Updated on 09.06.07

Eight Simple Ways To Reduce Food Costs

Trent Hamm

One of the biggest ways that we save money in our family is by minimizing our food costs. I used to have no qualms dropping a lot of money on food without thinking about it, but when I totaled up my food receipts and realized that close to $1,000 a month was going away in food, I realized something needed to change. Here are eight things I’ve done to cut down on food costs over the last year, reducing a budget of $1,000 a month primarily for my own food to about $250 a month for a family of four.

I primarily buy unprocessed foods. Compared to processed foods, unprocessed foods are expensive. The more basic the ingredient, the less expensive it is almost every time.

I committed myself to preparing my food at home from basic ingredients. For most people, the barrier here is just knowledge and practice. Start by getting a good instructional book for cooking, then stock your kitchen with appropriate staples and appropriate equipment.

I buy produce that’s in season. Usually, the produce on sale is the produce that’s in season. I stock up on this stuff because the cost per pound is usually incredible. It might mean a lot of broccoli dishes, but I also often freeze some for use later on.

I own a deep freezer. For us, the purchase of a deep freezer was one of the most cost effective things we’ve ever done. We store all kinds of things in here, from chopped up produce to meals prepared in advance to foods bought in bulk.

I utilize the grocery list. I started compiling a grocery list faithfully every week before going to the store and when I’m in the store, I adamantly oppose buying things not on the list. I usually use Remember the Milk for this.

I have a garden. A small vegetable garden is incredibly valuable in terms of reducing your food bill. We primarily focus on staples that we’ll eat, like tomatoes and onions. We eat them like crazy while they’re in season and also save and store them for later, both by freezing and canning.

I used a price book to determine which store to shop at. Using this book showed me that, for the things I buy, I’m better off choosing one particular store over the rest of them.

I buy foods in bulk. Many of my food purchases are bulk purchases because the cost per unit is much cheaper. Multi-packs of items we use frequently are wonderful – they’re much cheaper per unit and the remainder can go into storage until we need it. Our storage area is practically a small grocery store at this point – we run in there and grab what we need. We also buy meat in bulk and freeze it if we can get a good deal (and we often can if we deal directly with the local farmers).

Above all, the real key is to not buy on impulse and prepare your own food. If you can master that rule of thumb, your food bill will go way down.

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  1. dong says:

    I wish I could reduce my food budget, but given that I eat out so often, it’s very hard to buy groceries consistently with eating in bulk in mind. This is big problem for many people in the same boat as me. While it’s ideal to eat at home and plan meals, I think many young urban people like myself have to take another tack when it comes to dining that’s more reasonable. A plan is only as good as you can follow it…

  2. Elaine says:

    I don’t even bother keeping a food budget in the summer. This is my first summer doing any canning and my farmer’s market expenditures are through the roof, but I don’t mind.

    I also choose to spend more for local produce (most of it organic, whether certified or not), as upside down as it may seem that apples from New Zealand cost half as much. But I believe it’s important, so I’ll happily shell out $45 for 15 lbs of blueberries or 25 lbs of tomatoes or $65 (EEP!) for 20 lbs of cherries.

    dong – I’m a young urban person. I cook all my own stuff. I go to the farmer’s market twice a week, come home with whatever I find, and usually steam it. Last night I had corn, beans, kale, and canteloupe. It required no planning and about 10 minutes.

  3. Samantha says:

    Love your tips. I should do this A LOT more. I keep planning to but with long work hours and a lengthy (3 hours a day) commute my good intentions fly out the window. Have you ever tried the once a month cooking?

  4. Jon says:

    Love this piece, as I love all articles that you do.


  5. blackliquorish says:

    dong, you can have a food budget too, just make it for dining out, and keep small stuff at home for everything else. (At home: eggs, frozen veg, frozen staples like ground beef, rice, pasta, small container of milk, plus on-the-go stuff like granola bars and yogurt.) Have a total $ budget for every restaurant meal (e.g. $15) and keep what you order under that. If you go over (like on a special occasion), then a couple of nights at home eating canned organic rice and beans from Whole Foods will make up for it.

  6. FIRE Finance says:

    Nice tips. But for busy professionals with 10 to 12 hours work days and another couple of hours in commute, cooking daily might not be practical. To keep ourselves from eating out, we do some bulk cooking during the weekends from basic staple ingredients (like Trent). But we make it a point to eat organic. And when we do eat out, we follow some rules to keep our bills down (“Tips To Save On Dining or Eating Out! [Click on our name to get to the post – we did not want to leave a link inside the comment]”).From experience we have found that it pays to strike a balance between eating out and cooking for busy people. And also, eating frozen or processed food is cheaper than eating out. The cheapest is to cook on our own.
    Great post by Trent. He has covered all the bells and whistles of keeping the food bills down :-D.
    FIRE Finance

  7. Heather says:

    Super Wal-Mart still price matches, so we cut about 10% off our grocery bill this way. I make a list, go through all the grocery store sale fliers, find the best deals, match them with the coupons I have, and then only have to shop at a single store. Saves lots of gas and time over driving around to pick up the loss leaders from each store.

