The New Home Economics


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The grocery budget, part 2

Last night I opened up about how much I actually spend on groceries.  I feel a little weird about posting that for the whole world to see, honestly.  We Minnesotans aren’t exactly comfortable talking about money.  But we can’t sit around assuming that groceries aren’t a huge part of our monthly and yearly budget.  They are, and that’s why so many people cut corners on grocery costs.  But how do you cut corners without sacrificing health?  Without sacrificing environmental stewardship?

Here’s how:

That’s right, this post is going to be a loving ode to Ye Olde Bulk Section.  (The picture above is of  Seward Co-op’s bulk section, where I get most of my groceries.)  Here are just some reasons you should acquaint yourself with the bulk section:

1. Buy only as much as you need and save money.

2. You won’t pay for all the packaging with normal grocery items — and you won’t have to throw all that packaging away.

3. If you happen to live in or near at least a college-size city, there’s a good chance that it will have a natural foods co-op.  If so, you’re in luck:  co-ops have awesome bulk sections, with lots of unusual and specialty grains.

Shopping this way is not without its challenges.  The first:  come to the grocery store prepared.

Sometimes it takes me at least a solid 30 minutes to write out my grocery list and find a container for each bulk item I need.  But it’s quick work putting everything away.  We do returnable glass bottles for milk, as well.  I also bring a funnel along to make it easier to get the grains into my jars.  Here’s the bulk stuff from a typical trip:

(And my ever-present cup of coffee…)  When I first started using the bulk section, I just used the plastic bags that they make available.  But then those plastic bags started piling up at home, and they weren’t really a size I could use for anything else.  Also, if I bought (for example) flour, I would have to transfer it to a different container at home anyway.  Why not save the step and just bring the container?  I have a whole basket of containers set aside for grocery shopping.  Some are glass, some are plastic, and they are all different shapes and sizes.  The ones with the orange lids are actually from Seward Co-op; I have a collection of 9 or 10 that I keep re-using for liquid items.

If you live in south Minneapolis, the Seward Co-op is really a shining star of bulk section shopping.  Really, the co-op inspired me to shop this way.  They have things you’d expect, like grains, nuts, flours, and cereals, but then they also have cooking oils, maple syrup, honey, grind-your-own peanut and almond butter, and even various liquid soaps.  Good stuff.  Much of it is local, and all of it is substantially cheaper than what you’ll find pre-packaged on the shelves.

Of course, you have to be a list-maker in order to shop this way.  So if you don’t currently make a grocery list, that would be a good place to start.  My mind is so befuddled since I had kids, that if I don’t have a list I just stand there and stare off into space.

Confused yet? Here’s a 5-step plan to buying healthier foods at the grocery store, and saving money and helping the environment at the same time:

1. Take stock of your pantry and fridge and note what you need.  Make your list, planning at least a couple meals and stocking basics so you can come up with stuff on the fly.  (Bittman has a really great list in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.)

2. Note which things you can get in the bulk section of your local grocery store (for the love of God, choose a grocery store that has a decent bulk section), and find a suitable container in your house for each bulk item.  Doesn’t have to be anything fancy — you could even raid your recycling bins (I have).

3. Pack everything up in re-usable grocery bags and head off to the store.  Many stores will give you a $.10-$.50 discount for each bag.  Hey, it adds up!  Also, go at a time of day when you don’t have to rush.

4. In the bulk section, weigh each container and note the container weight on one of those sticky notes they provide.  Fill them up, and you’re good to go.

Here’s my pantry; I’m not one bit ashamed to show you:

Hey, I’ve got two boxes of cereal and some graham crackers up there!  (Shame on me!)  That little “irish oatmeal” tin is one of my favorite bulk refills.  I think I originally paid over $5 for that little tin of steel-cut oats.  Now I just refill it in the bulk section and it usually costs a little under $2.  (And the oats are local, rather than shipped here from Ireland.  Not that I have anything against Irish oats.)

Finally, I want to note that since I have started shopping this way I have noticed a substantial decrease in the amount of garbage and recycling items we create in this house.  REDUCE?  Check.  Much easier than recycling, in my opinion.

Part I | 2010-11 grocery budget

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Recipe: steel-cut oatmeal

oatmeal

Steel-cut oats are awesome!  Steel-cut oats are much less processed than traditional rolled oats (which are precooked and steamrolled into that flat shape we all recognize).  Plus, they stick to your ribs better.  They also have a very nice chewy texture when cooked.  Two methods for cooking them:

Method #1
Bring 4 c. water to boil.  Stir in 1 c. oats.  Bring to a boil and boil for a few minutes, then simmer for 30 minutes on low.  Optional variation for more creaminess: use only 3 c. water and then gradually stir in 1 c. milk during the simmering.

Method #2
The night before, set out 1 c. oats in 2 c. water to soak overnight.  In the morning, add a good 1.5-2 c. milk, bring to a boil, stirring frequently.  Reduce to a simmer and still give it a good stir fairly often.  Should be done cooking in 5-10 minutes.  (You could just use all water to cook, milk is optional.)  Honestly, I don’t measure the water or the milk, I just eyeball it.  I pour the oats in the pan, cover with water by a good 1/2 inch, then in the morning add a tiny bit more water, bring to a boil, then add the milk as it simmers.  You can make it as thick or thin as you like.

Method #2 is the Weston A Price approved method because soaking grains neutralizes phytic acid, something that apparently is not great for you that whole grains contain.  (This stuff is still very new to me, so I refer you to Wikipedia.)

What I really like about method #2 is that the soaking brings out more of the oats’ natural sweetness.  Which reminds me:  if you’re used to Ye Olde Instant Quaker Oats (was anyone else besides me RAISED on that stuff?), you might want to add a wee bit of brown sugar to your steel-cut oats.

Optional add-ons: brown sugar, craisins or other dried fruit (add during the cooking process so that they rehydrate a bit), spices like cinnamon or ginger, a tiny bit of molasses, maple syrup, or even peanut butter and jelly.  I also usually stir in 1/2 c. of ground flaxseed after the oatmeal gets done cooking, for extra nutritional value.

Steel-cut oats are one of those things that some people get really mental about.  This blogger had to post a retraction about his steel-cut oats recipe.  The first steel cut oats Adam and I bought were McCann’s Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal, and they recommend serving with fresh buttermilk.  Nowadays we always buy the oats in bulk because they are much cheaper and more local than from Ireland.

Both recipes above make enough for 2-3 people.  Sometimes I double the recipe and store the leftovers in the fridge so I can just heat them up in the microwave the following day.  I do that a lot less often, though, since I started using method #2.  My kids are absolutely mental for this stuff.

UPDATE, mid-August 2009: My kids are in a growth spurt right now, so I am changing the amount I make.  I am now using about 1 1/2 c. of dried oatmeal and that feeds all four of us.

UPDATE, mid-October 2009: I also recently started stirring in 2 T. of butter.  For some reason, you don’t need to sweeten it as much if you put a little butter in there, and DANG is it good.  (Trying to cut back on sugar right now.)