Buying from scratch when you can’t afford organic

One of the things I’ve struggled with lately is the idea of putting certain chemicals in my body through the food I eat and the personal care products I use. I’ve really been trying to get away from over-processed foods, especially since I’m currently pregnant. When you start to research some of things that are put into our food from raising the animals or plants to the creation of the final product, it really is quite scary!

I can buy organic foods at our local Walmart and our Giant Eagle grocery store, but the prices are sky high. Walmart isn’t too bad – I can buy a can of organic spaghetti in a can for $1.29 – but selection is extremely limited. The same exact can at Giant Eagle is $2.99 (but they have an incredible selection!) For the record, the same can of spaghetti circles in a well-known non-organic name brand is about $0.89 at our Walmart. Both stores are five miles from my house.

I can also make a 40-minute trip (mostly country roads, so it’s about 15 miles) to the nearest natural foods store, and find every variety of organic food possible. The same can of Annie’s Organic Spaghetti in a can would be about $2 at this store, but the distance is prohibitive, unless I’m already out in that area.

So what do you do? You want to avoid those additives – growth hormones, genetically modified foods, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors – but how do you do that when you simply can’t afford the price or the distance?

I’ve found I can avoid a lot of these additives simply by buying ingredients to cook from scratch. Buying flour, baking powder, sugar, and cocoa to make chocolate cake may have some pesticides or genetically modified components, but you won’t find the preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and other additives you find in a boxed cake mix. (Speaking of other additives, why is there high fructose corn syrup in that non-organic spaghetti-in-a-can?)

It’s also cheaper to buy organic flours and sugars than it is to buy the organic boxed cake mix – but it’s almost always cheaper to cook from scratch – organically or not.

The biggest arguments I hear against cooking from scratch are time and knowledge. I often hear that cooking from scratch requires more time, but I can’t say I’ve really had that experience unless I’m comparing cutting up fresh vegetables to put in a stirfry compared to simply pouring in a bag of prepackaged veggies and meats and heating. Most of the time, it is just as quick to prepare a meal with fresh foods as it is to prepare a box meal.

I also hear people say they don’t know how to cook from scratch. Cooking can be tricky, but it’s not that difficult. A good cookbook goes a long way – I particularly like the old Good Housekeeping, Betty Crocker, and Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks. If you can find an old copy, grab it up! It’s full of every imaginable recipe – and all from scratch.

When you can’t buy organic – buy from scratch. Less processing = fewer chemicals, additives, fats, sodium, etc. You control what you put in your body – you may not be able to completely eliminate bad things like growth hormones, pesticides, and GM food, but it will be a great improvement on prepackaged foods.

That Unforgettable Grocery List – ShopGetWhat.com

Two weeks ago I posted about my new approach to making a grocery list. A comment on that post by “Yoshi” contained some blatant advertising for his site, which claims to make your list-making easier. But, hey, it’s not about the advertising if it’s a good product, so I went to check it out at ShopGetWhat.com.

It’s a very basic program that allows you to login to your account and edit a printable grocery list. I don’t know if it fits my needs, but it’s well worth a look if you are the type that has two (or more) grocery lists going at the same time – one on your refrigerator, one at work, and one in your purse or wallet!

So, my view on this new website? Well…

1. It’s convenient for those who often think of things while at work. You can log in from any computer to add to your list. Of course, if you are like me and rarely leave the house (or so it seems) this may not be the most efficient way to make up a list unless your computer is running all the time.

2. The program is basic – no frills, no fancy features. I actually like that a lot. The programmers were obviously thinking of the people who might use this program – busy people who don’t want to deal with slow loading pages or a huge variety of features. People who don’t want to sit down and learn a program just to list groceries.

One of the problems I’ve run into with similar programs in the past was the fact that the program included pre-defined grocery items. It was difficult to insert something not on the list – like stevia sweetener or Big Train Chai (yum.) Worse yet, some programs started the list for you, so even if you didn’t need milk, eggs, and butter, there they were on your list!

At ShopGetWhat, I was able to simply type in what I wanted. It gives you some prefilled items in a drop down box if you are in a hurry.  Click the box to the left and it crosses the item out. Hit the trash button on the right and it removes it from your list. That’s it!

3. Items can be reordered – you don’t want eggs right after canned soup? Drag and drop “eggs” wherever you would prefer them to be.

4. I did have one problem with this simple program – there is a choice to “add a group” – I’m not really sure what it’s for, and I couldn’t find an explanation on the site. I tried adding several groups – “produce,” “dairy,” and “meat.” When I started adding regular items to my list, these “groups” disappeared. I’m writing the web site owner with a link to this post – hopefully he’ll answer here or by email so we can figure them out!

Organizing the Grocery List

Have you seen the movie “New York Minute” with Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen?

(Should I be admitting I’ve seen that?)

The two actresses play sisters (big surprise, right?) – one is laid back and messy, and the other is organized to the point of neurotic. In one part of the movie, you get a glimpse of the neurotic sister’s planner, and every single thing is planned out – right down to the minute.

