The Frugal Food Plan

There has been a lot of talk about food security in the serious press lately. The rise in the cost of grain is causing great hunger in the poorest parts of the world. But there is hunger in the United States as well, though it doesn’t get much press. Food stamp use is way up, but many people fall through the cracks.

So what does this have to do with frugality? If you are voluntarily frugal, not very much. You will, of course, be buying in bulk, tracking prices, buying in season, and shopping the specials. But you can afford to buy the food items that are both desirable and healthy at the best price. This is not the case for those forced into frugality by circumstances. As I pointed out in a previous post buying healthy food is paramount to health, and getting sick is a very bad idea if you are a member of the new poor. And it is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

For good health a person needs to eat a certain number of calories a day to run their metabolism. Even weightwatchers has a minimum which you are not supposed to go under. Also for good health, you should eat five servings of vegetables and three of fruit, and a couple of servings of lean protein. That is the source of the problem. Produce and protein are very expensive per calorie compared to grains, sugar, and the cheaper fats. That is why there are many obese people that are actually malnourished. This is the great danger for the truly poor. It is easy to fill up on the potatoes, pasta or candy that is clearly affordable. Then pay the price of obesity and all the expensive health problems that follow.

These days there are other considerations as well. Most of the cheap foods that we find in the mega-markets are full of chemicals, pesticides, and high fructose corn syrup. But, the “real” foods at the upscale and natural food stores are priced impossibly high for the forcibly frugal.

I went through several stages figuring out the food thing when my circumstances changed. For awhile I lived on pasta with a little soy sauce or cheese thrown in. This caused weight gain and loss of energy. At that point I was just thinking of calories per dollar. It took a lot of work to figure out a program to get high quality food in a big enough quantity at a price that would allow me to also live in a house and maintain a car etc. The plan also takes a lot of effort to carry out. That is true of many areas of the frugal life. It is not for the lazy.

So this is what I did. First, all food is made at home, from scratch. This means buying the less expensive flour, molasses, yeast, and other ingredients and making my own sweets, snacks, soups, bread, and everything else. Making it from scratch always costs less, though it does take an initial investment in pantry items. You will need to visit your local food markets and learn the basic prices at each one. If a particular store has a great everyday price on an item you use make note of it. Get the weekly specials flyers for your stores, usually on Wednesdays. There is no reason to use coupons unless it is for something you would buy anyhow.

The next thing is to buy produce items at farmers markets or through community supported agriculture (CSAs). These sources are generally organic and less expensive. In some communities there are gleaning and harvest share programs. Better yet, make friends with a gardener or two. In the summer and fall they will be glad to get rid of all kinds of wonderful produce. If you can, consider a little plot of your own.

The next step is to add in high-quality lean protein. It is important to know exactly how much protein you and your family members really need. Because this is the most expensive part of your diet it pays to know the numbers. With trial and error I discovered that ¾ pound is enough for the two people of us at dinner. Lunch is likely to be leftovers. Buying more protein than you need without a leftovers plan is just a waste. Then, figure out how much protein that adds up to by the month.

When you have a good idea how much you need it’s time to make a shopping list. First try eating vegetable based protein as much as possible. Beans make a full protein when combined with a grain. Tofu is full of protein. But if you are an omnivore like me eventually you will have to buy some of the more expensive animal protein. Check out the cheaper cuts of meat and discover the best ways to cook them, usually slow simmering.

Do the same for fish, though this takes more study because there are other considerations such as mercury content and sustainability. Try buying a whole chicken (free range on sale). Have a feast the first night and then make a couple of more meals depending on the number of people eating. Chicken is one thing that makes good planned leftovers. Some favorites are stir fry and enchiladas. Think in terms of stretching the protein by making dishes that use smaller quantities cut up in bite sized pieces or ground meats. Dishes like chili and soup exemplify this principle. In fact homemade soup is one of the best things in the world for so many reasons.

