Thursday, June 28, 2007

Produce on a budget, the real food guide to cheap fruits and vegetables

I'm sitting here looking at the flyer for our local farmer's market store, called Henry's. It's not really a farmer's market, but most of the produce is local, and they have an extensive supplement section and bulk foods and spices section as well. This week mangoes are 3 for $1, seedless water melons are two for $5, green and red seedless grapes are 87 cents/lb. So are peaches, vine ripe tomatoes and potatoes. Twelve ounces of berries are $3. Granted, it's summer, and I live in California where a lot of food is grown, but fruits and vegetables are by far one of the least expensive parts of our diet. When you consider that they are at least half of our diet, this saves us a lot of money. The typical dinner plate should be 1/2 salad or vegetables, 1/4 meat or other protein, and 1/4 carbohydrate/starch. One serving of meat is 4oz. That means it should fit into the palm of your hand. Most Americans eat too much meat, which isn't good for us. Simply adjusting to more salad and less steak can drastically reduce your food spending per month and drastically improve your long term health.

I take $20 a week when I go to the Farmer's market. (The real one, not Henry's.) I buy from the local organic producers. I get fresh quality, I get what's in season, and that $20 worth of produce usually lasts more than one week. I usually spend another $10 or so on fruit that I can't find at the Farmer's market.

So here are some tips for saving money on fruits and vegetables.

  1. Only purchase what's in season. When it's in season you can also buy more than you need and preserve it, canned, frozen or dried, to enjoy it into other season's as well. Fifty years ago people still ate according to the seasons. There were cookbooks devoted to the preparation of seasonal produce. Why do you think the French invented onion soup? They had to eat something in the winter and onions keep a long time. Apart from preserves, berries were only eaten during the summer, squash and apples in the fall, potatoes, leeks, onions and other root vegetables throughout the winter, baby greens in the spring. My husbands brought into our marriage a cookbook from a monastery in France called the 4 seasons. It's a collection of vegetarian recipes all tailored to the seasonal availability of produce. (It also contains my favorite recipes for custard and pears flambe. (I've got a little project I working on that may be helpful in this respect too. I can't say any more than that because it's still in the works but I'll keep you posted.)
  2. Buy local, go to farmer's market's, join a food co-op or direct market organic delivery service if there are any in your area. Here are some places to start looking. Food coops are groups of people who organize to purchase direct from the growers at bulk prices and then split up the orders between themselves. They usually require a onetime membership fee, less than $30usually, and depending on the size you may have to take one day a week or month to join your fellow co-opers and divide up the orders to take home. They are easier to find in urban areas. Some are so well organized that you can order what you want online, the order is prepared for you and once a week you can pick it up at a home nearby. (How I miss Vancouver.)
  3. Organic food is usually more expensive. When I'm on a budget I will limit my organic purchases to those things that tests have shown often have large quantities of pesticides on them still when they reach the shelves. Or I'll skip them altogether. The 10 most contaminated foods are:strawberries, green bell peppers, red bell peppers, spinach, cherries (US), peaches, cantaloupe (Mexican), celery, apples, apricots, green beans, grapes (Chilean), and cucumbers. For the entire study and alternative foods go here.
  4. Join a gleaner's club. Lot's of people have trees that produce fruit but don't have the motivation to harvest it. Gleaner's clubs gain permission to harvest the fruit themselves. Most of the time they donate it to food banks but you can keep some of it yourself. Or, just ask that next door neighbor with the cherry tree if they mind if you pick their cherries for them.
  5. Of course, no discussion of cost effective produce can forget to mention growing your own. Depending on where you live, how long of a growing season, and what it costs to water, growing your own vegetables can save you lots of money leaving your budget free to purchase what you can't grow. You can even plant your own fruit bearing trees, ask your local gardening expert what grows best in your area. Even if you don't live somewhere with dirt of your own to plan a garden in, there are a lot of things that can grow in containers on apartment balconies, front steps, etc. I live in a ground floor apartment with a concrete patio. This year I took one of the kids wooden toy boxes that was falling apart and they never use, reinforced it with a few screws and filled it with gravel, pine cones and potting soil. Right now I have tomatoes, oregano, and basil growing in it. In another container I have planted lettuce seeds, and in another I have mint, in another cilantro, and in another rosemary. Here is a handy guide to container gardening. The added bonus of growing your own food is that your children can be much more excited to try it when they've watched it grow.
  6. The last thing I'd like to mention is an idea Rose had in this post. She concluded that the most cost effective way to have fresh nutritious produce in the winter was to sprout seeds in her kitchen. Seeds for sprouting can be found anywhere, even the Target garden section. Here is an online source for purchasing a sprouting starter kit. That $40 will provide everything you need to start and last up to a year. Sprouts taste good raw and can also be sauteed, stir fried, baked into breads and casseroles and provide a lot of protein and nutrients. The quick guide to sprouting is to soak seeds in a jar for 8 hours keeping them in a dark place. You can tie a piece of cheese cloth across the top of the jar if you have no strainers in order to drain the water. Continue to keep the jar in a dark place and rinse with clean water at least twice a day. In about three days you have sprouts and you can eat them.
I'm sure more of you have great ideas for combining economy and fresh food. Please share in the comments so we can all learn from each other.


Scuzzlewump said...

In theory, it sounds good, but in my real life, it never works out that way...our maximum grocery budget is $50/week. That does not go far on produce up here in Canada, if you recall. I save a lot by buying flour 10kg at a time, buying in bulk (I have 5 kg of oatmeal and 10kg of wheatlets in my closet), and even trying to buy potatoes on a large scale (though they didn't last long enough)...I try every year to grow my own produce, but have a black thumb, or at least a grey one. House plants are doomed to a horrible death no matter how closely i follow instruction and advice, and my garden seems doomed to grow in miniature. The only thing that works, and works TOO well, is my apple trees which produce thousands of apples (yes, on just 2 trees), and there's only so much I can do with crab apples.
Recently, I bought two green peppers, some mushrooms, 4 sweet potatoes, two small tomatoes, a head of broccoli, a bag of apples, and a bunch of bananas. Those alone came to over $20. And they weren't organic, either....that would have doubled it.
How do you stick to a budget that you simply can't afford to increase and still eat the FRESH stuff? Canned would have been much cheaper, but obviously not so healthy.
We don't buy prepared meals, very little packaged stuff, I make most things myself (I make my own bread, too)...but even buying in bulk, canning, freezing, etc, it's pretty tough to eat fresh stuff and be able to afford the other essentials, like flour, yeast, milk, and eggs.

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kate said...

Hmm, I was reading this thinking Hey! Produce is so much cheaper there! when I realized that here it's priced in kilos, not pounds, so I'd have to double your prices to get an accurate comparison (plus the euro/dollar conversion.) Your stuff is till a bit cheaper than what's in the supermarkets, but the old-style markets in the center of town probably have cheaper stuff, too.

That's depressing about the pesticides, as organics are not readily available here. Bummer.

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