Locavore June 30: Strategies to Eat Well on a Budget

It is so easy to be a locavore in summer – it’s possible to do it almost without having to think about it – and to be almost totally locavore. Vegetable are abundant, fruits are in season.

A handful of summer berriesFrom the garden I am harvesting the last of the radishes and the peas, the first of the carrots (harvested young and small) and the beets, kales, Swiss chard, mustard greens, the first of the big tomatoes and peppers. My neighbor gives me zucchini, as the first planting I made (late anyway) did not germinate and the second planting (even later) is still small. Berries (blueberries, raspberries, black raspberries, strawberries) are plentiful too – although my plants are still young. I don’t get a lot at once, about get a pint of mixed berries every other day at the moment, since the strawberries have slowed down, and the blackberries have not yet started. But mixed together (with or without a very light dusting of sugar) they make a very refreshing dessert, especially when served with yogurt sweeten with honey (both of which I can also source locally)

There is similar abundance at the farmer’s market, and chances are there is a farmer’s market no far from you. The culminate web site has a neat tool which gives you the farmers markets for your zip code. Try it at the Culinate web site.

I have heard the comment that such fresh full of flavor and full of goodness food is somehow reserved for the financial “elites”. That’s wrong – and that’s sad.

First anybody can grow a few things as long as they have a sunny balcony or a sunny patch. Just a few herbs will incredibly enliven your meals. Of course, the money you hand over to the farmer at the farmer’s market – or the farm stand – is often – but not always – more than at the grocery store for “conventional” fresh food. In another post, I will go over why that is so and the true cost of “conventional” food. I think when feeding one’s family on a budget, one may have to rethink some shopping strategies.

I have adopted several strategies that allow me to eat well, in season and of food that taste good, is good for me and has not wrecked our land and water because it was grown “gently”. Some of them may work for you.

  1. Learn to cook using fresh ingredients. There is no need to spend hours in the kitchen (unless you want to), it’s possible to have a very attractive meal on the table in 30 minutes to 1 hour, once you learn some basic techniques and variations of them.
  2. Buy as little processed food as possible: buy a whole chicken, not spiced-rub chicken breasts. You roast the chicken, eat the legs, thighs and legs one night; use one of the breast another night in a stir-fry and the other for a chicken salad. Don’t forget to put the carcass (cooked is fine) along with the neck, and other trimmings, one onion, one carrot, a few herbs and water in your crockpot. Simmer, voila! you’ll have a rich tasting broth (which you can freeze for cool weather use to make soup). It’s very simple to make salad dressings (and it takes about 35 seconds): don’t buy bottled dressing.
  3. Don’t buy sodas and bottled water. It’s very easy to make ice tea, even flavored ones, and water is safe to drink from the tap – most of the time (unless there has been a natural disaster like a flood that is) and most anywhere in the US. Bottled water is unregulated anyway (so you often buy tap water even though you may think you are getting “spring” water). As far as sodas, they are empty calories (i.e. do not have nutritional value). IStop wasting your dollars on those two items.
  4. Cook more than you need for just one meal, and portion the leftovers in freezable containers. You can use them later when you have no time to cook – or take them to work for lunch (more on that in #5)
  5. Limit the times to eat out when it’s really special. So if your work place has a fridge – and better yet – a microwave, bring those neatly packaged leftovers for lunch (if they don’t, lobby for it. The worse they can say is “no” – right?). My husband and I did this for years, and we figure that it saved us the equivalent of one mortgage/rental payment a year, or $1,500 to $2,000 a year. After 10 years (not counting interests from investing this), that $15,000 to $20,000 savings. We would have had to earn $20,000 to 27,000 before tax to get to keep $15,000 to $20,000. That is a lot of money! Bonus: your colleagues will be ever curious and you will pass for a gourmet cook – which you might well become!
  6. Learn what is in season in your area. At the farmers’ market don’t buy the first tomatoes of the season in June (here in the Virginia Piedmont), they’ll be pricey. Wait for them to be plentiful in July and the price to come down. Same for peaches or any other produce. Ask vendors questions about what they grow, and when it will really start to arrive, and how to use it. Part of the “experience” of shopping at a producer farmers’ market is to connect and learn from the people who grow your food. So ask.
  7. Invest in a freezer and buy in bulk. In September, you might be able to snatch lots of tomatoes when everybody want to get rid of them. Juice them and can them – or simply freeze them. Buy meat in bulk: yes, you need several hundred dollars upfront, but then you won’t need to buy meat again for months – even a year. The per pound price of bulk local meat (even organic, pastured meat) can be cheaper than retail non-local meat. It’s worth looking into it. If you have learned to cook, then you will not be intimidated with the different cuts that will be in your package.
  8. Eat less meat and more vegetable. If you use ingredients that taste good, you’ll be less likely to overeat. Meat is generally more expensive than vegetable – but not always. Knowing what fruit & vegetable are common in your areas and at what time of the year (when the flavor peaks) will help you allocate your food dollars better. Try unfamiliar fruit & vegetable to expand the variety of what you eat. There can be some really good buys there. And it’s good for your health.
  9. Plan your meals ahead. You don’t have to be a maniac about it, but if on the week end you cook a large roast and one chicken (or two – depending on your family size), then you will have meat for the week. All you have to do during the week is to prepare the vegetable and maybe add some herbs and spices to some of the meat, or a quick sauce, to vary the flavors. (See this post for an example of what I mean)
  10. Do a little food preserving. Not everybody has the time to can or dry – but how time consuming is it to wash, halve and stone peaches, put them in a freezer bag, and hop! in the freezer – compared to the benefits of it? Perfect for all kinds of desserts later in the year. Those great Italian tomatoes at the market at the end of the year? Also straight in the freezer: you can make sauce and soups in the winter using your crockpot.

    So what other strategies have you used to eat well when you are watching your dollars? Let me know!

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