If food has become one of your top budget items each month, take heart, there are ways to cut costs — and they don’t involve hours of clipping coupons.
First, a Note to Timid Cooks
Feel like it’s impossible to cook everything from scratch? I can relate. Just a few years ago, I did not know how to cook. I didn’t care what I ate, only that it was easy and quick. Then, I was diagnosed with several major food allergies. I also had a child with autism that would only eat a rotating processed food diet of 4 food items.
After spending an afternoon throwing out nearly everything in my kitchen that had ingredients I was apparently allergic to, I wanted to cry. I was hungry, but I didn’t know what to make, or even really how. I ventured out to grocery stores and hit the specialty aisles, and was shocked at how much it cost to get even a few simple items that might be safe for me.
Some of you are already great cooks, and have always had a natural sense of how to nourish your loved ones with the best foods. But perhaps you are more like I was, and find yourself feeling clueless or overwhelmed. If I can do this, anyone can. I am possibly the most scatterbrained, accident prone person I have ever known to be allowed to use an oven.
Yet somehow I have learned, and even developed my own sense of how to work with ingredients and create delicious, simple meals that are safe for me and healthier for my family.
And the best part? It is so much cheaper when you make food yourself. Each step of the meal that you can do on your own, from cutting up vegetables to saving prepared foods in smaller portions, saves money. You pay top dollar for pre-processed and convenience foods. Not only do they cost more, but the ingredients often read like a chemistry test. Once I started making foods like tortillas — which require only flour, water, oil and salt — I was amazed at how many extra ingredients were needed to make the pre-packaged versions you can buy at the store.
Ok, back to the tips …
Top 5 Ways I Save on Groceries
In the past four years alone, I have reduced my food budget by at least 40%, despite adding another adult to the family, feeding a now teenaged boy, and having major food restrictions. Oh, and working against the rising food prices. Coupons are almost never applicable to the types of ingredients I buy, so I am not including them in my tips.
1. The best way I have found for saving money is Meal Planning. Hands down this makes a huge impact on what you spend on food. No matter how good you are at saving a dollar here or there with coupons or pricing, as soon as you stop for food instead of cooking a meal yourself, you have more than doubled the cost.
I love planning and organizing, but I am not so good at following my plans. The way I plan meals for the month allows for a ton of flexibility. Many days I don’t feel well and can’t cook a big meal, or I don’t really want what I have scheduled. That’s ok. I have ingredients, meals, and even portions of meals all ready to work with. I can switch meals around in the plan based on what I found on sale, what I am in the mood for making, etc., without resorting to sending out for a pizza. When I am cooking a more elaborate meal, I may prep ingredients for other meals, make extra to freeze, etc. This saves so much time and money on the “off-days.”
2. The next thing I added was shopping for ingredients using a Price Book, which significantly lowered the cost of our grocery bill. I now know what I’m willing to pay, and where to get it. You’ve probably heard about making a Price Book. Maybe you have done this already, or perhaps you are trying to avoid it because you don’t have time. Make the time to do a simplified version, such as my “5 Minute Price Book” and you will see significant savings each week in your receipts.
Before educating myself about sales and prices at my local stores, I blindly followed whatever the signs said was a great deal. Once I started tracking what the real normal prices were, and what was actually a “great deal,” I was surprised to find I was being duped on a regular basis. It only takes a few weeks of tracking prices, and you only have to do it for the main and more expensive ingredients you buy, to start seeing a difference in grocery costs.
To track sales cycles, make a list of just the ingredients you regularly buy. The more focused the list, the less overwhelming it will be. This will make completing and using the data easier. Either go to the stores you want to track each week, or review their weekly circulars online. Often, you can get both the regular and sale price in the circular. For example, it may list the sale price of pork chops is $1.49 per pound, and then read “you save $1.20.” That gives you the regular price of $2.69 per pound. Another method is to save your receipts and then look at the listed and sale prices you paid for the items you bought. This is sometimes tricky when they abbreviate or use codes for the name of foods.
Once you figure it out pricing, you will know what really is, or isn’t, the best price for something. I find it very hard now to stomach paying for a cut of meat, or a block of cheese when it is not at the price I know it was last week. As both my Meal Planning and Price Book tools evolved, I found that having a monthly meal plan gave me the most flexibility to buy ingredients throughout the month for use during the next several weeks, rather than shopping for one week’s meals at a time. I can buy these ingredients when they are at their lowest points, and enough quantity for the month. Not only do I save money, I have what I need on hand for a variety of meals. A simplified price book strategy helps me focus on the ingredients I buy most often, and that result in the most savings.
3. I freeze everything. Seriously, you can often open the refrigerator here and it will be nearly empty, yet we have plenty of food. Freezing has proven to be a quick, easy solution to cut down on food waste, save on food preparation, make rotating meals easy, and capitalize on sale items. Not only can you get items like meat in bulk and freeze them, but you can blanch and freeze fruit and vegetables, sauces and juice, and even dairy items.
4. I shop stores systematically. This year I added a new goal to knock down the grocery bill a little more by disciplining myself to shop my local stores in the sequence where I save the most money. While each store has certain items I prefer to get, and the best price on them, it is tempting to get other items there as well to save time on shopping. However, it doesn’t take more time to shop at 2 or 3 different stores if I stock ahead for the next few weeks at each store, while only actually shopping at one store a week. This takes a bit more planning, knowing generally what we have on hand (and self-control).
5. Curing the itch to buy midweek. How many times do you find you need to “stop and get one or two things you need” and walk out with half a cart full. That is me. Every. Single. Time. My solution? I have a couple strategies. A) Make something else work, whether it is a different meal idea, substituting an ingredient, etc. B) Send my husband to get the one item when he is already out. He has this amazing ability to walk into a store and back out with the one item. C) Delay. I have found that by waiting a day or two to go to the store, I can find ways to work around not having certain items. A few times of this and I now don’t feel such an urgent need to run out when we get low on certain foods.
Ready to save on groceries? Think of how empowered you will be when you are able to know exactly what, where and when to get the best deal! With the monthly meal plan, you have flexibility to switch around meals, too. That way if you don’t have an ingredient you need that week, and it doesn’t go on sale until the following week, you can swap meals and wait to get the better deal. Groceries have become expensive enough without paying more than necessary for the same item.
If you have other ways to save, I’d love to have you share in the comments.