Friday, September 28, 2012

Budget Cooking and a Tour of Whole Foods Market

Awesome insulated bag I received at the tour full of great information!
The title of this post may be confusing to some.  How can budget cooking and Whole (aka Whole Paycheck) Foods Market  be together?  Well my friends, I recently learned some tips to make that possible.

This post has been a long time in the making.  OK, technically what I have wanted to write/do has been bouncing around in my brain for weeks and the actual writing and doing has taken place over the last few days, but I wanted to write a post focused on budget cooking for awhile so let’s pretend it’s been a long arduous process, K?  There are a lot of blogs out there devote to being frugal, using coupons and shopping for deals.  A LOT.  But it was perfect timing that a couple weeks ago my local Whole Foods posted on Facebook that they were offering a tour on how to value shop in their store.  I immediately responded and made a reservation to attend.  It was going to conflict with the soccer (such is how it goes in my life), but I was determined to go see what they had to say because in an effort to do my grocery shopping on a tighter budget, I had not been to Whole Foods for any shopping in a couple of months.  I took notes on my phone notepad hoping the team members giving the tour didn’t think I was texting someone the entire time.  The notes really helped me to remember important tips so I can plan future shopping trips and I wanted to share with you my notes.

First stop, The Bakery Department

In the bakery department, my store happens to bake their breads, muffins, cakes and cookies in-house.  This is not the case in all stores, but mine has a fantastic bakery.  A little tip I learned was that they will slice baguettes/loaves at no charge.  Whole Food's private label, called 365, has organic breads on the shelf for $2.99, which for the quality of bread that it is, it’s a great price.  Can you get a cheaper loaf of bread in a supermarket or Costco?  Maybe so, but the value is found in comparing their bread to a “higher end” bread at a supermarket.  Right next to them are equivalent breads from different companies for $2 or $3 more. They also have a variety of things like cakes or pies sold by the slice or a half, which when you just need a little and don’t want to waste something, there is a savings there.

In their Prepared Foods Department they feature their amazing salad bar; everything is sold at a flat $7.99 per pound price.  For myself, I know I can always make myself a great tasting and filling salad in the smallest container for under $5 for lunch.  At the deli counter they offer a punch card for frequent buyers.  I learned about a new smart phone app call Stampt, which offers a lot of punch cards for participating businesses, Whole Foods being one, where your cards are digital in the app instead of stuffed in your wallet.  I love that!  They also offer $9.99 pizza night every Wednesday.  Their take and bake pizzas are $9.99 every day.  Something else they offer are complete meals for 4 such as meatloaf or roasted chicken with potatoes and roasted veggies for $19.99. You can maybe eat out with your family for cheaper than $19.99 but is it a high quality free-range chicken plus side dishes?  I think it’s more like McNuggets.  I would even bet you could place those meals in the freezer and pull it out when you have a busy night.
The same dough they use for the cooked pizzas is available to purchase at $1.29, it comes in regular and whole wheat.  It makes a good sized, large pizza.  They offer several soups also sold by the pound and they are freezable.  That is something that may work for you to buy some to freeze for busy nights or to use for lunches.  Also in the Prepared Foods Department is a section of value priced wines, all bottles are $3.99 or less.  This was a surprise to me as I had stood looking at the deli counter many times with my back to those wines and never bothered to look at them.


Coupons can be used on top of a sale item and a manufacturer coupon can be used in combination with a Whole Foods coupon.  In the store, the end caps are sale or Everyday Deal items.  If an item is an Everyday Deal you cannot use a coupon with it as they have already priced it at the lowest possible price.  Interesting item to note- they have at least 1700 items all over the store on sale at any time. They do not give rain checks on sold out items.

Something else I learned is that you can special order items by the case.  Ordering by the case saves them the labor of putting it on the shelf, so that savings is passed along to you at 10% off.  But the nice thing is that many times a case is maybe 6 or 12, not something large like 24 or 48 like you may find in a warehouse store.  This is especially nice for perishable items with a short shelf life.  I intend to take advantage of that with yogurt.  In my house sometimes buying something like that in too large of quantity doesn’t turn into a money savings, but a loss with the wasted items that aren’t consumed in time.  For example, we like Chobani brand yogurt, but no one will eat one every single day, we all seem to like variety.  They are $1.49 each on the shelf, but are available in a case of 12.  At 10% off, that’s basically getting one free or bringing the cost down to $1.34 each.  Now and then you can find that brand on sale at other supermarkets 10 for $10, but they are regularly not found for less than that.  Speaking of Chobani, here's a link for a coupon.

In other dairy notes- another interesting fact I learned is that their own label, 365, the milks are supplied by Clover Stornetta Farms.  The store brand is considerably less than buying the actual Clover label.  They offer both an organic and non-organic milks, but if you like Clover brand milks, you can get them cheaper buying the 365 brand.

I often buy dried herbs and spices in bulk, usually because it’s cheaper, but also because I can get the amount I want, especially if it’s something expensive that I need for one recipe.  Their bulk containers are not huge barrels, they are moving through their spices constantly so they are super fresh.  In the bulk coffee, you can save a little as the coffees packaged on the shelf are just under a pound, but buy a pound bulk of comparable house brand and you can save $2.

In their Meat Department, they have a very easy to understand labeling system for how the animal was raised and that quality of the meat.  The team members in the department can trim, slice, cut, season or marinate at no extra charge.  This can save you the time and the money of buying additional ingredients to make the seasonings or the marinade. They also have value packages in the refrigerator case that are priced at a savings vs. purchasing at the meat counter.

In the Seafood Department, it’s the same thing; they can crack and clean, season, marinade, bread fish/shellfish at no extra charge.  The bottom line for the Meat and Seafood Departments is that what they sell there has to fit a certain standard.  It’s sustainable, raised humanely, transported, stored and packaged differently than what you find in many other grocery stores.  There is a higher cost for the quality, but the point in the tour was to point out where you can save a little money and to illustrate the value in purchasing products of that caliber.

In the Cheese Department, don’t be afraid to ask for a smaller piece than what is packaged, they will unwrap and cut it smaller for you.  I find this very useful if you don’t know how others will like it or if you are creating a cheese platter and want a wide variety, but don’t want it to cost as much.  You can also taste anything and they will write down what you like and don’t like and keep it on file in the department for you.

Wines- 6 or more bottles is 10% off, unless it's an Everyday Value, then that is the lowest price.

Produce:  They sell precut onion and garlic which can be very affordable- its only what you use, not what you throw out, so when you are buying something by weight and there’s a certain amount of it that will be wasted, you may find the pre-cut is a better value to you.  You can get 1/3 lb for about $2.50.  I never considered this before and most of the time just cooking at home, I have an onion, I cut up some, I wrap it up to use a little more later, it can last in the fridge for a few days.  Already cut will not last long, but place in an airtight container it can be frozen.  I cook with onions to add flavor to a dish like an herb, no one in my house eats onions because we don't like them as a food.  I think having chopped onion on hand in my freezer might work great for me.
As far as other produce; local and in season is usually the best value.  It’s often what you’ll see on a special sale too.  At my local store they have a Floral Department and I was excited to learn that they do custom work- no charge for labor, just the price of the flowers used. They also sell Whole Trade Roses one dozen is $19.99 and percentage of that retail price helps to pay for a child from where the roses came from to go to school.  The Whole Trade program is all about obtaining products with high standards but they are made/grown in places around the world where the people who do the work are paid fairly and have better working conditions.

Now, some of the most interesting information I learned is not actually related to food, but to their Whole Body department.  It’s a section that I’ve walked through, but never really shopped.  They have a bulk section made up of body washes, bath salts, soaps, lotions, shampoos, and conditioners.  You can buy an inexpensive (like $1.50) container and then fill it.  Then you just bring it back each time you need more.  Customer service can weigh the empty container and write that down so it can be removed from the weight after it’s filled.  (You can actually do that in the bulk food department too.) There is a big value in these products sold in bulk.  They offer Alba brand lotion at .63 per ounce, compared to $1.25 per ounce of the same lotion sold in a 20oz container on the shelf.  And just like food, body products have to live up to the same standards so everything is free of harsh chemicals and uses natural ingredients.  The 365 brand is also available in that department, I picked up shampoo and conditioner for $3.99 each. 

