Food. It’s a human need. We all need food to survive. However, at the same time, it’s an expense. It drains our wallet every day, every month, every year.
Yet, more than almost anything else in our life, smart strategies regarding how we buy food, use food, and store food can make a huge impact on our financial bottom line.
The average American family spends $151 a week on food. Think about that for a second. If you can snag just a few strategies to cut that spending by a fraction – let’s say 30%, just because I know it’s easy to cut that much from your food spending – you save $2,355 a year. More than two thousand dollars in a year. Just below $200 a month.
That’s enough money to pay off some debts. That can build an emergency fund. That can turn a sinking ship into a thriving one.
The rest of this article is composed of 15 key strategies for saving money on food. (I like to do articles like this from time to time. I keep running lists of “food tactics” and other things, and sometimes I compile them into one article. Some of these tips may be familiar and some may be new, but all of them should help.)
Pick and choose from among them – you don’t have to do them all. You certainly don’t have to start making “miserable” food choices. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most people can cut 30%-40% from their food spending and not notice much of a difference in how they eat at all. That’s thousands of dollars a year.
1. Prepare more food at home, period.
Here are five big mistakes I made back in the day when I mostly ate at restaurants and ordered takeout.
One, I always overestimated how long it took to cook at home. I’d overestimate how long the meal took to prepare, I’d count absurd numbers like 15 minutes to shop for the food for one meal (I can buy a week’s worth of groceries in about 30 minutes), and I’d way overestimate cleanup time (virtually everything goes straight in the dishwasher, so I average around five minutes per meal for cleanup, including unloading the dishwasher).
Two, I always underestimated the time invested in eating out. Even fast food and takeout can take a lot longer than you think – it’s pretty much impossible to get a fast food meal in under 10 minutes and it’s usually longer than that. A restaurant meal? You’re burning an hour, bare minimum.
Three, I always overestimated the cost of cooking at home. I’d look at the ingredients for an expensive meal at home and compare that to the cost of a dirt-cheap meal when eating out, convincing myself that eating out was a bargain. Even when I’d compare identical meals, I’d settle for atrocious quality and ingredients from the restaurant food in order to make the price comparable. “Hey, look, this dollar menu burger is about the same price as making a grilled quarter pounder at home!” Get real.
Four, I always underestimated the cost of eating out. I wouldn’t count things like the tip, the cost of drinks, and so on. I’d think of the cost of eating out as entirely based on the cost of the entree that I ordered. “Eating out is cheap!” I’d tell myself as I enjoyed an $8 entree, ignoring the $4 side salad, the $3 drink, and the $3 tip.
Finally, I ignored the fact that cooking at home builds skills that make cooking at home faster and better over time. I used the mistakes I made in my first few attempts at cooking at home as a base line to judge the relative quality and speed and waste of cooking at home.
The truth is that every time you cook at home, you waste less, you make better meals, and you get faster at it. On the other hand, every time you eat out, you don’t get any sort of improvement on any of those metrics.
All of these factors pointed me away from cooking at home. All of them are false. It doesn’t take much time to cook at home unless you’re preparing elaborate things, it’s way cheaper than eating out, and eating out gobbles more time and money than you think it does. Furthermore, the gap between the two gets bigger the more practice you have with cooking at home.
2. Before you go to the store, make a meal plan based on the flyer and make a grocery list from that plan.
If there’s one strategy you take home from this list, take home this one. It has had a huge positive impact on my monthly food bill.
The strategy is easy. Spend 15 or 20 minutes doing some prep work before you go to the store. First, go to your preferred grocer’s website and download their weekly flyer. Then, figure out which items are on sale that you’d be interested in centering your meals around (as well as other items you might want to have on hand, such as fruits).
Once you’ve figured out a few specific items of on-sale meat and/or produce, come up with a few recipes that incorporate those items. For example, if chicken is on sale, look for a few recipes that use chicken. If bacon is on sale, look for a few things that can use bacon in. Or eggs. Or zucchini. Or whatever’s on sale. Specifically pencil in those recipes for specific days – for example, you might slot in grilled chicken for Thursday evening or put scrambled eggs and bacon for Saturday.
Then, make a grocery list from those recipes. Write down any and all ingredients for those recipes that you don’t have. Add to that list any staples you need – things like milk or bread or breakfast oatmeal or other things that you constantly use.
When you go to the store, you’ll have a list that you can completely trust. Just follow the list – no need to wander around wondering what you should buy. This actually saves you a ton of time in the store, recouping the time you spent preparing the list and meal plan. It also saves you a ton of money because you know exactly what you need and many of the items on your list are already on sale.
3. Try generics and store brands.
This doesn’t mean “buy only generics and store brands.” This means “if you’re buying an item and you’ve never tried the generic or the store brand version of it, try that generic or store-brand version and see if it meets your needs.”
The vast majority of the time, I can’t tell much of a difference between the generic version and the store-brand version of food items and household items. There are a few exceptions – I’m very picky about my trash bags, for example – but for the most part, generics work just fine.
