Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Recession-Proofing Your Diet: Food Strategies for a New Economy

If you’ve been to the supermarket in the last few months, the rising cost of food isn’t exactly an Elliot Spitzer-level surprise. Grain prices are up, dairy products have become a luxury, and meat … well, cheap beef is rarer than a J.D. Salinger sighting these days. CNN, MSNBC, and the newspapers are finally picking up on it, too, with more stories about global grocery shortages and ludicrous shipping expenses. It appears we’re headed for a recession, and it may not get better anytime soon.

Never fear, though – it’s the interweb to the rescue. Lots of wonderfully informed bloggers have been totally on the ball, including Cathy at Chief Family Officer and Blogher’s Alanna Kellogg. They’ve written stellar pieces on combating food inflation, replete with shopping strategies, cooking ideas, and inventive ideas for stretching a budget.

There’s not much more to say after those posts, but I figured I’d jump on the Food/Recession bandwagon anyway. (It’s a nice bandwagon – sage green with mammoth cupholders.) Hopefully, the following suggestions will build on what Cathy and Alanna have to say, and offer a few new strategies along with it.

Don’t panic. It’s not the end of the world. Grocery prices will rise and certain items may become nigh-unattainable, but you will still be able to eat. So will your family. And with a little planning, you might not notice much of a difference.

Stay informed. Information is power. I don’t know who said that (Sophocles? Joan Didion? Cher?), but he/she was right on. As dire as the news may seem sometimes, keeping abreast of the fiscal situation is vital to preparing for sudden changes. So gird your loins and peruse the news, scan some blogs, and watch the occasional Brian Williams broadcast. Be on special lookout for food stories. You’ll be smarter for it.

Take baby steps. Revamping your diet and budget the same day won’t work, and might put you off both forever. Lasting change comes through small actions executed consistently. so take it easy. Start small, with a few simple practices, and work your way up from there.

Set aside one hour per week to plan. During this hour, you can devise a weekly menu, find circular deals online, clip coupons, and map out your shopping trips, all of which could save hundreds of dollars a month. If you were paid $100 for 60 minutes of work, wouldn’t you do it? Would you think twice? (Lawyers and doctors, don’t answer that.) What’s more, it’s much easier to stay on a healthy track when you have a concrete shopping and meal plans. It keeps you from scrounging for last-minute eats.

Write stuff down. Keeping a budget, planning that menu, and creating a grocery list are three time-tested, mother-approved money-saving maneuvers. The last two strategies usually help with weight maintenance, as well. Turns out, there is no greater splurging/gorging deterrent than knowing exactly what you’re splurging/gorging on.

Sign up for savings and preferred customer cards. If you haven’t already done this, stop reading and run to your grocer. See, just about every major supermarket has a club program that offers special discounts to regular shoppers. You give them your name and e-mail address in exchange for a dinky little keychain doohickey that magically saves 10%, 20%, or 40% per purchase. As far as I know, there are no reported downsides, except for a very heavy keychain.

Start a price book post haste. Get Rich Slowly has the end-all-be-all post on these, but there’s more at Frugal Upstate, as well as a downloadable template at No Credit Needed. (Incidentally, if you’re in the New York City area and shop at Associated or Key Food, shoot me an e-mail. I keep somewhat anarchic pricebooks for these two stores, and can forward them to you.)

Go to Money Saving Mom immediately. I can’t possibly cover this topic any better than Crystal does on a daily basis. (Brown nosing? Yes. And how!) Essentially, she and a roving gang of coupon-clippin’ ladybloggers have figured out how to score deeply discounted personal effects and non-perishable food from CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and more. We’re talking $133 worth of shampoo, diapers, and toothpaste for $9. And if that’s not enough, there are shopping strategies GALORE, from post to shining post.

When it comes to cookbooks and kitchen equipment, buy only what you absolutely need. If cooking is a hobby, it’s distressingly easy to blow a wad on adorable egg holders. Or a fourth Barefoot Contessa volume. Or a hard-anodized 10-piece pot set, because some dude on QVC said you SIMPLY MUST HAVE a sauté pan in every size. Truth is, there are precious few items anyone needs to make a decent meal, and most recipes can be found online nowadays. This Mark Bittman article has more, and these two CHG posts can help you find inexpensive equipment and cookbooks.

