VegWeek, Day 5: Grocery Shopping on a Budget

Yesterday I was too busy to blog. Since I worked the closing shift at the library I had the morning free to grocery shop. When I arrived home I spent forever putting all my purchased items on the dining room table and photographing them for VegWeek. Yes, I am just that dedicated (and weird). Then I went through my receipts to tally up exactly how much I spent on food (not toiletries, diapers, and cleaning products). There was no time to blog for VegWeek because I was prepping for today’s discussion: Grocery Shopping on a Budget.
I hear from folks all the time that they cannot be vegetarian or vegan because it is expensive. It can be very expensive and so can being an omnivore.  I initially began exploring vegetarianism last year because I couldn’t afford meat. Through researching the economics of meat I was exposed to the rampant cruelty to animals and the poor at the hands of factory farming. I was in a previous relationship with a man who worked as a supervisor in the evisceration room at a chicken plant (I live in the poultry capital of the world, seeing abused chickens crammed into nasty trucks is a daily occurrence). I can attest that most workers are immigrants or poorer folks, the smell is abominable, the hours are long, the injuries are many, and the pay is meh at best. Poor people slaughter my food for little pay. Then the meat goes to a grocery store where folks making minimum wage sell it to me. The food production company and the grocery store make money. I cannot afford the grass-fed, organic whatever. So me, as a lower-middle class mom, is stuck buying cheap meat. Cheap meat is pretty gross, the animals are abused, and I’m perpetuating a labor market cruel to immigrants, minorities, and women. Eff that. I looked to vegetarianism as a way to quit supporting the perpetuation of a class of working poor and in the meantime I learned that yes, killing animals is abundantly cruel.
It has taken about a year of practice and some tweaking, but I have our vegetarian shopping down to a science. I’d like to share with you today in the hope that it dispels the notion that vegetarianism is expensive.
My system:
I have tried shopping weekly and realized that was too much work each week and I tried shopping monthly which was financially burdensome and overwhelmed my wee kitchen fridge/freezer. For the past few months I have been shopping every other week, but still getting fresh produce every week.
The nitty gritty — budget crunching:
I knew that I could only spend an average of $150 a week on food for my family of five. I decided to spend $50 a week on produce at either the farmer’s market or a produce delivery service and then every other week I budget $200 for other grocery items. Here is what April looked like:
04/04 — Organic produce box $50
04/11 — Grocery store $200 and Organic produce box $50 = $250
04/18 — Organic produce box $50
04/25 — Grocery store $200 and Organic produce box $50 = $250
Total for April: $600
Weekly average: $150