If there is a meat buying co-op nearby, join it. Go fishing or find a friend who fishes and trade them something. You will need freezer space but it is worth it. If you don’t have a box freezer start looking. The small amount of extra electricity is more than covered by food savings.

Eggs are a great source of inexpensive protein. Given the recent egg recall it would be wise to buy the more expensive local eggs. Better yet raise them yourself or befriend a neighbor who already has chickens.

Snacks are tricky. Popcorn is cheap and easy. Dips like hummus are filling and can be served with veggies. I love cheese as a treat, just make sure you know the price per pound, not just the total price. I buy really good artisanal cheese for a treat and the much cheaper bricks for cooking.

Finally, there is flavor. The cheapest way to build in flavor is with aromatics such as garlic and onions. Fresh herbs are cheap when you grow them on your windowsill. My favorite right now is cilantro garlic and ginger chopped fine. I call it the trinity.

If you don’t know how to cook, start with roast chicken and steamed veggies and learn. Buy a couple of good general cookbooks at the used book store or borrow from the library. If you HATE to cook, try trading with a frugal friend that loves it. What can you do for them? Make a deal.

As you can see there is no one right way to bring your food budget under control. It takes research, thought, and hard work. But, if you are in hot water financially you should be able to improve your diet and stay healthy. And if you are frugal by choice every one of these ideas will work for you as well.

Here are some resources to get you started:

http://www.ampleharvest.org/ Connects gardeners with food pantries. Also a guide to getting food assistance if you need it.

http://www.localharvest.org/ Online guide to CSAs and Farmers Markets by zip code.

http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/inspiration/weekend-cooking-what-to-cook-with-cheap-cuts-of-meat-068847 To help you cook those cheaper cuts.

http://www.timebanks.org/ For you folks who hate to cook, check out this formalized bartering site.

http://www.wisebread.com/seafood-on-the-cheap Guide to inexpensive fish and shellfish.

http://exercise.about.com/cs/nutrition/a/protein_2.htm This is very important information. Find out how many calories you need per day, and how many grams of protein.

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3 Responses

  1. Hi Annabel,

    Another fabulous post! There are some interesting documentaries out there on our food supply and how it affects the folks who cannot afford to buy produce or protein and end up eating fast food because so much of the food used in these very low cost (unhealthy) meals are subsudized. Seeds in the Government Seed Banks are being taken and Patented by large corporations to keep them away from the people and the small farmers. The soybeans seeds have been hijacked by big Corporate farms and especially Monsanto the maker of Roundup, making them Roundup Ready in the laboratory. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my food to be Roundup ready. Corn is another huge problem globally, since the US Govt subsidizes corn prices. The small farmers are being taken out by lawsuits as their crops are invaded by these patented seeds, a very serious problem indeed. This is not what your blog is about, I just was surprised myself when I started researching our food supply on just how controlled our food supply is by a very small group of mega corporations.

    Your blog gives very good information and I really like how you suggest people make their food from scratch and use local farming co-ops. This will really help the small farmer and keep food alive and well in our local communities. We are so blessed here in Sonoma County to have such an abundance of natural food products and small farms. Going to our local farmers markets are a treat and work to support our local communities. I was at our wonderful farmers market yesterday in Occidental, it has really grown up this year with so many different vendors, choices and even great entertainment. A wonderful way to see our friends and neighbors. Also of course having a small garden or bartering with a gardener are great ideas.

    Thanks for your blog, I really look forward to reading it.

  2. Here’s a healthwise and frugal anecdote concerning my associate, Cherie’s, German step-grandmother, who immigrated to this country following WWII. Cherie noticed that her grandmother would drink the liquid from all canned goods after opening them. “This is good for the body,” Mutti explained, “and besides, ve didn’t haf much food to eat during the var.” Mutti was still drinking the brine from the cans even 15 years after the close of WWII.

  3. Dude thank you for such a good article. I completely agree with you

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