Monday, March 2, 2009

10 Tips for Keeping Grocery Bills Down

I alluded to some of these in a previous post on living simply, but I think it's a good idea to codify some of the tips and tricks I've been using to spend less at the grocery store.

1. Carry a calculator with you.
I don't know how I'd ever stay within budget otherwise. It's just too hard to guesstimate what you're spending when you're rounding up or down to the nearest $0.50 and trying to keep the total in your head while responding to your kids' requests for whatever and telling the toddler yet again to sit down in the cart!

2. Rethink lunches.
Bread is so expensive. So are cold cuts and condiments and chips, especially if they're in those little individual packages. Forget juice boxes! If you're making your family a bagged lunch every day, shake things up a bit. Switch to salads with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dressing. Or leftovers. It's much cheaper to double your dinner and portion it out for lunches the next day than to buy separate ingredients for everyone's lunch. If you have kids at school who don't have access to a microwave for re-heating leftovers, try things like chicken salad (here's a great recipe) with crackers, or trail mix, or these oat-bars that taste like a cookie but are packed with protein and other good stuff. More ideas here.

3. Buy in bulk.
This isn't an option for everyone, but for families of more than 4 people or families with a deep freeze or second refrigerator, it can be a real budget-saver. I buy 5 pound bags of frozen fruit and use them throughout the month (blueberries in my daughter's morning oatmeal, strawberries for smoothies, peaches for cobbler, etc.) I buy an 8-pack of canned tomatoes rather than spending $1.79 per can every week. I also make use of the bulk bins at my organic grocery: brown basmati rice is only $1.79 per pound, but $3 if it's bagged on the shelf. These little savings might not seem like much, but they add up significantly over the course of the month. The only caveat: don't buy produce in bulk unless you're prepared to cook and freeze. The 10 lbs of carrots I got last December are limp and almost useless now. I'm going to make some carrot cake and some carrot soup and limit myself to the 2 lb bags in the future!

4. Do all the prep-work yourself.
This is a no-brainer. Cubed beef packaged nicely for stew is more expensive per pound than a thick slab of rump. If you take the time to cube it yourself, you'll save money. I buy dried beans and then soak and cook them myself in the crock-pot. (Overnight on high softens them perfectly, and they are ready to use first thing in the morning.) A can of cooked beans is sometimes $1 or more and packed with sodium. Yet a bag of dried beans will yield 3 or 4 servings, and often costs less than $1.

5. Plan your meals each week.
If you sit down before you go shopping and write out each days' meals, then make up your grocery list from that, you will buy exactly what you need and only what you need. (Bonus: you'll never stand forlorn and frustrated in the middle of your kitchen at 3:00 pm wondering what on earth you're going to make for dinner that night.) Also, pre-planning enables you to make use of bulk-shopping. If I know I'm about to buy a 5 lb bag of sweet potatoes, I'll plan several meals to use it, like black bean and sweet potato enchiladas, curried dahl with sweet potatoes and kale, sweet potato fritters, sweet potato bread, and roasted chicken with maple syrup and sweet potatoes.

6. Go Veg
Meat is more expensive than beans, not only at the checkout but at every step of the meat production process. The cost to our health, to the environment, and to the workers and animals themselves ought to give each of us pause before enjoying a steak. There is no doubt that meat contains vital nutrients, including protein, B vitamins and iron. However, Western society consumes much, much more than is necessary for good health, often at the expense of eating a variety of food (particularly vegetables.) In fact, we often have problems associated with too much meat consumption: "The American Dietetic Association says that vegetarians have 'lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; ... lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.' Vegetarians, on average, are about one-third as likely to be overweight as meat-eaters." From this site. There are many resources on the net for cutting down on meat consumption or going completely vegetarian, but the easiest way is to simply start looking up vegetarian receipes until you find one that sounds good to you (try not to replace meat with cheese, which can also be high in fat and cholesterol.) Then replace one meat meal with the vegetarian option. Experiment. Try different cultures. Indian and Asian food are mostly vegetarian-based, and the unusual blend of spices give full flavor to the dishes so you don't usually feel the lack of meat. Instead of cooking your favorite meal without the meat, try something completely different so your tastebuds don't know what they're missing.

7. Get Creative
See if you can make your meals better and your bills smaller by substituting cheaper items for exotic ones. If your lasagna calls for ricotta, you can often use cottage cheese instead. I've had great success substituting chipotle peppers in adobo sauce for chili powder. ($0.59 a can vs $4 a jar.) If the recipe calls for dried cranberries, try raisins. If it asks for pine nuts, try almonds. Kale is usually cheaper than spinach. Look for what's in season or on sale, and replace raspberries with strawberries, or asparagus with green beans, or olives with mushrooms, or apples with celery.

