Saving Money on Organic Groceries

I spend $175 a month on groceries for my small family of three.  I wrote about spending less on groceries in this post about eating meat-free.  Several people (okay, two people) asked me how I manage to pull this off.  According the USDA’s “thrifty” meal plan, a family with a man, woman, and three-year-old would spend $414.20 per month.  (We’d spend $800 on the “liberal” plan!)  So it seems that we are spending less than half of what other “thrifty” eaters are spending–and we eat mostly organic food!

This is a bit puzzling to me, as we don’t do anything too extraordinary to save money on food.  I haven’t planted a garden since two summers ago (and it was a failure), I don’t clip coupons, and I don’t shop at Costco or other huge warehouse stores.  I also buy many expensive ingredients, like olive oil, nuts, and fancy cheese.  If I had to, I could save even more money if I got better at gardening, stopped buying organic foods, and cut out a few costlier items on my grocery list.

So here are my only real “tricks” to spending less on organic food:

Eat Vegetarian.  Going meat-free is the main way I save on groceries.  Now, most people do not want to cut out meat from their diets, which is why I wrote about Meatless Mondays a while ago.  Cutting out meat just one day a week can still save you money!

According to this article, “How Much Meat Do We Eat?,” the average American eats 200 pounds of meat a year.  Now, I know you can buy cheap meat at the grocery store, but let’s say I wanted to eat mostly organic/free-range/hormone-free stuff.  I just looked at the sale prices for meat at our natural food store: $5.99 for top sirloin, $3.79 for ground chicken thigh meat, and $6.99 for tilapia filets.   With that average of $5.59/lb, we’d spend $279.50 a month on meat if we bought 600 pounds a year–which would more than double the amount I spend on all of my groceries now!

Know my prices.  I never buy butter for more than $2.00 a pound (it’s usually around $4.00/lb, so when it goes on sale, I stock up.  It lasts at least six months in the fridge and longer in the freezer.  I also never spend more than $2.00/lb on natural peanut butter.  I can get it for $1.50 at Grocery Outlet.  It costs more than $4.00/lb if you buy it from the machines at Whole Foods or other grocery stores.

Limit convenience foods.  Looking at my receipts, I see that I did buy a few convenience foods: tortillas, boxed macaroni and cheese, pretzels, and jarred applesauce.  All of those are fairly inexpensive.  The organic applesauce cost $2.29 for 25 ounces–that’s about $1.47/lb.  Fresh organic apples often cost more than that.   Organic shells and cheese cost $1.29, or about $.40-$.60 a serving.  That’s a pretty cheap–albeit no-frills–meal.

Cut back on household goods. I am not sure if the USDA’s meal plans included household goods or not.  I know that many people include things like paper products and cleaners in their grocery budget.  In the six weeks I was tracking expenses, I spent nothing on household goods.  We buy recycled toilet paper, Biokleen laundry detergent (I wrote about how it’s actually cheaper than conventional detergent here), dishwashing liquid, soap, and baking soda and vinegar when we need it.  I bought the Biokleen detergent almost a year ago for $11.00 and still have a lot left!

Make things from scratch.  I make most of my own baked goods, including bread, cookies, and other snacks.

Don’t eat too much. Our caloric needs are not very high, which allows us to spend less on groceries than–say–a 200-pound body builder or an avid marathon runner.  This isn’t exactly a tip, but it does partially explain why we spend less on groceries than other families our size.  Some of our meals probably seem down-right insubstantial to others.  We regularly eat nothing but a bowlful of soup or a salad for dinner.

Those are my main cost-cutting tips.  What are yours?

Stay tuned for more posts on this subject.  I’ll show what, exactly, I was spending that $175 on and give some examples of what I made for dinner.

This post is a part of the Works for Me Wednesday blog carnival over on We are THAT Family. This is a themed edition, where we share our favorite frugal ideas.

Keeping a Freezer Inventory Saves Food, Time, and Money

This idea is so simple, but it has changed my life!  Okay, not my whole life, but that tiny part of my life that was dedicated to rooting through the freezer in search of a stray tortilla or wondering what mysterious sauce I’d frozen in a jar five years ago.

After digging through the freezer and finding four bags full of bread heels, a half-empty jar of graham cracker crumbs, and a three-year-old tub of ice-encrusted raspberries, I knew I had to do something to keep more organized.  I simply made a list of everything in the freezer by category (sauces, vegetables, and bready things seemed to fill the bulk of it).  If I add something new, I simply write it down on the list, along with the date.  (Nothing in my freezer is labeled.)  If I take something out, I cross it off the list.

