The big strategies are useful to think about, but it's often the little specific tactics that you add to your routines that make a big difference. Whenever you find a little step you can take that just changes your normal routines a little bit to save you some cash while still giving you the non-financial results that you want, that's a big victory. When that change also has a few additional side benefits, that's an even bigger victory.
Here are 10 little tactics that Sarah and I use (or have used in the past) in our food routines at our house. These aren't grand strategies - instead, they're just little tactics that will save a dollar or two without changing the desired results, or tactics that cost the same but provide some other benefit that will save a few bucks down the road.
1. Buy roasts on sale, then have the meat counter grind the roast for you (or get your own meat grinder).
Back when we lived at our old apartment, we lived just a couple of blocks from a small little grocery store with a meat counter. That grocery store always handed out flyers with their specials on it and there was usually at least one special from their meat counter.
One day, I had the realization that when I bought ground beef to make hamburgers or meatballs, I was essentially just buying a roast that had been ground up. After that, I started watching the flyers more carefully and waited for a sale on roasts. When one came up, I went to that store, bought the roast, and asked the person behind the counter to grind up that roast for me, which she was happy to do.
That simple move gave me several pounds of ground beef for far less than the normal price. All I had to do was go home and separate that large quantity into three or four batches and wrap those individually and pop them in the freezer for later.
There are two approaches to this. One, you can buy a relatively low quality roast at a very low per-pound rate compared to ground beef, which will give you decent hamburgers. On the other hand, you can buy a high quality roast at a per-pound rate that's comparable to what you would pay for ground beef, which will give you unbelievable hamburgers when it's ground up. Either way, you're saving money - you're either getting very cheap ordinary burgers or very reasonably priced gourmet burgers.
You might not have access to a store that will grind a roast for you (most meat counters will do it, but maybe you don't have that advantage). If that's the case, consider buying your own meat grinder for home use. If you use it even a few times to convert a large roast into ground beef, you'll start to see savings.
2. Know what nonperishable foods you eat regularly and stock up big when they're on sale.
Right now, in our pantry, we have somewhere between 20 and 30 boxes of whole wheat angel hair pasta. It's our go-to pasta for "spaghetti night," which is probably the most popular meal night at our home.
Since it's basically never going to expire, it makes sense to just watch the price on the store brand whole wheat pasta, and when it goes on sale and gets really cheap - which it does about once a year or so - we buy a ton of it. Enough to probably leave the checkout person wondering if we're sane.
Sure, we're dropping $50 on dried pasta, but it's going to last forever and we know we're going to use it. If we eat angel hair pasta once every two weeks, which is probably lower than our average, 26 boxes will last for a year. If we buy them all at once, then we don't have to add pasta to our grocery list for the next year - all we have to do is pull it out of the pantry when we want to use it.
3. Whenever you make soup, make plenty of it, then freeze the remainders in individual containers.
One of our most frequent family meals in the fall and winter is soup cooked in the slow cooker. We'll add most of the ingredients in the morning, turn it on low, let it simmer all day, add a couple more ingredients sometimes at the end of the workday (like pasta, for instance), and put it on the table, often with a nice side salad and a roll.
The thing is, we have an awfully big slow cooker. It's a six-quart beast, which means that it holds far more soup than our family would typically eat.
So why do we fill it to the brim each time we make soup?
The simple answer is that it ends up saving us a lot of money and time. Because we're making so much soup, we can buy ingredients in bulk and really double down on any fresh produce that's on sale or that happens to be coming in from our garden, like the arrival of pumpkins in the early fall.
This means a big batch of soup is really cheap... but it doesn't go to waste. We take the leftover soup after our family dinner and put it into individual freezer- and microwave-safe containers, which we label with some masking tape and then freeze. These individual containers make for quick lunches for months afterward.
For these kinds of freezer- and microwave-safe containers, I like to use GladWare soup and salad containers. You can have enough soup in one for a hearty single serving lunch and you can pull them directly from the freezer to the microwave, heating a bowl of soup from a frozen chunk to a hot lunch in just a few minutes with a bit of stirring. It's even faster if you think ahead and let it thaw in the refrigerator for a few hours before sticking it in the microwave. Plus, the containers are reusable - they go right through the dishwasher and are ready for another round of soup.
It's easy to make a big batch of soup or stew or chili. It's easy to take the extras and make individual bowls, and then those bowls make for amazing convenience food when I need it.
4. Shop at ethnic grocery stores.
If your town has some ethnic grocery stores, consider shopping there for some of your grocery needs, even if you don't regularly enjoy foods that you associate with that particular ethnicity.
