Co-op on a Budget: The Value of Education

This is the fouth post in our Co-op on a Budget series, which explores the different ways that we can shop co-op effectively and affordably. Also check out the first post, on shopping bulkthe second post, on the Wedge Co-op vs. Cub Foods, and the third post, on Eastside Food Co-op vs. Rainbow.

It was a cold January day when I found myself cycling to the Linden Hills Co-op for a class called "Eating Economically" offered through their events program and taught by a cache of educators/chefs. (Notice in that one statement all of the intangible "costs/benefits" that are often overlooked when shopping co-op: health benefits from cycling as opposed to driving to a more distant discount store, saving a few bucks on gas, less environmental impact by choosing a store close at hand, and the added social benefit of education offered by a co-op.) I had no idea what I was in for, but knew that any class with that title would certainly be good fodder for another article in our Co-op on a Budget series. The class was warm and cozy and led by Abby Randall, an energetic, passionate, and knowledgable chef ready to help us become a bit smarter with our food dollars. 


Of course with a title like "eating economically," I imagined all sorts of things…a tour of the store pointing out sale items, a discussion of the savings of bulk foods, resources at the co-op to help us plan meals…anything but what Chef Randall was about to tell us. She was armed with four strategies to make us smarter cooks and better stewards of our food and the environment. I plan to go through each of her strategies and share my take on them and what I learned. 


The first on the list was to "Preserve your produce". I was visibly surprised. Here was an idea so simple that I hadn't considered it as a viable strategy to save money, but of course, it is. Put simply, the more you throw away, the more money you waste. Consider the humble apple as an example. You, the savvy shopper, bring home a 5-lb bag that costs much less than the bulk price of picking out your own apples. The problem is, you then only use half the bag before they go bad. The money paid for those apples only counts for what you eat. Sure you brought home five pounds of food, but only ate two and a half pounds. One could argue that those apples you paid $1.50/lb for actually cost double that since half were thrown away. 


The lesson is that we simply don't have to accept that. There are a number of preservation strategies we could have employed to save that valuable food. Turn those apples into sauce, make fruit leather or dried apples with your oven or a dehydrator, ferment them into a compote or chutney, can them as apple butter or pie filling, freeze them, make an apple liquor or juice them. Anything but toss them. The only thing she suggested we toss was the old adage, "If in doubt, throw it out." A truly wasteful philosophy that only the paranoid and uncreative should employ.


Much of the class was focused on the ideas that most anything can be preserved in a myriad of ways. Here was her list: 








Jellies, jams, compotes


Cellaring/dry storage



Indeed, it is quite a list and it came from the mouth of a true believer and practitioner of simple preservation. It was enough to make everyone in the class consider if they had a room in the basement to store food in and if they should invest in a dehydrator or chest freezer. I personally was inspired to take the box of farmer's market potatoes that were sprouting in my cellar and preserve them. I simply baked off the lot of them and then diced and froze them on sheet trays. The result has been ready to use potatoes that fry up crisp and wonderful for breakfast or with burgers.


Strategy two was simply to eat locally. Here we go with the more esoteric approach to saving money that makes some roll their eyes, but I don't need to be convinced of the value. On the list of benefits were the following: Better flavor and quality (less bad parts to trim and waste), prime nutrient content, reduced carbon footprint, support the local economy and "landscape", and  potential bargains at farmer's markets, with whole animal shares, pick-your-own farms, and "second-picked" veggies. She forgot to mention that it is really fun to shop locally, but I will add it here!


Strategy three? Portion control. We've heard this one before probably, but it can't be understated. More than just dollars and cents on a per pound basis, reducing the mass will work wonders on your budget (and health). Obviously if you cut an expensive meat serving from 8 oz to 4 oz, you will suddenly find yourself with extra cash and what used to be enough for 1-2 meals, is plenty for 3 or 4. Here were the other tips: 

Eat at the table, not in the car or in front of the tv. Distracted eating leads to more eating. 

Don't skip breakfast. It settles you and leads to more control throughout the day.

Start with a salad. It will make you feel full faster.

Use a smaller plate. Studies have shown that people with larger serving vessels indeed eat more.

Plan your meals and snacks. Planning ahead and having healthy snacks in your cupboard will keep you from impulse snacking or having to go to the vending machine for something less than ideal.


Strategy four was DIY convenience foods and the rest of the class was focused on this idea, with some on-the-spot cooking demonstrations. It is a smart plan, yet the most challenging of all the strategies because it would require some knowledge, planning, and new habits. The payoff though would benefit not only your health and stress levels, but your wallet as well. 


The theory is that there are any number of "convenience" foods and techniques that require some simple ingredients and when produced ahead of time would be available for any number of uses, without much of a time investment. How about an example? Chef Randall made a simple wild rice salad with beets, kale, peppers, onion, garlic, and a basic vinaigrette. It uses foods that can be prepped in advance and used for all sorts of other dishes (who wouldn't benefit from a big bag full of chopped onions or a big jar of vinaigrette?). Plus, the finished dish could make a great lunch, could top a green salad or be used as a dinner side dish. And it gets better as it sits. Perfect. 


The premise of prepped foods was one of the big concepts. Take an hour or two each week to prep some onions, beets, grains, and dressings, and when the time comes to make a meal, your prep time should drop from a lot to almost none. Of course it takes either good planning or a really creative, improvisational cook to pull this off, but certainly only a modicum of skill. After all, anyone can chop an onion, learn to cook a grain or make simple salad dressing (see a previous SGT article about simple dressings here and also a previous SGT article about creating a weekly meal plan here).


In the end, I learned quite a bit about new ways to think about feeding my family. I learned not to give up on produce if it starts to turn or look less than fresh. I learned that part of the value of shopping co-op is that they actually care a lot about helping everyone shop smarter, eat better, and save money (thank you, Linden Hills Co-op!). It is not always about the price point and indeed, in this case, it is about realizing what you have at the tips of your fingers when you shop co-op. You have a huge pool of resources. They offer classes, relationships with farmers and chefs, information in the form of brochures and cookbooks, and real people who are passionate about food in every aisle. As this series is showing, shopping at a food co-op on a budget is not just possible, there are people ready to help make it happen.


Thanks to the Linden Hills Coop for their continued sponsorship of Simple, Good and Tasty and also for holding these excellent classes for anyone to attend (and having us at this one as a guest). See their events page here. Chef Abby Randall can be found at her website, Your Kitchen Accomplice


Some resources for preserving your food, courtesy of Chef Abby Randall and SGT:

So Easy to Preserve by University of Georgia Cooperative Extension

Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving

Preserving Summer’s Bounty by Rodale Garden Book

Root Cellaring by Mike & Nancy Bubel

Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning; by Deborah Madison

Preserving by Oded Schwartz

Dehydrating Books by Mary Bell of the Dry Store

Fresh Food from Small Places, R.Ruppenthal

Fermenting by Sandor Katz

Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman

Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon

Savoring the Seasons of Northern Heartland, Lucia Watson/Beth Dooley

Cooking with the Seasons , Monique Hooker

The Victory Garden Cookbook, Marian Morash

Farmer John’s Cookbook, J. Peterson

Renewing America’s Food Traditions, Chelsea Green




Lawrence Black is a writer and editor at Simple, Good, and Tasty. He has two kids and loves gardening, cooking and eating with them. He writes the regular Latin Tongue series, and his last article in the Co-op on a Budget series was: Co-op on a Budget: Start Smart. He can be reached at: