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More on Food

So, I know I owe you guys a post on why I asked about your grocery budget. Sorry it has taken me so long, but I went straight down the rabbit hole in my own head and haven't quite gotten out yet. But you were all so kind to tell me, and honestly I am so fascinated and intrigued by your comments that I keep going back to re-read them.

Here's the thing. Chris and I watched Food, Inc. a couple of weeks ago, and man but that movie was horrifying. I have never in my life been so glad to be a vegetarian as I was watching that movie. I could barely even sit through it. And it got me thinking: we are already vegetarian and I already avoid most processed foods and have already declared war on high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils and the children already get only organic milk and yogurt and eggs, but I can do better. I want to do better. I can buy organic butter and cheese too, even though the prices make me weep in pain. I can buy more organic produce, I can cook more, I can bite the bullet and make my own damned spaghetti sauce and salsa (but not bread, I hate making bread). And so I am gradually trying to make some changes to feed myself and my family in a way with which I am more comfortable. Fine, whatever, this is not about me.

My grocery bill is already outrageous - at least $1000 a month, usually closer to $1200. Like many of you, I don't know exactly how much of that is food vs. toiletries vs booze, but I know that is a lot of money to spend on food. I know that buying more organic food and trying to eliminate processed food will mean spending even more money. The idea doesn't thrill me, but I can afford it. And trust me, I know how very lucky I am to have the luxury of even considering $6 a gallon organic milk, much less going through eight to nine of those gallons every single month. This is my choice, we make sacrifices in other areas, again this is not about me.

At the end of Food, Inc. there was a "what you can do" bit that recommended things like buying organic, buying local, buying sustainable, buying in season. All great ideas. All expensive ideas. It made me wonder how many people could really manage that. How many people had enough room in their budgets to step out of the abundant and cheap but in many ways not ideal food supply that we have in this country and do it another way? I suspect that for a great many of us, this is not an option. And since I am and always have been a hippie at heart, I think it sucks that rich people can have safer, healthier food than everybody else.

None of that turned out to have all that much to do with what you guys spend on food, or at least it didn't without the additional details of what, exactly, you spend your money on, but your responses are still amazing. And I heard from many of you who do what I hope to do on much less than I spend, so you have inspired me to both eat better and spend less.

Now, wasn't that worth waiting for? (No, don't really answer that, my delicate little ego can't take it.)

Comments (40)

Read the Unhealthy Truth. It is equally as horrifying.

I couldn't afford to do it nor do I think it's necessary for me. I buy my milk, eggs, produce, and meat from reliable sources-it doesn't have to be organic to be good for you.

When organic food is available to the masses, I might reconsider. But right now I don't think it's necessarily better than what I'm eating. :)

I'm not sure that I buy the whole, "organic eating costs more than conventional" argument. You might find that if you cut out processed foods and start cooking from scratch, your bill will go down even WITH the addition of organic produce. I also don't believe that the "organic" label always means the best for the animals, the earth or the product. I could go on about this for quite a while but I'll stop here. Good luck!

If you want to eat high quality yogurt and still save a ton of money, make it yourself. It's the easiest thing you could ever do in the kitchen.

A yogurt maker (cheap 1 quart salton yogurt maker) is about $20 at target. Don't get the one with a bunch of seperate jays, just get the 1 or 2 quart one.

Heat milk to 170'. Let it cool to under 110'. Put 1/2 a cup of high quality yogurt in it -- not greek style, regular -- put it in the yogurt maker, wait 4-6 hours, take it out, put it in the fridge. Done.

Instead of $6 a quart, you get it for the cost of the milk. Save 1/2 a cup for the next batch. I've been doing it for a year -- my boys like plain yogurt so much, I even upgraded to a 2 quart maker because I got tired of making yogurt every day.

I look forward to hearing more about how you manage to work through the money vs. quality stuff. I'm glad to find out I'm not the only one who spends an outrageous amount of money on food. Well, not GLAD, exactly, but I always wonder what on earth I am doing so so wrong to be spending twice as much as everyone else says they do.

