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May 22, 2010 05:28 AM

Downsizing our grocery bill, family of 4....

I am suddenly faced with my husbands layoff earlier in the week. Keep in mind, i'm a chowhound...and a frugal one at that. We eat very little meat, but need to spend a good deal of money on Soy milk for one toddler, and regular milk for another, both of whom are growing rapidly, and constantly hungry. We buy a good deal of our produce from a local wholesale market called Russos and the prices are pretty good there, and I've never spent all that much at Whole foods other than pre-cooked convienience items. Our closest grocery is trader Joes...and I do buy about half of our weekly groceries there, Frozen goods and some dairy items come from a wholesale club....and I've been cutting coupons already for years!

We eat lots of whole grain pasta, cheese, beans,, rice and potatoes, frozen and fresh veggies, tofu and soy.... and chicken and fish about once a week. I don't want to sacrifice health.... and my Penzey's herb stash is in good shape for now.

Any ideas on how an already frugal chowhound can pare down the family grocery bill? We're hoping that he won't be out of work long, but I need to prepare for the worst. I still have my job; but we need to really cut back.

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  1. Hey, sorry to hear about your husband's layoff. It sounds like you're making a lot of smart choices.

    This is a tough one, because you mention you are already pretty frugal and seem to be doing a lot of the things I would already recommend to someone.

    You mention you belong to a wholesale club, but do you have access to a food co-op? At our local co-op you can get a 10% discount on anything you buy by the case, even if it's on sale. I'm thinking of your soy milk. I don't know if this would be cheaper than your other options.

    At my local co-op (I keep repeating that because I don't know if is an option for everywhere), you can also buy bulk cleaning supplies, olive oil, soy sauce, honey, nut butters, etc. All you have to do is bring your own clean, lidded containers. Tupperware, washed out peanut butter jars, etc.

    Is powdered milk an option?

    Do you have any good ethnic markets? I find that produce at the ethnic markets to be super affordable, though, if you can get frozen produce on sale and/or with a coupon at a conventional grocery store, you can do super well with that.

    Also re: produce, I don't know if you are accustomed to buying organic, but if you are, you can keep in mind the dirty dozen (those items for which you would want to pay extra for organic) and buy conventional for all else.

    Another way to trim back your food-related budget is to think about your energy usage. The crockpot, microwave, and pressure cooker are super energy efficient. I know they aren't sexy, but they will help keep your fuel bill down, which would help in overall. (The home oven, on the other hand, is a real energy hog. If you are going to use your oven, use it to bake several things at once. Or, if you can, use your toaster oven, for instance, if you're doing something small'ish such as toasting nuts.) Have you seen Rick Bayless' crock pot beans recipe for instance?

    Here's Paula Deens. You don't even need the ham hock...

    Bittman on microwave cooking:

    Also, I know you already know this, but extend, extend, extend. We're coming on summer and zucchini is super inexpensive once it starts coming. We add it to everything. Chili, meatloaf, soups, etc. We just shred it and freeze it in one cup portions. Same with carrots. We put oatmeal and carrots in our meatloaf. We sometimes add tofu crumbles in addition to our ground beef in things like chili or sloppy joes. You think there's more meat than there is and it feels satisfying.

    Working horse grains: barley, oatmeal.

    Nuts can be a good source of protein in small quantities and you can often buy them on sale and/or with a coupon. Peanut butter, too.

    You didn't mention eggs as an inexpensive source of protein, so I'll mention that just in case.

    Also, tupperware instead of ziplock baggies, dishtowels instead of papertowels, cloth napkins. Good luck!


    12 Replies
    1. re: The Dairy Queen

      Another idea for buying in bulk -- Amazon has a fairly wide range of grocery products, and their Subscribe and Save feature gives you a 15% discount and free shipping when you create a subscription to a product (like soy milk). You can set intervals for Amazon to automatically send you the next shipment, or you can cancel the subscription immediately after ordering with no penalty.

      1. re: The Dairy Queen

        Here's a list of the dirty dozen (for which you might want to pay extra and buy organic) vs. the clean 15 which you could probably buy conventional produce.


        1. re: The Dairy Queen

          Some of that list doesn't make sense. Apples are on it but not pears? Potatoes are dirty, but sweet potatoes are clean? Asparagus is clean, but celery is dirty?

          1. re: rworange

            A lot of it has to do with farming practices (pesticides typically used on certain produce but not on others, etc), not just the fruit/veg family and what kind of pest or blight or whatever control is needed, although that certainly does figure into how "clean" it is. Some of what plays into it is the fact that so much of our produce comes from just a handful of regions or even a handful of producers, often with similar practices.

            I find it a helpful guide but as usual YMMV! ;)

            1. re: rworange

              This list changes over the years, as the EWG reviews more current FDA & USDA studies regarding the 49 "common" fruits and vegetables they study. (Here's their methodology. Scroll to the bottom:

              Funnily enough, pears used to be in the "dirty dozen", but have now dropped out of the dirty dozen to #15 (blueberries seemed to have replaced pears on the list of dirty dozen--wah!) Here's the full list ranking all 49 produce items from best (least amount of pesticides) to worst.

              I'm not a farmer, but assume that certainly some crops are more heavily sprayed depending on the season and region of the country in which they are grown and what kinds of pests plague that particular crop. Also, I notice, for instance, blueberries now make the list of "dirty dozen". Blueberries have become very commercially popular in recent years (my personal observation). It wouldn't surprise me if farmers, in order to capitalize on the popularity of blueberries are growing them in more marginal environments compared to in the past, which might require more active pest control. Supply and demand.

