14 July 2011

budgeting & expensive off-season produce

There's been a lot of talk in the media about skyrocketing prices of groceries.  And in particular fruits and vegetables.  Now I'm not the only blogger out there who has written about their feelings on this subject, but I'd like to add my two cents worth.

Now I'm not an economist, accountant or financial expert of any sort.  But this much I know - grocery prices have been climbing for a while now and we've felt the pinch even more due to the economic downturn for the last couple of years, an increase in our goods and service tax, and rise in petrol amongst other things.  And when you throw horrid winter weather into the mix, prices for certain produce (like off season ones) become rather ridiculous.

On the news tonight, one of the main highlights was how expensive fruits and vegetables have become (a 12.2% rise), contributing to the overall increase of 1.4% in food prices.  The fruits and vegetables that they (i.e. the media) chose to use as examples were tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicums and lettuce - all summer produce.  We are currently in the cold, wet and windy (gales for some of us!) grasp of winter.  You see what I'm getting at, right?  So here is what's irritated me - that the media highlighted what most of us already know, but just to make it sound worse and more 'newsy', the more expensive off-season produce were used as examples.

In a previous job, I witnessed genuine despair - children sent to school without breakfast and a parent not being able to put food on the table that night for dinner (there was a frantic ring around by the school principal and a bag of potatoes and other basic foods were collected and donated).  You hear about these things and read the stats in the news.  And for middle-class me, it was suddenly very real.  It was an eye-opener, shocking, humbling and upsetting all at once.

So as I watch the reporter highlight expensive off-season produce and talk about the overall rising grocery prices in the same breath, in the middle of one of the more expensive and high-end supermarket chains in the country, it kinda irritated me a bit.  I sat there thinking how in the hell does that help those that are really in need?

I thought about the constant complaints I hear from those who are slightly better off, or those who are better off enough to shop at the more expensive supermarket chains - and I wondered...perhaps better budgeting, some menu planning and even less arrogance for cheaper brands may help?  Complaining certainly doesn't.  Rocketing prices is not a personal attack and not just a phenomenon that our country is facing - it's worldwide.  What about shopping at cheaper supermarket chains or vegetable markets?  And how about buying seasonal?  Correct me if I'm wrong - but I've never heard of someone dying because they weren't able to eat capsicum, lettuce, tomatoes or cucumbers for the 3-4 winter/cold months!

In our household, there is only one of us earning since I was laid off last November.  But we'd probably still be considered middle-class since the one salary coming in is a comfortable one, and there are no children (just a furbaby).  However, with increasing living expenses, we've still had to re-look at our food budget.  And to be honest, I've not found it too hard to do.  Here's our simple and effective (for us) 'formula':

  • Do a big shop once every fortnight instead of weekly (which we used to do previously).
  • Only allow a top up of vegetables and fruit for second weeks.
  • Plan a weekly menu and stick to it.  You don't have to spend a lot of cookbooks or foodie magazines.  The internet has thousands and thousands of recipes of every dish imaginable - so it's not that hard if you put in a small effort.
  • Write a grocery list based on your menu - it does help with only buying what you need.
  • Plan as many weekly meals as possible that can be cooked in bulk and appropriate to take to work the next day for lunch.
  • Buy vegetables and fruit from the weekend market if it's cheaper than your neighbourhood supermarket.
  • Try eating less meat - there are loads of interesting, delicious and nutritious meatless dishes on the internet. Try cooking some recipes - surprise yourself!
  • Buy cheaper cuts of meat - in the colder months it's quite cheap to feed a few mouths with a simple casserole of meat and root vegetables cooked in a slow cooker or in the oven.
  • If you like fresh green salad leaves - buy just what you need from the loose bin, unless you are certain that you'll be finishing the entire pre-packed bag within a couple of days.  If not, the leaves start to go off and its a waste.
  • If it's not too much of a stretch, give yourself variety by including seafood once a week. Apart from fresh fish, there's also smoked fish - it's pretty cheap to put a fish pie together with smoked fish, vegetables and mash potato (which can be cheaper than pie pastry).
  • And don't get carried away with thinking that everything from the loose bins are cheaper than packaged products - in my experience it's not always necessarily so!
  • Don't be arrogant to think that some of the cheaper budget brands mean lesser quality.  Some do, but some don't. Try some and you may be surprised.
  • And it won't kill you to buy cheaper substitutes - for example, use stock cube instead of the more expensive ready-made stock liquids. And if you must cook with wine, unless the quality of your life depends on it or a reputable visiting food reviewer is coming for dinner, buy what's on special. 
Because the above works for us, we've been able to allow ourselves treats or home baking every now and again, which doesn't blow our budget out of the water.  It has also allowed us to sometimes splurge on one or two more expensive items.  We also still eat out or have takeaways, but a lot less than we used to.  We now eat out twice and have takeaways twice within a fortnight.  And although it's a lot less than what we used to do before, since we still have the occasional treats, eating out and takeaways, we don't feel like we're missing out, or hard done-by.

Now I'm not saying that what works for us will work for everyone.  And since we're only feeding two adults and a cat, we don't have the added financial worries that come with having children.  But some of the above may help some of you, to some degree.  Surely that's better than complaining about the ridiculously priced off-season produce in the middle of winter.

Here's a link to a post on a relatively cheap but yummy and filling soup if you're looking for some ideas!


  1. Good post. Totally true about stuff in the loose bins not necessarily being cheaper & you don't know what it costs until you get to the checkout... I accidentally bought $8.50 worth of quinoa today! I'm relying on frozen veges more at the moment, not on their own but in things - peas, spinach & (shelled) broad beans in risotto, edamame with noodles etc... no waste and cheap too.

  2. Libby - I've been caught out at the checkout by the prices for the stuff in the loose bins as well. I'm more careful now (the difference can be as much as $4-$5!). And I use frozen veg all the time - as I understand it, tests have shown that good quality frozen veg retain all the freshness and vitamins. That's not too shabby!

  3. I totally agree. IT'S WINTER. And there are seasonal alternatives for salads available - red or white cabbage, the delicious and underrated radish, carrot, spring onions, and you can try nuts or dried fruit in there too. And frozen veges are just as good for you as fresh.

    I do a lot of planning and budgeting for our food shopping, and you do save money by putting in the time. Having said that, it must be really hard work feeding a family with kids on one income. I wouldn't like to try feeding an extra 2-3 mouths on my budget!

    PS did you notice that article also pointed out bananas are $17/kg in Australia? I've recently spent a week there and wondered why I hadn't seen a banana all week...

  4. timeforalittlesomething - the new world that I shop at has a trolley put aside that's usually heaped with produce that are about to go off. I often get my bananas from this heap. To be honest, the the skins may be developing black spots and patches, but the flesh is still firm with no bruising. And for that, I pay an incredible $2 for an entire bunch!!!

  5. Great post, that "news" article was so annoying, just such poor journalism. And you can shop so much smarter if you avoid supermarkets pretty much altogether for fresh produce :)

  6. Mairi - must have been a quiet week for the media! :)


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