Tuesday, February 12, 2013

#6IngredientChallenge: Food Shopping Strategies

Making the switch to fewer processed foods and more whole ingredients has the potential to put a cramp in your grocery shopping style. If you're at all like me, you've come to learn where your favorite foods are in the grocery store you frequent, and that makes it easier to get in and out efficiently and with the foods your family likes best.

Today I'm sharing a few tips and strategies for navigating the food shopping with Six Ingredients (and your budget) in mind. Of course, I'm also still learning! If you have any tricks up your sleeve to add to the mix, I hope you'll share them with all of us in the comments below.


Grocery Store Basics

My main strategy for seeking out whole foods in the grocery store (and one I've heard many places) is to shop the edges of the store. For instance, don't spend much time going down the individual aisles, because most stores are laid out with the less processed foods at the edges: fruits and vegetables, dairy and eggs, and the butcher or deli department are all usually located away from the aisles of shelves.

Check out the bulk foods aisle (where you find large bins of items you have to pour into bags), which is another section I frequent to find reasonably priced whole foods. There you will often find the best prices on grains (oats, rice, cornmeal, granola) and legumes (beans, lentils), as well as nuts both for snacking and making things like peanut butter and nut milks. The bulk aisle is also a great place to buy herbs and spices. If you save the containers from herbs you've bought in the past and refill them with herbs from the bulk section, you'll save a heap of money.

Shop the sales and compare prices. Check out the produce that's on sale each week, and plan your menu accordingly. I do the same thing when visiting the meat department: whichever meat is on sale that week gets featured in our menu plan. The store circulars (those flyers that are usually hanging around the entrances to the store) can clue you in to any current deals that are going on, but they often feature many processed foods. Really great sales on produce and meat happen infrequently, so when I see an exceptional sale, I stock up as much as I can.

Use coupons (if you can stand it). I know using coupons can make shopping a little more complicated, but for many of us they can really make a difference with the expense of food. Like sales, coupons for more whole food (fewer ingredient) foods can be harder to come by, but they're by no means impossible to find. Many stores give out catalina coupons at the register (the ones that print with your receipt), and these coupons are usually based on the products you buy. So if you find a whole foods brand of pasta sauce your family likes (for instance), you may get a catalina coupon for it at the checkout at some point.

Utilize your store's rewards program (if it has one) as much as possible. The grocery store where we shop most (Fred Meyer) is owned by Kroger, so I assume the deals at all Kroger stores are similar to what I've experienced. For the past couple of years, using the rewards card at checkout earns you points, and a few times per year (quarterly?) I will receive a gift card in the mail for a dollar amount off any purchase (based on the amount of money we've spent on groceries there in the past). In the same packet with the gift card are more coupons that are like the catalinas: they're based on what you buy the most. I often get coupons for produce, eggs, meat, and dairy (also: coffee and toilet paper) in these mailings because those are the items we buy most frequently.

Your store's rewards program may vary somewhat from mine, but getting to know it (and then utilizing it to the fullest) in your budget's best interest.

Shop around to different stores. You'll find that certain stores have better deals on certain foods, and I haven't found a good way to avoid having to make multiple grocery trips if I'm trying to save money while eating more whole foods. The way I cut down on the stress this adds is to separate the shopping trips to different days (preferably when Jaymz, Daniel, and I can either all go together or I can go by myself) and buy larger quantities of the foods I get at each place. So I may only go to one store per week, but I won't get back to that store for another 2-3 weeks, so I plan ahead for that meal-wise by buying things in larger quantities when they're on sale.

One store I want to put in a good word for is Grocery Outlet. Grocery Outlet carries overstock foods and household items, things taken off the shelves at other stores simply because they bought too much or the product has outdated packaging. Although it doesn't accept manufacturer coupons, Grocery Outlet (infrequently) puts out store coupons in those flyers that come in the mail, and often the coupons have no limit on the number of items you can buy using the coupon. I've gotten really great deals on blocks of cheese, (local) butter and eggs, frozen chicken, and produce simply by shopping the sales at Grocery Outlet.


Buying in Bulk

A great way to save money while eating whole foods is to buy as many things in bulk as possible. As I mentioned before, the bulk aisle is a great place to seek out inexpensive grains, legumes, nuts, cereal, and even herbs and spices. If you have a Winco near you, it's another great place to buy bulk foods. The bulk section at Winco usually has (by far) the cheapest prices around.

Costco and Sam's Club are other great stores for buying large quantities of foods your family uses a lot. If you ever need to buy fruits or vegetables for a party plate, these stores will hook you up without breaking the bank. And again, if you find a brand of a low-ingredient processed food you like (tomato paste, soup, pasta sauce, salsa, and corn chips, for instance) you might be able to find it in a big jar at one of these wholesale warehouse-type stores. If you're Canadian, I've heard great things about Bulk Barn, though I admit that I have not yet had the pleasure of checking out this store.

I also feel compelled to put in a good word for buying an extra freezer if you have the space for one. We bought a chest freezer a little over a year ago that has really come in handy with storing bulk foods, and also foods from the garden that are not seasonal year round. We spent a lot of effort last Summer preserving overflow vegetables from the garden so that we wouldn't have to buy them out of season during the winter. I recommend checking out Craigslist for available freezers if you can't or don't want to buy a new one. Many times, people are selling perfectly good working freezers that have just been sitting their garages and basements being under-utilized.


