When Janet Livingstone moved to Washington from Boston two years ago to attend graduate school, she nearly cried the first time she went to the supermarket. Food prices seemed a lot higher than she had been accustomed to, and she wondered how she was going to eat and study at the same time.
Living near Georgetown University with three other students, Livingstone says, "we eat well," but she and her roommates are cost conscious and fight the temptation to eat out at the diner across the street or buy frivolous foods at the Safeway. Sometimes they do splurge, however -- on pickled okra.
Given the current dismal state of the economy, many Washington area residents are finding ways to cut their food bill. For others, though, eating cheaply had already become an art form necessitated by the high cost of living in one of the most expensive areas in the country.
Ingrid Hassen of Takoma Park says she is able to feed her family of five on $200 to $250 per month. Her secret: nearly all the meals she serves are vegetarian. Hassen says as she learned more about nutrition, she found that most health experts believe Americans eat too much protein. "Now I don't worry about serving a meal without meat or dairy," she says.
Hassen makes meatless chili and spaghetti sauce, and vegetable-topped pizza, and keeps most prepackaged, processed foods -- which are always more expensive than basic commodities -- out of her family's diet.
Fairfax County teacher Kathy Laubach of Annandale says cutting out snack foods has helped lower the family food budget. "We're strictly into fresh fruits and graham crackers. I quit baking too," she says. Even though homemade cookies are usually cheaper than store-bought, the more she used to make, the more her four teenagers would eat.
Livingstone says she doesn't eat much red meat or fish -- "although I love fish" -- because it's just too expensive. Instead, she and her roommates survive on pasta and chicken, canned soups and breakfast foods like cereal and toast in place of snack foods. When she visits Boston, she also "imports" some foods, like decaffeinated coffee, bread and bagels, because those items are so much cheaper there than she can find in Washington.
Substituting less expensive foods for the pricier alternative is one way Jackie Brophy of Falls Church managed to raise and feed her eight children. When orange juice was too expensive, she bought juice oranges and served them cut up. Instead of buying ready-to-eat cereals, she made big pots of oatmeal with chunks of apple and cinnamon for flavoring.
For many thrift-wise families, stretching meat by loading up on carbohydrates -- potatoes, rice and pasta -- has been a long time strategy, even before health authorities began advising Americans to do just that. Christine Pat Caldwell of Falls Church buys 50 pounds of potatoes when they are on sale for 13 cents a pound. If they are packaged in paper and stored in the basement, the potatoes will keep for a long time, she says.
Suzanne Mast of Wheaton uses only half a pound of meat in soups and casseroles instead of the full amount called for in the recipe. When used in a casserole, "two chicken thighs can make an entire meal for two adults and one child," she says. Often she makes her own prepared meals by doubling the recipe and freezing half in her chest freezer.
Careful shopping is another budgeting strategy that is possible for even the busiest people. Membership warehouse stores like Pace and the Price Club have become de rigueur among some Washington-area families, who say they save by making bulk purchases of some items -- such as five pounds of cheese at a time. Laubach buys individually frozen boneless chicken breasts at the Price Club, then uses only what she needs when preparing a meal. "There's no waste that way," she notes.
Hassen says she had discovered cheaper prices on some items at smaller, ethnic grocery stores such as those selling Asian or Indian foods. At a Middle Eastern market she patronizes, says Hassen, the almonds "are cheaper than any other place I've seen them."
Others belong to food co-ops or shop at natural food stores where bulk grains, beans, honey, oil and other goods are sold. Membership at the Bethesda Co-op has risen over the past few months as the economy has deteriorated, says one co-op worker. Although anyone can shop at the co-op, members who volunteer several hours each month get an additional 20 percent off purchases.
It takes some organization and effort to join with other families to buy in bulk -- especially from wholesalers who sell only in large quantities -- and then divide up the goods, but the savings can add up. Before she joined a larger, more formal food co-op, Linda Tolman of Herndon often shopped with several neighbors at wholesalers in the District. When the car got loaded to the point that "we couldn't figure out where to put things," they went home.
