In an effort to get back on track budget-wise my first instinct is to reign in our food bill. It seems that besides our mortgage and car payments, the next largest amount of money we spend in our household is on food. We spend it on going out to eat, groceries, snacks at a gas fill-up stop, treats when we are out and about, grocery store run because we are out of milk but end up throwing another $20 worth of impulse items in the cart at 9pm at night. So after living in two different apartments in as many months, with our stuff in storage, while we waited for our house to be built, we really let our budget slip. It’s gotten WAY out of control.
Time to get back on track. Here are some tried and true methods I am going to re-implement in our grocery shopping to help us stay on budget that could work for you as well. For our family of 5 we have a $150/week budget. So first order of business is to just get back to that number. (If you’re wondering how I came to that number or even what your grocery budget may be, stay tuned. I have a series coming up at the end of October that will help you figure that out.)
According to the USDA’s Cost of Food at Home, for a “liberal” spending family of 5 (4 adults – considers that my 12 & 14 yo eat like an adult – and one 10 yo) spends $387.70/week on food, while a thrifty family spends $197.30. Yikes, I guess you could call us thrifty.
1. Plan Ahead
First and foremost, the basis of any good strategy is a good plan. Then you have to stick to it. Planning out your meals means that there will be no brain-numbing, last minute panic attacks of what to have for dinner. It will already be decided and you will have all the ingredients you need. No need for a quick trip through the drive through.
I have been using GatheredTable.com and am in love. Their plans are versatile, they have great recipes to choose from, I can add my own if I want to mix it up and once decided it compiles a grocery list for me that I can customize further depending on what is already in my cupboards! Can’t say enough about how much I love this site. And just heard a *rumor* that there will be an app coming very soon! GAH!
2. Shop the ads
This is a no brainer. When whole chickens are on sale for $0.99/lb, that is what we are having for dinner tonight, tomorrow night and maybe the next night too! And I’m hoarding then away in my freezer for a rainy day. You can plan your meals around what is on sale at the store or even swap out ingredients for what is on sale. Your favorite chicken enchiladas on the menu for tonight but ground beef is on sale, use ground beef instead. A recipe you were planning calls for salmon but talapia is on sale, swap it out, I guarantee you won’t notice the difference in taste but your wallet will in savings!
3. Have a well stocked pantry
Stocking up on items when they are on sale allows you to purchase them for a lot less than buying one can of tomatoes as needed and you can build a nice supply at rock bottom prices and can save on the next weeks or even months grocery bill by already having them on hand. Hence the empty shelf in the photo above, I’m set for a good while on olive oil now. I bought them all!!
Stocking up on items when they are on sale will also allow you to substitute in a pinch. Don’t have taco seasoning – make your own. Don’t have a protein – use beans, lentils or quinoa. Don’t have the salsa you want – make your own. Extra company and need more pasta sauce – good thing you have jars of stewed and crushed tomatoes on hand!
4. “Shop” that Well Stocked pantry
Instead of instinctively running to the store when you think you have nothing to make a meal out of, look again. Use those pantry items and any produce or meat that needs to be used up to throw a meal together. You’ll be surprised what you can make.
Making things from scratch is a great alternative to boxed mixes or frozen foods, remember how grandma used to do it? Biscuits that were hot out of the oven, piles of pancakes in the morning; it is cheaper and easier than you think to make these from scratch. Most of us have some sort of flour, baking powder, eggs and milk in our pantry or fridge. I like to make batches of pancakes or waffles and freeze them so the kids can pull out what they need (this also falls under #7 DIY-IT).
5. Beans – the other white meat
Substituting beans for meat in your dishes help stretch your dollar also. You could consider having a meatless meal once a week that allows you to further your meals while still saving money. This is something you’ll definitely have to talk to your significant other about because most everyone I know was raised with the thinking that you had to have some sort of meat as your main dish for dinner. Every dinner. My husband was no exception and still struggles with this but is slowly coming around.
6. waste not
Now after all that work of planning, shopping and cooking why would you want to throw the efforts of your labor (not to mention money) away!
Here’s some ideas to put into use so nothing goes in the trash:
Veggies getting a little limp? Saute those greens up and freeze them (ice cube trays work wonderfully) and then you can just toss them into soups or stews as needed.
I also keep an airtight container in the freezer and when I have any leftover veggies like corn or green beans from a meal that just is not enough to save I throw them in the container and after about 3 weeks you’ll have a nice mix. This makes for a wonderful Everything But The Kitchen Sink Soup I make. It’s basically a free meal!!
Another way to also stretch your food dollars even further, like into the next day farther, is leftovers. What you don’t finish for dinner package up in individual portions so that you or anyone for that matter can grab them quickly in the morning and you have lunch for the day. Bringing leftovers for lunch is in again people, I swear!
We also have a Clean Out The Fridge meal at our house. We pull out any and all leftovers and either reinvent them into a new meal or reheat and it makes for an easy way to make room for the next shopping trip all-the-while letting nothing go to waste.
For the love of all that is just and good for pity’s sake! Make your own salad dressings. It is so easy and tastes so much better than the bottled stuff. Granted those little bottles are tempting with all their sugar and preservatives and it may take your taste buds a few salads to get over that longing but once you do the freshness is incomparable. And the possibilities are endless. We can get pretty creative with what we have on hand – see #3 Have A Well Stocked Pantry.
While we are on the subject of making it yourself this also falls into that category. Those packaged seasoning mixes that contain all sorts of weird “ingredients”.
Not only does making your own dressings and seasonings save you money but I am not sure why you would want to season your chicken with Monocalcium Phosphate or Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate? We all have garlic powder, onion powder, paprika and cumin in our cupboards, don’t we?
8. Think outside the grocery store organics box
Ok, I know we all want to eat better but most of us can’t afford an all-organic diet. There are some guidelines and common sense that come into play – at least where my veggies and fruit are concerned.
The Environmental Working Group has studied pesticide residuals in veggies and fruits and compiled a list of the Clean 15, those that are ok to purchase the conventionally grown way. The Dirty Dozen however are ones you do want to spend your grocery dollars on to purchase organic if you are able.
While the Clean 15 list still contains foods that are still produced with some pesticides, my rule of thumb is that if you are worried about chemicals and consume the skin of the fruit or veggie (and can budget for it) buy organic.
Get your produce from the source! Buy from local farmers markets where you can ask the farmer what pesticides and chemicals might have been used. We all want to eat more fruits and veggies and who knows them better than the grower. You’re also supporting local farmers.
You can also stretch your organic dollars by signing up for a local CSA or Bountiful Baskets. I can’t wait to try out either one out here. With a year round growing season, fresh organic veggies should not be far away. For $20 – $30/week they both offer an affordable way to get organic fresh fruits & veggies to your table.