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Eating Clean and Saving Money

November 29, 2012

There’s a lot of junk in your food. That’s not news if you read the FLB with any regularity. Luckily, there is an increasing number of places to get clean, ethically sourced, non-industrially produced foodstuffs.

But these things can be expensive. I was just looking at a pack of ground beef that was going for $9 per pound. And it was frozen. Maybe it’s the greatest ground beef in the world from the happiest of steers, and a value at the price. However, when a savvy supermarket shopper can find a rib roast for $6 per pound from a conventionally raised cow, it’s hard to swallow a 50% premium over primal cuts for hamburger.

So what’s an ethical omnivore with a finite food budget to do?

The answer kind of reminds me of fashion magazines when they run stories such as, “How do you get that look?” Because there are some things that you just have to splurge on. But those splurges become more affordable as you save money elsewhere.

Good meat is a splurge. But even that can be managed by choosing your cuts wisely. We can talk more about meat cuts later. Because that’s still in the splurge category. Today is about the savings.

You have to remember that time and money are inversely proportional.

If you’re working, you are making money but have very little time. If you aren’t working, you’ve got tons of time but limited money. There is no magic to this. Saving money takes time.

Let’s take comparison shopping for a moment. The Fussys get their food from our CSA/farmers markets, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Honest Weight Food Co-op, Hannaford, and Price Chopper. Of these, the co-op is by and large the most expensive of the bunch. However, their sales can be great. In fact a recent sale had Barbara’s Bakery cereals priced lower than the same boxes on the shelves at Trader Joe’s.

One thing that makes comparison shopping a little bit easier is that TJs doesn’t have sales. And while their prices may change over time, there isn’t the week to week or month to month fluctuations of other markets. It’s good to learn the prices of your favorite products and use them as a baseline.

For example, two organic green bell peppers from TJs cost $2.99. Yes, that’s a splurge. However conventionally raised bell peppers carry a heavy pesticide load, so I’m happy to pay the premium. At the co-op as a non-member I paid $3.47. TJs also has a great price on organic 100% whole wheat pasta at $1.39 per pound. The sticker price of similar pasta at the co-op is so terrifying that my subconscious blocks it from view.

My strategy is to come to the co-op first and pick up whatever non-perishables are on sale that look good before heading over to Trader Joe’s. After all, there are some things the co-op carries that I can’t find elsewhere, like organic canola oil in glass bottles (which were on sale yesterday for $7.89 for 32 oz – down from $11.99).

At $2.99 TJ’s has the lowest price for 32 oz tubs of low fat organic plain yogurt. They beat out Walmart’s price on Stonyfield. And while the TJs product is their private label, it’s pretty similar when mixed with granola or used in cooking. The same goes for sliced and string cheese made from the milk of cows that weren’t treated with rBST. These are lunch and snack time staples of fussy little children everywhere.

Even if you don’t maximize your savings by comparison shopping, unprocessed ingredients that require more preparation cost less than those that are quicker to prepare. [Mrs. Fussy notes: Except for Ramen!]

Dried beans are a staple of the house. They are crazy cheap, come in an amazing variety of colors and forms, are nutritious as hell, and make a ton of non-animal protein rich food. Given how they are grown, buying organic is less important than for other crops. However it takes time to make dried beans delicious.

Grain based meals are fantastic too. Now that it’s winter, making polenta (or cornmeal mush) is more of a pleasure than a chore. It still takes a long time for the dish to come together. But that can be mixed with some cheese or topped with mushrooms, and it’s a hearty, deeply warming meal. Honest Weight sells organic polenta in bulk for just over a dollar per pound. It may not pass muster with the great chefs of Italy, but it’s totally fine for a family dinner.

The time starved get screwed on other convenience foods too, whether it’s pre-chopped onions or butternut squash that’s been peeled and seeded. It’s really easy to reach for these at Trader Joe’s and feel like it’s a great deal, because they are relatively inexpensive. But they aren’t.

A better choice is just to get better with your knife skills. Hopefully you have at least one good chef’s knife at home. But once you have a little practice, cutting up an onion shouldn’t take much time at all. And at the end of the day, triple washed greens may be something where you are willing to sacrifice value for convenience.

It’s about choices. And if you make smart ones, you can eat cleanly without breaking the bank. Plus still have a few dollars left over for a splurge or two.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2012 11:38 am

    I fail to see how shopping at Walmart constitutes purchasing something “ethically sourced” and how canola oil, however organic, constitutes purchasing something non industrially produced since its creation is pretty much the definition of industrial food production.

    Party pooping aside, I’m curious about if you considered the Roxbury winter share. We went for it and I’m a little terrified about how I’m going to store it all. I might start canning again.

    Also, I really wish there was a Costco in the capital region (perhaps in east greenbush?? pretty please??) We make the trek to Springfield MA maybe 4 times a year to pick up $4/pound organic chicken and ground beef. It’s not certified humane or animal welfare approved, but it’s reasonably decent and the best we can afford.

  2. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    November 29, 2012 12:18 pm

    Canned beans are even cheaper than dried–and save lots of time.

    • Amy permalink
      November 29, 2012 2:20 pm

      How do you figure that, Mr. Sunshine? One can of beans is about the same price as a pound of dried beans, and after you cook up those dried beans you have about 4 times the beans. Cooking is quick and easy in the pressure cooker (about 30 minutes starting from dry, half that time if soaked), and you can control the amount of sodium.

      • Mr. Sunshine permalink
        November 29, 2012 2:23 pm

        I read it in a Time Mag. article by Mehemet Oz.

      • Mr. Sunshine permalink
        November 29, 2012 6:27 pm

        I went to PC and compared: you get about 3.5 servings per can for $.89. Dried is $1.49 or so for 12 servings. Clearly Oz is wrong.

      • November 29, 2012 10:56 pm

        The Time article is for subscribers only, but a detailed summary on wrote the following.

        “Dr. Oz stated that studies also have found that canned foods often are a more efficient way to get food based on cost, time and waste than fresh food. He pointed out that canned pinto beans were a dollar less per serving than dried pinto beans while canned spinach was 85% cheaper than fresh spinach.”

        So while canned pinto beans are indeed more expensive and are likely sophisticated with BPA (from the can lining), if you factor in time and waste and magically quantify those into a dollar amount, based on some black box calculator, canned beans come out cheaper.

        All I know is that we don’t waste any beans when making them from scratch, and it’s more of a background activity that fills the house with enticing aromas.

        While I appreciate Dr. Oz’s support of GMO labeling, he’s clearly a ninny.

  3. Randy K permalink
    November 29, 2012 1:23 pm

    Also check out for winter produce deliveries, if you’re lucky enough to live or work near one of their deliver sites!

  4. November 29, 2012 1:48 pm

    FLB regarding knife skills you are on the mark. I’ve seen some folks who take over 5 min. to mince an onion. The knife is the most important tool in the kitchen, if its sharp. I think the key is organization and the basic “mis en place” but again you use your knife for that, Start with a 6 in. chefs knife and when you’ve mastered that move up to what’s your comfort level. Japanese knives are very thin and sharp and are a good option but expensive. I have a mix of Japanese, Wustof and Henkels but most of the time I’m grabbing a 4 in. pairing knife and a 6 in. chef knife.

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