My Produce Box
I use Nature’s Garden Express. For slightly over $50 a week I get an array of organic fruits and vegetables, 1 gallon of whole, grade-A, grass-fed, lightly pasteurized milk and 1 dozen cage-free eggs. On Saturday a new order is generated, I look it over and make any substitutions. On Tuesday afternoon my order is delivered to my home. Farmer’s market season starts the end of May in my community. When that starts I will go to a smaller box and pick some things up at the farmer’s market each week, but keep the $50 budget. I also pick up organic produce on sale when I do my big shopping trips (if I can afford it), I buy over ripe fruit to freeze, I pick up bags of clearance vegetables to put in the freezer for stirfry, and I try to stock as much produce as I can as cheaply as possible. I cannot afford to do ONLY organic produce. About 60% of our produce is organic, but sometimes I buy frozen vegetables and clearance/sale items that are not organic. You don’t have to be all or nothing about this. The more organic the better, but it isn’t practical on my budget to go 100% organic.
Meal Planning
I make a meal plan for two weeks. Each week has four “throw together” meals and three recipes I’d like to try. I’d love to say I can cook a delightful culinary concoction each night, but that would be delusional. Here is a sample dinner meal plan:
Sunday: Spaghetti, toast, salad
Monday: Mango stir fry rice with baked tofu
Tuesday: Black bean nachos
Wednesday: Two-Lentil chili with sweet potatoes and steamed kale
Thursday: Pizza night
Friday: Spicy Thai noodle bowl with cashews
Saturday: Soy dogs, french fries, broccoli spears
For lunches I make sure to have plenty of sandwich stuff on hand, hummus, fresh veggies, and fruit. Snacks are limited to what I bake and what’s on sale. None of us like a big breakfast first thing in the morning so we rely on homemade muffins, granola bars, cereal, and smoothies for breakfast.
Before I plan my meals I do two things:
1) take stock of what I have on hand. Maybe I need to use some potatoes soon or I have a surplus of canned black beans or I have left over vegetables I can toss into a stirfry. I write down a few meal ideas based in my existing pantry and fridge.
2) I check my coupons and the sale papers. I shop almost exclusively at Kroger, Publix, and Aldi. Mostly at Kroger and Aldi. Aldi is super cheap and Kroger has the largest natural foods section and more clearance items. I write down the items I’m interested in from Kroger or Publix and keep that on hand while I plan. I also look to see what coupons I need to use and write those items down.
Next I write down my easy meals for the next two weeks. I base these meals on sales and coupons. For example, if LifeLight “bacon” is on sale I write down to have BLTs one night, etc. Then I spend some time flipping through my cookbooks and looking at Pinterest to find recipes for the other nights. This can be an overwhelming time suck. I keep it manageable by choosing two or three new meals to try and then make meals from recipes I’ve used before. I keep my sale list beside me and let it guide me in making choices. Bok choy on sale? I search for a recipe with bok choy.
My Grocery List
I make a list based on stores. My Kroger list is specific to what’s on sale and Aldi is for everything else. Here is how I construct my list:
1) I copy out what I need for my recipes/meals. I know I already have a list of what’s on sale, but sometimes I don’t get everything on sale and I like to group my grocery list by item type (produce, canned, bread, etc…). I find making a clean copy key to organizing my list and not forgetting items.
2) I write down other sale items too good to miss (i.e. a lot of this ends up being snack stuff like chips, crackers, coffee, etc…)
3) I check my pantry and fridge for necessities like flour, baking soda, almond milk, ketchup…. Things you don’t think about when “cooking” but when you need it you need it.
Tip: double check your coupons and place a * by the items on your list that need a coupon. This will help to remind you at the register to pull out your coupons. Also, keep an eye on the number of items. Kroger recently had a special on organic cereal. It was $4 off for every 4 items. I bought 4 boxes of cereal (typically $1.99 each) and paid only 99 cents each. If I had only grabbed 3 boxes I would have paid the entire price per box and not the sale price.
Stick to your list, for the most part. I buy what is on the list and only make exceptions for discounted/ clearance food. Yesterday I purchased a a bag of 4 organic cucumbers for $1, three boxes of organic mac and cheese for 70 cents each on clearance, and a few loaves of bread marked down to 49 cents each. In the past I’ve purchased a five pound bag of jasmine rice for $2.99 and I have 15 cans of organic pumpkin sitting in my pantry from a huge markdown at Kroger (39 cents a can!). This is how I stock my freezer and pantry in addition to shopping for my meals.
The Result?
Here’s what I bought yesterday for $203. That’s two weeks worth of groceries (excepting my produce box).

Time = Money, Money = Time
I estimate I spend approximately 2-3 hours every 2 weeks planning meals, checking sales, and making a grocery list. It can feel like a lot of time, but the financial payoff is worth it. I save money and animals shopping like this. The times I’ve half-assed it and skipped planning meals and constructing a grocery list things have gone horribly. I spend more money at the store AND I end up making trips for forgotten items.
It is very doable to be vegetarian or vegan and this is WAY easier than shopping for cheap meat. It just takes planning, organization, and a pinch of tenacity.
Let me know your shopping tips and ideas in the comments!

One comment

  1. Love this! I especially appreciate your plan for getting your fresh produce. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the time and work you have put into this week of informative and practical ways to eat healthier! May you have a restful weekend and an awesome time participating in the readathon.

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