That’s me. Well, okay, maybe I’m not that bad, but I require lists. Grocery lists, to-do lists, home repair lists, and on and on.

I used to keep a planner, but I don’t have enough room in even a student planner to put everything I need to list. So I moved on to notebooks. I can’t say I often completed a lot of the things on those lists – a 100 point to-do list can be a little overwhelming.

My mom came up with an even better way to organize these lists, and she shared it with me. She has a notebook divided into parts – one part has a running “to-do” list just like mine. It includes things that have to be done right away and things that are long term. Another part of this notebook contains her “to buy” lists – groceries, clothing needs, etc.

Every day she takes a look at her “to-do” list and picks 5 or 6 things she knows she can get done that day. She’ll adjust that number depending on the size of the items and the time she has. She writes them on a large sticky note and sticks it to the front of her notebook/planner. Those are her goals for the day. And she is able to get through the larger “to-do” list in her notebook because she’s only doing bite-size chunks and not trying to get as much done as possible in one day.

Okay, that’s been really effective for me, too. And time management is important.

But I didn’t actually write all that so you could learn a new time organization trick.

I wanted to share that because recently I’ve been trying to find ways to stay within our $100 monthly grocery budget. And one of the things I realized I was doing was going shopping way too often. I tried to shop once a week, but we always ran out of something important three days in. Why? Because I wasn’t organized.

First I’d go in not knowing what we would need in the next week. I knew what we needed now. But would we run out of milk on Wednesday?

Second, I assumed that if we ran out of something, I would just go run and get it.

Third, if I did go shopping half-way through the week, I was buying more items than what I went to the store for – I was seeing things we might enjoy or might run out of and buying on impulse.

All of those things meant more money spent on groceries. It had to stop.

So I came up with a plan. Using the trick my mom taught me (big lists and small lists) I’ve started writing down anything I think we’ll run out of in the next month (low-priority items.)

Then I started starring any item on that list that we would run out of in the next week or that we had already run out of (these are high-priority items.) This week, it was mostly milk, cheese, and split peas.

When I went grocery shopping yesterday, I immediately got the starred items, as long as the price was decent. I also checked the prices on the other items on the list, looking for sales (particularly ones that coincided with coupons I had.) I didn’t actually find any sales yesterday, so the low-priority items are staying on the list until next Friday.

This actually worked quite well. I replenished the items we needed and stayed under budget. (The budgeted amount for the week was $25, and I spent $17. That’s good, because we’ll have to buy some meat soon – but I’m keeping an eye out for items that are discounted because their sell-by date is coming up.)

This was only my first week using my new organizational skill. We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll update later in the month!

Smart Shopping

So how do you buy groceries for cheap? How do you provide for your family with a very limited budget?

It all has to do with smart shopping techniques I’ve learned from books, the internet, and some of you all. I’d like to share 12 of the best ideas I’ve heard. There are many more, but I could easily fill an entire book – and you don’t want to read a book where there should be a blog, do you?

Many of these ideas

Smart Shopping

1. Shop the loss leaders like crazy – last week I got 90% lean ground beef at Giant Eagle (a mid-line grocery store) for $2.29 a pound. That’s unheard of nowadays – the same stuff at Sam’s Club is $3.29 a pound, and the usual price at Walmart is closer to $3.69 a pound. When I come across deals like these, especially in meat, I buy enough for a month or more. In my experience, I can expect the stores to “loss-lead” a meat product in a six-week rotation. So if ground beef is a loss leader this week, I can expect that in 6 weeks it will be a loss leader again. However, be careful that you don’t stock up on loss leaders to the extent that you can’t get the groceries you need!

2. Double your coupons when you can – but again, be careful. Many of the stores that double coupons also cost significantly more in general. If you double your coupons on a few items but buy a bunch of full-priced stuff you’ll still lose money.

A good example of the price difference – I went to Walmart and bought store-brand gelatin for $0.26 each. The Jell-O was $0.48. I went to Giant Eagle next and happened to look at Jell-O there. How much was it? $0.96! The next week it was on sale for $0.50 each. Even on sale it was more expensive!

3. Make sure it’s really a deal. Use a price book. I know when something is a good deal because I know the prices.

4. Buy locally when possible. Your local farmer’s market or flea market is a good place to get produce and even meats for excellent prices when they are in season. You might also find people selling teas, spices, soaps, and just about anything else you could use!

We also buy from the local Amish stores – they are bulk foods, mostly, and some sell meat and cheeses from the local Amish cheese factories/butcheries. They are only slightly lower in price, but we are also supporting a locally owned business that makes much of their food within our county.

5. Buy produce in season and can or freeze it if you can. Buy frozen vegetables and fruits when they are out of season – or don’t buy out of season produce at all. Apples and oranges are in season right now, and frozen corn, broccoli, peas, strawberries, etc, are readily available. We also froze some of the berries from our yard last summer – they’ll be great for sauces when they thaw. We’ve canned many tomatoes, and we still have several quarts of tomato base for soups and sauces.

