Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Frugal Living 2: Food Frugality

In an online "discussion" (link) on taxes, food stamps, "fair share", government spending, and other semi-related things that typically get brought up in such "discussions", I came across someone making the statement that Eating fresh, healthy, unprocessed food is expensive and a luxury.

It does nott matter if you fall to the left, right, or centre when it comes to fiscal matters; that someone would make (and believe) such a statement is wrong on many levels. Including in those levels the fact that government subsidies (such as those for corn) has driven the cost of "junk food" well below where it should be. Further, people have forgotten how easy it is to grow "fresh, healthy unprocessed food", and even if you include the cost of preserving it for later use, it is still far more inexpensive to grow and store your own food than it is to purchase it from the store; at least for the items you can produce on your own.

In this article, Part 2 in my Frugal Living series, I will go over Food Frugality. Everyone eats. Most folks eat every day, multiple times each day. Food is one of the most important things we have to deal with. One of our most constant expenses. But it does not have to be among our largest expenses. Further, reducing the cost of your food can actually -increase- its nutritional value. If, right now, you pay a certain amount for your food expenses, reducing those expenses by half can either be viewed as "spending less", "saving", or some combination of the two. Most likely, it will shift over time from "saving" to "spending less". Some of the items I will touch on here might even be revenue generating, shifting "saving" and "spending less" to "earning".

Depending on how in depth you want to go, there are various obstacles to Food Frugality, and I will cover these first, to get your objections out of the way. Following that, I will touch on various preservation methods so that you can enjoy quality food for less than preprocessed food from the store, regardless of if that food or ingredients are something you produced or purchased. Finally, I will cover various ways to produce your own food, something I feel everyone should do at least a bit.


Before we get into external obstacles, I would like to touch on the biggest obstacle to Food Frugality, you. You, yourself, are the biggest obstacle to reducing your food costs. You are comfortable in how you do things now. You have an inertia that may be difficult to overcome to make changes in your lifestyle. Thankfully, Food Frugality is not an all or nothing activity. You can take baby steps, building momentum as you go. You might start off with something simple, and soon enough find yourself wanting to do something more extensive. The best part is, once you get going, Food Frugality is addictive, and in a good way. So find something below you would like to try. Something small, just to get your feet wet, and when you are comfortable, try something else, and keep going.

Now that we have touched on the internal obstacle, we can go over some of the common external obstacles. These typically fall in one of three categories:

  • Space — You do not have enough room to do
  • Code — Government code prevents you from doing
  • Expense — You can not afford the equipment/supplies/time to do


This is a fairly legitimate concern, but one easily overcome by limiting what it is you wish to do. For instance, if you live in an apartment, it is likely not feasible to grow a full garden; however, you can, at the least, do some container gardening. No space for a compost pile? Do container composting or try vermicomposting.

Storage space is also sometimes a limiting factor, and for this, I recommend getting creative. We do a lot of our storage in "under the bed" boxes.


Sadly, in a number of places, even within theses united States, the governments are shifting away from protecting the safety and rights of the citizenry toward protecting appearance and remaining in power. Even as I was writing this, an article was brought to my attention about a Front Yard Garden in Orlando, FL under attack by the City of Orlando, who is disallowing the garden (link) because it might lower property values (link).

Some of these codes and regulations are for legitimate reasons, for example, keeping too many animals in too confined an area poses a health risk not only to the animals, but to any neighbours.

I do not advocate violating local laws (even bad ones), but instead fighting them and seeking to repeal or alter them into something more reasonable.

The same is true for renters with landlords who prohibit certain things: talk with them and see if you can come to some arrangement.

As always, you can get creative, see if you can do your activities elsewhere where they would be allowed, and in the meanwhile, do what you can, and seek to change things so that you can do more.


This is one I heard a lot (especially from myself) and still hear from others. "I'd love to do that, but I just can't afford to do it", or "I just don't have the time to do it." Most of the time, this is not an actual external obstacle, just a perceived one projected by the inertia of your own internal obstacle.

Food production and preservation does take time, but not as much as I once thought. For instance, the last time I made my Spaghetti Meat Sauce (remember, I make a double batch when I make it), instead of eating it meal after meal until the sauce was gone (and we get burnt out on spaghetti for a while), we ate what we wanted that night, then after supper, we pressure canned the rest into different sized jars (for easy portioning). This meant we were able to spread out our consumption of the same sauce and it was as easy as pulling a jar from the pantry, dumping the contents into a pot (or bowl) and heating it back up. It tastes just as good as that first night. It may have taken a bit of extra time that first night to sanitise the jars (sanitise setting on the dishwasher), jar it up, and pressure can it. But it saved us more than that time in convenience when we want to have spaghetti again.

The other kind of expense is the financial one. Some things, like canning, have upfront and recurring expenses. Other things, like container gardening, can only have upfront expenses. And while these are expenses, they typically pay themselves off in a very short amount of time, and that time gets shorter as the cost of store food increases.

The point is, if you decide you want to do something that has some upfront expenses, it's worth it to save up and just get it. If you don't think you have the time, that's probably just your inertia/normalcy bias making excuses.

Food Preservation

I'm covering Food Preservation next because this is something you can do, even if you purchase all your food from elsewhere. I'm only going to give a rough summary here, as there are plenty of sources on the internet for food preservation (pickyourown.org is an excellent resource, and has a wonderful food preservation section).

The great thing about preservation is that it allows you to save quality food from when it is in season and inexpensive for use anytime throughout the year. A few generations ago, this wasn't "frugal living" or "preparedness" (though it does server both those purposes), it was simply "common sense" and an everyday activity.

The three basic types of preservation are canning (both water-bath and pressure canning), freezing, and dehydration.


We'll start with freezing, as you likely already have everything you need to freeze fresh fruits and vegetables, especially small pieces. The first thing I ever learned to freeze was blueberries. Why? My grandmother had a nice long row of blueberry bushes in her backyard, and blueberries are great for freezing. The steps here are pretty much the same for most thing you want to freeze preserve.

  1. Rinse the berries (some foods, vegetables especially, may require blanching and cutting)
  2. Blot them all dry and spread out in a single layer on a cookie sheet (do your best to avoid the berries/pieces touching eachother)
  3. Place the cookie sheet in the freezer for a short while (30min to an hour, just enough for the outsides to freeze, the insides will not yet be frozen), this pre-freezing will prevent everything from freezing into one big mass
  4. Empty the contents of the cookie sheet into a freezer safe plastic bag and leave it in the freezer.

Blueberries like this are perfect for jams, jellies, pies, and by themselves (frozen blueberries are a damned good snack).

As you can see, the monetary investment in this form of food preservation is minimal, making it an ideal starting point for those looking to live their life more frugal with a minimal investment.


The next major preservation technique I'm going to cover is dehydration, which, sadly, I only have a little experience with. I have dehydrated herbs from my herb garden for later use by tying up bundles and hanging them to dry in a cool dark place (pantry). This is the most simple and traditional form of this method. Recently, I purchased a second hand electric dehydrator for $4 from a local thrift store (great place to look for "obscure" kitchen equipment, often used only once, if that, as it was usually acquired as a gift, and the recipient had no idea how or desire to use it). I will be trying out the dehydrator next season to dry various fruits and vegetables.

Once dried, fruits, vegetables, and herbs can be stored in sealed plastic bags or jars, and stored in the pantry for quite some time.


Ahh, canning, the number one thing that comes to mind when people think about food preservation. This is the one method that will have upfront and recurring costs, but they are not that great, and many items are reusable (the one exception being the lids for the jars; they may be reused as lids for dehydrated food, held on by jar rings, but once used for canning, they should not be reused for canning again - but don't worry, they're fairly cheap).

What can you can? Almost any liquid (broths, stocks, etc), semi-liquid (jellies, jams, etc), or items submersed in a liquid or semi-liquid (pickles in brine, stew, chutney, sauces, meat in broth, etc). Now, what you want to can determines the type of canning that needs to be done. Some foods do fine with water-bath canning (pickles, jams, jellies, apple butter), others, especially anything with meat, require pressure canning (such as my meat sauce I mentioned earlier).

Equipment for water-bath canning is less expensive, but can only do so much. Pressure canners cost a bit more, but can pressure can, water-bath can, and (if you get one that isn't aluminium) serve as a very large pressure cooker.

For all canning you will need jars. The most common brand being Ball, which can be found in just about any grocery store. When you purchase jars, they typically come with lids and rings to hold the lids on. Lids and Rings & Lids can also be purchased separately. The rings and jars are both re-useable, but, as stated above, the lids should only be used for canning once.

In theory, the rings may be removed after canning and the jars are sealed, so they may be used again with different jars. In practice though, almost everyone I know stores their jars with the rings on. Gives them away with the rings on, etc. I believe this is mostly because they don't have anywhere else to put the rings, and leaving them on the jars doesn't hurt anything.

Canning, via either method is mostly about cleanliness and following directions. Sanitise the surfaces that may come in contact with the food (most modern dishwashers have a sanitise option), lids can be kept in a shallow pan of simmering water while canning until actually placed on the jars. When loading jars, air bubbles are bad, do your best to minimise them. Leave proper headspace (empty area at the top of the jar) for what you are canning. And use the proper method, timing, and, if pressure canning, weight/pressure as describe in the recipe.

One of the great things about canning is that it not only keeps a long while, but it can make for a wonderful gift, or sellable product – though you may have to consult local laws if you wish to sell what you can.

Food Production

Finally, we reach the Food Production section of this article. I am only going to hit some highlights here as growing your own food can be done in many different ways and is often dependant upon your local climate, amount of space, and local laws and regulations.

For instance, when we first started growing my own food, we lived in an apartment, so we picked up some half barrels and did container gardening on the porch. We've since moved into a house, but as our landlady will not allow us to put in a garden, we're still growing out of those same barrels (well, 2 of them, one has fallen apart, and we always keep one for compost production). If I could, and once I get a house, will, I will put in a larger garden, and, if not prohibited by law or regulation, raise some chickens for eggs and meat.

