Saturday, July 31, 2010

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

Every Saturday, we post a piece from the CHG archives. This one comes from March 2008, and includes then-timely Elliot Spitzer and J.D. Salinger-being-alive references. Oh, Comedy. You are a cruel mistress.

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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Free Gal said...

Can I add this post to my blog at


Kris said...

@Frugal Free Gal: You can link to it, sure! Please don't print the whole thing, though.


Your wonderful summary reminded me of something I did 45 years ago.

My daughter was in Kindergarten and I was head of the PTO/PTA group and also president of the Mothers' Club.

The constant concern among the women was the grocery bill; having younger children at home, new babies on the horizon, the cost of school clothes and we all lived in Michigan where there were/are four seasons.

So, we started discussing ways to save and improve on all of the items that had impacted our budget in some way.

We ended up publishing a book and distributing it for free, throughout the school and also publishing excerpts of it in the local newspaper.

We managed well - utilizing many of the same ideas you've mentioned in this post.

The interesting thing is at that time I had 1 child in school; one pre-school, and ended up with four graduates a number of years ago. Throughout the 50 years of raising my children, I've repeatedly adjusted to the changes in food prices and believe it or not, the key word in all of it is REAL FOODS (nothing packaged or prepared for convenience), and PROPER PORTIONING (which you can find all the right amounts that are recommended very easily).

I'm almost 70 and still wear a size 8; my children are all their proper weight and healthy.

By not over-eating (that saves money), you're not having to replace clothes because you're too heavy for them.

By eating real foods, you end up real healthy - just that simple.

Remembering, that while food costs have gone up since I started my family 50 years ago, so have people's incomes. By remembering to take classes to improve your education, you also improve your chances at a better job and career.

Instead of putting money into snack foods; junk foods - ready-made foods, unnecessary foods, you can put that same money into a few night classes and end up making a bigger salary without having to also buy a bigger dress or pair of dress slacks.

I really think you did a wonderful job of summarizing this dilemma for those who experience it, and am glad to know the same strategies are working after I had to employ them over 50 years ago. Diane

Kris said...

Diane, what a lovely comment. Thank you very much for sharing it. It IS really good to know that these strategies are effective through the ages. Here's hoping they're still working 45 more years down the line.

wosnes said...

I've come to realize that throughout the world, most people not only eat locally and seasonally, they never cook from other cuisines.

I started to wonder how much variety I needed in my own diet.

I was born, raised and still live in the same midwestern state. I like the food I grew up eating. I'm also very fond of the food of the Mediterranean, especially Italy, Greece and Lebanon. Many of the ingredients for all of those are the same. I generally restrict myself to those cuisines. I do keep some very basic things available for Tex-Mex/Mexican and Asian foods.

If a recipe calls for something I don't typically have on hand or buy, I try to determine if I can buy it in a small amount. Since I generally cook just for one or two people, many times I can't get a small amount. If I can't I either omit the ingredient, substitute if I can or don't make the recipe.

I don't need to make every recipe that sounds tasty.

In addition, I'm very careful when I go to the farmer's market. Everything looks good, but I can't use even small amounts of a large variety of fresh produce weekly. The market and some of the individual vendors send out emails listing what will be available. I make a list and shop from the list.

wosnes said...

Hmm...I guess I've crawled back into the box.

Erin B. said...

Don't panic! We got it :)
And we should organize, and remember to keep in mind our needs, not be caught up with freebies. And of course store up your coupons use it wisely.