Food is a major part of our family’s budget. With three growing children at home, we go through a lot of food, and with our desire to make sure we all have reasonably healthy and reasonably balanced diets, the food costs can really add up.
Over the years, I’ve come up with a number of little strategies to shave a little bit off of our food spending without losing food quality. I’m not talking about the obvious things, like couponing or using the store flyer, but more subtle things like finding more creative ways to find common foods.
Here are four strategies I use quite regularly to trim money from our food spending and, in some cases, spend less time and improve food quality, too.
Instead of buying cans of beans, buy dried beans instead. Dry beans generally triple in size when they’re cooked. When you pick up a can of cooked beans at the store, you’re essentially buying half a cup of dry beans and a cup of water. Another way of looking at it is that a pound of dry beans usually measures out to equal two cups of dried beans, so when you triple their size through cooking, it ends up equaling the same amount of beans as you would find in four cans of beans. In other words, if you want to match the contents of a can of beans, simply cook half a cup of cooked dry beans.
Preparing beans is really easy. All you have to do is put four times as much water as the amount of beans you’re going to cook into a pot – so, put in four cups if you’re going to cook a cup of beans – and bring it to a boil. Add the beans and one-half teaspoon of salt per cup of dried beans, then let it simmer for two hours. I suggest tasting a bean every half-hour or so until they’re done – most beans take about two hours or so. Add a little hot water to the pot if the water is getting low. When it’s done, drain the remaining water and put the beans in a container in the refrigerator – use them in the next three days or so for whatever you’re planning. If you want, you can add a bit of onion and garlic to the boiling water to add a bit of flavor to the beans.
How much does this save? Well, you can usually buy dry beans for less than a dollar a pound, as you can see here. On the other hand, a single can of cooked beans almost always costs more than a dollar, as you can see here. Remember, one pound of dry beans equals four cans of cooked beans, so for every pound of beans you cook yourself, you’re saving at least $3, and usually a lot more.
Not only that, cooking the beans yourself tastes way better. If you use the method I describe above and just add beans straight to boiling water without a presoak, the beans end up really flavorful. This has been my preferred method for a while, and it’s really easy. You just add beans to a pot of water and walk away, doing your own thing while they cook. I often make batches of beans in the evenings just like this, allowing the beans to cook while I’m putting the kids to bed or reading a book or doing some other housework or laundry.
Make giant pots of your favorite soup. I love eating soup and so does my family. Most of our soup recipes are pretty cheap, but the problem is that a good soup does take a lot of time to prepare.
Our solution is easy: we just make giant batches of soup. We’ll make gallons of our favorite soup recipe on a Sunday, have it for dinner on Sunday and Tuesday, and usually eat it for lunch on Monday as well. Not only that, we still have a ton of leftovers, so what we do with that is use a bunch of our reusable freezer containers (like these, for example) to store meal-sized batches of soup. Some of them will be big enough for individual meals, while others are big enough to feed all five of us.
Then, on a weekend when we need a quick lunch, we pull out one of those containers. When I need a quick lunch during the day, I pull out one of those containers.
Since soup is already cheap to make, this means a lot of cheap meals. More than that, we can also buy some ingredients in bulk. If we’re making a bean-oriented soup, for example, I can justify one of the giant bulk bags of beans which is quite a bit cheaper per pound.
Depending on the soup, the price drops down to the $0.50 per meal level (and sometimes even lower), even if it’s loaded with fresh ingredients and even if you’re including extras like crackers.
Request a “leftover box” as soon as you receive your meal at a restaurant. Here’s the thing – portions at restaurants are enormous. Yet, I always find that I end up eating most of what’s on my plate, no matter how much food is there. I leave feeling stuffed and it’s not particularly good for my health, either.
My solution to this problem – and one that saves me money – is that I request a leftover container as soon as my plate arrives at my table. I don’t eat until the leftover box arrives, then I immediately place at least half of my meal right into that leftover box before I even start. I usually shoot to put about 60% of my meal in there and leave 40% on my plate.
40% of a restaurant meal is usually more than enough to leave me feeling full and I’m a pretty big guy. I don’t leave feeling stuffed, which is good, and more importantly, I have a huge amount of leftovers.
That leftover box, which contains 60% of my restaurant-sized meal, provides enough food for two additional meals. So, if we assume I spent $15 on that meal at the restaurant, I’m suddenly eating three meals for $5 a pop, a much more reasonable rate.
Having that leftover box right off the bat keeps me from being tempted to keep eating while I’m sitting at the table and it also usually creates two leftover meals for me, reducing the actual financial impact of eating out.
Make your own dry mixes. Do you have any soup mixes in your pantry? What about seasoning mixes that you use on meat or poultry or fish or vegetables? Those mixes are usually just combinations of spices that are sold for a pretty hefty premium.
A much better solution is to just have a well-stocked spice rack (since you’re cooking at home a lot anyway) and to make your own mixes in spare shaker bottles using the spices you already have.
For example, you can take a spare shaker bottle and follow this Italian seasoning recipe by adding a tablespoon each of dried basil, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, cilantro, thyme, savory, and red pepper flakes to that bottle and then shaking it thoroughly. This fills up a good-sized shaker bottle and provides a great Italian seasoning for pastas, meats, pizzas, and many other dishes for a long time.
If you repeat this with a lot of seasoning mixes, you’ll end up saving a surprising amount of money. You’ll also gain a great deal of control over your seasoning mixes. Do you like a spicier mix? Double the amount of red pepper flakes. Love the taste of basil or rosemary? Increase that amount, too.
This same exact philosophy works for all kinds of seasoning mixes, like steak seasoning or fish seasoning, or for dry soup mixes, like this split pea soup mix. It’s just cheaper to assemble your own mix at home from the component ingredients since you’ll already have most of them if you cook at home regularly.
The big lesson with all of these tips is this: be creative with how you cook. Is there a cheaper way to get the same ingredients? Is there another way to prepare my meals that will save money? Is there some method I can use to get another meal out of these leftovers? Applying those questions to your meals, both at home and otherwise, will often lead you to more cost-effective solutions for your food.