Secrets of the supermarket ninjas

October 27, 2009

In a previous post I claimed that we were “supermarket ninjas” and Mellopuffy asked how we managed on so little each week.

I’ve been thinking about this, and I think comes down to these things:

1. Kathy is a vegetarian, and I only eat meat dinners maybe half the week. When I look at our grocery bill, the priciest regular items are wine and meat. If we both ate meat in typical New Zealand portions every night, our grocery bill would be a lot larger.

2. We buy very little in the way of processed food. No biscuits, no cakes, no muesli bars, no pre-made sauce, no packet mixes or tinned soups. I make our bread from scratch, and usually our yoghurt. If I want baking to take somewhere, or for an occasion, I bake. I have a good repertoire of dinner dishes that don’t take much when I’m tired, so I don’t need sauce in a jar.

I think the bread in itself is good for about $10 in savings a week. We would normally go through three loaves and that would be over $12 at supermarket, whereas the ingredients for a home made loaf total less than a dollar.

Because of points 1 & 2, we incidentally have a pretty healthy diet, which is a happy bonus effect.

Of course cooking everything and avoiding treats is a lot easier when you don’t have children, and I know that plenty of grownups would balk at not having any snack food in the house. Well, tough. That’s how it’s done. My Mum always said if you weren’t hungry enough to eat an apple or make a cheese sandwich, then you weren’t hungry.

Cooking is like any other skill — if you do it every day, you can achieve a tolerable level of efficiency, whereas if you only do it when you have plenty of time, you will probably stay an inefficient bungler and packets really will always be easier.

Example super cheap, fast meal for low-energy  evenings:

Pasta with broccoli sauce. Chop broccoli into tiny pieces, mince a couple of cloves of garlic, saute in olive oil with pepper until broccoli is cooked (put a lid on the pan for the last couple of minutes and the broccoli will steam). Toss through rigatoni or similar with grated cheese on top and maybe some more oil. Should take 20 minutes or less, and is very tasty.

I find Italian cookbooks particularly inspirational because lots of country food from that region is cheap, fast, and based around seasonal vegetables, and tasty with a little sharp cheese, oil and pepper. An interesting thing I’ve found is that nice cheese and good oil seem like luxuries, but they’re actually condiments that you use in small amounts to make much bigger quantities of cheap stuff nicer. So I tend not to be so hard-arsed about olive oil and cheese.

3. I buy our fruit and veg at the market on a Sunday, and that’s about 30% cheaper than the cheapest supermarket I know of. It is another trip in my week, but on the other hand I enjoy the market as a social experience. I often spend some of the savings on a roti or a dim sum or something too…

4. We shop at the cheapest supermarket in the area. Last weekend I spent a New World gift voucher, and I noticed how much more expensive New World prices are compared to the Kilbirnie Pak’N’Save, confirming for me the claim that they are the cheapest supermarket in Wellington. I’m pretty sure I’d have to spend a significant amount in transport to go anywhere cheaper.

5. We are sensible buyers: we stockpile when staples are on special, diligently compare unit prices, and always use a shopping list.

6. We buy in bulk when we can. For example, I buy my bread flour in 5kg sacks. If I had suitable storage, I’d probably buy 10kg ones. Likewise I buy olive oil in 4l tins, onions in 5kg bags, and meat by the half carcass when the freezer has space. Moore Wilson wholesale is not as cheap as it used to be, I reckon, but still turns up some good prices on catering sized stuff. Basically, if it doesn’t go off before we can finish it, and we have room to store it, I’ll invest in any large portion.

In summary, I’d say it’s cooking our own semi-vegetarian diet that really makes the big difference. It’s the nice food from simple ingredients that backs my claim “we eat well.” But there are some other things that help too, allowing me to blow some money on wine and chocolate out of the surplus.



  1. Thanks for that Stephen, there’s definitely tips in there that I can use. I think the hardest thing for me at present is finding the time and energy to prepare food for my one year old, so i often end up using tinned baby/toddlers food (which of course, is not particularly cheap). Hoping that the summer will find me tapping some newfound energy to get my act together in this regard….

  2. Meat by the carcass, you say? Would you be interested in sharing a farmgeek pig?

    • ooooooo…. that is very, very tempting.

      would we have to collect the beast in a half, or in cuts?

