22 Ways I Save Money on Food
1. I learned how to cook. Everyone already knows this is the fundamental rule to slashing your food budget. But the truth is, you don’t even need to learn how to cook, you can learn how to simply assemble food (ie: quick sandwiches, quesadillas, whole wheat pasta with steamed broccoli), and you’ll save tons. My boyfriend and I do Friday dinner dates, and that’s when we’ll try new restaurants. It’s something we both look forward to because it’s special. But during the week, every dinner is cooked at home.
2. Going out for coffee is a rare treat. My co-worker and I used to indulge in regular Starbucks runs, and unfortunately I’m a latte ($$$) rather than a plain coffee ($) kind of gal. I learned to make lattes at home, and haven’t gotten a mid-day Starbucks since. I also keep quick healthy snacks (bags of plain steel-cut oatmeal) as well as chai tea, hot chocolate and instant coffee drinks in my office and a hot water pitcher I can plug into the wall when I need a quick caffeine fix. I paid $17 for the pitcher six months ago. That’s the equivalent of three lattes.
3. I plan my meals for the week in advance. Once a week I spend a little Q-time with my cookbooks (which you already know i enjoy), and make a list of what to make for the week. Having a clear focus on what will be prepared and eaten for the week helps prevent food from getting stashed in the back of the fridge and quickly forgotten. Sometimes I’ll prep vegetables or grains on Sunday, which saves time during busy weeknights.
4. I keep track of what’s stashed in the pantry. This prevents unnecessary purchases at the grocery store, plus if certain staples are always there, I know I can throw together a quickie meal on the fly. I’ll never go hungry so long as there’s pasta, brown rice, quinoa, red lentils or a can of beans in the house.
5. I bring lunch to work at least 4 times a week. There are probably 200+ places I could get takeout in the financial district, but if I spent 8 bucks on a sandwich every work day I’d be broke and sluggish. I generally cook dinner for 4 portions instead of 2, then Vin and I take the leftovers to work with us. We save so much money by doing this.
6. I drink tap water exclusively. Truly, there really is no need to buy bottled water. (Watch this documentary if you need further convincing). Because Vin and I love sparkling water, we invested in a Soda Stream machine. I never buy soda or juice either. If we feel like drinking iced tea, it’s made fresh with teabags (so super cheap and so much better than bottled!).
7. I very, very rarely buy packaged snacks or processed foods. Instead of chips that are fattening and gone in two sittings, I’ll buy a bag of popcorn kernels (not microwave popcorn) that seems to last forever. Drizzled with olive or truffle oil, some fresh parmesan and rosemary, it’s better than any store-bought snack anyway, and ultimately cheaper. I also make pita chips by slicing up a bag of $1.50 pita into triangles, misting with olive oil spray and topping with various spices (oregano, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper…or cinnamon and sugar–yum!) and baking in the oven till crisp.
8. Most meals are plant-based rather than meat or chicken-based. There is no law stating that every dinner must feature meat to be well-rounded, filling and delicious. I literally can’t remember the last time I bought red meat, but we do eat chicken fairly often. When we do, it’s always organic and I usually only prepare half of it while freezing the rest. If it’s on sale, I’ll buy a whole organic chicken and boil it, reserving the broth for other dishes like soups, risottos and plain rice (try cooking rice with broth rather than water–oh yea!) I’m all about ingredients that work double-duty!
9. Where I shop makes a difference. I’m lucky enough to live within a five minute walk of three different big grocery stores, and a 10-minute walk from two organic/health food stores. Two of the stores have considerably better produce, so that’s where I’ll buy my fresh fruit and vegetables, but for the non-perishables, I stock up at the cheap store next door. I love you Whole Foods, but you are a little too rich for my blood.
10. I keep portion sizes reasonable. This falls under the category of “No Duh” but the less food I make, the less I spend and the less I eat.
11. I never order food in restaurants that I could easily make myself. Do you know how cheap and easy it is to make a quesadilla at home? Do you know how much restaurants mark up for stuff like that?
12. I’ve learned how to cook good meals using cheap ingredients. Bananas, black beans and corn tortillas are some of the cheapest things in the grocery store. Throw them together, and they are damn tasty. Other cheap all-purpose ingredients I always keep on hand are canned tomatoes, lentils, and frozen fruits for smoothies.
13. I walk to the store. I realize this option likely isn’t available to anyone who doesn’t live in a city, but the fact is, I only have two arms to carry groceries home with, so that directly impacts how much I’m throwing in my grocery cart. I have no choice but to be selective, which cuts down on impulse purchases.
14. Blogging does not determine what I cook or where I go out to eat. If it did, I’d probably spend way more money and gain tons of weight. I enjoy this little hobby, but not to that extent.
15. I sometimes pretend the grocery store doesn’t exist. You know those days at the end of the week when all that’s left in the fridge is some sad summer squash, a can of black beans and a half-eaten block of cheddar? On days like that, I saute them all together and serve it over some brown rice, quinoa, or cornbread with some cumin, garlic and dried cilantro. Make do with what you’ve got. Get creative. Generations before us did a lot more with a lot less.
16. When I do hit the grocery, I never miss the ethnic food aisles. Certain foods are almost always cheaper there, like beans, lentils, coconut milk and quinoa (these bags of Goya brand quinoa are only $2.99!) I buy three of them every week!
17. I base meals on what I already have, not necessarily on what I want. Before I make my shopping list for the week, I scour my cabinets and fridge for things I’ve had for a while and need to use up. Then I’ll hop on epicurious.com, type in the ingredient I need to use up, and a minimum of 20 recipes appear telling me how to use that ingredient. Don’t waste!
18. I buy frequently used foods in bulk. I’ll never buy a single onion again; buying the whole bag is a lot more cost-effective and onions stick around forever before they go bad.
19. I drink very little alcohol. Although abstaining from alcohol was never a conscious decision on my part to save money, the fact that I’m just not that into booze has saved me some serious coin over the past 10+ legal drinking years.
20. I buy fresh herbs only when a dish really requires it. Obviously I’m not going to attempt a fresh pesto out of dried basil, but there are plenty of recipes that call for fresh herbs that I substitute with dried. If I’m entertaining I will go all out and make the dish so it will taste its absolute best, but if it’s just me and Vin on a random Tuesday? No, that dish is not getting a sprinkle of fresh parsley on top.
21. I buy ingredients only if I know they can be used for more than one thing. Also, I pass on recipes that call for 1/4 cup or 1/3 tbsp of something I know I’ll never use again in my life. Ume plum vinegar–I’m looking at you.
22. I try to remember this: