Real Food Bloggers and Their Grocery Budgets: Heartland Renaissance

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**Don’t miss a post in this new series, where I’m featuring bloggers who eat real, whole, healthy foods and ask them how they manage their grocery budgets. Have you subscribed yet by RSS or email to receive free updates of every new post and deal?**

This week’s featured real food blogger is Sarah from Heartland Renaissance (formerly Sarah’s Musings). She and her husband refer to themselves as “reformed urbanites” and are working to establish their family’s new homestead in the midwest after years of big city living.

Her answers are so thorough and helpful, I know you’ll love her take on how she makes their “real food” budget work!

1. How much do you spend on groceries, and is this a firm amount or does it change from month to month?

We have a budget of about $300/every two weeks, so $600/month for groceries and other sundries (this budget includes dog and chicken feed as well as items like canning jars, toilet paper, trash bags and toiletries.)

We do have a little wiggle room in this budget, but we try to stick to it every month as it helps us maintain our budget and future goals. Occasionally we’ll go out to a date night and spend outside of the budget, or I’ll spend a little more one week to accommodate a sale or a need to stock up on something, and then spend less the next to accommodate, but it’s not a big deal.

2. Briefly describe your family, their food needs and preferences.

We are a family of four with two adults and two small boys, ages 3 and 16 months. My husband is naturally athletic, and has a large appetite, but sits at a desk for his job so is conscious of what foods he eats and tries to eat a mostly low-starch, low-grain diet to keep his weight down with the lack of activity he gets from his job. He also tries to take his lunch to work several days a week so I’m cooking for both dinners and lunches and he normally makes an omelet for breakfast before he leaves. His favorite lunches are a big green salad with homemade dressing and some form of protein on top (leftover chicken or meat, tuna or salmon salad) or some form of a soup or casserole that I try to fill up with more vegetable heft and less starch. He doesn’t eat much fruit.

My three year old, on the other hand, seems to have a bottomless pit for a stomach and I find that I have to give him some starchy foods to fill him up, along with good proteins and fats. We’ve tried just doing vegetables with dip or fruit with cheese for a snack and he claims hunger twenty minutes later. We don’t have any specific food allergies to accommodate, but we do try our best to stay away from polyunsaturated vegetable oils, unfermented soy and artificial colors and preservatives.

With two little ones three and under, I find that we eat lots of snacky meals at home together, frequently consisiting of bread, meat, cheese and fruit! My 16 month old still breastfeeds four to five times a day and enjoys bits of meat, cheese, raisins, bananas and yogurt. We give him tastes of almost everything we eat and do not feed or make him “baby food.”

3. Tell us about where you live and where most of your food comes from.

We just moved to a small family farm (3 acres) outside of Omaha, Nebraska early this spring after living for all of our adult life in cities. We have 14 chickens for eggs and a large garden and have been working this year to eat a lot from the garden as well as preserve for the winter through canning, freezing and root cellaring (a fancy term for: “keeping a lot of winter squash cold and dry in the basement”). Novice gardeners, I’ve already learned a lot of lessons from this year; plant more beans, plant less zucchini and start your tomatoes early! We just planted our autumn garden a few weeks ago with lots of kale, spinach, lettuces and bok choy and are waiting for cooler weather to harvest our (now dried) beans, a few varieties of winter squash and carrots.

Though we have the garden, we do still buy quite a bit of produce from the store and farmer’s markets that we either didn’t plant or didn’t successfully grow this year, including almost all of our fruit, as well as tomatoes, garlic and onions, celery, potatoes, avocados and, lately, lettuce for salads (after ours bolted in the hot summer heat!) We enjoyed fresh lettuce from our garden in spring and early summer and have some new starts beginning for autumn as we speak!

