The average American family spends $151 a week on food, according to this Gallup poll. That’s actually quite a lot of money when you consider that the average week contains just 21 meals and that it’s relatively easy to eat a meal that costs less than $1.
The truth of the matter is that people often spend far more on their food than they realize and that those food expenses really add up over time. Even if you’re spending just the average amount on food, a typical family ends up spending almost $8,000 a year on food.
Within that $8,000 in annual spending comes a lot of little choices. You make food spending choices every time you visit the grocery store. You make food spending choices every time you eat out, every time you order takeout, every time you think about eating something in your home, every time you visit a coffee shop.
All of those choices are made as the result of a set of “rules” that you have in your head. You have a certain internal logic as to why you make the choices that you do. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that if you change a few of those internal “rules,” you can end up saving a ton on food expenses over the course of a year.
Here are twenty such strategies you can apply to change your food spending habits. Some of these strategies will be familiar to long-time readers of The Simple Dollar, while others will be new ones that Sarah and I have learned over the years.
Strategy #1 – Make Simple Meals That You Like
The single biggest money saver when it comes to a family’s food budget is eating at home, and the simplest strategy for eating at home is to get over one’s fear of the kitchen and simply make your own meals.
Many, many people have the perspective that making one’s own meals at home is difficult and messy and, for the sake of convenience, they just order food, whether takeout or delivery or going to a restaurant.
It’s simply not true.
There are many, many meals that are incredibly easy to make. Pasta meals take ten minutes and require little more than boiling water and pouring some sauce on top of noodles. You can make wraps and burritos by wrapping a few things in a tortilla, and sandwiches by putting some things between slices of bread. Soups involve putting things in a big pot with water and boiling it for a while. Stir fry means tossing some veggies and some protein in a skillet over really high heat and then serving it over rice. Most of those things require maybe ten minutes worth of effort at home. They’re also far cheaper than eating out.
The thing with simple dishes, though, is that the more you do them, the more confident you become in branching out and the easier it all seems. Burritos seem easy? Make grilled burritos on a grill or in a skillet with a bit of oil. Basic soup seem easy? Try caramelizing onions before you put them into the soup. Pasta meals seem easy? Try making your own sauce out of just things you like (I like sauteed mushrooms and onions and green peppers and garlic and black peppers in just a bit of olive oil, for instance, and putting that right on top).
Make really, really simple meals at home, things that you’re sure to like. Make them until it seems comically easy, to the point that you could do it with your eyes closed. Then slowly branch out into more complex stuff.
Before you know it, you’ll be able to make tons of tasty things at home really quickly, really cheaply, and with such ease you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it for yourself from the start.
Strategy #2 – Base Meals Around On-Sale Meats and Produce
Once you’re comfortable with cooking at home, the most valuable strategy that you can take on is to cook with the things that are inexpensive at the store – namely, the items that happen to be on sale that week.
Just grab the flyer from your local grocery store (online, preferably, before you even head out to the store) and look at what’s on discount this week. Chicken breasts? Avocados? Tomatoes? Steak? Potatoes? Whatever happens to be on sale, use that as your starting point for meals.
What I typically do is go look for recipes and ideas for how to use those on-sale items as centerpieces for meals, then sketch out a meal plan where I slot in those items for meals for my family throughout the week. I’ll try to use the cheap ingredients as often as possible, so I might plan three or four meals that use tomatoes if they’re on sale, for example.
Centering everything around things that are really cheap this week lets you vary your meals significantly from week to week. You don’t have to eat the same things over and over again in order to eat cheap!
Strategy #3 – Use a Grocery List
The best time to make a decision about what foods and household products you need to buy is before you set foot in the grocery store. You should do this at home, where you can figure out which household items you actually need and which food items you need to fulfill your meal plan for the week.
So, before you even head to the grocery store, make a grocery list. Include everything on it that you would need to make meals for the next week, as well as any household supplies you anticipate needing in the next week. Ideally, if you looked at the grocery flyer first and planned some meals using those items, a significant chunk of the items on your list are already on sale.
Then, head to the store and trust your list. Stick to it. Keep your head down and focus on grabbing just the things on the list. Scratch those items out as you go.
What you’ll end up with is a cart full of stuff you actually need, much of which is already on sale, and very few things that you don’t actually need. Your grocery bill is going to be cheap!
Strategy #4 – Shop at the Local Discount Grocer
If you typically shop at a more expensive food retailer, you really should try out a discount food retailer. Substitute your Whole Foods for a chain like Aldi or Fareway instead, where many of the items are the same but the prices are much lower.
Some people are picky about specific food items and it’s okay if you only buy some of your groceries at the discount grocer, but the more you buy there, the lower your overall food bill will be.
