Monday, April 29, 2013

Northern Living Tip: Stretching the Grocery Budget

A few days ago it was so sunny and warm here in Baker Lake that you could actually see the snow melting! Fast forward to today, where we are cuddled up inside and watching a blizzard carry on outside. A simple and not-so-subtle reminder that we've still got a few months of snow ahead of us. I can't complain too much though, since a snow day/long weekend at the end of April isn't all horrible. :)

Today I'd like to talk about little things we do to stretch our grocery budget while living here in the north. It is no secret that it is expensive to live here and prices are much higher than in the south; however, there are small things we do that help us eat healthy and not spend outside our means.

Many people sound surprised when we tell them that our diet is pretty fresh and we don't buy a lot of convenience/processed foods. Yes, we can get fresh produce and meats here, but the selection is quite limited compared to the south and things don't stay fresh nearly as long. Produce, in particular, is fairly temperamental depending on season (it is not uncommon to have frozen and then thawed out fruits and vegetables). That being said, we try to buy fresh produce as often as possible and have really learned to appreciate a super crisp, healthy salad where all the ingredients are texturally perfect!

One of the things I do is keep a mental note on prices. Romaine lettuce can be $7.95 a head one week and the next it's $4.95. Sometimes the prices are advertised (shopping by flyer also helps with the cost, but stores here don't accept manufacturer coupons, I'm told), but sometimes the prices just move up and down without any warning. Being aware of what things normally cost also helps plan your shopping budget.

I've mentioned that the stores here will often mark down items which are past, or close to their "best before" date, which isn't necessarily a bad thing in many cases. The Northern will often mark down packaged salads and vegetables if they are nearing the date and that's usually when I swoop in and gather things up. I'm a huge fan of the plastic tubs of organic spinach and spring mix salads and they will often be marked down from $8+ to $0.99 even though they are perfectly fresh (though unless I plan on eating them within a day or two, they start to go). That's a significant savings and I normally stretch the lifespan of them by re-packaging and freezing it.

It's amazing what you can freeze and use later and it still maintains its freshness. Fresh herbs, which is a fairly new thing here at our stores (so exciting!) keep really well if you give them a quick chop and put them into ice cube trays with some olive oil or coconut oil. Then, when you're ready to use them, you just throw a cube in whatever it is you're cooking and they're still as fragrant as when you brought them home.

Spinach and other leafy greens can be kept in a few ways - you can layer them whole with some paper towels in a freezer bag and grab bunches as you need (good for cooking where you need the texture), but I use a lot of greens in smoothies, so I zip them through the blender and pour them into muffin cups and freeze them. Once they're frozen, I pop them out and put them in labeled freezer bags and they are perfectly portioned for smoothies, soups, sauces, etc. It's also really cost-effective to do it for fruit as well!
Spinach cups!
All set for the freezer
Yummy yummy!
We try really hard not to buy a lot of processed/convenience foods because they're really expensive and generally not very healthy. What I do try to do when I'm cooking is to make extra and freeze (I'm a big fan of the freezer, can you tell?) them so we can grab them later if I'm too lazy to cook one night. Jeff really likes having pizza (who doesn't, right?) so when I'm making the dough for our dinner, I'll double the recipe and make extra. Then I can either freeze the dough or actually top it and wrap it up nice & tight and pop it in the freezer. Frozen pizza that's customized to what we like (Jeff's latest favourite: pesto base, steak strips, caramelized onions and blue cheese crumble) and it serves as a quick meal that's delicious and much healthier than the processed ones! Also, having pre-portioned containers of chili, soups, etc. also makes for a much healthier "tv dinner" than spending $9 on a Lean Cuisine! :)

Finally, I've often said that in terms of our groceries, our most trusted and effective tool is our calculator. I'm the person you see at the store with mine out, trying to figure out a per unit cost of one item compared to another. Buying bigger is not necessarily cheaper (ex. buying a dozen eggs works out to be cheaper per egg than buying the 18-pack of eggs, etc.) although I'm sure the stores want you to think it is, so you spend more. Being aware will save you money without even realizing it!

So to recap, here are the things we do that help us stretch our grocery dollars a little further:
  1. Carry a calculator when shopping
  2. Be aware of sale prices/price changes, etc.
  3. Utilize the freezer and stock up when things are on sale
  4. Stock up on freezer bags/containers to re-portion and keep freshness longer
  5. Cook extra portions of things so you have leftovers/"tv dinners" at your disposal whenever you don't feel like cooking
It's very possible to eat healthy, and not spend a fortune on your groceries even when faced with extremely high prices. I know it's nothing earth-shattering in terms of tips, but it's the simple things that are easiest to do. It's been helping us, and hopefully it helps you too! :)



  1. Wow you do a great job on keeping a healthy diet in the most extreme environment for prices and climate! You rock!

  2. These are great tips! One thing I'm worried about when I move north is continuing to eat healthy without having access to amazing grocery stores. I will definitely be freezing things in muffin tins! Even down south that's a great thing to try :)

  3. How many grocery stores r there?

    1. There are 2 grocery stores here in Baker (right next to each other on the same street)