Prices are rising. I’m not sure how much…
I didn’t notice “inflation” from the news stories, I noticed it when chicken food went up 12% overnight. Milk stayed about the same at the big store, but I now know it was a loss leader. Because I don’t shop often, the “hell no” sticker shock on certain items like boxes of cereal or mayonnaise didn’t set in for a while.
Prices seem to be leveling out, so I know the new normal. Chicken and dog food settled in at about 20% above than when prices started rising, and I’m seeing package sizes shrink to disguise price increases on several types of food.
What’s the word on the street?
I wrote a book telling teachers to stop spending their paychecks on their jobs. Because of this, I’m still in a few finance and budget forums, and I can see the mood on the streets. Conversation went from normal budget tips to many people cutting out necessities, and making extreme recommendations like eating spoiled food or even advising each other to sell plasma. It’s tough out there for many.
Here’s the thing–Americans waste about 25% of the food we bring home. When adding in stores, restaurants, and farms, that number goes up to about forty percent.
Reducing waste, stocking a healthy pantry, cooking from scratch, and even growing a little food can take some of the sting out of inflation.
What surprises me is how many people avoid these things. These are important skills. For me, they’re quality of life skills, but they’ll also save money, too. And, when I get into the flow, they don’t take that much time.
Growing up, my family was pretty frugal. I remember when Dad was out of work and my parents’ friends put twenties in “the magic plant.” They had a friend who brought dented cans from the grocery store. I got to pick the vegetables from the cans with no labels. Dad–a banking CEO–took a job as a produce manager in Westport, Connecticut during the recession. He brought home really expensive fruits. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I never knew how big the problems were.
I knew how big the problems were when I had my crisis as an adult. I’d racked up credit card debt leaving my corporate job to teach. At the same time, our business started slowing and our two salaries reduced to one–mine. My credit card company sent me a letter thanking me for my business and doubling my rates–and my score was over 800. For sale signs started to pop up all over my neighborhood. I knew something felt off, but I didn’t know what it was. I decided to get rid of my debt.
One thing I’d do–grow my own food. It was almost funny. I put up greenhouses that blew away and studied a family in Oakland, California who produced all their own food. “If they can do it, I can, too.” California and New England are not the same, but I worked on this for years.
Over time, my motivation changed–I noticed my food was better and I liked a simple quality of life. I liked the skills I was learning–cooking, fermenting, canning, fixing. I had fun stocking a global pantry going to stores where I had to switch languages. I learned to reproduce the food in my favorite restaurants. Now, I can’t go to many anymore. “I can make that better at home.”
Fast forward to quarantine. All this paid off in spades. I had what I needed, was used to cooking at home, and shop so infrequently that I missed six months of inflation and supply chain glitches didn’t really affect me. It felt good.
[Disclaimer: growing my food was a battle against nature for years–still is sometimes. In the beginning I spent a ton of cash setting stuff up and losing to squirrels. Read William Alexander’s “The $64 Tomato” if budget is your primary motivator today. As I learned, the costs decreased and production increased. All you inflation fighters may do better hitting seasonal produce sales at the store. I still recommend growing what you can, though!]
I was having fun learning all these “grandma skills” before. I would’ve recommended learning canning, cooking from scratch, food sourcing, befriending your farmer, and growing a few things. Even before Covid, I was baking a mean loaf of daily bread and avoiding the store for months at a time.
But during Covid, I was grateful. And now during a period of inflation with supply chains that still are a little funny… these skills are even more important.
Whether your motivation is health, inflation busting, or learning new skills, growing amazing tasting food, or sailing through bumps in the economy–poser homesteading can do many of these things. You don’t need to go all in and buy farmer overalls or shoot your own dinner, either.
I keep a deep pantry, eat what I have instead of deciding what’s for dinner at the grocery store, and eat seasonally as much as I can. I avoid “stupid shopping” and often prep meals in bulk. That’s it.
Grocery Store Tips: Avoid the Sixty-Dollar Watermelon
“People are paying sixty dollars for a watermelon.” My son works at a farm grocer. A produce broker comes in and teaches him marketing skills. Even during inflation when people were standing in line to get the fifty-nine cent chicken, watermelons flew off the shelf for sixty bucks each.
The produce broker’s secret? Clamshells.
When the store sold whole watermelons, they only sold a few. The minute they pre-cut them and put them in clamshells, they flew off the shelves. People will pay $6 to not have to cut an onion.
Want to fight inflation? Cut the onion.
We’ve become a convenience food nation. Look at the amount of “cook it yourself” meal services. They market themselves as reasonably priced, “Only $6.00 a serving.” I was looking at a smoothie companies that’ll batch, freeze, and send me smoothies as a subscription service. They’ll send me fourteen smoothies for $111. I can toss kale and fruit in my blender for a few pennies. If I’m feeling especially lazy, I can make all fourteen and freeze them myself for a few bucks.
Convenience foods are well marketed and designed to convince us that one or two clamshells won’t break the bank and will help get dinner on the table. We were trained this way from birth. I’m not even talking about the waste convenience foods generate. Mother nature wrapped onions for me. I don’t need to send piles of clamshells to a landfill for all of eternity.
