The following are my suggestions for saving money on food…with a few qualifiers.
I’ve added qualifiers because there is “food” and then there’s “FOOD”. I would argue that a can of any vegetable which has been pre-blanched and heavily dosed with salt and preservatives in a can lined with resin containing bisphenol-A is “food”, whereas the same vegetable purchased fresh in the produce section of the supermarket and cooked just prior to eating is “FOOD”. Sometimes FOOD may cost a bit more, but if it’s in the same general price ballpark, I’ll always recommend the fresh, non-salted and non-processed version. You may save a little money buying the lower quality “food” version, but you’ll eventually pay for it in other ways…most likely through medical bills.
Cook from scratch
Use the least processed foods you possibly can. Processing adds cost, and almost always salt, sugar, or nasty preservatives to most foods. For example, buy dried beans, lentils, peas in bulk rather than the canned versions and soak and cook them yourself. Dried beans are usually less than half the cost of canned beans per ounce and they don’t have the massive amounts of sodium that the canned beans have; plus they actually taste better in the finished dish.
The one exception to the rule for least processed foods being cheaper are veggies. Canned and frozen veggies are often cheaper, although when certain fresh local veggies are in season and plentiful they may be cheaper. The reason why fresh can be more expensive is that you are paying for the spoilage in the produce section of the supermarkets. You also have a certain amount of spoilage in your own fridge when you throw out stuff that went bad before you used it. We try to not overbuy on veggies so we don’t get a lot of spoilage at home. We also try to favor buying veggies that are in season. Despite the sometimes higher cost, we always buy fresh fruits and veggies if we can help it because they are more nutritious, don’t have added salt or chemicals, and they taste better. During the winter, when a lot of the veggies and fruits are imported, we still bite the bullet and pay for fresh. Dennis worked in a frozen food cannery as a summer job during high school and college and based on his experiences there he says he will never eat frozen veggies if he can help it. Take that for what you will.
If you’ve never baked a loaf of bread, do yourself a favor and learn to do it. Google “artisan bread in 5 minutes per day” and you’ll find instructions on how to make great bread really quickly and easily. I use Lesaffre Saf-Instant Dry yeast which is about $3 per pound, and unbleached white flour which is about $5 per 10 lb bag, about 37-38C of flour. To make a huge loaf of artisan bread you use 6.5 cups of flour and 1.5TB each of yeast and salt (I don’t use the salt). 1.5TB of yeast weighs about ½ oz, so 1 lb of yeast will make about 32 loaves. Total cost per loaf is about $1… and the loaves are huge, about equal to 2 full loaves of regular bread. A loaf of similar artisan bread from a bakery would be five times that price. The dough can also be used for focaccia and pizza crust.
We also make our own fresh pasta as a treat. It costs very little and tastes so good it needs little else except some butter or olive oil and good grated cheese. We also make corn tortillas. They don’t look as perfect as the ones in the store but when fresh and warm you can’t beat them and they taste amazing. Fry a ribeye (that you got on sale…see below) steak medium rare, let sit for a few minutes and cut in to thin slices. Serve with the tortillas and your own fresh salsa from you homegrown tomatoes and you will be in heaven. Since you’ve gone that far you might as well get a few limes and make a Margarita to go with it.
Make a batch of pastry and freeze it in balls to roll out as you need or freeze pie shells. This makes it very quick and easy to throw together fruit pies, chicken pot pies, pastry shells for quiche and anything else that you need pastry for. Quiche only takes a couple of minutes to assemble if you have the pastry. You can buy frozen pastry shells also. Most of the time though your own pastry tastes better. The only pastry I buy is frozen puff pastry. It takes a better person than me to make perfect puff pastry. I usually make sausage rolls with it.
Grow Your Own
Dennis has a vegetable garden every year. It’s not a big garden, consisting of just four raised beds with a total area of about 200 square feet, plus a small raised bed for just herbs. He practices small bed, high yield, organic gardening practices to get the most he can out of his beds, planting usually vegetables and herbs which yield the most value for the amount of garden space. Many people have enough space in their backyards to have similar gardens. By far the best bang-for-the-buck is tomatoes. This year we have harvested at least 200 lbs of full-size tomatoes and at least 60-70 lbs of cherry tomatoes, and the season isn’t over yet. The total cost to grow the tomatoes was probably about $40 for plants and fertilizer. This works out to about $.15-20 per pound by year end. Also, the tomatoes taste better than any tomatoes you will ever buy in a store. When we have way too much, we make tomato sauce which we freeze in quart-size freezer bags and use over the winter for cooking. This year I started making oven roasted tomatoes with the excess, slicing them and baking most of the moisture out of the tomatoes and then freezing them on a flat sheet and putting them into freezer bags. We also gave bags of tomatoes to a few neighbors, family, and friends as well. He also grows Lanciata kale and collard greens. Starter plants cost about $6 and we get pounds and pounds of both of these. The plants keep going into November in Oregon and then we strip the plants after the first frost and blanch and freeze it all in small freezer bags and use it during the winter for a variety of dishes. He grows a lot of basil…three plants for $2.79 from Trader Joes will get huge over the summer and yield way more basil than we can ever use. All the excess gets turned into pesto (which we freeze in small baggies) and basil oil (my new favorite cooking oil made from basil simmered for a long time in olive oil and strained into jars). He also grew sugar snap peas, a variety of different kinds of lettuce, Swiss chard, arugula, asian eggplants, beets, butternut squash, cucumbers, and almost a full bed of leeks which we have hardly touched yet (most we’ll freeze for use in the winter). Butternut squash stored in a cool, dry vegetable drawer will keep for a couple months. Last winter we were still using them in January.
If you have some space available you can plant a garden and save lots of money on food. We figured out that this year the value of the veggies we grew was about $600 (at store prices) and our cost for seeds, plants, water and fertilizer was about $115. Vegetable gardening does take a fair amount of time for cultivating, planting, watering, and occasional weeding, but it can be relaxing and it gets you outdoors, and the taste of veggies you grow yourself is far superior to the taste of veggies from the supermarket. Also, if you don’t use any pesticides (we don’t) you can be assured that all you veggies are totally organic.
Buy in bulk and have a freezer
If you buy food items in larger quantities you can save money. Most supermarkets have discount packs of meat which are cheaper per pound if you buy a larger quantity. The same is true for rice, beans, and other relatively non-perishable items. We buy large packages of steaks and split them into smaller packages and very large pork loins and cut them into smaller pieces and put them into the freezer. That’s why a freezer can be a good investment. Without a freezer we wouldn’t be able to buy bulk meats or fish and we wouldn’t be able to freeze all the stuff we grow or make from our garden. The money we save buying foods in bulk and being able to freeze our garden surplus and other foods we prepare in large quantities saves us a fair amount of money.
Shop at Costco
We save a lot of money by shopping at Costco. When we got our first Costco membership almost 30 years ago we wasted a lot of money at Costco. But over time you gradually develop a resistance to buying that 10 lb bin of caramel corn and 10 lb bag of cookies that you won’t finish half of before they go stale. Now we shop at Costco mostly for very specific items, particularly non-perishable items, that are better priced than we could ever get by buying in smaller quantities at our regular supermarkets, things like toilet paper, laundry detergent, paper towels, kitchen sponges, garbage bags, dish soap, toothpaste, razor blades, shampoo. For food we buy butter, cheese, lean ground beef, salmon burgers, cage free eggs, spices, olive and canola oils, balsamic vinegar, peanut butter, oil spray, basmati rice, pork loin (no salt added), artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, olives, blue cheese dressing, and a few other things. Sometimes we buy wine if it’s a particularly good price. We also buy gas for our cars at the Costco pumps, typically at least $.20 cheaper than the cheapest stations anywhere else in town. Our Costco membership costs us $50 per year and we probably save about 5x that amount on gas and groceries expenditures.
Shop loss leaders
If you don’t know what a “loss leader” is, here’s the explanation. Some grocery store chains have regular specials on selected highly desirable items, such as steaks, or fish, or soft drinks, or fruits, intended to attract customers to the store. The prices may be so good that the store doesn’t even make much money on those items. These items are called “loss leaders”, which implies that the stores take a loss on them, but I doubt that’s true. Anyway they lead in the ads and get you to come to the store where they hope you will buy the loss leaders and then buy a bunch of other higher markup items as well while you are there. Stores that use this sales tactic are called loss leader stores.
