For the past 25 weeks, I participated in Emily’s Project: Food Budget, where I and other participants tried to make and stick to weekly food budgets. It was a great experience! Before I started this project, I often bought ingredients for a single recipe, used half, and forgot about the rest. I would also go grocery shopping and buy things willy-nilly, and sometimes produce would rot before I could get to it. What a waste. I went from an average of $150 a week to about $85 a week. These are the biggest lessons I learned.
- Plan weekly meals that use the same ingredients. Isn’t it sad when you throw away a $4 package of limp, brown thyme that you used for only a single meal? Or cook up some brown rice for one recipe and remember it’s there a week later after it went bad? That used to happen to me a lot. Now I plan meals that use the same ingredients so that nothing goes to waste.
- Make only one or two ingredient-intensive meals a week. If you’re like me, when you get a new cookbook, you flag 100 recipes to make and immediately buy groceries to make 10 of them. But who has time to make 10 new recipes in a week? I’ve learned to taper my enthusiasm and make only a few new big meals a week. The rest of the time I rely on quick and easy meals that use few ingredients, like a bowl of brown rice, steamed greens and veggies, beans or tofu, and a gravy or dressing. Salads and tofu scrambles are my other fallback quick meals.
- Shop at ethnic stores. I now rarely buy herbs and spices at the grocery store. They’re so much cheaper at Indian groceries! Likewise, Asian ingredients are always much cheaper at Asian markets. I bought a 10-pound bag of brown basmati rice at an Indian grocery in week 7 for $14.99. I cook rice nearly every week and still have most of the bag left.
- Stock up on pantry staples on sale. There are many staples I use every week, like whole wheat flour, maple syrup, cocoa powder, and nutritional yeast. If they have a long shelf life and are on sale, it pays to stock up. I am on bottle two of three bottles of organic tahini I bought back in February that was nearly half off.
- Make food from scratch. I now bake my own bread every week, cook my own beans, and make my own vegetable stock, dressings, gravies and sauces, vegan cheeses, etc. I try to avoid packaged foods and only buy them if making my own is a crazy amount of work (two packaged foods I still buy are soymilk and pasta). Not only does homemade food taste better than store-bought items, but it’s healthier because I control the ingredients, and it saves money. Here I show that I save more than $16 by baking my own bread.
- Buy from bulk bins. It’s much cheaper to buy nuts, seeds, dried beans, and nutritional yeast from bulk bins. You can buy only what you need for a recipe.
- Shop around. I used to only go to Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh’s biggest grocery chain. Their sale items are great, but their produce and other items are expensive when not on sale. So I tend to shop at GE only for sale items. Trader Joe’s has the best prices for olive oil (1 quart for $5.99), oat bran ($2.89 for a huge bag), organic maple syrup (12 ounces for, I think, $5.99), lemons and limes ($.39 each), vegan chocolate chips, cocoa powder, frozen organic strawberries, garlic, and bananas. Pittsburgh has a very small Trader Joe’s, so they don’t have a huge selection and I can’t do all my grocery shopping there. Whole Foods’ own line of items is mostly inexpensive, and they have a good selection of locally grown produce. But I don’t shop there often…I was there recently, but that was the only time in about a year. That time, I bought a bag of oranges, and ¾ of them rotted in a few days (I didn’t keep the receipt so didn’t return them), and the organic peaches I bought there also immediately went bad. I haven’t been back. And the East End Food Co-op has mostly astronomical prices. Of course, now that summer is here, I’m shopping at farmer’s markets a lot. It’s more expensive, but for me it’s worth it to buy locally grown, organic produce.
I’m grateful to Emily for inviting others on this journey with her. I will use what I learned to eat healthy, delicious, vegan meals on a budget. Thanks, Emily!