Other discount grocer chains besides Aldi and Fareway include PriceRite, Save-A-Lot, and Grocery Outlet Bargain Market. There are many, many discount grocers that operate only at the local level, so be sure to look around your town and see what’s available.
Strategy #5 – Take Advantage of “Cheaper” Meat Cuts
Many people assume that the higher the price of a meat cut, the better it must be for all purposes. That’s rarely true. Many “cheap” meat cuts work just fine for many purposes and, in fact, work better for some purposes.
Take hamburgers, for instance. If you’re grilling a hamburger, a lower-cost ground beef usually works better as the excess fat tends to cook away during the grilling process, leaving a burger that’s actually tastier if you use 80/20 ground beef instead of the much more expensive 95/5 beef.
If you’re making a soup, buy the much less expensive stew meat cuts instead of the pricier cuts of meat, as the stew meat will cook into exquisite tenderness during the soup cooking process and will actually add more flavor to the soup. If you want to make a chicken soup, use thighs instead of breasts, for example, as it will make the soup much more savory and cost far less.
Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the expensive cuts are best for everything; they rarely are. Instead, learn more about what you’re actually making and you’ll find that you save money and end up with better tasting meals.
Strategy #6 – Make 2-4 Batches of Most Meals, Freeze the Extras
If you’re making a meal that can possibly be frozen for easy finishing later, such as a soup, stew, or casserole, make multiple batches of it at once and save the extras in a state just prior to the final heating.
For example, let’s say you’re making lasagna. Rather than making just one pan of lasagna, make several pans at once and freeze the extra pans at the point just before you’d stick them in the oven. Then, at a later date, you can pull a pan out of the freezer, let it thaw in the refrigerator for a day or two, then cook it with minimal effort.
Doing this serves several purposes at once. For one, it reduces the average time needed to actually make each pan of lasagna, as you’re merging all of the prep work together into one batch and cutting down on the average cleanup and preparation time. For another, you’ll have convenient foods in the freezer at home, making it easier to choose to eat at home on a busy night. For another, you’ll be able to buy ingredients in bulk, which will make each batch cheaper than it otherwise would be.
You can apply this strategy with many different meals. We often make extra batches of soups and stews this way, freezing them in containers designed for liquids. We’ll even make batches of burritos and freeze those in individual containers.
Strategy #7 – Buy Store Brand Staples
When you’re buying staple items, such as flour or sugar, or condiments like pepper or ketchup, consider buying the store brand version. Quite often, the store brand is identical to the name brand, with the only difference being the label on the outside of the package. It’s pretty wasteful to spend extra money on a label.
The vast majority of the time, you’ll be unable to tell the difference between the two. That’s because, the vast majority of the time, there is no difference between the store brand and the name brand, and even when there is a difference, it’s a minor one that you’ll scarcely notice.
If you do happen to notice a difference and prefer the name brand, don’t hesitate to switch back to the name brand with your next purchase. At least, at that point, you’ll know why you prefer the name brand. Sometimes, you may even find that you prefer the store brand if there’s a difference, and when they’re identical, it makes complete sense to prefer the less expensive option.
Strategy #8 – Don’t Overbuy Fresh Produce
When you find a great sale on fresh produce, like a sale I recently found that enabled us to buy tomatoes for pennies on the dollar compared to their normal price, you want to buy a lot of it to get your money’s worth. After all, great bargains don’t come around all that often.
There’s a catch, though, when it comes to fresh produce. Quite often, if you buy too much of it, some of it goes bad before you can use it. We’ve all seen fruits and vegetables that have gone bad because they’ve sat around for too long, rendering them (at best) unpalatable or (at worst) utterly rotten.
The solution is to stick to your meal plan. If you have a meal plan, you know how much of this produce you’re going to use, so only buy enough to cover your meal plan. That way, none of it goes to waste.
If you find yourself stuck with excess due to an unexpected change in plans, freeze it or preserve it in some other fashion before it goes bad. Just do a quick Google search with regards to freezing the item in question and see what you need to do.
Strategy #9 – Use Scraps Smartly (for Stock)
When you prepare meat or fresh vegetables for meals, you’re often left with scraps. Maybe you have a handful of chopped onion left over, or a quarter of a bell pepper, or a chicken bone. Throw it away, right?
Take any leftover vegetables and put them in a gallon freezer Ziploc bag marked “veggies.” Put that baggie in the freezer and keep adding to it until it’s full. Do the same with chicken leftovers (labeling it “chicken”) and beef leftovers and so on.
Then, when the bag is full, fill up a slow cooker (we’ll get to slow cookers in a minute) in the morning with those scraps, add a dozen peppercorns and a bay leaf, and then fill it with water until there’s about an inch or so until you reach the top. Let it cook on low all day, then come home and strain the contents, saving the liquid. Freeze that liquid that you saved.