  8. Tara says:

    Just before I read this, I was skimming the list of in-season food to prepare for this weekend’s visit to the Farmer’s Market! I found the list at this great website:

  9. DrBdan says:

    I’d like to put in a good word for the “How to Cook Everything” cookbook that Trent recommends. I got it for Christmas last year and it is excellent. It has a tonne of useful information and lots of good recipes.

  10. Monica says:

    It’s important to me to cook from scratch every day, even if it wasn’t cheaper (which it definitely is). It’s better for my health to eat less processed stuff, and more foods where I know exactly what I am eating. I am also willing to pay more for my values: avoiding businesses whose practices I disagree with (e.g. Wal-Mart), purchasing locally grown food, buying from farmers’ markets and by-passing the middleman when possible, etc.

  11. martha in mobile says:

    An additional freezer definitely helps here. Making extra meals and freezing them, buying on-sale items for later use (buy your Christmas Turkey the day after Thanksgiving), and making bulk dry mixes (for muffins and such); these are great uses for a freezer. And when you lose power for a week after a hurricane, you can break out the grill/camp stove and feed the entire neighborhood!

  12. Erich says:

    A couple other ways to save time and increase variety during the week:

    Traditional Sunday Roasts…leftovers for the rest of the week or use the roast in other preparations. A leftover roast chicken can be turned into tacos / sandwiches / salads.

    Fewer menu items…more varieties. Taking the chicken sandwich as an example; you could have a chicken sub, chicken salad, pulled bbq chicken, grilled cheese with chicken. I think of it as a “item matrix”. Change the breads, condiments, and additions (pickles, peppers, onions, etc.) This idea came from Alton Brown’s pouch cooking episode of “Good Eats”

  13. Alex says:

    Remember The Milk is a good website. But, here’s a shameless plugin to my own Grocery List Maker type of website (it’s free, and much easier to use than RTM). Give it a shot, Trent, and let me know what you think: http://www.shopgetwhat.com


  14. Jillian says:

    @ Elaine

    Nothing wrong with apples from New Zealand! Trust me, you guys get the good ones. You should see the rubbish that we get in the shops here after all the nice produce has been exported.

  15. Jodi says:

    The whole not impulse buying thing was a lot easier when I wasn’t pregnant.

  16. Kim says:

    Your tips are good as always, but I do believe that the $250 budget for a family of 4 is misleading. It really is only 2 and a half who are eating. My 3 children are older, though still grade school age and eat as much if not more than their parents. I have been utilizing these tips for years and the best I can do is about $800 in a good month.

  17. plonkee says:

    I find it difficult to stick to making meals every evening. I can probably manage to make 2 or at most 3 homecooked meals a week, otherwise I just can’t be bothered. I think that I need to accept the way I actually do eat, and try to do that more cost-effectively than I do now.

  18. Elaine says:

    Jillian – no, nothing wrong with them in themselves. Except the environmental impact of shipping them 13000 km, plus the apple growers in BC having a hard time selling them, plus the people in NZ being left with crappy apples! I think it’d be better if you had good apples from NZ and I had good apples from BC, yes?

  19. Saving Diva says:

    Great post! I used to spend about $400/month on food. I have my food budget down to $200/month, and I’m working on getting it even lower…I just eat out too much!

  20. kate says:

    meat is expensive! have a vegetarian night or two per week, beans and rice are much cheaper! or, just go veg all together!

  21. jan says:

    I definately plan meals around sale items. If whole chickens are 59 cents a pound one week I usually buy 4 or 5 knowing I’ll see it for sale again in a month. Same goes for red meat, pork and chicken (like legs, thighs, quarters or breasts). I buy fresh vegetables and fruits once a week and plan that way. My husband loves fruit of any sort so if watermelon is 6 lbs for a dollar, he’ll probably get two of those, instead of 3 dollars a pound grapes. It seem in the end we are never deprived or repeating constantly the same dishes. I have to make variations of the same ingrediant say chicken: one meal mexican, one italian, one more american. My family is in awe my ability to spot a great deal or flat out not buy something to due to very high cost. I feed
    3 to 4 people a month for less than $200 a month.

  22. Rob in Madrid says:

    Looking at all the comments above Trent I think it’s time you thought about starting a food blog of some kind.

    I make bulk meals for the wife and I (no kids) and freeze them into individual portions, that way we always have an instant meal ready and it doesn’t if I’m home or not or feel like something different.

    I used to eat out all the time but never do now, but once I got used to making a meal (even something as simple as fried eggs for dinner) I stopped eating out.

    Best part about living in Spain, the sun, the worse, the produce. Stuff is horrible real crap shoot if it’s edible. Today bought carrots that were starting to rot and bananas that were so mealy I threw them out. Bought a watermelon that was rotten. Found one stall at the market that is pretty good but expensive. Crazy but the only decent tomatoes are the ones imported from Holland. Everything is sold by the kilo so a decent watermelon runs 10€ ouch.

  23. lisa says:

    it is fairly easy to make dinner if you have a foreman grill.. have used one for 9+ yrs almost nightly. you can put your meat ( that you bought in bulk and broke down into single servings) on the grill and 7 minutes later it’s done. pop sweet potatoes (that you bought at farmer’s market) in the microwave and then some veggies in a steamer wah la… 15 minutes later dinner!! for dessert you make marinated fresh fruit(that you bought at farmers market)and a little whip cream and dessert is served. not too hard and very pleasing to the palet.

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