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Does Canning Save You Money?

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This summer I have had the joy of teaching other people how to can.  It seems the question that always comes up is – does it really save you money?  After you consider the cost of the jars, the canner, then the produce – certainly it doesn’t actually save any money, right?

Yes and no.  Here are a few tips that I have learned that really do save me money – keeping in mind if you don’t put some thought into it, canning can easily costyou money.  For some, cost is not the deciding factor in canning, rather it is the quality of produce purchased and the ability to can without harmful chemicals and preservatives.  But if cost is a deciding factor (it is one of the main reasons we can, versus just buying quality canned foods), check out the following:

  • Don’t buy your jars new.  If at all possible, scour yard sales, auctions, thrift stores, craigslist and spread the word that you’re looking for jars.  Some glass jars that held spaghetti sauce, etc. can sometimes be reused if your canning lid and ring fits on them.  More often than not, you will find jars used.  Providing the rim (the top of the jar where the ring screws on) has no cracks or nicks and your finger runs smoothly around the edge, you can find used jars at quite the bargain  I don’t pay more than $5/dozen – and try to avoid paying that!
  • Rings can be reused.  They should not be stored on your jars so you don’t need too many to start off with.  You won’t need to buy the boxes of lids with rings each time you need new lids.
  • Lids cannot be reused, but you can find them clearance at the end of canning season, usually around $1/box.  Otherwise, search online to find better deals than in-store during the season.
  • Don’t buy your produce from a grocery store, without checking your local farmer stands first.  Typically, the produce found in big-box grocery stores is overpriced compared to farmers stands and farmers markets.  For example, I pay $7/BUSHEL for sweet peppers, vs. paying $1 each in the grocery store (that’s $1 per pepper).  I might pay $15/bushel for apples at my favorite family run orchard vs. $1/pound at the grocery store.  $8/50lbs of potatoes vs. $3/5lbs. I buy things to can typically once a year and I buy a lot of it. Then, then the food is out of season and very overpriced at the store I have my summer bounty to get us through the winter.  It may not be fresh food, but when you’re feeding a family of 8 sometimes you have to make adjustments to be able to feed everyone.  We eat plenty of local, fresh food spring-fall, so I don’t feel so bad not having access to fresh food all the time in the winter.   In addition to saving money by buying in bulk when the food is in season and plentiful, canned food is sometimes just more convenient for a quick meal.  Using canned potatoes in place of fresh for some dinners means my cook time is cut in half.
  • Ask for seconds, windfalls and unclassified produce.  Seconds mean less than perfect, windfalls are things that have fallen on the ground (apples, etc.).  These are often very discounted.
  • Wait for the good deals.  Prices go up and down at farmers stands, too.  Usually at the end of the day, and at the end of spring/summer/fall the farmers try to sell their produce before it goes bad.  We wait until late fall to buy our squash to can, when buying it by the bushel is significantly cheaper than buying it when it’s first available.  Same with strawberries – I wait until the strawberries go from $1.50-$2/lb down to 50 cents-$1/lb before I stock up.  Buy your pie pumpkins after Halloween, and wait to buy sweet potatoes until around thanksgiving.  We usually find a fantastic deal on sweet potatoes and buy them by the case right before Thanksgiving.
  • Learn a variety of ways to can your foods.  Potatoes are nice canned in halves, slices and dices.  Green beans can be cut or frenched.  Apples can be wedged, sliced, spiced, plain.  Tomatoes can be diced, sauced, crushed, ground, stewed, whole, halved, seasoned, plain, paste. Carrots can be sliced or wedged.  The list goes on.  Preserve in a variety of ways so you have everything you need through the winter.  If you aren’t sure, keep the vegetables as whole as possible.  You can later dice or sauce your whole tomatoes, but you can’t turn tomato sauced into diced tomatoes!
  • If the cost of a canner is too much to bear right away, consider water bath canning some high acid foods such as salsa, fruits and jellies.  Any tall stockpot with a rack in the bottom and a lid will work for that.  See if a friend is willing to can with you, so you can use her canner.

