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Posted on Oct 21, 2008 | 39 comments

How to cut your food bills

How to cut your food bills

Immature kiwano melons at Alemany Farmers' MarketWith food prices going up and the economy looking bleak, a lot of us are looking for ways to tighten our belts and save money. Food budgets add up, and there are more creative ways of cutting costs than eating macaroni and cheese all the time.

Packing your own lunch instead of buying lunch in a restaurant or cafeteria is an obvious money-saver, but there’s more that you can do to shop smart, reduce food waste, and conserve resources in the kitchen. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t follow *all* of the tips below, so just pick and choose the ones that work for your lifestyle. Read on to save money: 1) at the store, 2) at home, and 3) when traveling or dining out.

How do you cut food costs at home? Share your own tips in comments! 

SAVE MONEY AT THE STORE

1.  Choose your stores wisely

  • Balance a store’s savings with how far out of your way you’d have to go (factor in the cost of gas or public transportation).
  • Don’t just default to your nearest supermarket for all of your food shopping; actually compare prices on items you buy regularly to see which is actually cheaper. Look at the unit price (how much per ounce or per serving) to make true comparisons.
  • Local farms, farmer’s markets or CSAs often sell fruits and vegetables for cheaper than supermarket prices (plus you’re supporting local farmers). Find a U.S. farmer’s market near you with this tool or these listings.
  • If you buy a lot of food for one cuisine, it’s often cheaper at markets specializing in that cuisine (Asian, Mexican, Arab, Latin American, Mediterranean, etc.).
  • Outlets or close-out stores like Big Lots and Dollar General often sell miscellaneous pantry items at deep discounts. Take advantage and stock up on your favorites, but be sure to look at expiration dates and make sure cans aren’t dented.
  • Stores? Who needs stores? Grow your own herbs or produce in a garden, either outside, on a rooftop, patio, or inside. I personally have a black thumb, but if you have a green thumb you can cut your food costs and enjoy the freshest produce.

2. Romanesco broccoliShop smart

  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season. Track what’s in season where you live, and keep this in mind when you’re shopping. Out-of-season tomatoes and berries will cost a lot compared to how much they are in season. If you’re handy, you can buy a lot of produce cheaply in season and preserve it through freezing or canning.
  • Buy generic store brands if there’s no dramatic quality difference. You’re often paying for the more expensive brand’s advertising for similar quality food..
  • Look for clearance and sale items, not only on the shelves but also in separate sale areas of the store.

3.  Use coupons

  • In addition to weekly circulars that you find in newspapers and stuffed in your mailbox, try some of the online coupon sites where you can print out coupons to bring with you, such as GetLocalDeals, HotCoupons.com, ValPak, SmartSource, Cool Savings, and EverSave. Watch out if you have to register — use a separate e-mail account so you don’t drown in spam.
  • Are there days when the coupons can be redeemed at your local store for more than face value? Double coupon days?
  • Keeping a coupon wallet, organizer or even an envelope in your car or purse to help keep your coupons organized and at hand. It doesn’t help to have clipped a coupon if you can’t find it when you’re shopping!

4.  Buy in bulk

SAVE MONEY AT HOME

5.  Use a food inventory system

  • Homemade magnets for freezer inventoryThis will help you stay on top of perishable foods that need using up before they go bad, remind you of what’s buried in your freezer and cabinets, and keep you from overbuying food that you already have.
  • An inventory system can be as simple as a chalkboard or dry-erase whiteboard listing perishables, food magnets that help you track freezer or refrigerator contents, or as complicated as a computer spreadsheet with a full inventory of your food.

6.  Get organizedAfter: Organized spice pantry

7.  Plan out your menus

  • Whether it’s a week or a month ahead of time, planning your meals in advance helps save money by helping you shop bargains, use up leftovers, and reduce food waste. You won’t overbuy if you have a shopping list in hand with only what you need for that week’s menu. You can also draw up the week’s menu after checking up on your local market’s upcoming sales and coupons, planning the meals based on what’s cheap that week.
  • Planning worksheet for the Laptop LunchboxI’m notoriously bad at creating menus, but meal planning websites like Meals Matter or tools like the Laptop Lunch planning worksheet can help.
  • Go easy on the meat. Making the occasional vegetarian meal or using just a bit of meat in a stir-fry instead of making a roast will cut down on food costs.