By the way, this has happened more than once when I try to submit a comment from the Preview screen--I get an error message saying that too many comments have been submitted and to try again. If I go back and DON'T preview it, things go through just fine. So it's not a really important problem, and maybe it's just me, but I thought you might like to know about it.

You should track your food budget for a month and see where it really does go. That can help you make good decisions. Maybe $200 of that budget is beer, and maybe you decide you are okay with that. At least you've made a conscious choice.

And think broader than just organic. Every spring I get a farm share, which I think is cheaper than going to the the farmer's market. The farm isn't registered organic, but they are. I don't buy organic milk or cheese. But I do buy from (somewhat) local companies that don't use growth hormones and do support farmer co-ops and smaller farms. I've thought through what really concerns me, and then I do the best I can with it.

"Organic" is now an overused marketing term and I think it is losing its meaning. Just the other day I read a blogger proudly declare they had organic salmon the night before. can't be organic if it's wild. And farmed salmon is much worse than wild salmon. So I'm guessing they paid a premium price for an inferior, and environmentally-worse, product. And don't even get me started on organic pop tarts, or cookies, or bloody Annie's mac and cheese.

This is like anything else. You take the first step, and then you take another, and then another, and you think about what you are learning along the way. I think it will get easier and I think it will get cheaper.

I'm sorry; I'm a total frugal food jerk. I really can't stop myself once I've started.

I read your blog a lot and always like what you have to say. We've been hit hard in this stinking economy and I've found myself grocery shopping at Walmart more and more and it makes me cringe. I too think it sucks that rich people get to eat safer, healthier food. I've cut my grocery bill (food only, about $550/mo) by over 1/3 by cooking at home, shopping the sales flyers, and using one of those online coupon sites, but I've had to also cut out all organics except milk and eggs. All I can do right now is try not to think about it too much (and definitely NOT watch that movie).

I'm not sure what our current monthly average is for food (because we don't have a budget! WHEEEEE!). However, here's a few things we do:

We buy local for as many things as we can. Eggs, honey, and maple syrup are quite easy to come by in our area. We have a local meat market that we try to frequent for the meat we do eat (as a former vegetarian of 10 years, it isn't much). We also belong to a CSA during the growing season. We get 1/2 share (which is about $12/week) and this is plenty for our family. (Because our children survive on oxygen and water).

The biggest thing that bugs me right now is our milk. We don't buy organic, but we buy a brand that is local and fresh. I would love to find a organic milk coop to be a part of.

This is one of those topics where I try to make little steps, slowly, towards my "ideal", instead of trying to do it all perfectly RIGHT NOW. During the winter, we still eat lots of not-local, not-organic stuff (especially produce) b/c in Minnesota that's really all that's available.

I'd love to be a locavore full-time, but man it would be hard to give up the things that don't grow here (coffee! citrus! avocados! so much more!)

We do the bulk of our grocery shopping at Trader Joe's. Not all of their stuff meets the standards you're looking for (they have some non-organic produce and probably some HFCS in their products), but it's generally easier to find the items you are looking for there than someplace like Giant. Plus, it is SO much cheaper than the regular grocery store or Whole Foods.

I'm hoping to get a CSA share starting in the spring. I think it's going to be way too many fruits and veggies for the two of us, but hopefully I can find some friends to split it with. Some farmer's markets (though not all) also offer their goods for cheaper than the grocery store.

As far as organic butter and milk, I'm just glad that we don't go through too much of it... it sure adds up!

(Also, I have the same problem Sahara mentions when I preview a comment.)

Also, something I learned during our first year of being a CSA member: to be certified organic is a MAJOR undertaking and quite costly. Very, very often, local growers are organic (at least in part), but do not jump through the hoops to become "certified". Just ask them- most are very proud of their growing practices (organic or not) and will be frank with how their farm operates.

As "our farmer" pointed out, being certified organic is really a protection for people who do not know their farmers. However, if you can talk to the food grower face-to-face and/or visit the farm, don't be a stickler for the "certified" label.

This PSA is now over, thank you. =)

What Kelly said.

I don't think organic food is necessarily healthier, I buy it because I support the methods of farming and think that it is better for the environment. And we can afford it. You'll find making your own stuff tastes so much better as well.

