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How we frugally shop for groceries with 0 food waste (and without eating beans!)

How we frugally shop for groceries with 0 food waste (and without eating beans!)

Eating frugally for those of us who hate beans

I’m fortunate that we are a 2 person household with no picky eaters (except for my aversion to beans and rice). We can adjust what we cook and what we eat based on what’s on sale when/where we do our twice a month grocery run. We also only buy certain foods when it is in season and at its cheapest and freshest. That means lots of fresh veggies and salads during spring/summer, stone fruits, melons, and berries in the summer, and lots of root vegetables, stews, baking, pasta, and curries in winter.

Our total monthly grocery and household bill for 2016-2017 ranges from $240-$310 per month for two adults. Although I have plans to be more precise each year, my adhd gets the best of me and I always forget to separate out our miscellaneous household purchases. This means that the $240-$310 also includes things like coffee from TJ’s, giant jugs of whiskey and gin from Costco, grains for our 3-8 chickens, dish soap, toilet paper, toothpaste, and shampoo. Our actual food costs are lower than the amount stated.

We don’t eat out (except for the super awesome jumbo combo pizza from Costco) so that total includes every bit of food we eat and drink for the month. Mom and I take turns cooking. She’s in charge of Chinese or Asian dishes while I’m the baker and Western cook in our family.

We supplement our meals with herbs that I grow in our indoor/patio garden. Fresh herbs and spices can make anything tasty, but spending $3 on a tiny bunch of herbs is not frugal! Herbs like rosemary, mint, and thyme can be grown from cuttings and overwinter well indoors. Basil, cilantro, and parsley will need to be seeded and replanted every year, but we let a couple plants grow old and bolt to seed every summer so we never have to buy seeds.

We also raise our own chickens so on most days breakfast comes from the eggs laid by our 3 silkie hens. Occasionally we have a meal from the young chickens that we hatch from Trader Joe’s eggs. We butcher at around 4 months old and while these chickens are not ‘meat breeds’, we do end up with a 1.5-1.75 lb. chicken which is enough meat for dinner for 2 adults plus chicken stock from the bones. It’s a bit of extra work, but we like knowing that these chickens were raised humanely and had a good life with plenty of fresh food and sunshine and playing with their flock. There’s just something awfully wrong with factory raised chickens, both in terms of taste and animal welfare, so we only eat chickens that we raise ourselves.

We’re also not the type who can eat beans and rice day in and day out. Well, my mother is, but I think beans taste like a mouthful of dirt. The only beans I like are adzuki beans or mung beans in desserts and chickpeas. None of these are very frugal options in our area, so they’re not a staple in our diet.

We try to make sure that we have one meal with meat every day. Unfortunately we are weak compared to most frugal families as we succumb to the allure of a ribeye steak or filet mignon every week. Since we’re from a coastal area in Asia, we also love things like lobster and scallops. And if it’s Alaskan king salmon season–yikes! We usually end up with a grocery bill over $300 during late summer and early fall. If we end up with a higher grocery bill one month, we’ll adjust accordingly the next month and switch to a cheaper cut like pork shoulder or beef flank instead.

While I’m a big fan of bargain hunting, it’s just not worth it when it comes to animal proteins. You really do get what you pay for and I don’t want to risk a bout of food poisoning just to save a couple dollars. As you can see, we have to save money elsewhere by bargain shopping and being on the alert for clearance sales.

How we buy fruit, vegetables, and pantry items for pounds/dollar

By keeping an eye out for super deals from our local ethnic markets and farmers’ markets, we can buy enough fresh fruit and vegetables for a month for $10-$25! Here’s how we get our fresh fruit and vegetables super cheap:

