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The cost of food:  A topic that comes up a lot in conversation, mostly in a negative tone.  Most folks don’t like to spend a lot of money on food, but the truth is that we, as Americans, don’t.  I’m not going to go on a Pollan-esque tangent and talk about how the United States is near the very bottom when it comes to how much money we spend on food.  But, I will say this:

Our family’s food expenses are second only to our mortgage and I’m not looking to cut them.  (I am very happy to cut our clothes budget, our cable budget, our car budget, our eating out budget…for us there are many places to cut that don’t impact our health as gravely as poor nutrition choices due to budget cuts.)

I am a hardcore price comparison shopper and I do get the best deal I can find on almost everything.

Alright.  Now that is established, on to my money saving tips!

1.  Shop Local Sources

  • Farmers Market/Farm Stand – Farmers want to sell their goods and so I have found that they price accordingly, many times pricing below the local supermarket.  While I am not looking to scrimp on paying my local farmers, and I will pay more for a locally-grown vegetable that is fresh and supports our local economy, I have found that many times the prices for all the basics are great! (Specialty items such as artisan cheese and small batch chocolates may be a little higher than the typical equivalent in a supermarket, but you have a choice.) I shop at my local farmers market, Oakmont Farmers Market, which is just a short walk from my house.
  • CSA – We joined the Lancaster Farm Fresh CSA last year and were extremely happy with the amount of food for the price.  Can’t get any better than fresh, organic and local.  While we live outside Philadelphia, Lancaster Farm Fresh also delivers to other areas of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland/DC, New York and Virginia.
  • Organic Produce Delivery Service – We use a local service called Panache Food.  All of their food is organic and when possible, local.  They offer fruits, veggies, local meat/cheese/eggs and more.  What could be easier than picking out your organic produce online and having it delivered right to your front door! This service was great in the winter months when the cold dreary days kept me in my warm house.  This service is a must for busy families and working parents.  The prices are very competitive and if you order regularly you get a discount on your box.  The photo below is of a recent box order.

2.  Find an Independent Natural Foods Market off the Beaten Path

We live relatively close to Lancaster County.  Last year, we found a natural foods store called Millers Natural Foods (similar to those big chains, but independent) where most of the items sold are organic and many of the bulk items 25-50% less than what you would typically pay.  This was a huge find for us as I can buy rice, oats, quinoa, nuts, beans – all in bulk at an amazing price and all organic.  They also have great prices on dried herbs and spices.

3.  Buy in Bulk

There are many sources where you can buy in bulk.  Here are three of my favorites.

  • Amazon has a program called “Subscribe and Save” on many bulk food items.  I buy udon noodles, oats, my favorite natural stain stick, organic popping corn in bulk and shipping is free!
  • Whole Foods offers 10% off any case.  It’s really hard to find organic peanuts, so I buy them by the case from Whole Foods.
  • Vitacost has great prices on most everything they sell (and they sell tens of thousands of items) and also sell in bulk.

4.  Buy with Friends or Join a Buying Club

Once you identify friends who purchase the same type of food as you, it’s always cheaper to combine your orders.  Usually, you can get a price break by buying in bulk and you can split shipping costs (if there are any).

There are also “buying clubs” that offer a list of specialty items, many local and artisan made, that you can purchase and pick up locally.  One that we use throughout the year is called Four Season Harvest.  It is an arm of the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, where we get our CSA share.

5.  Easy Does It – Use Expensive Ingredients Sparingly

There are certain things I buy that are very expensive.  For example, the local maple syrup I buy is over $40 a gallon.  Here’s one item that I am very stingy with in recipes and especially on my children’s pancakes! Oh, they do get their share, but we try not to pour any puddles of that liquid gold.  In baking recipes that call for maple syrup, I usually reduce the amount.  By using less, you stretch the product.  I would much prefer to buy a high quality product and use less.

6.  Buy Directly from the Source

We don’t buy much in the way of animal products (we have a dairy free and plant-based diet), but when we do infrequently buy eggs, chicken or beef, we buy directly from the farmers in Lancaster County.  There is one farm in particular that we have grown to love – both for the respectful way of raising and treating their animals and also for the lovely farm grounds on which our children get to run around and play.

When you buy directly from the source, you cut out the middle man.  Sure, it takes a little drive to get there, but I want my children to know where their food comes from so it’s worth it.  And, with prices under $4 a pound for organic meats, it’s much cheaper than many other options.

7.  When It’s On Sale – STOCK UP!

Organic bananas were on sale recently and we stocked up.  We bought a whole 40-lb case! We use bananas all the time for smoothies, fruit-based ice creams, muffins, cookies, etc. so I knew we would make good use of them.  Saving Naturally is a great site to refer to where I often find information about sales at my local supermarket and Amazon.  If you’ve got the storage room, it just makes sense.  We are lucky to have a spare freezer, so I freeze most of it.

8.  Menu Plan and Shop From Your Own House

Once you have a menu planning system set up, taking 10 minutes at the beginning of each week to think about meals simplifies and saves much money.  Just think…you only buy the ingredients you need for that week, many of which you will probably already have! I didn’t start menu planning until recently and I have to admit I love it.  It takes the stress out of the end of the day when kids are crying (or wanting to stay in the park) and you’re stressing about what’s for dinner.  I started out with a plan that covered breakfast, lunch and dinner (see plan here), but after using it a few weeks I quickly saw that I needed a plan that focused on dinners (see new plan here from 30 Day Vegan’s Heather – thanks!).

We usually end up in the grocery store 2-3 times a week, mostly for produce, but there are times when we need to get through what we have.  In those cases, I rummage through our fridge and freezer stash and make a list of what needs to be used up.  Then, I create my menu plan.  Since it seems I always spend at least $50 every time I walk through those supermarket doors, by “shopping at home” and not going I am saving that money.

9.  Seek out local ethnic grocers

I often find bargain prices on organic noodles, rice, and hoisin at my local Korean, Chinese and Indian grocery stores.

Note:  I have not been compensated by any of the above-mentioned companies.  I just believe in what they do and want to share them with you.

What is your food buying philosophy? Do you menu plan? What are your money saving tips?