Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Low Carbing On A Budget, Part I

One complaint frequently heard in the low carb community is:  “But low carbing is so expensive!”

It’s true that a good low-carb way of eating is based around fresh vegetables, low-glycemic fruits, nuts, fresh meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy.  It contains none of the less-expensive items that serve as fillers and meal extenders in the standard American diet – rice, pasta, potatoes and bread.  On the surface, it looks a lot cheaper to feed yourself and your family the old carby way.

It is possible, however, to eat very inexpensively on low carb and, with a little extra effort, find that you’re actually spending less per month than before.

If you look at the SAD (Standard American Diet), you’ll find that Americans consume a really amazing amount of empty calories – foods that have no nutritional value whatsoever and aren’t even aimed at filling the stomach, like candy and other sweets, soda, alcoholic beverages, and snack foods that are pretty much starch and air.  All these foods cost money.  Conversely, eliminating them from your diet saves you money.

An average American eats out five times a week.  When you eat out, you’re paying for a lot more than food.  You’re paying for real estate, construction, decoration, utilities, advertising, employee benefits and a whole host of other overhead expenses that have absolutely nothing to do with the food on your plate – and that’s not even counting the markup imposed for profit.  You’re also paying for the filler in your taco meat or your hamburger, the thickener and artificial flavoring in the packaged stock substitute in your soup, the high fructose corn syrup in your salad dressing and the trans fats in your french fries.  All of that adds up to money you could be spending on healthy, fresh, delicious food that you will love and that will love your body right back.

Americans spend over 60 billion dollars per year on diet programs and products.  Because they’re looking for the magic pill, the magic button, the quick fix instead of a lifestyle change they can stick with for the rest of their life, well over 90 percent will give up and gain back every ounce they lose and probably more, so that’s money basically flushed down the toilet – and the next year those same people will go out and spend 60 billion dollars again on the next gimmick.  You don’t need to spend money on weight loss accessories, memberships and programs.  Read a few low carb books at the library and pick up the one you choose at the used bookstore.  That and commitment are all you need.

Having cut empty calories, excessive dining out and weight loss “stuff” out of your food budget, I’m now going to show you how to save even more.

Part I:  Bargain Hunting for Low Carbers

The Real Cost of Food:  How to Read A Label

The first thing you need to do is learn to read a label.  No, don’t just look at the price tag and the carb count and put it in your cart.  Let’s read that label.  The whole thing.  Then we’re going to look beyond that label.

Pick up a can of store brand green beans.  Okay, it says 14.5 ounces.  Turn it over and look at the back.  It says that this can contains four servings of green beans.  That means 3.6 ounces of this can’s contents is one serving, right? 

Now let’s look at the ingredients.  What the heck is this?  I didn’t know green beans had “ingredients.”  But there they are.  You’re paying for green beans, water and salt.  (You’re also paying for the can, the label, the factory where it was canned, the advertising campaign and the CEO’s sportscar, but we won’t discuss that right now.)

Now let’s open the can and dump the contents out into a bowl.  Wow!  You didn’t realize so much of that can’s contents were water, did you?  You’re paying for all that tin-can-and-salt-flavored water, too, unless you drink it when you cook the green beans. 

Let’s drain the green beans carefully and weigh the beans alone.  Wow!  Only 8 ounces – about half the can.  Since the can is supposed to be four servings, let’s divide our green beans by that, so we end up with two-ounce servings.  Pretty puny serving, isn’t it?  Now, let’s remember that the USDA defines a “serving” of vegetables as ½ cup.  Okay, how many real half-cup servings of actual green beans are really in this can?  In all practicality, two and a half.  Divide that by the cost of the can.  That’s your real cost per serving.  Suddenly these green beans aren’t such an excellent bargain after all.  You could buy frozen green beans for less money per serving and get a much higher-quality product, for no more work than the canned product.

Let’s take another example, a box of Hamburger Helper.  Don’t forget, this is not the cost of the finished product.  You’ve still got to add in the pound of hamburger.  Let’s look at Bacon Cheeseburger Macaroni flavor.  For right now, let’s not even consider the fact that what they call one serving contains 21 grams of carbohydrates.  Let’s go straight to the ingredients.  Remember that ingredients are listed in order of content.  In other words, the further down the list you go, the smaller quantity of that ingredient is included in the package, much less the finished food.

