We love to cook and we love to cook well. Sometimes it’s hard to make this jibe with our food budget, however. So we’ve come up with a number of ways to lower our food bill, and it’s made a huge difference in how much we spend in relation to how well we eat.
Obviously, some ingredients are cheaper than others. Cooking with pasta, or dry beans or lentils, is going to be cheaper than cooking with meat or seafood. In general this means that a diet skewed more toward the vegetarian end of the spectrum will probably be better for your pocketbook. You don’t have to be this straightforward about it, though. There are tricks you can use to widen your options without using up your paycheck.
Go beyond the obvious. For example, simple baked goods are often inexpensive because they consist primarily of flour. A fruit dessert that uses one lemon’s worth of juice and zest will be cheaper than something that uses a quart of strawberries. A soup will probably be cheaper by volume than a stew because stock or water is inexpensive (particularly if you make your own stock from the bones of any meat you use). Plan ahead: if you have a recipe that requires an entire chicken, turkey or duck, then pick recipes for shortly thereafter that use stock and make your own from the carcass.
Sales flyers and coupons
Obviously, watch sales flyers and clip coupons. Pretty much anyone who watches her pennies knows this. If there’s a sale on hamburger, pick up a bunch and stick it in your freezer until you need it. There are a couple of side notes to this, however.
Don’t buy it until you need it. Make sure you’ll be using some of that burger right away so you don’t risk buying it and immediately forgetting about it. Wasted food costs money; it doesn’t save you anything, no matter how much on sale it was when you bought it. Then try to make sure you use the rest of it pretty soon thereafter.
Compare prices. Just because it’s on sale doesn’t mean it’s the best buy. For instance, a couple of times I was about to buy a sale item and then noticed that the store brand, which turned out to be just as good, was even cheaper than the sale item. You should also compare prices between sizes; sometimes several of a smaller size might be cheaper than a larger item (stores have caught on to the fact that we tend to think bulk items are cheaper).
Check out warehouse clubs — carefully. Sometimes you can find great deals at warehouse clubs. Sometimes buying in bulk turns out not to be cheaper after all, or results in food waste. Track price-per-volume from your grocery store for a while, then go to your warehouse club and see what tends to be cheaper. Also examine your hidden habits; if every time you go to your warehouse club you walk through the DVD aisle and buy a DVD, it might be cheaper for you to skip the warehouse club!
Watch out for change. Sometimes a price or volume of an item will change, rendering it much more or less valuable. Keep an eye out for this. Particularly watch out for the hidden problems — like items that drop in price and seem to be a good value, but also drop in amount and thus turn out to be more expensive.
Check out specialty stores. I always assumed that specialty stores would be more expensive than the grocery store. I assumed that Trader Joe’s, for example, would be more expensive because most of their things were natural or organic. Then I took a receipt from Trader Joe’s to the grocery store, and found out that (where I am, at least) many things were cheaper at Trader Joe’s. Not the gourmet imported stuff, sure, but the everyday things.
Watch out for hidden waste and costs. However, I don’t buy milk or half-and-half for my coffee at Trader Joe’s. I don’t go through those things very quickly, so if I don’t get the ultra-pasteurized varieties they tend to go bad and I have to throw some out. The kinds at TJ’s aren’t ultra-pasteurized, so they result in waste for me.
You don’t have to do something drastic like become a vegetarian to cut your food costs. Just watch the ratios of your ingredients. Add extra of inexpensive ingredients to your dishes and cut back the amount of the expensive ingredients. For example, if you’re making a chili that has meat in it, reduce the amount of meat and/or add some extra beans. If you bought cans of diced tomatoes in bulk because they were on sale, add an extra can of diced tomatoes to a chicken soup with tomato. The dish will stretch farther for less money. Remember that meat freezes well for limited amounts of time, so you don’t have to use all of that cut of steak just because you couldn’t buy a smaller package. Slice it up into several-ounce cuts and freeze each one separately; then take them out of the freezer as needed.
Adding extra to a recipe works, of course, if you eat the entire dish. If you make so much that you end up throwing some out then you haven’t saved yourself any money. So don’t go overboard.
You can combine this trick with using up any excess ingredients you have lying around. For example, say a recipe for a bean salad calls for half a cup of celery, and you have some extra celery stalks left over. Decide whether or not you’d still enjoy the salad if it had extra celery in it. If so, you’ve just stretched that dish out farther without spending any extra money.
The Food Inventory
If you do a lot of cooking and enjoy cooking with odd things, you may have our problem: you end up with all these odd bits of ingredients in bags, cans and jars sitting around your house. In this case you can end up forgetting you have something, and then it goes bad before you get a chance to use it.
Once every one to three months, do a food inventory. Take a few sheets of paper and a pen and go around your house writing down every bit of food you have in storage. (Include insta-food such as freezer meals.) Note down expiration dates when they’re relevant, and also include amounts for each food.
If you feel like it, input this into a spreadsheet program, grouping items in to whatever kind of category system seems most helpful. For instance, we do things like “baking ingredients” and “canned and jarred foods.” Try to remember to cross things off as you use them and add things as you acquire them; the better you are about this, the less often you have to do the inventory. (If you don’t get around to it, it’s okay; just make sure to re-do the inventory more often.) We also find we’re less likely to impulse-purchase when we know that we have these things sitting around at home. Now when one of us stares at the dark chocolate bars in the checkout aisle at Trader Joe’s, the other will say, “yeah, but we still have whole bags of chocolate bars at home from that last sale.”
Take advantage of what you have
Now that you know what you have in the house, take advantage of that. If you have evaporated milk then pick a dessert that uses that. If you have jarred cherries, then pick out a cherry dessert. If you want to make a salmon recipe and you have frozen corn in the freezer, then pick out a salmon corn chowder. We’ve had weeks where we were making five or six “gourmet” recipes, and only had to pick up a handful of ingredients because we carefully structured the recipes around things we already had in the house.
You can use the food inventory concept to take advantage of other opportunities that come your way. For example, it helps you to get the most out of warehouse club purchases and sa le purchases because you’re less likely to forget about items you have stored in the freezer or cupboards. You can also take advantage of gift cards to stores that sell some kind of food. If someone gives you a gift card to a kitchen store and you don’t really need any new kitchenware, then pick up those gourmet chocolate bars and make some chocolate desserts.
The food inventory also makes it easier to take advantage of bulk cooking (once-a-month cooking). Many OAMC cookbooks concentrate on things like soups and stews (which tend to be inexpensive) and on making things in bulk (allowing you to take greater advantage of sales and warehouse club purchases). And if you keep track of these freezer meals on your food inventory you’re less likely to let them go to waste. They’re also a whole lot cheaper than freezer meals from the grocery store for the most part, so if you often don’t have the time to cook you can save yourself a substantial amount of money here!
If you love to cook and you love to eat well, there’s nothing that says you can’t do that and stay on a budget too. It just requires a little thought, a little care, and some attention to the details.