In two weeks I saw the price of lotus root go from $5 per pound to $7.
At which my father scoffed. When Grandma was alive, you couldn’t convince her to pay more than $2 for it, he said.
Grocery costs have risen for everyone, while supermarkets are seeing higher profits.
I was tapped to give tips for shaving a few bucks off groceries, but of course some band-aid tips from the Star’s regular food reporter won’t 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 prevent people from affording food to begin with.
Taylor cites low wages, the lack of affordable housing and reliable public transportation, and traditionally cheap food businesses priced out of gentrifying neighborhoods as issues to be addressed when discussing rising food costs.
“Obviously everyone wants to save a few bucks, but we don’t want to talk about how wages are largely unlivable,” Taylor said.
While these tips won’t solve everyone’s problem with rising grocery costs, I’ve put together a few ways to help you until major changes are made to long-standing issues like housing, wages, and transportation.
Storing products correctly
Has anyone else noticed that the quality of the products has declined lately? †In one Reddit form alone that I came across, there were over 1,000 comments on it since March). We are still feeling the effects of shipping delays, workplace COVID outbreaks and labor shortages in our food systems.
So, what to do if products have a shorter shelf life?
Freezing is a solution.
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 cut them up and kept them in resealable bags (which I also reuse) in the freezer to last until the following March.
Sure, they’ll go limp when thawed, but they’re fine when baked (same with leafy greens, if they’re too limp to go in a salad, just cook them). Aromatics such as ginger and peppers also freeze well, perfect if you don’t use a lot at once.
Leafy herbs like parsley and dill will last at least a week longer if placed upright in a cup with about 1 inch of water and covered with a plastic bag in the refrigerator (remove the drawstrings or elastic bands they are sold in). You can also freeze them. Heartier herbs like rosemary will do better if wrapped in paper towels and stored in a resealable bag.
Think of recipes that would use a lot of the herbs at once (tabouleh for parsley, potato salad for dill) so that they don’t spoil before you can eat them.
Lean kale and leafy greens can be revived by soaking them in ice cold water. Ripe fruits like avocados can be extended by another day or two if stored in the refrigerator (store a sliced avocado in water to prevent oxidation). And bananas and apples have to be stored separately because they emit ethylene that speeds up the ripening process of other products.
Weigh the costs 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 travel time or the money spent on gas or transportation, is it really worth it?
I happened to be in downtown Chinatown for a weekend and saw that the price of red bell peppers was $1.70 a pound, much less than the large supermarkets where I live. But I don’t know if I would take a two-hour subway trip just for that.
There’s also conventional wisdom that buying in bulk is cheaper (note the price per gram listed below the retail price), but it doesn’t make much sense if the food spoils before it’s eaten.
Weigh what is best for your time and energy. Buying more doesn’t always mean saving money when it ends up in the trash.
Be flexible with recipes
I doubt when it comes to how prepared you should be when you go to the supermarket.
I definitely inventory what I already have to avoid unnecessary purchases, and tailor a meal to, for example, a bag of dried pasta I already have or some veggies that are about to wilt.
But I also scan what’s special that day in the supermarket or on the discounted shelf, and improvise what to cook with it (when in doubt, stir-fry or make soup).
A few weeks ago, I needed bell peppers, but when I saw the $7.50 price tag for two, I had to use radishes instead (a bunch for $2 and change). I got the similar 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 to shop in person: When I see a bag of arugula on sale, I grab it instead of the spinach on my list.
My mom still may not understand email, but she is 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 is a good price for oil, rice, or vegetables, they alert the group and ask who wants in, saving the other people time (and gas money) to go themselves. At least once a week my mother brings the groceries to her sister and vice versa.
Before the pandemic, when I was working in the Star office, one of my colleagues and I always kept each other updated about any deals we saw in the nearby Loblaws. Fifty cent spray bottles of Mio and dollars after Easter candy? Yes please. Frankly, it’s also a good way to talk about things outside of work.