Giving up groceries: How we cut supermarkets, restaurants, and convenience stores from our diet

July 1 | Guest post by Rachel B.
Straight Outta Groceries bag by Mybebecadum

My husband and I wanted to have more control over our food, so we took the leap and eliminated the "Big G" — the grocery store, the supermarket — from our lives. We're urban farmers and grow and raise quite a bit of food, but you don't have to even grow a houseplant to be able to eliminate the grocery store from your vocabulary.

We're spending less and getting much better tasting, higher-quality food. Preparing food takes more time than throwing something in the microwave, but it's a tradeoff we're willing to make.

If you're feeling adventurous, here are tips on how to give up the Big G…

Make a game plan

Now is the perfect time to start; farmers' markets and CSAs are in full swing. Check out Local Harvest to find farmers' markets, independent farmers, and CSAs near you. Once you're started and in the groove of things it will give you time to find food sources and stock up for the winter.

market day at Columbia
Photo by Susan NYC. Used under Creative Commons license.

Be ready to eat seasonally and locally

When we gave up the grocery store, it also meant giving up tomatoes in the winter, citrus in the summer, and pretty much all tropical fruits like bananas. In exchange for giving up out-of-season produce, you get fresher foods with more flavor.

Start small

Nothing says you have to eliminate everything all at once. Maybe focus on buying all of your produce at the farmers' market right now. Or sign up for a CSA. Or eliminate processed food. Try finding something each month that you can eliminate buying from the grocery store and learn how to make it yourself or find it from an alternative source.

Dollhouse-Town Butcher Shop
Photo by Curious Expeditions. Used under Creative Commons license.

Don't fear specialty shops

Real butchers are making a comeback. You don't have to give up buying food from all retailers — the main point of giving up the Big G is to get closer to the source of your food. Fantastic cheesemongers who make their cheese, butchers who break down whole animals and are willing to talk to you about where they source from — there's no reason you shouldn't buy from them.

Learn how to can

Again, right now is the perfect time to stock up on produce at the farmers' market and preserve it at home for the winter months. A pressure canner is a worthy investment if you don't want to pickle everything.

You don't have to be a chef

All you need are good cookbooks and willingness to experiment. You will fail sometimes, but don't let it bother you. I was terrible at making bread at first — always ending up as a brick — but over time I've been able to perfect it.

Find a buying club or local cooperative — or start one

I found an organic local buying club that a woman runs out of her garage. We place a monthly order for bulk staples like flour, rice, and sugar, and pick it up from her house the following week. I found mine by Googling "food co-op in __________."

Conscientious carnivores can now find meat, egg, and dairy CSAs

Eat Wild lists pasture-based foods near you. Consider buying a big chunk of animal — a whole, half, or quarter — and maybe go in with friends. The more of the animal you buy the cheaper it is. We got a whole organically raised hog for $2/lb.

It takes time, but not as much as you'd think

We no longer have to go to the grocery store. We go to the farmers' market once a week and pick up our order once a month. Running an urban farm is a total time suck, but preparing our own food independently of that is a drop in the bucket. My husband and I work together which helps save a ton of time. He'll make the spaghetti sauce while I make the pasta. Leftovers are eaten the following day for lunch.

Get the right tools

It can sometimes require an initial investment but in the long run it will save you time and money. I picked up a brand new bread machine for $5 at the flea market. When I don't have time to make bread by hand, I can add ingredients to the machine before bed, set the timer and wake up to the smell of freshly baked bread for less than $0.50 a loaf. My stand mixer is indispensible. I don't know what I ever did without a mandoline for slicing soon-to-be pickles or a food mill for removing tomato skins and seeds while making sauce.

Refrigerator Pickles - Slicing Onions
Photo by Emily Barney. Used uncer Creative Commons license.

Be prepared to fall in love with living supermarket-free

When we hit our six month mark we realized that we really enjoyed eating this way and decided to keep doing it when our year was up.

