A cheap person’s guide to buying groceries in expensive times.

Hi, I'm unhinged.

If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s thinking the worst and preparing for disaster. I will overreact to the most non-threatening stimuli, which is what makes me such an excellent marriage partner, parent, and employee. The little one made Lego characters of our whole family from a kiosk in the mall, and mine is the only one who looks alarmed. “It looks just like you!” Thanks.

Depending where you live, groceries are going up for a variety of reasons. Here in Canada, we’re affected by a number of issues, including the California drought and our plummeting dollar. The symbol of the insanity that is our cost of groceries right now is the ten dollar cauliflower; this trendy ingredient is now more expensive than a cello-wrapped package of twelve chicken thighs, and people are pissed.

If you’re ordinarily a tense person and you’re on a budget, you may be inclined to panic.

BUT WAIT. DON’T. And let me tell you, if I am telling you not to panic, you should not.

“But Emily,” you might say. “I saw the Lego you. You look unhinged.” That is true, and generally an accurate depiction of me, but when we’re talking about groceries, a few things are also true.

Yes, many common ingredients are now very expensive and things seem bleak and terrible. As someone who always feels this way, let me reassure you: There are things you can do to get through the winter without blowing your budget or losing your mind.

Side note: There are also very good cook books you can buy to inspire you. Ahem.

Secondary side note: I have tips for the Farmer’s Market too, but I’ll save those for another day this week. Stay tuned.

Think about what’s in season locally

Right now, in British Columbia where I live, apples, cabbage, pears, rosemary, sage, turnips, and winter squash are all in season (source: BC Association of Farmer’s Markets). You can find lists of what is in season in your area online, or pop by your local Farmer’s Market and see what local folks are selling. Potatoes, onions, and carrots that have been in cold storage since the fall are also affordable, depending on where you shop.

Root vegetables, tubers, and squashes are all very reasonable in winter. They make excellent gratins, stews, and soups, which is what you need to be eating right now anyway. It’s cold outside. Squash soup will make you feel good.

Where you shop matters

If you learn nothing else from me, let it be that you should not buy all of your groceries in one place. Is that annoying and occasionally time consuming? Well, yeah. But so are most things in grown-up life, and at least if you have to go to four different places to buy groceries, you’ll earn yourself a long-term sense of what things should cost (or at least, what to never buy full price).

This is a fairly obvious point, but then you find yourself at Save-on-Foods not saving money on any foods and I hope at that moment you think to yourself “WHAT WOULD EMILY DO?” because what Emily would do is haul ass out of that supermarket post haste. I buy my produce at farm markets and A&L or Kim’s Market (both on Broadway in Vancouver) where the prices mean the food turns over quickly and is always fresh.

Convenience is expensive. So it goes.

Try something new

Okay, so lettuce is out of the question because it’s five dollars a head. You don’t get to have lettuce right now (it sucks, but spring is around the corner and then we’ll all eat butter lettuce until we burst). Try ong choy (sometimes labelled “water spinach”) or yu choy; these Chinese greens are abundant in Asian markets and generally very reasonable. Don’t know what to do with them? As a rule, anything stir fried with garlic and chilies or garlic and sesame oil is delicious; if you’re not convinced, check the Google.

Don’t have a market that sells Chinese greens nearby? Make something new out of something familiar – onions have many main-course applications, including soups, bread puddings, or egg dishes; celery can be braised, thinly sliced and served as a salad with green apples, or turned into soup. Carrots can do anything. Garlic? Surprisingly versatile.

Reconsider your meat budget

A lot of the same people complaining about the cost of vegetables are still happily serving meat as a main. I love meat, but I don’t love not having wine money, so we build meals that aren’t focused on protein a few nights a week and we’re surviving just fine, even the diabetic among us.

Tofu, canned fish, peanuts, eggs and pulses (chickpeas, lentils, split peas, beans) will fill your protein requirements in budget-friendly ways; the price of a bunch of broccoli is a lot easier to take once you toss a few costly proteins out of your cart. Some of the non-grain grains, like buckwheat and quinoa, are good sources of protein and are often pretty cheap in bulk or on sale.

Check your flyers and loyalty programs

I load apps (PC Plus, Shoppers Optimum, etc.) on my phone with coupons every Thursday or Friday to save on canned veggies and fish, condiments, and dairy products, which helps me plan my meals for the week around what’s on sale. If it’s not on sale, we don’t get to have it that week. There’s always something on sale, though. Always.

