Over the years, our family has steadily built up a number of little “food hacks” that we use to save money and time when buying food and preparing meals at home. Often, we don’t even really think about them, but sometimes, when we step back and look at our meal patterns, we see lots of little things that we do to save money on our food expenses.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been taking note of some of these little tactics. Here are 12 of the most useful ones that I’ve seen. Hopefully, you’ll find that some of these help save you money, too, and maybe even a little bit of time as well.
1. Use flash-frozen vegetables as a side dish and smartly save the remnants.
Whenever we see flash-frozen vegetables on sale, we buy a ton of them. We can often find them at $1 per bag and sometimes even less than that, but even at a normal price, it’s a pretty good deal. Often, they come in bags that make it easy to prepare them as a side dish – all you have to do is toss the bag in the microwave and five minutes later you have steamed vegetables.
Our family usually eats most of that portion as a side dish – usually with some salt and pepper on the vegetables. What about the remainder? We put it in a small container in the freezer and continually add the other leftover vegetables. Over time, we’ll end up with a mix of things in that container – green beans, broccoli, corn, peas, and so on, all lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.
Eventually, we’ll need a quick soup, so we’ll just take some broth, bring it to a boil, add those vegetables, and let it simmer for fifteen minutes or so. If you have some leftover chicken pieces or something similar, you could add those, too. It’s basically a free meal made out of our vegetable leftovers from the last few months.
2. Skip packaged produce unless there’s no other option.
Yes, packaged produce – like salad mixes or containers of chopped vegetables or fruits – can be kind of convenient, but you pay dearly for that convenience. If there’s one place where the grocery store can really hammer your wallet in the fresh produce area, it’s through prepackaged produce.
First of all, the items in the packages – especially the salad mix, but also the prepared fruits and vegetables – will almost always go bad faster than non-prepared items. That’s okay if you’re going to consume all of it tomorrow, but if you’re not, it’s likely that you’re going to be left with items in the fridge that are going bad.
Second, the items themselves are overpriced compared to the non-packaged versions. Look at the contents of that salad kit, then walk over to the other side of the produce section at the fresh greens and compare the prices. Almost always, the fresh unpackaged greens are way cheaper. Compare, for instance, the pack of three bell peppers wrapped together to the price of single bell peppers. Three single bell peppers are almost always far cheaper.
Third, very little extra prep is needed in many cases. Take your greens home, rinse them, chop off a few stems (which will take you a minute or two), and toss them in a bowl with whatever dressing you want. If you have a prepackaged mix, you’re going to be doing most of that anyway – and, trust me, you still need to rinse that salad in the salad kit. The convenience really doesn’t add up to much at all.
Fourth, you’re mostly just paying extra for packaging. That packaging does nothing but fill up your garbage can and, eventually, a landfill. What’s the point?
On the whole, it’s usually far cheaper to buy your fresh produce outside of packaging.
3. Buy everything you can from the bulk bins.
At my local grocery store – and at many others like it – the store offers a partial aisle full of bulk bins where you can buy many common things by weight. Our local store offers things like beans, grains, spices, and many other things in these bins. In order to buy these items, you simply fill up a small container (that’s provided there), then weigh it and attach a label.
Virtually always, the items for sale from the bulk bins are cheaper than the packaged versions of the same items on the shelves. The steel cut oats are cheaper. The beans are cheaper. The spices are cheaper. Everything is cheaper from the bulk bins.
If you think about it from the store’s perspective, it makes sense. It’s got to be cheaper for the store to acquire a huge container of a particular grain or spice and just refill the bins out of that huge container than it is to keep the shelves full of individually-packaged items. The store has to cover the costs of that extra packaging and plus there’s the markup for more middlemen.
Not only that, I can examine and smell the items for sale in the bulk bins, while I can’t do that with other items.
As with everything, there are exceptions. There are occasions where the packaged version of an item is in fact cheaper than what you’ll find in the bulk bins. However, those occasions are rare and I usually feel confident buying exactly what I need from the bulk bins.
4. Chop up and freeze bananas that are on the verge of going bad.
My children love eating bananas, but sometimes we’ll still wind up with a few left over that are getting just a bit too old for them to enjoy. The skin starts to turn brown in places and they’ll just skip over them and eat an apple instead. However, they do still love them as ingredients in other things – and who wouldn’t? I think bananas are at their best as they just start to turn brown, as the flavors are at their strongest. Sure, the texture is a bit strange, but you can easily fix that by using them as ingredients.
