So many times I hear people complain about the cost of eating kosher, and it’s true that kosher food tends to cost more. But it’s not helpful to feel like victims and say how easy it would be to keep our food budgets low ‘if only’. After all, many people who aren’t limited to eating only kosher struggle with their food budgets, and they would also have to learn new strategies and ways of thinking about their spending if they wanted to get their costs down.
I’ve often found incredibly cheap meats and cheeses (non kosher, of course), and thought how I could easily feed my family for $300-$400 instead of $600 a month if I didn’t have to eat kosher. My feelings about this are, we all choose in what light we want to view the objective reality, and I don’t find it helpful to look at things in a negative way. So I choose to remember every time I go shopping and put something in my cart that costs more than I’d otherwise pay, that I’m fortunate to be doing an easy mitzva – one that the only challenge to is sometimes paying a bit more. Even though my budget isn’t very large and I like to save money, I’m doing it because what H-shem (G-d) wants of me matters, and I’m happy to have a tiny opportunity to remember that.
All of that being said, let’s look at really what the costs of eating kosher are. (By the way, I hear the same kind of complaints about the expense of eating ‘healthy’; everything that I’m writing here could easily be applied to that concern.) In my opinion, the main concern is mostly meat and dairy products. If you choose to eat lots of processed foods, that’s fine, but of course you’re going to spend a lot more money than if you cook from scratch. In that case, it’s not eating kosher but eating processed foods that is costing you.
What about poultry/meat costs? Even when it comes to meats, you get to choose what you put in your shopping cart, and that determines how much you’ll end up spending. There are always less expensive choices. This week in our local kosher supermarket, there are turkey drumsticks and chicken wings on sale for .99 lb, which was a fraction of the price of anything else (I think chicken thighs for 2.69 lb was the cheapest thing I saw after that). While every week there isn’t something this inexpensive, every week there are at least a couple of items that are significantly cheaper than usual (and wherever you may live, you probably have at least periodic sales). Do you think if you found a way to regularly buy and cook only with the meats/poultry that are on sale that you’d save money? (By the way, also as of today, the non-kosher chicken wings in a local store, also on sale, were 1.39 lb. So it’s an inaccurate assumption to make that non-kosher meat is always less expensive.)
Some of you will object that chicken isn’t meat, and meat is much more expensive. You’re right, it is. Again, you’re the one making the choices about what to buy, and whether you buy poultry or meat. I spoke to a local kosher butcher recently to find out what cut of meat the chopped meat is ground from, and what he told me was interesting. The least expensive chopped meat is made of the higher quality cuts of roasts that haven’t sold within a short time, which means there’s going to be practically no difference in flavor between the $18 lb roast and the cheapest ground beef. The more expensive lean ground beef is made of neck meat, a tough cut of meat that isn’t good for much if it were sold on it’s own but people will pay more for because they think it’s healthier. (Any kind of ground meat should be used within a day or two or immediately frozen after purchase.) I like roast as much as the next person, but I can’t justify it as a necessity by any means, particularly for someone struggling with their food costs.
You may insist that you have no way to lower these costs, but maybe you could take another look at what you’re eating, when you’re eating it, and how much you’re paying for it when you buy it. You don’t have to have meat every night of the week, or even on Shabbos. You could use a less expensive cut of meat. Or you could use chicken. Or you could use less per person, in stir fries or stews, instead of a large portion of protein per person. There are lots of choices. And you get to make them!
What about dairy? If you eat only chalav yisroel, you’re going to be more limited, without question. But again, you get to make the choices! Buying when it’s on sale is critical in being able to enjoy ‘the good stuff’ without breaking your budget. Last week, I bought shredded cheese for 2.59/8 oz (and got enough to put some in the freezer for Pesach). At the next store I went to, it was 5.99 for the same thing. Instead of bemoaning how expensive it usually is, I wait until the price is right and stock up! Also, I use cheese as an ingredient, not a main dish. That means my kids don’t eat chunks of cheese with a meal, but enjoy it very much sprinkled on their pizza or into soup. I take advantage of regular cottage/ricotta cheeses on sale (by the way, I don’t eat exclusively chalav yisroel), and again, buy alot when the price is good. Since these things can be frozen, a limited refrigerator shelf life shouldn’t keep you from being able to take advantage of great sales and enjoy them on weeks when they are full price.
Now, let’s be even more radical in thinking about dairy. What about if instead of buying your milk at the store, you bought directly from the farmer? That’s what I do, and I pay $2.50 per gallon (and if I watch the milking, then it’s chalav yisroel, too!). I buy a lot once a month, and keep some in the fridge, the rest in the freezer. Milk that is defrosted had the exact same flavor and consistency it had before it was frozen (except raw milk, but we’re not talking about that here).
But you don’t live next to a farm, you say! Neither do I. Because the farmer I buy from lives quite a distance from me (almost two hours), I researched discount/bulk food shopping in that area, so that I can take advantage of being in the neighborhood when I get my milk. I do a full day of shopping once a month, and the additional gas costs are more than offset by my savings.
If you bought your own milk and felt cheese was really too pricey, you could decide not to eat cheese. Or you could get a book from the library and learn about making your own cheeses, in which case a pound of cheese would cost you whatever you were paying for a gallon of milk. I’m not suggesting that it’s for everyone, and if fact I still prefer buying my cheese to making it. The point that I think it’s important to make is that there are many, many things we can do, if we want to, to get control of the supposed fixed costs of kosher food.
At the risk of being totally redundant, I’ll say again that it comes down to evaluating the choices we make, looking at what our options are and what we can do, and being willing to either do something different, or stop complaining. Happy shopping!