The post-vacation food budget (you can still eat like a hippie on it)

Perhaps the only depressing part about a vacation is returning from it… and forcing yourself to eat even healthier than you thought physically possible (in part because you made the mistake of reading the ingredients on that add-and-blend piña colada mix after you’d inhaled about three blenders’ worth). The other tricky part? Realizing you’ll have to reach that healthful goal on a budget, because the rent for your home-home and your home-away-from-home-for-a-week came out of the account on the same week.

After fetching our dearly beloved pup from dog-sitting friends last week, the husband and I headed straight to Trader Joe’s for groceries. This was, in part, because our nearly empty fridge had also lost electricity for a portion of last week after the DC storm (#funfridgesmells), and in other part because we were hungry, as usual, and TJ’s has samples. In fact, we were so hungry that we had to stop off at Teaism next to the Alexandria TJ’s for a bite (where I fell in love with these floor poufs…).

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Back to groceries. Our family (minus the dog, who eats flies when possible) is increasingly committed to buying food either A) from a farmer, a market or a CSA share or B) with the necessary food buzz words smeared across the label (i.e. organic, free-range, grass-fed, sustainably harvested, etc.)

These aren’t necessarily rules we live by. In fact, some people do research to help you make your organic dollars stretch. I recently met with the folks at DC’s Environmental Working Group, which puts out an annual list of the top dozen types of produce to buy organic if you have to be choosy, called the Dirty Dozen. They also have a Clean 15 list of produce that is relatively pesticide-free by the time it makes it to the market, whether organically or traditionally grown. (These are good things to tape to your shopping cart.)

In our past life north of Seattle, it was pretty easy to buy mostly organic-like. They even carried organic options at the commissary on the Naval base, where our bill would come to just over half of what we’d pay at the Safeway near our house. The commissary at our nearest base here carries ONE brand of chicken, and it’s the one that’s featured on Food, Inc. Needless to say, we’ve ventured out.

Also needless to say, we were spoiled. I wrote about the farms nearby us, so I knew where to get the best and best-priced produce. Suddenly, what we’re used to eating is a drive away or costs much, much more. And my husband eats a lot. On his own for dinner one night, he bought four pounds of ground turkey to make burgers “with leftovers.” He figured that was a good amount for about two meals. The good thing about our finances andImage food preferences converging like this is it makes us much smarter shoppers. No longer do we throw things into the cart willy-nilly if we think we might eat them in the next few weeks. Nope, we enter that store armed with a plan. My list entails four or five weeknight recipes with portion sizes that should (barring my husband’s overworking metabolism) provide enough for lunch leftovers. And I try to keep a few cupboard-ready standbys on hand, like tuna. (Pictured is a tuna salad made from basically scraping the fridge last week – with capers, parsley, lentils, tomatoes, etc.).

This shopping trip, we really did our homework, jetting back and forth between the aisles to compare fresh and frozen prices, referencing old receipts from other grocery stores. The frozen aisle was the clear price winner this time, with its grass-fed beef offerings coming in at $5.99 a pound, about a half-dollar less than the fresh variety. Almost two pounds of the frozen mahi mahi chunks (which worked beautifully for fish tacos) were half the price of a pound of fresh and seasoned tilapia. Saved $4 on that one.

We continued our saving spree on Sunday at a farmer’s market, no less, that is right down the street from our church. The key to buying farm-minded food on a budget isn’t always about getting the best-priced meat (which will undoubtedly be the corn-fed, non-organic, commodity-bolstered variety). It’s about thinking really hard about a few purchases (Caveat: this is much easier to do when thinking for one or two mouths, and no picky eaters). At the market, we snagged a pound of pork that made the perfect quick kabobs last night. ImageAnd, after getting my husband to agree to one meatless meal of eggplant parmesan this week, we grabbed a nearly three-pound sirloin in hopes of making it last a few meals (we’ll see). When I buy “fou-fou” meat like this, as my mother would call it, I am usually mentally comparing it to this overpriced boutique butcher shop I once perused. I accidentally came home with $17-a-pound sirloin and thought the husband was going to eat me alive to (because it would be cheaper than the meat I mindlessly purchased). If I can shave a good $7 off that price and make it last a few meals, I’m in the clear.

I think this week of especially frugal foodie-ing may of gotten us hooked. Later yesterday, we (accidentally) made a stink of mislabeled toilet paper prices at another store and saved $4! When they rang up my TP it was $4 more than it had been labeled, so the husband went back to find a cheaper brand, which also happened to have been mislabeled. While a swarm of associates headed back to verify the price, the man at the checkout said, “Why do you need to save money? You’re young!”

My response: “Because I don’t want to spend $8 on toilet paper!” I’d rather buy beef.

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