Trying to Save Money on Food Costs? Read These 6 Tips

Here’s a batch of food-related questions from readers: how to spend less on food, how to get more value out of food, and so on. Food makes up one of the biggest flexible parts of a family’s budget, so honing your techniques for getting the most value out of your food dollar is essential.

1. What’s the best curbside pickup grocery strategy?
2. Should I make my own vinegar?
3. How do I cook with a small kitchen?
4. The importance of frozen pizza
5. Navigating school lunches during COVID-19
6. How can I learn to cook better?

6 questions about saving money on food costs

1. What’s the best curbside pickup grocery strategy?

Read your article about grocery and meal planning strategy. If one of the goals is to minimize the time in the store, how does that work with curbside pickup when you’re not in the store? Doesn’t it lose its main benefit?
– Eric

I assume you’re referring to this meal-planning article, where I discuss the general process our family uses for planning out meals, translating that into a grocery list, and then going grocery shopping.

Yes, one benefit of that plan is that it minimizes the time in the grocery store, which thus minimizes the number of impulse buys you make while there. Stores are set up to tempt you.

However, this still applies with grocery shopping via an app with curbside pickup.

The advantage of doing meal planning away from the app and developing a grocery list away from the app is that you spend less time browsing around in the app. The more time you spend browsing around a grocery app, simply wandering around hoping that serendipity will strike, the more tasty things you’ll find to buy and add to your cart with just a tap. If you have a list of things to add to focus on, you’ll spend less time browsing, which means fewer unnecessary purchases.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever buy snacks or things like that — by all means, do so. However, writing a grocery list based on a meal plan away from your grocery app is a smart move.

There are a lot of ways to do this. Here, we use a whiteboard for our weekly meal plans. I use Paprika as a “digital recipe box” to aid in that, as that’s where I have all of the recipes for our family favorites stored.

2. Should I make my own vinegar?

Have you tried making your own vinegar? It’s not a cheap replacement for regular white vinegar, but it is a really good alternative for things like red wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar.
– Damon

Absolutely! Making fermented foods is one of my hobbies. Here’s a guide to making your own vinegar that I like, though you can also make your own vinegar mother to get started. It’s really not hard and uses minimal equipment.

Remember, this isn’t a really efficient way to make ordinary white vinegar. It’s just cheaper to buy a big jug of that at the store. This is really only worthwhile if you like using fancier kinds of vinegar for cooking or making vinaigrette dressings.

3. How do I cook with a small kitchen?

I live in a 320 sq. ft. efficiency apartment. It’s basically one room with a shower stall and a sink in the corner, think of it as a big dorm room basically. Outside of a microwave, I have no idea how to cook here but eating all takeout seems really expensive. Guides online all seem to assume you have a ton of money.
– Cammie

You won’t be able to bake, but with a good hot plate or two and a few pans, there are a lot of things you can make. I suggest this two-burner hot plate for starters, along with a small pot, a large pot, a skillet from a secondhand store. a simple plastic or wooden spatula and a plastic or wooden stirring spoon. That will help you cook a lot of things and you can get all of that for $40–$50. All of that stuff is easily washable in the sink you have, too.

If you have room for a small refrigerator, that will be really helpful as well, but that’s a bigger expense and it can wait. It’s mostly good for storing leftovers and keeping items cold, but many things can be prepared without it.

With this setup, you can easily make some one-pot pasta meals, all kinds of sandwiches including grilled cheese and soups. If you add a small fridge to this setup, you drastically increase your options, as noted above.

4. The importance of frozen pizza

One frugal tip I think you should mention is the value of frozen pizzas on sale. They are a great quick freezer meal. Our local store often has frozen pizzas on sale for three for $10 and they’re pretty good. I’ll buy a whole bunch and then on really busy nights I’ll make two of them for our family of four for dinner. That adds up to $1.66 a head for supper, which isn’t bad.
– Kathy

This is actually a pretty good strategy, and we do the same thing. Sometimes everything just falls apart and we need to come home, flip on the oven, slip in the pizzas, and have dinner on the table in 20 minutes, and it’s really hard to have anything that works as well or as inexpensively as a frozen pizza. I’ll sometimes sprinkle some frozen veggies (diced green peppers and onions) or some mushrooms on top of cheese pizzas, as cheese pizzas are usually really cheap.

If you’re able to get good frozen pizzas at a rate of three for $10, that ends up being pretty cheap. It’s not an “everyday” meal by any means, but in terms of something that you can turn to in a pinch when things just did not go according to plan, it’s crowd pleasing and pretty inexpensive and very quick to prepare.

Another thing we do along the same lines is whenever we make chili, we make absurd amounts of it and fill up freezer containers with it. We will make on the order of two to three gallons of chili at once sometimes. We use two-quart containers, which gives enough chili for dinner for our family of five. We can come home, pop it in the microwave to defrost, then cook it in there or on the stovetop.

5. Navigating school lunches during COVID-19

Could you write an article on inexpensive school lunches during COVID-19? Our school sent home a leaflet encouraging kids to bring lunches but then also warning about surfaces and stuff which kind of defeats the point of reusable containers. Any suggestions?
– Dana

My suggestion would be to send as many things wrapped in paper as possible. Send lunch in a paper bag, wrap a sandwich in a wax paper sandwich bag (like these) and maybe even put some sides in them, and send individually wrapped sides and a drink bought in bulk. That way, this can all be disposed of through the recycling bins in the school and the items aren’t coming home with them. Focus on things that work at room temperature. A big warehouse club trip is probably in order to make this work.

This is not normally how I would suggest sending school lunches, as it’s not the most frugal way to do it, but given the potential risk of school lunch containers becoming a vector for carrying coronavirus if it’s being transported back and forth every day, it’s probably good to avoid the risk. If you do go with reusable containers, I would take the utmost care to wash them carefully each day.

6. How can I learn to cook better?

I have been trying so hard during all of this to make meals at home but everything I make that isn’t a boxed meal is just terrible. I burn it or there’s no flavor so I just end up ordering delivery which ends up being even more expensive because of the food I wasted.
– Margie

Learning how to cook at home means that you’re going to make some pretty low–quality meals, especially at first. You’re going to burn stuff. You’re going to make stuff that isn’t very flavorful. You’re going to make stuff that doesn’t taste like you expect. It happens.

When you screw up, it is completely OK. Don’t get angry or upset or frustrated with yourself. Every single person who has ever cooked in a kitchen with some success has messed up a lot of meals.

Instead, turn to Google. Search for things like “easy ways to make spaghetti more flavorful” or “how to not burn a fried egg” and see what you find.

The most helpful thing in the world for getting better at cooking, in my opinion, is YouTube. There are videos out there on how to cook and season almost everything. Just put your phone out in the kitchen when you’re ready to try something and roll the video, pausing when you need to do something. My kids make all kinds of things from YouTube videos. I really, really wish I had YouTube as an aid when I was first learning to cook.

You are going to mess up, and that’s OK. Messing up means you tried something, and from trying and failing you usually learn more than you learn from success. Rather than beating yourself up, figure out what went wrong and try again.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

We welcome your feedback on this article.Contact us at with comments or questions.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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  • Courtney Mihocik
    Courtney Mihocik
    Loans Editor

    Courtney Mihocik is an editor at The Simple Dollar who specializes in personal loans, student loans, auto loans, and debt consolidation loans. She is a former writer and contributing editor to,, and elsewhere.