Let me preface this post by stating clearly that I could not stick to a budget if it slapped me in the face. Okay? But I know that if you are so inclined, eating real food while on a budget IS doable. It's not my area of specialty. So instead, let's talk about being frugal, because that's a nice, generic term that I could PRETEND applies to me. It's all relative, right?
This post is going to be an evolution. I'm not great at numbers (hence the reason why budgets elude me) but I do understand quantities and purchasing. I'm also pretty good at sourcing locally, which is one of the first things you need to start doing if you want to be a Real Foodie!
Also, I would like your input! If I have missed points, or if you totally disagree with something I've written, please comment! I'll refine and revise until I've got a realistic plan of attack for those who need it.
So without further ado, I bring you...
Ten tips for how to be frugal and still consume Real Food
So how can you be frugal and still eat Real Food? Here are some tips for you:
1. Decide which items need to be organic and which don't - 95% of the purchasing in this household is organic. But does it have to be? And what does organic mean? CERTIFIED organic tends to mean that a third party organization is overseeing the production methods of a food producer. But it certainly is not the be-all, end-all, and not all your food NEEDS to be organic.
For instance, the eggs and chickens that I buy from a local producer are not certified organic and do not have an organic price tag ($4.50 for 12 eggs, vs. up to $6.99 for organic eggs from the health food store), but the production methods are just as important. My eggs need to either be certified AND free run (often it's only the big producers that can afford the certification, and in order to be able to afford it they need large volume, which means CAFO type systems) or I need to know that they are coming from a small farm where they are provided lots of room to move and nest. Same goes for my chickens. If they are cooped up and not allowed to move then the quality of the meat will be poor, along with the energetic values, and I'm not interested. What they are being fed is secondary. And you may have to go hunting to find a source. I emailed the farm from which I ordered my quarter beef and asked if they'd be providing eggs at any point as I'd be willing to commit to four dozen every two weeks, and they told me that as of February they plan to have chicken AND duck eggs available. Woot! In the meantime, I do know about a lady who raises her own chickens and sells the eggs, so every two weeks I can pick up four dozen and hope that holds us. It's good to have options!
The same goes for beef or other meat sources. If you can find a small, local farmer and pay a visit and see that the animals are in touch with the earth and allowed to graze freely, that goes a long way towards insuring the quality of the meat. Standards for beef production in Canada are thankfully MUCH higher than in the US ("There's sh*t in the meat." - anyone know which move that came from?), and you won't get the same sort of exposure to growth hormones and antibiotics that you would south of the border, even if you eat non-organic. You'll still pay an elevated price for your meat compared to grocery store steaks if you purchase from a local farmer, but it won't be as expensive as buying a certified product. Make sure that the cows are allowed to graze on grass in the warmer months and are fed hay in the winter months, and NOT mainly grain or corn-fed. Bovine stomachs are designed to process green food, not grain. Often the cows are finished on grains as this makes for a nicely marbled steak, but for the most part grass-fed is what you are looking for.
Now, as for where to find this beef locally, I can't tell you YET. My sources are certified organic. But for people living in other parts of Canada, such as out in the prairies or in more northerly regions, this may be an easier task to accomplish. As well, if you happen to live somewhere not so urban, maybe you are friends with a hunter? There's nothing better than wild caught meat, be it moose (thanks for that Simone!), deer or...what the heck else runs free that Canadians are allowed to hunt?
See point 3 on how to get the most bang from your buck when it comes to eating animals.
When it comes to fruits and veggies, it's good to keep an eye on the yearly Dirty Dozen list from the Environmental Working Group (actually, here's the Dirty 53 - The higher on the list, the more chemicals present). I would for sure recommend sticking to organic for the items up near the top, at least the top dozen. I'd also recommend to sticking to seasonal as much as possible. There is NO reason to be eating abnormally large, greenhouse raised organic California berries in the middle of the winter. They are not appropriate food for winter consumption anyways and for $8 a container, well, you could get two dozen eggs. If you feel you NEED strawberries in the middle of the winter then make a point of buying a large amount of local berries in July when they are abundant and CHEAP, then wash, dry, hull and freeze them. In the winter we need grounded, nourishing, warming foods and less reliance on fruit. But that's a whole other post, so just keep that idea in mind for now. If it is a fruit or veggie that can easily keep through the winter season, then it's worth consuming. See point 6 for further elaboration.
The one area in which I'm a bit fuzzy around the edges is butter. As far as milk is concerned, organic is ooooookay, but really, once milk is pasteurized it's pretty much a damaging food. I've found a few brands that don't homogenize their milk and that also pasteurize at a lower temperature, but I'm GOING to find a source of raw milk locally, even if I have to buy and board my own bovine, dagnabit! Yogourt is milk's saving grace, as making your own (which I am terrible at) brings it back to life and also provides a good source of probiotic cultures. But butter, when organic is INSANELY EXPENSIVE, and for good reason I'm sure. So usually I try to find a cultured regular butter and go with that. As contradictory as this sounds, we simply eat too much of it to be able to shell out $5 for 454g. I'd like to pay that much for a kilogram. Still working on this one...
