Posts Tagged ‘budget’

Eat More Veggies: Smart Shopping

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Earlier this week, I wrote a post highlighting the amount of food – especially produce – that we waste, despite both good intentions and the fact that we are healthier when we eat more plant-based foods. In Monday’s post, Eat More Veggies: Waste Not Want Not, I shared my top tips for reducing waste: First In First Out, Don’t Throw Away Good Stuff and Shop Smart. Today is all about how to put the Shop Smart part into action.

Shopping Smart means looking beyond the traditional grocery store for ways to buy fresh, healthy food. The grocery store is not a bad option and you can score good deals if you shop the sales, but it is important to have some alternatives. More Choices = More Savings. My favorite ways to save on produce are farmer’s markets, food rescue and co-op buying. To learn more about the treasures you might find at the farmer’s market, check out my post, The Downtown Phoenix Farmer’s Market.

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Food Rescue: Market on the Move
There are groups in some communities that rescue surplus produce that would otherwise get wasted and provide that produce at a low cost to families. In Phoenix and Tucson, Market on the Move is a weekly event where surplus produce from farming communities is trucked into the city. Generally there are 8-12 varieties of produce and with a $10 donation participants can take all the food they want. That’s right – there’s no limit. Some families fill reusable shopping bags and others come with wagons or rolling coolers. The idea is that you take what you can use and a little extra to share with friends and neighbors because the food would have otherwise been wasted.

The first time I participated in Market on the Move, I was a little weirded out. I wasn’t sure if the program was more like a food bank than a co-op and I didn’t want to take food that was meant for people with fewer resources than I have. On top of that, I wasn’t sure about “rescued” food. Sounds kind of dubious, right? Was it going to be all rotten or go bad in a day? Was it going to be oddball stuff nobody would want?

I decided to see for myself and I was pleasantly surprised. One Saturday morning I showed up at a church near my home to find a huge line of (really friendly) people. I was pretty far back so I had about 40 minutes to wait and used the time to get to know my “line neighbors.” There were people from all walks of life and they had various reasons for participating. Some of the folks I chatted with were looking to add healthy veggies to their diets, some were participating because it stretched their food budget, and others were excited to participate in a program that prevents waste. My concern that I was taking food from others who might need it more was unfounded because there is more than enough to go around and the process only works if there are enough participants contributing. Another important thing is to note is that Market on the Move is not year-round. The service is suspended during the hottest months of summer so it’s always a good idea to double check the website before you head out.

So, what do you get? Most of the food is conventionally grown, but I have seen a few organics mixed it. The selection varies every week and you never know until you arrive and read the whiteboard, but last time I went there were eggplants, red bell peppers, tomatoes, four varieties of squash, green beans and cucumbers. I took some of everything except eggplant (yuck!). I used some food right away because grilled squash is a big hit at my house. I made a few loaves of zucchini quickbread which were devoured in a flash. Homemade tomato sauce? You can bet your baked ziti I made a batch! Cucumber sandwich with dill and cream cheese? Don’t mind if I do. After the first wave of my cooking frenzy quieted, I sliced and shredded portions for the freezer so I have quick side dishes for future dinners and ingredients ready for more quickbread. My daughter’s day care provider was thrilled to have a bounty of grape tomatoes for the kiddos and my coworkers were not shy about taking the rest. Not a single veg was wasted and many, many mouths were fed with a single $10 bill. Granted, I had to put in some effort and it’s not something I have time for every weekend, but it made a big difference and it was well worth my investment.

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Food Co-Op: Bountiful Baskets
I remember back in 2008 when a colleague at work told me about her friend who got a big laundry basket full of fresh produce from Bountiful Baskets for only fifteen dollars. I remember thinking she was probably messing with me or there had to be some kind of a catch. We gathered around the website reading every detail and trying to figure out how to do it and whether there were strings attached. It sounded too good to be true. In the end we decided to gamble the fifteen bucks and give it a try. Fortunately for us it was NOT a scam and I was so pleasantly surprised that I began participating every other week. For a while, I even volunteered and helped to establish a new pick-up site in a local park. Now, I’m very fortunate to work for a company that participates in Bountiful Baskets Corporate Sites so my veggies and fruits get delivered right to work every other Thursday.

Bountiful Baskets is a food co-op, which means that people from all over the community contribute money online to the bulk-purchase of hundreds of pallets of food direct from the distributor. The organizers work with the produce house to get the best deals possible and arrange for trucks to deliver the produce to local parks, churches or other pre-designated meeting places. From there, neighborhood volunteers work together to distribute the produce into equal shares. Volunteer Site Coordinators then check participants off of the list as they come to pick up their shares of the bulk purchase. Over the years, the process has become much smoother. In the past, food always had to be distributed into baskets onsite but now some sites enjoy pre-packed boxes. The organization has grown significantly, too. There used to only be sites in Maricopa County, AZ but now several states have Bountiful Baskets.