I’ve been doing this for just a few weeks and already I have reaped the benefits.  It means I’ll stop buying tortillas (already have three different kinds in the freezer) or I’ll take out some frozen rice to use in a stir-fry rather than make a new batch.   I’ll end up using food I already have, which means less will go to waste.

How do you keep your freezer stash organized?  Has anyone kept a freezer inventory for longer than just a few weeks?  I plan to keep this up, but you never know. . . .

Keeping a freezer inventory works for me!  For more Works for Me Wednesday tips, head on over to We are THAT Family. 

Beet Chocolate Cake: An Earthy Earth Day Dessert

How can you have your cake and beet it, too?  (That should win an award for worst pun ever.  It doesn’t even make sense.)  Well, I had a surplus of beets and figured I’d try to sneak them into a chocolate confection.  I’ve got to say I was pretty shocked when it actually turned out.  I found a recipe online but modified it so much that I can now claim that this is my own original creation.  (Read my Cooks Illustrated-style account of my little experiment after the recipe if you’re into that kind of thing.)  The result?  A moist, chocolatey, delicious cake that my beet-hating husband and child devoured.

Note: I used two pans to make this after I lost my 9 x 13″ pan in a tragic accident.

Beet Chocolate Cake Recipe

1 ¾ cups flour

1 ½ tsp baking soda

¼ cup cocoa

1 lb beets, peeled, steamed, and pureed (yields 2 cups puree)*

¾ cups sugar

½ cup apple sauce

3 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

3 squares chocolate

½ cup vegetable oil

1 cup chocolate chips



1. Mix the flour, soda, salt, and cocoa in a bowl and set aside.

2. Melt chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl along with the oil. Let cool while preparing step 3.

3. Mix beet puree, sugar, apple sauce, and eggs until well blended.

4. Fold chocolate into beet mixture.

5. Combine wet and dry ingredients and stir well.

6. Spread into a 9″ by 13″ pan and sprinkle with chocolate chips. The batter will look disturbingly reddish at this point.

7. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

8. Let cool completely before eating.

*Note on the beets: I prefer to peel beets before steaming them, but you can also steam them, let them cool, and then slip the skins off before pureeing them.  You may need to use a little of the steaming liquid to create your puree.  I used a ¼ cup of beet liquid.  You can make the puree a day or two in advance and store it in the fridge.

The batter is strangely fuchsia before baking

Detailed notes on the creation of this recipe (The part where I pretend I work in the Cooks Illustrated test kitchen): Beet Chocolate cake recipes abound on the Internet.  Even Oprah has one, courtesy Jessica Seinfeld of Deceptively Delicious fame.  Back in my spinach popsicle post, I mentioned the controversy surrounding the idea of “sneaking” vegetables into foods to make kids eat them.  I personally don’t have a problem with it, especially since I am the only one in my household who likes beets.  I needed a new way to prepare them!

Jessica Seinfeld’s recipe called for just a ½ cup of beet puree and 1 ¾ cups sugar for a 9 x 9 inch cake.  My recipe uses two full cups of beet puree and just ¾ cups of sugar for a 9 x 13 inch cake.   The recipe I ended up using and modifying came from and called for a cup of vegetable oil and 1 ½ cups sugar.  I slashed both of these amounts in half and added some apple sauce. 

I also improved their directions for adding melted chocolate to the batter.  Following the original recipe’s directions, I melted the chocolate in the microwave and tried to incorporate it into the batter.  Half of the chocolate adhered to my spatula, and much of it hardened into little clumps as I stirred it.  By melting the chocolate along with the oil and waiting a few minutes, I was able to add the liquid chocolate to the beet mixture without a hitch.

I served up my first attempt of the cake for Audrey’s birthday, and no one guessed the secret ingredient.  I am usually not even much of a chocolate cake fan, but this recipe can’t be beet.  (Second worst pun ever?)

This post is a part of We are THAT Family’s Works for Me Wednesday blog carnival.

New Earth Day Resolutions for 2009

Last year I made three resolutions on Earth Day, and I managed to accomplish two of my goals.  Once again, I’ll keep things simple by choosing just a few resolutions.  Baby steps, as they say.

I resolve to purchase carbon offset coupons when I travel by air.  I resolved to do this last year and didn’t.  Ever since I read that book about reducing my carbon footprint, I’ve felt guilty about traveling–something I used to think was essential for learning about the world, experiencing new cultures, and connecting with relatives across the country.  I thought buying the coupons would allow me to travel without the guilt.  Still, I didn’t do it last year.  Perhaps it just doesn’t seem right to “buy” my way out of this one?  We had a bit of a discussion about this on my last post.  I’m still conflicted.

I resolve to plant an organic garden.  I didn’t do it last year because we moved right around growing season.  I need to get serious about eating locally-and nothing’s more local than my own back yard!