8.  Recycle things in the home for kitchen use

There’s no limit to how creative you can get if you’re of a mind to. Some examples I found in Shufu no Tomo’s money-saving book “Setsuyaku no Urawaza Shittoku Memo” include:

  • Drain fried foods on newspaper instead of a new paper towel.
  • Use trimmed milk cartons as compost containers, drawer or freezer organizers, etc.
  • Save condiment packets from take-out or fast food meals to use in packed lunches.
  • Save food containers like margarine tubs, glass jars and lidded condiment cups, wash, and reuse.
  • Line compost containers with old newspaper instead of expensive biodegradable trash bags.
  • Cut off the top third of a plastic water bottle, invert it, and use it as a funnel.
  • Wash and reuse plastic wrap and plastic bags. Okay, this is a little extreme for me, but theoretically it makes sense and reduces plastic waste.

9. Reduce energy consumption in the kitchen

Okay, so you might feel like you’re channeling the spirit of people who lived through the Depression, but some of their thrifty habits can come in handy. Some examples I found in Shufu no Tomo’s money-saving book “Setsuyaku no Urawaza Shittoku Memo” include:

  • Freezing cooked rice in plastic wrapCook in bulk and freeze the excess in smaller portions. For example, make a big batch of rice and freeze in individually wrapped portions. Take out only as much frozen rice as you need at a single meal, and microwave or re-steam only. This uses less electricity than using the Keep Warm function on a rice cooker for hours, or making a new batch of rice for small portions.
  • Try multi-cooking, where you cook different foods together in the same container. For example, when grilling, frying, boiling, broiling, or steaming in a rice cooker.
  • Multi-sauteeing for bento lunchIf you boil more water than you need, pour the excess into a thermos for use later (either for tea or washing dishes in hot water).
  • Don’t fully fill the sink with hot water to wash just a few dishes: fill a smaller container or wash dishes directly in a pot that needs washing anyway. Use hot water leftover from boiling food to wash dishes in.
  • If you have a dishwasher, turn off the heated dry cycle and let dishes air dry.
  • Run your dishwasher during off-peak hours if you pay variable rates for utilities.
  • Check to see how energy-efficient your dishwasher is; some recent models have a “rinse” cycle that uses less water than you would rinsing each plate individually in the sink.
  • When boiling water, adjust the flame so that it’s not wider than the base of the pan you’re using. One way around this is to boil water in a saute pan or frying pan instead of a small saucepan, or use an electric kettle (see my post on Kettle races: Electric vs. stovetop).
  • Similar to a low-energy slow cooker is the insulated thermal cooker, where you bring food to a boil and close it all up in an insulated pot. Residual heat slowly cooks the food inside without using additional energy.

WHEN TRAVELING OR DINING OUT

10.  Pack a lunch instead of eating at a restaurant or cafeteria

  • Okay, so you already know this — that’s why you’re here at a lunch-packing website! Use this handy lunch savings calculator to see how much money you save over time by packing your lunch instead of buying it. The same goes for cooking meals at home vs. ordering delivery or going out for dinner. I’m not saying you should eliminate all restaurant meals or anything, just think about the cost and cut down on the frequency if you eat out often. Learn more about bento lunches at the Bento FAQ.
  • Eat on the cheap by packing leftovers in inexpensive containers from Ichiban Kan’s online store or makeshift Tupperware containers; see Freakin’ Tasty Bento’s guide to Bento for Cheap Bastards.
  • Lunch jar battle: Nissan Stainless vs. Mr. BentoIf you’re into bento-style lunches, it’s easy to go overboard on purchases of cute bento boxes and accessories. It’s not necessary, though; ask yourself how many similar items you really need to pack lunch. I will concede that there’s a benefit to having a few different boxes of different types (i.e. bento box, collapsible sandwich case, and a thermal food jar or lunch jar) as this allows you to pack a wider variety of foods. Find stores with bento gear near you with the Bento Store Locator, and online bento stores here.

