Please welcome my guest writer Karen today who touches on a subject close to my heart.  How do I feed my family healthy, organic food without breaking the bank?  Here are some great tips to make the most of your family’s grocery budget.

 The bounty from an early-summer exchange of our (free) produce co-op

These days, most of us are interested in purchasing more local and/or organically grown foods. For those of us on a tight food budget, it can feel like an unachievable dream, though. Our family of four currently has a $400-a-month food budget that’s non-negotiable (that’s less than half of what the average family spends here in Ontario). Over the years, I’ve gotten to be an expert at feeding my family well on a tiny food budget, and this February I decided to challenge myself to see just how much local and/or organic food I could squeeze into our current food budget. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many changes we’ve been able to make in the last four months or so! Here are the strategies I’ve used to maximize the amount of local and organic foods we’ve been able to purchase, without increasing our total food bill:   

  1. Know your prices: To get the best deals, you need to know your prices well! Because I have a good handle on what we usually pay for each type of food we buy, I am quickly able to spot the potentially good deals as I evaluate new options for buying organic and locally-produced foods. I’ve actually been amazed at the number of organic foods I’ve found at or below the price I’ve been used to paying for the conventionally-grown equivalent – but I’ve had to do some hunting around to find them.

  2. Buy from a variety of sources: There is no single source that will always have the best deal on everything. We buy food from several different grocery stores, a health food store, a national-chain bulk food store, pick-your-own farms, a farmer’s market, a natural food co-op and a local meat producer. While each of these places has great prices on certain foods, there is no one source that has the best price on everything. Even the food co-op, which has absolutely fantastic prices on many items, is not the lowest-priced source for everything I want to buy.  

  3. Consider joining a natural foods co-op: Food co-ops can be a great way to obtain organic, local and natural foods at affordable prices. There are several different types of food co-ops; some are actual physical buildings you can shop at like a regular grocery store, and others (such as Azure Standard and the Ontario Natural Food Co-op you order through a catalogue as part of a buying club, then have the order delivered based on the co-op’s delivery schedule in your area. We are part of a local buying group with the Ontario Natural Food Co-op. As co-op members, we can order a wide variety of natural and organic food items at discounted prices (sometimes very deeply discounted compared to what you would pay at the grocery store or health food store!). Many of the products are also grown in-province, which is an added bonus. 

  4. Buy in bulk: To get the best price possible, you often need to buy in bulk. And I really do mean BULK! Sometimes that means buying a pretty crazy amount of a particular item at once! I’ve ordered such large quantities as 13.6 kg of organic, unsulphured raisins, or 11.4 kg bags of oats, coconut and cornmeal from our food co-op, which probably seems a little nuts. Ordering in such a large quantity brought the price per pound down substantially; in fact for most of those items it’s about equivalent to what I would pay for their grocery-store, conventionally grown counterparts! I can easily store these items in my freezer, and they will last us many months. During the growing season, we visit local pick-your-own farms and pick large quantities of berries and apples.  

5. Buy ingredients, not products, and cook foods from scratch: Instead of buying a prepackaged brand of organic or “natural” granola, I make my own granola using bulk-purchased organic oats, coconut, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds from my food co-op for a fraction of the price. In fact, since I have found fantastic deals on nearly all of the ingredients, I can make my own organic granola for nearly as cheap as I can make it using conventionally-grown foods (and it only takes about 10 minutes of hands-on time to whip up a batch). As an added bonus, I can use all of those ingredients to prepare a wide variety of other foods, too. I make my own organic yogurt with organic whole milk at less than half the cost of buying premade organic yogurt (you don’t need any special equipment to make your own yogurt, either – see how I do it here).  

  6. Always be on the lookout for new potential food sources: When I first started my “local and organic challenge”, I thought we *might* be able to squeeze in a small amount of local, family-farmed meat into our budget if we were lucky. Much as I might want to purchase sustainably-produced meat, doing so didn’t seem all that realistic on our budget (and our meat consumption is quite small by most people’s standards!). Happily, I was proven wrong. Since I am always keeping an eye out for new local food sources, I eventually found a local, award-winning family farm that sells their meat in bulk orders at wholesale prices. We were able to buy 80 pounds of meat for just over $140! Again, because we eat small amounts of meat, this will last our family of four several months.  

  7. Grow your own: Almost everyone can grow some of their own food, even with limited (or no) backyard space. There are many great resources for gardening in small spaces, so check out your local library for inspiration. The site Vertical Veg also has plenty of information on how to grow a lot of food in a very small space. If you have absolutely no space of your own to grow on, consider renting a plot at a community garden. This comes with an added bonus – you’ll likely have some experienced veggie gardeners growing in adjacent plots who can give you advice on how to make the most of your growing efforts.  

  8. Consider starting a produce cooperative: If you’re growing some of your own food, consider starting a neighbourhood produce cooperative, where backyard veggie gardeners swap their garden surplus with each other. That way, everyone gets a much larger variety of fresh, local produce than they can grow on their own – all for free! I started a group last growing season without a lot of effort, and it’s been a very worthwhile (and tasty) experience. Check out the Hillside Produce Cooperative site for more information on how these types of groups are run, and how to start one of your own. 

9. Learn how to “stockpile” fresh, seasonal foods: While most of us are familiar with the idea of stockpiling pantry staples, stockpiling fresh seasonal produce takes a bit more effort. Berries are easy to freeze and can be used in smoothies and baked goods. Sweet peppers can be chopped or sliced and frozen in meal-size portions for use in soups and stir-fries. Knowing how to can foods is an extremely useful skill, and it’s not hard to learn. When local tomatoes are in season, we make a huge quantity of salsa and can it for use the rest of the year. We also make our own jams, pickles and relishes with local produce – these also happen to make great gifts!  

  10. Hone your planning skills and create storage space: This method of buying food is quite different than the shop-for-this-week’s-meals style of grocery shopping that most people are used to. To purchase food in this way, you need to have a plan so you know what foods to buy when, and also be prepared to store large quantities of foods (and to do so in a way that ensures they won’t spoil before you use them up!). A chest freezer is nearly essential for this method of buying; if you don’t have one already, it’s an investment purchase that will pay for itself many times over. After a bit of practice, you will learn how to stagger bulk purchases so you’re not spending too much on food in any given month, and you will have a steady supply of all the basic ingredients you need in your fridge, freezer and pantry. 

  11. Waste nothing: The average family tosses 25% of their food in the trash. Yes, as depressing as it sounds, if you’re a typical North American family, you might as well be flushing a quarter of your grocery money down the toilet. By becoming vigilant about reducing your food waste, you can get it down to nearly nothing, making your food dollars go significantly further. Learning how to use leftovers and overripe produce creatively is an important art in the quest to stretch your food budget as far as possible. You can also learn to effectively utilize the food scraps most people throw away: make stock from meat bones and learn how to render chicken fat (which can be used in many savory dishes in place of butter). While each of these tips on their own will yield significant savings, combining all of them will dramatically stretch your food dollars and allow you to purchase more quality local and organic foods. 

  Karen McLaughlin is the author of Cheap Appétit: The Complete Guide to Feeding Your Family for Less Than $400 (While Eating Better Than You Ever Thought Possible) and the founder of the West Hamilton Produce Cooperative. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her husband and ravenously hungry 12 and 14 year old sons and shares her adventures in frugal living at Abundance on a Dime.

What other tips would you add to this list?

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