The online contribution form has the choice of conventionally grown produce for $15 or a slightly smaller box of organically grown fruits and vegetables for $25. Participants can add extras like breads, tortillas, granola, cookies or specialty packs of extra veggies for a small additional fee.

My experience with Bountiful Baskets has always been more good than bad. I’ve found mixed reviews online and generally those fall into two groups: people who don’t like not being able to pick out their own veggies and concerns about the quality of the food. I see not being able to choose my own veggies as an adventure and I like that it pushes me to try new stuff or share something I don’t want with others (for example, eggplant lovers) who will use it. Occasionally I’ll get a box that’s kind of boring to me, but I feel like more often than not I get a good variety. For Arizonans, the things you find in your basket usually correspond pretty closely to what’s on the front of the Sprouts sale flyer. As for the quality complaints, sometimes I get a few items that are over or underripe but I just use them in the order they’re going to ripen and I chalk it up to being a natural part of the co-operative buying thing.

What’s your experience with alternative food buying? Have you ever participated in a co-op or food rescue operation? Do you think you might like to try it? Continue the conversation in the comments below. We always love to hear what you think!

Eat More Veggies: Waste Not, Want Not

Monday, March 10th, 2014

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Most people know there are health benefits to be gained from eating more fruits and veggies, but sometimes life gets in the way – we don’t feel like shopping, we’re too tired to cook after work or, for millions of Americans, tight household budgets mean a struggle to afford healthy food. How we feel, how we look, and most importantly, how well our bodies work depends on the kind of fuel we consume. Even though we know we should eat more plant-based food, there are a great many factors that go into the decisions we make about food each day. Sometimes we have noble intentions but lack follow-through. It happens to everyone – you stock up on Sunday for a week of healthy eating but you decide to have leftovers Monday night, the kids beg for pizza Tuesday night, Wednesday you work late and eat Cheerios for dinner, so by Thursday the crisper drawer is still chock-full. Except now there’s nothing “crisp” about the contents. The drawer in your fridge has become the place where produce goes to die.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans threw more than 36 million tons of food into landfills in 2011. In fact, food waste has increased dramatically over the last three decades and that disturbing trend isn’t slowing. Meanwhile, food prices continue to rise and we can expect another 2.5% – 3.5% price increase in 2014 according to the US Department of Agriculture.

We have tremendous power to improve the way we eat, reduce the amount of food we waste, and save a significant portion of our grocery budget with a small investment of time and energy. These are my top tips for making the most of the food you buy:

FIFO – First In, First Out
When you bring home groceries, be sure to put them away so that you see the oldest stuff first. This way you rotate your stock and perfectly good food doesn’t language on your pantry shelf or in your crisper drawer. For many families it helps to put ripe or close-dated food at the front and center of the fridge so it’s easy to grab and doesn’t get wasted.

Don’t Throw Away Good Stuff
Sometimes I don’t follow my own FIFO advice and I’ll find a bit of something that’s been hanging around beyond its “Sell By” date. I used to automatically hit the trash can with that food, but now I take a moment and sniff then taste first. Dates on products can mean lots of things: “sell by”, “use by”, “expires”, “freshness guaranteed by”, or even “we have to put a date on this package but it doesn’t mean anything but here’s our best guess”. Much of the food we buy is safe beyond the package date. Of course, I am not advocating eating rotten food, but am saying to use common sense and trust yourself. If the food smells OK, looks OK and you’re comfortable doing so, give it a taste and you may be pleasantly surprised. When in doubt, throw it out.

Shop Smart
There are several smart ways to get more fresh, high-quality food at affordable prices if you search a bit. I started with a Google search “find cheap veggies in Phoenix” and sure enough, most of my favorite spots were listed in the results. You can tailor the search to your community and find similar results. Nationwide there are some good leads on LocalHarvest.org, but they’re not always the most up-to-date so you’ll want to do some additional recon before heading out to a market listed there. Fellow Arizonans, be sure to check out FillYourPlate.org, and ArizonaFarmersMarkets.com for even more options.

Later this week I will share some ways to shop smart to get more high-quality fruits and veggies without blowing your food budget. I look forward to hearing your ideas, too. Do you have any clever tips for reducing food waste? Ideas for what to do with leftover veggies? Delectable veggie recipes or suggestions for meatless meals? Keep the conversation going by commenting below!

