I’m constantly asked for tips on how to save money on food. I even had someone come up to me at church the other day asking if I could give them some pointers. I get stoked when this happens because I know how much the things I’ve learned the hard way have helped me, and I love passing them on to others. This is a little long, and I feel like I still left so much out, but here’s ten tips to saving money on groceries:
1. Plan your meals a week at a time. I was shocked at how much this helped me when I did the hunger challenge week. By planning meals using a lot of the same ingredients, and knowing exactly what meals I could make without having to run out and buy something extra, I was able to really stick to a budget. You don’t even have to specifically stick to the order of the meals. Sometimes (if I had a stressful day) I switched a meal that required less prep for the more complicated one I had planned. But knowing before meal time what ingredients you have on hand and how you can use them is super helpful.
2. Make a shopping list and stick to it: The grocery industry makes a huge effort to drive you to impulse buy. But those frozen dinners on sale for $1.50 each are full of sodium and empty calories, don’t be fooled! Make a list of what you NEED, and don’t buy something unless it’s on the list. I also have an idea of what pantry items I’m running low on, if I see them on sale when I’m shopping, I’ll buy a few. If not, I wait until they’re on sale. I try not to wait until I’m out of something I use often and have to buy it at regular price. BONUS TIP: If you have an extra couple hours one day (I know, who does? But just in case…), visit each of your local grocery stores and write down the size, price, and (if applicable) sales price of items you typically buy. When you learn what’s cheapest where, those extra couple of hours can save big bucks over time.
3. Use bulk stores wisely. If you’ve read this blog for long, you know I love Sam’s Club. In the past (as a single gal) I’ve split a club membership with friends and we would shop together and divvy up things like toilet paper and toothpaste. But these stores can be way too tempting with their prepackaged food items. The frozen or boxed meals they sell are REALLY unhealthy. The typical items we buy at Sam’s Club are seafood, meat, cheese, milk, toilet paper, pasta, flour, sugar, and a few canned goods. We do save quite a bit of money on those items by buying in bulk, but take a list here too. Don’t get sidetracked by the ham and cheesed stuffed, bacon wrapped, chicken breasts!
4. Research local resources. Buying local means you get better quality food. That in itself is worth it, but the bonus is that if the food tastes better, you don’t need as much to feel satisfied. Not only do you feel satisfied eating less, but you can also get better deals buying directly from a farmer than from the grocery store. You sometimes have to buy in larger quantities, but this really pays off long term.
Think about this, you and a friend or two buy 1/4 a cow from a local ranch. At around $3 a lb, you get a variety of cuts (ground beef, steak, roasts) all for a great price. If you’re worried about storing it, think about sharing a small freezer kept in someone’s garage. There are also farms that you can get better deals at if you pick your own food. Our favorite local resource is a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. Farmer’s Markets are also a great place not only to buy food, but especially to make connections with local producers. Sometimes you can arrange a better deal with them even than what they offer at the market.
5. Cut back on the meat. Okay, now that you’ve got the idea of buying meat in bulk dancing around in your head, it’s time to think of cutting back on your meat consumption. It might seem contradictory, but it’s not! We split 1/4 a cow with my parents last year, and that beef is lasting us an entire year! I’m not saying to become a vegetarian, just that Americans consume WAY more meat than we’re actually supposed to. Start using meat as PART of your main dish, rather than giving it the starring role every night.
I love steak, it’s pretty much my favorite food. But rather than just having a slab of steak whenever I want some, I like to stretch each steak and get the most out of it. Sometimes I’ll slice up one steak and Eric and I will each have 1/3 of it thinly sliced over quinoa or salad. Or we’ll use it in one of our favorite meals, summer rolls! Stir fry, curry or pasta are a cheap way to stretch beef, chicken, or seafood. It’s also great to go vegetarian for dinner 3-4 times a week. Whether you go with a vegetarian main dish and salad, or make several different simple vegetarian side dishes (which is a lot of fun!), it’s good for your body and your bank account.
You can also use meaty vegetables like mushrooms or acorn squash as your main dish with other vegetarian sides, or make one of my super salads. When you go meatless for a meal, it’s great to include another source of protein like cheese, nuts, avocado, or quinoa. But don’t make yourself feel deprived while cutting back, we all need a juicy pork chop every once in awhile!
