Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Eating well on the cheap

Lately I've been fielding a lot of questions. They often are followed by statements that I can't really be working poor because: my pictures are too nice, I go to fancy places to eat, I make fancy food, I have a whole bunch of websites (actually I only have two), I make dishes using organic ingredients, and so on and so on.

The thing is, I do all of those things because I'm smart about it and have figured out how to feed five people on about $700 a month. The USDA Food Plan works out to $1,215, nearly $500 more than what we're spending. These numbers are from 2009 and don't reflect the rise in food costs. 

I compared the cost of organic to conventional one month, writing down the cost every time I purchased something organic and I noted it's non-organic counterpart's cost and found only a $117.34 difference. I basically purchase the same food stuffs every month. I look for buy one, get one sales. Thursday's at Wegmans are when the Special of the Day prices get slapped on many of the organic meats and poultry, these are sometimes as much as 50% off. 

I sometimes pick up fruits and veggies that may not be organic but have labels that read that they were not grown using pesticides and such. Getting that USDA organic label is a very lengthy and expensive process and there are many farmers that farm with low or no chemical interventions but cannot afford to get the certification. This is where it's good to talk to your local growers, send them an email, call up corporate and ask questions. 

I buy organic if the fruit or veggie has an edible peel or is likely to absorb whatever is sprayed on it, for example, bananas are notorious for being yellow chem-bombs (something I've only discovered over the last two years). The following can be chem-bombs too; strawberries (actually any berries), lettuces (includes spinach), mangos, tomatoes, apples, blueberries, cherries, grapes, peaches, nectarines, plums, figs, celery, bell peppers, kale/collard greens,  carrots, and potatoes. 

Unless you can buy everything organic, focus mostly on foods with edible skins. Technically, pesticides can be absorbed by any plant during the growth cycle, but much of the chemical sits on the peel and doesn't wash off entirely. If you can peel off the outer layer, it should be safe to eat the non-organic version. So I save by buying conventional low or no spray squash, pineapples, nuts, and peas and beans that can be shucked. 

When my tax return rolls in, I commit $400 of it to purchasing olive, sesame seed and peanut oils, rices, large canned whole organic tomatoes, large canned beans in all sorts of varieties, white and apple cider vinegar, locally made pastas and sauces, canning and soap making supplies, and baking staples like flours, oatmeal, sugars, salt, baking powder and soda, and yeast to be used over the next 6 to 7 months.

Photos come off my two year old Galaxy S phone. I actually read the manual on how to operate the phone, including it's amazing camera feature. If I ever take a bad photo, it's user error, so I always shoot between 100 to 150 photos for events and restaurant/store reviews. Dishes are between 10 to 45 shots. Trips to the garden 1 to 7. I do all of the post production work on a 5 year old Apple mini using iPhoto (though for the really nice stuff like my recent 'Silos in the evening' series I use 
an equally aged copy of Photoshop).

I wait until the latter end of the farmer's market to pick up fruits and veggies farmers don't want to lug back home for often as much as half the cost it was three hours earlier. I grow herbs and some veggies like chard during the summer months. Herbs can be arranged to make repetitive dishes seem different. I can my own jelly, hot peppers, salsas, and tzatziki base.

As to the events and shops and restaurants? I go to events that are free or donation. When I head to a shop, I purchase the minimum amount to photograph well and to taste and/or add to a recipe. Restaurants are a bit more difficult as they are often $10 to $15 a visit, and so I visit less frequently, but sometimes I'm served a free meal when I mention I'm a blogger.

I use free websites, sources, links and web page builders like Blogger and Wix

The International Dinners run about $70 to $120 per-event. The door prizes are usually donated. Guest performers and speakers come for free, though I usually present them with a thank you gift and a fine meal. The food is often donated, or the money placed in the donation basket goes towards the next dinner, so that very little actually comes out of pocket.

So that's about it. 

Live well. Live frugally. Live smart. 


  1. This is a great post. I get a lot of questions and remarks in regards to these things, too. I think the best thing you can do is grow as much as you can yourself. We are in an apartment right now and don't have any land, but we do put a bunch of pots/containers out and grow what we can (tomatoes, lots of herbs, lettuces, etc.). We're lucky that my husband's parents have huge gardens so we get a lot from them. There are ways to do it, but it takes some time and effort. I think that making food a priority in our lives made a huge difference as well. We don't have things like smart phones - instead we use that money to stock up on grass-fed beef from Green Heron Growers...

    1. That's cool, I absolutely love container gardens. You're fortunate to have access to fresh veggies straight from the in-law's gardens. And you are right, making food a priority can make a difference with your health and your wallet.