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Making your food budget go further is a huge goal for self-reliant people. We’d like to feed ourselves more from our own backyard and spend less money at grocery stores, but we don’t want to sacrifice good food in the process.

Stretching your food budget can also help you be more prepared when a disaster strikes—in essence, making your food go further when you need it. The more you can provide at home, from your homegrown food and a well-stocked pantry, the more you can stay out of the grocery store or survive and thrive when food is scarce.

Stretching your food budget is about more than buying less expensive products, using coupons, or shopping sales.  It is about changing how you provide food for yourself and your family. 

The following shifts in perspective may help you to cut costs and be more self-reliant.

Provide Your Own Food

The first suggestions is probably the most obvious – provide more of your own food.  You can do that by growing food, foraging for wild edibles, raising animals, or hunting.  For many folks who aspire toward self-reliance, the best place to start is with a vegetable garden.  Growing vegetables from seed is much cheaper than buying vegetables, or even buying vegetable plants, plus you’ll get higher quality produce. 

Once you feel comfortable with gardening, you can move on to raising animals.  Many people start with chickens (which you can grow for meat or eggs), then move on to larger farm animals as they expand their operation.  You might want a cow or goat for milk products, or to process for meat.  Fishing is also a strategy for providing your own food that many homesteaders, focused on the land, neglect to consider. 

The key is to start with the next easiest step.  Have a garden that produces just a few things?  Try seed starting this year or expand it by 20 square feet.  Have a big garden and want to consider adding animals?  Start by doing some research on raising chickens or beekeeping to see what might make the most sense for you. 

Preserve the Food you Provide

Once you’ve started providing more of your own food, the next step is to make it last longer.  A garden is great when its in season, but how do you benefit from that garden year-round?  Start learning how to can things like sauces, salsa, and jams.  Learn which veggies are best to freeze and how to store root vegetables without taking up refrigerator space.  Grow a year’s worth of garlic and never have to buy garlic again!

Investing in a vacuum sealer can be a great choice for self-reliant living.  A vacuum sealer helps you to store veggies without freezer burn and safely store large quantities of meat for the long term.

When it comes to staying away from the grocery store, you can also store most dairy products like bulk cheese, butter, and milk in the freezer to thaw when you need them.  Even if you don’t provide these yourself, you can buy in bulk when prices are cheaper or when you find yourself at the store and save a trip into town later.

Bulk grains in jars on a shelf
Bulk grains are cost efficient, nutritious, and long-lasting.

Stock your Pantry with Bulk Food

Skip the boxed mixes and head right to the bulk food section if you want to stock your pantry for long-term sustenance more cheaply.  Cooking with things like whole grains and dried beans is healthier for you and much more cost effective.  And these grains last a long time when stored in air tight containers or mason jars.

A great tool for incorporating dried beans and grains into your diet is an Instant Pot.  Rather than soaking beans for 8 hours and then boiling, you can reconstitute a batch of dried beans in less than 30 (hands-off) minutes.  The Instant Pot is also excellent for stew, curry, and chili – all meals that will last you a long time and cost pennies on the dollar compared to other options.

If you can find sources for large bulk orders for the things you use regularly like flour, rice, or oats you can store them in large plastic bins or gallon-sized bags in the freezer.  A 25lb bag of flour costs much less on a per pound basis than buying five pounds five times, and it keeps you away from the grocery store.

bowl of vegetarian stew
Vegetarian grains are a nutritious, low-cost option for saving money on food.

Go vegetarian More Often

In addition to all of the veggies you can grow yourself, many of the grains and beans that you can get in bulk can be great meals by themselves without adding meat. If you aren’t already eating things like quinoa, amaranth, and farro they are definitely grains you’’ll want to consider incorporating into your menu.  They make for a great breakfast cereal, salad, or filler (in place of bread crumbs) in things like burgers and can also be served in place of rice to add variety to your meals.  These grains pack a protein punch that can replace meat in terms of nutritional value.

Dried beans are also a great bang for your buck.  If you re-constitute a few cups of black beans at the beginning of the week you can then eat burgers, burritos, and rice bowls all week long.  Likewise with dried garbanzo beans (chick peas) which can be used to make hummus for snacking, dried to make finger food, or cooked up into a curry. 

loaf of bread wrapped up for neighbor
A loaf of homemade bread all wrapped up to trade with a neighbor for eggs.

Barter with Neighbors & Friends

If you live in an area where other people are also thinking about self-reliance, you have the opportunity to find efficiency and save money with your neighbors or friends.  We have a large vegetable garden, our neighbor has chickens.  She loves spinach and we love eggs.  A match made in heaven. 

We’ve also put messages out to our neighborhood forum and traded honey for squash, traded more of our honey for a cousin’s venison, and our local farm stand was happy to give us store credit in exchange for our bumper crop of rhubarb.  Heck, we even traded a loaf of homemade bread for a bag of chocolate chips when stores were running low during a pandemic!

You might not be able to grow or raise all of the food you need yourself, but if you team up with others who complement what you can offer, the rewards are endless.  Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.  As I’ve written about before, self-reliance does not mean having to be totally self-sufficient.  In fact, we love the way that our efforts toward self-reliance actually help to connect us with our neighbors!

homemade crackers on a cutting board with cheese
Homemade crackers cost a fraction of store-bought
and can be made with just a few simple ingredients.

Make your own ______ Instead of Buying it

Lastly, you can save a ton of money by making what you eat on a regular basis yourself rather than buying it from the store.  We’re not just talking about meals here.  You can make your own bread on a weekly basis with just a few simply supplies.  If you are a seltzer drinker you can buy a soda stream and avoid all of the plastic bottles and soda cans that crowd your recycling, while also saving money.  The list of what you can make at home is endless – crackers, granola, vanilla, wine!.

We decide what to make at home based on cost savings, ease of making, deliciousness-factor, and the desire to save on packaging.  What you choose to make at home might vary depending on your interests and how much time you have.  Choose things you actually enjoy making to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

The truth is, saving money on food is really about relying less on the big supermarket or the restaurant and relying more on yourself. Take it one step at a time and you’ll soon find that your bills are less and your satisfaction is higher!

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Carrie Williams Howe is an educational leader by day and an aspiring homesteader by night and weekend. She lives on a small homestead in Vermont with her husband, two children, and a rambunctious border collie. She blogs about her family's homestead life at The Happy Hive.

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