I would say that 60% of our consumed food is, in one way or another, produced by our hands*. Whether produce from the garden, venison and elk from hunting, home-cured or smoked meats and salamis, eggs from our chickens and items like bread and yogurt, fruit preserves and grain-free granola which we make at home (though made from flour and milk and nuts bought at a store.) The rest (honey, coffee cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese, the majority of our fruit, which we eat daily, chicken, pork, fish and milk) is bought from various stores, farmer’s markets and farms in the Omaha and Lincoln area (actually our honey comes from our neighbor across the street!)

*However, don’t think that we are forever in the kitchen! I have a handful of days during the summer when we’re crazy busy with canning, freezing and preserving, and then once a week or so I make a batch of yogurt, a batch of grain-free granola and a loaf or two of bread, but I try to do most of the work one day a week. One big mess, one big clean-up and the rest of the week we’re left to do whatever else we want to do! Most of our “food projects” take only a few minutes to prepare, then require little to no supervision until they’re completed.

I grocery shop one to two times a week and frequent stores all over (though not on the same day!), from Costco to Whole Foods to neighborhood stores and co-ops with great butchers and quality meats. After quite a bit of price and quality comparison, I’ve narrowed down our shopping to about three to four places, depending on what is on the list, and rarely go to the same place two weeks in a row.

4. As best as you are able, could you give us an average break down of your monthly grocery expenses?

5% to chicken feed (who provide us with an ample supply of pastured eggs! They also receive all of our appropriate produce scraps) = $30/month

20% to produce = $120 or $30/week

30% to good quality meat, chicken & fish = $40-50/week

15% to dairy = sour cream, butter, various soft & hard cheeses and organic, non-homogenized, VAT pasteurized milk for yogurt, = $20/week

30% to everything else, including wine, coffee, raw milk (we don’t drink a lot of milk plain, most of what we use is cultured or used in cooking so I don’t buy this weekly) flour & baking needs, nuts, seeds & dried fruit, toiletries, dog food, etc.

Image by matthewf01

5. What money-saving techniques are the most valuable to you in keeping your costs down?

The best tip I can give is to 1) figure out one simple thing that your family buys and eats regularly, and then 2) learn how to make it and figure out how to add the making of it in to your daily and weekly schedule. Then, once you’re good at that, choose another thing.

For me, being able to provide good quality, whole-grain bread to my family, without modern, industrial polyunsatured vegetable oils and high fructose corn syrup in the ingredients was a big deal. It’s nearly impossible to find in the store and what I can find is upwards of $4/loaf. I can buy a 5lb bag of organic, stone-ground flour for that price! So a few years ago, I began making it at home.

From that first loaf, I’ve begun a foray into sourdough baking and now really enjoy it as a craft, churning out three to four loaves of various types of breads per week (from whole wheat sandwich bread to baguettes to pitas to dinner rolls) for our meals without it taking too much of a toll on my time. As a stay at home Mama, I figure out where it works into my daily routine. I feed my starter and begin my build when cleaning up the kitchen in the evening, the next morning I throw the dough together. Knead at naptime while reading a book or listening to a podcast (or doing nothing else!) then allow to rise. I think I spend more time researching recipes and thinking about baking bread than actually doing it; I only bake one to two times a week!

A second big tip is to learn how to cook less expensive cuts of meat, and then learn how to use the leftovers. I love roasts of all varieties. Beef, pork, elk. Big hunks of 4-8 pounds at a time full of flavor, but that require quite a bit of coaxing to make palatable. My secret? The sear and braise. Simply season the outside of your roast thoroughly, then, in a hot skillet with a bit of bacon fat in it, sear roast on all sides and then deposit, with various aromatics, in a crockpot or dutch oven and fill up your pot 2/3rds up the side of the roast with some stock or wine (or both), cover and cook for several hours on low. When you can pull pieces of it apart using two forks, it’s done.

Enjoy for your first meal with potatoes, veggies, a big green salad. Then, the next day, freeze half of the leftovers for later and use the other half to make a soup or casserole or enchiladas . . . simple, easy, frugal and tasty.

