Whole foods are generally considered to be foods which have not been chemically or genetically treated, foods that are natural and in the raw state, and have not been pared, polished, or otherwise processed. While organic foods are becoming increasingly popular, I have not included that criterion in the following article simply due to their greater cost. Some may argue (as I have with a certain cheese) that organic foods have value and thereby bridge the cost-to-savings ratio.
Perhaps one of the best ways to save money on the grocery budget is to buy foods whole. Savings are only part of that equation, though. Whole foods, in many cases, offer better flavours and, in some instances, higher nutritive values and/or improved quality over their processed alternatives.
Here are some examples:
- Spices: Nutmeg, peppercorns, coriander, mustard and allspice are a few examples of spices that can be bought in their whole form. The seed is nature's way of sealing in essential oils and flavonoids. By grinding or grating them, as needed, fragrance and flavours are significantly enhanced, and that does wonders for any dish they're seasoning. Some roots (e.g. licorice) and barks (e.g. cinnamon) also retain more of their goodness but can be hard to process without an electric grinder. A mortar and pestle work well for most seeds, nuts, and leaves, though, and allow you to control the grinding process for the perfect texture and/or consistency.
- Ground Meats: With all the recalls and salmonella scares over the last few years, we've begun buying whole cuts of grass-fed, free-ranged beef (and fresh turkey) and grinding at home. Our savings aren't significant, but we have greater peace of mind knowing the ground beef comes from one animal and does not include questionable-meat "trimmings." ('Grassfed' beef article & recipes) To save on the purchase of suet, we buy whole chuck, which has a good amount of fat. Any excess can be trimmed, but we seldom find that necessary. Another benefit of buying whole meats and processing them at home is that it allows you to apportion package sizes to suit your family's needs.
- Cheese: Pasta and pizza just wouldn't be the same without Parmesan. The popular processed varieties are easy to use, but their flavour, smell, and texture can be off-putting. We purchase blocks of Parmigiano-Reggiano – the "King" of cheeses – and grind or slice it as needed. Much like spice, this fresh-grated cheese has better flavour and fragrance. There is little, if any, saving when buying this brand over the processed but the culinary value, for us, is significant. That and fresh Parmesan actually melts on a pizza!
- Fruits and Vegetables: Probably one of the best ways to economize a grocery budget is to buy produce whole. Pared fruits and vegetables cost much more, suffer vitamin degradation, and many are chemically treated to enable longer shelf-life as most processed produce will spoil faster. (Ontario government: Minimally-processed fruit & veg, risk assessment) Processed fruits and vegetables are more susceptible to pre-purchase contamination, also. Whole produce may require a little more preparation time (re: paring and/or peeling,) but their trimmings have value in a stock pot or compost pile. Both "free" veggie stock and rich loamy soil have real worth, too.
- Coffee: Budget may be the last thing on your mind when reaching for that morning cup o' Joe, but this is another way to stretch your grocery dollars. Pound for pound, coffee beans are (generally) less expensive than most ground varieties. As with spices, the coffee bean is a tidy little flavour packet that, when ground fresh, offers significantly enhanced flavours...not to mention, caffeine punch.
Aside from budgetary issues, we buy whole foods because we prefer the taste and aroma. Purchasing fruits, vegetables and meats whole has also spared us from many of the Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria outbreaks in recent years.
If you're concerned about your food's goodness, consider purchasing whole foods. The economic gain will be a cherry on top!