I was going to write about something totally different today, but when I went to moderate the Comments board this morning there was an excellent question from reader Nina that got my wheels turning in a whole different direction. Nina asked me how I can possibly plan meals a month in advance without knowing what the sales are going to look like, because she — like most people I’ve heard from — plans her meals around whatever the sales flyer looks like that week.
Great strategy. I admire it. And I sort of do that, too, though obviously the game changes a bit when you’re trying to project into the future. But what her questions brought up for me was the thought that I’ve purposely NOT talked about money and budgeting on this blog, and perhaps it’s time to start.
Here’s the thing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I do not expect that what works for me and my family will work, across the board, without tweaking and tampering, for every other family. I just know what I know. And when it comes to money and your household budget, there are a lot of very personal factors that come into play, none of which are any of my business. One of the factors that should be considered in budgeting, in my humble opinion, is your personal set of family values. But nobody really talks about that.
What I mean is this: when J. and I started learning more and more about the food we eat and where it comes from and what’s in it and what’s good for us and what’s not good for us, and more importantly, what’s good for our KIDS, we had to have a serious discussion. We’re not rich. Not by a long shot. In the past few years, as a matter of fact, we’ve had a lot of the same ups and downs that most Americans have experienced: layoffs, uncertainty, bottomed-out housing values, reduced hours…all of these things and more have affected our well-being and our financial decisions at any given point in our marriage. So I can speak from experience a bit on this issue, and not simply from the throne of (relative) privilege on which I now sit, which looks something like this: We’re solidly middle-class, according to the “official” definitions of that in our particular geographic region (whether we feel it or not!), and we have a very small amount of discretionary income that we can use to pay off debts, put into savings, etc.; we now also have the luxury, which we didn’t have even a year ago, of making values-based decisions when it comes to our food dollars rather than strictly quantity-based decisions. In other words, finally, we can make quality count.
Don’t get me wrong. In order to do that, we’ve got to do most of our other shopping at Target, we don’t really eat out, we have two inexpensive and reliable cars that are nearly paid off and which we’ll run into the ground before trading in, and it’s been years since we’ve given each other Christmas gifts or anything like that. We find other ways to adjust our budget so that we can make the food bill a major priority. Why? Because J. and I firmly believe that investing in the food we eat and feed to our kids now will save us a lot of money and anguish in the future. We’re banking on the notion that our food dollars, well spent, will make us all healthier; happier; better behaved (especially in the case of the children, though J. and I are both nicer, calmer people when we feel well); and better looking. Not really. But good food can do a lot for you, we believe, and we’re willing to spend more for those positive effects.
The three strategies we employ for BETTER food are simple:
1) Scratch-made food. No surprises there. Things you make yourself taste better, generally, than things that come from packages, and they’re better for you.
2) Farmer’s market shopping. Again, this is no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. We are religious about our trips to the farmer’s markets on Saturday mornings, and we try to purchase the bulk of our produce there. (It gets harder in the wintertime, when the available variety of local produce drops off quite a bit in New England…but that’s what locavore culture is about, and this year I intend to do quite a bit better in limiting us to what is seasonal rather than what is comfortable.)
3) Good meat and seafood. By “good,” I mean responsibly raised, not conventionally farmed (in other words, no feedlot cattle); free of antibiotics and hormones; and, if possible, local or as local as possible, and sustainable as much as possible. It’s not easy, and it’s not cheap, but it’s worth it to us.
How does it balance, budget-wise? Well…I won’t lie and say it’s easy. It takes effort. But the scratch cooking thing does help quite a bit — when you just don’t have to buy a lot of processed foods, snacks, etc., you can devote more of your dollars to meats, produce, and whole ingredients. Also, the farmer’s market, though it LOOKS more expensive on the surface (many ingredients appear to command more dollars per pound than at the supermarket), tends to be close to a wash. Before converting to a hard-core market shopper, I analyzed several months’ worth of grocery receipts and discovered an average produce expenditure of $30-$40 per week. At the farmer’s market, I’ll spend $40-$60 most weeks, but we seem to bring home a greater quantity (that’s just anecdotal — I have no proof), and we CERTAINLY waste far less of it. We’re eating everything we buy, which was never the case with supermarket produce. And we’re eating BETTER.
With the meat and seafood, we’re still adjusting to find the optimal balance, I’ll admit — being able to actually consider the quality of these items is still quite new to us. But in general, we’re committing to more vegetarian or pseudo-vegetarian meals (meaning that the squash soup might be made with chicken stock, or I might have used a few stray slices of bacon in the frittata). We’re also trying hard to do more with less; I’ll use 2/3 or 1/2 the amount of meat we used to, and compensate with some of those market fresh vegetables to bulk up the dish. And our latest tweak to the dinner routine — adding plates of sliced fruit, some homemade bread, or another “extra” item like kale chips to the table — helps fill everybody up with less expense.
This week is full of perfect examples. On Sunday, we made our two roast chickens — on the surface, not cheap, with the 10 pounds of high-quality chicken costing $18. By pairing it with several different grain and vegetable options, we got eight portions out of the first chicken. The second chicken has already yielded 3 portions, and the rest of it will be transformed into a chicken pot pie for tomorrow night — conservatively, that recipe will yield 6 servings. By my calculations, that means we’re coming in at just about $1 per serving for very good chicken, which is not shabby by anybody’s standards. Last night’s Spitfire Shrimp — an expensive meal — was stretched out by serving it on a generous bed of market fresh mixed greens. We served cheap and filling quesadillas on the side, with guacamole (made with sale-price avocados) and sliced fruits. While the shrimp probably come out to $2 or even $2.50 per portion, the whole meal was easily $4 or less per serving. You won’t get that kind of deal at any restaurant, nor that kind of quality, both in terms of freshness and health benefit.
I doubt that we’re radically different in our methods than anyone else, but what I’m trying to show is not creativity — it’s commitment. How you find ways to make your values fit into your income, when it comes to food, will be as individual as each reader of this blog, but in the end I think we’re demonstrating every day that it’s possible to find a comfortable compromise. And with that, I leave you with some real food for thought: the recipe for the filling Pumpkin Risotto I made over the weekend, which by my calculations cost all of $1.50 per serving. Rounded out with a salad of mixed greens, avocado, and dried cranberries, we ate like royalty for about $3 per person. Food for thought, indeed.