That stuff is stock. It’s magical. You can use it as the liquid component of a soup or a stew or a casserole – basically anything that uses water. It amps up the flavor of anything and costs you nothing. Homemade stock is incredibly easy to make, is incredibly cheap, and is incredibly tasty.
Strategy #10 – Develop a Smart Leftover Strategy (for Subsequent Lunches)
When you’re done with dinner and have some leftovers, instead of just tossing the pan in the fridge, repackage it immediately into meal-sized containers. We keep a healthy supply of reusable meal-sized plastic containers in the cupboard and package a meal in each one.
Then, the next day, all you have to do is open the fridge and grab a container and you’re ready for lunch. You can grab it in the morning before you leave or, if you’re at home, pull it straight from the fridge and directly microwave it.
It’s a very convenient lunch. Not only that, if you don’t think you’ll get through all of the leftover meal containers before they go bad, freeze the extras (put a piece of masking tape on it so you can note the contents and the date). That way, you can grab containers out of the freezer for lunches as well.
Moving leftovers into individual meal containers makes it so easy to just grab them and go that you’ll never look back, and a leftover lunch is a very, very cheap lunch indeed. (There are other uses, too… just keep reading!)
Strategy #11 – Have a Regular Leftover Smorgasbord Night
You may find yourself with several leftover lunches in the fridge after a few days, and that’s fine. At your family dinnertime, just pull them all out, sit them on the table with a spoon or fork in each one, and stack some plates and/or bowls. Let everyone make their own plates and microwave them for dinner.
This is an extremely easy, extremely quick, and extremely cheap family dinner. We often do this on Thursday nights at our house (because Thursdays are virtually always busy).
Another smart idea is to simply have a seasoning shaker or three out on the table. Salt and pepper are good starters, but so are red pepper flakes. Some sauces, like Sriracha, are also a good idea. This allows people to amp up the flavor of their foods as they wish.
Strategy #12 – Have a Handful of Cheap, Tasty, and Simple Recipes on Standby
There are some recipes that Sarah and I can just make on a moment’s notice. We almost always have the items on hand for them and can just make them almost on autopilot. Pasta marinara. Stir fry. Vegetable soup. Grilled black bean burgers. I can throw those things together without even thinking due to many years of practice.
Have a few of these “standby” recipes and make sure you have the stuff on hand to make them all the time. Meals that can rely on pantry (meaning nonperishable) ingredients are quite useful.
Why is this so important? There are going to be inevitable evenings where plans fall apart and it’s very tempting to just go out to eat or get takeout and blow $20 or $30 or $40 (if you have a family). Having a standby meal like this reduces that $20/$30/$40 to more like $4/$6/$8 for that meal.
It’s not perfect. It’s pretty standard. But it’s something that everyone likes, it can be made quickly even when you’re distracted, and it’s really inexpensive.
Strategy #13 – Hit the Library
Part of what makes all of this work is simply having a bunch of recipes floating around. I store many recipes in Paprika, my mother uses index cards, and I have a friend that uses notebooks. They all boil down to the same idea – a collection of recipes that we either know we like or want to make in the future so that we have something to turn to when making meal plans for the week, plus they can easily be modified to meet our needs and tastes.
How do I refresh this collection of recipes? Sure, there are a lot of websites to look at online, but I also hit the library and check out their abundant cookbook collection every once in a while. I’ll copy down a recipe or two that I find that looks interesting and suddenly I have new options. Honestly, most of my favorite recipes are modifications of recipes I originally found in cookbooks at the library.
I like Paprika because it’s really easy to search by ingredient, which means that it’s an essential part of weekly meal planning. I look for ingredients that are on sale in the grocery flyer, then search for them in Paprika to find some ideas on how to use them.
Strategy #14 – Know Some “Fill in the Blank” Recipes
One other great idea is to have some “fill in the blank” recipes in the back of your head – more general recipes that work well with almost anything you add to them.
For example, I have a standard “stir fry” that I often make. I’ll cook up almost any green vegetable along with some black pepper and a protein (usually tofu for us, but you can use chicken or steak or whatever you prefer) in a very hot skillet, add a little bit of soy sauce near the end, and serve it over rice. Boom – a recipe that works with almost any green vegetable that’s on sale.
With root vegetables, I make a standard root vegetable soup that works with turnips or potatoes or leeks or radishes or onions or anything like that. It cooks slowly all day until the root vegetables are soft and delicious (mostly, it’s just a few bay leaves, whatever seasonings I can find, and ample black pepper and salt).
I can turn almost any protein, any vegetable, rice, and cheese into a passable meal by cooking the protein, the vegetable, and the rice together, then combining them with the cheese and heating until consistent and adding a few spices (again, black pepper and salt are my friends). It’s my “anything” casserole.
These recipes are easy. They work with almost anything that’s on sale. Thus, they save a lot of money.
