Buying Fresh, Buying Cheap

Rick writes in:

You talk all the time about buying fresh foods, but they’re always more expensive than the canned versions and other foods I buy. What am I missing?

Much of the time, Rick is right. If you just walk into a grocery store, pick a fresh vegetable at random, and compare it to the canned version, the canned version is usually cheaper.

So why buy fresh? Fresh produce and meats taste better, have no preservatives, and are more nutritionally powerful as well. Plus, if you use some careful, clever tactics, you don’t have to pay a lot of money above the cost of canned produce. Here’s how.

Use the flyer
If you’re buying fresh, the store flyer is your best friend. I do much of my grocery shopping at Fareway and, before a trip, I parse the flyer carefully.

What do I look for? I usually start by identifying what fresh produce is on sale that week. Then, I take those items and figure out a meal plan based around them. For example, this week green onions are on sale there, so I would seek out two or three recipes that utilize green onions – scrambled eggs for breakfast one day, a meatloaf another day, and maybe some sort of stir fry on a third day. This way, I can buy lots of green onions on sale and actually have a plan for using those onions.

Most stores tend to have several produce items on sale each week, so you can just pick three or four that seem interesting to you, then plan two or three meals using these items. There’s no easier way to get inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet.

Know what’s in season locally
Another great way to find good prices on fresh produce is to figure out what’s in season in your area. If a particular fruit or vegetable is in season locally, it’s often on sale (and very, very fresh) at your local grocery store because there’s an abundance of it available.

You can get started by utilizing this helpful list at Sustainable Table that identifies what’s in season in each state during each month.

Leverage the farmers’ markets
Become a regular attendee at your local farmers’ market. There are several good reasons for this: you can regularly find good bargains there, you can build relationships with some vendors and thus get choice produce, the produce available there is very fresh (and thus tasty and very healthy), and there’s a wealth of information to be had, too. Don’t go with a shopping list – just take a cloth bag, some cash, and a sense of adventure.

Here are several tips for getting bargains at a farmers’ market.

Talk to your friends that garden
Quite often, even people who have small gardens have a surplus of produce when the peak of their harvest rolls around. My father, for example, often harvests fifty pounds of tomatoes a day during the peak of the tomato harvest.

If you have a friend that gardens, quite often you can make great trades for some of that excess produce, or perhaps buy it at a very nice rate. One way to help is to offer to tend their garden for them while they’re on vacation in the summer – if there’s anything that will need to be picked while they’re gone, they’ll often give some or all of it to you for the service of keeping things tended.

… or start your own garden
You can do simple things like growing a tomato plant in a pot in your home, starting a window sill garden, or even tilling up a small patch in the back yard.

A tiny garden, just consisting of a few plants, doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, just a bit of healthy outdoor activity once a week or so. Plus, when the vegetables come in, you can have ultra fresh produce. Trust me, there are few things better than picking vegetables out of the garden and immediately using them in dishes – a pasta sauce made out of tomatoes that were in the garden a half-hour earlier is sublime.

Look for bulk savings
Quite often, you can buy bulk amounts of fresh produce for substantially cheaper (per unit) than individual items. Look around and see what’s available.

One option is to split that large produce purchase with a friend or a neighbor. If you’re both buying carrots, for example, why not buy a large bundle for a cheaper per-unit price and split it? It can be very advantageous to coordinate on occasion.

Another option is to buy produce with some long-term storage potential for yourself, like potatoes, turnips, or carrots. These items can often be stored in the cupboard for long periods without going bad, which means you’re not forced to use them over and over again.

If all else fails, choose frozen vegetables over canned ones
If you still find that there’s a significant “produce premium” for you and decide to buy prepackaged vegetables or fruits, seriously consider buying frozen vegetables and fruits instead of canned ones. Frozen fruits and vegetables are substantially more nutrition-rich than their canned cousins and the prices per ounce are usually very comparable.

Good luck!