Planting. Weeding. Watering. Harvesting. Canning. Dehydrating. Freezing. When October finally arrived this year and things gradually started to slow down I would stop periodically and gaze lovingly at my full pantry shelves over-flowing with over 700 jars of stored food, the freezers full of our own meat, fruit and vegetables, and jars of dehydrated fruit. Then I went to the grocery store and came home with more food. When my husband’s aunt heard the number of jars of food I had canned and told me that was 2 jars of food a day we needed to eat, for 365 days, not including the food in the freezers or the dehydrated food, I finally realized what we needed to do… we needed to stop buying food. With buckets of beans in the freezer and pounds of carrots still underground why was I coming home with vegetables? Surely we could stop buying food and eat what we had.
I have a tendency to hoard the food I worked so hard for, but realistically it all needs to be eaten before we harvest it again next summer. A plan began to take shape in my head. I had read a blog post about a couple who stopped buying groceries for a year. They had their exceptions: they bought from local farmers and markets, or traded and bartered. This is a neat idea, and helps support the local farmers, but in November in Canada there isn’t much to buy from local farmers, and besides, we really already have it all. We have fresh eggs and milk, and so much food preserved we would last a long time if we could never buy food again. If they could go a year, surely we could go a month!
And so we began.
My goal was to make sure that my pantry was full of baking necessities, and I bought extra local cheese and butter, freezing the butter. Other than that, I did not buy anything extra. We didn’t buy any packaged or prepared food. We had a case of our own apples in the fridge, and I dehydrated some bananas and apples. Our garden still had carrots, lettuce, chard, kale, broccoli and radishes.
Within the first week all fresh store-bought produce was gone. We were relying on the garden, cool-storage and freezer for vegetables.
Starting in the second week we had below freezing temperatures for ten days. This finished off much of the garden, and the escaped pigs finished off the rest.
By the third week I discovered we were running low on chocolate chips. Horrors! :) We did without. Pretty much everything else was still well stocked. Even the canning shelves didn’t look like there was much taken out of them. The only thing I craved was greens… a nice big salad! This kick-started an indoor greens garden project. A few days later I had sprouts growing in jars and in dirt, and the lettuce and mustard green had sprouted. No one needs greens that come from Mexico in the winter. We can grow our own.
By the fourth week our fridge contained pretty much just jars. Jars of milk, jars of homemade yogurt, a jar of homemade mayo, relish and sauces, jams, canned fruit etc. The kids grabbed dehydrated fruit for snacks instead of fresh fruit from the fridge. The frozen blueberries became more important, and the dehydrated apples, pears and bananas were brought out. We were missing things like avocados, oranges, bananas, tomatoes and greens. All of those things, though, are either not local or are not grown here this time of year. We used a lot of frozen peas, corn and beans, the last of the carrots out of the garden, and squash or pumpkin became a feature. Still though, there was no sense of need or depletion of our stores.
Our month without groceries has taught us some valuable lessons.
- No grocery shopping means no plastic bags. You can’t even get upset with yourself for forgetting the cloth bags. The opportunity is simply not there. You are getting greener.
- No grocery shopping means almost no recycling. We didn’t stock up on packaged food so there was no packages to recycle or throw out. After all our hard work preserving food all summer, we really CAN preserve enough to THRIVE, not just make it through, the winter.
- Much smaller carbon footprint. If you aren’t driving to the store you aren’t burning fossil fuels to get there. And neither are you buying food that came from somewhere far away, that has, itself, a significant carbon footprint.
You save money.
- To start with you can’t impulse shop. If you aren’t there to see it, you won’t be buying it. The end.
- You aren’t affected by advertising. 2 for 1 apple juice! Too bad I am not going to the grocery store to buy it!
- You aren’t buying any prepared food which is a lot more expensive than buying the raw ingredients with which to make it. You use what you have which uses things up and keeps you from buying unnecessary food.