You can save money by shopping loss leader stores and only buying the loss leader items at those stores and skip buying the other higher markup items. I usually keep an eye on the mailers for those stores and wait until there are things I want (usually things like ribeye steaks, or wild Alaskan salmon) that are at a particularly attractive price and then I’ll run out there and buy a whole bunch of these items and throw them in the freezer. In that way I’ve been able this year to get fantastic trimmed ribeye steaks and Alaskan sockeye and coho salmon for $6.99 a pound. Sometimes they are selling whole salmon for $5.99 a lb and the fishmonger will clean and fillet the fish for free. When they do this I ask for the discarded pieces and bones, that still have a fair bit of flesh on them, and use them to make fish stock or salmon spread or fish cakes. These stores also frequently offer general store coupons, such as $10 off a $50 purchase. I use these coupons to reduce the price of the loss leaders even further. I did this recently for ribeye steaks and got 7.5 lbs of steaks at $6.99 per lb minus $10 with the coupon for a net cost of about $5.65 per lb.
For all our other food shopping we go to stores that are not loss leaders and that have generally lower prices on every other product, or at Costco.
There are websites devoted to “couponing” and if you’ve ever been in the checkout line behind a pro couponer you know that some of these people can save lots of money. I am not a dedicated coupon user for food shopping. I do search for coupons when I’m shopping for more expensive non-food items, but for food I generally just look for the general “save $10 on purchases over $50” type of coupons. These are typically available in the mailers I get for the loss leader stores I frequent and from Costco. I do make regular use of these coupons and typically get a nice discount this way for very little couponing effort. Dedicated couponers look for coupons for individual items by visiting the manufacturer’s websites and other promotional websites. This can eat up a lot of time and I don’t know if the payoff in savings vs time would be enough to interest me. Also shopping with promotional coupons for individual food items tends to make me buy items I didn’t originally intend to buy, which is not a good thing. You should always try to have a shopping list and buy things off the list. But check it out if you are so inclined, and definitely look for the general store discount coupons and use them for some extra savings. Some people think of the money they are saving as their pay for couponing and they put the savings in a jar for something they want.
If you are shopping for ethnic foods, often the best prices will be at ethnic markets that serve that particular ethnic community. What might be a very occasional shopping item for you may be something they use all the time, and they don’t want to pay extra for foods they buy all the time. I find Ponzu, rice wine vinegar, chili garlic sauce and curry paste for best price at a local Korean market. Huge jars of tahini cost the same at my local Middle Eastern store as a small jar in the local supermarket. Same with Kalamata olives at the Greek food store. Try to buy spices in small batches from a busy store so they are fresh. Where possible, buy whole spices so you can roast and grind at home as needed. Whole spices stay fresh a lot longer than ground spices. Keep separate grinder for spices and coffee. If you are having a big celebration check out local restaurant supply stores, such as Cash and Carry.
Don’t be a slave to name brands. Sometimes the generic and name brand is the same thing. Look at the ingredients on the labels.
Don’t shop when you are hungry. You tend to buy more impulsive food purchases and quick to prepare processed foods when you are hungry.
Be Efficient With Food
Think efficiency – how to get the most out of as little as possible. I was shocked the first time I was shown a restaurant kitchen. It was tiny but ran like clockwork and everything was part of the whole. Bones made stock for soups, sauces and gravies. Best cuts of meat, poultry and fish were used for prime entrees and lesser cuts for other dishes like fish pies, burgers, rissoles, stews, casseroles, noodle dishes. Nothing went to waste. Too many carrots cooked for lunch today came back as carrot orange soup tomorrow.
It’s ironic that some of my favorite dishes and most treasured memories center around food that might otherwise be thrown out – bread pudding, queen of pudding, stuffing for chicken all use stale bread. The art of re-invention. Sunday’s leftover roast and mashed potato becomes Monday’s shepherd’s pie.