Couple other tid bits I learned:  My store, (and many others) have a Conceriege will make gift baskets for you.  There is no cost for the service, just a cost for the basket and the items in the basket.  The Conceriege also does personal shopping which costs 5% of bill, and it’s a $50 min.  I think the personal shopping is awesome if you are busy and can afford it, but would also make a great gift for someone if they are sick, just had a baby or just a unique gift for someone who has everything.

Gift basket I had made for the 4 teacher's in my son's daycare classroom- $32
The bottom line for me with this tour was that I already liked shopping Whole Foods Market, but I didn’t devote that much of my monthly grocery shopping budget to shopping there.  There are items I liked to get there, I would sometimes go for certain things on sale or I’d get lunch in the prepared foods and pick up a few items.  What this tour did was give me a better understanding of their products and make me realize that it wasn’t about discount shopping there, but if you are making an effort to eat foods that are cleaner and closer to their natural state, minimally processed and prepared more naturally, there are some ways to save money.  In addition, sometimes saving your time is valuable to you and so the convenience of some of the prepared foods or the services available for prepping your meals is a great value.  I feel like I can probably increase my Whole Foods shopping budget by just a small amount but come away with more food or with items that will save me time and/or money in other ways.

So…onto my list of recipes for this week.  Keeping budget cooking in mind, I tried to find recipes that were not filled with processed convenience items, but were still very inexpensive to make from scratch as well as quick and easy to make.

Meals for the Week of October 1, 2012

Here is the Pinterest Board for this post.  It includes a few pins for other budget cooking websites besides the recipes here.

Mini Turkey Meatloaf and Maple Green Beans Sheet Pan Dinner- Whole Foods lists this at $3.03 per serving.

Cheap and Easy Turkey Stir Fry- This is an old standby for me.  Awesome if you have fresh produce, but perfect when all you have is frozen green beans.
Chicken Taco Pizza- A fun twist on regular pizza and there are not that many ingredients and the quantity of each is not a lot either, making it very inexpensive.  You can easily customize this and make it vegetarian if you wanted.
Spaghetti with Sautéed Chicken  and Tomatoes- Quick and easy and uses just a few ingredients.  Kid friendly too.  Make it even cheaper- no chicken and substitute a can of cannelini (aka white kidney) beans.
Chili Taco Casserole- Lean ground beef or even ground turkey and beans are very inexpensive.  This is freezable and it’s the kind of thing that can be made with pantry/freezer staples. 

Bison Chili- These ingredients can be found at Whole Foods for less than $20.  Ground bison is very similar to beef in flavor but leaner.  

Sausage and Quinoa One-Pot Supper-  This is listed at $3.73 per serving.  The meat in the sausage is raised with very strict standards and there is no nitrates, nitrites or preservatives.    This is a super easy meal for a weeknight and as a one-pot meal it’s got everything you need in one dish.
Chicken and Rice Casserole- This is a low calorie and inexpensive dish that isn’t just chicken and rice, but includes zucchini and yellow squash.  It calls for long grain white rice, I suggest brown Jasmine rice, better for you, and if you don’t love brown rice, you may find you like Jasmine  as it has a bit of a sweeter taste.  Another great one-pan meal with everything you need in it.
Mushroom and Sausage Ragu with Polenta- I love polenta and you can buy it in bulk for just pennies per serving.  If you have leftover polenta, you can transfer it to a dish and when it’s cold and firm, slice it up and pan fry with a little olive oil, then top with marinara sauce.   This mushroom ragu is hearty and simple, with just a few ingredients, many which you may already have in your pantry.
Fried Rice- The possibilities are endless!  Perfect for a Friday night; use up your leftovers from the past week.
Budget Beef and Broccoli- Yet another one-pan dish that is also inexpensive and quick to make on a weeknight.  It uses lean ground beef instead of sliced steak.

Sweet Potato and Black Bean Enchiladas- If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know this is not the first time I have listed this recipe.  It’s a favorite of mine and it just happens to be inexpensive to make.  You can make the green chili sauce as directed in the recipe or find a good ready-made sauce.  Plus, eating one meatless meal per week can help reduce your food bill.

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