You could always start your own garden- that way you would know EXACTLY where your produce comes from. And it could be fun and educational for the kids too!

I think my plan will be to not watch Food, Inc. Then I can keep going as we are!

I was really curious when I read the comments last week. Families of 5 eating for 37 cents a week? What I am doing wrong?

I cannot watch that movie. It would be too scary. I'm part of an organic CSA. However, it's not really working for me and it's expensive. I don't know what my next step is.

I agree with the commentor that recommended making your own yogourt. Delicious and cheap. I do buy organic yogourt, specifically because it tastes way better. I also buy organic pasta sauce. Again, it tastes so much better.

Good luck Beth.

I know you've got that big beautiful yard ... is a garden something you could see yourself doing?

Look for cheaper ways, too! CSAs and other programs are usually a pretty good value, although with a traditional CSA you'll spend most of your summer freezing stuff because you get a LOT of veggies. Around here there's a program that's CSA-like, but year round. For $30 every two weeks we get a box of veggies that pretty much holds two adults for at least a week, maybe two. (Ours this week was very fruit-heavy, so we'll need to buy additional veggies but we're set on fruit.) It's all organic, a lot of it is grown in the region, and some of it comes from the farm itself. (Obviously more local produce gets included in the summer than in the winter.)

My point (and I do have one) is sometimes there are options that can help ease the financial pain of feeding your family good food. Sadly, I have no idea if such a program exists in your area, so this is probably largely unhelpful for you.

Hi Beth,

Here is my take on the food budget: in the long run, eating cheaply costs you a lot more money, especially in the States where the health care is so screwed up... So I don't think twice about spending the time and the money to give my family what's best (even tho we don't have a lot of money at all).
To me there is nothing more important than what you put inside your body, not the car you drive or even the house you live in!
Plus you can buy a lot of things in bulk (beans, seeds, rice, nuts) I know it's not convenient but it's even less convenient to have a cancer, heart disease or diabetes right?
Regarding organic fruit and veg there is this really good article ( that might interest you about what's worth getting organic and what's not when you are on a bit of a budget (basically anything that has none or thin skin is better eaten organic and the rest doesn't matter as much, ie strawberries ---> organic, lettuce---> organic, banana --> not organic).
Also since you seem interested in the subject, you might want to look into dairy. Here is a pretty good article on the subject And a really good book to read is 'The China Study' by T Colin Campbell. A whole bunch of scientists have discovered that dairy (and I am talking about dairy in general regardless of the fact that it is organic or not) is very damaging for one's health...
There is a lot more crap in a glass of milk than in a steak (again it doesn't matter if it's organic or not), and a lot more suffering too...
Plus, I'm asking: why pay 6 bucks for a gallon of organic milk when you can get a gallon of delicious organic almond milk for half that price?:)

This topic frustrates me to no end! I am trying really hard to do better by buying more organic for my family because it is really scary the crap that is put into our foods. I would be a vegetarian this minute but my hubby isn't quite there yet, so I make do. But I have to keep reminding myself the cost of the healthier food far out ways the cost of what we are doing to our bodies by feeding it all the hormones/chemicals/nitrates in the long run.

Also once you cut down or even cut out the meat, the dairy and the processed your shopping bills goes right down! Yes you spend more time cooking but cooking is more fulfilling than... let's say watch TV or sit in front of the computer and it's a good opportunity to get the family involved in the process, and get the kids to assist you!
Also some people mentioned growing your own veg in your garden and I give the triple thumbs up for that! If I had a garden of my own I'd do it right away! (and then you have a really good incentive to start a compost bin, if you don't have a one yet that is), and again gardening sounds like something fun to do as a family :)

So tonight I sat down with The Swimmy and watched it. She was asking questions about why all the food in the house was suddenly changing - thought it was time for her to see for herself.