11.  Bring your restaurant leftovers home

  • You might think that that extra meatball or two isn’t worth packing up, but think in bento terms. It might not be a full serving, but it could be a perfect nibble tucked into a bento lunch with other items or incorporated into another dish in a Leftover Remake. You paid for it, so get your money’s worth! Find out how to pack a bento lunch and fill gaps.
  • If you’re on the road, try to bring along nesting bento boxes or a collapsible sandwich case in your bag so that you can pack a bento lunch out of large restaurant portions for the next day. Store it in your hotel’s minibar refrigerator. See my post on travel bentos.

12. Would you eat it on a train?Pack a lunch to eat on the airplane/train instead of buying their in-flight meals or food from airport restaurants. See my post on how to pack a bento lunch for the plane.

  • Bring an empty reusable drink bottle or canteen. When you’ve passed through security, fill it from a water fountain and maybe add a powdered drink add-in for flavor.
  • Speaking of bottled water, you can save money by drinking tap water from a reusable water bottle instead of buying disposable bottled waters. If your tap water isn’t up to snuff, consider buying a water filter or filtering system.

39 Comments

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  1. “Buy generic store brands if there’s no dramatic quality difference. You’re often paying for the more expensive brand’s advertising for similar quality food.”

    Hubby used to work at food manufacturing plants, and he said at a few places they’d make the same product for quite a few different brands — they just put different labels on them.

  2. Great sensible tips on economizing! I especially like the idea of a food inventory system.

  3. We buy generic whenever possible and I take my lunch. We’ve also discovered a local farmer’s market not far from my parents thanks to the search on the Lunch In a Box website. They’re having a fall festival this weekend so we’re going to check it out.

  4. These are wonderful tips! I greatly appreciate the time and thought that went into this post.

    Parents in the U.S. are really swimming upstream when it comes to keeping processed foods out of the house, but I’m trying hard. The more you can stick to the basics, the more money you save. I had a minor triumph this morning. My kids have developed a taste for a breakfast of toast with strawberry cream cheese (costs about $3 for a small tub). I stirred a spoonful of (organic, cheap from Big Lots) jam into some Neuchatel today (cost about $1 for 8 oz, on sale) until it was all fluffy and spread that on toast. My son asked what it was, and said it “tastes just like the other stuff!” Significant savings there.

  5. Great tips!

    While I normally bring reusable bags to the grocery store, occasionally I’ll misplan and end up short one or two. I’ll get a couple of paper bags because they make the BEST place to drain fried foods, I can cut templates to use for food designs, if I run out of room in my recycle box I can stash the runover in there and set them out, I cover my college textbooks with them so I can get a better resale value out of them when the quarter is over, and line my smaller trashcans with them.

  6. I save time and money by keeping a food inventory (pantry and freezer), then planning at least one month’s worth of meals based on what I have on hand and what is on sale. It takes a bit of time, initially, but is SO worth it in the long run. I also cook in bulk as much as possible. You can’t beat Aldi and Big Lots for good deals!!

  7. I meal plan like crazy — very little wasted food, what’s in the fridge doesn’t go bad, we rotate freezer stash, and we don’t buy food that we forget to use.

    From my depression-era grandmother — I re-use plastic zipper bags. Rinse them out, turn them inside out to dry and re-use until they get a hole.

    From my frugal father — We don’t just pack lunch, we pack dinners and snacks as often as possible when we go out to a game, event, fair, or just know we have many errands and will be tempted to stop for a snack. Sometimes I pack 4-5 bento a day!

  8. Thanks for the awesome tips!

    My grandmother re-used plastic zipper bags too. And now I do the same.

    After eating yogurt, I wash and re-use the containers. They’re the perfect size for prep work in the kitchen and after a couple of uses I just toss them.