2. Subscribe to a weekly produce basket - Are you familiar with the concept of community supported agriculture (CSA)? The idea is that members of the community are directly connected with local growers, usually of the vegetable and fruit variety. What this allows for is slightly lower cost (compared to imported, organic grocery store produce), local, sustainably farmed produce. Often you can also connect with meat producers in the same way. The farms are small and you can often communicate directly with the owners to give feedback and establish a relationship. I've subscribed to the Ferme du Zephyr a few times over the last few years and Stephen Homer always remembers my name when we meet for the pickup, or if I run into him somewhere in the community. The produce I receive usually comes out of the ground that day, if not in last few days, and it's beautifully varied.
The other thing I do, year round, is order an organic basket from Jardin des Anges. While this company offers more of an organic grocery service than anything else, the focus, especially during the growing season, is more on local than anything else. In the summer I reduce the vegetable content and increase the fruit content.
So here's what I TRY to do with my weekly baskets - USE UP ALL THE PRODUCE. This is crazy challenging because it requires creativity and thinking outside the box. And as a result, I have at least two bags of rutabaga and two of beets sitting in my fridge right now waiting for me to figure out what to do with them (thinking of making beet kvass and borscht this weekend...what the heck does one do with an overabundance of rutabaga?). But this is one way to stay on budget. My weekly basket consists of 10 veggies, 4 fruit and for an extra $10 I take an extra four fruit (an example of an extra fruit is four oranges). And I add one very expensive bottle of organic apple juice for $5.35. The whole shebang costs me $63.35 a week. If I skipped the juice, which is really an indulgence, I'd be spending just under $300 a month on produce. And, as I said, if I were super organized and dedicated, I wouldn't buy more produce in the week. I do, but let's pretend I don't, okay? This size basket is enough for two veggie enthusiasts (which we aren't) and it's plenty for our family of five, for the most part. A bag of beets can go a looooong way...
Actually, on that note, a really great way to be SUPER efficient with your veggies is to do this. Most of the stuff you'd otherwise throw into the compost bin can actually be used to either make a veggie stock, or to enhance your bone broth. Brilliant, huh?
3. Nose to Tail Eating - Of course, I didn't coin this phrase (in fact, click the link and you'll be taken to the book) but it pretty much sums up the way to frugally consume the beast. In my world, eating Real Food means a heavy reliance on all things animal (which does NOT mean we eat steak with every meal. In fact, we almost never eat steak), but in North America we have a limited view of which parts of the beast are fit for consumption. The parts we usually consider worthy of our consideration also tend to be the most expensive. And the parts that are really expensive, such as boneless chicken breast, are also the most boring. Nothing gets my blood pumping like BONES. Bones are generally considered garbage and as a result can be purchased for relatively cheap. At my organic grocer, a bag of beef marrow bones (mmm...marrow) is 4.99/kg (vs. $11.99/kg for the beef itself). And further to my post on how to make a good bone broth, I have discovered that a 1kg bag of bones is actually good for about three pots of stock. All you need to do is keep that witches' brew bubbling on the stove for a good week, skimming off stock as you need it starting on day three, and adding water back in. By the end of the week it should still gel somewhat. It's even richer if you can find and add oxtail. Note this ongoing stock idea only works for beef bones.
As far as chicken carcasses go, at my organic grocer they are $4.59/kg and come with plenty of meat still on. Two carcasses comes in each pack, for a total of $4.99, or thereabouts. A whole organic chicken costs from $20-$25. This meat won't feed your family, but it does make for a nice, rich chicken stock. And all stocks, which are full of good protein from the gelatin in the bones, can be used as the base for many nutritious and not-so-animal-dense dishes such as soups and stews. An organic chicken, in contrast, is about $21 here and while it does usually make for two good meals of chicken itself and one or two involving stock, it's still a bit pricey for most people to consume on a weekly basis. So using a carcass is a cost-effective way to keep yourself in chicken stock all the time.
Of course, when you do roast your own chicken, remember that as good as eating the meat is, having that perfect carcass for your stock is just as good, if not better!
Also, don't overlook the giblets. Hearts, kidneys and liver are super cheap and nutrient dense bits of meat. The texture is different, and personally I can't handle the taste of liver, but a quick google search reveals all sorts of interesting way to prepare them. I'm waiting on a deal for a meat grinder attachment for Kitchenaid mixer as chicken hearts are SUPER cheap, and ground or chopped no one will know what they are eating! In the meantime, slice, dice, shred, bread and panfry with lots of butter and salt and who knows, maybe we won't notice the texture!
Now, if you do want to eat beef on a regular basis, I HIGHLY recommend purchasing a side of cow. You can purchase a quarter if you don't have room for half a cow (I don't, plus a half a cow is a LOT of meat) but you still need freezer space. The front half of the cow is cheaper than the back half, because the quality of the cuts are poorer. Remember that the more you buy, the less you will pay. For my quarter front of certified organic beef I am paying about $10.80/kilo. If I were to buy a pack of organic ground beef from my local organic grocer, I'd be paying $11.99/kilo. My side will come out to approximately 45kgs, so that's about $55 saved. It's not a huge amount but it does represent about 5 packages of ground beef. And ground can go a LONG way in things like chili and pasta sauce.
