Cooking can be much cheaper than eating out, provided you don’t eat filet mignon and truffles every night. There are many things that you can do without when you’re living on a tight budget, but food is not one of them. However, with a little creativity and planning, you can reduce the amount of money you spend on food without compromising on taste or nutrition.
The number one way to save money on groceries is to plan what you’ll eat in advance. Planning ahead prevents costly pitfalls like eating out or buying pricey, ready-made meals at the last minute. Set a time each week to create a menu and make a list. Shopping from a list helps you stick to your budget and avoid tempting impulse buys.
When planning meals, evaluate how much time you’ll have for preparing them each day. If, on certain days, you’re always short on time, plan to eat leftovers or super-quick meals. As a starting point, check the fridge and pantry to see what you already have. Find out what’s in season at the local farmers market, and check newspaper ads to see what’s on sale. Then flip to the index of a favorite cookbook or do a web search for recipes using those foods.
Write down a menu of five dinners. Pick one for each night, depending on how much time you have and what you feel like eating. The other two nights are reserved for leftovers, creative on-the-fly cooking and an occasional night out. Make a shopping list with everything you’ll need for the recipes you’ve picked, including quantities. Don’t forget to put breakfast, lunch and snack items on your list.
If you don’t know how much money you’ve been spending on food, save all your grocery and restaurant receipts for a month and add them up. By simply reviewing spending habits, you will probably see immediate ways to save.
Do center your meal plans around healthy, inexpensive foods like whole grains and in-season produce. More expensive items, like meats and cheeses, should be used sparingly to add flavor to dishes rather than being the main event.
Do plan one-dish meals, like casserole, soup or stew at least twice a week. They save time, are easy to clean up and usually cost less.
Do shop in the bulk foods section of your supermarket. There you’ll find dry goods like rice, pasta, dried beans, oatmeal, granola, flour, nuts and dried fruit. Compare the per-pound price next to a package of a name brand. The bulk price is often cheaper, and you can buy exactly as much — or little — as you need.
Do use coupons, but only for things you need. Look for coupons for items you’re already planning to buy online and in local newspaper ads.
Don’t just assume that wholesale outlet prices are a better deal. First, run the numbers. You might find that six-can package of tuna costs more than six cans of tuna on sale at your grocery store.
Don’t buy foods that come in fancy packaging. If you do, you’re paying for both the food and the packaging. For example, dried herbs and spices come in expensive jars, but they’re also often available in bulk or in cellophane bags in the Hispanic food aisle. For fresh herbs without any extra packaging, check out what’s in season at the local farmers market or consider growing your own.