Monday, May 26, 2008

$50 a Month for Groceries

Food prices have been going up, and everyone who's paying attention has felt the pinch. We're foodies in my house, and we cook from scratch most of the time. We also have a very well stocked pantry, a large garden just getting started outside, four laying hens, and a chest freezer that's so full it's difficult to navigate. So at the beginning of May I decided that we would have an experiment this month: $50 for groceries, for two people, for the whole month.

I figured we would still need to buy milk, other dairy products, and a few cooking staples such as onions and garlic. (We've got garlic in the ground, but it's not mature yet.) Aside from these few things that we can't provide for ourselves and we can't do without, we'd be eating from our reserves and the current usufruct of our mini-homestead. Despite a few missteps, I'd say it's worked pretty well. But I should explain all the exceptions and wheretofores.

First of all, I bake all the bread we eat and I also sell breads. It so happened that I ran out of flour this month. I bought 100 pounds of flour wholesale and did not charge this against our grocery bill. Why not? you may fairly ask. Because the money came out of my egg and bread money, the funds I get for these items that I sell occasionally. I keep the money in an envelope, and pay for chicken feed and baking supplies out of it. In other words, our eggs and bread supplies pay for themselves, with a little of my labor thrown into the bargain. I had the cash on hand and will replace it with a few more bread sales.

Secondly, my husband travels almost half time for work. He was home more than gone in May, but even so he had some grocery expenditures that are simply too difficult to incorporate into our grocery experiment. I pack a great deal of homemade food for him so that he's not tempted to eat out much. He has my baked goods and fruit for breakfast every morning, and I send frozen homemade dinners along with him too. So those meals do count as coming out of our stored food assets.

Thirdly, when I do buy groceries, I buy organic or at farmers markets. This means that my food dollars are buying smaller quantities of more nutrient-rich foods. But I didn't count any non-food grocery store purchases against my $50 limit. Toilet paper and soaps don't come out of the freezer.

Here are some meals I've put together this month out of foods we have on hand:

Mirin-glazed salmon with sushi rice and garden lettuce salad

Tomato and spinach strata with garlic toasts

Thin crust pizza with bacon and fresh sage from the garden

Homemade bagels

Chard, frozen spinach and roasted potatoes with cream and Indian spices, served with basmati rice or sourdough crepes

Pasta arrabbiata with peas and parmesan
Sushi rolls with leftover mirin-glazed salmon
Smoked whitefish chowder with bacon and peas
Pad see ew (Thai rice noodles with pork cutlet, cabbage, egg and hoisin sauce)
Sushi rolls with garden lettuce and tamago (sweet egg omelet)
Peach sourdough pancakes
Kheer (milky Indian dessert with leftover basmati rice)
Chocolate-hazelnut sourdough crepes
"Cheater's" huevos rancheros (eggs fried/cooked in salsa)
Roesti potato cakes
Scrambled eggs with caramelized onion and shredded zucchini

As you can see, we're eating pretty well and I haven't busted out many of the frozen roasts yet. We're working on the salmon first.

It's May 26th and so far I've overspent my monthly food budget by about $2.50. I still have plenty of food to eat, but I will probably need to buy milk before the month is out. Yet this month-long experiment has been good for me. My meal planning has shifted quite a bit. Rather than simply following my whimsical foodie moods, I start by taking stock of what's on hand. What's out there growing in the garden that needs to get used? What can I make with what I've got? How long can I go between runs to the grocery store? What's at the bottom of that freezer? And what am I going to do with all these eggs? It's not unusual for me to eat an egg as part of two meals in a day now. Good thing our pastured eggs are lower in fat and cholesterol than the ones from the store. The pantry is looking a little less chaotic, and the refrigerator a lot less so, but the freezer is still almost full. (Partly that's due to me stockpiling bread so that I needn't bake so much over the summer.) I've made fewer trips this month to the grocery store and a lot more to the garden. And the bottom line is I've eaten extremely well.

True, we're not really surviving on just $50 of groceries. We're eating out of previous purchases and what we're producing right now. But using up what we have is the point. Even in a non-cycling chest freezer food will eventually go off. I don't want one bite of that food to go to waste, which means we need to get serious about using it up. I recognize that what we're doing, or trying to do, isn't feasible for everyone. Not everyone has a big pantry, space for a big garden and laying hens, or a freezer full of food. But maybe you have a few things tucked away that you've forgotten about. Why not see what meals you can make of them. Think of it as an opportunity to get creative. Necessity is, as they say, the mother of invention.

I've been so impressed with my own changed mindset and very near achievement of my goal that I'm going to set the same challenge for myself for next month. This time I won't be lured into buying even the cheap store-brand soda that seemed like a frugal deal. I do regret that this experiment leaves me feeling tightfisted even when it comes to local farmers markets. I like to support local and sustainable producers. But nothing is more local than my own substantial garden. It should produce a good deal more for us in June than it has so far in May.

Related Posts

June Report
July-August Report
Four Cornerstone Meals for Frugal Living


Anonymous said...

Your food looks delicious. Would you mind sharing your recipe for the homemade bagels?

Kate said...

Anon, thanks! I'm sorry, but the recipe is very long to type out, and there might be copyright issues. But I can tell you where to find it. I use the bagel recipe in the cookbook The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Check your public library!