In the span of two weeks I saw the price of lotus root go from $ 5 a pound to $ 7.
To which my dad scoffed. When Grandma was still alive you couldn’t convince her to pay more than $ 2 for it, she said.
The costs of groceries have gone up for everyone, while supermarkets are seeing increased profits.
I was tapped to offer some tips for shaving a few dollars off grocery bills, but of course some Band-Aid tips from the Star’s resident food reporter aren’t going to get to the root of the problem.
As Paul Taylor, executive director of FoodShare Toronto, told the Star it’s more important to look at systemic issues that make people unable to afford food to begin with.
Taylor brings up low wages, the lack of affordable housing and reliable public transportation, and traditionally low-cost food businesses being priced out of gentrifying neighborhoods as issues that need to be addressed when talking about increasing food costs.
“Obviously everyone wants to save a buck or two, but we’re unwilling to have conversations about how wages are largely unlivable,” Taylor said.
Though these tips won’t solve everyone’s problem with rising grocery costs, I’ve compiled some ways to help you through until sweeping changes are made to long-existing issues like housing, wages and transportation.
Store produce properly
Anyone else noticed that the quality of produce has gone down lately? (In one Reddit form alone that I came across there were more than 1,000 comments about it since March). We’re still feeling the effects of shipping delays, workplace COVID outbreaks and labor shortage in our food systems.
So, what to do when produce has a shorter shelf life?
Freezing is one solution.
Sweet peppers were on sale last summer ($ 3 for a bag of six, I always remember a good deal) so I bought a few bags, washed and sliced them up and stored them in resealable bags (which I also reuse) in the freezer to last me until the following March.
Sure, when defrosted they go limp but they’re perfectly fine when sautéed (same with leafy greens, if they’re too limp to go in a salad, just cook them). Aromatics like ginger and chilies also freeze well, perfect if you’re not using a lot of them at once.
Leafy herbs such as parsley and dill will last at least a week longer when placed upright in a cup with about an inch of water and covered with a plastic bag in the fridge (remove the twist ties or elastic bands they’re sold in). You can also freeze them too. Heartier herbs like rosemary will do better when wrapped in a paper towel and kept in a resealable bag.
Think of recipes that would use a lot of herbs in one go (tabbouleh for parsley, potato salad for dill) so they don’t go bad before you can eat them.
Limp kale and leafy greens can be revitalized by soaking in icy water. Ripe fruits like avocados can be extended by another day or two when kept in the fridge (store a sliced avocado in water to prevent oxidization). And bananas and apples should be stored separately because they emit ethylene that speeds up the ripening process of other produce.
Weigh the cost and benefits
The cost of say, a bag of chips might be cheaper at a grocer on the other side of town, but when you factor in the time spent traveling or the money used for gas or transit, is it really worth it?
I happened to be in downtown Chinatown one weekend and saw that the price of red peppers was $ 1.70 a pound, much less than the big supermarkets where I live. But I don’t know if I would make a two-hour round trip on the subway just for that.
There’s also conventional wisdom that buying in bulk is cheaper (note the price per gram listed under the price on store shelves), but it’s not going to be much use if the food is going to go bad before it’s eaten.
Weigh out what’s the best use of your time and energy. Buying more doesn’t always mean saving money if it ends up in the trash.
Be flexible with recipes
I’m of two minds when it comes to how prepared you need to be when heading to the grocery store.
I definitely take stock of what I already have to prevent unnecessary purchases, and tailor a meal around, say, a bag of dried pasta I already have or some greens about to wilt.
But I also scan what’s on special at the supermarket that day or on the markdown shelf, and improve what to cook using that (when in doubt, stir-fry it or turn it into soup).
A few weeks ago I needed bell peppers, but seeing the $ 7.50 for two price tag led me to use radishes instead (a bunch for $ 2 and change). I got the same peppery crunch I wanted in a salad for less.
Learning to be more flexible when cooking is a big help, rather than shopping from a rigid list that doesn’t take into account what’s on sale or in season. It’s also why I prefer shopping in person: if I see there’s a bag of arugula on sale, I’ll grab that instead of the spinach on my list.
My mom may still not be able to understand email, but she’s prolific when it comes to WhatsApp groups. She has multiple group chats with friends and family focused on spotting and sharing food deals.
When someone sees that there’s a good price on oil, rice or greens, they alert the group and ask who wants in, thus saving the other people time (and gas money) from going themselves. At least once a week, my mom will drop off groceries at her sister’s place, and vice versa.
Pre-pandemic, when I worked at the Star office, one of my coworkers and I would always keep each other posted on any deals we saw at nearby Loblaws. Fifty-cent squirt bottles of Mio and dollar post-Easter candy? Yes please. To be honest, it’s also a good way to talk about stuff outside of work.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
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