Generics and store brands usually save you 20% to 30% over the cost of very similar name brand items, so if you don’t notice any real functional difference between the two, this is just money in your pocket.
4. Grow some “lazy” vegetables and herbs, even in an apartment.
Right outside of our back door, we have a little area where several herbs just grow naturally each year. We do absolutely nothing to maintain the area – the stuff just grows. Chives, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and tarragon all seem to grow there in varying amounts (though the chives are slowly taking over as the years go by).
We have put no effort into this patch at all in seven or eight years except to cut what we need for seasoning food. That’s about as “lazy” as gardening can get. (We also have an asparagus patch that now provides us with several pounds of asparagus each year for about 10 minutes of annual effort.)
The point is that gardening does not have to be a ton of work. You can easily start perennials in a big pot on your balcony or an empty spot next to your back door and have very little maintenance other than harvesting the goods. Even growing many annual plants is really easy – it doesn’t take a ton of work to put a tomato or pepper or potato plant in the ground and then harvest the results in a few months.
These are incredibly inexpensive investments in food for the future, both in terms of time and money.
5. Preserve any herbs (and freeze any vegetables) that you can’t use.
So what happens when you’ve got too much oregano or too many tomatoes? Trust me – when harvest time comes, you can easily get overwhelmed with chives and asparagus and things like that.
The solution is easy. With the herbs, just dry them out. Look for guidelines online for how to dry that specific herb – sometimes it’s as easy as just hanging them up.
With the vegetables, freeze them. Again, simply search Google for how to freeze the specific vegetables that you want to save. Most procedures are pretty simple.
Another option is to freeze some of the herbs in what we call “oil cubes.” Just chop up a little of the herb and put a little in each slot in an ice cube tray, then fill each slot with olive oil and put it in the coldest spot of your freezer. When you’re cooking something with olive oil and herbs – which we often do – just pop out a cube or two. It works really, really well.
This way, you’ll have free frozen vegetables and free dried herbs to last you throughout the year.
6. Develop and build a set of ‘fall back’ recipes.
A “fall back” recipe is one that you and your family enjoy, is quick to prepare, and is something you can prepare almost without thinking about it. If you have a small set of these and keep the ingredients on hand for them, then you’ll always have something simple to make at home.
For example, one of our family’s “fall back” recipes is spaghetti with marinara sauce. It’s simple to prepare, everyone loves it, and it goes from vague idea to meal on the table in about 15 minutes or so.
The same goes for some of our other “fall back” meals – scrambled eggs and pancakes, “Southwestern bean salad” (basically a salad with a lot of beans and salsa and cheese in it), grilled sandwiches with soup, and ratatouille (whatever vegetables we have on hand sliced and cooked together in a skillet with a bit of oil and a few herbs) are a few more examples.
I can cook these meals almost without skipping a beat. Most of them make it on the table in fifteen minutes or less. Most of – if not all of – our family likes them. They don’t make up nearly every meal that we have, but they account for a lot of our meals.
7. Reuse jars of all kinds and use masking tape to label them temporarily.
When you buy something in a jar at the grocery store, don’t forget the fact that the jars themselves are pretty useful. They make great tools in your cupboards and pantries as small food storage tools.
Just clean a jar thoroughly when you’re done with the contents, remove the label, and slap on a piece of masking tape labeled with whatever you happen to store in the jar – “black beans” or “dried oregano” or whatever it might be.
My favorite jars for re-use are large pickle jars. They can hold most of a pound of beans, which is just the right amount for home use, as well as appropriate amounts of a lot of seasonings, herbs, and spices. If I buy those items in bulk, I can store the bulk bags and containers out in the garage, refilling the smaller jars as needed.
The best part? It makes for a really organized pantry. You can find almost anything you commonly use at a glance without having to dig around very much.
8. On lazy weekends, prepare full family meals in advance and store them away.
You’ve got a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon free? Take advantage of it.
Make four pans of lasagna at once, freeze three of them, and have the fourth for dinner.
Make a giant pile of individually wrapped frozen burritos that you can pop in the freezer and use later on – and then have some of the leftover burrito mix for supper.
Make a giant vat of stew, store away a few gallons of it in gallon freezer containers, and have a big bowl of stew for supper.
The possibilities here are endless.
Why do this? For one, it’s easier to prepare a lot of identical meals at once than it is to prepare the same meal individually a bunch of times — saving you time. For another, you can buy ingredients in bulk — saving you money.
Basically, it comes down to spending some extra time preparing a busy weeknight’s dinner on a weekend in exchange for having a bunch of home-cooked meals stowed away in the freezer that you can easily reheat later on when you need them — and it becomes cheaper per meal because you can buy bulk ingredients.
9. Make ‘single-serve’ frozen meals out of your leftovers.
What do you do if you make a pot of soup or a pan of lasagna or a slow cooker full of roast and vegetables, only to find that you made too much even after taking some for leftovers the next two days to work?
You freeze it in individual serving containers, that’s what.