    My kids are famished when I pick them up from school, so I’ve been packing snack bentos for them to eat on the ride home. They enjoy the “surprise” when opening to see what I packed in there.

  9. I live out in the country, so I carpool with my mom and a neighbor when we need to go in to town to shop. We share a membership to the food warehouse, and then split up the packages because they are so large. We also watch our coupons, but are not tempted when they say “save 50 cents when you buy 4″ because that’s usually not a good enough deal for me.

  10. Two things that I wish were true;

    coupon exist in Canada (they are practically extinct and double couponing is a no no.

    local produce is cheaper than the grocery store where I live (try triple the price and it’s not even organic)

    The produce thing really makes me want to move because our grocery store produce is frequently rotton. The quality is baaaadddd. So I continue to try and grow as much as I can.

  11. I can’t overstate how much money we save by pre-assembling meals and freezing them. I gather all the ingredients I need for a recipe, chop the veggies and do as much prep as possible and then freeze them in zip-lock bags. The easiest way to do this is to just double a recipe when I’m making it for dinner one night and then freeze half of it. These are the meals I reach for on the nights when we’re too tired to cook and are tempted to go out to dinner.

  12. We save a lot of money just by planning meals in advance. Knowing what you’re going to get and making a list makes it so much easier to stick to. I also try to organize the list by products as it saves time. I try to work it so that meals have similar ingredients so there is less waste and I can buy in bulk. My foodsaver is a necessity! Once a _______ cooking, is really a budget buster, too. I was able to buy groceries for the MONTH of dinners for a family of four for a little over $100. The book Once A Month Cooking is an invaluable resource. I personally couldn’t do the month again, but I do try to make extra and freeze when I cook.
    The generic vs. brand is so true! Del Monte makes the grocery store brand of MANY vegetables. One I’ll let you in on(though it has nothing to do with food-sorry)that expensive namebrand Astroglide ($8 for a small bottle!) is the exact same as Target’s large tube($2). My mom works for the company that makes both products.

  13. @11 Cathy, my husband hates when I do that! I always buy a couple of the $7 turkeys at Thanksgiving. He usually gets a free one (or two!) from work and the union as well. Cook, chop them up and I got meals for months! Soups, casseroles…I sub Turkey in any recipe I’d normally use chicken & most times you can’t tell!

  14. I save veggie and meat scraps for making stock – if some celery dries up, or I have bones left over from making chicken, they go in the freezer in plastic bags until I need to make some more meat stock.

    Growing herbs – if you buy cut, fresh, leafy herbs at the store or farmers market, they’ll stay fresh in a cup of water. Keep them somewhere sunny and change the water every few days (I use it to water my potted plants), and the herbs will develop roots and you can plant them in a pot if you don’t use them all up first.

  15. These are great ideas! The seasonal aspect of produce is something I’ve only been practicing for the past couple of years. I used to buy apples year ’round, now I only buy them when they’re in season and the price really drops. Same for artichokes, asparagus, corn, etc. This saves me money and makes my diet more varied- I have to try different fruits and veggies I’d have normally ignored.

  16. One hazard note here: Don’t reuse water or pop bottles; they’re made of plastic that starts to degrade when you wash them in hot water, cf. the whole bisphenol-A issue.

    Get something like a HDPE-variety Nalgene bottle (not a Lexan one, because those have Bisphenol A and have the same toxin-leaching-in-dishwasher issue). Or get an aluminum or glass bottle that you can reuse. Just don’t tell people to reuse plastic water bottles because that’s dangerous…

  17. @ ChibiRisu… The plastic thing is at high temperatures or with corrosive cleaners. If you are gonna make recommendations, the LAST thing you should recommend is aluminum if you are the type to buy into all the plastic hype. Aluminum is linked to Alzheimer. But like this plastic issue, the odds are SOOOO unlikely, just save us the grief. I still use aluminum foil! I still reuse plastic bottles! I don’t need one more thing to worry about and my family is not a bunch of mutants.