6. Buy items with rebates – Walgreens has items that are completely free after rebates every month. You can even browse the rebate catalog online! Check other drugstores, too. My experience with Eckerds and CVS is that they don’t have quite as large of rebates, but they still have those items that are significantly discounted, and nearly free if you have a good coupon.

7. Try it before you buy it – using sites like absurdlycool.com and walmart.com to get free samples of items in the mail. There are some ethical considerations to sampling – don’t request samples you wouldn’t use or don’t need. I tend to sign up for the free samples of things I enjoy – I just signed up for a sample of tea for my Senseo hot drink machine – but I avoid the samples of artificial sweeteners and dog food since I use neither.

8. Check for a money back guarantee before you buy. A couple of years ago, I bought a certain expensive moisturizer from Bath and Body Works and absolutely loved it. When I went to buy another bottle, the company had changed the formula to include sunscreen – which made my face break out. Bath and Body Works has a satisfaction guarantee, so I was able to return the nearly unused bottle for a merchandise credit. I am more likely to try a new product if I know I can return it if I hate it, and usually I’m happy with it.

9. Write or call in to companies with your complaints and or suggestions. I recently burned a pumpkin pie from a big frozen dessert company (it was a loss leader) even though I followed the directions exactly. I figured I still must have done something wrong until my friend came for dinner the next night with a burned pumpkin pie from the same company. We both wrote the company and complained, since it was obviously not a fluke. I recently got several coupons in the mail from the company, including one for a free product (though I won’t be buying more pumpkin pie, the apple pie from the same company was very good.) I also got an email repeating the directions, so be prepared for them to only half-listen to your complaint.

I’ve also recently written a coffee company about some samples I received and really enjoyed, and suggested that if they created the product in a darker or flavored blend, I’d definitely buy even more than I already had. Guess what? I got a free product coupon in the mail, along with more samples – of their new Columbian and flavored blends! I like to think I did that, but the likelihood is they were already planning the new flavors. 🙂

10. Buy store brand. It’s almost always the same stuff. If you don’t like the taste, it’s not because it’s a weird store brand – it’s because it’s a name brand you don’t like. I don’t buy generic ketchup because there is one brand I like and I haven’t found the store brand that matches.

My father worked for a very large, famous food company. He would tour factories and watch as his company’s brand label was placed on the goods. Then the factory workers would stop the line, change the label to a store brand label, and continue labeling. Same food – different labels. And significantly different prices.

11. Buy in bulk when you can afford it. I don’t buy little 10 ounce boxes of baking soda for $0.50 each. I buy one 12 pound bag at about two-and-a-half cents an ounce (it’s $4.89 for the bag) from a warehouse club. The 10 ounce boxes cost five cents an ounce – that’s twice as much! Since I use it for cleaning and baking, we’ll go through about two bags in a year. Buying the 12 pound bags saves me about $10 a year. No, it’s not much, but if you think about the fact that this is only one product of many that we buy – it adds up!

12. Don’t buy prepared meals. Buy the rice, veggies, and meats and make it yourself. For the same price as one frozen prepared meal (like a skillet meal or lasagna) one can make two or three meals from scratch – sometimes more.


What do you really need?

Do you really need expensive bags of preservative-rich chips? Over processed cookies? Tubes of yogurt? Cereal straws?

Our nation is drowning in fatty, sugary, overprocessed foods that destroy our bodies and our wallets while filling landfills with dumptrucks full of shiny plastic and cardboard. We save nothing by buying junk at the grocery store.

What smart shopping comes down to is a commitment to find the best prices, but also a commitment to buy and cook healthy, wholesome foods that will nourish our bodies and keep our pocketbooks a little fuller. By keeping the junk food out of the kitchen, we keep it out of our bodies, which means a fewer medical bills, diet pills, and large grocery bills!

An Explanation

There’s been a lot of concern and discussion on other boards about whether or not our family – 2 plus a toddler – be able to live on $100 a month for food. I think it might be good for me to explain some background information as well as how I can be so confident that we can stay within our budget and still eat healthy, nutritious meals.

First, this is only a reduction of about $50 from our current budget that we’ve had for over a year. Until recently, my husband was unemployed and we were living on savings.

Second, right now we have a well-stocked pantry that should last us about a month to two months if we don’t buy anything but staples. We have a good amount of frozen meat as well. So it’s entirely possible we could go under budget this coming month.

And finally, this is only a temporary budget. Our goal right now is to get our personal Citibank card paid off through snowballing and selling some larger items we have. Once that is done, we’ll look at our grocery budget again and determine what needs to change.

Some have expressed concerns that one cannot eat healthfully or enough on this budget – I want to assure you all that we will not risk our health. 🙂 Living thoughtfully and frugally means making sure our bodies stay healthy since medical bills are definitely not cheap! So if necessary, we will go to the food pantry, beg my parents for money for food, or simply pay less on our credit cards so we can raise our budget.