Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pinching Pennies on Produce

aka...keeping your produce bill down.

There is a lot of information out there on how to keep your grocery bill under control:
- buying bulk meats & repackaging (directly from farmer if possible)
- buying bulk grain, grinding your own wheat for bread (if only shipping costs weren't so prohibitive - oh, and there's that time issue too.)

The first recommendation that comes to my mind when people want to cut their grocery bill is simply to "eat less". No really. When you consider the statistics - 2/3 of American adults are overweight or obese - it's a no-brainer that "eat less" would be a good place to start to save money.

Indeed, about 6-7 years ago, I was tipping the scales at 50-60 lbs over my currently healthy weight. Over the course of 6 months in 2002, I cut calories by about 1/3 and lo and behold, my grocery bill went down by the same amount.

But fruits and vegetables aren't an area where you really want to say "eat less". In fact, the recommendations from just about any dietitian, the government, etc. are to eat MORE. The average American eats only 4 servings per day of fruits and vegetables (the typical serving is about 1/2 cup, or 4 ounces). This certainly can be frugal but isn't the best idea. The recommendations are more along the lines of 7-9 servings per day, which is 2 pounds per person, per day.

When it comes to trimming our grocery bill, I always focus on produce. It constitutes the bulk of our food and the bulk of the budget. For our 3-person family, our recommended intake comes to 5 lbs per day (one of us is a toddler), 35 lbs per week, 150 lbs per month...and 1800 lbs per year - almost a full ton!

So how does a family go about keeping their produce bill down, while still getting the proper intake of the good stuff? We are fortunate to live in So. Cal., which is great for its year-round growing season and reasonable produce (except apples - $2.75/lb!!) Read on for some of my tricks and tips.

1. Know your veggies: Some items are just cheaper than others. Potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions - if you are on a budget, these should be a regular part of your repertoire.

2. Keep a price book listing prices for vegetables at several stores. I know, for example, that loose carrots are at the lowest price at the local wholesale produce store (but other items there are more expensive). They range from $0.25-0.33/lb, depending on the season. Onions are usually cheaper at one of the "big box" stores.

3. Choose your organics wisely: I think many of us would love to have the luxury of eating all organic all the time. But it can be pricey. I try to buy organic (or local, where I know the growing practices) for the "dirty dozen" because of pesticide concerns. But for the rest, I buy conventional or at least compare the price difference.

4. Shop local: The "U-pick" apple orchard or berry farm is likely going to be cheaper (with better tasting fruit) than the stuff you buy at the grocery store, that was picked unripe and ripened with gas. Local farmer's markets can be a great source of reasonable produce, particularly for items that grow well locally. I priced lemons yesterday at the grocery store at $1.49 EACH. They can be found for $0.25-0.50 at the local farmer's market.

5. Know your seasonal fruits: While some people keep a steady diet of apples, oranges, and bananas year round, I prefer a little more variety. Here is when knowing the seasons can be helpful. Bananas are a good price year round. Winter is great for oranges, and can be found at $0.60/lb at our farmer's markets (and the quality is WAY better than the grocery store). Of course, you have to buy 10 lb, so I split a bag with a friend. Spring and early summer are great for strawberries. Summer is good for stone fruits and melon (there's a reason why watermelon is a star at summer BBQs).

Even though berries, peaches, and melons might be more expensive than the standard apples and bananas, buy 'em occasionally. But wait until they are fully in season. The early season tends to be more expensive, and the produce often isn't as sweet.

6. Bruised/Damaged fruits: Many farmstands will give you a deal on slightly distressed fruit or vegetables. I have gotten a pound of cauliflower for 15 cents this way. What do you do with 3 lbs of distressed peaches? Slice them, sprinkle with lemon juice, and freeze.

7. Consider a CSA: For about the same price as what you'd get at a grocery store for conventional produce, you can get a box of fresh, local, tasty fruits and vegetables (sometimes organic). Our CSA is $20/week, and we got >10 lbs of produce this week. You can't be too picky with a CSA - you get what's in season (dandelion greens, anyone?) but it is a great way to expand your vegetable repertoire.

8. Don't overlook your freezer: Often you can get on-sale frozen vegetables for $1/lb or less. They are great for dinner when you can't muster the energy to even peel a few carrots. And because they are frozen after picking, they retain many of their nutrients.

9. Big Box Stores (Costco, Sam's, BJ's): The best deal, hands down, on canned tomatoes (gotta have that lycopene!) is in the #10 (~100 oz) can. You know, the really big one. ($2.40 for 100 oz??) Bring them home, package in smaller containers, and freeze. Same for large bags of frozen vegetables at $1/lb.

10. Grow your own: Plant some tomatoes in a container. Plant a fruit tree (being sure to check what grows in your area). We have an orange tree. We get free lemons from a neighbor. We have a friend with an avocado tree, and friends with peach trees, plum trees, lime trees, which brings me to...

11. Get free stuff from friends: Don't be too proud to accept free food. I have recently seen SO MANY peaches and plums rotting on the ground in homes where people either don't like them, or don't have the time to pick them (it's been a banner year for the stone fruits). If someone complains about the amount of peaches they have, offer to come pick them. I have even seen swapping on Freecycle (my peaches for your plums...). Slice and freeze the spare fruit, and use later in oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, fruit crisps, etc. All this freezer talk means...

12. Buy a spare freezer: If you have the room. This can be used for your excess summer garden bounty, those 6-lb bags of frozen vegetables from Costco, and those repackaged tomatoes from the big cans. Even if you don't have a garden, you can buy sale veggies in season and blanch and freezer.

13. Dried beans: Yep, legumes count as a vegetable and they are darned good for you (cheap too). YOu should eat 1/2 cup per day according to government guidelines. Canned beans are okay too, but why pay for water? Dried are about 1/3 to 1/2 the price of canned, depending on where you buy them. I purchase chick peas and lentils on sale for $1/lb, and I can get kidney beans, black beans, and pintos in 5-10 lbs bags for $0.40-0.90/lb.

14. Consider orange juice: I'm not personally a big fan of juice. But if you are actually getting 9 servings a day, having one be juice is okay. And my husband and son drink it. If you buy 6-packs of the frozen concentrate, you can get a serving of fruit (a 6-oz glass) for about $0.12.

15. Find alternate sources: I'm not a big fan of canned vegetables, but drugstores, dented stores, and dollar stores often have discount prices on these items. They can also be a good source for dried fruit such as raisins. Asian or Mexican stores often have better deals on produce than regular grocery stores. These tend to be in out-of-the-way places with lower overhead costs.

16. Do a price-per-serving analysis: Compare and contrast the cost of strawberries vs. apples, broccoli vs. cabbage. Know the cost per serving. That doesn't mean you have to give up broccoli and strawberries. It means you may choose to eat fewer servings or grow your own.

and a bonus:

17. Eat what you buy, buy what you eat, and learn proper storage of fruits and vegetables to maximize their lifetime. Eat perishable items first, save others for later in the week. Throwing away food is throwing away money.

What are YOUR tips?

1 comment:

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