After living in Israel for a decade, where I was spoiled by inexpensive, delicious produce year-round, I was seriously bummed out by the fruits and vegetables in the U.S. when we moved back. Those long journeys that our produce has to take from California or Florida seem to kill any flavor whatsoever! Plus, long-distance produce is hardly friendly on the pocketbook (or Mother Earth, for the matter).
Even still, I wasn’t ready to give up fresh produce for the frozen or (G-d forbid) canned alternatives. In order to ensure that fruit and veggies are a robust part of our daily menu, I needed to figure out how to fit them into our budget. Here are six strategies that have worked for us:
1) Buy locally. I know, I know, it’s a cliche. But it’s true. One of my favorite ways to shop locally is by buying a share in a CSA – Community Supported Agriculture. Two years ago, I set up a CSA for members of my shul with a wonderful urban farmer. For twenty weeks of the year, my family gets to enjoy freshly picked produce from Laura’s amazing farm. (Yep, those are her goodies pictured above!) Not only are the veggies local, organic and affordable, but they are totally delicious. My kids couldn’t get enough of the sweet carrots, which they devoured on the ride home without even peeling them!
2) Buy in season. This is actually a trick I learned in Israel, where oranges are plentiful in the winter, but impossible to find in the summer. Now, I was born and raised in the Midwest, and I’m ashamed to admit that it never occurred to me that produce had a season. Afterall, you can get just about anything anytime of the year here, thanks to the wonders of modern transportation. But in Israel, where all the produce is grown locally, I really became aware of the seasonal nature of farming. All of a sudden, my t’fillah for rain made sense! So even though I can buy grapes year-round here, I don’t. I wait until they hit their summer peak — and then I indulge at less than $1/lb.
3) Buy organic. No, organic produce isn’t cheaper than conventionally grown produce (except for two weeks ago, when my grocery store had organic blueberries inexplicably priced at $.99/pint!! Oh happy day!). But the money that we pay at the cash register is only part of the story. There are the health costs from ingesting pesticides, which admittedly are hard to measure, but they are real. And then there’s the cost of all those chemicals and the less than sustainable farming practices wreaking havoc on our land and water supplies. So, while I’m far from the queen of organics, I do make an effort to buy organic for the Dirty Dozen (the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residue) and to support local organic and/or pesticide-free farmers like Laura, our CSA grower.
4) Freeze it. One of the drawbacks to buying in season is that I really miss berries in the winter! So, I’ve learned to buy at rock bottom prices in the summer and then freeze the fruit for winter smoothies and cobblers. Those $.99 blueberries I came across two weeks ago? They got washed, flash frozen, and dumped into three jumbo ziploc bags, which are taking up residence in our deep freeze. I have also finally learned to freeze any fruits or veggies that have become overripe. We have a tendency to forget about the pound of strawberries until the fuzz has started to grow. Now, I just cut off the icky bits and freeze the rest. They’re perfect in smoothies and sauces!
5) Grow your own. I have one of the blackest thumbs around, but I am still immensely gratified by our little garden with its cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, peppers, potatoes, basil and mint. This is first year that we’ve planted a garden, so I don’t know that we’ve saved all that much money. But it’s definitely been a great exercise in teaching our kids where their food really comes from and I expect the cost-benefit analysis to improve as we get the hang of things in the years to come. Plus, I just love watching my son pluck off a not-quite ripe tomato and pop it straight into his mouth! You can’t buy that kind of joy at the grocery store!
6) Buy on sale. I know, duh!, right?! But do you know what a pound of bananas should cost? And whether the advertised sale of $.65 a lb is a screaming good deal or a great big rip-off? (It’s the latter in my price book, by the way.) By watching the price of produce in your weekly grocery circulars, you can quickly get a good sense of what you should be paying. If melons are $2 each, we won’t be eating them that week. But if the price has dropped down to $1.25 or less, then cantelope’s for breakfast!
By implementing these six strategies, I’ve managed to keep the produce portion of our budget to a respectable 20-30% of our total food costs. I know that some bargain shoppers would prefer to pay less by substituting canned or frozen, but we can live with the price we’re paying — especially for the quality we’re getting. So tell me, what are your strategies for incorporating fresh fruits and veggies in your weekly budget?