I’m sure there are dozens of other things I could do to save the planet, but I’ll stick with these two for now.  Is anyone else making any Earth Day resolutions?  Do tell! 

Making Earth Day resolutions works for me (well, sort of).  For more Works for Me Wednesday ideas, head on over to We are THAT Family.

Baby Gear I am Still Using . . . Three Years Later

My daughter is now three years old, so even though I co-write The Green Baby Guide with Joy, sometimes the baby years seem like they were a part of the distant past.  In our upcoming book, we talk a lot about reducing the amount of gear you buy for your newborn–after all, so much of it gets used for  just a few weeks or months.  Then I looked around my daughter’s room for relics from the past.  Three years out, is there any baby gear we’re still using?  Yes!

Cloth diapers.  Audrey potty trained at 2.5 years, but we still put her in prefolds with a cover at night.  She rarely wakes up wet, but we haven’t yet  made the leap to diaperless nights.  The prefolds are the same exact ones we’ve been using since her second week of life.  She’s fit in the same covers for at least a year and a half.

Blankets/quilts.  Many people complain about the glut of baby blankets they receive as gifts.  Audrey uses the bigger ones on her toddler-sized bed and the smaller ones for her dolls.  The quilt my cousin made her still hangs on her wall as a colorful decoration.

Board books.  Audrey has graduated on to more sophisticated reading material, but that hasn’t diminished her love for her “baby” board books.  She still picks them up, thumbs through them, and “reads” them to herself.

Some toys.  Toys we’ve had since Audrey’s birth still sit in her toy box: blocks, some stuffed animals, and wooden puzzles were fun for her when she was little, and she’s adjusted the way she plays with them as she’s gotten older.

Moses basket.  Audrey slept in a Moses basket for the first six months.  Once she moved into a crib, we started using it to store her soft toys.

So when you start stocking that nursery, think about the longevity of the things you buy.  It worked for me!  For more Works for Me Wednesday tips, head on over to We are THAT Family.

What baby gear did you get a lot of mileage out of as your little one grew?  Let us know!

Natural Egg Dyes: Which Ones Work, Which Ones Just Make Your Eggs Look Dingy and Sad

Last year, Joy and I became obsessed with dyeing eggs using leaves, grasses, spices, and anything else nature threw our way.  Commercial egg dyes aren’t the worst thing in the world, but wouldn’t it be great to tint eggs without frightening chemicals and excess packaging?  Yes, it would be great . . . but do these “organic” egg dyes really work?  Here’s what I tried, with the disappointing results.

I dyed these eggs using blueberries, chili flakes, and a leaf . . . in my imagination.

Beets.  Beets stain everything around them bright reddish-purple, so they seemed like the perfect natural egg dye.  However, after many attempts, I could never manage to dye eggs with them.  The eggs turned slightly brownish, but that was about it.

Wine.  Didn’t work-and wasted wine!

Black beans.  I cook a lot of black beans, and they leave purplish stains on my Dutch oven, so I tried dyeing some eggs in my black bean cooking water.  They just looked dirty afterwards.

Spinach.  In an attempt to dye my eggs green, I tried spinach.  Nada.

Coffee.  Eureka!  Coffee dyes white eggs . . . so they look like brown eggs.

Tumeric.  After trying all the above “natural dyes” (and many more), turmeric was the only thing that dyed my eggs.  Just add a teaspoon or so of turmeric to the water when you cook your eggs and they’ll turn a delightful shade of yellow.

Joy says she used red cabbage and dyed her eggs a beautiful pink color last year.  I wasted an ENTIRE cabbage and it did nothing.  So what am I doing wrong?  I have tried cooking the eggs with the veggies and spices, soaking them for hours in cooled dye baths afterwards, and adding white vinegar to the concoctions to help the dyes stick to the shells.  Nothing works!

Today is a reverse Works for Me Wednesday, which means we can ask others what works for them.  So has anyone had good luck dyeing eggs the “natural” way?  Please let me know how you did it!  For more WFMW questions, head on over to We are THAT family.

Baby Gift Ideas: Favorite Children’s Books

There’s been a baby boom in my family lately, and more are on the way!  We published a great article about throwing  a book baby shower last year.  I’ve always loved giving books as baby gifts because they’ll be enjoyed for years and even handed down from generation to generation.  That’s more than you can say for frilly outfit or a pack of disposable diapers.

When my niece was born over two years ago, I picked out a few of my childhood favorites to add to her library: Where the Wild Things Are, Little House in the Big Woods, and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day.  Now she has a little sister who needs to start a collection of her own.

I also have a new little second cousin, once removed.  I’m pretty sure they have all the clothing and gear they could ever want, so I’ll probably get him some books, too.

