We have five people living in our home – two adults and three children. With that many mouths to feed, a large monthly food budget is simply a fact of life.
It’s also the most variable line in our budget. We can get that number well below $500 a month if we’re careful, eat every meal at home, and fix economical meals. On the other hand, if we eat out several times in a month and don’t make such economical meals, the food spending can blast well above $1,000 in a month.
It’s tricky to budget for that amount (we usually budget on the high end and hope for some “financial leftovers”). It’s also painful for our checking account and our wallets if we allow ourselves to go high.
Because of the huge impact that food can have on our budget, we make a concerted effort to find ways to spend less on food. Not only do we try out lots of tactics, we also have a wide array of principles that have really clicked and have stuck with us over the years.
This article is a mix of some of the best tried-and-true practices that we’ve been using for many years, as well as some new strategies we’ve been using recently with great results. All of them are useful strategies for keeping healthy food on your plate without having to break the bank or invest hours and hours of time.
Strategy #1: Plan Meals in Advance for the Week Using Produce from the Grocery Store Flyer
I’ve written about this strategy many times, but that’s because it works. It is the backbone of how we save money on food. It boils down to a six-step strategy for managing our family’s food spending:
Step 1: Get a Flyer
Step 2: Find Sales on Fresh Ingredients
Step 3: Do Some Recipe Research
Step 4: Create a Week-Long Meal Plan
Step 5: Make a Shopping List from the Meal Plan
Step 6: Go Grocery Shopping – And Stick to Your List
We go through this routine on a weekly basis, with Sarah and I often collaborating on the first five steps and one of us handling the final step alone.
Strategy #2: Use a Slow Cooker as Often as Possible
Our slow cooker is probably the most used item in our kitchen. We use it about three times a week on average.
For those unfamiliar, a slow cooker is a device that essentially cooks your food very slowly throughout the day. You can put uncooked food in there in the morning and when you’re done with your day, there’s a full meal in there just waiting to be eaten.
Many, many meals can be prepared in a slow cooker by simply putting some ingredients in there in the morning, turning the slow cooker on low, and then simply leaving for the day. We have dozens of great slow cooker recipes that we love, from lasagna to stews and from whole roasts with vegetables to soups.
How does this save money? On a busy evening, it’s often much easier to simply get some takeout or have food delivered or to just eat at a restaurant. The reason is time – with a tight schedule, there’s often not enough time for someone to prepare a meal and have it on the table when everyone can eat.
A slow cooker solves that problem. You don’t have any prep time in the evening, you can put the food on the table whenever it works for you, and you can even serve it two or three times if that works for everyone’s schedule.
For a family of four or five, I’d recommend a six-quart manual slow cooker, as it’s a great size both for meals and for bulk cooking tasks (like cooking beans all day or making stock).
Strategy #3: Make Slow Cooker Meals in Advance By Assembling Them in Gallon Ziploc Freezer Bags
Lately, Sarah has been on a kick preparing slow cooker meals in advance so that they can be grabbed out of the freezer, allowed to thaw in the fridge for 24 to 48 hours, and then dumped into a slow cooker in the morning so that supper is ready that evening. She spent an evening with some friends making a bunch of these meals and they’ve all been quite good and very, very easy.
Pretty much any soup, stew, or simple non-layered casserole works reasonably well for this. We’ve made a great chickpea-based Indian-inspired meal, a vegetarian bean-based “Sloppy Joe” mix, a taco salad, and several other things – and we eat vegetarian. For non-vegetarians, the possibilities are endless – here are 12 great options to start with.
A few recommendations, though. First, put the meals in quart and gallon Ziploc bags and double layer the bags. If you use only a single layer for these, you can occasionally have a mess.
Second, be sure to label the outer bag clearly, with a date, so that you know what it is when examining your freezer contents.
Third, these always work best when you thaw them in the fridge for 24 to 48 hours, so pull them out a day or two before you’ll use them. You don’t need to have the meals fully thawed before you add them to the slow cooker, but they should be mostly thawed.
Strategy #4: Eat a Greater Portion of Fruits and Vegetables in Your Diet
If you pay attention in your grocery store, you’ll notice that many fresh fruits and vegetables are quite cheap. Bananas are always incredibly inexpensive, for example, and many vegetables are really cheap when they’re in season. The prices you can get on fresh produce just blow away the prices you can get on meats or many prepackaged food items, as long as you pay a little attention to them.
There are several simple ways to put more fruits and vegetables in your diet without radically overhauling things.
