This salad represents a number of different places to buy food. The bed of baby arugula is from Trader Joe’s. The pine nuts hail from Whole Food’s bulk bin. Those cubes of red are roasted beets are cut from a trio I bought at Acme. The scoop of chicken salad, at 10 o’clock, was made of leftovers from a rotisserie bird I ordered from my local chicken specialist, Rotisseur. The crumbled goat cheese in the 5 o’clock position was from a local cheese maker, and the little white scoop at the center was a skordalia-style sauce that came with the rotisserie chicken.
The melange made for a flavorful, fast, satisfying meal, but it also represents my quest to save money on our monthly food tab. After years of near perfect fidelity to Whole Foods, I have been shopping around.What I’ve found has been a little surprising. That bag of Trader Joe’s arugula costs the same as the one I usually buy at Whole Foods–$1.99.
To my amazement though, many things actually cost more outside of Whole Foods. On a recent comparison shopping excursion, I learned that the conventional (not to mention just plain beat up and unappetizing) beets and fennel at Acme, my neighborhood “megamarket”, are somehow more expensive than their beautiful, organic counterparts at Whole Foods.
I think this has to do with the fact that they are in season, cold weather crops. Organic red peppers–a decidedly out of season item–sold at Whole Foods will run you, at least this time of year, roughly $4 EACH. Sorry, I don’t break out the all caps very often. But seriously, there are two large, meal-size sandwiches I sometimes buy in South Philly (Bitar’s felafel, Viet Tofu’s tofu banh mi) that cost $3 or only 75 percent as much as that single bell pepper. Those peppers are why people think eating healthy food is too expensive for the average person, but the key to balancing health and budget is knowing what you should buy, and when.
Coffee costs a lot less at Trader Joe’s, even the organic fair trade beans. My usual coffee from Whole Foods costs $1 per ounce and a comparable bag of beans at TJ’s is just 61 cents per ounce. My normal cheddar, Cabbot extra sharp, is also more than a dollar cheaper per pound at TJ’s. Most of my other usual staple purchases were within pennies of each other at the two stores, except for eggs, a contest in which Whole Foods is the winner with 12 of their finest organic and cage free eggs priced at $3.89 versus Trader Joe’s dozen at $4.29.
Beyond the price checks, I couldn’t help but notice something else while I shopped at Trader Joe’s: the temptations. It was a long, slow walk down the frozen food aisle during which I stopped to hold packets of frozen tamales and boxes of pot stickers and willed myself to put them back. I eyed the plastic box of cinnamon graham crackers, dusted with sugar, so crunchy and sweet, and I struggled to walk on by. Few of these treats cost more than $3.50.
These goodies are there at Whole Foods, obviously, but I have become completely insensitive to their seduction. They are prohibitively expensive at the famous health food store, even when I’m not being cautious about my spending. It just makes me feel stupid to pay $9 for 12 ravioli that are frozen and I will have to later cook myself. I am in a well worn pattern of shopping the produce section, meat case, bulk foods bins, and dairy aisle. I make a list, buy what I came for, and leave the store having spent, on average, $75 to $100 a week for the past five years regardless of what kind of income stream I’m working with.
Going forward, I do think I will try to get to Trader Joe’s every couple weeks to stock up on coffee and cheese. Acme, offering neither value nor quality, will continue to be a place I shop in emergency situations only. But the meat and potatoes of my weekly household food supply will keep on coming from Whole Foods. I’ll be using the budget-friendly, bulk-foods oriented, seasonal produce seeking, from-scratch cooking strategy that has always kept my grocery bills in check.