In the space of two weeks, I saw the price of lotus root go from $5 a pound to $7.
At which my father scoffed. When Grandma was still alive, you couldn’t convince her to pay more than $2 for it, he said.
Groceries costs have gone up for everyone, while supermarkets are making soaring profits.
I’ve been called in to offer some tips to save a few bucks on 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 buy food in the first place.
Taylor cites low wages, a lack of affordable housing and reliable public transportation, and traditionally low-cost food companies being priced in gentrified neighborhoods as issues that need to be addressed when talking about rising food costs.
“Obviously everyone wants to save a dollar or two, but we’re not willing to talk about how wages are largely unbearable,” Taylor said.
While these tips won’t solve everyone’s problem with rising grocery costs, I’ve compiled a few ways to help you until radical changes are made to long-standing issues like housing, wages, and transportation.
Store products correctly
Has anyone else noticed that the quality of products has dropped lately? (On a Reddit form alone I found, there were over 1,000 comments on this since March). We are still feeling the effects of shipping delays, COVID outbreaks in the workplace, and labor shortages in our food systems.
So what to do when the product has a shorter shelf life?
Freezing is a solution.
Chilies 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, and stored them in resealable bags (which I also reuse) in the freezer. to last until next March.
Sure, when thawed they’re mushy, but they’re perfectly fine when sautéed (same with leafy greens, if they’re too mushy to go in a salad, just cook them). Aromatics like ginger and pepper also freeze well, perfect if you’re not using too many of them at once.
Leafy herbs such as parsley and dill will last at least a week longer when placed upright in a glass of about an inch of water and covered with a plastic bag in the fridge (remove the twist ties or elastic bands on which are sold). You can also freeze them too. Healthier herbs like rosemary will do best when wrapped in a paper towel and kept in an airtight bag.
Think of recipes that would use a lot of herbs at once (tabuleh for parsley, potato salad for dill) so they don’t spoil before you can eat them.
Kale and leafy greens can be revitalized by soaking them in ice water. Ripe fruits like avocados can be extended for another day or two when kept in the fridge (store a sliced avocado in water to prevent oxidation). And bananas and apples must be stored separately because they emit ethylene which speeds up the ripening process of other products.
Weigh the cost and benefits
The cost of, say, a bag of chips might be cheaper at a grocery store across town, but when you factor in the time spent traveling or the money used for fuel or transportation, is it really worth it?
I was 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 take a two-hour round trip on the subway just for that.
There is also conventional wisdom that buying in bulk is cheaper (note the price per gram listed below the price on store shelves), but it won’t be of much use if the food goes bad before it’s eaten.
Assess what is 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 going to the grocery store.
I definitely take stock of what I already have to avoid unnecessary purchases and adapt a meal around, say, a bag of dry noodles I already have or some greens that are about to wilt.
But I also scan what’s special in the supermarket that day or markdown shelf and improvise what to cook using that (when in doubt, sauté or make soup).
A few weeks ago I needed bell peppers, but seeing the $7.50 for two prices led me to use radishes (a bunch for $2 and change). I got the similar spicy crunch I wanted in a salad for less.
Learning to be more flexible when it comes to cooking is a big help, rather than shopping on a rigid list that doesn’t take into account what’s on sale or in season. This is also why I prefer to shop in person: if I see a bag of arugula on sale, I buy it instead of the spinach on my list.
My mother may not yet be able to understand email, but she is prolific when it comes to WhatsApp groups. She has several group chats with friends and family focused on identifying and sharing food offerings.
When someone sees that there is a good price on oil, rice or vegetables, they alert the group and ask who wants to join, thus saving other people time (and gas money) from going themselves. At least once a week, my mother drops off the shopping at her sister’s and vice versa.
Before the pandemic, when I was working at Star’s office, one of my co-workers and I always kept up to date with any business we saw in the nearby Loblaws. Fifty-cent bottles of Mio and one-dollar post-Easter candy? Yes please. To be honest, it’s also a good way to talk about things outside of work.
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