Manitoba·Opinion

Beating food costs with home-cooked, Canadian-grown foods

In July, food costs were up 3.2 per cent, according to the recent inflation statistics. As someone joked recently, “Oh, I hardly eat any more. It’s too expensive.”

Planning, home-based food preparation go a long way, Winnipeg writer Joanne Seiff says

While imported produce from the U.S. gets more expensive as the loonie falls, farmers' markets are more vibrant than ever as Canadians seek out locally grown products. (Canadian Press)

In July, food costs were up 3.2 per cent, according to the recent inflation statistics. As someone joked recently, "Oh, I hardly eat any more. It's too expensive." 

I didn't need to take a poll in my house to know that wasn't an option. We love eating!  However, the grocery store sticker shock remains.

A lot of food in our stores is imported. With the loonie sinking against the U.S. dollar, those food prices just keep rising.

Most people's salaries don't take a commensurate jump to compensate. What are some ways to continue enjoying food and keep the grocery bill in check? Here are some ideas that work for my family.

Buy local, buy Canadian foods

If you shop at a local farmer's market or a grocery store that purchases from Canadian farms, you may find that the prices don't go up as quickly as the imported items. Even at equal prices, buying Canadian goods puts money back into our economy. 

If you can use a set of Ikea assembly instructions, basic cooking isn't beyond you.- Joanne Seiff

These items travel less distance, and research shows that fresh produce retains more nutrients, which means it's better for you. Plus, this is the time of year when fresh, local produce just tastes better.

Consider buying in bulk.  This is an old-fashioned approach that worked for many generations before us. It's a real-life hedge against a rapidly fluctuating market.

There are simple ways to do this. If you already have a freezer in your basement, consider buying your corn right now, while it is being harvested in Manitoba. Shuck it, put it into freezer bags and enjoy that corn this winter. Do the same with fruit and other veggies.

'Value-added'

If you lack freezer space, consider going further by making your produce a "value-added" product by reducing its bulk or storing it another way.

Perhaps you've just gone out with Fruit Share Manitoba and picked apples? Consider using a dehydrator (or a low-temp oven) to make apple chips. Make apple sauce and freeze or can it for later. 

Canning is often seen as a daunting activity, but once you master the basics, it can save you lots of money and provide you with healthy, homemade food. The work you put into each jar can be a lifesaver later.

In our house, the homemade jams, chutneys, pickles and sauces on the basement pantry shelves become our version of "fast food" when it's –40 C and no one wants to go out.

Processing costs

The next step, beyond buying local foods, is to consider how processing costs can bulk up your grocery bill. While processing puts money back into our economy, Canadians don't actually do a lot of local food manufacturing these days. Even if your ready-to-eat meal was produced wholly in Canada, it still costs more to pay the workers, the factory and the transportation costs. 

If you can cook, it's time to buy less processed food and make it yourself. Flour, potatoes and other staples are still affordable — and these options can drastically reduce meal costs.

With the current inflation rate, we'll need to dig deep and use old skills to get by.- Joanne Seiff

Making food from scratch takes time and energy. If you've got the time, it can be deeply satisfying to do everything by hand. I used to love to do this.

However, if you've got small kids or you're pressed for time, you can still make this work. I've made some careful investments in slow cookers, a bread machine and other gadgets that do the work for me.

With a few minutes to fill the bread machine and press start, I've got homemade bread. When I purchase Manitoba beef and lamb for the freezer each fall, I can grab a roast when I need it, pop it in the slow cooker with a jar of homemade chutney on top, and 10 hours later, there's shredded beef that will last for a couple of dinners.

For even less expense, I cook dried chick peas or beans overnight in the slow cooker and freeze them for later, avoiding canned beans completely. Then, the chick peas are ready to be pureed into hummus or slow cooker falafel whenever I need them.

Canada grows lots of pulse crops (dried beans and peas) that we can use for low cost and nutritious meals.

Now is the time

In any case, this is the season to get started, as summer and fall are harvest times. Little is harvested in winter, so costs will go up.

This is when I know a lot of folks throw up their hands and say "I can't cook! It's too hard!" If you can use a set of Ikea assembly instructions or follow driving directions to a cottage, basic cooking isn't beyond you.

It worked for our ancestors, didn't it? If cooking isn't possible, consider using your skills to trade with someone who can for a homemade meal made with local foods.

With the current inflation rate, we'll need to dig deep and use old skills to get by. We can reach out to nearby farms to make things work.

I can't control the economy and salary rates won't skyrocket along with costs, so let's work together to buy local. I'll bet homemade dinner at your house never tasted so good.  

Joanne Seiff helps organize the Manitoba Fibre Festival, another local resources initiative, happening Oct. 2 to 3, 2015. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.

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