Join our community!

  1. I love their blog! Definitely do-able for many people. We've been making a move to getting more of our produce from farms around here. Rock on!

  2. I love Rachel's quest for a grocery-free year! A great alternative for meat is an animal raised by a 4-H or FFA kid. These students (age 9 – 18) raise their own meat animals that are auctioned off or barn-sold at a county fair. It's good meat raised by an independent Jr. farmer that usually goes for a fraction of what you'd pay at the store. As a bonus you're supporting a local kid who's looking into the farming business.

    6 agree
    • Yes! This is awesome. However, if you're in California they are trying to pass a law making it illegal for these kids to sell their animals at fairs! It's called SB 917. Write your rep and tell them to vote no!

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      • While I support the need for some kind of "puppy mill, selling out of the trunk at Wal-mart" dog and cat protection, this bill is waaaay to loosely worded. How could people in California not realize what they were supporting? Or perhaps they did and the goal is to restrict ownership of all animals as per the PETA and HSUS agendas?

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    • I was/am a 4-Her, and while I didn't do the animal thing, most of my friends did and I helped with our local "4-H Day at the Park" where we showed animals at the county level so everyone could go on to showing at the state level. Anyway, I can say first hand that when you support these kids you raise their self esteem and help fund their future education! LOTS of kids saved the money for college, technical school, or to sink into future small farming business. The self esteem boost is no joke either, as a lot of these kids are from rural backgrounds and have often not been encouraged to succeed. I don't know much about FFA, but I do know that 4-H itself is also a program totally worth your support, where children and young adults learn how to do EVERYTHING with a focus on youth leadership. WOOOO 4-H!

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    • I bought a pig from a 4H fair. It was overpriced and the meat tasted odd.
      the child was forced to watch her pig to to the butcher shop. we had our picture taken w the pig, bf we sent it to Munster to have it butchered. we got it back in boxes. I tried to eat it, but just the thot of it made me sick. this was a child's pig. we couldn't forget the poor pig's horrible fate. I would never encourage a child to raise an animal for slaughter. that can only teach a person to become cold and psychopathic.

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      • Goodness, there must be MILLIONS of cold and psychopathic children running around, and adults too, for that matter, as 4H has been around for ages.
        Choosing not to eat the pig is a personal decision, but it's silly to judge a great group of kids and organization because of your squeamishness.

  3. I think that this is really great. We do go to the grocery a lot less than we used to, and certainly restaurants as well since I like to recreate tasty dishes tried elsewhere, but I would like to take it up a notch. I doubled the size of my raised garden beds this year. I need to make a bigger commitment to food preservation and finding more direct sources for buying meat. (I go to a local farm-run butcher now, but it's not as natural as I'd prefer.)

    Thanks for this great guide.

  4. I really enjoy the thought that you dont have to do it all at once. I always read these articles and think how cool! but no way could I…. now Im thinking about the one or two things we could eliminate just to get started.

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  5. Oh wow, I want to do this so badly. I'm already going to our farmers' market more & already am going to the grocery store less often. Kudos on the mandoline…my boyfriend always giggles at me when I use my slicers, but I have an odd fear of knives! 😛

  6. But.. what about things like vinegar, which you use in canning/cleaning? Do you buy those things?

    1 agrees
    • You can actually make your own vinegar! However it can take up to a year to finish. Or lactoferment your vegetables. Vinegar has been a thorn in my side. My buying club/co-op only carries apple cider vinegar so I'm stuck using that. Fortunately it's 5% so it keeps things safe if not a bit off tasting.

  7. This might be a silly question, but doesn't this get really expensive? I'd like to do a reduced version, but the prices at the organic farm near my house are outrageous.

    I know one easy answer is just to eat less, especially of expensive things like meat, eggs, cheese, and milk, but 1- those are the best foods (in my opinion) and 2- organic and local fruits, vegetables and grains are still pretty expensive.

    Any ideas for cutting down the Big G without having to cut everything else out of my life in order to afford it?

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    • THIS! Our farmer's market prices are FUCKING OUTRAGEOUS for the most part. We do a large garden in the summer, but without using a grocery store where I live, we run out of our veggie stockpile in mid winter.

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      • The best price on any food is at a vege auction. You can buy in bulk for practically nothing, from local farmers. Just google food auction in your area. It is usually the same day every week, and often at night.

        I can veges from there. The local Farmer's market here is owned by a local farmer. He has a shop, and a home cookin restaurant, and he discounts veges that are ripe, and ready to can immediately. I can buy his produce for less than the grocery store, and I know the farmer who raised this food.

    • CSA boxes may be a good option for you. Around here we can get a CSA box of organic produce that per pound costs me about the same as what I would pay for conventional produce in the supermarket. But we don't have a choice in what we receive for the most part.

      Also, one thing I like to buy from the supermarket are basic frozen veggies. The store brand is all stuff that is grown in my area anyway and sometimes is fresher than what is being sold as "fresh." Don't think I'll ever break myself of buying frozen beans, etc, especially in winter.

  8. The best way to reduce your cost is to grow it yourself but obviously not everyone can do that.

    However, by processing everything yourself you'll end up saving a ton of money. So while it might be more expensive to buy organic produce you can make that up by baking your own bread or making your own pasta. A loaf of bread here runs about $4 but I can make a loaf for less than $0.50. I can make 1 lb of mozzarella for less than what it costs to buy 1/2 lb of it. And buy in bulk. As I said, buying a whole, organic pig can drop the price to less than you can buy conventional grocery store pork for.

    We're spending the same amount of money than when we did shop at the grocery store and we get higher quality food. The only difference is that we spend more time with our food – which isn't a bad thing.

    • When you buy a whole hog does the farmer butcher it for you or are you responsible for that?

      • The quick and dirty answer is "kinda." It depends on the farm, but usually what happens is you purchase a live animal but it stays on the farm. The farmer will usually know a mobile butcher who you contact and schedule to come out and do the ranch kill. Ranch kills are done on site and IMO the best way to do it because the animal is less stressed. The butcher will then take the animal to their shop, hang it and butcher it for you to your specifications.

        Now some advice on the butcher. Make sure to specify before they slaughter the animal what you want to keep. Our first animal we bought whole the butcher ended up keeping some of the animal and throwing out some of it – all parts (skin, fatback, caul fat, leaf fat, trotters, spareribs etc.) we wanted but didn't specify in time. Because of that I had to go out and purchase some of those parts later so I could make sausage and head cheese.

        • Good to know! We have zero space for this sort of thing now but would be worth considering once we have a house. How many pounds of meat do you generally end up with?

          • It depends on the animal. Pigs will generally give you a hanging weight that is 60% of their live weight. The last hog we bought had a hang weight of 287lbs so it's live weight was somewhere in the 450lb range. Some of that is bone, of course, but you do get a lot of meat.

  9. Maybe a silly question, but what about those times when you're like "Oh shit! There's no milk to go in my cereal/side dish to go with dinner/xyz ingredient that i need for my recipe! I need to go to the store right NOW!"
    How does that work if your CSA dropoff isn't for another three days (or the farmer's market is only open once a week, etc)?

    • It sucks and we don't make the recipe/have cereal that day. The one thing it really makes you do is plan well. And sometimes there are ways around that. Like for milk, the butcher we go to sometimes stocks raw milk from a local farm. If you want a great example of this type of issue, we encountered it on the very first day of our year without groceries. You can read about it here: http://ayearwithoutgroceries.blogspot.com/2010/09/cheese-emergency.html
      What I don't include in that story is that the day of the party I realized we didn't have enough eggs to make the pasta but surprisingly we found a box of lasagna pasta in our cabinets. Planning – it will save your ass every time.

