With two teenage sons who "eat their body weight" in food every day, it's surprising that Hamiltonian food blogger Karen McLaughlin manages to keep any food in the house.
The former dietician not only feeds her family of four on a budget of $400 a month, she does it partly with local food.
"Most people overestimate how much convenience products are saving them — and they're under-estimating how much more they're paying for that convenience, too," says McLaughlin.
McLaughlin, who recently published a cookbook titled Cheap Appetit, aims to help families find cost-effective ways to eat more local food and cook from scratch. Among the keys to her success in feeding a famished family are a few of the following tricks.
1. Pick your own.
Visit a pick-your-own farm and bring home bushels of fresh produce, says McLaughlin, a big supporter of buying bulk. The produce can be eaten fresh or saved for later by canning or freezing it. Bring the whole family and picking 24 quarts of strawberries can finish in an hour, she suggests. "You're putting in a bit of time during the growing season, but then that is going to last you for quite a bit longer," says McLaughlin.
'You don't even need a backyard. If you have any outdoor area of your own, you can grow in containers.' —Karen McLaughlin
2. Can it.
Though intimidating to many, McLaughlin suggests canning is not the tricky task it's made out to be. "People assume that because it's unfamiliar, it's difficult," she says. In recent years, canning has emerged from grandmothers' pantries and gained popularity in urban kitchens. For those still on the fence, though, McLaughlin advises turning to a grandmother, friend or neighbor in the know for a quick canning session - or seeking out a workshop on the topic. "It's actually not hard at all," said McLaughlin.
3. Grow your own.
It can be as easy as planting a few herbs, says McLaughlin. But she warns that once you do so, you'll be hooked. "You don't need much space," she says. "You don't even need a backyard. If you have any outdoor area of your own, you can grow in containers." In her small lot, McLaughlin grows a medley of produce, including rhubarb, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, beans and greens. It doesn't get more local than that.
4. Find a community garden.
For those not blessed with a backyard, another option is to seek out a community garden - a good option, says McLaughlin, since they are plentiful in Hamilton. The Hamilton Community Garden Network maps out all sorts of shared plots in the city.
5. Swap your food.
One of the biggest benefits of growing food at home or in a community garden is being able to trade the surplus. McLaughlin started up a biweekly food swap last summer after reading about the idea on an L.A. food blog. Though initially worried the swap would see a lot of the same type of produce, McLaughlin was pleasantly surprised, not only in the type of produce but the varieties. "We got to enjoy everything from lemon boys to cherry tomatoes to yellow pear tomatoes," she says. And it came with an added benefit: getting to know other local gardeners.
McLaughlin doesn't advocate wild foraging without a little know-how. But she thinks anyone can take on a simpler version of urban foraging. "There's a lot of different pockets of untapped food all over the city if you keep your eye out for it," she says. If you spot a fruit-laden tree, for example, knock on the owner's door and offer to pick the produce in exchange for a portion of the bounty. "It can't hurt to ask," she adds.
7. Join a CSA.
Look for a Community-supported Agriculture, or CSA, farm in your area. You can either invest in the farm in exchange for a weekly share of the harvest, as most clients do. Another option is to check if the CSA needs help with administrative tasks or other help that you could do in exchange for produce.
McLaughlin acknowledges the workload around eating healthy, local produce on a budget may seem daunting. A big part of it involves getting into a different mindset, she says.
"When we go to get food, we get a lot of it. And then we process it: canning it or freezing it or whatever. And then it's just there and it's super convenient."