This month is Hunger Action Month. For more on that, check out my blog post from last week. It tells all about my experience working for Second Harvest Food Bank and provides links to getting involved in your community’s fight against hunger. In recognition of this month, I will be sharing my favorite tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years to help reduce your food budget.
There are many elaborate websites promising that a spreadsheet and color-coded diagram are all you need to make your dinner and lunch time smooth and easy. I have found that these systems usually cause more stress in my life and make things overly complicated. All for a monthly fee of $9.99 that I could have spent on fresh strawberries.
I take a relaxed view of meal planning. I write out a basic plan for the week, maybe trying one new recipe per week max. That way I’m not having to buy a bunch of new ingredients that I didn’t already have on hand. This way everyone has a general idea of what’s coming, but there is still flexibility. Flexibility is your best friend when it comes to sticking to your grocery budget. Sometimes we do theme nights like Taco Tuesday, Stir Fry Wednesday, and Soup Friday. This allows me to customize those meals based on what meat is on sale at the store or what produce is in season (read: cheaper and more delicious). Other times I will get more specific and plan things like shredded chicken tacos, tortilla soup, and ground beef stir fry.
Plan out snacks and lunches. This was a game changer. I continuously had boxes of crackers with 8 stale Triscuits left in the bottom going stale, dried mango that was so old it was too tough to eat, and a small block of cheese growing mold. Picking one or two snacks that the family will eat that week helped prevent buying to many snack-like foods (which tend to be more expensive) and not letting them go to waste. Be sure to take inventory of what snack foods you already have on hand and incorporate them into the plan.
Frozen food gets a bad reputation. However, frozen fruits and vegetables are typically frozen at the peak of their freshness, which guarantees that they typically have equal nutrients to fresh fruits in season. When produce is cut or otherwise separated from the plant, it immediately starts losing nutrients. Freezing stalls this process and preserves nutrients. Find frozen produce that works for your family. It’s typically much cheaper, especially compared to produce that is not in season. We do a lot of frozen fruit for smoothies and warmed up over plain yogurt. We also keep frozen broccoli, snap peas, and stir fry veggies for those nights we don’t have the time or energy to prepare fresh.
Invest in a Slow Cooker
It may seem counter intuitive to spend money to save money, which it is, but you can find an inexpensive slow cooker online or at a garage sale pretty easy these days. The beauty of the slow cooker is that it allows you to cook large cuts of meat, which tend to be cheaper. The slow cooker also saves time by allowing you to dump in ingredients in the morning and come home to a delicious smelling house at the end of the day. If you haven’t tried the slow cooker, or yours is gathering dust in a long-forgotten cabinet, I highly recommend brushing it off and giving it another shot. Saving time and money is a win-win.
Don’t buy strawberries when they are over $4 a carton. They don’t taste good and they are expensive. If they are not in season, I suggest trying frozen. It can vary by area of the country you are in, but I have a chart for what’s in season in September on my Instagram from @produceforkids. Shopping seasonally also helps you vary what kinds of produce you are eating. Eating a larger variety means getting more types of different nutrients.
Beans are a magical fruit (legume). This may not seem like a tip, but bulking up meals with beans can save you a lot of money when you’re not having to spend it on meat. Cutting half of your ground beef and adding a can of beans can save so much money in the long term, as well as providing fiber and various other nutrients. This works with tacos, stir fry, pasta, and almost anything. Keep cans of beans on hand. If you don’t get the “no salt added” version, just rinse in a colander until no more bubbles appear to reduce sodium intake.
Cut Down on Food Waste
One of the biggest money pits, when it comes to groceries, is wasted food. No one likes the feeling of tossing $10 worth of pork chops into the trash because you didn’t get around to cooking them. This is why, when I am sticking to a strict budget, I put meat in the freezer as soon as I get home. This is especially true for meat I know I will not use until later in the week. That way, if I have more leftovers than I anticipated or just don’t get around to cooking it, nothing is wasted. I simply thaw the meat the evening before I want to cook it, and then it’s ready to go. I also tend to base our veggies on ones that stay fresh longer (carrots, broccoli, potatoes, beets, Brussels sprouts, corn, etc.).
Creatively using leftovers is another way to reduce food waste. Thankfully, my family is willing to continue eating the same meal until it is done, but I grew up with three brothers that do not like leftovers. Repackaging is key here. Throw the sad leftover veggies in your crisper into a frittata (good for any meal of the day-not just breakfast!). Keep broth and rice or pasta on hand to throw leftovers into a soup at the end of the week. We do this all the time for things like roasted chicken or sausage, but it works well with almost any meat. Stir fry any leftover veggies, meat, and eggs for a healthy, quick dinner.
Pick a numerical budget. This is important. It can change month to month or week to week, but you need to know how much you can and want to spend on food. This will take your theoretical “budgeting” to actual budgeting. It needs to meet your family goals and also be realistic to the type of food your family likes to eat. If you’re not sure, keep track of what you’re spending for a few weeks and go from there.
Within this budget, there may be room for a few “splurges”. This may be fresh fruits and veggies you normally wouldn’t buy, convenience foods like pre-packaged snacks, prepared food such as lunch meat, and name brand coffee and tea or other high-priced beverages like soda and juice that aren’t necessary. All of these foods contain an up charge, and may or may not fit into your budget depending on the week. When I check out at the grocery store, I save these splurge foods for last, in case I over estimate my budget and don’t have room for them. Know what your non-negotiables are, and know where you are willing to give a little.