Clip coupons and bulk shop, but do it wisely. While both of these tactics might take big bucks off bills, they can also lull folks into buying stuff they don’t need. If you’re going to use coupons, make sure it’s for something you would purchase anyway. And if you’re loading that 128-oz. jar of capers into your elephant-sized CostCo cart, double check to see if it’s really cheaper per unit than a 4-oz. bottle. (While you’re at it, double check to see who on Earth needs eight pounds of capers.)

Cut back on booze, meat, and processed foods. “But Kris,” you might say,“they are the stuff OF LIFE.” And you’d totally be correct. Watching a ballgame without a dirty water dog and bucket-sized Bud Light … it’s unfathomable for some. (Note: me.) However, there’s something to be said for moderation. Eliminating these things from your diet entirely may be a pipe dream (or pipe nightmare), but reducing your consumption will save mad cash AND improve your health. To fill that hole in your stomach …

Eat real food. Pizza rolls, mozzarella sticks, and fries might be convenient, but produce, dairy, meat, legumes, and grain will help you live longer. AND, chosen carefully, they’ll cost less in the long run. Always remember to shop in season, from the circular, and around the perimeter of the supermarket, where they keep the whole foods.

Stock up. When frequently-used staple items like flour, beans, and canned tomatoes go on mega-sale, snatch up as much as you possibly can (provided there’s sufficient storage). Not only will they come in handy down the line, but pantry meals can be healthy, filling, and surprisingly delicious. For more information, Motherload’s Amy Clark has an ongoing series on stockpiling.

Go generic. Don't be scared. It's often just as good as the brand name.

D.I.Y. Cook more at home. Cook in bulk. Freeze things. Try gardening. Make your own mixes, dressings, sauces, and marinades. (They taste better, take zero culinary skill, and cost a fraction of the store-bought brands.) With a little time and effort, anything you see in the supermarket or at a restaurant can be accomplished in your own kitchen.

Drink water, but not the bottled kind. No one’s begrudging the occasional Dr. Pepper, but tap water is the superior choice for two reasons: it’s a billion times healthier and 100%, totally, absolutely free-er than free. Bottled water, while not a terrible choice, is a legendary rip-off, like bad chicken or accidentally downloading a Beatles cover band on iTunes.

Brown bag it. Any and every personal finance blog worth its salt has written about this subject 600 times (uh … except this one.), and for good reason. Not only does brown-bagging save me about $1300 per year, but it makes it much, MUCH (much) easier to monitor what I eat. Whether you’re into bento boxes or PB&J, it’s a sure-fire recession beater.

Think out of the box. No, DESTROY the box. Stupid box. There’s no faster way to bore yourself into a coma than gnawing on the same ol’ lettuce wrap week after week. To save money and keep from dying of ennui, leave your comfort zone as often as possible. Try new foods. Experiment with coupons. Cook differently. Host a potluck. Visit your ethnic market. Stepping outside the norm can inspire AND help you stick to the plan.

Don’t panic. Had to be said again.

If you're interested in reading further, these are solid sources:
How about y’all out there? How are you preparing for a potential economic downturn? Comments are open!

(Photos courtesy of jupiter images, Watt & Sons Supermarket, and Flickr member Ranjit.)

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Jaime said...

I am embracing rice and beans. (With some veggies and tomato paste or bbq sauce, it's pretty tasty and healthy.) I'm embracing rice in general, to make veggies last over more meals, using rice pudding (homemade) to stretch my ever-more-costly cottage cheese breakfasts. And, okay, I'm panicking a little. It doesn't help that this is coming just a couple of months after I decided to buckle down and pay my credit cards the hell off. I feel poor enough already. I don't need $4.19 gallons of soy milk making things worse.

Alanna said...

Great post, Kris! Consider me your #2 fan. Whatttt? Well that's only because my sister is your #1 fan, she's the one the who introduced me to your site a few weeks ago and which I immediately moved to my "must read" RSS feed. These are excellent additions -- I've been thinking more on the topic, too. More later. :-)

Jen@BigBinder said...

This is a great post with a lot of info in one place, thank you for putting it together all the while keepin' it real.

Here is my plan: I am working my way up the food pyramid. My logic is that if this is the bulk of what we should be eating the bottom) best to start there and make a big impact. It might not be the most expensive proportionally but I like visual aids and this is a good one.

For example, I am learning how to make my own bread (the kind that we will actually eat) and anything in that lowest category of the pyramid. I am so proud - I walked RIGHT BY Uncle Ben in the store yesterday and bought a big ole' bag of rice I have to portion off and season all by my self.