  • Ethnic markets, especially Asian and Mexican markets have super deals on produce. This is usually stock that may not look pretty enough for regular grocery stores, but it’s perfectly fine as long as you know what to look out for (look for crisp vegetables, stems on fruit, and avoid anything soggy or mushy or bruised)
  • Farmers’ markets offer the freshest seasonal produce, but they’re awfully expensive compared to regular grocery store prices. We wait until the farmers’ market is about to close. At that point, a lot of vendors are willing to unload their merchandise for a couple of dollars. We’re talking pounds and pounds of fruit for just $1-$2.
  • Keep an eye out for clearance sections in your regular grocery store. About two years ago, we noticed that one of our local grocery stores would heavily mark down things like 32 oz. tubs of yogurt to $1 when it’s within a month of the expiration date. They also had a 90% off clearance section for things like organic pasta sauce, quinoa, and flour even though the items were 8+ months from expiring. Maybe the packaging was damaged or they ran out of shelf space? Shrug. I never noticed anything wrong with the clearance items. We’ve never paid full price for these items since our discovery.

How we maintain a zero food waste household and never, ever waste any food

Despite bulk buying a lot of fresh produce, nothing goes to waste in our household. Ripe fruit gets turned into jams, preserves, sorbets, or pies. Scraps or anything that’s ‘too ripe’ for our tastes goes to the chickens as well as things like eggshells and mussel shells. Meat or vegetable scraps that the chickens won’t touch goes to feed the mealworms and crickets which ultimately get fed to the chickens.

What about the stuff that we can’t feed to the chooks? We either freeze it or preserve it. We also organize our fridge in a first in first out order so we never have to worry about finding spoiled food at the back of the fridge.

  • Yogurt – Yogurt is one of those foods that can be kept in the fridge for another month after the expiration date. It can also be frozen and thawed without any effect on texture or mouthfeel. On the other hand, DO NOT freeze/thaw sour cream or low-fat cream cheese. The results are not pretty…
  • Milk – Also freezes and thaws nicely. Just give the thawed milk a stir to redistribute the cream.
  • Butter – Our local grocery store marks down their butter about 2x each year. We stock up and buy 10-15 pounds each time. Butter freezes and thaws well.
  • Cheese – Dry and aged cheeses can be kept in the fridge for a long time. They can also be frozen without too much change in texture.
  • Onions, sweet potatoes, ginger, garlic, root vegetables – Can be stored for an additional 1-3 months if kept in a cool and dry cupboard. Ginger and garlic can be frozen, just remember to peel and/or slice them. We also make a garlic and ginger paste with oil and salt that we keep in the fridge. It’s convenient for Asian and Indian dishes and it keeps for a couple of months. Make sure to add enough salt to keep mold and bacteria from growing!
  • Vegetables like zucchini, spinach, kale, broccoli – We keep about 3-4 days worth of veg in the fridge and then wash and freeze the rest. The thawed vegetables won’t be good for salads, but you can still use them for  soups, stir-fry dishes, and things like spinach pie.
  • Cabbage, Napa cabbage – We buy about 6-8 heads at a time and keep them in the fridge. The trick is to eat the outer leaves in rotation so none of the heads begin to mold or dry out. We also make our own kimchi and sauerkraut.
  • Cucumbers – Pickle the excess.

Some vegetable scraps can be planted again. While you won’t be able to get an exact replica of the parent plant, you can eat the regrowth.

  • Get double the amount of scallions for the price of one! Leave about 1″-2″ of the white ends of your scallions. Keep the root ends in a glass of water on your windowsill. Within a week you’ll get new growth. We usually get 1-2 extra cuttings before the plant dies.
  • Don’t throw away the dry and tough ends of sweet potatoes! Plant them in soil and eat the greens like kale or spinach. They’re great in a stir-fry or soup. Don’t do this with potatoes as they’re nightshades. Sweet potatoes only! If you live in a place with a warm winter, leave the plants in the ground and you should have sweet potatoes next spring!
  • Are your potatoes turning green and sprouting? Don’t throw away the chunks that you’ve cut out. Plant them and you might get some potatoes. We only have a patio garden, so the best result we’ve gotten is a bunch of baby potatoes in a pot. I’m sure if you have a garden with the right soil and environment that you can get grocery store sized potatoes.
  • Start an herb garden with cuttings – Leave a couple leaves on your sprigs and keep them in a glass of water on your windowsill. Plant the herbs after you see root growth. You should never have to buy that herb again. This works for most herbs except dill, sage, parsley, and coriander which grow from seed.

