For the last twenty months or so, I’ve been switching back and forth between a vegan and vegetarian diet for health reasons (also occasionally eating fish). Sarah has more or less adopted the same diet, although we do often make vegetarian and non-vegetarian variations of the same meal.
The result of all this is produce – lots of produce. Before switching diets, we already ate a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits, but the dietary change has taken things to a whole new level. Fresh fruits and vegetables are now the largest part of our diet, and with that we’ve had to really focus on techniques for minimizing cost and maximizing value when it comes to produce.
As I sat down to write this article, I started off with a long list of specific tips before eventually realizing that many of them boiled down to variations on the exact same tactic. In the end, I found six useful and flexible tactics that we use constantly to trim our produce budget.
It’s worth noting that many of these tactics work well with other food items. Although our focus is on fresh fruits and vegetables, quite a few of the ideas carry over to meats, canned goods, frozen goods, and other items you’ll find in your local grocery store.
1. During much of the year, we let the produce sales lead our purchases and our meal plans (often resulting in food experimentation).
More than ever, we let the fruits and vegetables completely lead our meal planning. If there’s a big sale on Brussels sprouts at the store, then we’re going to be experimenting with Brussels sprouts. If we’re able to find a great bargain on green bell peppers, then we’re going to be eating meals involving green bell peppers in the near future.
In order to pull this off, a couple of things have to be in place. First of all, we need to have a general sense of what kinds of things one can do with a particular vegetable. What can you do with a Brussels sprout besides merely steam it? It turns out that there are quite a few things one can do with it, and the more things you know (or can easily find), the more sense it makes to really stock up on that produce sale.
Much of that knowledge comes from experimenting and from reading, both in cookbooks and on the internet. In the kitchen, I really prefer to have a cookbook around because it’s usually very convenient for the food research process as well as for cooking, as you can bookmark it and leave it open while cooking and you don’t have to panic if you splatter a bit of sauce on a page.
Thus, we often snag cookbooks at garage sales and other discounted places, and I often receive them as gifts, too.
So, we’ve looked at the grocery flyer and we know what produce is on sale this week. We have some ideas about how most of the sale items can be used. The next step is to put together a meal plan.
This is usually pretty straightforward. We look ahead at our calendar for the coming week and identify which weeknights will allow us to cook something that might take a while, which nights need a quick meal, and which nights are going to rely on a crock pot. Then, we just start penciling in meal ideas into those boxes. We might have something like eggplant parmesan one night when we can cook slowly, a pasta meal when we need something faster, and perhaps a rice-and-beans-and-okra meal in the slow cooker on one of the other nights.
It all relies on what’s on sale. That’s what pushes the meals we select.
From this meal plan, we develop a grocery list. We just identify the items we need (beyond the on-sale produce item and the other items we already have on hand) to make the meals we’ve selected. This usually involves a bit of pantry digging, but a solid grocery list can come together within half an hour of sitting down with a store flyer.
2. If we see an amazing deal, we freeze or can the excess.
Every once in a while, we’ll stumble across a deal that’s just simply amazing. A friend will give us twenty pounds of sweet corn. We’ll find some roadside stand selling tomatoes at ten cents a pound just to get rid of his excess before they rot. Some grocery store will offer up an amazing loss leader just to get customers into the store.
If we find a deal like this, we’ll go far beyond what we could consume before the vegetables or fruits go bad. We’ll find ways to store it, which often means freezing or canning the items.
For example, if I have twenty pounds of sweet corn, I’m likely to save a few dozen ears for eating immediately, then I’ll take the rest, shuck them, cut the kernels straight from the cob, and put them in freezer containers measuring about two cups apiece. These containers will make for wonderful additions to soups and stews in the fall and winter as well as potential side dishes and ingredients in other things.
There’s usually at least one very good technique for preserving each type of fruit or vegetable. Tomatoes, for example, can easily be frozen whole (soak them in water for a while, then freeze them on a cookie sheet and you’ll wind up with very firm frozen tomatoes which thaw wonderfully) or canned in a variety of ways. Some beans are usually best left to dry and stored in your pantry, while others can be canned or frozen. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a ton of tips, from techniques to specific ideas for specific produce types.
3. Fresh produce isn’t just bought at the store.
As I hinted at above, the local grocery store is just one source for fresh produce. There are many ways to get fresh vegetables and fruits into your kitchen.
Roadside stands These tend to populate the roads all over around here when it gets late in the summer or into the early fall. Prices will vary, mostly depending on how urgently the person needs to sell the items. Sometimes, you’ll find a really great deal; often, it’s just a bit lower than the prices at the store. If you find something great, take the items home, then plan the meals for the next week around them.
Farmers markets These tend to vary greatly, too, in terms of prices and what’s available. I tend to have a lot of luck going near the end of the farmers market, where someone needs to offload most of their remaining stock and is dropping the price rapidly.
Friends We have quite a few friends and family members who are avid gardeners. We informally swap fresh items with them, often in a “gift” method. If they have an abundance of tomatoes, for example, we might find a bunch of tomatoes on our front step.
