Marilyn over at Memos from the Middle wrote a post last evening that sounded way too familiar about shopping for healthful food – and its cost.
Before I quit my outside the home job, it was possible for me to purchase $130 worth of condiments we would never consume because they were “cute.” These days I have to be a little more thoughtful about what we put in our grocery cart every week. And I HATE coupons. So I’m at the mercy of store specials and sales to help keep our budget and our waistlines in check.
I don’t always plan out every meal prior to going to the store but I do give it some forethought so we aren’t purchasing too much food or too little. I hate wasting food and I hate multiple trips to the market during the week because I typically purchase additional often unnecessary items on subsequent trips. I’ll also glance at the store circular before my trip so I have an idea or specials being offered for the week.
Here are a few other things I’ve done to help keep us on track:
1. Our go-to snack is tortilla chips and salsa. I do not purchase other snacks aside from goldfish crackers and some other type of plain cracker I can use for a cheese tray or breadcrumbs. I stock up on all these items when they are on sale at the store. If we want to add some excitement to our snack, I also keep a couple of cans of refried beans, a block of cheese, some sour cream, cilantro and a few avocados handy to make some proper nachos. (You can also sprinkle your chips with a dusting of coarse salt, pepper, sugar, and chili powder to make them more interesting). Plus tortilla chips go well with humus and a variety of other dips you can make at home).
2. I basically avoid the interior of the supermarket as much as possible. The temptation and my obsession with various mustards is too great.
3. We typically make our own salad dressings – we purchase the Good Seasons packages of ranch and italian dressings and I mix my own. They always taste fresher this way. Plus I can control the other ingredients (more vinegar, less oil, low-fat mayo and milk, etc.)
4. We do don’t purchase juice. It’s expensive, high in calories and offers none of the fiber “real” fruit does.
5. We sometimes purchase soda – cans of soda – when they are 3-12 packs for $10. We mostly use soda as a mixer for cocktails or an once-in-a-while ice cream float or pick me up so our soda consumption is pretty minimal. We never purchase bottled water. It’s bad for the environment and bad for the wallet. We keep stainless steel wide-mouthed containers full of tap water in the fridge at all times so we can just add ice and go.
6. I brew my own iced tea using Constant Comment regular tea and cheaper Lipton Green Tea bags. I purchase extra tea bags when they are on sale. We tend to drink a lot of tea in the summer. I also keep a pitcher of Crystal Light Lemonade handy in case we want a half and half. For coffee, we have a Keurig coffee maker – which is nice because I’m not making cups I don’t drink. However, I was troubled by all those expensive little plastic K-Cups. Fortunately, I found a little reusable basket/filter that I can fill with any ground coffee to brew a perfect cup. So we buy cheap french roast and more pricey french roast and mix them in equal parts to make a more economical cup.
7. I always hit the produce aisle first. There I stock up on pre-packaged romaine hearts, cucumbers, baby carrots, sweet potatoes (homemade fries or chips anyone?), bell peppers, onions, apples, lemons, bananas, and an “interesting” fruit I switch up – melon, grapes, etc. I typically purchase at least one other fresh vegetable – beets, turnips, asparagus to keep things interesting. However, I try to be very mindful of what’s in season. If it’s in season, it’s likely cheaper. I’ve also discovered that our newer refrigerator does such a better job keeping our produce fresh. I guess the humidity control is superior? The produce lasts considerably longer than with our previous refrigerators.
8. I stock up on whole wheat pastas in a variety of shapes when they are on sale. Same with pasta sauce. To stretch the sauce, I purchase cans of diced or whole tomatoes when they are on sale and always add a can to our sauce. We like our sauce chunkier anyway. A note about tomatoes: Unless they are in season, I don’t purchase fresh. They are always an expensive disappointment. I opt for canned or sun-dried packed in oil most of the year.
9. We choose our proteins wisely. If there’s a great deal on flash frozen wild caught fish, I’ll stock up and keep it in the freezer. Otherwise, I try to purchase only one type of fish per week: salmon, shrimp, tuna, etc. We add beans (sometimes canned, sometimes dried and soaked), eggs, nuts, cheese and sometimes a soy product for protein in most of our dinner-time meals. We also use canned tuna to make Nicose Salad and tuna melts.