Here are some of the dishes I’ve made at different times from a leftover roast chicken after we’ve gotten the first meal out of it:
- Chicken salad (traditional) or a little different like bulgar, kale, chicken salad etc.
- Chicken salad sandwiches – serve with a vegetable soup for lunch
- Chicken enchiladas suizas
- Chicken curry
- Chicken pot pie
- Chicken rissoles
- Chicken alfredo
(the following made from chicken stock from the carcass)
- Chicken matzo ball soup
- Chicken ramen (with $2.00 fresh noodles
- Chicken tortilla soup
- Freeze leftover stock in ziplock bags
Most of us don’t like leftovers but a little imagination can transform any ingredients you have. Only the best cooks can create great free form dishes with what’s available. The rest of us tussle with recipes and hope each dish doesn’t send us to the grocery store for some missing element.
Have a good supply of herbs and spices on hand at all times. Any special seasoning mix is only a mixture of herbs and/or spices. They are easier to replicate than you’d think. Also, you can find very good recipes online for taco seasoning, spice rub, pie spices, etc. Instead of paying $1 for a couple of tablespoons of a mix you can easily assemble same thing from what you have in your cupboard.
When I first came to live in the US I craved Branston pickle, golden syrup, thick cut marmalade, bangers (sausages), digestive biscuits, none of which were available in regular supermarkets here at the time (1986). This has now changed and I can buy these items locally. The price is a little higher than I’d like to pay but it’s cheaper than driving to Vancouver, Canada to get them. Necessity is the mother of invention. I learned to work with what was locally available so when I couldn’t manage without brown soda bread that I used to make from a mix in Ireland I learned to replicate the mix and have found that adding toasted wheat germ and oats actually improves my bread. I love mince pies at Christmas but had trouble finding good mincemeat here. I started making my own with green tomatoes and sour apples and lots of rum. This keeps very well in the fridge. Mixed peel, available practically in every store in Ireland, is not so easy to find here and is often only available for Thanksgiving and Christmas cooking. I now make my own. It tastes way better than any I’ve ever purchased. I freeze the peels of oranges (and sometimes lemon, grapefruit and lime) until I’m ready to use them. Once the candied peel is made it keeps very well in the fridge in a jar. What I end up with is not nearly as syrupy as the store bought kind. I use this for scones, mincemeat and Christmas pudding. I can’t find the sour cooking apples we used in Ireland for apple tarts. The nearest I can find here is Gravenstein apples. We make a pilgrimage out to Mount Hood to buy them every year and we have to be smart about it because the season is very short. Often you will find boxes of misshapen apples for applesauce at half the regular price. These are a great deal. It’s hard to find peeled almonds here. I buy almonds in bulk, blanch, peel, dry and grind for marzipan. Semolina flour, in a pinch, makes a very respectable poor man’s marzipan.
When you crave something that’s not available or expensive locally look for alternatives. There is a Hawaiian fruit bread easily available here that tastes a lot like barm brack like we had in Ireland (very hard to find). There are Mexican cookies that look and taste just like Irish and English biscuits – Marietta, Mikado and Coconut creams are some examples. In my local Middle Eastern store I get Jaffa Cake cookies (not the McVitie that we have in Ireland, but they taste good) for less than half the price of Jaffa Cakes elsewhere, also digestive biscuits as well as the more obvious Tahini and Grape leaves.
Learn to Cook
I’m surprised how many people I meet in this country who don’t like to cook or only do very minimal cooking, using lots of prepared foods or eating out way too much. If you haven’t developed skills in the kitchen, you should. Being able to prepare tasty food without all the salt, sugar, and additives you are bombarded with in prepared foods will improve your health.
Have fun cooking. I’ve taken local cooking classes in Indian, Middle-Eastern and Thai cooking and in each case got at least a couple of recipes (including lentil soup, perfect Pad Thai and yellow curry in a few minutes and fresh chutneys) that I use again and again. They taste authentic. I’m very happy that I can make my favorite Thai yellow curry in less time than I’d have to wait for takeout, at a fraction of the cost.
The very best food is made with fresh ingredients and prepared with love and care. It doesn’t matter much whether it’s exotic and expensive or simple and cheap, except to your pocket book.