Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Minding Our Pennies; What We Eat


In the course of researching and writing my blogs I read the work of a lot of other bloggers, and I've noticed that managing a budget is a theme frequently touched upon by food writers.  It makes sense, really:  In these tough economic times, wages often don't keep pace with inflation and preparing good, nutritious meals becomes an ever greater challenge.

At our house earnings have actually decreased by a fairly drastic amount in recent years.  I'm not complaining.  Our circumstances certainly aren't dire, and we're much better off than many people in our community.  I'm just making an observation.  If we're feeling the strain, it's likely that a great many of the people around us are too.

I'm pretty good at making a dollar stretch and, even though our food budget has become smaller at the very same time food prices are increasing, I think we eat pretty well.

Our monthly budget for food (not counting household and personal items) is usually between $100 and $150.  Sometimes it's less.  Since I've mentioned those numbers in my posts, I've had a number of people question how I manage that and, since I'm proud of how well we eat, I've decided to write about it.

In my reading, I've noted some common themes about managing a food budget.  Most of the bloggers I read plan their meals ahead for a fairly long period of time, limiting their shopping trips to once or twice a month.  Many are also avid users of coupons.  Neither of those strategies work particularly well for me.

I find that if I plan the meals 'way ahead and shop based upon that menu plan, I almost always end up buying too much food.  It's a point of pride to me that we waste as little food as possible in this house so, instead of doing long term meal planning, I plan my meals day to day based upon what we have on hand and what's on offer in the weekly grocery flyers.

We purchase two Good Food Boxes each month.  We pick them up on the third Monday of each month and their contents help determine what we'll be eating for most of the month that follows. The boxes contain a variety of foods.  Some, like potatoes and onions, will keep for quite some time.  Others, like spinach and salad greens, have to be used up quickly.

I plan our meals in such a way that we'll use up the most perishable ingredients from the Good Food boxes first.  I look at what's left over at the end of one evening's meal and think about how I can combine it with other ingredients in the fridge and pantry to make the next day's food.  At least one meal each week is specifically planned to clean up any leftovers remaining in the fridge so we can move forward from a fresh start.  Only when we've used up all of the leftovers and all of the most perishable ingredients from the Good Food boxes do I consider buying more produce.

When I do buy produce other than what we receive in our Good Food boxes, I shop for it day by day and I make it a rule to purchase only half of what I think we'll need.  I'm a terrible over-estimator and, if I don't curb myself with the "purchase half" rule, we end up with 'way more fruit and vegetables than we can use up in a reasonable period of time.

As to the rest of my shopping, while I do appreciate the savings that coupons offer me on household cleaners, papers, and personal items, they rarely offer savings on the foods that we eat.  Most coupons are for processed food and I cook from scratch most of the time.  I'm always happy to see coupons for canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, tuna, baking products, or canned beans but, because Canada does not have the same liberal coupon policies offered by many US grocers, I can usually find the best price simply by scanning the flyers, knowing my prices, and comparison shopping.

We eat less meat than we used to.  At least three of our meals each week are vegetarian.  Many incorporate either beans or eggs because beans offer the most affordable protein in the grocery store and I my sister-in-law kindly provides most of the eggs we use.  (I know.  We're very lucky.)  When I do buy meat, I buy what's on sale.  Even then I stay away from the more expensive cuts.  There's a lot of braising and slow cooking going on in my kitchen.

Unless we're expecting guests, lunches at our house almost always consist of leftovers from the previous night's supper.  If there aren't enough leftovers to make a meal, we'll have a salad, some cottage cheese and fruit, or good old PB and J.

In addition to our regular grocery budget, we have a budget for planned spending.  We set aside $20 to $25 each week towards expenses like a CSA basket, an allotment garden, or bulk buys of fruit and vegetables at harvest time, for canning or freezing.  Our planned spending budget year runs from October to October so that we have enough money set aside when it's time to avail ourselves of the peak of the harvest season. 

Because I do shop the flyer specials and because I keep a stock of staples on hand at all times, what I spend our grocery money on (other than fresh produce) often has no relation at all to what I'm cooking at that time.  It's very important that I keep a running inventory of what's in my pantry and my freezer.  Doing so helps me to avoid duplicate purchases, and to avoid running to the store to purchase an ingredient at full price because I'm unexpectedly out of it.

That's pretty much my food strategy in a nutshell.

I'm going to be posting a "week in review" menu feature showing what we eat from week to week.  I'll provide links to some of each week's recipes for you too.  Once a month I'll give you a breakdown of what I've spent on our meals.  I'm hoping that the information will be helpful, or at least interesting, to some of you.

Here's what we ate last week (November 28 to December 4):


Monday:
  • Breakfast:  Eggs, wholewheat toast, apples
  • Dinner:  Spinach, red onion, and sweet bell pepper pizza on an olive bread crust.  Pear crisp for dessert.
Tuesday:
  • Breakfast:  Eggs, vegetable hash
  • Dinner:  Salmon loaf, a lettuce, carrot, and red onion salad with plum vinaigrette, baked potatoes, home-canned peaches.
Wednesday:
  • Breakfast:  Cottage cheese, mandarin oranges
  • Dinner:  Grilled sweet Italian sausages, grilled tomatoes, steamed green beans, rice pudding.

Thursday:

Friday:
  • Breakfast:  Oatmeal with raisins and apples, yogurt
  • Dinner:  Night off.  I was sick so I didn't eat.  Jack had left over soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.

Saturday:
  • Breakfast:  Apple slices, cheddar cheese, reheated biscuits.
  • Dinner:  Hummus, flat breads made from olive bread dough, cucumber and red onion salad with a lemon and oregano vinaigrette, mandarin oranges.
Sunday:
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Photo:  trustssaints.ca