When we came back from Europe in September, things were tight. After three and a half weeks of vacation, we pretty much drained our bank account. That, combined with J no longer being on scholarship meant we were living on a budget. We were forced to make a big shift in our eating habits.
No more local or organic food. Also, we decided to eat vegetarian since we couldn't afford the good, humanely-raised meat and fish. This made for an interesting season of eating. If you've been following this blog for a while, you probably know that for the past two years we've focused on eating as much local food as we can, and supporting local farmers and producers. What we didn't buy at the farmers' market, we usually found at Planet Organic grocery store. In September, this pattern changed. I got to know my local Save-On Foods very well. I planned meals around cheap vegetables, grains and proteins. I started to really pay attention to how much my food costs. The only fruits we ate were bananas and the apples that were 99 cents a pound. I started buying frozen vegetables, and thanks to my sister-in-law we discovered the joys of Costco, where we bought cheap quinoa, almonds, raisins and rice.
I have mixed emotions about these changes. I know that when you buy food directly from the farmer of producer, you're paying the real price, unlike in the grocery store. I really miss shopping at the farmers' markets, being able to buy locally-grown and pressed Canola oil at $10 a botttle, a $7 basket of B.C. apples and $4 bunches of fresh swiss chard. I miss connecting with my community, and actually knowing the people who've raised or made the food I put in my body.
But unfortunately, shopping that way is a privilege, and until our food system changes it will stay that way. We always justified our large food bills with the fact that food is very important to us, and we can afford it because we don't pay for other things, like a car or cable tv. I still believe that's a good reason, and that local food is within reach of many more people if they change their spending habits. I'm sure in the future we can go back to the market for at least part of our grocery list, but right now it's just not possible.
On the other hand, I don't find myself wanting in our daily meals. We still cook good food, and the photos in this post, all from meals and desserts we made last fall, prove that. I love bean, tofu, lentil and egg dishes, which have been a familiar presence on our weeknight table. Knowing how to turn cheap ingredients into healthy, tasty meals is an important skill, one I'm glad I'm learning. In the coming weeks, I hope to share some of the recipes and resources I've discovered.
One of our challenges in keeping our grocery bill down is our restricted diets. As a couple with celiac disease and lactose intolerance, we're not typical grocery customers. Soy milk, gluten-free cereal, wheat-free soy sauce and gluten-free bouillon cubes all regularly find their way into our cart. Of course it would be cheaper to buy "regular" versions of these foods, but it's something we have to get used to.
The luxury of buying foods in bulk is also something I always thought I could rely on. It probably doesn't seem like a luxury to you, but it sure does to me now. When the bins and scoops could be contaminated with gluten, I can't take the risk with most bulk foods. Buying dried beans, dried fruit, nuts and grains in packaged bags is far more expensive.
Another challenge was finding good snacks. You know, something you can just go into the kitchen and grab when you feel like nibbling. Crackers are great, but packaged gluten-free crackers and cookies are usually not in our budget. I like to have healthy, fruit-filled muffins on hand for a snack, but when I bake them they tend to disappear in a flash. So usually the snack is a rice cake with peanut butter and honey or a piece of fruit. Not bad, and definitely cheap. But man, I am getting so sick of rice cakes that feel and taste like styrofoam. I'm resolved to find a new, cheap and delicious snack in 2011. Even if I have to bake my own crackers. I've done it before.
Speaking of baking, it's usually what people complain about the most when they have to go gluten-free. Honestly, I really enjoy gluten-free baking, especially with all the great new cookbooks out there. But gluten-free flours are not cheap, especially since you usually have to buy several different kinds to be successful (unless you rely on a mix). But for me these ingredients are worth it, and since I don't bake every day or necessarily every week they last me a long time. I used to love having all-purpose and whole-wheat flour on hand to bake with whenever I wanted to, and even though I require many more types of flour now, it still feels great to have them available when I get the urge to bake.
Throughout the fall, J and I lamented the loss of delicious meats and cheeses, especially the ones we devoured in Austria, France and Denmark. We wished we could afford to visit Paddy's Cheese and the Italian Centre more often. We stretched foods to make simple meals like stir-fry with silken tofu, corn and scallions. We fondly recalled the days of homemade meatballs with spaghetti and salads of beautiful, butter-soft local mixed greens. But not only did our thriftiness save us money, it also helped us discover some fantastic new recipes and good habits. It will be interesting to see what our grocery bags will look like in 2011.