Local store pride. Did I mention I got this bag for FREE?

Local store pride. Did I mention I got this bag for FREE?

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this series so far — how to get the scoop on good deals at Whole Foods, how to shop for higher-priced items, and how to assess what you should and shouldn’t buy if you’re worried about your bottom line.  Tonight’s finale is about wrapping all of that up with some budgeting advice that applies not just to Whole Foods, but to really any grocery store.  You may not be able to do all of it, or not all at once, and that’s okay; but consider these my “best case scenario” tips.  You’ll take what’s good for you and leave the rest for another, more ambitious day, I know.

TONIGHT’S TIPS: What to do to make do

1. Make it yourself.

Almost without exception, items that are made FOR you – not just prepared foods, but breads, tortillas, sauces, etc. – are much more expensive than the raw ingredients required to make them yourself.  Yes, I sometimes buy bread in a pinch, but most of the time we make our own.  It doesn’t have to be super-time consuming, since most of the “time” factor with baking bread is inactive time (i.e., you doing other things while the dough rises), and doing it yourself means you control the ingredients and can come out with a product that really cost you just pennies, as opposed to dollars.  Same goes for marinara sauce (one of the easiest and most versatile things you can make for yourself!), salad dressing (so simple, and no half-empty bottles of weird flavors nobody liked hanging around your fridge), and stock (practically effortless and basically FREE, since you can make it in your slow cooker with nothing but scraps).  Over the course of a year, you can save a decent amount of money by just not buying the things that you can make for yourself.  Plus, homemade things often taste better.

2. Make do without.

This is hard, but necessary to learn – and liberating once you do.  There was a time in my life, as I’m sure there is in almost everyone’s lives, when I would run out to the store to buy things I’d “forgotten” (or more likely, decided on the spot I “needed”).  I also, at that time in my life, adamantly stuck to the very ingredients printed on every single recipe, often buying many, many items in a week’s worth of grocery shopping that would only get half-used and then languish.  Now, we get a grocery delivery once a week, hit up the farmer’s market, and that’s that.  There’s no additional shopping.  If we run out of milk, we run out of milk.  If we don’t have cereal, we eat eggs, or I make granola.  If we need bread, I bake some or make tortillas or biscuits or something else that might suffice.  And instead of buying lots of different items to accomplish similar goals in that week’s cooking, I try to figure out easy substitutions – yogurt instead of sour cream, for example, since we’ll already have yogurt on hand for breakfasts; kale instead of spinach, if I’ve got a big bunch from the farmer’s market; marinara sauce from the freezer instead of a new bottle of tomato puree; a little goat cheese instead of cream to smooth out a soup.  And when in doubt, leave it out.  Unless it’s something as radical as “I don’t have chicken for this chicken casserole,” you’ll probably be okay with the occasional omission when a substitution just doesn’t seem right.

3. Value yourself. 

That is to say, understand what your time and efforts are worth.  This was one of the biggest motivations that ended up converting us to basically full-time Whole Foods shoppers, as opposed to the balancing act we used to do – which involved shopping part-time at the Farmer’s Market, part-time at the very close and convenient Big National Brand Store, and part-time at Whole Foods…every single week.
It was crazy-making and stressful, and we always had to carefully negotiate our lists to make sure we weren’t leaving things out inadvertently (“I thought you got that at Shaw’s!”  “I thought you could get that at Whole Foods on Friday – I didn’t know you needed it tonight!”)  If there is one thing I am NOT about in the kitchen, it’s having a whole-food, home-cooked lifestyle be extra crazy-making.  Finally J., the Order Muppet of our marriage, sat down with a notebook and started keeping track of how much certain items would cost at the various places we were shopping, plus how much we were spending on gas, plus how much money our actual TIME was worth.  And once he said to me, “Look…we’re trying to save, like, $2.50 a week by doing all this, on average.  Aren’t we worth more than $2.50?” I was all in.

I’ll leave you with a final thought: A fully Whole-Foods-shopping lifestyle may or may not be the right thing for you.  Yes, you might have to find new products to love and leave old ones behind; you might have to learn how to think a bit differently about what constitutes a “good deal,” and what your food values really are.  You might have to decide how much it’s worth to you to know that the products you’re buying are likely to be more responsible — for your health, your family’s health, and the planet’s health — than the ones you’ll find at the average big-chain grocery store.  And you might not be there, yet, and that is OKAY.  We all do the best we can with what we have.  But in the end, if you’re trying to commit to a cleaner way of eating, and you believe more in eating the basics than in eating things that come out of bags, boxes, and cans, it may be achievable for you to make Whole Foods the cornerstone of your shopping routine.