Easy Ways to Cut Your Food Bill
Where’s all my money going? That was the nagging question that prompted me to take a closer look at my family’s finances. One glance and it was obvious: Food. We were spending an exorbitant amount of money on food as a family. As it turns out, we had plenty of company. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a woman between the ages of 19 and 50 can spend anywhere from $38.60 to $76.60 a week on food. A family of four can spend between $90.10 and $178.90.
And a surprising amount of it goes to waste. “Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year,” according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which found that 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten. So clearly, we’re not shopping as smartly as we could. How to change that? Here are five ways.
Arm Yourself With a Plan
I’m a planner by nature, but that doesn’t always help me keep the food bill low. Why? Because I get ambitious and find recipes I’ve never tried with ingredients we usually don’t have on hand. That said, planning does work when you do it strategically.
Begin with choosing your recipes wisely. Reuse ingredients — especially exotic ones. Does that pork tenderloin recipe call for a sprig of rosemary? Plan another recipe for the week that includes rosemary too, like roasted potatoes or a frittata. In my local grocer, rosemary costs $1.99. If I use it in three recipes, that’s about 67 cents per use.
Better yet, plan recipes with what you have on hand or know you’ll use. “Shop your pantry, refrigerator and freezer first,” suggests Beth Moncel, author of “Budget Bytes” and creator of the eponymous blog. It not only reminds you of ingredients that need to be used up, but you can plan recipes around them, and it prevents you from double purchasing something that you already have on hand. “It's so easy to buy ingredients and let them get lost in the back of your pantry or freezer,” says Moncel, “so I find this step really helps me cut down on waste and cost.”
Buy Exactly What You Need and Stay Seasonal
I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I recently spent $5.99 on four organic Fuji apples. (My grocery store only sells apples in bunches of four.) I knew my family would probably only eat two max, but I told myself I’d bake apple muffins with the other two. In theory, it was a great idea. But one look at my packed week — and the fact that I’m not much of a baker — and even my 3-year-old could have told you that those extra apples would have gone uneaten.
I made two mistakes. The first was buying more than we were going to eat. Grocery stores have several ways of trying to convince you to buy larger quantities than you need to buy. Packaging items in sets (of, say, four organic apples) is one way. Retailers also know it’s hard for shoppers to resist a good deal. Take the deal on lemons I recently saw: Buy one for 79 cents or get three for $1.99. If you buy three, the per-unit cost saves you about 12 cents each. However, if you only need one — and wind up throwing two lemons out — you not only wasted food, but the one lemon you used cost you $1.99.
My second mistake was not buying fruits that are in season, like melons or berries. Buying in-season can save you money, plus the fruit tastes better. For example, in the winter, organic blueberries cost about $5.99 per container in my grocery store. Last week, I got them for $2.99, and they were delicious. (Read more on how to eat organic for less.)
Get Smarter About Shortcuts
Convenience foods are a growing trend: In 2013, sales of vegetable side dishes grew by 16 percent and salad kit sales jumped 26 percent from the previous year. Many people don’t have time to make meals from scratch, but they don’t want to turn to frozen dinners or take-out every night. That’s where convenience foods, like pre-cut vegetables or seasoned and cut meats, come in — but they do come at a premium.
Here’s a recent eye-opener: A stir-fry meal that I pick up about once every week from my grocer includes about half-a-pound of raw chicken sliced up, some veggies and teriyaki ginger sauce at the cost of $14.99. All I have to do is throw it all in a pan, and I’m ready to go. It’s not enough for us, so I usually steam a side of frozen dumplings, the bag costs $4.99 and I get two meals out of it. So, for $16.99 I’m getting a pretty decent meal. However, I recently did the math and realized I could buy a pound of pre-sliced, pre-cooked chicken strips for $5.99 and pick up two frozen veggie mixes with Asian spices for $3.19 each, giving me essentially two meals for one — at about half the price.
“In the end, a lot of cost savings comes down to cooking. Stop buying convenience items and you will see your food budget drop,” says Elizabeth Brown, a registered dietician and certified personal trainer.” It’s easy. If you have some favorite items from your store's prepared food section, take a look at the ingredient list and see if you can simply duplicate the item yourself. “It's always more cost effective,” she says.
Organize Your Space and Keep an Inventory
How many times have you come home from the grocery store and started unpacking the canned beans you just bought, only to find that you already had two unopened cans still sitting in your pantry? “It's very common to pack our cupboards and shelves full of food. And for most people, out of sight is out of mind,” says certified professional organizer Bonnie Dewkett, creator of the Joyful Organizer blog. “If you have cans or boxes stacked and packed into cabinets, you can't see what you have, which means you'll either buy more and add to the clutter or simply not use what you’ve already bought — either way wasting money.”
Dewkett suggests buying can risers to help organize your cabinets, which will help you see everything you have. “The investment in can risers will be made up the minute you don't buy something you don't need,” she says. Another tip: Keep an inventory list of canned goods and spices either taped inside the cabinet or on your phone. This way you’ll always know at a glance what you have on hand — and what you need more of. Shopping from my own pantry saved me $8.00 last week. I came across some beans and crushed tomatoes I didn’t know I had and put together an easy chili recipe for dinner.
Don’t Go for What’s Trendy
Jumping on every new diet trend or food fad can put serious stress on your budget. For example, Brown says, “Everyone is keen on quinoa, but brown rice is half the cost and has a comparable amount of nutrients.” The Paleo diet is another diet trend which can pack a mighty punch. It relies heavily on meat and fish for protein, which can quickly inflate your grocery bill. One of the biggest reasons Brown doesn't push people toward the Paleo diet is cost. “Following a more vegetarian diet is a huge cost savings,” she says.
What if you don’t want to go all-vegetarian? “Think about meat as an accompaniment to your vegetables, grains and legumes. Don't make meat the center of the meal,” suggests Brown. Casseroles, stews and soups are a great way to stretch a meal and a food budget, and can allow for lunchtime leftovers. You can also try “Meatless Mondays,” part of an international campaign to go meat-free one day a week. It not only helps your wallet, but helps your waistline, too.