10. I purchase some canned fruit. Pineapple and mandarin oranges in their own juice make a great base for fruit salad – you can just cut up a fresh apple and banana to add to the mix. Pineapple is good for salsa, grilling with meat, and as an ice cream topping.
11. I also purchase frozen vegetables. In most recipes, if cooked properly, the frozen spinach, broccoli, peas, corn, and french cut string beans taste just as good (and require less prep) than their more expensive fresh equivalents.
12. I also purchase frozen berries. I use them in Chris’ yogurt (we buy plain in big tubs) and I parcel it out into a small glass container for his lunch every day. I can use frozen berries to top ice cream or cakes or for muffins. They are typically less expensive than fresh berries and NEVER moldy.
13. I buy cheap bread: Loaves of whole wheat and multi-grain sandwich flats. When they are on sale, I purchase extra and freeze them. The sandwich flats work perfectly as a bun for veggie burgers and only have 100 calories per “bun.” I never purchase regular hamburger rolls. Sometimes, if bagels are on sale, or cinnamon bread, I purchase those and freeze for breakfast sandwiches or french toast on the weekend.
14. I do not skimp on cheese. I love me some cheese. I will not purchase shredded (unless I need shredded mozzarella). I buy blocks and grate my own as needed. If it’s cheap, I’ll freeze it. I also buy feta or blue cheese crumbles nearly each week. They are expensive and fattening but just a small portion makes a salad so much better.
15. I NEVER purchase frozen prepared meals. Who knows what’s in those things? (Seriously, check the sodium. GAH!) It doesn’t take that long to boil some pasta – it’s not necessary to purchase a frozen bag of it. I do however, purchase frozen decent quality cheese ravioli, vegetable pot stickers, veggie burgers, chicken-less patties, and the cheap $1 Celeste cheese pizzas. The pizzas are great because I can top them with olives, sun dried tomatoes, onions, etc and they feel like a fancy personal pizza (instant portion control).
16. We do purchase ice cream – we are not brand loyal – anything decent quality and on special is fine.
17. I make my own cookie dough from scratch and freeze it. A couple of times a year, if I see cake mixes or brownie mix on sale I purchase a few boxes. I make my own cake frosting using just a few ingredients. It tastes better to me and a canister of confectioner’s sugar takes up less space in my kitchen than tubs of frosting.
18. I am not a short order cook. Mac eats what we eat with a little modification.
19. I do not skimp on basic ingredients that will make a simple meal more flavorful: olive oil, olives, pickles, relishes, salts, vinegar, I buy peppercorns and freshly grind it, lemons, see also cheese. . .
20. We do purchase Organic milk: Whole for Mac and skim for us. Typically, there is a brand on sale. I’ve found that the organic often ends up being a better bargain because it’s ultra pasteurized and has a much longer expiration date than regular milk.
21. I used to purchase “fancy” eggs. I decided for the cost, and because I can’t make heads nor tails of the terms – organic, free range, etc. for now, eggs aren’t a battle I’m looking to fight.
22. I never, never, never purchase anything in a grocery store BUT food – no pet supplies, no paper goods, no greeting cards, etc. If there’s a special it might be cheaper but I don’t have the patience to figure it out so I rely on Amazon for most of our household goods and try to make my own cards, etc when I can.
23. Consider soup. If I have a bunch of random veggies reaching their prime, I often make a quick soup with a little veggie stock or a canned tomato base. It’s low-calorie, nutritious and filling. Plus, you can freeze individual portions for quick reheats. I used to plan a soup for every week. I don’t do that as often these days, but it was convenient and I probably should make some while so many great veggies are available this summer.
It definitely takes discipline on my part – the shopping and the eating – to keep our budget and our diets healthy but I’ve decided with a little one in the house, it’s really an important task and deserves attention.
Another thing we rarely do? Eat in restaurants or get take out/delivery. We find if we are traveling, it’s much easier to have snacks at the ready than to stop at any old place for “fast food.” Plus there are health and budgetary considerations too. If we are going out for a day, I’ll pack a cooler with sandwiches, bite sized veggies and fruits, cheese, crackers, plenty of water, and often a sweet treat (sometimes just a dark chocolate bar). It requires a little forethought on our part, but it keeps us from making less healthful choices.
I also keep dry cereal, goldfish crackers, a banana, a granola bar or two and water with me at almost all times. These items will typically tide me and Mac over until we can get home for a proper meal.