  18. Investing in re-usable bags is a good idea too. Not only is it environmentally friendly, but a lot of stores are embracing them because they save them money too, so they will give a discount of 5-25 cents per re-usable bag! Plus you don’t end up with a bunch of extra bags around, and re-usable bags are made to last, so you save money by not ending up with bruised fruit or broken eggs from the handle tearing off a disposable bag. Plus stores are starting to sell eco bags with their logo stamped on them, so often times they are only $1-2 each.

    Also, I feel bad about the number of zip lock bags I throw away, so I try to stick to using snack containers that can be reused. If I am going some place where I really won’t be able to carry it around, I’ll use a disposable, but most of the time they aren’t really needed. Plus when you compare the cost of a re-usable container to that of a box of bags, it is a smarter purchase to re-use :)

  19. we save money by making double batches of things on the weekend… double batches of soups, or lasagna, or something big like a turkey breast or something that can stretch easily to several meals. Then we pack up meals for later in big glasslock containers and freeze them for easy meals later in the week. That way we know what is going into our frozen “fast food” when none of us wants to cook on a weeknight. It saves us from deciding to order take-out.

  20. I have made my own yogurt. It is very easy and tasty. I spent about $20 on a yogurt maker but you don’t really have to do that, as long as you can keep the culture warm. You can then make your own yogurt cheese, flavor it, etc. That way you save on the yogurt and avoid buying all the little plastic containers.

  21. Another couple of tips. try to shop the outside ring of the market. veggies, meat, milk, and bread are usually placed on those edges and all of the processed packaged things are in the middle. this way you can focus better on the necessities (and its healthier too).

    My second tip is for those living in major urban centers, try shopping outside your home area. you may pay little more in gas or time but the further you go into the suburban areas the cheaper some things get. e.g, if you live in Seattle try to grocery shop in Renton or Kent. Just a few miles can drop prices considerbly.

  22. I like growing my own vegetables. I have three square gardens. For others who may be interested I got hooked on

    http://www.squarefootgardening.com

    I save lots of money growing eggplant, lettuce, tomatoes, etc.

  23. @4 from MCM: Very creative to make your own strawberry cream cheese! Sometimes I do something similar with yogurt — stir some sugarfree jam into plain yogurt (from a big, cheap tub) for Bug. He’s happy with it, and it’s cheaper than buying little containers of flavored yogurts. I hadn’t thought about doing that with cheese, though!

  24. Part of the reason we got involved with bentos was to save money.

    I think one of the biggest money savers for us was to start having more vegetarian meals. I cook meat once a week now, and most of the time that is a casserole or a soup where a tiny bit of meat goes a long way.

    I have been learning to scour ethnic and religious cookbooks for good cheap recipes to keep the family interested in the inexpensive foods I serve these days.

    Another thing I do is I have been using my new skills of making food look fun and interesting for serving food at home to keep the family from feeling like they are being deprived with the cheap foods. Fresh fruit with a bit of vanilla yogurt on top is served in a fancy glass ice cream cup with a single fresh berry in a different color topping it. Serving more of the veggies raw for less prep work and for fresher more appealing color.

  25. Good stuff there Biggie. With the economy in a downturn, it really is an excellent time for this sort of thinking.

  26. Awesome tips, Biggie! The only thing I would say is to be very careful about putting things in the hotel minibar fridge: now a lot of them are weight-activated, so if you pick anything up, or put anything in, you will get charged. I’m sure it’s not all hotels, but it’s probably a good idea to check first.

  27. I think another useful skill that saves money is learning how to butcher a whole chicken and use all of the parts. There is a big price markup when buying boneless, skinless, chicken breasts just for the convenience.

  28. Thanks for this and the other handy items on your website. I am branching out to make one warm thing for my Thermos. Your hints on ways to save money are very helpful, and I was pleased to see I was doing most of them already.