So, where to start? There are lots of places you can start, the simplest being container gardening. If you find yourself really enjoying food production, I can't recommend enough Marjory Wildcraft's Grow Your Own Groceries DVD. It is full of useful information for any level of personal food production.

Container Gardens

Grab a pot, barrel, or other plant-ready container, add soil, add seed or seedlings, add water and keep it moist, wait, harvest. That's the extreme basics. What do you grow? Well, what do you eat that can grow in your area? Start with that. For your first forays into container gardening, keep different plants in different containers until you learn what plants work well together, and which ones don't.

I also recommend high density/intensive gardening, even with non-container gardening. When it comes to container gardening (or raised-bed gardening), a good starting place is Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening. The basics of which are divide the surface of your containers into 1'x1' squares, and plant one type of plant in each square. This is a systemised way to maximise variety and production for a given container.

Yard Gardens

This section covers any type of garden where the plants have access to the earth beneath your feet, be it an in-ground garden, or a raised bed. Here, I once again recommend the Square Foot Gardening method to beginners, but there are plenty of other methods, including traditional row gardens.

The best thing about gardening is the expense. For a few cents, you can get seeds to grow your own food, bring the cost of your vegetables and fruits from whatever you pay not to just pennies, if that, + time and a bit of effort. In addition, the food you produce in your own garden is more fresh and more nutritious than anything you will find in the store. The biggest difference, I believe is in tomatoes. I grew up eating tomatoes from the garden, I can't stand store-bought tomatoes, the don't taste like anything, but garden fresh tomatoes are full of flavour and nutrients. Another big difference is the variety of what you can grow. You will be amazed at the different fruits and vegetables available to the home gardener that you can not find at the supermarket because of reasons of practicality in distribution and shipping.

Fruit Trees & Vines

In addition to fresh vegetables, the home gardener can also grow fresh fruit, with varieties dependant upon local climate (and even those numbers can be fudged a bit). Some fruits require both male and female plants to produce, others are self-pollenating. Some fruits grow on trees, others on vines, still others in bushes or canes. What fruits do you enjoy? Plant some in your yard. It may take a few years to produce, but once it does, you'll have so much you'll be giving it away (and perhaps selling it).

A Word on Compost

The more nutrient dense the soil, the better the plant, the better the fruit. All plants (and plant-systems) benefit from compost. Compost is easy to make, and allows you to do something with all those scraps and weeds. It makes for a great baby step for getting started with food frugality. Even if you aren't growing anything yet, you can still put all your vegetable waste to use producing compost (in which you can grow your food later). You can make compost in a dedicated composting device, a container (such as the half barrel we use currently), a pile in the back yard away from the house, or even in a clean vermicomposting bin under the sink in an apartment.

Don't toss your vegetable waste or coffee grounds in the trash, that's like throwing away money. Compost it, and and use it to grow your own food.

A word on Beekeeping

The first animal I will cover in this Food Production section is a tiny insect, and not good for eating. However, this insect, the Honeybee, provides so much for you, once you get some you'll wonder how you ever did without. The first thing people think of when they think of honeybees is honey, followed by beeswax, however, both of these are secondary products of the bee. The biggest gain you'll get from the bee will be increased fruit and vegetable yields from the pollination service provided by the bees as they go through their daily routines. Honey is a wonderful by-product, and beeswax is so very useful, but your fruiting plants will gain the biggest benefit.


This particular article is getting quite long, and should probably be split into different articles, but I wanted to cover one last aspect of food production: protein. This is probably the most legally prohibited area of food production. But if you can have them, animals produce a far more nutrient dense food than plants. Animals can do something wonderful that we can not. They can take the energy from things we can't or don't wish to eat (plants like grass and woody shrubs, or invertebrates like insects and slugs) and convert it into a form we can: protein, in the form of meat or eggs.

If you can, raise some hens for eggs, and give them plenty of room to move around, don't confine them like the factory farms. The more space you give them per animal, the less supplemental feed you have to provide. Once you get comfortable with chickens, feel free to try your hand at larger livestock (goats, sheep, cows, etc), but don't get in over your head, it's very easy to try too much at once.


Rising in the Food Production scene is Aquaponics. A combination of Aquaculture (fish production) and Hydroponics (soilless plant production). Aquaponics uses the hydroponics component as a filter for the aquaculture component. In other words, you flush the water from your fish tank through the growbeds and the plants take up all the nutrients in the "dirty" water, returning "clean" water to the fish. This can be a closed system producing both vegetable matter and protein.

Final Word

Eating fresh, healthy, unprocessed food does not need to be expensive, nor a "luxury". It is something anyone can do, all it takes is a bit of time, and a bit of effort, and some quickly acquired skill. The more of your own food you produce, the less money you are spending of inferior food from other sources, and the more independent you become.

Grow Forth, and Live.

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