What are your favorite children’s books?  Did you save any of your own childhood favorites to read to your kids?  What should I get my new niece and second cousin, once removed?  (Note: If you are the parent of the aforementioned bundles of joy, please stop reading  lest you spoil the wonderful surprise you are about to receive. . . .)

This post is a part of the Works for Me Wednesday blog carnival.  Head on over to We are THAT Family for more WFMW ideas!

Vegetarian Pregnancy, Vegetarian Baby

Is it possible to have a healthy pregnancy and baby on a vegetarian diet?  I have been a vegetarian for about twenty years and have lived to write about it on the Green Baby Guide.  Still, many people seem surprised that I’d continue living meat-free once I had a baby on the way.  Why do I do it?  Here are two reasons:

It’s cheap.  We are full-time vegetarians and rarely spend more than $150 a month on groceries for a couple and a toddler, allotting $60 to organic vegetables and the rest to whole grains, nuts, cheeses, and fruit.  A family our size would shell out $368 on the USDA’s “thrifty plan.”   Instead of relying on coupons and other cost-cutting tricks, we save by skipping the meat. 

I’m conserving resources.  Aside from my thriftiness (and childhood pickiness), I’d always told people I avoided meat “for the environment.”  I knew that eating lower on the food chain was more efficient, but didn’t look into it much further.  I was surprised to learn that livestock (and the grain to feed livestock) takes up a whopping thirty percent of our land’s surface, taking over what used to be wilderness and Amazon rainforests. [1]  Most of us are aware that cars are big polluters–livestock creates eighteen percent more greenhouse gasses than all of our transportation methods put together! 

What are your reasons for avoiding meat?  Did you have a vegetarian pregnancy?  Do you plan to raise your kids as vegetarians?  Raising my daughter vegetarian has worked for me (so far, anyway).  For more Works for Me Wednesday ideas, head on over to We are THAT Family.

[1] According to a 2006  report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

Used Clothing: How Safe is It?

In the March issue of ShopSmart, put out by the publisher of Consumer Reports, experts analyzed used baby gear to determine “when you can gratefully say yes and when you should gracefully say no thanks.”  I am devoting several posts to discussing their findings.  (This is the last in my series of “used gear safety” posts.  Whew!  Check out my posts on secondhand baby bath tubs, car seats, cribs, high chairs, strollers, and toys.)

Here are ShopSmart’s views on hand-me-down baby garments:

Safe: As long as buttons and snaps are on tight and none of the thread is unraveling from the fabric, the used clothing is fine.

Unsafe: Pass on any article of clothing with drawstrings because they pose a strangulation hazard.

It appears that used clothing poses fewer risks than many other secondhand finds.  Of course, I’ve got to point out that clothes with loose buttons or snaps or unraveling threads would probably be a great bargain, and anyone with basic sewing skills could fix the problems.  Also, it’s fair to say that many new garments often have these same issues.

Would you consider buying secondhand clothes for your baby–and would you buy damaged clothes with the intention of mending them at home?  Although I haven’t bought damaged clothing and fixed it up myself, I’ve got to admit that it’s a very green idea.

Used clothing worked very well for me.  For more Works for Me Wednesday tips, check out We are THAT Family.

Secondhand Toys: Which Ones Should You Pass Up?

In the March issue of ShopSmart, put out by the publisher of Consumer Reports, experts analyzed used baby gear to determine “when you can gratefully say yes and when you should gracefully say no thanks.”  I am devoting several posts to discussing their findings.  (I’ve already written about baby bath tubs, car seats, cribs, and high chairs.)

Here’s what ShopSmart had to say about used toys:

Safe: Stuffed animals and most children’s books make fine hand-me-downs. In the case of lead contamination in used toys, there are many home lead inspection kits which can be purchased for under twenty dollars which will tell you whether the toys are safe.

Unsafe: Avoid any toys that are chipped, as well as any small parts that can fit through a tube of toilet paper, since they present serious choking hazards for small children.

I will admit something: I did not purchase a home lead inspection kit to test my daughter’s toys.  But here’s something else to ponder: toys can have lead in them whether they are used or new.  After all, those toys in the thrift store were once brand new.

I seem to fall on the more cavalier side of allowing secondhand baby gear into my home, but now I’m wondering about other parents’ habits.  Did you purchase a lead inspection kit?  What did you find?  What are your own standards for secondhand toys–or even new toys?

Secondhand toys work for me.  For more Works for Me Wednesday tips, head on over to We are THAT Family.

I just found out that this week is a themed Works for Me Wednesday: the Greatest Hits Edition.  Actually, this post is similar to our most popular WFMW entry ever: How Do You Sell Your Kids’ Clothing?  I’m not sure why, but that was our greatest hit!