Even an 8yr old gets it. (More to come on that in my next post)

Don't sweat the budget anymore. It costs what it costs until folks like the genius at Stoneyfield becomes the norm instead of the "new". And you're right, it sux others can't benefit as much as some. But don't focus on the dollars -- it's a means to a mission, yes? :)

Oh! Sorry I realize it's the third time I comment on here but I keep thinking about stuffs to say!
You know don't worry about the fact that you can afford better quality food than others because every time you go and buy good quality products, you are voting with your dollar for a certain type of industry and you are contributing to its success. Hopefully at some point it will become popular enough and prices will go down...
Ok I think I am done now :)

Oh my! I watched that movie too and was so unbelievably grossed out. Interestingly, when we stopped buying processed food or other food that I consider "junk" and started buying fresh food to prepare from scratch, even with adding organic ingredients to the mix, our grocery bill overall went down. I make almost everything from scratch now and the majority of our food is organic (there are definitely exceptions). It definitely took some time of trial and error, discovering what foods were staples, what foods we could tolerate buying that didn't have to be organic, what was cheaper for me to make myself, versus buying already prepared in the store. But it gets figured out. Good luck!

as for making bread, if you have a bread maker, it is ridiculously easy. i spent about $100 on a bread maker and am so thrilled with the results. fresh bread with only 4 ingredients (bread flour, salt, water & yeast!). it does everything for you -- the kneading, rising, baking, etc. there are a million recipes out there for different kinds of bread too -- i typically make french, but you can do whole wheat, oatmeal, rye, etc. i promise that it is so easy as to be ridiculous.

Yeah. I disagree that it sucks that rich people get the good food.

I grew up pretty poor. As in, my parents combined probably made less than your food budget. And even though it's gotten better, I know my mom still makes less. It's much easier to drive to McDonalds (which cost less gas money go get to, because no matter where you are it always seems to be closer than the grocery store) and pick up five burgers and five fries for 10 bucks. And unfortunately it's much more economical. I hate when people are just like well duh, don't eat McDonald's, eat better. But sometimes it's just not possible, when looking at those figures. Would 10 dollars have bought a meal at a grocery store? And not like a frozen bag, also processed and bad for you meal, a real. meal. Not likely. And I'm not even factoring in the organic part of the equation.

I'm planning on joining a CSA soon, and I'm going got start cooking more instead of shoving things from boxes in my food-hole. If you want to talk more about the things you're doing, I'd totally be interested. I'm in the same boat- my food terrifies me now. And I didn't even see that movie.

(And my admission of figures and total income less than your food budget was in no way to make you feel bad. I just used it as a reference, as an example that for some it's just not possible. I think it's great you're willing to spend to get the best for your family, and that you can. You guys totally deserve it.)

Looking forward to reading more about this over time. It makes me so mad that in order to eat healthy you have to spend more. My dad reviewed my budget and couldn't believe the amount I spend on food. But I pointed out that there are never chips or cookies (homemade once in a while) or other "junk food" in my house. Fruits, veggies, organic chicken, sometimes deli meat & deli cheese (I don't buy prepackaged). I make very little money, but try to make up for the amount of $ I spend on food by buying other things cheaper. I buy the cheapest paper towel I can find and don't use it too often as I have a bin full of rags for cleaning, spills, etc. I rarely buy cleaning products, because the majority of them bother my lungs. The tub does need a major scrubbing now and then so I do have chemical stuff for that. Yes, my house often smells like vinegar after a deep clean, but it fades away and it's cheap as hell. The only item I don't skimp on is TP, because...well I don't want to wipe with sandpaper. I have started buying organic milk because I can't drink milk and my daughter only goes through about 1/2 gallon a week, so price wise it's not too bad. I wish the good foods were available at better costs to everyone. It shouldn't be cheaper for me to buy a bag of chips and dip than to buy some damn fruit.

Very timely! We've been trying to do more local, organic for about a year now. I tried an organic produce coop, but I wasn't thrilled with what we were getting and where it was coming from - I just assumed it would be more local food.

I buy organic milk and local eggs, I make my own bread, (have you tried the bread machines lately, they do the whole thing for you) I even make my own ketchup. I'm branching out into other condiments too.

I'm always looking for new, sustainable, organic things to do, but I just can't afford to do everything. The cost of chicken breast on sale ($1.99/lb.) compared to the cost of organic ($6.00!) just isn't something I can consider.