      • You can buy raw milk legally?? I'm impressed! Don't answer of course if you feel it's an invasion of privacy (or if you don't see this since I'm posting months… no more than a year… after the original post,) but where do you live? I know where I live, in WV, non-pastuerized milk and milk products occupy a sort-of-funny-sort-of-sad black market space. People sell and trade these products under the table, but it is actually very illegal. And yet coal companies here can do whatever the hell they want… oh West Virginia.

  10. The main thing that has helped me cut down on supermarkets was getting rid of my car.

    This means I've HAD to walk up to our local greengrocers, though I've been buying tofu, tempeh and non-dairy milks, loo roll and cleaning products from Waitrose (expensive but better than most supermarkets) which is still pretty good.

    It's actually cheaper to buy fruit and veggies from the greengrocers than in supermarkets, just more time consuming. But hey, when I see petrol prices at £1.37 ($2.20) I'm happy to take the time!

    2 agree
  11. I love reading about other people doing this! My partner and I have been slowly migrating this way for a little over a year now. First was the weekly CSA, then making the farmer's market a solid habit every Saturday, then we started getting milk through the Community Supported Kitchen, then switched to having a herd share with raw milk pick up. We get our meat from a few stalls at the farmer's market. The only things we're getting at the grocery store are tea, coffee, and staples like vinegar that we don't make ourselves (yet).

    Now that I've been through a whole year of eating seasonally and locally like this, I love looking forward to various veggies arriving, like okra, and butternut squash. We're also slowly incorporating more and more homemade products into the mix, like sauerkraut, pickles, and now our first batch of homebrew beer.

    Now if only our landlord would let us have chickens in the backyard.

  12. I had an interesting experience today at the farmers market.

    Here in NC we have TONS of farmers markets. I usually go to the main state farmers market as it has the most vendors and best selection. Well today we decided to check out the one closer to us because it's also the pickup spot for a butcher CSA box available here. It's in a part of town where CEOs, surgeons, and the like live. After chatting with the rancher about his CSA box, I decided to buy some peaches from the vendor next door. It's an orchard that I often buy peaches from when I go to the main market. To my surprise, they were charging a full TWO DOLLARS more for their peaches than they charge at the main market. When I asked them why the exact same peaches were so much more here, they sheepishly replied, "Because we can get more for them here."

    Lesson learned, don't go to the farmers market on the rich people side of town lol.

    1 agrees
    • OMG, tell me about it! Our city is one of the poorer ones in our area, which keeps the costs down substantially. If we can't make it to our Saturday market we have to hit up a Sunday market in another city. The Sunday markets all occur in affluent areas and we can expect to pay nearly double. Needless to say, we avoid missing the Saturday market.

  13. I love love this post:)

    I am wondering if anyone has any advice for buying in bulk when you live in a tiny one bedroom apartment. I have room for storing canned goods, but in terms of meat or anything else that needs to be frozen, we have a freezer that barely fits a frozen pizza! I have a couple of friends who have been talking about going in on buying a cow or a pig, and I would love to join but I'm worried I won't have the room for my part:(

    1 agrees
    • You can buy a smaller portion of the animal and can the meat. Home canned (in a pressure canner) meats do not taste like the meat you buy in cans at the grocery. They are actually very good! Even bacon can be canned.
      Things like ground meat can be cooked and dehydrated (google "Hambuger Rocks" for instructions) I dehydrated 5lbs of ground chuck as a test batch to make certain it was edible for my family, and it all fit in to a quart mason jar! Not only that, but it was indistinguishable in tacos and sloppy joes from freshly cooked.

  14. Mr. Ivriniel and I just moved to an awesome new house (It's 140 years old. Our floor beams are squared! cedar! logs!) on the edge of an historic Main St. in a small city. We really lucked out. The weekly farmer's market is steps from our home. As is the meat shop, and the bakery. Just down the street and around the corner is the cheese shop.