Birthday Freebie Scavenger Hunt

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

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I love bargains. It is so fun to find a great deal and know you got the best price possible. I credit this love, at least in part, to my Aunt Cathy who is the ultimate shopper. She finds amazing deals at pennies on the dollar. We love to play “Guess The Price”, which is our made-up game where one displays an item purchased at a discount and the other tries to guess the price. The better the bargain, the more we squeal and applaud. I’ve seen her pay as little as 2% of the original value. Whenever I find a great deal, I like to call her to get her bargain shopper seal of approval. If Aunt Cathy is impressed by a buy, I know I truly scored.

My favorite day for bargains is my birthday. Every year I go on a little scavenger hunt to find all the birthday freebies I can. It requires some advance planning and a little strategy but if you are willing to do a few things in advance you can score some sweet freebies for your birthday too.

* Step 1: Create a “junk” email account. I use my Yahoo mail for this because you can set up filters and the search feature works pretty well.
* Step 2: Go to your favorite retailers’ websites and see if there’s an e-club, newsletter or mailing list you can join. Hit up sites like freebirthdaystuff.com to learn about more deals and sign up for your e-mail coupons before your birthday.
* Step 3: Create filters in your email account so that all emails from retailers go into a sub-folder. This way you can check periodically to see what deals are out there but your inbox won’t be overrun with spam.
* Step 4: A week before your birthday (but after the 1st of your birthday month) search your Retailers folder for your birthday offers. Often you’ll have to print out a coupon to redeem an offer.
* Step 5: Strategize your plan of attack. Some offers have to be used on your birthday. Other offers don’t expire for a week or two. Once I have everything printed out, I like to sort by expiration date and value. Free product trumps free food. No strings attached deals beat buy-one-get-one coupons.

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Here’s a little glimpse at the offers I received this year. I haven’t redeemed all of them yet and I will probably skip a few for the sake of healthy nutrition, but it’s nice to have options. And free breakfast.

* Denny’s – Free Grand Slam (Birthday Only, no pre-registration required)
* Danny’s Family Car Wash – – Free Car Wash (Birthday Only)
* Jersey Mike’s Subs – – Free sandwich and 22 oz soda (Birthday Only)
* ULTA Beauty – Free CK One mascara, black – $18 value
* World Market – Certificate for $10 off (no minimum purchase)
* First Watch – Free entrée (no purchase necessary)
* IHOP – Free Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity Breakfast (no purchase necessary)
* Cinnabon – Free MochaLatta Chill (no purchase necessary)
* Buca di Beppo – Free Brownie Sundae (no purchase necessary)
* Einstein Bros Bagels – Free Breakfast Sandwich when you buy any drink
* Cold Stone Creamery – Buy-One-Get-One Creation
* Dairy Queen – Buy-One-Get-One Medium Blizzard
* Zoe’s Kitchen – Buy-One-Get-One Entrée
* Sweet Tomatoes – 20% off your entire check
* Payless Shoes – 25% off your purchase, no exclusions

Hopefully my technique helps you find a few bargains of your own for your birthday this year. If you try it, please let us know what sweet deals you scored for your big day.

Refreshing Vintage: Chair Makeover

Friday, November 8th, 2013

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In the past few years, an increased demand for vintage has left prices up and inventory down. It’s harder to find that diamond in the rough. So, when I found this chair for less than twenty dollars, I was excited. It reminded me of the Circle Chair designed by Tony Paul.

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The chair was in rough shape, the seat had been poorly recovered, one of the legs was missing a cap and the paint was chippy. When you find a piece of vintage furniture with great bones, be sure to consider the added cost of materials if you plan to give it a makeover. This can quickly drive up the price. With some vintage inspired fabric and a poppy paint color, I knew that it would be a cheap and easy refresh.

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I searched Etsy for weeks looking for the perfect fabric but came up empty- handed. With all of it’s thousands of listings, the site can provide too many options making it hard for me to choose. (Am I the only one with this problem?!) I’d been searching for something in vinyl or oilcloth so that it would be durable. Thank goodness for my crafting stash; I found the perfect fabric buried in a pile of fabrics I’d purchased for my art space makeover.

I prepped the chair for paint by removing the seat and wiping it with a wet rag to remove years of dirt and debris. Next, I used a piece of steel wool to roughen up the surface and remove the shine. I sprayed the chair in Oatlands Daisy from Valspar’s Color Radiance line.

Next, I removed the black vinyl seat cover and used the remnant as a template to cut the new seat cover. I covered the seat with the new fabric and secured it with staples. The new fabric that I’d selected was a simple cotton quilting fabric, for added durability I chose to cover it with a layer of clear gloss vinyl. Finally, I let the paint cure overnight and reattached the seat cover.

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I’m in love with my new chair! I spent less than twenty dollars on materials and put in about two hours worth of work. It just goes to show that with patience, a little digging and the willingness to invest some elbow grease you can still get great vintage at a great price!