              There is a loose, emphasis on the loose, commonality among the produce items that make the dirty dozen and among those that make the clean 15. The former tend to be produce that has very soft skins and/or are very leafy, whereas the "clean 15" tend to have hard skins.

              There is (at least) one wild card in the study and that is they test the produce after it has been washed and "prepared" to be eaten, including, sometimes, peeling. So, if you always peel your apples, for instance, and the FDA & USDA didn't for their studies, apples might have tested "worse" relative to how you personally consume apples and what your personal exposure to pesticides might likely be. But, there's no way to tell which items were peeled for testing and which were tested whole...

              But, I'm not at all surprised that the study reveals that sweet potatoes don't absorb as many pesticides as regular potatoes do. Regular potatoes are relatively soft and porous, whereas sweet potatoes are very, very hard. I was on a baked sweet potato fry kick a couple of years ago and bought one of those "french fry" potato cutters. It worked fine on regular potatoes and immediately bent and warped when I tried using it for sweet potatoes.

              I don't know why celery might be "dirty" and asparagus "clean", but many people peel asparagus before eating it. Maybe the FDA & USDA did, too, and that's why it tests as "clean"? Also, asparagus is a single stock, whereas celery is in a leafy bunch. Maybe celery is harder to wash? Finally, asparagus is grown in the early spring, whereas celery is planted later in the year. Perhaps there are more pests when the weather gets warmer? I do know that there has been a new pest plaguing celery since about 2007.

              Hard to say. Nevertheless, the EWG just puts this study out and suggests that if you are trying to cut costs, that conventionally-grown produce items that test in the "clean 15" tend to be pretty low in pesticides and you can feel pretty comfortable buying conventional produce, if you are finding organic produce to be too expensive.

              If you are concerned about pesticides, and they are suggesting perhaps you should be if you are pregnant or have young children (and they don't say so, but I will add, "if you have a compromised immune system"), that you might consider opting for organic produce for the items that test in the "dirty dozen," even though it is likely pricier.

              They do say, though, that you are better off eating even conventionally-grown produce, even "the dirty dozen", than no produce at all.

              For what it's worth.


              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                Thanks for taking the time to write a great response.

                What do you mean you are no famer? You are The Dairy Queen. I picture you on a farm surrounded by cows and cheese.

                1. re: rworange

                  It's just like those happy cows commercials here, except a little colder, and with more lakes and fewer earthquakes. I think the real story of my name is on that long, long thread.


                2. re: The Dairy Queen

                  With respect to asparagus, I suspect it has to do with the way it is grown. I'm no expert, but my understanding is that it is mostly underground, and then when the season is upon us, it literally shoots up overnight and grows as much as 12 inches a day. So perhaps the part we are eating may not have spent a lot of time exposed to critters or sprayed, vs. treating the soil, which might not have as much impact WRT residual pesticides.

                  1. re: Caitlin McGrath


                    I know wild asparagus grows in ditches all over Minnesota. If it can grow in the ditches, I imagine it's pretty hardy stuff. That, combined with your shooting up overnight theory, might explain why they test low for pesticides.


                    1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                      Correct. The asparagus in my bed (outside, that is ;-) has virtually no pests. It's often only above ground for half a day before I cut it, and once the bed slows down and the plants grow into leafy fronds, even *they* seem to have no enemies but weeds. I've never seen a bug on my asparagus in five years!

            2. can you grow anything like tomatoes? Don't know where you live and whether it's too late to get some plants in the ground. My six plants have already given me a great crop and the next crop are setting.

              Make extra for left overs which saves energy, pad out beef and chicken stews with lots of root veggies which are cheap. See what's on sale like 2 for 1 and stock up. Use left over sauces and dressings for marinades rather than throw out, buy dried beans rather than canned. Stop buying convenience foods and cook from scratch.
              Hope your hubby finds a job soon.

              1. Hi, I'm sorry to hear about your husband's layoff too. We had a similar bump a few years ago so I was tightening _every_thing.

                As the others have said, I think you're doing all the frugal food stuff you can so I agree you will probably need to see where you can trim elsewhere in your home. Dairy Queen is right, small appliances really do use way less energy than cooking on your stove. Pressure cookers replace long slow braising and although I generally don't like microwave cooking, I do have a short list of things that turn out nice, including a chocolate cake which would normally take an hour in the oven but is only 6 minutes in the microwave.

                I also have only a few categories of things I will buy new (eg food and toiletries). Everything else I find second hand or make or re-purpose. Antiques and lovely old things cost less than pieces of chipboard crap from ikea or Target. If you like making things at all, you might like where you can learn everything from how to make your own bacon to designer inspired light fixtures. Lots of cheap but good ideas.

                And I second smartie's idea to grow some things. I grew the things we spent the most on so I had our staples (onions, potatoes, salad leaves) as well as some treats.

                Even though everything is good for us again, I still live like this. I like it. It gives me peace to know I'm using less resources and putting less in landfills and I'm teaching my children good habits and I've been much more creative, so many good things have come from living cheaper.

                Good luck with it all. It was a big blessing in disguise for me.
                Hope your husband finds a good new job.

                1 Reply
                1. We shop at Russo's all the time too, so you must live in or near Boston. I recommend keeping an eye on the Stop and Shop or Star Market flyers and buying in quantity when pantry staples and things that can be frozen go on sale.

                  1. so sorry to hear you guys have hit a rough patch - i hope things turn around soon.

                    you've already gotten some terrific advice here, but you might pick up some more tips in these threads: