The Cheapskate's Guide to Food Preservation

I’ve had a lot of questions lately about the economics of food preservation. If you have to buy 20 pounds of tomatoes to make it worth your while, and farmer’s market tomatoes cost $3 a pound, how can you afford it? And if you can only afford to can/freeze/dehydrate supermarket tomatoes, why bother? This is an excellent question—it’s also come up in the national media, like this article in Salon by someone who tried to “save money” by making strawberry jam with Union Square Greenmarket berries.

So let’s talk about it.

First, it’s true that, traditionally, food preservation was the province of people who grew their own food. Canning and freezing have long been the default choices of cash-poor farmers with lots of land and time on their hands. This description no longer fits most people who can, but it remains true that the cheapest way to preserve food is to grow it yourself.

Unless you’re living on a small-scale organic farm, though, this isn’t helpful advice. Fortunately, there are other options for city and suburban folks. In order of frugality, your best options are:

1) Pick your own. Prices at Mood’s, my favorite U-pick in South Jersey, range from $0.85 for peaches to $1.15 for blueberries. Hard to beat, but you do need time. And a car.

57-pounds-of-tomatoes2) Buy seconds. “Seconds” are fruits or vegetables that aren’t quite perfect. You have to be careful—sometimes seconds are actively gross. Mostly, though, they’re perfectly serviceable. This photograph shows what someone at my local farmer’s market sold me when I asked her for $20 worth of seconds. She gave me about 57 pounds of slightly cracked (look carefully at the bowl on the left) but otherwise beautiful tomatoes—a steal at about $.40 a pound. If you don’t see any on display, ask. Often a farmer will have bushels of seconds stashed until a table or in a truck, just waiting for someone to ask for them. Other tips: show up early (beat the other canners!) and build a relationship.

50-ears-of-corn3) Buy in bulk. If seconds aren’t an option, at least ask for a discount. To your left, check out the 50 ears of corn I lugged home last weekend. Ordinarily, corn sells at our market for the premium of $0.50 an ear. For a farm girl, this is borderline extortion. So, I simply asked: how much of a discount would you give me for 50 ears? The price dropped to $0.40/ear. Still pricey, but 20% less than advertised (and, incidentally, cheaper than at my grocery store). You can improve your odds by showing up toward the end of the market, especially on rainy days. Look around for whoever has lots of produce left, and make them an offer.

And remember, you don’t need to invest in fancy equipment. If you’ve already got a chest freezer, you’ll only need to invest in a solid stash of freezer bags. If you’d rather can, Mason jars and lids are all you’ll need. Once you’ve bought the jars and rings, you can reuse them indefinitely. You do need to buy new lids every time, but that will only put you back about $2 per dozen lids.

Now, what did I do with my 57 pounds of tomatoes and 50 ears of corn? A dozen pints of canned tomatoes, 9 pints of tomato sauce, 3 pints of roasted tomatoes, 6 half-pints and one pint of roasted tomato salsa, 6 pints of tomato-pepper salsa, 7 pints of corn relish, and about 15 quart bags of corn for the freezer. Not bad for $41.

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9 comments to The Cheapskate's Guide to Food Preservation

  • Tara

    It’s interesting how prices differ in different places. I live in Iowa. At my local pick your own blueberries are 3.00/pound and even for seconds at a farmers market I don’t think I could get that great of a price on tomatoes. On the other hand corn is usually about 5.00/bakers dozen-about .38 per ear.

    In my reading so far New Jersey seems to be the one of the best place for good prices though. Lucky you!

  • Definitely a timely post as this has been on my mind lately. I think often my jams don’t save a whole lot of money – except that we’re getting really premium jam, when we usually spend less on the cheap supermarket brand. If we bought the gourmet jam regularly – it would cost less to make our own.

    And just this past weekend I made 28.75 liters worth of garlic dill pickles for around $35. Not too shabby. We got a great deal on pickling cucumbers by agreeing to buy the farmer’s market stand out at the end of a slow day sale… 30.5lbs for $20.

  • katie

    I’ve been thinking about this as well. I’m really lucky in that my in-laws always grow more than they can actually use and are more than happy to share. It’s been a great way to bond with my MIL, too since she is also in to canning.

    Question – could you post what you do to can roasted tomatoes? I’ve been freezing them, but would love to free up some freezer space if possible. I’m relatively new to canning so am not very comfortable striking out without guidelines yet…

  • dorisandjilly

    Katie–stay tuned. The roasted tomato post should be up in a few days, after a more basic tomato post.

  • Christine

    I have also wondered about the cost-effectiveness of growing my own food. So I kept track—–sort of –of the prices. Seed for my garden was just under $30 this year. Blight got most of my tomatoes but I did harvest about 30-40 pounds of potatoes. These I cooked and mashed without butter/milk and froze in vacuum bags..very easy to reheat in the oven and add the butter and milk then…..I got over 7 quarts of green beans (and plants still going strong) which I blanch and freeze in vacuum sealed canning jars. Onions ( a years worth!) are flash frozen in small cubes and then frozen in canning jars. I got 6 quarts of strawberries and four of blackberries…all frozen now and tonight I will be cooking and freezing beets and the greens (a years worth of these too!) Yes some vegetables didn’t make it (how could zucchinni not make it?) but when I look at my well stocked freezer and think of the days when I will make jams, etc…..well that feeling just isn’t measured by a dollar. I have a full time job and a large house but gardening and preserving is a relaxing hobby for me. One that gives my family variety and me the satisfaction of working outside in the summer!

  • dogear6

    When I started preserving my own food, I realized that unless I grew a huge garden, it would not for saving money. I work a full-time job with a lot of overtime and realistically do not have time for much beyond the two small raised beds that I currently have.

    However, what I have canned and preserved tastes wonderful, far beyond what I can buy. I know the only preservatives are vinegar and ascorbic acid.

    I do get some good deals. When local squash and peaches are on sale for less than $1 per pound, I buy 20+ pounds at a time. I go out to a local orchard and buy boxes of apples for $1.19 / pound to make applesauce and dried apple rings.

    I need my job and exchange my time at work for those who grow local produce. We need each other.

  • […] with enough tomatoes to take a chance on, I decided to try a sweet pepper salsa. (I realize that this flies in the face […]

  • Walt

    For those of us who don’t have the healthy backs (or space and time) for a traditional garden, the “square foot gardening” method is ideal.
    Very productive, very simple, and cheap way to grow nearly everything that you might want.
    Google “square foot gardening” and you’ll get all of the info that you will need.

  • bladerunner

    You really do need to compare like to like. Are you looking at your purchase of the tomatoes? Or of the salsas, tomato sauces, and relishes? If you bought those items in the store, I’m sure it would come out to way more than the cost of the tomatoes & corn. Same with jam – sure, there’s the cost of buying the berries. But the jam I make, I can’t find anything like it in the stores – standard or gourmet stores. So for me, it’s totally worth it to buy good stuff and then make even better stuff.