Ethnic stores often offer incredible discounts on staple foods associated with that particular ethnic style of cooking. For example, in an Asian grocery store, you're often likely to find huge discounts on rice, as it is a backbone staple of many Asian cuisines. In a Latin American grocery store, you'll often find incredible discounts on a variety of dried beans, often in bulk. Ingredients like these can be used in an enormous variety of ways.
Even in large supermarkets, you can often find lower prices on the same item by carefully checking out the ethnic foods aisle. Those items are often packaged differently, but the prices are lower. I often find bags of rice at a much cheaper price in the "ethnic" aisle, for example.
My strategy, when I'm buying staples and spices, is to ask myself if these items would be available from an ethnic grocer. If they would be, I usually make an effort to stop there and find those foods, because I usually save so much that the extra effort is worthwhile.
5. Make a "smart" grocery list before you go.
As I've explained many times on The Simple Dollar, one of the most effective ways to save a ton of cash when you're shopping for groceries is to make a meal plan for the next several days first and then make a grocery list directly from that meal plan. (I often even start before that by downloading a grocery store flyer and using that to figure out meals that are based around the sale-priced items.)
This takes some time up front, but you get back most of that time by having a grocery list in hand in the store. Rather than wandering down the aisles, staring at the shelves, and adding random items to your cart, you just follow your list and add just those items.
A little trick that makes this even easier is to build a "smart" list. When you start making your list, make several headings, like "dairy/eggs," "frozen foods," "meat," "fresh produce," "breads," and so on. Those headings should match up with specific areas in your grocery store. That way, you can have a list of all of the items you need to get in the frozen foods section all at once and a list of all of the items you need from the meat section all at once and so on. That way, your shopping trip is just a walk from section to section of the store, where you know all of the items you need to grab in that section.
I've found time and time again that the less time I spend in a grocery store, the less money I spend there because I have less time to be tempted by unnecessary purchases. A "smart" grocery list like this makes a grocery store visit about as fast as humanly possible. Even with the additional time required to make such a list, so much time is saved with an organized list that you end up saving a bit of time overall and you definitely save a lot of money.
(You can combine this with the ethnic grocery store strategy by having a separate section on your list for that store.)
6. Buy rotisserie chickens, then save all of the scraps for other uses.
Many stores sell fully-cooked rotisserie chickens for roughly the same price as whole uncooked chickens. These are actually a pretty good deal for the price, as they provide well-prepared chicken at a price per pound that's very agreeable.
When you take the chicken home and enjoy it, though, there are always a bunch of pieces left behind. Bones, gristle, and some small leftover pieces of meat and skin remain, and it's tempting to throw them away.
Don't. Those items still have value.
Take all of them and put them in a slow cooker. Add enough water to cover the pieces with about two inches of water on top. Add any leftover vegetables you might have on hand, like onions or bell peppers or carrots. Add a few dashes of ground black pepper (or even whole peppercorns) and salt. Then, just let this simmer all day on low in that slow cooker.
At the end of the day, get out a strainer and a large bowl, then strain the contents of the slow cooker, allowing the liquid to pour into the bowl. That reserved liquid is chicken stock and it can be used for many, many delicious things.
It can form the backbone of soups - for instance, just add noodles and you have chicken noodle soup. You can use it to cook some amazing rice or make polenta. You can use it to make amazing dumplings, or add a bit to things like mashed potatoes to add unbelievable flavor. Chicken stock has incredible utility.
You can do almost the exact same thing with the leftover center bone from a beef or pork roast, which would then make beef or pork stock.
Not sure what to use this stock for right away? Put it in a freezer bag and save it for the future. It thaws easily and then can be used for whatever purposes you might have in mind at that later date.
7. Similarly, save all extra vegetables and clean vegetable scraps for other uses.
You can do almost the exact same thing with leftover vegetables, whether the scraps are cooked or not. Save the scraps for a while, dump them all in the slow cooker, add a bit of salt and black pepper, cover it with water up to your second knuckle, and then simmer all day long. Strain what's left and the liquid you save is vegetable stock, which is perfect for all kinds of uses.
My personal strategy is to just save all of our vegetable scraps in a gallon freezer bag in the freezer. Whenever we have new vegetable scraps, I add them to that bag.
I also keep a second freezer bag for perfectly fine vegetables that were simply in excess. I save things like a bit of extra chopped onion in this bag, while in the other bag I'll use pieces of onion I might not have otherwise eaten.
The "less edible" bag - the one with the scraps in it that I wouldn't eat - is what I use to actually make stock. All of the flavor is extracted from the scraps along the way, but the oddly-textured parts are strained off and tossed into the composter. I like using vegetable stock as the liquid in stir frys as well as the liquid when cooking rice or steaming vegetables. It adds a lot of extra flavor for very little cost.
The bag of normal scraps? I use that for soups. I eat a vegetarian diet, so these vegetables form the entirety of a delicious soup. I'll add some stock to a slow cooker, add in a bunch of those frozen vegetables, and allow it to simmer for several hours to make a rich and hearty vegetable soup. I could, of course, easily add meat to this - ground beef, chicken, or almost anything else.
It's really easy to start a freezer bag or two for leftover vegetables and keep adding to those bags. All you're doing is choosing to scrape those bits into the freezer bags instead of into the trash. Later, you have all you need for making soups and making vegetable stock, which can provide a delicious backbone for all kinds of meals.
8. Use stale bread to make breadcrumbs or croutons, or use stale tortillas to make tortilla chips.
If you ever find yourself with some dry, stale bread that has just dried out a little too much for you to eat otherwise, don't simply toss it. What you have there is bread that's already gone through some of the first step of making bread crumbs or salad croutons, so take advantage of it.
Bread crumbs, which are used for countless dishes, are made up of dried bread that's been pulverized to a powder, so just let the bread dry out further, then break it into pieces and then turn it to a powder in your blender or food processor. If you have dry bread and want to hurry this process along a little bit, you can simply spread out the slices on a baking sheet and toss them in the oven along with whatever the next item is that you're cooking in the oven.
What about croutons? The process is similar. Just take dry bread, cut it into cubes, and then mix the cubes with some olive oil and a few spices. Spread these cubes out on a baking sheet and bake them at 350F for 30 minutes. I often bake these at the same time as I'm baking something else to maximize the usefulness of the oven.
Tortilla chips are the same way. If you have leftover dried flour or corn tortillas, just cut them into wedge shapes, spread them on a baking sheet, and spray them with a mix of two parts lime juice and one part oil. Bake them at 350F for about 15 minutes, rotating the pan once halfway through baking. These homemade tortilla chips are amazing!
9. Make bulk 'quick meals' in advance for the week on Sundays.
This is one of those strategies that you can take to whatever level works best for you.
On the simplest end of things is doing something like hard-boiling a dozen eggs and peeling them on Sunday, then filling up an egg carton with them and leaving that egg carton in the fridge. Each day, grab two of them and eat them on your way out the door for an extremely quick and protein-rich breakfast.
From there, you can ramp things up as you'd like. You can prepare a bunch of single-serving meals, using the reusable containers mentioned earlier, and put some of them in the fridge for the week (and maybe put a few others in the freezer).
There are lots of possibilities here, like making salads for each one, but try things like making a huge batch of pasta with marinara sauce and splitting it among all of the containers, or even make something like a ton of breaded chicken strips or squares of lasagna (make a pan of it, allow that pan to cook and then cool, then cut it into squares or rectangles that fit in your containers).
The goal is to have easy meals you can grab and quickly microwave, but they're made yourself so that you have control over the ingredients and the costs.
10. Eat a meal before you go to the grocery store.
This is such a simple tactic, but it's one that has saved me lots of money over the years.
Again and again, I find that my worst grocery store splurges happen when I walk through the aisles when I am hungry. When I'm feeling that way, everything looks delicious and a lot of those items find their way into my cart.
I'm far better off going to the grocery store feeling pleasantly full - as full as I can be without feeling overfull or uncomfortable. When I feel that way, many of those foods that looked delicious when I was hungry don't look nearly as good.
If I go to the store equipped with a grocery list while feeling full, it's very easy to just follow that list and buy only the things I find on it. That means that I'm spending far less at the grocery store and filling my refrigerator and freezer and pantry and cupboards only with things I actually need instead of unnecessary food items that I might never even use.
Not only does it save money, it's also good for my health.
A family's food budget is loaded with many, many ways to save money without adding much time to the overall equation. Many of the frugal strategies I use for saving money on food might cost a little bit of time, but they usually end up saving time later on meaning that the time cost becomes a non-factor and instead I can focus on the pure savings.
As with all things, pick and choose the strategies that work for you. Not all of these things will be perfect for your situation and your life, but I'm willing to bet at least a few of them are, so be selective and just try out those that make sense. If you find that they save you a few dollars a week without adding any extra effort to your life, that's a definite victory!