In the future when we buy a house and have a our own garden, we can be self-sustaining when it comes to chickens, eggs, and certain produce. Until that day comes, we do have to spend a bit more on fresh fruit and vegetables and unfortunately we will have to support the egg industry.

Here are the price limits that trigger the buy response in my frugal (cheapskate) heart

While it looks like a hassle to wait for clearance sales and to coordinate what we have in stock in our pantry, it’s actually pretty easy. We do all of our grocery and household shopping at Costco, Savemart, Trader Joe’s, Walmart (for ibotta rebates), 99c Only, and our local Chinese, Mexican, and Korean markets. Fortunately, the grocery stores in our area are all located in clusters so we can visit 3-4 stores in a 2 hour trip.

Fruit and Vegetables

  • Bananas – $1/3 lbs. @ local ethnic market or $0 ($0.25 ibotta rebate pays for 2 bananas and puts a couple cents in your pocket!)
  • Tomato – $1/3 lbs. @ local ethnic market or $0 ($0.25 ibotta rebate pays for 1 tomato and puts a couple cents in your pocket!)
  • Avocados (large) – $1/2 lbs. @ local ethnic market or $0 ($0.25 ibotta rebate)
  • Cabbage – $1/3 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Napa Cabbage – $1/2 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Kale – $1/2 bunches @ local ethnic market
  • Spinach – $1/3 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Onions – $1/8 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Apricots, peaches, nectarines – $1/3 lbs. @ local farmer’s market during the summer (We wait until the market is about to close. The vendors will practically give away their fruit!)
  • Ginger – $1/2 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Sweet Potatoes (the Japanese purple kind, not the yucky orange ones!) – $1/2 lbs. @ local ethnic market
  • Bell Peppers – $1/4 peppers @ local ethnic market or 99c store
  • Fancy Schmancy Salad Lettuce – $1.00/4 heads @ 99c store.
  • Baby Asparagus – $1.00/lb @ 99c store
  • Frozen Mixed Veggies (Green Beans, Peas, Carrots) – $3/4 lbs.
  • Oranges – $1/8 lbs. @ local ethnic market or 99c store
  • Artichokes – $1/6 artichokes
  • Celery – $1/3 stalks @ local ethnic market
  • Broccoli – $1/3 heads @ local ethnic market
  • Cucumbers – $1/6 lbs @ local ethnic market
  • Zucchini – $1/4 lbs @ local ethnic market
  • Key limes – $1/4 lbs @ local ethnic market

Pantry

  • White Sandwich Bread (1 loaf) – $0.63 (after $0.25 ibotta rebate). We usually bake our own bread, but sometimes I just want a grilled cheese with squishy white bread and processed American cheese!
  • Starkist/Chicken of the Sea Tuna (5 oz. can) – $0.77
  • Eagle Brand Condensed Milk (10 oz. can) – $1.25
  • Coconut Cream (14 oz. can) – $1.00 @ 99c store
  • Carnation Evaporated Milk (12 oz. can) – $1.00 @ 99c store
  • Dried Cranberries (64 oz.) – $4.50 @ Costco
  • Almond Butter (12 oz. jar) – $4
  • Pasta Sauce (25 oz. jar) – $0.80
  • Dried Pasta – $0.50/lb ($0.50 ibotta rebate)
  • Yeast – $2.50/lb @ Costco
  • Quinoa – $1.00/lb
  • Wasabi Almonds (16 oz.) – $5.99 @ Walgreens

Dairy & Meat

  • Jarlsberg Cheese – $5.50/lb @ Costco
  • Tillamook Cheddar Cheese – $2.50/lb
  • Butter – $2.50/lb
  • Yogurt (32 oz. tub) – $1
  • Almond/Coconut Milk (1/2 gallon) – $1.99 (after $1.00 ibotta rebate)
  • Sliced Sandwich Meat (Ham/Turkey, 8 oz.) – $1.00 @ 99c store
  • Tillamook Ice Cream (1.75 qt) – $3.99
  • Eggs – $2.99-$3.99/5 dozen @ Costco
  • Whole Milk (1 gallon) – $2.49 (after Checkout 51 rebate)
  • Frozen Pizza (Jumbo) – $9.99 @ Costco (We get the pizza from the food court, split them into 2-3 slice portions, and freeze them. This gives us about 6 portions. Reheat the pizza on a pizza stone or a cast iron griddle and they’ll be just as crispy as fresh pizza.)

