Shopping for food

12 March 2018
March, week 2 in The Simple Home

This week we'll focus on shopping for food and I'm guessing that will mean vastly different things to most of you. Some will be buying everything they eat, some will be producing a small amount - maybe herbs or eggs, some will produce most of their food and many of us will buy raw ingredients so we can home-make some of the products we used to buy.

A popular meal here and very easy to make and freeze - lasagne.

I’ve gone from being an ordinary housewife, using my food budget to provide as much as I can for the money I have, to being someone who looks for fresh food that’s produced locally and ethically. I only want to buy into a food chain that considers kindness and quality of life in close alliance with nutritional values and profit. I always check labels and never buy products from compromised locations such as China and Thailand. I silently sigh every time I pick up a food product that I know is grown in my own country, but it has been imported from somewhere else. We are shooting ourselves in the foot doing that.

It gives me a feeling of purpose to select, prepare and serve our food here at home. I believe one of the most important parts of my homemaking is to provide food that will keep us healthy, supports our values and is within the budget I've set for our grocery shopping. It's an ongoing job and something that takes planning and organisation as well as the actual shopping itself. But the selection of that food and growing some of our own fruit, vegetables and eggs, allows me to use many of the skills I've developed along the way. I didn't start out with any sort of expertise in budgeting, menu planning, stockpiling, food storage, gardening, seed collection, pruning, composting, animal husbandry, preserving, pickling, baking or cooking from scratch but teaching myself as I went has allowed us to develop a life far better than the one we used to live.

Making the most of your food budget
I have no doubt that if you do all your food and grocery shopping at the supermarket, you’ll miss some of the bargains that can be found out in the community. Ask your friends and neighbours if they shop at the local butcher, greengrocer, dairy or fishmonger. Find out which local markets are the best. Many markets are open every weekend, and if you find a good one, you may be able to shop there for fruit, vegetables, fish and meat.

Home grown greens are usually easy to grow and can save you a few dollars while providing the freshest nutrition.

If you have good neighbours, close family or friends near-by, you might do some bulk-buying with them to make real savings. Don’t rule out bulk-buying even if you’re single or there’s just the two of you. All you need is a good stand-alone freezer. Sometimes we buy a side of pork or lamb but you can also buy a fore quarter or hind quarter and have it cut and packed to order by the butcher. If you bulk-buy meat you’ll pay the same reduced price per kilo for the whole side or quarter. That price varies, but often it’s about half what you’d pay in the supermarket. Find a butcher near you and phone them for a quote. If you live in a city and you’re close to the fruit and vegetable markets or fish markets, you might be able to do the same thing there.

Make your own spice mixes, sauce and gravy bases. They are preservative-free and much cheaper than store bought ones.

Living well on a small amount of money is not about the big choices. It’s a series of consistent decisions to live on the budget you’ve defined for yourself. It’s about shopping for value for money bargains and making as much at home as you can. If you have the time to make some of the things you now buy - such as sauces, bread, yoghurt, jams, spice mixes, pickles etc, you’ll save money, and probably get a better product. If you can reduce your grocery bill you’ll be able to make savings every time you shop and that will probably mean big savings over the year.

But before you’re faced with those choices, you have to organise your money, and that means making up a food budget. If your eyes just glazed over and your pulse started to race, it’s not as bad as you think. You set your own limits, you write your budget according to what you need and the money you have coming in. You are the main definer of your fate. 

Menu planning

An easy mid-week meal - lamb chops, potatoes and cheesy cauliflower.

If you can put aside some time to plan two to four week's menus, you’ll go a long way towards saving money., you’ll cut down on food wastage and you’ll feel more in control because you’ll know what’s planned every day. Start your menu list with your family’s favourite meals and then add a few new ones you want to try. Make up your week’s shopping list according to what's already in the fridge as well as what you need to buy for that first week. That’s all you need to do to start, and when you’re halfway through your first week, add more meals to your second week. It’s fine to repeat easy and favourite meals.

Homemade cake is just flour, eggs, sugar, milk, butter and natural flavourings - no preservatives.

I encourage you to start menu planning in an organised way. You have to deal with recipes, calendars and shopping lists, so if you can combine them all in one app, book or spreadsheet, it will make the task much easier. I use the Paprika app and it's made a new woman of me.

There are two common ways to menu plan: you can shop with a shopping list and buy what is on special and in season, then menu plan when you have your supplies. Or you can collect the flyers and plan the menus before you go shopping. I think the second method is the safest, because you will be able to shop for everything you need if you already know what you’ll be making. Make sure you use leftovers as part of the overall plan and use the seasons as your guide to better quality and cheaper fruit and vegetables. Just remain flexible, and if you see something that isn’t on your list that you can't resist, either buy it for the following week if it will keep, or change one of your meals to include what you find.

Permanent shopping list
Menu plans don’t work for everyone – that’s when a permanent shopping list comes in handy. This is a list of all the groceries you regularly buy. It lives in your computer and you print one off before you go shopping, and just tick the items you need that week. It’s much easier than compiling a weekly shopping list because you’re not trying to remember brand names and sizes, and if it’s not you who does the shopping that week, you know you’ll still have the products you usually buy. Remember to include brand names and sizes if they’re important to you. I don’t care about brand names for their own sake, but I want to buy Australian-grown and Australian-made, so we check that before we buy.

You can make drinks at home too.  Above is lemon cordial, below ginger cordial, both can be added to black tea in winter.

It takes a while to build a permanent shopping list. Start off with headings, and as you think of certain products, add them to the list under a heading. Here is an example of the categories you can use for your permanent list - add any you need and delete those you never buy:

Baking


Bathroom

Bread


Canned food


Cleaning

Condiments and spreads


Dairy


Drinks


Dry goods and grains

Fresh fish


Frozen food

Fruit


Meat


Odds and ends


Oils: cooking and salad

Paper products/bags


Pets and chickens

Seasonings and spices


Sugars and syrups


Vegetables and herbs


Other



Stockpiling groceries
The thing that will support you cooking from scratch more than anything else is to have the ingredients you need on hand. Whether you’re in a large family or live alone, stockpiling groceries will give you the convenience of having a cupboard full of groceries available to you twenty-four hours a day. If children come home from school and hand you a note saying they need to have some cupcakes for the school fair the next day, no problem. If someone drops by out of the blue for dinner, you won’t be frantic wondering what you’ll feed them. If you live alone and get the flu, you won't have to go out and shop. And it’s a great time-saver, too. When you have filled that cupboard to the capacity you want, you won’t have to shop every week. You’ll do your regular big shop, then keep scanning the sales flyers and shop only when you see a bargain, or to pick up fresh milk, fruit and vegetables. 

Just remember, a pantry and stockpile serve difference purposes. A pantry is full of the foods you’ve opened and are currently using. Generally everything will be in a sealed container. A stockpile is a cupboard full of goods not opened, waiting to move to the pantry when they’re needed.