3 Questions About Saving Money on Food Expenses – Answered

The average American household spends just shy of 10 percent of their annual income on food, according to the USDA. That adds up to an enormous financial impact over the course of a year.

Some of the strategies for cutting that expense, such as preparing foods for yourself, finding inexpensive things you actually like, and finding inexpensive ingredients for dishes can be challenging. Here are three questions that dig into the details of those issues, with strategies you can take home to your own kitchen.

In this article

    First steps toward cooking for yourself

    Tom writes:

    Never really cooked for myself – mom and dad always did it and then I relied on microwave meals and takeout. I saw the savings but never could get myself to do it. During the COVID lockdowns, I decided it was the perfect time to start cooking for myself but at the end of a long day the thought of making food seemed like too much effort almost every night so I would just order delivery or eat microwave food. How does a busy single person even do this?

    There are a few great ways to get started cooking for yourself.

    The best approach is to start with very simple versions of foods you like. For example, if you like eggs, try making hard-boiled eggs or fried eggs or scrambled eggs, all of which are very easy to make. If you like macaroni and cheese, use this wonderful three-ingredient mac and cheese recipe — it takes about 10 minutes, uses only three ingredients, and mostly all you do is stir it regularly, and it blows boxed mac and cheese out of the water for a lower price.

    If there are particular takeout or microwave foods that you love, spend a weekend day making some of them for yourself. If you like frozen burritos, try making a whole bunch of burritos and freezing them. If you have a takeout meal you love, make a big batch of it, enjoy a meal from that immediately, and put some individual portions of it in the fridge and the freezer to eat over the next few days.

    Make-ahead meals are another great tool in your repertoire. Again, you just take advantage of the weekend to do some of the hardest parts of the meal prep. At the end of a weekday, all you have to do is pop something in the oven or in the microwave. Even better, make a larger batch so that you can save leftovers and have super-easy lunches and dinners for a few nights — make a great lasagna and you can have pieces for quite a while!

    Not only will these steps put food on the table with relatively little effort and little complexity, you’ll learn how to cook as you’re doing them. The confidence you build in really nailing a simple mac and cheese recipe or a simple pasta-and-sauce meal will encourage you to try to make something like lasagna, which will encourage you to make something else, and something else.

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    Healthy, cheap, easy, and tasty?

    Bill writes:

    Feels like every food choice sacrifices at least one of healthy, cheap, easy, and tasty, and usually sacrifices two of them. Doesn’t anything hit all four? Feels like you have to pay out the nose to have healthy AND tasty, and no decent meal is easy to make yourself so you have to pay at a restaurant.

    The challenge here is that, because taste is so subjective, there’s essentially no food out there that’s healthy, cheap, easy, and tasty to most people. Almost everyone will have a few items that hit all four of those marks, but they’re so different from person to person that it’s impossible to point at a good solution. There’s also the variety issue – even if you do find a few foods that hit all four, it’ll make for a diet that’s not very varied.

    One really good solution to this problem is to try to choose three of the four for every meal, but switch up which three you choose.

    Make some meals healthy, cheap and easy, but not particularly tasty to you. Those are baseline health foods to fuel your body – lots of vegetables that you may not love, but when you push away from the table, you know you have good stuff in your body and didn’t overspend. A big salad is healthy, cheap, and easy, but maybe not that tasty.

    Make some meals healthy, cheap and tasty. Do these on the weekends, when you have time to really invest in preparing something out of basic ingredients that’s actually still pretty good for you. A perfectly marinated grilled chicken breast with some of your favorite sautéed vegetables with a little sauce to die for – healthy, cheap, and tasty, but not that easy.

    Make some meals healthy, easy and tasty. Order takeout or delivery once in a while, but choose something that’s reasonably good for you. Look at all the options and pick something that you’ll really enjoy from a flavor experience, but isn’t 3,000 calories.

    Make some meals cheap, easy and tasty. It’s okay to have a few meals that are essentially inexpensive junk food. A great example of this comes from my own family, who really enjoys ramen soup – it’s cheap, easy, and tasty, but not healthy, so it’s a “once in a while” food.

    Mix them up. A suggestion that works well for me is to have many of your meals be in the healthy, cheap and easy camp, so that you appreciate the tastier meals more when you have them while maintaining a healthy and low-cost baseline without too much time commitment. Salads, whole wheat pastas with simple sauces, simple roasted vegetables — things like that. Then, when you eat tastier options, you appreciate them and aren’t necessarily destroying your budget or your health.

    Buying and storing bulk spices

    Dana writes:

    What is your strategy for buying and storing bulk spices? Bulk spices are way cheaper than the jars at the store but storing them is a pain and it feels like I always get too much and end up throwing them all away!

    If you’re a regular home cook, having a collection of spices and seasonings is invaluable. Spices and seasonings are the magic that turns inexpensive and healthy but bland food into delicious things you’re excited to eat. Figuring out how to get the most value out of them is tricky, but here’s a system that works well at our house.

    Start with a large collection of spice jars — four ounces is a good size.

    Put a label on each jar lid so you can easily see what’s in there by just looking at the lids in the pantry. Keep them all in a low-sided box so it’s easy to see them all at once and just grab what you need.

    Put a small piece of masking tape on the side of each jar that lists a date on it, like “March 2021.” That’s the approximate date that the spices in the jar will expire. Whenever new spices come in, just put a new bit of masking tape on the side with the “expiration date.”

    Whenever you notice that a jar is getting close to empty, just add that spice to your shopping list for the week, buying enough to refill the jar. When you refill it, of course, replace the masking tape!

    Once a year or so, go through all of the jars, aim to use up anything that’s nearly outdated or slightly over the date in the next week or two, then make a big trip to the spice store to refill all of those spices in bulk. If a jar is empty, buying four ounces of the spice is perfect to fill up the jar, so you can just bring it home in little baggies.

    Another useful strategy is to have a bunch of standard spice mixes that you keep in shaker jars. You can just repurpose good shaker jars from seasoning mixes that you’ve bought in the past or been gifted to you. Just strip off the label and make your own with a printer or with masking tape. You can refill those shakers from your own spice collection when the shaker empties out. For example, you might have a shaker for seasoning tomato sauce to make a good pasta sauce, or a shaker that has your perfected burger seasoning in it, so you don’t have to remake it every time. The possibilities of great DIY spice mixes are endless!

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com 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.