Feeding Chickens Frugally Without Buying Feed

Before we got our chickens we did a lot of research and on internet forums everywhere it seemed like people freaked out whenever someone mentioned raising chickens with their own blend of feed or not buying layer pellets. Responses ranged from

OMGZ UR CHICKS WILL DIE!

to

It’s too difficult to make your own mixed feed. Pellets are properly blended to contain the right mix of nutrients…blah…blah…blah…scientifically proven to maximize growth…blah…blah…

But honestly, humans have raised chickens for hundreds and thousands of years without doing anything more than letting them roam freely around their homes and feeding them kitchen scraps. As for bagged pellets being the perfect mix of nutrition for gains of body mass and egg production, I’m just going to point out that fast food and frozen dinners are the perfect mix for body mass gain for humans, but nobody’s going to claim that living on processed crap is good for your health.

The advice in this post assumes that you’re raising a heritage breed or at the very least not some franken-chicken like CornishXs or Freedom Rangers or Hy-line layers. In these cases I would recommend using commercial feed.

Out of eight chicks that arrived in December, we only lost one to coccidiosis. The others all grew up healthy and the pullets started laying right on schedule in May. We butchered the cockerels once they started crowing. Pretty good odds for a first time chicken owner!

Silkie chickens raised on healthy veggies and worms.
Please excuse our dirty faces, we’ve just finished eating lunch.

Our girls lay gorgeous eggs with thick shells and rich orange yolks either every day or every other day. Our cockerels were tender, juicy, and delicious with none of the large yellow fat deposits we saw in other people’s pictures. At the end of five months, our chickens (Silkie bantams) all weighed 29 oz. – 33 oz., which is within breed standards and similar to what a chicken raised on commercial feed would weigh. In addition to our 3 Silkies we are also raising 7 white Leghorn chicks.

So for all the naysayers, I have to say that it is possible to raise healthy chickens without commercial chicken feed and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. We’ve certainly done it, and we’re still living in an apartment too!

How do we feed our chickens?

Chickens need protein, calcium, and a healthy mix of vitamins and minerals with the rest of their caloric intake met by carbohydrates.

Since chickens are kinda like teenagers, they’ll happily fill up on junk food like grains and corn over healthy food. Since we’re not using a pellet where everything is homogenized, we front load their breakfast with the most nutritionally dense food. This means that their breakfast is high in protein and nutritionally dense veggies. Our hens’ breakfast mix varies depending on what we have on hand, but it is usually a mix of:

  • Mealworms (which we raise)
  • Crickets (which we raise)
  • Black soldier fly larvae
  • Cabbage
  • Kale (which we grow)
  • Mustard greens (which we grow)
  • Sweet potato leaves (which we grow)
  • Leftover meat from soup bones and such
  • Plain yogurt
Carrots, sunflower sprouts, wheatgrass fodder for chickens
The customers have already left the table for their afternoon siesta.

We don’t regulate how much they eat and adjust the amount we give them by observation. We like to give them enough so that there’s a bit leftover after everybody’s lost interest. This ensures that the lowest girl in the pecking order doesn’t go hungry.

After breakfast, they have free choice of veggies and grains for the rest of the day until they go to sleep. We scatter grains around their run (aka our patio) and keep several dishes in their indoor play area and scatter the veggies around for them to peck at.