However, I’m not always ready to use those older bananas when they’re at their best. So, what I’ll often do is take those bananas, cut them into smaller pieces, and freeze them in a freezer-safe container.
What do I do with them? Those pieces make splendid smoothie ingredients, for starters. Maybe I’ll mix a handful of those pieces with some almonds, a little bit of some leafy green vegetables, a handful of another fruit (maybe a diced apple) and a big cup of green tea. I’ll put all of that in a blender and puree it for a delicious and inexpensive snack that often serves as a lunch for me. You can also use those pieces for things like banana bread or other baked goods when you’re ready, like this chocolate chip maple banana bread.
5. Never skip a good nonperishable sale.
If you have an item on your grocery list that’s nonperishable and you discover that it’s on sale, consider buying more of it. This is especially true if you know that it’s an item you use regularly and not just a one-off item.
For example, if the store has a sale on dried pasta, we’ll usually stock up and buy several boxes of it, saving on each box. Over the next few months, we’ll gradually use up that pasta, but each box we use from that sale purchase was cheaper than if we had just bought it at a random moment.
This works particularly well if you use a smart plan for preparing grocery lists. We start our grocery lists by looking at the store flyer and identifying items that are on sale. We base our meal plans around those on-sale items by figuring out sensible recipes, then we make our grocery list from that meal plan. If we can identify nonperishables that are on sale, fit into our meal plan for the week, and aren’t already stocked up in our cupboards, then it’s time to buy.
I usually make a note of this on my grocery list. I’ll often write “(sale)” after the item on our list and write something like “x6″ after it, reminding myself to buy several of this item.
6. Need buttermilk? Use a simple substitute instead.
Sometimes, I’ll find a recipe that requires the use of buttermilk. The problem is that the recipe usually only calls for a cup or so of it and you simply can’t buy buttermilk in that small of a volume at the store. Even if you buy the smallest container, it’s usually a pint and it’s usually far more expensive than regular milk.
The solution, of course, is to use a substitute. If you need a cup of buttermilk, just take a cup of regular milk and add a teaspoon of lemon juice (something we always have on hand around here). Stir it, then let it sit for five minutes. The milk will curdle just a little bit, but it works as a great substitute for buttermilk in almost every recipe.
I’ve used this exact trick many times to make a small amount of buttermilk for a recipe, including things like buttermilk biscuits. It keeps me from having to remember the buttermilk at the store and also keeps me from buying a container of buttermilk substantially larger than what I might need.
7. Buy rotisserie chickens and use them fully.
This isn’t actually a tip from our kitchen, but from one that I observed recently. A friend of mine and his wife pick up a rotisserie chicken for dinner about once a week and, I’ve got to say, the price on such chickens is pretty good.
Over the course of a meal or two, they eat all of the enjoyable meat from that carcass, but that’s not where it ends for them. Once it’s been picked over, they put that carcass in the slow cooker in the morning, fill it the rest of the way up with water and any leftover vegetables they have in the fridge along with a bit of salt and ground black pepper, and let it cook on low all day long. When one of them gets home, they strain the liquid, saving the broth but getting rid of the large pieces and carcass, and then use that for soup (if they’re hungry for that) or else just save the broth for soup another day.
It’s a way to squeeze more value out of a rotisserie chicken. Not only does it provide a couple of meals on its own, but by tossing it in the slow cooker in the morning and allowing it to slowly cook all day long, they also wind up with some delicious stock that they can use for a casserole or a soup later on. Often, the rotisserie chicken is the same cost as the stock they might have bought elsewhere, so it’s a nice savings.
8. Turn old coffee into coffee cubes.
My wife loves her morning coffee. I’m not a big fan, though I’ll occasionally drink some iced coffee in the afternoon.
Anyway, she’ll sometimes make a pot of coffee, particularly on a weekend morning, and then find that there’s a cup or two of coffee left over that she’s just not going to drink. While you certainly could just pour it out, a much better approach is to simply take that coffee, pour it into an ice cube tray, and stick it into the freezer.
When you have these frozen “coffee cubes,” you can do all kinds of things with them. For example, if you want a nice iced drink in the afternoon, put a few “coffee cubes” into a cup and pour a little milk over the top (along with any other sweetener you might want to add).
This not only keeps you from wasting coffee, it provides you with a very cheap and tasty drink for another day.
