Wednesday, October 5, 2011

food budget challenge

We are refinancing our house and, in doing so, have shaved 7 years off of paying a mortgage! That's BIG BUCKS! But that's not big bucks that we're seeing right now. One of our biggest expenses right now is our grocery budget at $200 a week for two adults and two kids, five and seven years old. That is SO ludicrous! I was considering ways to cut back on this and low and behold Heather at Beauty That Moves put the food budget challenge out there and I'm on board.

For some reason October feels like the right time to do take on this challenge. Now, October is the busiest month at my work and my hubby is gone for a total of ten days during the month for conferences, so with that in mind it's the worst possibly timing. That said, it's the best possible reason to get my shit together and plan out meals. Also, and I'm saying this as a visual person, October 1 is on a Saturday and the way the calendar looks, there are four solid weeks in there with just the niggling bits that are Sat, Oct 1 and Sun-Mon, Oct 30-31. It looks like a fine time to try this out. We're still getting our CSA share and have a myriad of fresh veges still around us.

I was thinking of ways our family could cut back on our spending. We put a $200 limit on food each week. But we also have a seasonal CSA - and that's about to run out after this month - and milk delivery service. And we didn't count that into the $200 weekly food budget.

I mean, we spend WAY too much on food and we waste WAY too much as well. In reality what we don't eat can go to the rabbit or chickens, but certainly not all of it. So, I'm being more thoughtful this month. October started on a Saturday this year, so I've created a Saturday-Friday system to keep track of budget and to create a weekly menu for us. So far, half way through the month, it's worked out well and I'm only about $35 over budget.

I've tried to cut back before, but on my own. My husband and I talked about it though and I have him on board. So he can't say, "We're out of deli ham, we really need more." Now we wait until the next week. He understands the concept and he's along for the ride. His expectations have shifted too.

So, what I've learned at this point:

1. We aren't wasting as much food: excess is eaten later in the week (even the kids have commented positively on how we finish a dish later and that it's not going to waste) or frozen. An 8 pack of hamburger buns can never be consumed in one week before mold sets in, so we have them out for a few days, then they are put in the freezer for later use.

1 1/2. Converting food that is past it's prime but still ok to eat. Stale bread becomes bread crumbs to use later. A gallon of milk that didn't get used up can be turned into yogurt overnight, but with only 30 minutes worth of your time. Too much of one food can be processed and thrown into a freezer bag for use later in the year. Lord, we had so many habanero peppers in our garden this year - we had nine pounds total! - I cleaned them, cut them up and froze them. I tried this last year and it got our family through an entire year of salsa (and I make salsa EVERY week). Too much zuke: shred and freeze or throw into muffins.

2. Reallocating my time: I don't feel compelled to visit the shop or market whenever we're out (or nearly out) of something. "Oh god, the cashews are running low! Time to hit up Trader Joes!" And can I tell you how freeing that is?! I'm biking at lunchtime again, several times a week. I'm not wasting ($3.55/gallon) gas going on a stupid little back and forth trip. I'm not wasting my sanity when I try to add up how much I've already spent and realize I've already gone for my allotted $200. Dude, the cashews can SO wait! And with meals planned ahead, and occasionally made ahead, I can spend more time with my children or ask them for their help. Because they love to chop and stir and add ingredients.

3. There are options and alternatives to what isn't available right away. Ok, we're out of cashews... Can we use walnuts instead? Probably.

4. There are new recipes out there to try out and enjoy. Breadcrumbs with broccoli? Wow and double wow! There were absolutely NO leftovers on that one. (It may be that if you add enough butter and garlic to anything it will not last on our dining room table beyond the evening meal.)

5. Getting back to lentils and oats and yogurt. With the shift in seasons, there is still plenty of fresh produce in October and it's easy to bake and cook with it without feeling like you're going to pass out from 95 degree heat and 95% humidity (August anyone?!). I can make yogurt again and it makes yogurt, not sloppy milk. I want to have some warm oatmeal for breakfast. Lentils are very reasonably priced and incredibly versatile. I'd like to try it in shepherds pie, instead of ground beef. Top anything in crusted potatoes and it's going to be yummy.

6. We're saving money. If I get through this whole month spending only $400 instead of $800 I will be so happy. Not stunned - cause I started to type that - because I've been very deliberate, I have my partner on board with this goal, I've been sticking to my guns and we have not been wanting. Really, we have been surviving and eating just fine. We did have some casualties, when I discovered those damned pantry moths in some jars of bulk foods: oats (an entire precious 1/2 gallon jar!!!), cashews, whole wheat pasta. But we've been ok and enjoying lots of delicious foods.

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