This seemed an appropriate post for the recent passing of the New Year, given that many people have resolved to be a bit firmer with their budgeting under the current economic conditions. Just remember, eating good natural food does not have to break your bank. And neither does eating cheaply mean being stuck with instant noodles. My husband and I were grad students together for quite some time and learned very quickly how to live and eat (gluten free even) on a rather strict budget. We’ve learned a few things over the years about how to best get a great value for quality food and I wanted to pass these tips on, in case they may help:
1. Shop at the right places. Not everything at your local large chain supermarket is necessarily the best value, despite the weekly specials and your member card. For us, we buy at farmer’s markets as much as we can in the summer. Buying fresh local organic produce is often cheaper than our local supermarket, or at the very least a comparable price to the non-organic equivalent in the supermarket. Using the same logic, if you can, participate in a CSA. You don’t get as much say over the produce you get, but you get tons of it for what you paid, and it directly supports your local economy. Another alternative market if one is available is your area is a community run market, or co-op. When we were in grad school, we used to be members of a market to whom local farmers sold their produce directly. It was great because they were open every day (unlike a farmer’s market) and though one had to pay for the membership up front, one more than made up for it in the savings on purchasing food.
2. We cut back on both dairy and meat. Ha I know it doesn’t look like it by the looks of this blog, but we really did only eat meat a couple times a week. Cheese, yogurt, and meat are the most expensive things we regularly buy, so cutting back on those saved a lot of money.
3. So did eating smaller portions. There was a time when we were both strictly calorie counting and limiting our calorie intake and it was amazing how much less $$$ we ended up spending at the store because we were simply eating less food. We chopped off a good 25% of our grocery spending that way.
4. Also avoid prepackaged/prepared foods. For example, buying a 2 lb. bag of black beans that you need to soak yourself overnight costs about 5x less than buying beans already in a can (and by not buying canned food, you can reduce your bisphenol A exposure as well). This is generally true with other staples too – like buying actual rice that you have to cook for a while rather than minute rice, buying actual potatoes rather than from a box, making your own bread rather than buying it, buying a head of lettuce instead of a bag of precut rinsed salad, etc. are all generally lower in price per unit food. It’s generally healthier to avoid all the crap that is put in prepared foods anyways, and one really does pay quite a bit for “convenience”.
5. Don’t let food go bad. This was probably the single hardest thing to do and the thing that saved the most money. Wasting food is like directly throwing your good hard-earned money in the trash. Sometimes it’s hard when you just don’t feel like finishing those leftovers or the rest of the broccoli or whatever that is in the fridge that needs to be eaten, but just remind yourself that once it goes bad and you end up tossing that food, you just also threw that money away. Half of my daily cooking is from playing the game “This needs to be eaten now what I can I make with it before it goes bad”. We’ve gotten a bit creative with some of our meals, but that’s ok – experimenting can sometimes be fun!
6. Buy your pantry staples in bulk for cheaper. There is nothing wrong with having a big pantry full of staples. Things like grains and pasta, beans, nuts, etc. don’t go bad easily so buy them in bulk and save $$$. It’s also useful when you don’t feel like going to the store and need to find food around the house to throw together into a meal.
7. Keep your freezer well-stocked and full. A full freezer means easy meals for you to reheat when you don’t feel like cooking (like we always have tons of homemade marinara sauce, frozen fish/shrimp, and we are constantly freezing leftovers), and a full freezer uses less energy to stay cold so helps save on your electric bill. When you’re stuck in a situation where you can’t control the appliances you own or buy new ones at the moment, things like this really actually help.
8. Grow your own herb garden. There is no need to spend $2 every time you want to use fresh herbs for a meal. Herbs like basil and rosemary and thyme are pretty hardy (as in easy to keep them alive) and add lots of delicious flavor to a meal.
9. Cruise the ethnic markets, as they often have much better prices for many of your favorite foods. Asian and Indian food markets are our best place for a number of naturally gluten free products (like rice noodles, yum)!
10. The other tip that was hard for us to do and still often is hard is to only buy what you need. Impulse food buying almost always leads to extra food laying around causing you to have to deal with tip #5 in really hard ways. The best advice that I have for this is don’t go to the store hungry. I’ve walked into a grocery store with a craving for fruit and come out having bought 10 lbs of fruit that I know we couldn’t possibly finish before it goes bad. Also, if you make a list and plan ahead, it is a lot easier to purchase only what you originally intended. Grocery stores and food markets can be a great place for culinary inspiration, but don’t let that inspiration run away from your budget.
Do you have other tips for saving money on food? I am very curious how much (if any) of these tips will change for us as we adjust to the financial freedom of no longer being grad students and also adjust to living life in Europe…
Hope you all had a great New Year!