals, but also because we choose to spend some of our food dollars on certain organic foods.

Now I understand that not everyone can afford to purchase organic.  I don't know anyone who can afford to purchase 100% organic.  That being said, you can learn where to get the biggest bang for your buck.  The choices that you make are up to you so you need to define what works for you and your family.  One thing I have noticed over time is that certain organic foodstuffs are coming out in storebrands and the prices are dropping.  I call this voting with my wallet.

If enough people are willing to support these foods, producers will take notice.  When it hits the storebranding you know you've made an impact because grocery stores do not spend massive advertising dollars to convince folks to buy something, they let the big guns do that and they come in when they see it's something people want.  It happens all the time, and not just with food.  Look at what has happened to the cost of iPhones.  The first ones were extremely expensive.  Enough people bought them that in just a few months the price was slashed 50%.  The law of supply and demand.  We can effect the same change in our food.  If we choose to purchase foods without artificial ingredients or that are not GMO (and organic is the only way to tell at this point for some foods).  If enough of us do this it sends a message.

Okay, off the soap box and back to the post.  In the interest of helping folks save some money at the grocery store I'd like to offer my

Five Top Tips for Budget (and eco-)Conscious Shopping:

1.  If you're going to buy organic fruits and vegetables buy the ones that really matter.  The Environmental Working Group has put together a Shoppers Guide to Pesticides wallet card that lists the Dirty Dozen; those twelve fruits and vegetables that are most likely to be contaminated by pesticides.  They even have an iPhone app if you'd rather have it with you at all times.  The card also lists something called the Clean Fifteen; those foods that are least likely to be contaminated by pesticides.  So save your money by not purchasing those organic bananas and buy organic strawberries instead.

2.  Buy more whole foods.  Yes those organic apples may seem more expensive.  But how much is that applesauce?  And how much more applesauce can you eat than whole apples?  Orange juice?  Did you know that there is an average of four oranges in one eight ounce glass of juice?  That glass goes down pretty easy but I think most people won't sit there and eat four oranges in one sitting.  On average the more whole foods you buy the more nutrient dense your dietary intake.  Overall this should equate to less money spent at the grocery store.

3.  I truly deeply believe that organic dairy is the way to go.  It has no added hormones, no antibiotics, and the cows are not fed pesticide-laden grain.  What goes into that cow goes into it's milk so it makes sense to not drink or eat those products by choosing organic dairy.  Having said that, it's not always easy to find or afford 100% organic dairy products, I truly understand that.  If you cannot add organic dairy to your budget it is important that you at least purchase products that are free of rBGH.  This hormone was created to make cows give more milk.  But it doesn't go away just because the cow has been milked.  So we consume it right along with the cheese or yogurt or whatever dairy product we are eating.  You can download a free RGBH Free Dairy list for your state from Sustainable Table.

4.  Eat less meat.  Somehow we have become convinced that we NEED meat and we have to serve it at almost every meal.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Most Americans eat far too much meat.  We could stand to eat more beans and other legumes.  A great source of protein with less environmental impact and far less expensive.  A package of lentils costs less than a dollar at my local grocery store and makes five cups cooked.  That's a LOT of lentils and a lot of protein.

5.  Waste less.  This is probably the biggest money saver out there.  Stop for a moment and think about how much food you may have thrown out in the last week, two weeks, a month?  That's all food that you paid for.  You probably even cooked it, increasing it's value more as you spent time and energy to create the dish which rotted in the back of the fridge before being sent to the landfill.  Jonathan Bloom has an excellent website about the topic of wasting less food and that's his book on the left there.

The premise is simple.  Buy less and you're likely to waste less.  Or at least buy less perishables.  And plan.  Plan not only what you are going to eat but what you might do with the leftovers.  I wrote about this over a year ago in my post on Sequential Eating.  By making a plan it does help to avoid waste which in turn helps to reduce your grocery budget.

If you have the space in your yard and you do wind up with some vegetable waste you can at least compost it.  This way it gets turned into good usable dirt that you can put into your garden.

It's important to remember that if you are making changes to your eating habits and to your grocery budget to make these changes gradually.  Change doesn't happen overnight.  In order to be successful at these changes make one at a time.  Once you've mastered one change you can make another and continue to improve your grocery habit (and spend more wisely).

About Mira

Mira Dessy is The Ingredient Guru. A holistic nutrition professional, author, and a popular public speaker, she knows that it's not just what you eat, but what's in what you eat. She is the author of The Pantry Principle: how to read the label and understand what’s really in their food. Dessy is a Board Certified Holistic Health Practitioner whose mission is to educate and empower consumers. She curates the Lean Clean Green Subscription box, the premier, organic, earth-friendly, healthy, sustainable subscription box which can be found online at https://theingredientguru.memberbox.com