Final tip? Keep staples around. For me, this includes things like onions, shallots and garlic, peppers (fresh or frozen from the summertime), bacon, eggs and cheese, maybe a package of frozen ground meat. No matter what else is (or isn’t) in the fridge I can make something for dinner that is tasty and real without having to return to the store (where I will invariably buy more things!). They are inexpensive staples that add a world of flavorful difference to your meals!

6. If you could give others one tip for keeping their grocery budget reasonable (while eating real, whole foods), what would it be?

Eat seasonally and keep it simple. The best, most flavorful produce is whatever is in season RIGHT NOW, and you can normally find it for only $1-$2/lb (and much less if you grow it yourself!). Buy lots of it! Enjoy it at it’s peak, preserve it, and then when it’s out of season, find the next thing to move on to.

Get to know Sarah better on her blog, Heartland Renaissance (or better yet, just subscribe to get free updates) and be sure to check out some of her yummy (and very healthy) recipes.

How to Start Saving: Using Coupons to Save on General Goods

One of the ways I love to use coupons is to help me save on the more general products and household goods that I need to get anyways. This takes a load off of the rest of my budget, making the more expensive foods that I love to serve my family that much more affordable for us!

Here are a few examples of some of the non-organic items that I regularly use coupons for:

  • Toilet paper
  • Baking soda
  • Ziploc bags
  • Razors/blades
  • Bandaids
  • Lightbulbs
  • Batteries
  • Office supplies

When it comes to food, cleaning products, and personal care or beauty, I’m pretty sticky about what I use. But for these general types of items, I shop pretty similarly to everyone else!

Last month I scored on some significant toilet paper savings (on an eco-friendly brand, no less!). This week I will be getting some Ziploc freezer bags for almost free. I never pay more than $1 per razor or blade (and Ryan and I have sensitive skin, so we buy the high quality ones).

The basic idea is to stack manufacturer’s coupons with either store coupons or store sales/discounts, and to focus your shopping on the available deals and stocking up as much as you can. This ensures that you are regularly buying items at the cheapest price available.

Here’s an example from this past weekend, bought at London Drugs which allows me to stack manufacturer’s coupons (meaning I can use more than 1 coupon at a time):

Elastoplast Fabric Bandages (band-aids)

Regular price $4.99
Sale price $2.99
-$1.00 coupon (from Save.ca)
-$1.00 coupon (from SmartSource newspaper insert)
Total= $0.99 per box

I did another deal for their heavy fabric variety, where I had a $1 and a $1.50 coupon, so I paid only $0.49 for those boxes!

Here are a few resources that will help you learn to use coupons effectively, according to where you live:

Using Coupons in Canada

Mrs. Smith Extreme Shopper :: I have taken this class (hosted in someone’s home if you live in the Lower Mainland, BC area, or an online Skype class for those who live elsewhere). It was so valuable in better understanding how the couponing system works in Canada, which stores to go to, the rules and regulations, where to find coupons, and how to maximize your savings.

Using Coupons in USA

Couponing 101 :: Here are some good basics to understanding how to get started with using coupons.

Money Saving Mom :: Check out her store deals to find stores near you and begin to see the types of coupon scenarios that are being done. Also, her series 31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget has more helpful information on how to save with coupons.

How Saving Naturally can help you save:

Though I do my best to share coupons, deals, sales and discounts on products that are specifically organic, natural or whole foods, I also include coupons for basic household goods, “natural” or not. Taking advantage of these coupons can only help to make the rest of your grocery and household goods budget that much better!

If you know of any great coupons or deals available on these type of products, please don’t hesitate to contact me so that I can post the deal for everyone’s benefit!

Read all of the posts so far in the How to Start Saving series!

Do you use coupons on basic, household goods or non-organic products? Which ones do you most regularly buy with coupons and how do you find that it helps your overall budget?

Image by macaron*macaron