What do you spend on groceries in a week? On people food, dry goods, pet food and those pesky miscellaneous items that add up to a sizeable chunk of your bill and yet seem to be gone so quickly?
Are you a Wal-Mart shopper, Krogerite, Co-op “hippie”? Do you frequent stores on a once-a-week basis or stock up once a month at the big box stores, wedging items into every nook and cranny in your house? Or do you take trips to the store on a more frequent clip, buying only what you need for that day and perhaps into the next?
Whichever method you use, at whatever stores happen to be your favorites, you will end up spending between $60 and $70 a person per week, according to experts. That means my family of four will be dropping around $240 to $280 a week – a jaw-dropping amount, if it’s correct.
It’s not that I doubt the people whose job it is to track this sort of thing, but if it is true we couldn’t afford to spend at that pace for very long before our bank accounts would be tapped out. Over a year’s period, you could spend over $15,000 in groceries alone. And that doesn’t even count the trips through fast-food lines and the occasional nice dinner out.
With everyone’s paycheck stagnant, shrinking or, perhaps, nonexistent, this issue could present a major problem for not just the lower income population but also those in the middle class. I have no magic potion for reducing the amount we spend on groceries. I do have some suggestions that have helped our family lower the cost of our grocery shopping trips and, at the same time, have kept the quality of the food fresh and healthy.
• First and foremost, do your best to use everything you buy. The average person in this country is capable of wasting up to 50 percent of their purchased food each year. If you won’t eat 10 pounds of grapes before they go bad or you get tired of them, then buy the 3-pound bunch instead. It may cost you a little more but it will actually fulfill its cost by lowering you waste (an old restaurant trick).
• Buy in season. I know I say that all the time, and it may require a trip to the Farmers Market, but when a store has to add in the cost of shipping peppers from Mexico in January, guess who absorbs that cost? Also, seasonal foods are a far better product with close to 100 percent utilization (there is that no waste again). And it’s better for your health because the nutrients are not lost in the several days of shipping.
• Plan your meals. Each day you should have a plan for what to prepare and then buy accordingly. This past week of 100-degree temperatures made me avoid heavy meals with lots of protein, so our grocery bill was lower simply because protein tends to cost the most. We also didn’t eat as much at meals, so our intake fluctuated with the weather.
I know this is an individual choice, but try it just once; people in warmer climates have been eating like this for centuries and it seems to work well for them. If during the week the plan gets changed, you can still accommodate everyone by planning with interchangeable parts in mind. Don’t want broccoli tonight with the fish? Use the green beans you got for the stir fry instead.
• Plan smart, efficient shopping trips. Most everyone in the world used to shop for fish from the fishmongers, meat from the butcher, bread from the bakery … you get the picture. This is what I tell my students when they ask me why someone would do that: for consistency.
When you frequent a store or stores on a regular basis you begin to see a pattern in their buying and selling, which also includes specials and the issuance of coupons. When you know your butcher, he will actually give you hints on how to save on that roast you were buying or why the whole chicken is the best buy of the week. Shop this way enough times and you will benefit not just in the money you will save but in the friendships that you may make along the way.
• Cook what you need and only what you need. As much as you say you will eat leftovers, most of us don’t. That is part of the 50 percent waste and a big problem we have to deal with.
The other night, I think I finally got it right. I bought three boneless chicken breasts from Bell and Evans for $7 and lightly roasted them with seasoned flour, a box of organic mac and cheese that the kids like (they won’t touch my homemade version – too pale) for $3.29, green beans from the market at $1.50, and some grapes $1. We all had water (never drink soda at dinner, expensive and really bad for your health) and everyone was full at the end, no leftovers. The total was $12.79 for four people, that’s about $3.20 a person. Can you do that at any fast food place? And the kicker was it kept the entire family at the table, just talking, for over a half-hour longer. Priceless.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.