Rethink your shopping to get more of the good stuff
For the next few posts, I'm going to focus on eating healthy on a budget. There are a few tips and topics we'll cover this month, like budgeting, meal planning and minimizing waste, and there are a few tips that I think are a little too general to mention here (things like cooking at home, using produce that's in season, only buying what you need).
But today, I want to encourage you to think outside your normal shopping routine. Instead of getting your produce at your regular grocery store, here are my tips to get even higher quality vegetables (locally or even organically grown) at a price that won't break the bank. Have more tips for us? Share them in the comments below.
How to Save Money on Produce
1. Join a farm's CSA program.
Although I've been familiar with CSA's for a while, this is the first year that I've been a part of one. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and you can think of it as an investment in a local farm. You pay a certain amount of money at the beginning of the season and then each week (or in my case, every other week) during the growing season, you receive a box of fresh produce straight from the farm. This up front payment gives the farmers cash when they need it (to plant, hire help) and then mitigates risk should one of their crops not come in. It also allows you, the cook, to get a great deal on a huge amount of produce that would cost a lot more at the farmer's market. Plus you get the warm fuzzies for helping out the farm directly, and it encourages you to learn to cook more on the fly since you don't always know exactly what you'll be getting.
Each CSA program works differently but here are the details of mine. This year I joined Urban Canopy, a Southside Chicago farm that partners with other local growers for their CSA to fill up the box. The box shown in the picture above "cost" $36, and in addition to strawberries, lettuces, kale, collard greens, herbs, radishes, asparagus, bags of River Valley Ranch mushrooms, we also got a pound of locally roasted Bridgeport coffee, bread from Pleasant House Nakery and eggs from Lyons Fruit Farm. They also deliver straight to our house on Monday nights which makes it super convenient, and they occasionally throw in some locally brewed beer which makes the CSA program a much easier sell to my fiance.
2. Order market boxes a la carte.
If you can't commit to a season-long CSA, some farms also create market boxes that you can order a la carte. You can see if the farm box system works for you and then maybe commit to a CSA the next season if you like it. Instead of the up front investment you, just order a big box of mixed produce. Again, it's probably cheaper than purchasing the individual produce at a market.
3. Shop store discount days.
Instead of doing your shopping whenever you think of it, plan around when the high quality markets in your area have sales or discount days. Even super boutique stores, almost always have customer appreciation days or days of the week that certain items are on sale.
Here in Chicago, once a month Local Foods (Bucktown) has a 50% off day for all in-store produce purchases! (The next one is July 11, 2016.) Local Foods only sells produce, meat, cheese, and pantry products grown or made in the local midwest region--you can think of it as a year-round farmers market.
Local food co-ops like Dill Pickle (Logan Square) and Sugar Beet (Oak Park) often have discount days for their members on certain items or categories. If you live nearby, it may be worth becoming a member to help you save.
4. Seek out produce-only stores
Finally if you are looking for really inexpensive produce, your best bet is to go to a produce-only specialty store. Mostly these stores sell conventional products (not local or organic) so they aren't exactly comparable to the other options I've mentioned. But they are going to be super fresh and have more selection and just be less sad than your average grocery store selection.
In Chicago try Stanley's (Bucktown) for ridiculously cheap produce and often a good amount of organics. One pro trip about Stanley's is that the fruit especially is often very ripe so you want to plan on using it quickly. Another Chicago option that I frequent is World Fresh Market on Devon (Rogers Park). After I pick up my spices and Indian pantry products at Patel Brothers, I often hit up World Fresh Market to get loads of lemons and limes as well as more speciality "ethnic" produce items like fresh fenugreek, curry leaves, Indian eggplants and gourds. Anyone in the Western suburbs should definitely check out Nature's Best Market (Westmont) for great deals on herbs, veggies and global produce items like mangos and fresh green chickpeas.