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Real Food on a Budget, Tip #3: Keep your eyes open.

This week's tip may sound familiar to you if you are or used to be a couponer.

Keep your eyes open for good deals.
Keep and eye out at your farmer's market for bulk deals- I scored 10lbs of Romas last summer because they weren't perfect (can't remember the price, but it was a steal!) and used them to make this yummy homemade pasta sauce.

But this looks a little different when you're doing it from a real food point of view- you aren't looking to get the most of the best (often free) deals irregardless of the item.  You have to be more selective about what you buy.  You have to be careful where you look (especially if you're tempted by good deals!).  But it can be done.  Here's how:
  • Get to know your local natural/health food store.  Some are more expensive, but some, especially co-ops, have reasonable prices on natural and organic and local foods- often near the price of conventional food.  If you're lucky enough to live near a co-op (like I am!) look into becoming a member.  Membership costs money, but it's often a one time fee and the rewards often include significant regular discounts, so if you plan to shop there often it can pay for itself quickly.  Make sure you either get their weekly/monthly ad or check their website for specials.
  • ...but don't write off conventional grocery stores completely.  I make it a point to spend the majority of my grocery budget at the co-op, the CSA, and directly to the farmer, even when I'm on a budget.  But keep an eye on the circular of your local grocery store as well.  Conventional grocery stores are carrying more and more local and organic products to meet the increasing market demand (yeah, market demand!).  Example:  I stopped into the local Cub today to pick up the few things I need this week and saw that hot dogs were on sale.  What?  Yes, we eat hot dogs.  Our favorites are grassfed beef hot dogs made by Thousand Hills Beef, a local grassfed beef distributor.  But we only get them when they fit into the budget (and at $7 for a package of 6, that's not often).  However, there is one other brand we will eat- Ambassador hot dogs are not organic or pastured, but they are local and contain no scary ingredients.  While they are usually almost as expensive as the grassfed beef dogs, today I ran across them for $4 off their usual price!  I bought four packages, which is enough hot dogs to get us through the rest of the summer.
  • Keep a mental or actual list of items you keep on hand and use the most often- the kinds of things you're going to buy anyway, regardless of price.  Make it a point to glance at several of these items each trip, even if they're not on your list.
  • There are coupons for natural food, even real food sometimes.  But it's a slippery slope- I avoid coupons unless they are literally stuck in front of an item on a shelf that I was going to buy anyway (they do that at my co-op, because they're awesome!).  If you worry that you'll buy too many compromise items, then avoid coupons.
  • Farmer's markets!  Know what's in season, and keep an eye out for deals.  I told you about my 12lbs of pickling cucumbers last week... the ones that cost me $10, and that I turned into over $75 worth of super awesome lacto-fermented pickles?  Or, like in the picture above, the flat of tomatoes I bought for a song and turned into several quarts of homemade pasta sauce.  These preparations are not hard, nor is finding the deals.  Look for them, or if you're brave, ask whoever is tending the stand.  People often overlook the ugly fruit, so the farmer discounts it in order to move it.  For more tips on successfuly navigating your farmer's market, check out this post from Jenny at the Nourished Kitchen (she is, after all, a farmer's market manager).
  • BONUS TIP, but not for the shy or faint of heart- look around your neighborhood or even Craigslist.  People often have surplus fruit on their trees or veggies in their garden that they are willing to give away.  Ask if you can pick some.  With the exception of eggplant, pretty much anything can be preserved in a healthful way that can help offset your budget later.
Now for the boring part, this week's meal plan and shopping list/expenses:

Lunches: Chinese cabbage salad (never ate it last week), boiled eggs, fresh veggies sauteed with pasta and butter, sardines on crackers, or leftovers.

Monday- Grilled hot dogs (buns from the freezer, last package:( ), corn on the cob, sliced cucumbers (both from the garden)

Tuesday- Tuna casserole (didn't have it last week, ended up having leftover roast beef instead)

Wednesday- Zucchini Parmesan (didn't have last week, went to River Town Days instead!)

Thursday- Beef Stew with carrots (still from last summer's garden) and turnips (from this year's garden)

Friday- Roast Chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes, and sauteed zucchini (both from garden)

Saturday- Chicken enchiladas (with homemade creme fraiche, salsa, and enchilada sauce)

Sunday- Leftovers/pantry clean out*

*It's obvious from last week's meal plan that I need not plan 7 meals, even if we don't plan to eat out.  There is always the need to clean out leftovers before they go bad AT LEAST once a week.  It's also worth pointing out that I'm very flexible with my meal plan- things seldom go exactly as planned (there's a life lesson in there too!).

This week's budget:  $25 (remember, I'm -$5 from last week!)

Spiral (natural food co-op):  Cream and maple syrup, $14.98

Cub:  Organic diced tomatoes, hot dogs, corn tortillas, $10.99.

Less than a dollar over.  Not bad.

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