I'm sure as more and more people do it, it will become more cost effective, but until then I do what I can.

We watched Food Inc about two months ago now and were horrified. I was a vegetarian for about 12 years, but gave it up 10 years ago. We already buy most organic, but like you, we could buy EVERYTHING organic. And then probably see our bill double. I try to do the best I can. We can't fix every problem. I worry about pesticides and ethical treatment of animals for now.

Given that my maths isn't good enough to work out our food budget in dollars (I'm across the pond) I didn't enter that debate. However, there are some great websites that help you find recipes for the seasonal food that can get boring (celeriac springs to mind!) - try:

Both can help you use seasonal ingredients and reduce food waste - which will help the budget.

I'm on organic dairy (we don't eat eggs very often and when we do I have a friend with chickens so can generally get free range) and everything else I tend to go with food miles/seasonality or organic (but won't by air freighted green beans just because they are organic in favour of locally grown ones from the almost organic local farm).

I, too, continue to be fascinated by this topic. As they say, with great knowledge comes great responsibility. It's easier if you don't really know or care too much about where your food comes from and what you're really putting in your body. BUT, even when you do care, and you can't afford it? GAH. That is something bothers me a great deal.

There is SO much to consider and it gets overwhelming. But, I like what some have said above: One step at a time. You learn as you go and you do what you can. I also have to echo what others have said about organic - it's not always necessarily the best (also true for free range - sometimes free range just means they have access to a tiny dirt lot). Do some research on Horizon Organics and Dean Foods and you'll see what I mean.

Last summer we purchased a quarter of a grass-fed steer from a local farm. The cow was raised lovingly and had a good life. It was not certified organic only because they fed it some grain for the last two weeks and no organic grain was locally available. Rather than truck the organic grain from California, they fed it was local. That's okay by me.

Thanks for bringing this up Beth. It's a topic I'm glad to see becoming gradually more mainstream, and one I am endlessly fascinated with.

what what what? wait wait wait!
some people on here BUY pasta sauce?? why the heck? it's the easiest thing ever, it makes itself while the pasta boils and tastes endlessly better than anything from a jar! and I'm a mum too, not someone who can spend hours in the kitchen supervising something or other while it simmers.
so, pasta sauce: let olive oil heat up in a pan while you chop up some onion and some garlic, throw them in the pan to fry a bit while you chop some tomatoes, chuck them in too, salt and pepper, put a lid on, wait until pasta is cooked, then stir and serve.

LOL. After working a 9 or 10 hour day and coming home to kids who just want to be with me and play with me, how is it that I am supposed to take a full hour out and make my own pasta sauce or yogurt? I've organized my life to be kid first, which includes providing for them and being a hands-on parent. Food is somewhere down the line. We almost never eat fast food, we rarely eat out at restaurants (once a month, maybe, because I make all of our meals at home. I select the healthiest foods of the ones readily available from our grocery store. I'm a nutrition label checker and I can count serving sizes and percentages.

Are the people who are able to take these extra steps all homemakers?

On the more serious side, I do wonder if we will one-day discover that our modern diseases are caused by the bastardization of our food.

I could have written your whole post, including the part about watching Food Inc a few weeks back and thinking we could do better.

A couple of "tricks" I've found is sometimes the grocery store will mark the milk down to $3 if it is within a few days of expiration. We use a gallon in a few days anyway and even when we don't I've never been freaked out by going past the expiration a few days. I end up getting a $6 gallon of organic for less than a gallon of the regular stuff. The other day I even got bold enough to ask if they could mark down a gallon that was getting close and they did! (I'm still toying with the butter and cheese thing. I hear you on the cost. I do buy the organic cheese slices as my 3-year-old loves to eat them plain but still havne't been able to justify the organic butter and cheese for us.)

We also do all dried beans -- not only for the cost but also because of BPA concerns in the can linings. This isn't super convenient for throwing things together though.

We live in a larger metro area but sadly have no whole foods or trader joes but I know we stock up on things when we hit another metro area about an hour away that has these.