  3. I do pretty much the same as you have desribed above (except the bread). I do have a few issues since I moved to Dunedin though. As I live out of town the petrol involved in getting to the markets for fresh vege almost negates the cost savings. In summer you can buy off the market garden locally though. I try to counter this with a veggie garden. Still not a big saving I have to say. The supermarkets here are the same prices as Dunedin but still WAY more expensive than Wellington prices. Scarily more expensive.

    We don’t buy a lot of snack food for the kids. Meusli bars I have noticed are horribly expensive to buy but I haven’t found a decent home recipe that matches them. Still they remain a treat. I bake a lot although could do more. I’d love to find some sort of cracker alternative/recipe. I tried grissini but the kids weren’t too impressed with that. We spend A LOT on fruit as snack food, even buying seasonally I figure my three kids would easily go through well more than $30 a week just on fruit

  4. Getting good containers, and those clip peg things that allow you to seal open packets, makes bulk buying a lot easier. As does, obviously, having more storage space.

    For me, spending money on good food is worth it. But even here, you can save. I bought a 3kg jar of sun-dried tomatoes earlier this year, for less than $20. Brilliant value, and many pies and pizzas worth.

  5. we do exactly the same thing with the sunday markets, often buying a pistachio pinwheel from the french bakers. over the last three years we’ve been there rain and shine, and saved a fortune compared to supermarket prices (and often coming away with better produce).

    for instance we regularly buy bags of carrots for $1, and whole pumpkins for $3. that’s the bulk of the wee man’s food for the week, and only requires peeling, boiling, and mashing.

  6. Was thinking about the beast thing. I am still obssessing over renting a 10 acre block here. Do you think Frugal people might be interested in share-farming some meat? Like buy the livestock, I look after it for a small fee or a share of the meat and arrange butchering etc. Owner takes their meat away??

    • that is a very, very interesting idea. a bit like share-farming the beasts, but lowering capital costs for you (i’m assuming the ‘co-owners’ of the beasts would cover initial outlay, then pay tending and abattoir fees?).

      the best thing is knowing the animal is treated humanly, and the whole carcass is used – as opposed to Crafar-farmed and selective cuts applied…

      • I was thinking initial purchase price, I’d look after them free (unless extra feed required) and farm kill/butchering (sorry vegetarians). People could come and visit their animals (if they wanted). maybe some deal if they wanted to help on the farm at all. Also thinking about a BIG organic vege garden. All this is 15 mins drive from central Dunedin

    • Oh, I’d be TOTALLY up for that — never mind the frugality, you just pushed all my middle-class foodie buttons so hard I nearly had a seizure — the issue is transportation to Wellington. Is that cost-effective, do you think?

      If not I would definitely be in for any local co-operative effort.

      • Definitely wouldn’t pay to ship to Wellington. A local initiative only. Of course we haven’t actually got this farmlet (yet)

      • Sorry, as I say the very idea appealed so strongly that I lost my presence of mind.

        But look, if you can’t get 3 or 4 cheap-arsed foodies together in Dunedin, it’s not going to work anywhere.

      • I’ll keep you guys posted

  7. And just as an aside, try adding toasted pine nuts (purchased in bulk from Moore Wilsons or similar) plus a couple of anchovies to the broccoli and pasta recipe … just about as cheap, and zings up the texture and flavour something wonderful.

  8. i dunno. the idea is great. maybe we could convince farmgeek to run with the idea.

    plus, couriered food isn’t *that* expensive. just not so environmentally sustainable.

    • I’ve ben tryign to find similar models on the internet. There are some meat CSAs but its not quite the same thing. I’d need to sort out details like what happens if the animal dies etc so I’d like to see how others do it.

      I am waiting to December to see if the farm is still available then. If so it might be a goer! Of and with 6 bedroms and 4 bathrms – plenty of room for guests 🙂

      • was talking to 2nd chef about this one. you’d expect to buy “shares” in the stock (say, 3% of 100 beasts). if the stock shrinks, your share shrinks too.

        bit of a gamble, but could pay off with cheap meat some years.

  9. For buk storage containers consider Nappy Buckets, they have good tight lids and if bought new there is no hygiene issue! Also keep an eye on trademe, I recently bought large food buckets with lids for $1.50 each, they were from a restaurant and had only had jam and conserves in them….washed up well.

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