The first thing that stands out in my mind is, look how far down the list of ingredients you have to go before you come to any real food.  There’s “imitation bacon bits” up near the top, but you have to get quite a ways down the list of ingredients before you come to rendered bacon fat, cooked bacon, or cheddar cheese.  That means most of this packet’s contents are nutrition-free starches, sugars, partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats), artificial colors and flavors, and various other chemicals – texturizers, stabilizing agents and preservatives.  That means that the vast majority of what you’re paying for (well, apart from the packaging, the advertising and so forth) is a handful of starch, sugar and chemicals.  And that handful of starch, sugar and chemicals, combined with 1/5th of a pound of hamburger, is what General Mills considers a meal for you.  Yum!  All guaranteed to give you a maximum spike in blood sugar, increased weight and pretty much zero nutrient intake.  Except for what’s in the hamburger, of course, and you’re not paying General Mills for that.

Learn to read a label and buy only what you want to pay for.  There’s absolutely no reason to waste your money on trans fats, unidentifiable chemicals, fake flavors and colors.  There are plenty of ways to stretch your pound of hamburger and your dinner dollar while eating tasty, nutritious real food, and I’m going to show you how to do it.

Store Savings:  Shopping for Savings

One obvious way to save money is to shop store sales; however, like labels, you can’t take store sales at face value.  We are living in the golden age of smart shopping.  The internet is a fantastic shopping tool that will save you not only money, but time and effort.

Where I live in Indianapolis, the grocery sources in my close vicinity include a Marsh Supermarket, Kroger, Meijer, Target, and Wal-Mart.  Sitting here at my computer, I can pull up the weekly ads for all five of these stores.  Both Marsh and Kroger have boneless, skinless chicken breasts on sale – but at Marsh they’re $2.29 a pound and at Kroger they’re $1.97 a pound.

Even before you cruise sales, however, it’s always a good idea to compare everyday prices at various stores around your home.  Make a list of your most commonly purchased food items (and save yourself some time for a later step and include non-food items too!), and whenever you visit your local stores, write down the prices and whether it’s a regular price or a sale price.  You’ll be astonished at the difference in cost from store to store.  My husband and I adore Fage Greek Yogurt.  It’s a pricey item, rarely on sale, and there are almost never coupons for it.  At Meijer it’s $1.69 apiece.  At Kroger, it’s $1.29.  At Target, however, it’s $1.27.  So unless there’s a sale, it would make sense to buy it at Target.  BUT, Kroger often has it on sale, 10/$10.  Additionally, I do the majority of my grocery shopping at Kroger, and I get fuel discount points on my loyalty card there.  So unless I have other items I want to buy at Target, the extra trip probably isn’t worth it. 

On the other hand, let’s take frozen vegetables.  A pound of store brand frozen green beans would cost me $1.09 at Meijer, $.87 at Target, a whopping $1.17 at Marsh, $.99 at Kroger – but wait a minute!  Here’s a common store trick:  Kroger’s bags of store brand frozen vegetables are only 12 ounces, not a pound, so 16 oz of Kroger brand vegetables actually costs $1.32 a pound.  That’s a 45-cent spread, and something I’d definitely take into account when I read the weekly sales flyers.  A sale price of $1.07 at Marsh for those green beans sounds great on the surface, but it doesn’t mean much when I can get them 20 cents cheaper at Target every day.

Once you’ve scouted established prices and sales at your local stores, then plan your menus around what’s on sale.  Most stores that have an online web site have a neat feature:  The shopping list.  You can open the weekly ad, click on the items you plan to buy, add any other items that aren’t in the sale flyer, and print up your shopping list for that store.

While you’re shopping, don’t forget that not all sales are advertised in weekly sales flyers, so be on the lookout for unadvertised specials.  Many stores, for example, don’t advertise specials on the store brand products in their weekly flyer.  My husband loves the Kroger brand carbonated fruit waters.  Ordinarily they’re 85 cents each, but they’re frequently on sale for 75 cents, which is never advertised in the flyer.

Look also for closeouts and manager’s specials.  I use Burt’s Bees lip balm.  Because the company was going to a new label design, the old lip balms, normally around $2.50 apiece, were on clearance at CVS in baskets at the end of the aisle for 49 cents apiece!

Find out which day of the week your local markets receive their deliveries of meat and produce.  When they put out the new, the old usually goes on “manager’s special.”  My Kroger puts meats on manager’s special on Wednesday, so I’ll always go to Kroger’s on Wednesday to check out the specials.  Since the new weekly ad comes out on Thursday, I can take into account the meat I just purchased on Wednesday when I make up my new shopping list and menu plan on Thursday.