My favorite is to simply have some fruits available for easy snacking whenever I want them. We’ll bring home some grapes and wash and put them in a bowl in the fridge so that they can easily be grabbed when I’m hungry. We’ll leave apples and bananas and other fruits out on the table for easy access, too.
Another strategy is to toss some vegetables right in with whatever you’re cooking. If you’re grilling, wrap some vegetables in foil and toss them on the grill. If you’re baking or frying meat, add some vegetables right into the pot or pan and cook them. Then, when it’s time to eat, add these savory vegetables right to your plate along with the meat.
Not only will an increase in your fruits and vegetables help you with eating a little healthier, it will also help you save some money on your food spending.
Strategy #5: Maintain a Favorite Recipes Database – There Are Many Easy Ways to Do It
Whenever Sarah and I find a recipe that we like, we save it for the future, as many people do. The problem is dealing with a big set of recipes. Once you reach a certain threshold of recipes that you love, it becomes hard to manage them.
Our solution was to move to a recipe database. We use Paprika because it’s well-integrated with a grocery list tool, but there are many tools that work well for this. Pretty much any word processing program will work, as will Evernote (which is what we used before Paprika).
So, how exactly does something like Paprika save us money? Remember our meal planning routine, from the first strategy above? One of the first things we do when we identify some on-sale fresh produce from the grocery flyer is to search our recipe database for that ingredient. What meals do we enjoy that utilize this ingredient that’s on sale? A quick Paprika search shows us.
We don’t just keep recipes that we love in there. When we see an interesting one from a cookbook or a website, we add that to Paprika too. We distinguish between new ones and “classics” by adding a “star rating” (usually 5 stars) to classics. If a new recipe turns out to be good, it gets a star rating; if it’s not good, it gets deleted.
Strategy #6: Prepare Simple Staples on Sunday for Easy Breakfasts Throughout the Week
Last Sunday, I hard boiled a dozen eggs, shelled four of them, and put all of them in the fridge for later. On Monday, I needed a quick breakfast, so I grabbed two hardboiled eggs, put a dash of pepper on each of them, and gobbled them down.
The Sunday before that, I mostly cooked some steel cut oats, spiced them with brown sugar, cinnamon, and apples, then stored a big batch of it in the fridge. In the mornings, I put a couple of big spoonfuls of the steel cut oats in a bowl and finished the cooking in the microwave.
Both situations saved us money. In the first situation, hardboiled eggs make for a very inexpensive and tasty breakfast, but I don’t have time for it most mornings. Because the eggs are already hardboiled, though, I do have time for it, which means that my cost for breakfast each morning is lowered.
In the second one, I was able to very quickly get steel-cut oatmeal on the table for breakfast during the week. My kids love oatmeal and they recognize that the steel cut stuff is far better, but it’s hard to make for breakfast. This method lets me make a delicious and hearty breakfast for them even during the busy mornings.
Again, time is a huge factor here. By doing the preparation on Sunday, when I have spare time in the afternoon, we’re able to enjoy inexpensive meals for at least the first three days of the week for two of our meals during the day without much time investment during the workweek.
Strategy #7: Never Enter a Grocery Store Without a Grocery List
Obviously, when you’re following that meal planning structure from strategy #1, it’s easy to have a grocery list to follow, but sometimes you find yourself in an unexpected situation and you need to stop at the grocery store during the week or when traveling.
Even then, you’re going to save money – and, believe it or not, save time – by writing a grocery list before you go in the door. Spend a few minutes thinking through exactly what you need to buy there, jot it down on a piece of scratch paper, and use that as your grocery list.
Having a grocery list in your hand means that your focus is entirely on finding the items on that list. You’re not wandering and staring at the shelves and wondering if you should be putting that stuff in your cart. That question rarely crosses your mind when you’re shopping with a list. You simply don’t add nearly as many unplanned items to your cart, which directly saves you money.
Strategy #8: Establish Strong Cooking Habits So That Cooking and Cleanup Are Easy
One of the biggest drawbacks against cooking at home is that it takes so much time, but the big reason for that impression is that people rarely approach home cooking with organization and strong skills.
I’ll give you an example. One of the most effective ways to make food preparation and cleanup as easy as possible is to prepare and measure all ingredients before you start cooking. Measure and put all of the ingredients you need into cups and bowls. Chop all of the vegetables and cut up all of the meat before you do anything else. Have your dishwasher completely empty before you start so you can just put everything straight into the dishwasher.
That way, you’re dealing with a number of very small messes that just take a second or two to clean up along the way instead of a complete kitchen disaster at the end. (This is very similar to a common restaurant technique called mise en place.)