9. Whenever you’re about to buy, look up, then down.
Most of the time, grocery stores stock the shelves by putting the item that they most want you to buy – which is usually the one with the highest markup – at eye level on an average person. They put the ones that are less of a profit-maker for the store either on the top shelf or on the bottom shelf so that those aren’t the items you see first when looking about.
Knowing that, it’s pretty easy to come up with a financially smart strategy in the store. When you’re about to buy something, look up at what’s on the top shelf in that area, then look down at the bottom shelf in that area. You’ll often see things like store brands that are cheaper in price, bulk purchases of that item, or better brands at the same price.
This isn’t always going to work, as not every store stocks everything using the same strategy. However, a simple glance up and down will almost always reveal buying alternatives for you and if that simple glance can save you $0.50 or $1 for the few seconds it takes, why not make it into a habit?
10. Preserve fresh herbs for Italian meals without drying.
This is one of my favorite little tricks. I love making Italian dishes with fresh herbs in it, but there are a few problems with this. First, during the summer when fresh herbs are coming out of our garden, we generate too much to use. We often dry it, but we still end up with plenty of excess. The same is true in the winter. If I get a strong desire for some fresh herbs in an Italian dish in the middle of a upper Midwest winter, that means I’m buying some fresh herbs at the store. It’s expensive, but the other problem is that we usually wind up with too much of that particular herb and we can’t use it all before it starts to go bad, but it’s not really worth it to dry it.
The solution to all of this is simple. If you have some excess fresh herbs that you want to use in a month or two, but you don’t want to go to the effort of drying them, just put a healthy amount into each section of an ice cube tray, then add olive oil to the tray and pop it in the freezer.
What happens is that the olive oil freezes – it has a freezing temperature just a hair higher than water. These become what we call “Italian cubes,” which are just frozen cubes of olive oil with fresh herbs embedded in them.
When you’re ready to make an Italian dish that calls for olive oil and fresh herbs – and a lot of these dishes do – just pull out that tray and pop out a cube or two. You can use them directly in the cooking as the cubes will quickly melt and become a great mix of olive oil and herbs.
Olive oil “cubes” with basil and oregano already embedded make it really easy to prepare Italian dishes while also drastically extending the life of these fresh herbs.
11. Haggle on items near the “sell-by” date.
If you’re shopping for an item and discover something on the shelf that’s close to the “sell-by” date (which doesn’t indicate that the item is bad, just when the original manufacturer recommends that the item be sold by for maximum freshness), don’t be afraid to ask whether or not you can get this item at a discount. You’d be surprised how often a manager will knock down the price for you or give you a coupon.
A tip on this strategy: don’t do it when the store is crowded or else the manager will probably quickly say “no” and move on to another problem, as there will be many on a very busy day. Choose a time when the traffic is low and most of the employees are doing things like stocking shelves rather than helping customers.
If you choose a low-traffic time to ask about an item, you’re much more likely to get individual attention and get a discount on such items. If you’re going to use the item in the next day or two anyway, it makes no difference to you except that it suddenly costs less than before.
12. Eat just before you go to the grocery store.
In other words, plan your grocery shopping trip for right after breakfast, lunch, or dinner. This is such a simple strategy, but it works well for a number of reasons.
First, and most importantly, it keeps you from extra food impulse buys. If you’re hungry when you go through the store, everything looks good and you’re much more likely to toss unnecessary items in the cart. If you go when you’re not hungry, it’s much easier to overlook those things.
Second, walking around after eating is good for your health, according to this study. It aids greatly in controlling your blood sugar levels and fights off post-meal lethargy quite effectively. This is particularly true if you’re overweight or struggle with blood sugar or insulin-related issues.
Third, even when you do make food purchases, you’re more likely to choose healthy options. When you’re hungry, foods that are carbohydrate- and fat-heavy seem more appealing than those that are not.
Fourth, when you’re not hungry, you’re less likely to grab samples that are likely unhealthy.
What do those things add up to? They add up to lower costs at the grocery store now and lower health care costs later on in life. That’s a victory on both ends.
Most of these tricks aren’t magical. Some are little steps that can cut your costs on a few of your meals, while others are just smart tactics that you might already know but didn’t use because you didn’t see the full range of benefits.
The thing is that when you make lots of little changes like these that save a dollar or two but have little or no real impact on your life, that savings starts to add up. If you can make fifty little shifts in your life that save $2 per month each, that’s $100 a month.
The key is to focus on changes that you can easily incorporate in your life. There’s no point in adding a little change that causes misery; instead, just focus on the “best” way for doing the little things and, most of the time, that means the cheapest way.