8. Make it from scratch.
If you're buying pre-made meals or packaged desserts, stop. They are overpriced and inefficient. They come in packages that create waste, and most of them have added salt and preservatives. It does take time to make your own meals, but if you plan ahead you can double and freeze for times that you are in a rush. I have made enormous pots of spaghetti sauce and frozen them in 2-portion containers so if I'm in a pinch all I need to do is boil some pasta and defrost. When I go away on a trip, I cook my husband mega-meals and freeze them in individual portions so he doesn't waste money eating out. A gallon of whole organic milk is $5 at my grocery store and makes 15 cups of plain yogurt. Buying 15 containers of plain organic yogurt would cost $11.85 (more than twice the cost of the milk.) You can buy oil in bulk and make your own mayonaise by blending egg, oil and vinegar. You can dry the ends of bread loaves into breadcrumbs. It is healthier and cheaper to shop around the edge of the store. If you can, try not to venture into the center aisles of packaged products. Your body and your wallet will thank you.

9. Eat less.
No, I'm serious. You don't need to starve, be unhealthy or deprive yourself of everything, but most of us are in the bad habit of eating because we can. Portion sizes are out of control in this country, and most Americans exceed the daily recommended calorie allowance for their age and activity level. Serving sizes are actually much smaller than most people think, as evidenced by this guide. One serving of pancakes is the size of a compact disc...which is significantly smaller than the sides of pancakes you're served with eggs, bacon, fruit and coffee at a typical diner breakfast. Many of us have to actually re-train our minds and bodies to recognize when we are approaching being full and stop eating then, rather than trying to finish everything on our plates. Snacks are another dangerous area. Much of our eating is emotional rather than physical; we feel like something so we open the fridge and fix a snack or grab a handful of chips or cookies as we pass the pantry. Often we get something to eat before returning to our desks at work or before sitting down in front of the TV. Yet eating while distracted or focusing on something else almost guarantees we will overeat and miss our bodies' cues. Limiting portion sizes, eating slowly at mealtimes, sharing meals with family members, and stopping before we are stuffed will likely result in our consuming less food, in general. It may even benefit our health.

10. Costco
'Nuff said.

For fun, go check out this woman's blog! She's eating healthy, nourishing, whole meals on $1 a day.


Zina said...

Wow. That dollar a day lady is incredible.

Many of these things we have to do because of all the food allergies. Necessity will force you into some good habits sometimes. No convenience foods. A lot of things from scratch because I need to know *exactly* what is in our food.

Cost cutting is a must because we can easily spend 2-3x as much as families our size with buying off the shelf, smaller packaged foods like potato starch and xanthum gum. Our solution is to make a deal with a local health store and buy in bulk at co-op prices. Also, we go to the Asian market and get a lot of our rice/potato/tapioca flours there for a fraction of the price.

Planning ahead and plotting out a weekly menu makes the biggest difference for us. It reduces a lot of the impulse buying. Also, when I make a shopping list I sometimes get an old receipt for the same store and approximate the prices of each item. That way the total won't be a shock, and often I over-estimate so I am pleasantly surprised at the check out counter.

Tienne said...

Estimating from an old receipt is an awesome idea! I was keeping a record in excel so I could actually calculate the cost of each meal (so I'd know which meals were splurges for special occasions and which were good staples.) The information really does help when planning for that week. :)

qualcosa di bello said...

i noticed that tomorrow is the feast day of st. frances of rome & i immediately thought of you...hope you have a blessed day!

Hope T. said...

Those sweet potato recipes are great. I would love to try them. I am wondering how you get inexpensive sweet potatoes, though. This past year they been much more expensive than the white potatoes and they never seem to go on sale.

Tienne said...

Thanks for stopping by, Hope!

The sweet potatoes I bought came from Costco. I've just gotten a membership there this past year, and it has made such a difference in my shopping. Once I realized that they have a good selection of organic foods, I did some calculations and realized that the money I saved on buying bread alone would more than double the money I spent on the membership. You'd have to see whether the same is true for your family, though. I did a walk-through with a friend who was a member so I could see what they had to offer before I signed up for a membership.

They are more expensive than baking potatoes, it's true. I try to always buy sweet potatoes because they are less starchy than white potatoes and also because the more brightly colored the vegetable, the more minerals and vitamins it has. So for me, this is one area where I'm willing to pay a bit more for health reasons (much like buying organic produce over conventional, even though it's more expensive.)

Hope that helps!