Another advantage to doing things this way is that you can focus on the food as it is cooking instead of running from task to task while your eggs are burning on the stovetop. This creates far better results, which means that you have positive feedback from cooking at home and it also means that everything gets easier and easier and less intimidating.
You may also want to peek at Strategy #11 for a great parallel strategy.
Strategy #9: Label and Date Your Leftovers and Keep Them Front and Center in the Fridge
Leftovers are incredibly valuable. If you save them instead of throwing them away, and then consume those leftovers, you’re essentially getting a free meal. Do that often enough and you’re going to see a real dent in your food budget.
The problem is that it’s easy to forget leftovers in the fridge. They get pushed to the back and quickly forgotten, only discovered a month later when they’ve gained sentience and you have to battle them over to the trash can.
The solution is to put a big fat label right on those leftovers – I use masking tape and a Sharpie which sit close to the fridge – and keep them right in the front of the fridge so you can’t miss ’em. Jot down what’s in the container and when you put it in there.
When I open the fridge looking for something for lunch, I am far more likely to notice a clearly labeled container right in the front (and grab it for a cheap lunch) than one shoved in the back, opaque and labelless.
Strategy #10: Learn How to Cook Dried Beans Instead of Using Canned Beans
It takes several cans of beans to add up to the amount of beans you get from a single bag of dried beans. At my local grocery store, that bag of dried beans costs about the same amount as one can. If you eat beans very often, as I do, going for the dried beans can save some real money.
The trick, of course, is cooking them in a convenient way, and for that I rely on strategy #2 – I use the ol’ slow cooker. I just put in a pound of beans at the start of the day, add plenty of water (usually most of a finger depth over the top of the beans), and let it simmer on low all day long. At the end of the day, most of the water is gone, the beans are far bigger, and they’re deliciously soft!
Often, I’ll add some salt and pepper along with some chopped onion or chopped bell pepper or a spoonful of minced garlic to the boil to add a bit of flavor to the beans. Anyway, I strain off the remaining liquid and save those beans in a container in the fridge to use in recipes over the next few days.
The humble bean is so versatile. You can find countless uses for it. It works in soups and stews. It works over pasta, mixed with diced tomatoes. It works mixed with eggs. It works with countless variations on tacos, burritos, and so on. I’ll even eat them happily as a side dish.
It’s easy, too, if you have cooked beans already in a container in the fridge. Just make sure you eat them in a few days!
Strategy #11: Do Most of Your Meal Prep Work the Night Before
What do you do if you want to cook an interesting dinner one night? You’re thinking about trying it, but the time pinch looks really tight. You can pull it off if you chop and dice really quickly – maybe while something’s cooking on the stovetop?
That’s usually a mistake. I can’t count the number of meals I’ve ruined that way. Because of that, I was afraid to actually try complex meals on a weeknight for a long while until I figured out a nice trick.
I just chop all of the vegetables and measure most of the ingredients in advance the night before.
The chopped vegetables and meats go in the fridge. The other ingredients go in small containers on the counter, labeled clearly if I’m worried about confusing them. I’ll often put all of the dry ingredients that go in at the same time in the same container, to make it easier.
That way, when dinnertime comes the next day, I just pull the vegetables (and meats) out of the fridge and open up the containers that were on the counter and I’m ready to go. I can focus solely on the cooking, which means that it will take far less time that evening and I’m less likely to mess it up and it’s going to be far cheaper than ordering takeout or delivery.
Strategy #12: Buy Reusable Containers and Pack Individual Meals on the Weekends
On Saturdays or Sundays, we usually make one huge meal that we know we’ll all like. Maybe we’ll make a vat of chili one week or our barley vegetable soup another week. Perhaps we’ll make a giant pan of lasagna or even two of them. You get the idea.
When we serve this meal, we also serve many more servings right into some reusable containers, which we immediately label and pop in the fridge for lunches during the first half of the week.
I like to use these Gladware containers for this purpose, as they ride perfectly from the fridge to the microwave to the dishwasher and back around and they’re really easy to label with masking tape and a marker.
Then, on weekdays, we just grab one of those containers out of the fridge and we’re ready for lunch. It makes for cheap lunches that are absolutely delicious.
Food budgets are one of the easiest things to completely overspend on because of the convenience of so many foods, especially when we’re busy. However, with a bit of thoughtful planning, you can cut back drastically on the needed time while still enjoying many, many inexpensive and delicious homemade meals. No more exploding food budgets!