International Groceries – A Hidden Asset

If you’ve never shopped at an ethnic grocery store before, you’ve been missing out.  These stores are a low carber’s best friend for numerous purchases:

Produce.  There’s a large international market called Saraga about 20 minutes’ drive from my home.  The produce department is gigantic, the assortment unbelievable, and the produce is much less abused than what I find at the grocery store.  Amazingly, the prices are much lower, too, particularly for ethnic prouce like jicama, chayote, daikon radishes, avocados, bok choi and so on, which are more frequently used in various ethnic communities and therefore bought and sold in larger quantities.  Don’t hesitate to experiment!  By expanding into fruits and vegetables which aren’t commonly eaten in American cooking, you can almost infinitely expand the variety in your meals.  If you like snow peas or bean sprouts, an ethnic market is by far the best place to get them.  There isn’t enough demand for them in grocery stores, and what’s available there has usually been sitting there for a while.

Meat.  I find that meat, poultry and fish are almost invariably fresher and cheaper at a good ethnic market.  Because most ethnic cuisines have been built around frugally using every possible scrap of a butchered animal, ethnic markets sell it all, and at amazingly low prices.  “Specialty” beef shanks that cost $7.99 a pound at Meijer are priced at $1.99 a pound at Saraga.  Bone-in beef chuck roasts, which I can never find at the grocery, are readily available and cheap.  The one drawback I find is that oftentimes beef and pork aren’t divided into the same cuts I’m used to, so sometimes I’m at a loss to figure out what cut of beef this package actually is and how I should cook it.  There are huge compensations, however, by way of the huge variety of wonderful, inexpensive meats you can buy.  I adore goat curry, but try finding goat at Kroger!  Chicken feet, sold cheaply for oriental dishes, make the most incredible chicken stock you’ve ever tasted.  If I buy a whole fish at Saraga, the fishmonger will clean and fillet it for me – but unlike the fish and seafood case at Kroger, the fishmonger will also give me the head and bones for stock.  The butcher doesn’t blink an eye if I tell him I want a pound of beef or pork fat or chicken skin (I love chicken skin cracklings), beef bones or chicken backs and necks for stock.  I get them, too, often at a nominal price.

Condiments and seasonings.  You should always buy soy sauce at an oriental market.  Do not settle for the horrible American versions sold in grocery stores.  Even at an oriental market, however, read labels – some soy sauces contain wheat and even sugar.  Also, what you want for cooking is light soy sauce.  “Light” doesn’t refer to a calorie-reduced version.  Dark soy sauce is thicker, sweeter and saltier and is designed for specific dishes, cannot be used interchangeably with light soy sauce, and will completely overwhelm your stir-fries.  Other condiments that are an excellent purchase at ethnic markets are Thai fish sauce, curry pastes, hot sauces, and dry spices.

Canned goods.  If you make curries that call for coconut milk, you will pay a fortune for it at the grocery.  At ethnic markets, it’s cheap.  Canned water chestnuts and bamboo shoots are another item you should always buy at an ethnic market if possible.  If you like canned fish products like sardines and kippers, they’ll be much cheaper here.

Tofu products and shirataki noodles.  If you’ve looked into specialty low-carb foods, you’re well acquainted with these items.  Again, you’ll find a better assortment and higher-quality, cheaper products at an ethnic market, and you don’t pay the outrageous shipping costs for water-packed shirataki noodles.

Dairy.  Oriental-only markets rarely even have a dairy section, unless it’s just your regular American products.  However, international markets that sell foods of pretty much any other culture will have a dairy case that is well worth investigating.  American grocery-store feta cheese is a pale, pathetic imitation of real Greek or Bulgarian feta.  Indian markets sell paneer, an unusual cheese which doesn’t melt and so can be used in a number of interesting ways – Greek and Middle Eastern and Mexican cultures also have nonmelting cheeses, often called “grilling” cheeses.  Middle Eastern selections include varieties of yogurt and kefir.  And that’s not even mentioning the wide variety of “regular” cheeses.  Also look for cultured butter.  In America, it’s a gourmet product, but you can often find it in international stores much more cheaply.

Farm Markets – a bargain or a luxury?

I have mixed feelings about farm markets.  The term now encompasses everything from the old-fashioned mom-n-pop roadside stand, to permanent, stationary produce markets, to large and rather upscale gatherings of local farmers.