For veggies we give them:

  • Wheatgrass fodder everyday (which we grow)
  • Sunflower sprouts everyday (which we grow)
  • Carrots everyday
  • Cabbage everyday
  • Kale
  • Pumpkin (when in season)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes (when in season)

For grains:

  • Millet
  • Oatmeal
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sesame seeds

To meet their need for calcium and other trace minerals we give them a mix of:

  • Crushed egg shells
  • Crushed seafood shells from whatever we’ve been eating (mussels, lobster, shrimp)
  • 1 calcium tablet (dissolved) and 1 multivitamin (dissolved) mixed into their grains
  • Nutritional yeast

And that’s really all we give them! The foods vary depending on seasonality and what we can buy on sale and grow, but it gives you a pretty good idea of what they eat everyday.

But this must cost a fortune! Not at all. Since we grow so much of what they eat and buy the rest when it’s on sale, we buy less than $6 of veggies for them each month.

How we save money on feeding our chickens

Crickets

Crickets on a piece of asparagus.
Mmmm….yummy asparagus!

The first feeder insects we experimented with were crickets. We bought a tiny box from PetSmart (25 crickets for $1.99) in December and after getting rid of all the males except for a few, we let them breed and lay eggs. Six months later we are on our third generation of crickets and have several hundred.

We keep them in a plastic salad tub with air holes poked into the lid. They have egg carton pieces to hide in and we use the original container from PetSmart as a container for the egg-laying medium when each generation matures to breeding age.

To keep costs down, we feed them whatever’s left over after the chickens are finished eating. We also feed them vegetable scraps that even our chickens won’t touch. This includes the tough ends of vegetables like asparagus, carrot, lettuce, and cabbage. These are the perfect vegetables since they don’t grow mold or attract fruit flies. The insects feed on the vegetables for moisture and after they are consumed we’re left with a dried husk which I can just toss. I do cut the asparagus ends in half lengthwise like a hotdog bun since they’re too tough on the outside for the bugs to chew through.

For protein, I feed them meat trimmings which I place on a yogurt lid. If there’s any left over meat after 24 hours–there usually isn’t–I can throw it away neatly without rotting meat juice getting everywhere.

To keep the crickets warm and growing rapidly, I keep the salad container on top of my indoor garden’s LED shop light.

Cost for initial population: $2.13 (incl. tax)

Cost to feed and house crickets: $0. Everything’s reused or recycled waste.

Mealworms

After our crickets, we wanted another source of protein for our chickens. A lot of people buy dried mealworms since they’re so cheap and easily available. We did too, until we learned that almost all of the dried mealworms sold in the US are raised in China. Different companies repackage and rebrand them in the US, but it’s all Chinese! The domestic mealworm producers cater to the live mealworm market. Mealworms are their favorite insects by far so we knew we had to raise a large colony fast. We started with 2000 worms from Rainbow Mealworms.

Similar to our crickets, our mealworms are kept in old veggie containers. We use oatmeal for their bedding and feed them the same vegetable scraps as the crickets.

Cost for initial population: $16 (incl. taxes and shipping)

Cost to feed and house mealworms: $0.10 (the oatmeal’s the only thing that’s not recycled)

Sunflower Sprouts and Wheatgrass fodder

We realized very quickly that buying all the vegetables our chooks eat was going to get expensive even if we only bought them on sale.

As it turned out, our chickens are picky eaters. They simply refuse to eat BOSS (black oil sunflower seeds) in their scratch mix. We don’t know if it’s really because they’re picky or if it’s because their little bantam mouths can’t handle it, but in any case we decided to try sprouting them instead of letting all those seeds go to waste.

They love the sprouts. 

We soak the BOSS for an hour and then let them sprout inside old tomato containers. We rinse them out once in the morning and once at night before we go to bed.

During the first 3 days the sprouts do not need any sunlight, so we keep them stacked together in a shelf below our indoor garden. On day 3 and afterwards, we put them either under our grow lights, on our windowsill, or on top of our patio wall. The sprouts are ready to serve on day 5.

We get multiple pounds of sprouts for each pound of seed so a little goes a long way. Sprouts are nutritious and filling and we actually have to be careful with how much we give the chickens as they’ll fill up on the sprouts and leave all the other vegetables untouched.