    My Dad was a grocer and so I had a front row seat to the changes that have taken place in the Grocery business over the past 30 years. My Dad started out as a grocery clerk and worked his way up to managing stores for a family-run regional chain, before buying his own small store, and joining a cooperative of small store owners.

    Well, that cooperative my Dad helped found was long ago bought out by a large grocery wholesaler, and the original owners of the franchise chain my Dad later joined passed on, leaving a new generation who actively tried to screw over their franchisees. My Dad tried to resist, and attempted to create a franchisee association, and engage in a class action lawsuit, but most of the other dealers were too scared to join. Dad was able to retire and get out of the business, but a fair number of his peers ended up as nothing more than managers of the stores they used to own.

    Makes me so glad that neither myself or my siblings wanted to get into the business.

    1 agrees
  15. I feel like I have so much to learn (except for the meat and dairy, as I am vegan and my husband is vegetarian). It's really inspiring to see this though, we have a large backyard and I want at least 1/3 of it to be garden once it's in the condition to start planting. I hope that when we have a kid the only things I buy are almond milk and the occasional tofu!
    I just saw that I live in the same town as Rachel! I feel kind of creepy thinking "ooh, maybe I'll run into her at the farmers market???"

    • That would be funny but we're actually going this last three months (we're actually over 9 months in, I guess my blurb needs to be updated) of our year not buying any food at all and subsisting completely off of our garden and what we have stored. So no farmers' market for awhile. We have made lots of friends down there though, including Marty Brown, David from Designs by David and the two organic farmers.

      BTW (shameless plug time) for anyone that wants to see more of what we do, Whole Foods will be featuring us and our year without groceries on their Facebook Thrive Network in an upcoming episode of "Grow: The Story of an Urban Farmer."

      • Rachel, do you have any advice for those of us "lower income" folks who still want to be as ethical as possible when it comes to food consumption? My fiance and I will be heading out to our local Farmer's Market for the first time next week, and I have always been under the impression that it's more expensive than big market shopping.

        • Fluffyowl, I've actually found that shopping at the farmers' market was cheaper than at the grocery store. At least in my area, but we live in a poorer city so the prices are at least 25% cheaper than in surrounding cities' farmers' markets. One thing that did save us a TON of money was by learning how to make a lot of stuff from scratch like bread (costs us less than $0.50 loaf), tortillas, pasta, crackers, etc.

          • Thanks! Shortly after I posted that comment, I found a CSA in my area and after doing the math for membership, it does seem like it will actually save us money in the long run but they aren't starting their 2012 membership until November, so we will try the farmer's markets 'til then. I'm hoping it's something we can stick with because the more I learn about our nation's agriculture system, the more horrible I feel! Looking into bread machines too, they are a bit pricey but as you said before, it's an investment that will pay off. Though I am going to shop around at the second hand stores in the hopes that I will be as lucky as you and find one for 5 bucks!

  16. Great post. We only have one farmers market where I live but its awesome! It also has a butcher plus local milk etc. I rarely attend the supermarket. Anything I cant get from the farmewrs market I go to our small local corner store/ supermarket. It means still buying some big brands but Im still suporting my next door neighbour and they sell a lot of local stuff including milk, bread, eggs and some specialty stuff.

  17. Rachel, I love your year without groceries blog and have gotten a lot of inspiration and good ideas from it!
    I've managed to cut down on my supermarket dependence a lot but when it comes to non-edibles, it's very hard.
    Things like cat litter, toilet paper, painkillers, many toiletries that aren't so easy to make… even the toiletries and cleaning products I make myself depend on products from the supermarket such as bicarb soda, washing soda, etc.
    How do you get around this?

  18. I am really interested in this, but curious how you procure enough raw materials. Where do you get flour, cornmeal, salt, dried beans, yeast, baking powder, etc?

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