The markup on pre-cut and convenience foods is huge. I’m talking to you, oat bowl at Starbucks. I make a week’s worth of highest quality steel-cut oats with fresh and dried fruits, nuts, hemp and chia seeds–whatever. It takes a few minutes of my time to toss it all into the rice cooker. Total cost: again, a couple bucks for the entire week.
Meal delivery boxes are the worst, I think. Getting “cook at home” portioned and prepped foods can cost as much as a car payment. I watch my friends Instagram them and make something better from scratch.
Here are a few price comparisons:
- Watermelon: In season, I can get one for five bucks. The produce consultant says one watermelon, cut and packaged in all the clamshells at $5-$7 each can bring as much as $64.
- One mango: I get them on sale for $.99. Not on sale–$1.50 to $2. Cut mango in a clamshell: $5-6.
- Onions: $.99/pound to $1.50/pound. Pre-cut in a clamshell: $4.
- Two chicken breasts: $5-7 Pre-prepped on a skewer with a little marinade, ready to grill? $15.
- Bread: $4. A bag of King Arthur Bread Flour–what I use for my daily loaf of bread: $5. It makes five loaves of bread.
- An omelet at my local diner: $9. A 3-egg omelet at home: less than a dollar.
- Most restaurants mark up food at three to four times cost to cover profit and overhead.
Those are extreme examples, but even food in the freezer and box aisles can add up. The close you get to scratch cooking, the more you will save, and the better your food will be.
I have a short list of places where I get my ingredients. I grow some, go to farms for some, order some, and hit a few global grocery stores for the rest.
- I have a Latin store, Indian store, Asian market, a Polish store for Eastern European ingredients and a Middle Eastern store. These are all cuisines I cook regularly. I get all ingredients common to those foods at the store where the culture uses them most. They’re most affordable and usually highest quality that way. Spices are a big savings at global markets.
- I do my best to pay attention to how food is grown and produced. Organic food certifications are expensive and many farmers can’t afford them. Just because something’s not organic doesn’t mean it wasn’t grown with best practice in mind. Do the research.
- Shop or order in bulk. Some things make sense to do this. Others don’t after I account for shipping or local sales.
- Get dry bulk or shelf-stable items on sale, and buy enough to last until the next sale. Then learn to cook from scratch. Sometimes it’s a painful learning curve, but it works out better in the end.
- Have a short list of stores that are best for certain things–order delivery from them or stop in while in the neighborhood, and stock up as appropriate.
“Nobody ever went broke buying a latte.” I agree, but I don’t need to go out and buy a latte because I can make it better at home. And I can make as much as I want–which is often a lot.
Be your own barista.
I’ve learned to make all the drinks I love: tea, coffee, french press, pour over, milk drinks with froth, espresso drinks, regular coffee drinks, boba (bubble tea), fruit-infused iced teas, kombucha… everything. I deconstructed each until I was happy with the end result.
I don’t live that close to a coffee house and, I drink a lot of coffee and tea drinks. So, I want to make an unlimited supply immediately when I want them. I get the best quality ingredients, and a few pieces of equipment–a French press, a frother, a Vitamix and a lever-pull espresso machine. I’m unstoppable.
Take a look at the upscale beverages you love–get high quality ingredients, and enjoy!
Be your own bartender
Project Barista counts twice if it’s also Project Bartender. I don’t really drink, but I have a stocked bar–high quality. I can mix a proper drink. If you’re inflation busting, learn some mixology. A top-shelf drink at home with friends costs more than you’d tip your bartender.
Can, freeze, and preserve
I do a lot of canning–not just when my garden’s overflowing. I rescue unwanted food and “B-grades” (misshapen and non-commercial grade produce), from local farms and stores. Canning helps me stock the pantry but also raises the quality of food. After years of doing this, I can taste the tin in grocery store food cans. I don’t want that in my diet.
Things I keep on hand: canned tomatoes, pizza sauce, soups, broths, chili, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, some “dinner sauce mixes” like curries and meats that can go into casseroles. I also have canned meats like chicken, ground beef, and meatballs. Many hunters and fishermen I know can things like venison and tuna.
This is important: If you’re new to canning, learn it properly. Stay away from forums and people telling you how their grandmother preserved food. Follow the USDA guidelines, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation, and buy yourself a copy of “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.” This is also called “The Blue Book” because one of the original editions was blue. Get the latest edition–food science is always evolving.
Never, ever listen to people telling you to do anything that the official extension schools, master canners, and Blue Book do not rubber stamp, and don’t change recipes you intend to can.
I was speaking with a senior citizen who told me to can meat by boiling in a water bath canner (a big open pot) for three days (“Eight hours on the first day, Six on the second, and three on the third.”) This can kill you. It will be painful, too. Meat or “low acid” food needs a pressure canner, which is a very specific piece of equipment.
If you aren’t ready for canning, you can freeze foods. Double up batches when you cook, and freeze them in meal-sized portions. I use my Food Saver a lot when freezing. Normally I don’t like one use plastics, but in this case, it keeps food from being freezer burned, so when I bulk cook or freeze a year’s worth of blueberries after picking in July–I use the Food Saver bags.