Roughly $.42/jar if you buy them on the high end of $5/dozen used.  Personally, I buy all of my jars from a guy who buys estates.  He makes no money off of them and hasn’t found anyone who wants them so he will give me dozens at a time for $10 or so and sometimes doesn’t even charge me at all!  So for me, the cost of a jar doesn’t play into this. Also keep in mind jars can be reused. The next time you use them, the cost of that jar is free if you’ve already calculated that cost into it’s first use.

Lets use green beans as an example.  We can buy a 14oz can of green beans for about $.80/jar at the low end, around a dollar or so on the higher end.  I can buy a bushel of green beans for $15, which cans 13-20 quarts or 26-40 pints.  A pint is 16 ounces (more per jar than storebought cans).  If you buy a bushel of green beans for $15 and you get 16 quarts (picking a number between 13-20), that works out to $.94 cents per QUART – or $.47 cents per pint. Of course, depending on actual yield this number will fluctuate slightly.  At the high and low end, you’re looking at $1.15 per quart ($.58 per pint) to $.75 per quart (about $.38 per pint).

Lids, when purchased on clearance for $.99/box are about $.08 cents per lid. Give or take a little more if you buy them in season when the cost is slightly higher.

So, if you buy your jars at $5/dozen ($.42 cents per jar), get an average of 16 quarts or 32 pints (or any combo in between) at $.47 cents per pint and spend approx. $.08 per lid (assuming you have rings), you are looking at about $.97 per pint.  After you factor in the cost of the jar after the first batch, you’re looking at $.55 per pint thereafter – and that includes a bit more than your average can at the store and you can avoid all that salt by canning your own.  If you grew your own green beans, you only pay for the cost of the lid after the initial use of the jar!

I did not include the cost of gas (or electricity) or the cost of my time.  It’s a lifestyle for us (in addition to my hobby) so I just include it as time spent on meal prep.  After all, I would be spending the time one way or another because I try to avoid the tasteless, salty veggies at the store at any cost.  When it comes to the use of gas, honestly I haven’t noticed a large jump during our canning season to bother including it.  We typically try to eat cold meals or homemade freezer meals when I’m canning because my kitchen is always a mess and not available to make a meal in anyway so I guess the gas use kind of takes the place of making our three main meals.   I am also very conscientious of how much gas I am using and make it count when I am using it so things aren’t boiling any longer than they need to.  Actually after writing this I tried to figure the cost of use per hour and it worked out to about 5 cents per hour on the range per big burner.  If I run two for an hour, which I normally do, that’s 7.5 cents per hour.  Divide that up amongst the pints and it’s less than a penny per hour on gas.

If you can find canned vegetables for less than what it costs you to can them yourself, you’re short on time, and/or you’re fine with the ingredients and quality of commercially canned items, then perhaps canning won’t be for you.  However, if you like the opportunity to reduce or eliminate salt, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and the many other preservatives found in commercially canned soups, stocks and produce while supporting local farmers and enjoy knowing where your food came from… Give canning a shot!   If you prefer flavorful vegetables even if canned… Give canning a shot!  You will still taste summer when you crack open a jar of green beans or tomatoes grown from local dirt under the sunshine.   It’s a beautiful thing!

My costs

Here is a little list detailing my approximate costs on canning.  To make things easier I am just going to round that 7.5 cents on gas up to an even 8 cents per canner load.  I am using the cost of $5/dozen for used jars because that is the average cost of used jars for the general public.  Many of my jars this year were free or no more than $3/dozen so my ACTUAL cost is much lower than this.   Lids, when on clearance (when I normally buy them) are $.99/box.  I am trying to detail these approximate costs so they apply to everyone locally so you can get an idea based on these prices, if canning will save you money.  Keep in mind, I rarely, if EVER use coupons because I rarely, if ever buy canned stuff at the store.  As a result, I compare my savings to what I would normally pay at the store, without coupons.  I normally can in QUARTS but because I would normally buy a 14.5oz can of veggies at the store, I am figuring my cost on the closest size – the pint.

