Rising Food Costs

Easy Peasy Grape Juice – fast and great on a frosty December morning.

In my previous post I talked about the issue of rising food costs: major highlight, an increase of 12-13% for overall food costs in the last year. We all have to eat, feed our kids and try to help people who are in much worse shape than we are. So what can you do? Strategies fall into two groups. First, what to do this week and second, what to do in the long run. Some of these strategies, in my opinion, are things we should all be doing all the time, anyway.

What To Do about Rising Food Costs Right Now

  • Buy seeds for next year’s garden. Do this even if you don’t have a garden spot – you can figure out where you’ll do your gardening over the next couple of months. Seeds are cheap, and the rate of return is excellent.
  • Stock up on canned food, dried beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains; they are only going to get more expensive in the next few months, because everyone else is doing the same thing. Freeze-dried is an option, but it’s expensive. However, it does take up less space.
  • Shop grocery outlets and day-old baked goods stores. Name brands are almost never worth the extra money – go store brand or generic. Buy in bulk and on sale ONLY if your family likes to eat it (or if you can camouflage it so they will eat it). By the way, expiration dates are meaningless in most cases. If that canned tomato sauce is on sale because it’s about to expire, snap it up. Figure it will be perfectly edible for at least a year past the expiration date.
  • Next, change your eating habits – if orange juice is pricey, look for a lower cost juice; apple juice generally is less expensive. Make your own stovetop popcorn instead of going the microwave route. Stretch the beans with a little meat, eggs or cheese. Don’t buy prepared foods – make it yourself. Along those lines, go for simple recipes that are easy to tweak.
  • Never waste a mouthful. Eat last night’s dinner for breakfast. Trust me, the food police will not come knocking on your door because breakfast was pizza, enchiladas or a chef’s salad. Turn leftovers into another dish. Check your pantry, fridge and freezer before you go to the store so you don’t buy more of something when you already have plenty.
  • Take a few hours and make the rounds of the food stores in your community to create a price comparison notebook. This strategy from Amy Dacyzyn, of Tightwad Gazette fame, will really open your eyes to the differences from store to store. Don’t go overboard here. Running around from store to store every week is more costly in terms of time and gas. However, picking two stores with consistently lower prices and shopping there in alternate weeks is often a moneysaver. When I first did this, I was surprised that organic produce was less expensive at the local health food store than at the grocery for the same options. Meat, milk and eggs, however, were more costly at the health food store.
  • One of the first things you often see on the topic of food costs is to plan your menus. In my experience, that’s not a useful strategy. If you’re growing your own, you don’t know whether the eggplants will be ripe in time for Thursday’s dinner. If you’re shopping, you don’t want to be locked into frozen green beans when winter squash is less expensive this week. However, do make a list – something like 3 pounds of cheese as opposed to specific cheeses – and buy whatever is least expensive.
  • Using coupons is not all it’s cracked up to be. While coupons may save you money, you’re usually buying prepared foods you can make yourself for a lot less. Not to mention that you have to clip, sort and store them. That time could be spent cooking from scratch or weeding the garden. However, a coupon for the raw materials (my experience is that these are uncommon) might be worthwhile. The other thing about coupons is that you’re typically staying in the habit of buying high-end stuff. Are you going to switch to lower cost items if the coupons aren’t available, or sigh and fork over extra dough? Remember, it’s your total expenditures that matter in the long run.

What To Do In The Future

  • If you know me, you know my obvious first response is going to be grow your own wherever possible. Apartment dwellers, think window boxes, patio or terrace containers and sprouted seeds. Many cities and even small towns have community gardens. Those with a yard can grow a lot of food in a small space; I discussed growing food in 25-square foot space in this post. Plant an apple tree instead of a maple. Lobby your homeowner’s association for permaculture food plantings in the front yard.
  • In many cases, a farmer’s market or CSA will offer lower prices for many foods. You may be able to bargain for leftovers at the end of the day at a farmer’s market. If you have a skill that a farmer might find useful, see if you can barter for food. Or offer to help an elderly neighbor in the garden in return for fresh produce.
  • Freeze, can or dehydrate your own. By the way, don’t forget to calculate total costs when you’re doing it yourself. Starting from scratch (meaning you have to buy equipment, jars, freezer paper, etc.) and considering ongoing energy costs, it costs about 3-4 times more to freeze and store your food compared to either canning or dehydrating. One estimate I saw was $0.16 a pound for freezing and around $0.5 per pound for canning or dehydrating.

The suggestions above are just a start to help deal with rising food costs. Other strategies may work better in your particular circumstances. The key is to practice them regularly and always be on the lookout for ways to save money on food.

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