Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Tightrope walking between health and budget

With me, it's all or nothing, to steal a phrase from Oklahoma. I have a tendency not to do things by halves, whether that's celebrity crushes or self-help fads. One minute you'll find me virtually stalking Sean Bean and trying to connect with the Goddess within me, the next minute I lose all interest and start working out how to go "off-grid". To strike a balance and take things one step at a time is not something which comes easily to me. It's probably a good job I'm not a tight-rope walker. 

However, one aspect of life which remains constant, whether I'm considering taking up fencing or giving up alcohol, is grocery shopping. Anne Simpson's Grocery Budget Toolbox ($4.99, available here) is a great way of achieving balance in the twin challenges of staying in budget and feeding our families healthily. The main aim of this e-book is to help readers buy as much healthy food as they can, without feeling they have to get a second mortgage out to fund a weekly organic grocery box delivery.

The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen
Although most of us know that the healthiest produce tends to be organic, fresh and local, many of us can't afford groceries under those headings. Simpson lists the "Dirty Dozen" (produce we are well-advised to buy organic if at all possible) and the "Clean Fifteen" (produce which tends to absorb fewer pesticides in any case, so is less of a priority in terms of picking organic.) This, and her tips for making meat go further and opting for wholegrains, is an excellent start to keeping our menus healthy and cheap. I particularly like "Things to cross off your grocery list forever" which identifies a number of items which are bad news health-wise or budget-wise, including juice and cold cereal.

Price Book and printables
For me, the concept of a price book has been superseded by shopping online via MySupermarket, but Simpson covers this approach (and setting up a budget in the first place) in helpful detail for those who want to try it. She also provides a number of relevant printables at the end of the book and a large section of weblinks pertinent to each of the nine chapters.

Price Caps
The practice of Once a Month shopping is intriguing and I can see the benefits of it, especially for people who live in rural areas. Couponing is a section more relevant to American readers than British, but Simpson's idea of fixing price caps would be universally useful to anyone trying to cut their supermarket bills. "A price cap", she explains, "is simply the most you are willing to pay for a given item. Using your knowledge of regular prices, combined with your observations regarding frequent sale prices, you can come up with a price cap for every category of groceries that you purchase on a regular basis." I have already started to do this on some products: I will not pay more than £4 for a jumbo jar of Marmite, for example. 

Farmers' markets have always seemed to be out of my league, money-wise, but Simpson's advice about how to get good deals has encouraged me to support my local farmers' market more frequently. Attending late in the day, for instance, is a good way to get top quality, local, fresh produce at reduced prices. 

DIY food
I am also determined to have a go at the recipes for DIY food. Even creme fraiche can be made at home, and Simpson's ideas for what to do with stale bread, odds and ends of fruit and veg, and so on, can be adopted by all of us. While there are tips that go back at least one generation - such as that egg whites can be frozen, for example (who knew?) - Simpson does not shy away from modern life and includes a whole chapter on saving money in the internet age. 

A new Mantra for 2013
The Grocery Budget Toolbox is a superb way to get into the habit of cutting down grocery bills without cutting healthy food out of our menu plans. Taken all at once it could be overwhelming, but follow the author's advice to make changes little by little and soon the mantra "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" will become second nature. 
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