Co-ops If you’re really willing to be flexible, a farmer’s co-op can be a great deal. In our area, most co-ops revolve around getting a box of whatever the farm is producing that week. Over the course of a year, the sheer weight of this ends up being a pretty strong deal per pound, but it’s unpredictable, both in terms of the exact poundage you’ll wind up with and the exact items you’ll get. Our neighbors are members of a co-op and they often wind up with more than they can eat and sometimes with items they’re unsure about.
And then there’s the big one…
4. We plan our garden to offer a lengthy harvest.
Yes, we have our own garden.
We plant lots of different things in our garden, but we usually stick to beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers because they’re fairly hardy while growing and there are a lot of things you can do with them in the kitchen. We’ve also planted onions, broccoli, sweet corn, peppers, strawberries, and many different herbs over the years (and many other things that I’ve mostly forgotten about).
One key with our garden is that we try to stagger the plantings based on the expected harvest time. For example, let’s say we have access to two different kinds of tomato starts, one that will produce tomatoes in 70 days and one that will produce in 90 days. We might plant two or three of each of them, then wait ten days and plant two or three of each kind again. That means we’d have production from a few plants in 70 days, a few in 80 days (the 70 day plants plus ten more days), a few in 90 days, and a few in 100 days. That spreads out our tomato production, meaning we’re not dealing with a flood of them at once.
It takes a bit of planning, and it’s definitely not an exact science. With some luck, though, we’ll find ourselves spreading our harvest out over three or so months (late July to late October, usually) without having too much of a food flood all at once.
We do still wind up with extras, which we freeze or can, but we’re not stuck with a garage full of vegetables that have to be dealt with. A small batch can easily be handled in an hour or two. Fifty pounds of vegetables is a major project and often results in mass giveaways.
If you’re thinking of starting your own garden, here are some tips for starting a garden inexpensively.
5. What do we do with items that are getting late in their life cycle? We make vegetable soup!
Even with this type of planning, we still often wind up with vegetables and fruits that are unused. We’ll buy three peppers and use two in a recipe, or we’ll have a few too many tomatoes from the garden – you get the idea. They stay in the crisper or on the table until they’re just starting to get old.
What we often do at that point is chop them up a bit, toss them into a large freezer container, and then wait until that freezer container is mostly full, then we just make a big pot of vegetable soup. We boil some water (or stock – see the next item), dump in all of those frozen vegetables, add a bit of salt and some spices, and let it cook slowly.
Because of the variety of vegetables, each batch winds up a bit different than the others. There will be one or two vegetables that contribute a strong flavor, while others fade into the background. Almost always, though, it’s delicious.
Another option if you don’t like the soup route is to simply make ratatouille with it. I love making ratatouille, as it’s just loaded with flavor. Ratatouille is quite easy, except that if you’re freezing various leftover vegetables, you do need to keep them all separate until you make it. What you’re going to do (roughly) is add your vegetables in order of toughness to a warm skillet with some heated olive oil until everything is tender. Here’s a good guideline for many common summer vegetables; a quick Googling will find other vegetables.
6. What do we do with scraps and other items still left unused? We make stock, and then make compost!
Even after this, you’ll often still find yourself with a few leftovers. You’ll chop up a vegetable and find yourself with some edible-but-not-quite-perfect pieces left over along with some pieces that you wouldn’t want to eat. You’ll find some vegetables in the back of your freezer that have a bit of “freezer burn” to them.
Even those things don’t have to go to waste.
If the items are at least edible, we usually just turn them into a batch of vegetable stock. In our freezer, we have a container for leftover vegetable pieces – discarded bits of a tomato, a few extra spinach leaves, an unused portion of kale, and so on. These are things that could be eaten, but are fairly marginal.
When our container is full, we just put all of the vegetable scraps into a slow cooker, fill it most of the way up with water, and turn it on low for the day (often with just a dash of salt and ground black pepper).
Here’s a batch of vegetable stock in the midst of cooking in our slow cooker.
At the end of the day, the water has transformed into delicious vegetable stock, a liquid that will make almost any dish better and will make soups absolutely amazing. We just strain out the remaining vegetable pieces and save the liquid in small portions (one or two cups).
What about the pieces we’ve strained? What about the inedible pieces? Those end up helping our garden next year via the composter.
Behind our house, we have a barrel composter. Into that composter goes the really bad vegetable scraps, some yard waste, and a few other odds and ends (coffee grounds, for example). We keep it damp and rotate the barrel once a week or so.
In the spring (and sometimes in the fall), we empty out that composter and spread the dark organic material all over our garden. It’s an amazing natural fertilizer and it keeps the soil rich in our garden. This helps the plants to grow like wildfire the following growing season.
As a convenience, we do keep a small lidded pot on our kitchen counter, where we keep scraps over the short term. We usually fill this container, then take it out to the composter once every few days or so. That way, we’re not running to the compost bin multiple times a day.
And so the cycle continues. All along the way, we’re using tactics to reduce the cost of our food budget, from the seeds in our garden to the vegetables on our plate on to the scraps we’re about to throw out and back around again. These tactics keep our food budget under control and ensure that we always have fresh and delicious things to eat.