Once I get that category nice and cheap, I'll move onto the most frugal but still healthy way to buy and consume veggies, etc. I don't want to hear about the food pyramid being a circle or whatever now, it will just confuse me :)

Karen_thrifty said...

Thanks for the link to Thrifty Mommy. :)

Julia said...

Thank you for the link to MoneySavingMom. I'm not a mom, but I can't wait to start reading this everyday. Also, re: the cookbooks, I found a fantastic Cooking Light cookbook called "Superfast Suppers" at a thrift shop. If you love cookbooks, like me, that's a good place to shop for them. And that cookbook provides menu ideas and grocery shopping tips to help you eat healthy on a budget.

Sharon said...

This is a great post! Glad I found your site!

Sheila said...

Thanks for this! I'm going to have to take some time and go through all your links.

I heard it like this: don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. In other words, none of those lunchables. No cheesies. No fruit roll-ups. Just real food. It's cheaper and healthier.

Thanks again!

Visit To Love, Honor and Vacuum today!

Chief Family Officer said...

Thanks for the link, Kris! I love your suggestions, especially the one about "paying yourself" $100 or more per week - because really, to end up with that much, you'd have to earn about 1.5 times that after taxes. So it's really like paying yourself $150 or more per hour! :)

Daniel Koontz said...

Hey Kris!
There are some really good ideas here.

I had a suggestion that involves Applying the 80/20 Rule. It's more conceptual than specific, but hopefully it helps your readers.

Around 80% or so of your recipes will be made from some 20% of the ingredients that you normally stock in your pantry and fridge. Meaning most of the food you eat will heavily rely on a fairly small number of ingredients. If you can carefully manage the cost of those heavily-used ingredients, you should be able to slash your food bill materially.

As always, I'm loving your blog.

Daniel Koontz
Casual Kitchen

Jenn @ Frugal Upstate said...

Great article! I'll be recommending it to my readers. . .

Mrs. W said...

Following the link from Frugal Upstate... some great tips here. As a person no longer eating wheat flour AND a foodie myself, I've already implemented many of the strategies you suggest. Just want to encourage your readers that it CAN be done. Look at dried beans/legumes, find good soup recipes that you can make in your crock pot, find a foodie friend who will help with pot luck nights... it's worth the effort.

Grumpy Misanthrope said...

Sign up for savings and preferred customer cards. If you haven’t already done this, stop reading and run to your grocer. See, just about every major supermarket has a club program that offers special discounts to regular shoppers. You give them your name and e-mail address in exchange for a dinky little keychain doohickey that magically saves 10%, 20%, or 40% per purchase. As far as I know, there are no reported downsides, except for a very heavy keychain.

It gives the chain tons and tons of information on you that they can use. That, in and of itself, is a Very Bad Thing(tm).

If information is power, personal information is the key to the kingdom and willingingly giving ANYTHING to a corporation is normally a bad idea.

Jaime said...

It gives the chain tons and tons of information on you that they can use.


If they want to send me emails in exchange for the discounts, that a trade I'm fine with.

Christina said...

Phenomenal post! So much good information in one location, with lots of great links. Thanks!

DivaJean said...

On my most pure level of thinking, I am with grumpy misanthrope on not divulging all of my buying habits for unknown reasons which could potentially be used against me in ways unforeseeable now.

As a person of size (fat), I hear tons of prejudice in the world about what fat people should and shouldn't be buying/eating/etc. and know what? It is nobody's damn business! Should there eventually be fully electronic medical records in this country, who's to say they can't plug into some other system to define what food I can have access to-- especially if nationalized medical coverage comes to fruition. "Bad habits" will become a matter of public concern when its on the taxpayer dollar-- and you can bet Big Govt *might* collude with the system to save a few bucks-- or have a reason to deny the health coverage to those not falling in line.

I know I sound like a raving tin foil hat wearer- but health insurance access IS being denied in some micromanaging companies to people who smoke in off hours. They do blood work to check for nicotine traces, etc in their employees. Taking this to the next level and in being "health conscious"- its not too hard to see where it could go.

All my ranting aside- in a pefect world where I could afford not to, I would not participate in any of the store "memberships" to get the extra discounts-- just to not be a sheeple. However, I have 4 kids and hubby & I-- and we're all living on my income alone. So we do particpate.

End rant.

