By Lisa

With the economy in freefall, and no real end in sight, many of us are thinking about money and our weekly budgets, and how to save where we can.  I’ve heard people talking about bundling phone, internet, cable, getting rid of their landlines, adjusting their car & homeowners insurance–all in an attempt to get rid of waste, money being spent that doesn’t really need to be spent.

But what does this mean for our food spending?

Lots of food bloggers have already written about this, and about food deals and shopping tips, and related topics like how to make dinner for a family of four on $10 or less.  And in a recent conversation with one of the farmers I buy from every week, she mentioned that fast food sales are up.

But for me, the change in my food spending patterns has been negligible.

I think about food and money a lot, in part because it feels like I spend so much money on food.  In any given week, I spend between $90-$120 at Trader Joes, and depending on the season, between $40-$80 at the Farmers Market.  At the height of summer, when I’m buying to freeze for the winter, and loading up on stone fruit, berries, and tomatoes, it’s at the high end. Now, when I have a freezer full of produce and the market goods are much more reasonable, I can get away with $40, including my weekly supply of fish.

It is true that for a small family–in size as well as stature–with children only 4 & 6 years old, this is a lot of money.  But Ella and Finn are terrific eaters, they eat exactly what we eat, and overall, we eat a lot–really a lot of fresh food.  Aside from extra water, some judiciously chosen canned goods, extra peanut butter, & crackers, and energy bars that we keep on hand for earthquake supplies (a necessity where we live, just in case) we have no processed food in the house.  The kids snack on fresh fruit, some cheese, some crackers, fresh nuts from the market, etc.  At the end of the week, all of the farmers market produce is gone.

I have certainly cut back in many ways.  I no longer buy three kinds of olives on a regular basis. We eat very little meat, and very small amounts when we do.  There was a time when I would have 2 kinds of prosciutto in the house, or specialty cheeses from Whole Foods, three or four kinds of olive oil, etc.  Now these kinds of things are reserved for dinner parties or special occasions.  We eat out less frequently.  And I don’t know what I would do without Trader Joes, where I can get lots of local products (masked as generic TJ brand) at terrific prices.

But I won’t compromise on the farmers market, nor on buying organic, local meats, nor on shunning processed and premade foods–with a very few exceptions.   Michael Pollan wrote recently in the New York Times that household spending on food has gone from 18% to less than 10%, which made me feel better when contemplating the fact that by far the largest part of our weekly budget goes to food.  There was a time in this country when it was normal to spend a good amount of money on good quality food.  I’m certainly not saying one has to spend a lot of money, nor that bargains can’t be found–just that what we put on our tables should be compromised as little as possible given the family budget.  I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to aim for spending the least amount possible on food (just as I think it’s no longer a wise choice for most of us regularly to splurge at specialty markets).

It’s our argument here that food and eating is a central part of family life, and that how we feed our young children has an impact not simply on their health, but also on their lifestyle, now and for the rest of their lives   For me, though some weeks I sigh as the food bills climb, the payoff is mmediately visible when we sit around our table. The lessons of how we eat are legion–eating fresh, eating locally, eating seasonally, supporting farmers, eating sustainable food, knowing the origins of their food, knowing how food makes its way from farm to table, understanding growing seasons, understanding the real cost of food, knowing that our economy directly supports the farm economy, knowing the animals they eat were raised humanely and sustainably, etc.

These are lessons that will resonate in my children’s lives for years to come.

Let us know what you think. How do you balance food and finances?