Now, before I comment on farm markets, let me say this:  I am absolutely not going to address non-genetically modified and/or organic vegetables versus “other.”  Would I dispute that an organically raised, heirloom tomato is probably better than its ordinary counterpart?  Absolutely not.  But this entry is about low carb on a budget.  So I’m going to talk about budget buying.  Someone else is more than welcome to pick up the organic/non-GMO argument and take it from there.

Mom-n-pop roadside stands can be a great bargain.  If nothing else, the produce you buy there is liable to be a whole heck of a lot fresher than what you’ll get at the grocery store, usually less bashed about, and certainly won’t have passed through so many grubby hands.  Sometimes these places even allow you to pick the produce yourself.  The down side to these stands is you have to find them and they’re strictly seasonal.  They’re also usually cash only.

“Permanent” farm markets may be indoors or indoors/outdoors.  There are two near me (they’re actually two branches of the same business) which have most of the produce indoors.  They close for the winter, but are otherwise open every day.  Sometimes I can find good bargains there, but for what’s locally in season, their produce is trucked in from out of state and isn’t any better, either from a cost or a flavor standpoint, than what I can get at the grocery store.  But there are exceptions, and sometimes they have spectacular cantaloupes, so I keep going back.

Large, rather upscale farm markets, usually selling organic produce and pastured meat, are a lot of fun to shop.  Unfortunately they’re also a lot of money to shop.  I’m sure that from a quality standpoint they’re tops.  However, the times I’ve patronized such markets, the word “budget” was the farthest thing from my mind.  If you can afford it, by all means, go for it.  But again, we’re here to talk about cutting costs.

Bulk Buying – Where and when it’s worth it

If you happen to be a Costco or Sam’s Club member (just as an example), you can sometimes luck into some wonderful bargains on produce and meat if you don’t mind buying a lot at once.  Now and again I’ll come across whole ribeyes for $3.99 a pound, etc.  Also, I find Sam’s Club is the best price on blueberries (my husband wants them on his yogurt) when they aren’t in season.  However, the mere fact of buying something in bulk doesn’t always mean a lower price.

Here’s where that price survey you made of stores in your area comes into play.  Here’s an example.  At my Sam’s Club, they have four 1-pound packs of butter for $7.88.  That’s $1.97 per pound – a pretty decent price.  However, at regular intervals, Kroger has butter 2/$3.00.  That’s $1.50 per pound.  Since butter freezes nicely, I’d be better served to stock up when Kroger has a sale.  On the other hand, if I’ve got a big family get-together in the makings and I’m caught short of butter, Sam’s Club may be the better deal, particularly if I’m already in the store to buy a couple big ol’ beef briskets or large packs of pork ribs.

The bulk bins at some grocery stores and specialty shops like Whole Foods are probably less useful to low carbers than others.  I have found some nice prices on bulk nuts . . . until I found better prices online.  Which leads me to . . .

Online shopping.

Online shopping has been a lifesaver for me.  If I have my comparison chart of everyday prices, I’m all set.  I can pull up various stores’ sales flyers online to establish the real best price of what I’m looking for, and I can not only compare online prices to store prices, but to other online prices.

If you use specialty low-carb products, online will probably be your only choice, at least for some products.  I get most of my specialty products either on Netrition or Amazon.  Netrition is reliable, has a great inventory, excellent service, and you almost can’t beat the $4.95 flat rate shipping.  I say “almost” because if you’re already an Amazon Prime member, like me, then shipping is free.  But there are a number of other valuable web sites, such as:

www.nutsinbulk.com – Bulk nuts, nut flours, nut butters
www.superiornutstore.com – Actually the same company, but just to be contrary, both sites don’t carry exactly the same selection
www.honeyvillegrain.com – A good place to see their selection, but most of their products you can find cheaper elsewhere
www.holdthecarbs.com – All manner of wonderful low carb baking stuff.
www.ahfni.com – An “insider’s secret” site for pure liquid and powdered sucralose, no maltodextrin
www.lowcarbu.com – All low carb, all the time.  Probably the best selection of ready-made breads.
www.dixiediner.com – Again, check out the selection, but you can get the products cheaper on Netrition.
www.igourmet.com – Cheese, glorious cheese!
www.vitacost.com – Supplements, but also other things such as low-carb sweeteners.

Again, compare prices.  You’ll be amazed at the difference from one store to another.  Bear in mind that even if some product costs a few cents less on, say, Netrition, if you’re already buying supplements at Vitacost, it’s probably cheaper to buy your stevia there than to make a separate purchase elsewhere.

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