Value your food
- You learn pretty quickly the value of treats. Food that we didn’t have, such as fresh out of season produce or tropical fruits, can be truly enjoyed and valued when eaten as a treat rather than every day. My seven year old daughter came home with an uneaten mandarin orange in her lunch box. When I questioned her about it she told me that a boy had brought a box of mandarins to school to share with the class. Everyone had one. She took hers home because she remembered that we couldn’t have oranges this month and she wanted us all to share it. For supper that night, along with our meal we had a little slice of orange cut up neatly by my daughter and placed on each plate. She had learned how to value a treat, and how to share it with others when she could have eaten it all on her own without us even knowing she had it. <3
- You learn to value the resources you have in your freezer, on your shelves, or in your garden.
Reap the health benefits
After eating homemade food for a month when you DO have processed food you are a bit overcome by the intensity of the salt, the sugar and the flavor. Your body has adjusted to how you are cooking and it no longer tastes bland; it is just what food tastes like. But when you are hit with the over-salted, over-sugared, over-fatted processed food, your body rebels by feeling sick. I ate a candy and within a few minutes developed a headache and felt sick to my stomach. It is amazing how quickly our bodies become used to and even addicted to flavoring, salt, sugar and fat. After “cleansing” our bodies of it, we realize exactly what we are doing to our health by eating processed food in the first place.
- “Any habit can be broken in 30 days” I read once. Well, I don’t know how accurate this is, but I certainly know that our lifestyle has been altered significantly after completing this challenge, and I know that it won’t swing back to how it was. Every single day for thirty days I have had to come up with 3 meals a day and lots of snack ideas with only what was in the house. This makes for simple eating, and crafty thinking. Who needs a granola bar for a snack when you could have sliced apples and cheese? We will be looking deeper into the cupboards now rather than running off to the store.
- During this challenge I taught my seven year old daughter how to read recipe books and follow recipes. Now, when she is looking for a snack that isn’t already there, she pulls out a recipe book and makes it from the ingredients we have on hand.
- With our craving for fresh greens I took on projects I had never done before, like sprouting beans and growing lettuce indoors. This challenge has helped us look for alternatives rather than just automatically buying something.
How Long Could We Go?
Before the invention of the grocery store people just DID put up enough food for the winter. It was a matter of life or death. Today, we don’t have to although we could. Is it doable? Well, that depends on how far you take it. We did buy supplies so that we could bake and continue to eat pretty much the same as we ever did. That’s just storage though. We didn’t grow the wheat or oats. Without those supplies we would be living a far different life, and adapting to a different diet. Our quality of life might decrease much further though, and I wasn’t prepared to force my family into something that wasn’t a group decision. Judging from the one month of no grocery shopping, we would definitely have enough meat, potatoes, flour and canned food to last us the year. We would not have enough fresh fruit or dehydrated fruit just from our own supplies.
What can we improve on for next year?
In order to go more than a month without fresh fruit we would have to dehydrate more. The kids love fresh fruit and I don’t see why we need to make them do without for extended periods of time unless we have to. We still have a lot of frozen vegetables but I think we would need to add more next year if we were to get through a winter comfortably.
Will we do the challenge again?
I am sure we will! In fact, after just one month my canning pantry hardly looks like it has been touched yet. The freezers are still loaded and the food must be eaten. And in keeping with Christmas this year, eggnog can be made from eggs and milk produced on our farm, and the ham in the freezer sounds particularly tasty for Christmas. Christmas treats can be made with whole ingredients with not much difficulty, and with a large stash of pumpkins, frozen apple slices and lard, the pies won’t be lacking! Maybe by Christmas the lettuce will be ready to harvest :).
Ready for the challenge yourself?
Ever wonder how long you could go without buying food? Ever wonder how prepared you would really be to spend a winter without groceries? You could try it even just for a week to get some kind of an idea of what it would be like! We now know we could go through the winter with the food we have, although we would miss the fresh fruit. With a little ingenuity though, it is definitely doable, and has made me feel just a little more sustainable in this crazy world of ours.