Better Grocery Budgeting While on CalFresh in California

There are many ways a CalFresh beneficiary can save money in different aspects of the food acquiring process. You may have heard of some of these ways, but odds are some of these strategies will be new for you. Take a look at the following sections and get a jump on being an effective and knowledgeable food budgeter:
•    Your basic soups, stews, and herbs
•    Buy in bulk and buy in season
•    Demystify nutrition facts
•    Farmers’ Markets
•    At the food pantry
•    Planning and budgeting

Your Basic Soups, Stews, and Herbs

Somebody once said, “I never follow recipes – I prefer to just cook with what I have.” A basic soup or stew has the advantage of being nourishing, inexpensive, and flexible. They can be great dishes to cook using what you already have on hand. Just about any vegetable, including frozen and canned, can be tossed into a soup or stew, and it will make it taste better. They can also be made to last for many meals—just add water or broth to make more. Also, use the cheaper cuts of meats for soups and stews since they become tender when cooked for a long time. Soups also freeze well. If you make a large pot and freeze the leftovers, you can defrost them later. Try adding a hearty grain to your soup to make it more filling. Barley and brown rice go well with soups.

Ever tried growing herbs at home? You can plant them in small pots and keep them near a window. Find a seedling to plant at home from either a hardware store or a nursery. Also, many neighborhoods have community gardens.

Buy in Bulk and Buy in Season

Buying goods in bulk is a good way to save money and try new foods. Choose a food you like and write the number of the bulk bin on the bag tie provided by the store. Fill the bag slowly and use scales if need be. Then close the bag with a tie.

Buying produce in season is cheaper, healthier, and environmentally sound. Search for fruits and vegetables that have lower prices and are readily available. Choose frozen varieties for out-of-season fruits and vegetables. They are packaged when they are ripe and have all the nutrition of fresh produce. Always use vegetables that are in season in the recipes, even if that means replacing the vegetables in the original  version.

Choose water, nuts, and fruits over sugary drinks, chips, and cookies. Buying dry fruits and nuts in bulk saves money, and are more nutritionally dense than sugary options. Pro tip: shop on the day fruit and produce is delivered to the store. Another clever way to stretch out a meal is to use half the seasoning packet of ramen and add some frozen vegetables when you add hot water to the noodles.

Many foods (especially canned foods) are safe to eat beyond the expiration dates printed on their packaging. However, do not eat packages which are severely damaged, smell, or look funny. 

Demystify Nutrition Facts

Do not try to take in all the nutrition numbers, as they can be overwhelming or confusing. Focusing on a just a few of them can help you take in the most nutrition without wracking your brain. Here are some helpful rules to follow:
• Check the number of servings you are eating. People tend to eat a whole can or package without realizing there are several servings within.
• Added salt results in a high sodium content. People with high blood pressure should limit sodium to 500 mg per meal or 1500 mg per day.
• Go for fiber. Women should eat at least 21 grams of fiber each day and men should eat at least 30 grams per day.
• Sugar sneaks into foods we would not suspect to find it, like bread. Divide the number of grams of sugar by 4 to see how many teaspoons per serving you are eating.
• Avoid trans-fat whenever possible. Some labels may say 0 grams per serving but may still have small amounts (less than 1 gram per serving). Check the ingredient list for “partially hydrogenated oil.” If it is on the list, the product has trans-fat in it.

Farmers’ Markets

Farmers’ Markets are a fantastic way to stock up on fresh, local, and affordable produce each week. If your neighborhood has one, why not go by weekly? This is a good way to save money by buying produce that is in season. With regard to CalFresh, many farmers’ markets accept EBT cards—some even give extra money for purchasing vegetables and fruit! Also, the consumer can get some good deals at the end of a farmers’ market because many farmers do not want to leave with unsold product.

At the Food Pantry

For starters, pantry food is safe to eat. Use canned soup and packages of noodles, rice, or pasta to start a great meal, then add vegetables to augment nutrition. Add water to fruit juice to reduce its sugar content. If a packaged meal comes with a flavoring packet, use only half of it to reduce the amount sodium you’ll be taking in. Add yogurt and fruit to breakfast cereal to complete a nutritious breakfast. Rinse canned beans, vegetables, and fruit to reduce the added salt and sugar. 

Ask local pantry volunteers for help in identifying new foods and recipes using unfamiliar ingredients. If a food pantry offers a cooking demonstration or nutrition education classes, take advantage of them. Unfamiliar foods are likely similar to something you already know how to prepare, but may offer better nutrition at lower costs. 

Planning and Budgeting

The making of a budget will help you spend your money wisely. Keep track of your grocery receipts to become familiar with food prices. Use these food prices to make a grocery list and meal plan. Knowing what you spend your money on will reduce impulse buying, which usually results in purchasing fewer nonessential and unhealthy items. Buying fresh ingredients and making meals at home costs less than packaged and prepared products. Try doubling or tripling a recipe and use leftovers in different ways throughout the week. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers immediately after the meal so nothing goes to waste. Or, cook large amounts over the weekend and reheat throughout the week. 

Planning meals ahead of time also saves money and time, and encourages healthier shopping. Decide which recipes you would like to cook for several meals. Inventory your refrigerator and food shelves. Sort your grocery list according to the type of food: produce, meat, dairy, and dry goods. Buy produce that can be added to many different meals so that the leftovers from one recipe will not go to waste. Generic products are a good choice because they are often identical to brand name products in everything but price. Check the unit prices to see which items are less expensive and teach your children the value of nutrition by showing them all these strategies!