I also dehydrate fruits and veggies. They’re good to snack on or toss in oatmeal. Lots of people dump dehydrators. Excelsior dehydrators are top of the line, but you can probably get a Nesco dehydrator on your local marketplace or Amazon refurb) cheap.
These have made a comeback during Covid. Before Covid, lots of people were avoiding takeout containers and paper products in favor of reusable. Now that things are heading toward normal, it’s time to regain our ground in the waste department. This helps with inflation as well.
I don’t buy a lot of paper products.
Toilet paper and kleenexes are a non-negotiable for me (though I see people using reusable cloth for both of these) but I have cloths for cleaning and cloth napkins. I keep an emergency “dog roll” of paper towels on hand.
I don’t coupon these days with the exception of my big box store. It always has coupons for laundry soap, dish soap, and other cleaning products. If I pay attention to those cycles, I save a solid 20% and I never run out. I keep ahead on laundry soap, cleaners, disinfectants, and other supplies. I don’t like to run out. This saved me during the pandemic, too.
Chewy, Petco, and Amazon all have exceptional delivery, but they have different price structures. Petco has a rewards system. and also overnight or DoorDash delivery if you’re about to run out.
Each have “subscribe and save” discounts. Also, they all give discounts for autodeliver purchases–they’re trying to get your business. Petco also has a discount for buying online and picking up in the store. If you’ve got one nearby, you can save a few bucks that way, too.
The Bottom Line
You can beat inflation by paying attention to your shopping flow, cooking from scratch, and using online ordering to your advantage when it makes sense to do so. That doesn’t fix the global economic situation, but you can offset the pain.
My little poser homestead really pulled through these past few years. I appreciate it more and more each day. I hope you’ll take this time to build yours out, too. It’s a pretty good way to live, I think.
Try these recipes for saving some cash:
Here are a few recipes you can make that’ll keep costs way down. But, they’re delicious.
Make yogurt at home. If you’ve got a low-cost source of milk, this is for you. Save some cultures for the next batch and it’ll stay alive forever.
Pesto and alfredo sauces. Sauces are a major place to save some cash. If you can deconstruct your favorites, you’ll skip the gourmet sauce aisle–basically two to ten bucks a bottle.
Tomato soup. You can go to Panera. Or you can have eight bowls of this for under two bucks if you’ve done your tomato freezing and canning. Even if you haven’t, you can get a case of Pastene (or your regional favorite 28 oz tin) for a buck as of last year. Here, the big sale on these is pre-Thanksgiving and before Easter and Passover. Get a year’s worth on the spot if you’re not canning. If you are–skip them and can a bunch of crushed tomatoes. Then, make this all year. It’s delicious.
Here’s my article on eggs. If you’ve got chickens, this is a money saver. If not, eggs can be pricy, but compared to the cost of other meats and ingredients, they are healthy and delicious.
Bread pudding. I can cook desserts like a chef with a few scraps. So can you. Bread pudding is an old world favorite you should bring back. Elevate this one with any sauce, fruit, or even layer it into a trifle. Play with the sweetener–brown sugar, caramel, jam, maple, or honey are brilliant here. This one’s a keeper. Never tell people you’re reusing the dead bread on the counter.
Daily Bread. Homemade bread costs pennies compared to store bread. Make the dough at night and bake it while you’re getting ready for your day. Tweak the loaf to the size you’ll use in one or two days–it’s all ratios, so you can change it easily. The bonus here is it answers every kid’s high school math complaint, “When will I use this?” Here.
Stir-fried rice. Rice is a magic food. For a few pennies, you can make real chef-style meals. This is my recipe for stir-fried rice. It’s about to get an update since I bought a proper wok and have been studying Chinese cooking technique. I’m not even offended if you google someone else’s recipe–Woks of Life and Omnivore Cookbook both have amazing Chinese cuisine. Just get your rice cooker, Instant Pot, or stovetop working on this one. Rice looks cheap and simple but it’s gourmet waiting to happen. And nearly free.
Diner-level breakfast. Make pancakes or waffles in stacks and freeze the leftovers. I make these sweet or savory–skip the sugar in the recipe and waffles can do double duty as a sandwich, panini, or fold it over for a grab-and-go wrap. Crépes (also known as “blini”) store well, but only if you pre-stuff them and roll or fold them first. Then, you can lay them flat and freeze the extras.
Split Pea Burgers. This is a favorite around here. It’s a pain to make, but costs pennies. Alton Brown’s original recipe has peppers and things I don’t want in my burgers. Follow the technique here but you can use lentils, peas, dal, beans… Make extra and freeze them flat for later. You can freeze them before or after frying.
Here’s a black bean burger recipe, too. Don’t be afraid to swap out the legume, spice profile, or add in different veggies. You can recreate anything from cheese, smoked, barbecue, curry–veggie burgers are a canvas for greatness. They’re not just for carnivores.
Toffee. This is a fantastic candy. It’s best made on a low-humidity day. It costs pennies to make but you’d pay ten bucks a pound or more in the store.