Strategy #15 – Choose Dry Beans Over Canned
You can get about four times as many dried beans for the same price as canned beans and they’re both really easy to work with.
Sure, all you have to do is pop open a can of beans and drain them, right? Well, for dried beans, just put them in a slow cooker on low all day with water filled up about two inches above the beans and you’re ready to use them, too.
The difference? The dry beans taste better and they’re about 70% cheaper, based on my own experience. Plus, you can season them a bit by throwing in some salt or a ham bone or something like that, depending on what additional flavor you want the beans to take on.
If there’s any chance I’m going to use beans in the next few days, I go ahead and cook them in the slow cooker during the day, drain them, and save the beans in a container in the fridge for a day or two until they’re needed. So easy, so tasty, so cheap.
Strategy #16 – Own a Slow Cooker and Know How to Use It
So many of the tips above have mentioned a slow cooker. Why? It makes many, many things possible that would be very difficult for a working family.
I can prepare beans and stock while I’m at work by tossing the ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning and letting it cook on low all day. I can prepare lots of full meals in the same way – everything from soups and stews to lasagnas and roasts.
When we’re done, the full crock and the lid go straight in the dishwasher to be used again, often the very next day.
This is my preferred slow cooker that I recommend to almost everyone. It does a great job with almost every kind of food and practically runs itself. You can program it if needed, but it mostly just sits and does its thing with minimal fuss.
The best part is when you come home to the aromas of some freshly-made stock or a complete meal that’s ready to eat.
Strategy #17 – Make Friends with Gardeners
We have several friends who are avid gardeners and we’ve learned over the years that during August and September, they usually have an abundance of vegetables that they have no idea what to do with.
So what do they do with them? They give those extras to us!
Of course, throughout the year, we’re good neighbors and friends. We help them with little tasks throughout the year, like helping them move furniture or watching their children or watching their house while they’re traveling. Giving away their extra produce is just part of that relationship. (We also garden ourselves, so we give away produce sometimes, too.)
Because of that, we often don’t buy any produce at all in the late summer and early fall. Between the bounty of our own garden and those of our neighbors, we’re often flooded in produce. Thus, our meal plans often center around all of this great free produce rather than the grocery store flyer, making meals this time of the year dirt cheap!
Strategy #18 – Make Low Offers at the End of Farmers Markets
We often shop at farmers markets and we’ve learned that some of the best bargains come at the end of the market, when people are about to close up shop. If you walk up to a booth that’s about to close and they still have a ton of unsold produce, you’ll almost always get a huge deal if you make them an offer.
I’ve walked out of farmers markets with tons of vegetables of all kinds that I paid very little for just by making an offer near the end of the market.
The important thing to note is that when you do this, you won’t get your choice of items. You’re relying on what’s left behind that others didn’t buy and the items that the seller is willing to part with at a discount.
Still, it’s a great time to haggle, especially if you’re willing to take home ten pounds of cabbage (I’ve done this very thing, which turned into a large batch of homemade sauerkraut).
Strategy #19 – Host Potluck Dinner Parties
Many people lament eating at home because eating out often means a social engagement. They like eating out with friends and family because it’s so social, even though it’s expensive.
The best way to turn that social engagement into a meal that’s not as pricy is to simply host a dinner party. Invite a few people over and encourage them to bring a drink or a simple side dish while you just focus on the main course.
Doing this makes the meal pretty inexpensive for everyone involved and allows for a meal to be eaten in your home where people can stay around the table for as long as they’d like without being rushed out.
We often have potluck dinner parties where we serve grilled foods, homemade pizza, pasta, or other items, and the guests tend to bring beverages or dinner rolls or a very simple side dish. It makes for a great dinner and a great time with friends without pinching anyone’s budget at all.
Strategy #20 – Try Community Dinners
Another option that we often use on busy nights is to go to community dinners.
In our area, many community organizations host freewill community dinners on weekday evenings that often target busy families. You can simply go there, get a freshly prepared meal, and pay whatever you wish.
Let’s assume you’re paying $5 per person. It’s still far cheaper than eating out elsewhere, you get to interact with people in your community, and the money goes toward a good cause or toward financing future community meals.
Look around your community and see if any organizations host such community dinners. Not only are they often a bargain, they’re a great way to get involved and meet people.
The average person won’t wholeheartedly adopt all twenty of these strategies at once – I know I certainly wouldn’t. A much better approach is to just choose a few that seem like they would work well with your life and integrate them into what you’re doing.
Even just choosing a few of these, like a smarter meal planning system or smart slow cooker use, can end up saving you a bundle in terms of your annual food costs. Remember, if you can trim the average American family’s food bill by even 25%, you’ve suddenly freed up enough money to make a car payment or a student loan payment, and that can make an enormous difference.