Ordering Whole Foods

I've had great luck with ordering bulk organic produce, cheese and such from Azure Standard. It is a bi-weekly delivery to a central location, so I go to pick my order up every other Wednesday at a local church. I have utilized Azure Standard for canning projects like making applesauce, because it's easy to buy a few 25-pound boxes of organic "seconds" apples (the ones that aren't as pretty) and just go pick them up when they're delivered. I also have bought bulk pumpkins for freezing (to use in oatmeal and baking later), carrots, beets, and greens for juicing, and potatoes for making a big pot of soup to share with others. Azure also features many gluten-free products (pasta, cereals, etc.) which makes shopping with a dietary restriction much easier.

I've also been recently introduced to The Green PolkaDot Box. I haven't had a lot of time to check it out yet, but it looks like it has some great deals on natural household products as well as a wide selection of organic, non-GMO (and allergy-friendly) foods. Orders from The Green Polka Dot Box ship directly to your home, and orders over $75 ship for free!


Farmers' Markets and CSAs

Visiting a local farmers' market is another wonderful way to go about buying whole foods. Going to the farmers' market is one of my favorite things to do (especially when it's warmer outside). Check out the links in the bottom of the post linked above for many more posts all about Farmers' Markets from Carnival of Natural Parenting participants, including Insider Tips for Farmer's Market Newbies by Dionna of Code Name: Mama.

Shopping at markets has inspired me to try many new vegetables, and I've grown to really love a lot of the foods I tried for the first time after seeing them at the market. I even wrote a whole Farm Fresh series of simple vegetable recipes a while back.

Another really cool thing about farmers' markets is that a lot of them have special programs for people who are utilizing SNAP (the food stamp program). Several of the local markets in Portland will give a free $5 token to anyone who shows them a SNAP card. I love that these programs exist to make it (just a tiny bit) easier for people to eat more wholesome local foods!

Becoming a part of a CSA (or Community-Supported Agriculture, sometimes known as Community Shared Agriculture) is another great option if you want to buy whole foods and support local farmers at the same time. With a CSA, you generally buy a share (full or half) of a farm or group of farms for the entire growing season. Then you will receive a selection of the available foods (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly—it varies greatly based on the CSA) from the farm(s) at that time. CSA fosters a closer relationship between farmer and consumer. It also supports the farm steadily through the season regardless of how much is produced during the season, as opposed to the farmers only getting paid based on how much they are able to grow. Learn more about the pros and cons of being a part of a CSA at Becoming Crunchy from Julia of A Little Bit of All of It.

My family is currently subscribed to Organics to You, which is kind of like a cross between going to the farmers' market and belonging to a CSA. Organics to You (local to Portland, OR) delivers a weekly selection of organic fruits and vegetables right to our front door. The produce we get is mostly local, though there is the option to choose the all-local box if you prefer that. What I like about Organics to You is that like going to a market, I can exclude foods we don't like (or ones we grew excessively in the garden this Summer and now don't need), but like being a part of a CSA, I never know exactly what we're going to get each week, which encourages us to eat a wider variety of fruits and vegetables. If you're not local to Portland, check out this post from TreeHugger featuring five other organic food delivery options (including The Green PolkaDot Box)!

For further reading on budgeting and eating more whole, unprocessed foods, check out more money-saving tips from Primitive Mommy.

That's all I've got! What did I miss? No really—please share your pearls of wisdom in the comments!

Six Ingredient Challenge buttonJoin the Six Ingredient Challenge hosted by Hobo Mama and Anktangle!

We're on a six-week path to eat more whole foods, guided by one simple rule: Buy foods with six ingredients or fewer. And we're blogging about our journey on the way.

To join in the Six Ingredient Challenge anytime during the six weeks, visit the sign-up page for a list of posts and to link up!


  1. This is super helpful! I'm checking out the links, especially The Green PolkaDot Box. I have had a hard time finding certain things locally so this may be an option for us. I cannot wait until May/June when our farmer's markets open back up. Michigan winters seem so cold and dreary and I'm very much looking forward to getting some fresh, local produce and other local items.

    1. I'm so glad you found it helpful, Crystal! I find for me that it helps immensely to have a few jumping-off points when making any kind of change in my life.

      I do not envy you those Michigan winters! I lived in Erie, PA for several years, and those were the absolute COLDEST years of my life. Here in Portland we have a longer growing season and the markets are open *almost* year-round. Still, it's not nearly as fun to go there to walk around in February as it is in June. ;)

  2. These are great tips! I'm so glad that you mentioned Grocery Outlet ... a lot of people won't shop there but there are bargains to be found. I think the key to shopping there is to go with an open mind because one never knows what will show up. Ours has a pretty good produce department with very good prices. Another tip to consider, which goes hand-in-hand with the farmer's markets, is to preserve food. We started canning tomatoes last year, from the farmer's market, and haven't had to buy any this winter. And, I know exactly what's in mine so they are so healthy. We were able to get a huge flat of really nice tomatoes for $5/flat ... that's a lot of tomatoes ... and that makes it a lot cheaper than store-bought.

    1. I totally agree! Grocery Outlet has been a great resource for me for many foods—not everything there is of the best quality, but there are lots of good things to find there.

      Food preservation is a big one, too! Thanks for mentioning that. I do lots of freezing and a little canning, and without that, it would be much more difficult to keep ourselves in foods we eat year round. I like that with preserving, I can still "eat seasonally" by not purchasing produce out of season, while still having a wider variety available to me—and there's nothing quite like eating veggies from our Summer garden in the middle of Winter!

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