Sophia has gotten into a habit lately where she likes to ask where everything comes from and who bought/brought it for her. We take it all in stride and reply honestly such as this book was a gift from your cousins and Grammie brought this one. This leads into a conversation about money and we tell her that things cost money and Mama and Papa go to work to earn money so that we can buy her toys/snacks, etc.
Having such deep conversations about money inspired a bit of a personal challenge for me. I wanted to see if I could reduce my grocery bill by 30% with complete transparency to the rest of the family. I am happy to report that after three weeks, I have successfully conquered the challenge.
Before I tell you my new mode of [shopping & menu planning] operation, I’d like to say that I am a believer in shopping organic, seasonal, wholesome (whole fat, whole grain) products. I usually do not mind spending a bit extra on groceries because we rarely go out to eat; I have found that a single meal out for a family of 3-4 will cost the equivalent of 2-3 days worth of groceries if not more. And while I believe in seasonality, I do make exceptions where berries are concerned because they are fiber packed and are easy to for Sophia to eat them. I also do not clip coupons or shop at more than one store. In fact, I shop at the same store every week and try to make one big and one small, mid-week trip to stock up on fresh bread and the likes. I am sure that cutting coupons would add to the savings as would looking at store sales, but since I have to pay the nanny 1.5x pay for anything over 40 hrs/week, the added cost of childcare instantly eclipses any store savings.
Having stated all the disclaimers, I have achieved a steady 30% reduction in grocery costs by cooking dishes that are easy to make in large quantities (e.g., chili, chicken tikka masala, lasagna) and focusing on low-cost, low environmental impact non-vegetarian-based proteins (chicken, pork, seasonal fish).
Lets take fish for example — mackerel is a great fish not only because its very nutritious, but also because it is much more affordable than other more famous fishes like chilean sea bass, salmon and the likes. Mackerel and sardines are “in season” now and are also easy to make and easy to eat. We stew the former in miso and eat room temperature over steamed rice and the latter is best grilled or seared in a pan. These fishes are eaten with miso soup, rice and a tea in Japan as breakfast by the way. We can learn something from the Japanese because they have a higher life expectancy and a negligible obesity rate (at least compared to that in the United States).
I understand that oily and fishy fish may not be everyone’s cup of tea so here are some thoughts on chicken, beef and pork. I like to get a whole chicken and dispatch at home. By the pound, they are cheaper and you can see the whole bird when you buy it. I also prefer dark meat that is not just more flavorful but also more reasonably priced. Pork is the other white meat and much cheaper than beef. When treated with care, pork can be moist and flavorful and give a bit of respite to our usual chicken rut. A roasted pork loin (not tenderloin) can last a few meals and is very easy to make.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like there is only so much meat you can eat before you crave veggies, pasta, dairy and the likes. Additionally, despite what Atkins and other high protein diets will tell you, you do not need to eat meat or protein at every single meal unless you are an athlete and engage in strenuous workouts regularly. Sometimes, a pasta meal can be satisfying, delicious, low cost and even nutritious when paired with some veggies and cheese (cheese is a source of protein, too). This is where vegetarian lasagna, manicotti, and even simple pasta with homemade tomato sauce can further break up the monotony of meals.
Last, not least and perhaps most importantly here are the types of things I avoid purchasing which would quickly add to my grocery bill: cereals with the exception of good old Cheerios, chips & anything sweet. The only canned good we purchase are tomatoes to make homemade marinara sauce, beans for chilies and soups & low-sodium chicken broth. We are not chip eaters or soda drinkers and in fact, I don’t remember the last time I’ve tasted a potato chip — it has been at least 5 years. As for desserts, store-made desserts are laden in sugar, fat and all sorts of preservatives. They are not that good and usually, not good for you. I bake regularly and we indulge in those concoctions which have been well received by the youngest and most senior sweet tooths/teeth. And when there are no desserts, we turn to dried fruits & nuts with dates, turkish apricots and raisins being among our favorites.
So that’s how we shop, eat and have conquered this personal challenge. I didn’t set or conquer it because I had a particular need but rather because I wanted to prove to myself that I can still offer delicious and nutritious meals to my family on a reduced budget. I urge everyone to look at their own shopping and cooking habits and see if they can make changes that lead to a healthier and more affordable menus. We should all be grateful for the abundance of food at our local grocery store knowing that there are millions if not billions who are malnourished in the world. Waste not, want not.