Thursday, February 11, 2010

Part 4, Lesson 1: Budget Foods

Part 4: "I Can't Afford Fresh Food"
Lesson 1: Budget Foods

Finally she's writing about money, right?

It is possible to eat real food on a budget.  I promise.  You may just need to adjust your shopping style.

Be A Coupon Ninja
This is the most time-consuming thing you can do, but the deals you can score are amazing.  The jist of super couponing is this: store has something on sale, say, 2 widgets for $1.  You have two coupons for $0.25 off 1 widget because you bought 2 Sunday papers or printed 2 off the Internet.  The store doubles coupons.  Thus you end up with 2 widgets for free.  I'll wait while you work out the math.

This is how you can get a lot of things for free or extremely cheap.  And you don't have to work out all the sales and coupons yourself.  Through the magic of the intarwebtubes people have done all the work for you: see A Full Cup, Pocket Your Dollars, and a number of other sites like these.  I've got a bunch in my RSS reader for ease of reading.

This all being said, don't be sucked into the trap of free or cheap convenience foods just for the sake of getting them free or cheap.  Bad free food is still bad food.  Get them and put them in a donation bin if you must.  Look for deals on produce (they exist!), pantry staples, and household goods.

Buy In Bulk
I'm sure you've heard this before, but have you ever actually taken a stroll through your store's bulk section?  Some stores are better than others and it can be worth it to drive a little farther to the store with the better selection.  If you're in Minneapolis, the Rainbow at Lake and Minnehaha has a stunning bulk area.

But the bulk section is scary!  There's all these bags and weighing and labels and scoops and oh god nobody is here to hold my hand fffuuuuuuu....

Get over it and stop being such a lazy asshole.  Grab a bag, a twist tie or label, and a golf pencil or one of the attached pens.  Scoop your stuff into the bag.  Write down the PLU, the number code on the bin of whatever you're buying, on the twist tie/label.  You don't even need to weigh it because the cashier will do that at checkout.

Better yet: bring your own container so you don't need plastic bags.  If you do this, weigh your container first and write the weight down on your label.  This is called the tare weight and you may need to remind your cashier about it.  Don't forget to write down the PLU too.  There's no need to make your cashier's life harder; they get enough shit from bad customers as it is.  Seriously, if you talk down to your cashier I will punch you in the face.

Another bulk tip: near the bulk bins you will usually find bulk or bagged spices.  Go ahead and compare the price of bagged peppercorns or cayenne with the jars in the spice section.  Mmm hmm.  Yup.

Farmer's Markets and Farmstands
If you have access to a farmer's market or a farmstand, GO.  The food is more often than not local, very often organic, as fresh as it gets, and cheap.  I mean, really, really, really cheap.  It's sickening to have to pay $1.49 or more for a single avocado at the supermarket when I know I can go to the farmer's market and get a bagful of 5-8 for $2 or less.

In addition to actually meeting and speaking to the actual farmers, you have the benefit of finding produce you never even knew existed.  When it's so cheap, why not try something new every week?

Ethnic Markets - Field Trip Time!
I went to United Noodles this weekend and picked up a pound of frozen shelled edamame for $1.49.  I usually get 12 oz for $2.59.  Lemons and limes can be had at Latino markets for a couple of bucks a bag, as opposed to $1 each at the supermarket.  Spices that run $8-10 for a few ounces can be found at Asian and Indian markets for pennies on the dollar.  I saw a huge bag of whole cardamom pods at United Noodles for less than $3.

So get on over that xenophobia and go.  You won't get any funny looks even if you're not brown or yellow.  The clerks are usually more than happy to answer questions and help you find stuff.

Don't pass by the ethnic aisles at the supermarket, either.  The Latino section, in particular, can score you cheap cinnamon, whole dried peppers, cayenne, beans, and rice.

Co-ops (really!)
Co-op and budget aren't usually two things that go together.  You picture co-ops as places where yuppies driving Priuses and Minis buy expensive organic soap and carrot juice.  While this is mostly true (Wedge, what up?), it is possible to find reasonable prices there too.  Membership truly has its advantages in the forms of coupons and member-only specials.  Co-ops usually have fabulous bulk sections too.

The only problem with CSAs is that you have to come up with the money up front.  It's a bit painful having to drop like $500 all at once, but if you think about it it actually works out.  You're getting local, organic (usually) produce, and a LOT of it.  If you freeze what you don't eat right away rather than giving it away or letting it go bad, you can stretch out your CSA goods well into the winter and maybe even beyond.

You can garden almost everywhere, even in an apartment.  If you get involved in seed swaps or seed giveaways, it's nearly free.  If you're in the "I hate tomatoes" crowd and have never eaten one straight off the vine, you may just change your mind.  Those mealy bastards at the supermarket have absolutely nothing on a homegrown heirloom tomato still warm from the sun.

Your Homework:
Find and visit an ethnic store or a farmer's market.  Buy at least one thing you've never heard of.  Research it online when you get home.

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