The other advantage of buying my beef directly from the farmer is that I can specify the cuts I want. I've also asked for the heart to be ground in with my beef for added nutrient density and I've asked for a pound of beef fat to render as tallow. And I've requested the bones and extra oxtail. You could get a nice liver, if you so chose, and also the tongue. Tongue is the final frontier for me, though, so will leave that one alone for now. I'll pretty much be good on the beef front for at least the next 6 - 8 months.
And lastly, save the drippings! If you roast a chicken this way, you'll end up with a nice amount of drippings, in which the veggies have been cooked. A roasting pan is a great investment as it does allow you to keep and save the drippings, while also yielding the perfect, crispy-skinned chicken. If you transfer the drippings to a jar and then put the jar in the fridge to cool, the fat will rise to the top and you'll get some lovely shmaltz. You want to eat the fat from the food you cooked, a) because it's really, really good for you, and b) because it will keep you feeling full longer. And there's no better way to be frugal than by consuming less!
4. Grow Your Own. I hate gardening. It's taken me a while to admit that but really, it's so dirty and time consuming and there are bugs. Maybe in another lifetime I'll be the ultimate gardener but for now the incredibly fecund lot behind my house is populate by weeds. But in the meantime, the grapevines and pear tree that came with this magnificent house were AMAZING. And both seem to be super low maintenance. That's my kind of gardening!
But if you are so inclined, having your own garden, even if it's just small enough to grow some kale and tomatoes, can really increase the quality of your food and decrease your budget. You may want to look into community gardening plots also, as having to compare yourself to others may be the inspiration you need to get your own plot blooming!
5. Yes, you CAN! - Can, that is. Ever tried it? When I get my new kitchen it's one project I plan to undertake. Canning will allow you to buy local, in season produce and have it available all year round. And it would save me from having to give away half my pears so I don't lose them to rot!
6. Respect the Seasons - This one ties in with part of point one and a big part of point two. Everything is cheaper AND more nutritious when it's local and in season. NOTHING grows in this climate in the winter, unless it's the mould in your bathroom. And sweet, watery fruits and veggies are too cooling to be eaten in the cold months anyways. We need grounded, dense, nutrient rich and rather dry types of food in the winter, and root veggies store nicely. Fruit is not a given at this time of year unless it's cooked (like apples) or canned (like virtually any fruit). And even then, they should be treats. They're expensive out of season!
7. Buy in Bulk. I'm talking stuff like grains here. You'll save a BUNDLE. For instance, a bit North of Montreal there's a place called Bourassa and my friend picked me up a 5kg bag of rolled oats for $11!! A 1kg bag costs about $5 at the grocery store. When my new kitchen is finished and I've picked up a nifty grain grinder for my Kitchenaid mixer, I will start buying all my grains (kamut, mainly) and grind my own flour. The flour you buy in smaller packages is a) pricey, and b) often rancid. If you're buying ground flour I would actually recommend buying smaller bags that you'll go through more quickly as it's really not good to be consuming rancid grains.
Store your bulk goods in pretty 1.9L mason jars or get some of these babies, which come in much larger volumes.
8. Packaged food is NOT real food. If you still insist on buying packaged foods then you might as well walk away now. You're not a Real Foodie, I'm sorry to tell you. If it's processed, it's a product, end of story. It's not FOOD. Breakfast cereal is not actually fit for human consumption. On top of that, it's SO BLOODY EXPENSIVE. Eat toast and eggs! Easy, convenient and it will actually keep you full for an hour or two. Or how about old-fashioned oatmeal with apples and raisins?
9. COOK. I don't really think I need to elaborate much on this point, but I will anyways. You NEED TO COOK. If you don't know how, learn. Cooking real food is not complicated. It's not gourmet. It's a very basic and simple approach to nutrition. How hard is it to throw a bunch of bones in the oven, roast them for half an hour, then add them to a pot, cover with water, throw in some carrots, onions and celery, and leave them on simmer for 24 hours? Et voilà, you've got yourself a super nourishing and nutrient dense stock to start a whole lot of other dishes. There are some great blogs out there with really wonderful introductions to real food and cooking, and it's worth the investment.
10. Find INSPIRATION. Subscribe to real food blogs. Some good ones are Healthy Home Economist, Kelly the Kitchen Kop, Nourished and Nurtured, Butter Believer, and The Mommypotamus. Reading these blogs will lead you to other blogs. These women have made it their lives' mission to educate their readers about Real Food and they do a darn good job. You'll get a lovely recipe feed to your inbox and you'll find inspiration and recipes you'd like to try.
Also, check out the Weston A. Price Foundation page (I just became a member!) and see if there is a local chapter in your area. Get in touch with the leader and find out if he or she has a list of local producers for you. That will cut your legwork in half when it comes to sourcing locally.