Cost for sunflower seeds: $0.50 per pound (it comes as part of their millet/sunflower seed birdfood). One pound of dried seeds turns into 6 pounds of sprouts so it ends up costing $0.083 per pound of sprouts.

Cost for growing and containers: $0 (everything’s recycled)

We decided to grow wheatgrass for our chickens after I stumbled across this thread on BYC. If the claims on the thread are correct that each pound of seed yields six pounds of fodder, then we’re well on our way to cutting down our feed costs.

We weren’t sure if the girls would like the wheatgrass or if they would turn up their little beaks so we got a small (26 lb.) tub from Walmart to try it out. The bucket cost $16, which is okay for wheat berries, but not the cheapest. In the future, if they like the wheatgrass, we plan on getting the wheat berries from a feedstore which should be even cheaper.

They love picking at their little mat of grass.

We give them about 8 oz. of wheatgrass a day and they eat it all up by late afternoon.

Cost for wheat berries: $0.60 per pound. One pound of dried seeds turns into 6 pounds of sprouts so it ends up costing $0.10 per pound of sprouts.

Cost for growing and containers: $0 (everything’s recycled)

Sweet Potato Leaves

Besides all the sprouts, this is the next easiest and fastest growing vegetable. We save all the ends we cut from our sweet potatoes and just bury them in the dirt. We keep them on our patio wall where we get full light in the morning and indirect light in the afternoon. It’s that easy. Leaves start poking out within a week and within two weeks you can start harvesting them.

Sweet potato leaves are perfectly safe to eat unlike potato leaves, and are tender and delicious stir-fried with a bit of oil and garlic.

Cost for sweet potato ends: $0 (the ends of sweet potatoes are fibrous, usually dried out, and not very edible…)

Cost for growing and containers: $0 (everything’s recycled)

So these are the major ways we’ve slashed our feed budget. What about the foods that we buy from the store?

  • Oatmeal: $8.99 for 10 lbs from Costco. Oatmeal’s not their favorite food, I think they’ve only gone through 8 ounces in 6 months…my mother ends up eating most of it!
  • Cabbage: $1 for 3 lbs when it’s on sale at Marketon. Three pounds of cabbage will last almost a month and a half.
  • Birdfood: $17 for 40 lbs from Costco. We LOVE this birdfood. It’s just a mix of millet and sunflower seeds, no fillers like corn or sorghum! Millet’s their favorite grain so we make sure we have plenty on hand for them. One bag of birdfood lasts 4 months.
  • Carrots: $4.79 for 10 lbs from Costco. Carrots are their favorite vegetables after sunflower sprouts. They eat half of the bag and we eat the other half. We buy a bag every month.
  • Black soldier fly larvae: $55 for 10 lbs from Tasty Grubs. This is the most expensive food we buy for our chickens. If I had my own yard I would farm these myself. Since I don’t think my upstairs neighbor would appreciate flies everywhere or the yummy smell of decomposition, we buy these online. These grubs are not their favorite bugs, but they’re high in calcium so we add them to their breakfast everyday. They go through eight ounces every month.
  • Yogurt: $1 for 32 oz when on markdown at Savemart. We stock up and freeze the leftovers whenever we find yogurt on sale.
  • Nutritional Yeast: $8.90 for 10 oz. I sprinkle some yeast on top of their food every other day and we go through a 10 oz. tub in 4 months.
  • Calcium and vitamins: $7 for 500 tablets each. We buy these on sale at Costco whenever they have their buy 2 for $7 each deal. Each day we dissolve one of each and coat their grains in the liquid. If I had my own house (and a garage!) I could use something cheaper like limestone for a source of calcium, but at the moment this is the most convenient option.

We still have more than half of our wheat berries, oatmeal, birdseed, and grubs, so for 3 laying hens (Silkie bantams) and 2-month old leghorn chicks and 5 2-week old leghorn chicks, it costs about $20 per month to keep them fed, healthy, and laying regularly. That’s $0.67 per day and less than $0.07 per bird per day. Even though our chickens are bantams, that’s still really really really cheap! I’m sure the savings would be similarly massive for a standard breed.