Check the freezer section

And the canned veggies section. There are usually deals to be had here, especially on store-brand products. What is the difference between No Name and regular frozen spinach? Price. Frozen and canned foods are more nutritious than fresh, out-of-season fruits and veggies in the produce section, which I told you to avoid anyway. Get away from there. Too expensive.

Make one dish

Partly because I’m lazy and partly because I have to feed a small child, I am not making multiple dishes on a weeknight. We will have a curry and a rice. Or a stew and some bread. Or a big pile of cheesy pasta with veggies hidden inside. But I am not making three things for a kid to reject and not eat. I only have the energy for one battle per night, and Nick handles tooth-brushing and pajamas.

Make one dish and stretch it. Are you making pasta? Add some chickpeas. Are you making fried rice? Shred some carrots and cabbage into it and fry up a couple of eggs. Make omelettes or a big frittata. Make a curry with squash or potatoes and dissolve some red lentils into it. Blend everything that’s wilting in your crisper into a creamy soup. Make one nutritious thing, and enough of it to make leftovers for lunch, and that’s plenty.

Especially in North America, we have this weird idea that we need to have a meat, a starch, a vegetable, and maybe a salad at every meal. This weird idea gives me hives. In my wallet.

Boost flavour with condiments

Try kimchi – it’s magical and probiotic and makes everything (including your poops) better. Mustard, hot sauce, fish sauce – these will elevate the humble potato or dollar bag of noodles into something worth serving to company and/or Instagramming. Condiments are cheap, used sparingly, and last forever in your fridge or pantry.

Anything with strong flavours will go a lot farther – I buy small amounts of aggressive cheeses, lots of canned oily fish (mackerel, herring, sardines), the occasional cured meat, interesting vinegars, and fresh herbs and put them with very modest ingredients, like eggs, frozen corn, stale bread, or canned tomatoes and dry pasta. I never run out of coconut milk, spices, pickles and capers, or olive oil. Bright-flavoured ingredients make even the simplest dish feel special.

Be adventurous

Now is as good a time as any to branch out and try something new, whether that new thing is a green vegetable you’ve never heard of or a total revamping of what you’re willing to consider a meal. Unless you’ve got specific marching orders from your doctor, the rules of dinner are flexible and up to you, and if you say that your family is having soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, well, I say they’ll probably love it.

We’ll get through this. We always do.

Do you have money-saving tips? Did I miss anything? Please tell me!

 

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11 thoughts on “A cheap person’s guide to buying groceries in expensive times.

  1. Great post Emily. I also buy all my fruit and veggies from my local veggie guy, Farmer Joe’s. Great prices, fresh veggies and even a full discount table of good stuff to eat in the next few days!

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  2. Excellent post. Nice to see an actual blog out there. This is what I’ve been saying for years to everyone I know that complains about the cost of food, especially with teenagers. It’s so easy to buy groceries if you use those simple steps and ideas 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Keep a big Ziploc bag in the freezer. Whenever you cut up carrots, onions, celery, etc. toss the ends/tops in. Add leftover chicken (and/or whatever other) bones too. Once the bag seems full enough, roast it all and then throw it in a slow cooker with water and a bay leaf and you’ll have delicious, free stock. Put it back into freezer bags and lay flat on a cookie sheet for easy freezer storage.

    Or call it bone broth, sell it at a premium, and go buy cauliflower.

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  4. You should always check out the discount rack at the store as well. Sometimes everything’s slimy or there’s nothing there but mushy brown avocados, but I picked up a perfectly good head of cauliflower there for about $3 because there was a little bit of brown on the top–really, a teeny-tiny bit. I cut it off and wound up discarding about half a tablespoon. I got a head of lettuce there the same day for about $2, and all it needed was the tips of some outside leaves cut off. The interior was perfectly fine. You can sometimes get vegetables that they’ve culled (because they’re bruised, or a little wilted or dented) and while they might not want to sell them for you to eat, just tell them they’re for a horse or pigs or something. They don’t need to know. Also, meat that is close to its sell-by date is often discounted, sometimes 30 or even 50%; I split it into portions and put the entire package in the freezer as soon as I get home.

    Keep up the good work, Emily. Your posts always make me laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

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