Apples:

This year I bought apples at $9/bushel.  A bushel yields 28-36 pints.  $.08 for the lid + $0.08 for gas + $.42 per jar + $.32 (for 28 pints) OR $.25 (for 36) = $.90-$.83 for the INITIAL use.  Once that jar has been emptied and is ready to use again, it will cost you $.48-$.41 per pint.  And, you can choose how your apples are packed, including sugar free options or plain apple juice, so you aren’t left with syrup packed apples.

Potatoes:

Using $.58 as my base (for jar+lid+gas).  I paid $8 for 50lbs of potatoes.  This will can 36-44 pints (depending on how you cut them).  $.22-$.18.  So, to can 36 pints the first time it would cost $.80-$.76 per pint.  After its initial use, it would then cost you $.38 to $.34.  You can control the salt content, as well.  Growing potatoes is not hard – you’d only have $.16 into each jar if you just had to factor in the cost of the lid and the gas!

Tomatoes:

This year killed me with tomatoes.  Normally I grow my own so I don’t have to factor in the cost of tomatoes, but this year my garden did not produce like usual and I had to buy tomatoes at what I felt was a very high price of $15 per bushel (keep in mind, I’m cheap and am used to growing my own!).   Typically each month we buy the bulk cans of tomato sauce, about 3-6.  Plus paste, a bulk box of 12-6oz cans.  Sometimes diced tomatoes.  Sometimes tomato juice.  Either way, we average about $20/month on tomatoes.  A bushel of tomatoes equals approximately 14-18 pints of sauce.   That breaks down to $1.07 to $.79 per pint.  If you like a thinner sauce, you would get more.  Depending on how thick you like your thick sauce, you would can your sauce as a cost of $1.37 to $1.65 per pint.  In this case, we may have broke even in tomato sauce cost – but my tomatoes were local and I know it’s just tomatoes and a splash of lemon juice in mine.  No spices, high fructose corn syrup or ‘natural flavor’.  In this case, quality rules (if I was able to find my tomatoes on sale for a better price).    After the initial use of the jar, your future batches of tomato sauce would only cost $.95 to $1.23.

Carrots:

I buy ‘deer carrots’ by the 25lb bag.  This is full of odd sized carrots, some broken.  I look at carrots around $1+ per pound, or spend $8 for 25lbs.  Even if some are wasted because they are too small to use, it still works out.   You will get approximately 20 pints from 25lbs of carrots.   It would cost about $.98 per pint, if I had to pay for that first use of the jar.  If the jar has already been paid for during its prior use, we’re looking at $.56 per pint.

Sweet Potatoes:

I buy sweet potatoes twice a year.  Once, at the farmers stand for $15/50lb box.   The next chance is around Thanksgiving when the local grocery stores sell them for about $10/case.  Then, I buy more. But there is no guarantee that prices will be that low year after year, so I buy some earlier in the year – just in case.  A 50lb box yields approx. 34-50 pints.  For it’s initial batch, including the cost of the jar, you’re looking at $.88 per pint (for the $15/box cost) of 50, or $1.02 for 34 pints.  After the initial cost of the jar has been paid for, future batches will cost $.46 to $.60 per pint.

Corn:

We purchase corn, on average, at 2 bags for $5.  Last year I bought a ton of corn for 3 bags/$5 but this year due to lots of rain our local stand didn’t a sale like that. We can stuff approximately 20 ears of corn per bag.  About 6 good size ears of corn will yield two pints, so we will say that two bags = 40 ears of corn, will yield about 12 pints.  This brings the initial cost to about $1/pint.  Once the initial cost of the jar has been calculated, the cost of the jar is about $.58 per pint.

Overall, canning does save me money. And in addition to saving money, I know what is in my food, my food is local (if not homegrown), and I can control the salt and sugar that goes in.  For me, it’s a win-win.

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