Overall, though we have almost always cooked from scratch, bought store brand when applicable, used coupons, blah, blah -- basically all the advice you get from people who tell you how to reduce your bill. So when we started added more organic, our bill did go up and it isn't offset by the cooking from scratch thing. Not really sure of the point of this but wanted to empathize.

I know I need to see the movie and yet I am so terrified to, I can't bring myself to download it.

I just wrote about this a few weeks ago:

For me, it was a combination of Food Inc. and just being fed up with the low quality that the grocery store had to offer.

We are super poor right now. I have been out of work since October, just picking up a project here and there, and both my husband and I had a lot of medical issues last year, so we're drowning in medical bills. And we live in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

BUT what I have found is that on a trip to Whole Foods or some other small organic market, if I stick to basics and store brands, and cut out the extras like booze and snacks, I can really keep the bill about the same as what I was spending before. Sometimes even less, because there's so much LESS junk to tempt us.

We are not vegetarians, but I have cut back on the amount of meat we buy, and that helps a lot too. Organic meat is expensive as hell!

Yeah, Food Inc. really hit home for us too, and we already eat mostly organic. We try to avoid processed and stuff, but we're going through the hellacious picky toddler phase, so Annie's Mac and Cheese is at least a once a week lunch in our house, as are organic waffles. I can't say that I avoid ALL processed foods, but what I DO buy processed, I read the labels thoroughly.

The other thing is that we belong to a meat wholesaler. They have all natural beef, that's free of hormones and antibiotics and stuff. Now, how they treat their animals, I don't know. I've been pestering our service rep about that, but they come once every six months, and stock our freezer. I don't have to buy meat at the store, which is convenient for me. And I know that they don't treat their chickens with hormones, because our chicken breasts are like, half the size of the shit you buy in the store.

Quite frankly, I think it's ridiculous that the majority of this country doesn't see anything wrong with artifical colors or flavors, or any of that crap. Like, it's OK to drink blue drinks, or put red dye #40 in children's medicine. This stuff should not be in the food we eat.

Hi there,

We've been eating 95-99% organic food for 11 years now, but when my husband left his job last year to stay home with our toddler, we *really* thought we would be forced to eat conventional food. Five months later, I'm happy to say that not only are we still eating nearly all organic food, but we're also eating more local food *and* staying within our food budget of $400 per month. This month we decided to switch from occasional meat eaters to a vegetarian diet.

Here are some things that really helped us:
1. Planting a garden
2. Buying as much food as we could from organic farmers at the Farmer's Market (we even bought extra produce that we could store over the winter such as potatoes, winter squash, onions after looking up storage techniques online)
3. Using mostly in-season fruits and veggies
4. Asking the deli at our local natural food co-op for "bulk ends" of organic cheese. The bulk ends are funky shapes, but much cheaper than the pretty squares.
5. If you're really ambitious and can find time, can/freeze what you can. This has really helped not only our budget, but significantly reduced how much trash our family produces. Maybe it is the sweat equity, but the food seems to taste better too? My husband cans tomatoes (he blogged about it here, jams, pickles, and dilly beans. He freezes spinach, kale, chard, and green/yellow beans.

I was also inspired by this article from Salon:

I just thought of a couple more things!

6. Check for online coupons (e.g.
7. Buy in bulk
8. Join a local co-op that offers discounts to members (We get a once-a-month discount and use it when we stock up on things like olive oil and 25 lbs. of flour!)

I'll be quiet after this I promise!

9. We make our bread using this no-knead recipe Along the way we figured out that we could ditch the whole bit about wrapping the dough in a cloth; we mix all the ingredients in a bowl, let it sit overnight, add the remaining flour, mix, let it sit for another couple hours, preheat the dutch oven, follow instructions for baking, done!

So I love all the talk over here about food costs and what you're making for dinner and such. I struggle with having to prepare endless meals and also care about what we're eating while not spending all our money. I find my investment in foodstuffs goes in waves though. Some months its "more vegetables now!" while the next month can be "evil non organic processed food die now!" I'm still trying to figure out which food battles to pick and stick with.

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