6. Eat what’s in season. A lot of people don’t realize that food is seasonal because we can get pretty much whatever we want at any time in the grocery store. But produce tastes better when it’s fresh, and grown in its proper season. If you’re getting plums in January, they’re likely grown in a tropical country, picked before they’re ripe, and shipped thousands of miles to get to your local store. This lessens the quality, and increases the expense. Even if you’re not buying local (#4!), you can still save money and have better quality produce by going seasonal.
One of my favorite cookbooks goes by what is usually available in what month. It’s not regional, but I found it really helpful in associating certain fruits and vegetables with when they’re in season. It’s called In Season: Cooking with Vegetables and Fruits and you can probably check it out from the library.
7. Stock your pantry with quality ingredients. Eric says I need to write a whole book on how to do this. It’s so important to see your pantry items like seasonings, condiments, spices, oils, vinegars, sauces (and more!) as long term investments. It might feel a little crazy to pay $10 for a little bottle of truffle oil. But I just use a few drops of it each time because it’s such good quality, that’s all I need. So far that bottle has amped up the flavor of 18 different pasta dishes, yet looks like it’s hardly been used. The better quality your ingredients, the less you’ll need to use to add flavors.
It’s better to stock up on the bases for making your own condiments, than to buy them. For instance, I have more than 10 different kinds of vinegar. Sounds like a lot but I can use them to make salad dressings, sauces, even desserts! I have tons of spices that allow me to add lots of flavor to simple ingredients, and can be cheap to buy (see tip #8!). I have soy sauce (Aloha shoyu of course!), sweet chili sauce, sriracha chili sauce, tapatio hot sauce, hoisin sauce, and much much more. You don’t want to try to stock your pantry in one week, or even one month. But over time you can build up an impressive array of long lasting ingredients.
8. Find a store with bulk bins. We don’t have a WinCo near us, but I LOVE their bulk bins area. Our Fred Meyer has a pretty good bulk bin section. I always buy any nuts or dried fruit from bulk bins. It’s also a great place to get things like quinoa, oatmeal, specialty flours and sugars, rice, grains, and even spices. Spices are definitely cheapest in bulk areas (not the spice section of your store). If you live in Seattle, there’s an awesome store called World Spice Merchants with amazingly cheap but good quality spices. If you don’t have anyone selling spices in bulk near you, check the internet. You can usually get 1-2 ounces of a spice for a tenth of what you pay for the little jars in the grocery store.
Make sure you do some price comparisons though. We buy our oatmeal, flour, and sugar from Sam’s Club. They come in huge sizes, but we use so much that it’s worth that they’re cheaper. We just have smaller containers in our kitchen that we refill from the huge bags that are kept in a closet. Bulk bins are also a great way to try new grains, which leads me to to #9…
9. Incorporate lots of pastas and grains. There’s a whole world out there of various grains. Quinoa is gaining in popularity, couscous has a pretty good following, wild rice, brown rice and buckwheat are all pretty well known too. But there are even more exotic grains in a lot of bulk sections. These whole grains are incredibly good for you and are also filling. Serving a little chicken cut up and mixed with wild rice is delicious, and you can stretch a chicken breast between 4 people that way!
Pastas are also really affordable and, as I mentioned in tip #5, a great way to stretch your pricey proteins. Pasta is also perfect for using up left over meat, like making spaghetti with leftover pork chops. You can serve an expensive protein, like shrimp or lobster, that you couldn’t normally afford by giving everyone just a few pieces in each pasta dish.
10. Grow your own herbs. The legal ones! This goes back to the idea of better flavor being more satisfying. I don’t have a green thumb, but once in a while I get lucky. Although usually my windowsill herb garden turns into a graveyard, my last basil plant thrived for a whole 13 months, which isn’t even supposed to be possible! Even if you live in a tiny apartment like we do, you can still grow your own herbs in a windowsill planter or pots. You can use them to make the simplest of dishes. Just a potato, some butter, and fresh thyme makes an AMAZING potato domino side dish!
I can typically get a potted herb for anywhere from 25 cents to $3, it can last months as opposed to buying fresh herbs at the grocery store which only last about a week. You can also hold back on the salt if you are using fresh herbs to flavor your dishes. This is great as we Americans tend to get way too much sodium in our diets.
That’s 10 of hundreds of tips I have. Hope this helps you as you’re learning how to save money on groceries without eating unhealthy junk. Feel free to contact me with any questions, and leave your own tips in the comments!