  29. Some great ideas – solid common sense advice here.

    After we bought our house last year, we found ourselves close to a discount grocery store. In between our CSA and organic meat delivery, we shop at the discount grocery store for things like canned goods, eggs, bread and milk. These items are the exact same items, they have at the regular store, except without the prices. Definitely less frills but same products.

  30. Hi, I found your site while looking for alternative lunches for my daughter who hates breads.

    Our big money saving tip we do is shop at Fresh & Easy after 4 PM. Anything that is expiring that day is marked down to 50% off and we end up getting meats and breads that we can freeze for half the price. We also save their coupons which are $5 off the purchase if you spend over $20 so you get that extra savings as well.

  31. I live in Michigan with my mom and my brother. Food prices are horrible here where cutting down is a must. My brother has a big appetite as where me and my mom can be fine on a bowl of hot cereal. So its hard for my mom to not buy alot. But thankful, in recent months, his appetite has died down a bit. What you wrote is what my mom does. She’ll go to one store for some things and another for other things because of prices.

    I bookmarked this entry because in a few months I’ll be off to college and I refuse to live off ramen for four years of my life. Thanks for the tips!

  32. Check out Angel Food Ministries (they do have a website). A box of food for $30. Lots of frozen food but we’ve also found rice, spaghetti sauce & lots of other goodies in our box. You do not have to qualify financially & they even offer a fresh fruits & veggies box. Try it for 1 month & see if its worth it. You can find lists of host sites on their website.

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  34. This was really helpful! :) Thank you so much! My partner and I just love reading your blog!

  35. Although planning meals in advance of your grocery trip and sticking to your list can help save money, sometimes it pays to be more flexible when you hit the grocery store.

    For example, if you get to the vegetable isle and see avocados on sale for $1.00 each, although they were not in your planned menu or on your list, you can save money by changing your plan slightly and buying them while on sale and eliminating a more expensive vegetable you had planned to use.

    A lot of store items are on sale but not listed in the weekly advertisements you get, so if you see an item not on your grocery list, but on sale at a great price, be flexible and buy it if you can think of a way to use it in the coming week or month. Just remember to eliminate a more expensive item on your list to compensate.

    Also, when you look at the price sign for an item at the store, read the small print that shows the price per ounce or pound. Sometimes the signs are misleading and you may think the item is less expensive than the one next to it, but if you look at the fine print, it really is not.

    Shopping smart does take more time, but think about how much money you really want to save.

  36. @39 from FABIANO: These are excellent points about being flexible and astute in looking for deals at the store, FABIANO! Thanks so much for contributing.

  37. Reusing plastic bags is a good idea, to a point. If they held cleaner items such as a sandwich or chips, go for it. Bags that held food such as raw meat or onions should be thrown out. Just remember as a rule of thumb that it’s hard to clean a bag thoroughly.

    If you have a co-op or any food store that sells loose bulk foods, just as nuts, rice, beans, etc…Check the prices and see if you can save. The one near us is much cheaper than buying it’s packaged counterpart, especially when it comes to nuts. The only thing I hate are those flimsy bags you have to put the stuff in, but we just reuse them, since they only held dry foods.

  38. I’m not always sure about re-using plastic but I’ve always been a thorough supporter of glass.

    When my child was still a baby we used to buy lots of Gerber brand purees and mom used to scorn me a lot since I ALWAYS washed well all those glass vases after being used and kept them stored.
    But now I see those vases all around the house, filled up with dried spices, infusion leaves, grease leftovers and what-not. Mom has never thanked me on my initiative but by using them all the time, in a way she does.

    Lately what I like to re-use are the bottles of a coffee beverage I like a lot calle Cafe Olé, I like the bottle shape a lot and it’s made of glass so it can be re-used all time.

    Also, my daily out-of-home water bottle is actually a bottle of mineral water my dad bought in a trip. It’s made of thick glass so it was a great find.

  39. I agree with some of the posts here, going vegetarian is a great way to save some money. I have also started cooking a bunch of beans all at once and keeping them in the freezer. Its much cheaper than buying them canned. Thanks for all the tips!

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