Yuriko Gamo Romer and her family no longer stroll down the street to eat sushi, burgers, or pasta at the restaurants that dot the main drag of their neighborhood in San Francisco.
The Silas-Gonzalez clan from Oakland now spends more time cooking meals from scratch. The dads in both these families were recently laid off, so they need to find ways to keep food costs in check.
Photo of Silas-Gonzalez family by Sarah Henry
With the jobless rate in California hovering around 11 percent, you don’t have to look far to find people impacted by the recession. (Three out of nine families from my former mamas group have been hit by job loss in the last year, including the two families in this piece and, um, me.) After housing, food is often the next biggest expense a family faces. Bad-for-you food is cheap but these folks are committed to getting nutritious meals on the table at a reasonable price.
How to make those dollars stretch at dinnertime? Eat in. Both families agree that the first thing to cut from your budget is routine dining out — at kid-friendly restaurants, taqueria joints, or the museum cafe. Nowadays they make favorite foods like burritos or sushi at home for a fraction of the cost they’d pay eating out.
They’ve also become smarter shoppers. They buy in bulk at stores like Costco and spend more time comparison shopping. Julie Silas says she now knows the exact price of most food items that she buys — and can usually estimate, within a dollar, how much the bill will be at the checkout.
Neither household eats a lot of meat, another cost saver. They site cheaper sources of protein such as tofu, beans, and peanut butter as staples in their kitchens. (Julie and Yuriko both mention with glee that Costco sells creamy, organic peanut butter for dollars less than the price of other grocery stores.)
They also accept assistance. Julie’s neighbors passed on their Community Supported Agriculture box of produce once a month to the family of four. “That’s such an awesome gift; it really makes a difference in our lives,” she says, while making a stir fry with green beans and onions plucked from the CSA box. Yuriko’s mom bought her an electric skillet so she can make grilled dishes at home.
Each family has a small number of items that they’ll pay more for. For Yuriko it’s high-quality short grain rice from a Japanese market. “But relatively speaking, rice is cheap, so that’s not too much of a luxury,” she says. Julie can’t live without goat cheese — her girls love it — but found an affordable source at Trader Joe’s.
Neither family feels that nutrition or health has been compromised in their efforts to trim the family food budget. Both Julie and Yuriko estimate they now spend 20-25 percent less on food. Yuriko says she finds herself thinking about the nutritional content of a grocery item and makes purchasing decisions accordingly. So jugs of juice, while popular with her husband and son, don’t make the cut. She’d rather spend that money — around $4-6 a bottle — on whole fruit, so her family gets the benefit of fiber as well as vitamins. Julie buys less organic fruits and vegetables these days, using the Environmental Working Group’s guide to pesticides in produce as a reference. That means organic apples, strawberries, and spinach, but conventional avocados, kiwis, and bananas to help keep the shopping bill down.
Both families say that they’ve discovered an unexpected benefit of unemployment. By going back to basics they’ve become more creative cooks. “A whole organic chicken, which costs us about $12, can form the basis of a homemade chicken noodle soup; the shredded meat ends up in enchiladas or a pot pie, and leftover broth serves as the sauce for a third meal,” says Isidro Gonzalez. In comparison, a package of chicken breasts costs around $8 and only provides one dinner for the family. Yuriko prepares favorite Japanese recipes for family and friends more frequently now. She’ll make sukiyaki, a beef and vegetable dish, and okonomiyakia, savory pancakes, and each dish can feed about six people for the price of just one of these items at a restaurant. “We’ve had some really affordable feasts,” she says, “by making food at home.”
How has the bad economy affected your eating habits? Have you found new ways to eat cheap and eat well? Share your cost-cutting tips below.