Kathy Sunde of Leesburg has become so adept at buying in bulk that she now arranges direct sales from manufacturers or farmers of such items as powdered milk and whole wheat (for grinding into flour), which are picked up monthly at designated truckload drop-off points by cooperating families in the area. Like Sunde, many participating in the bulk shipping arrangement are members of area Mormon churches who believe in storing a one-year supply of food.
One advantage of buying in large quantities "is that it keeps you out of the grocery store," says Debbie Grant of Falls Church, a member of an Arlington co-op, who adds that even if she has two items on a grocery list, she will end up spending $80 if she's not careful. Grant also tries not to shop with her four children or when stores are crowded. She often finds herself at the grocery store late at night. "It's quiet, peaceful, you're not bumping your cart into other people's, and you have time to make better purchasing decisions," Grant says.
Since few area Washington retailers offer to double the face value of manufacturer's cents-off coupons, Kathy Mindte of Damascus travels half an hour to a Foodrite grocery in Mount Airy, Md., that does, as does the Super Fresh chain. Although coupon sorting takes time and organization, Mindte believes it is worth the money she saves. "I can get $180 worth of groceries for $90," she says of her monthly shopping trips. Mindte plans to have her children help with coupon collecting as they get older.
Some families save money by being extremely waste-conscious and using up even the smallest of leftovers. Grant relies on recipes "where you can throw anything into it," and also makes "TV dinners" out of leftover meals for quick lunches. Ramen noodle soup is a common item in her pantry, since it welcomes any type of leftover meat or vegetable -- even the meat from a lone chicken leg, says Grant.
Dorothy Shea of Falls Church, who shares a house with two other women, relies heavily on soups made in her Crock-Pot to get her through the week. "I make things to economize my time in the long run," says Shea, who adds that the soup is inexpensive and lasts for several nights. She also makes casseroles and stir-fries but "soup is a staple."
Even seemingly small steps can make big dents in the food bill. Joe Young, another Georgetown student, doesn't cook much, but he buys bags of frozen vegetables to accompany his frozen microwave entrees instead of buying frozen dinners with vegetables already included. "I figure I save about $1.25 a meal that way," says Young. When tired of microwave fare, "I make spaghetti."
For those with the time and inclination, the savings can be enormous. When visiting relatives near Harrisburg, Pa., Mast attends a farmer's auction, picking up very ripe fruits and vegetables (last summer she bought a whole bushel of very ripe cantaloupe for 25 cents) and then canning or freezing them. Last year, Mast made grape juice and jam out of 80 pounds of grapes.
Since most of her food comes directly from the manufacturer, Sunde estimates she spends only about $50 a month in grocery stores, relying instead on cooking "the basics" -- grains, beans and fruits and vegetables she dries and stores in dehydrated form. "I learned to cook in big pots," says Sunde, who sets aside a Saturday every few weeks to cook up batches of beans, bread and homemade pizza, to be stored in the freezer and microwaved for quick use at a later, busier time.
For some, saving money is simply an added benefit to eating more healthful, less processed foods. "The prepared stuff is just not good for us," says Caldwell, explaining that although she works 40 to 50 hours a week, preparing food from scratch is an important priority -- and that as a result, other household tasks are left undone. Caldwell fixes Crock-Pot meals in the morning before work, makes soups and stews on Sundays, relies on an outdoor grill that she uses all year round, and gets other family members involved in cooking.
"All my life I've been concerned with healthy eating," adds Hassen, who says her way of cooking hasn't changed drastically since she quit her full-time job as a librarian to be at home with her children. "Even when I was working full time, I never used frozen dinners. I might, instead of soaking beans, buy cans of beans. I've never bought refrigerated biscuits."
Still, says Livingstone, sometimes convenience wins out. "The problem is, when you're a student, most of your concern is with time -- time even before price," she notes. While good intentions are the order of the day at the beginning of the semester, by the end, exams are approaching and "everyone gets really stressed out and hurried" and cooking from scratch falls by the wayside. "That's the student's dilemma," Livingstone adds -- and probably the dilemma of many other Washingtonians as well. Patricia Picone Mitchell is a Washington freelance writer and mother of four who buys 50-pound bags of oatmeal.