This simple move lets you turn leftovers almost immediately into single-serving meals that you can grab out of the freezer at your convenience and microwave for a quick lunch or dinner on a busy day. Even better, such “single-serve” meals are basically free because they’re composed of leftovers you would have otherwise likely tossed out.
10. Compare grocery stores.
Many people choose a grocery store based on familiarity. It’s the first one they randomly chose when they moved to the area, or it’s another member of a chain that they used in their hometown.
Unfortunately, such a decision is likely costing you money every week. There’s a very good chance that other grocers in your area offer better prices on the staples you buy all the time.
Here’s what you do to figure it out. Make a list of the 25 staples you buy most frequently – things like milk, apples, bread, ground beef, chicken breasts, whatever – and then spend the next month going to several different grocers in your area on your regular shopping trip. At each store, keep track of the prices of each staple.
After you’ve checked out several stores, figure out which one is the cheapest on the largest number of your regular staples and make that your regular grocery store.
That way, each time you shop for groceries, you’re going to save a little by default because your staple purchases are always going to be cheaper.
11. Get a slow cooker and learn to use it.
One of the biggest challenges for busy families is that it’s often really difficult to find a lot of time at home in the evenings to prep meals, and it’s also sometimes hard to be able to get everyone around the table at the same time for a home-cooked meal. A slow cooker solves both problems at once.
For one, you can prepare a meal by tossing in the ingredients before you leave for work and turning on the slow cooker. When you get home, your supper is ready to serve, often straight out of the slow cooker.
For another, you can leave meals in the slow cooker during the evening hours on low, allowing people to eat when it is convenient for them. I’m all in favor of family dinners, but it can be really hard at times. This ensures that everyone gets to have a hot, healthy, home-cooked meal at their convenience.
There are times, especially during the school year, when a slow cooker makes it possible for us to have home-cooked family dinners together (or, sometimes, to have two groups of us eating family dinners together at different times). Without the slow cooker, it would basically be impossible.
12. Don’t buy pre-cut fruits, vegetables, or meat.
Those items are exactly the same as what you could get at home in a minute or two with a sharp knife and a cutting board. The only difference is that they charge you twice or three times as much as you would pay for the whole fruit, vegetable, or meat.
This is one of the most effective money savers in the store. Let’s say you want some sliced apples, for instance. You can buy a pound of whole apples for $1.99 or sliced apples for $4.99. I actually measured this – I can slice six apples in a minute and they look really nice. If you figure there are three medium sized apples in a pound, I’m slicing a pound of apples in 30 seconds. Half a minute of effort would save me $3. I will take that deal any day of the week.
Of course, not all savings will be quite as dramatic, but when you’re saving more than a dollar per minute of effort, you should be on board with that. It’s like earning more than $60 per hour without taxes.
13. Use the bulk bins.
Take a moment and compare the prices of items in the bulk bins at your grocery store compared to the prices of items that are prepackaged. Look at the price of a pound of oatmeal or a pound of granola. You’re likely going to be surprised at the price of the bulk stuff – it’s cheap.
Why? The stores can buy HUGE bulk packages of this stuff and just dump it in the bins, so they save money per pound and they pass at least some of that savings along to you.
So, if you know of some non-perishable food items you need at home, like flour or sugar or oatmeal or barley or something, check the bulk bins. You’ll almost always get it cheaper per pound.
14. Save your vegetable remnants.
Do you have a few leftover pieces of broccoli, or maybe part of a tomato? Maybe you have a little bit of cauliflower left or some fresh mushrooms that might go bad in a day or two.
Whatever vegetables you have left over, chop all of them up and put them in a gallon freezer bag in the freezer. Keep adding more vegetables to that bag until it’s full. Then, when it’s full, add those vegetables to a pot or slow cooker and fill it up with enough water to cover all of the vegetables to your second finger knuckle. Add some salt and black pepper to taste.
Right there, you have a simple soup. If it’s not up your alley, let it cook until some of the water has steamed off and the vegetables have broken into oblivion, then strain out the vegetable chunks and save the liquid – it’s amazing vegetable stock for almost any recipe you might make in the future.
15. Haggle on questionable items.
If you’re at the grocery store and you find some items that are close to the sell-by date or some fruits and vegetables that are a little past their maximum freshness, talk to the store manager and make a lowball offer.
It’s likely that those items are going to be tossed anyway, so a manager is usually happy to get something for those items. They’ll usually slap a sticker on them that says “$0.50” (or whatever) with the manager’s initials on it – that’s been my experience – and that’s what the cashier charges you.
I find this works better at smaller grocery stores. At huge stores, it’s sometimes difficult to get a manager to talk to you and sometimes they’ll still say no. At smaller stores, I find that managers are usually really happy to get a dollar out of aging items, so they’ll work with you.
If you take that stuff home and use it immediately, it’s just fine. Don’t do this if you’re planning on using the stuff in a few days, though.
There are lots of strategies for saving money on food – these are just 15 of them. The key message to take home here is that if you take charge of your food spending, you have a lot of options for trimming your expenses.