Living Almost Large said...

If I am worried, and I do everything you wrote about naturally, then somethings gotta be going on.

We rarely eat out, brown bagging is a way of life. We don't usually buy processed foods, I stopped drinking alcohol last year in prep for a baby, and we coupon shop toiletries for free so I can still buy food, and we comparison shop both bulk stores and in store.

I've kept a price book forever it seems, I've been able to feed 3 people on $100/month in an very HCOLA, and yet I am worried.

I am worried about how high prices have gone really fast. I don't want to spend more than I used to. We have cut back on eating out. We have consciously had more vegetarian dishes. But what?

I am panicing because it seems like I can't find prices I used to find even 1 year ago. And coupons aren't cutting it.

Grumpy Misanthrope said...


If they want to send me emails in exchange for the discounts, that a trade I'm fine with.

Thing is, they do more than send you emails. They track everything you buy with your card. If you use a credit card or debit card to purchase things, they also tie that to their tracking.

If they have a cozy relationship with your credit card company, they may then be able to track all your purchasing habits. And your purchsing habits give a lot of detail into who you are, making them more able to effectively market to you and exert undue influence over your life.

Remember, this is a Milton Friedman Age...corporations do not believe they have ANY ethical or moral obligations to any one. They only believe that they are supposed to make money in any way possible, as long as they don't get caught. It is well within your best interest to conceal any information you can from any corporation you have to deal with, at any level.

Anna said...

I save lots of time and money by just avoiding the grocery stores. It can be done without a grocery store, with a little planning and investigation.

I get most of my produce from a weekly CSA (local Community Supported Agriculture farm share program) and my meat, poultry, and eggs from a local "hobby farm" (a couple who raises their own food and sells a bit to defray overhead costs), and I use a lot of "old fashioned" cooking techniques/cookbooks that use cheaper, more nutritious cuts of meat and poultry, especially bone-in cuts. I keep a separate freezer so I am always stocked up on meat and poultry, broth, and "planned-ahead" meals (we are a family of 3, so I freeze portions of cooked roasts).

I also cut up extra onions, carrots, and celery when I have the time and freeze them for use when I am out or low on time. I keep a "bone bag" and "veg trim bag" in the freezer for making broth.

I only need to go to the stores now and then for few other things (coffee and very dark chocolate!). My list is now quite short, since we no longer eat packaged snacks, deli meats, sodas, pastries, out of season produce, juices, sweetened individual yogurts, commercial ice cream, jams, and other processed foods. Despite the lack of processed foods, we love eating well and find endless variety in recipes.

I rarely buy anything boneless, unless it is a roast. I use my slow cooker appliance *a lot*. I am *not* a slave to the stove, but I do make a lot from scratch. Many of these foods cook a long time, but only a few minutes are "hands-on". We eat desserts less often, because I now make the ice cream or cheesecake, so it is harder to overindulge. I even make the ricotta for the cheesecake instead of buying it or cream cheese. This is good for our waistline, too.

I cook a whole chicken in water in the slow cooker each week, then debone the meat for quick meals and snacks during the week, putting all the bones,cartilage, and skin back into the broth for more simmering, which yields golden mineral-rich, delicious, additive-free broth. You can't buy broth that good from a store for any price. You won't need calcium supplements, either.

I'm finding that by dropping "convenience items" (heat & serve, ready-to-eat, prepared cereals, "instant" anything, etc.) from my list and diet, I save far more than the extra money I spend on quality foods, such as organic produce and dairy. I also save shopping time, don't need to clip coupons (they don't make coupons for real food anyway), and I don't get sidetracked nearly as often in the grocery store. We're healthier, maintain better weights, and we enjoy our food more.

I avoid most "30 minute" cookbooks as they rely too much on expensive, out of season, and often highly processed ingredients, plus they create last-minute panic. Instead I use "classic" and vintage cookbooks, with a wide variety of ethnic and traditional flavors. A big basic pot roast cooked on the weekend can be made into several meals of completely different flavors later in the week, requiring only enough time to prepare veggies and a salad on a busy evening. But this requires a mindset change. Instead of clipping coupons, I think about dinners several days in advance, so that I don't have to think about it much on that day; it's already half done.

Reneena said...

It's a good thing in some ways that the economy has greatly affected everybody's eating habit. there would be lesser fat people, i suppose. not that i have anything against them, but it works for everyone to be healthy and stay in shape all the time.