Food costs are going up. Way, way up. In the last year—from September 2020 to September 2021—the cost of food rose 31%. That’s the steepest increase the US has seen since government started tracking food prices. The cost of food has way outpaced the increase in wages. That means that it’s getting harder and harder to keep the food budget under control. Chances are, you need to spend less at the grocery store.
Here are six tips that will help you manage the cost of feeding your family.
Tip #1: Shop with a list
Shop with a list and stick to it. That mean’s you’ll need to start with a menu. Make up a menu of what meals you will prepare for the week (or month.) Using the menu, write up a list of the foods that you will need for those meals. This is the start of your shopping list.
Now go look in your pantry to see how many of those foods you already have on hand and scratch those item off the list. Also, check your pantry inventory. Make a note of items that you are running low on. You’ll want to replenish those items
as soon as they go on sale.
Next look at the sales flyer from the grocery store. If there are items on sale that you need to restock your pantry, add those to the list. Your final shopping list will consist of ingredients you need for your menu and anything that’s on sale that you need to replenish your pantry.
If at all possible, you should shop alone. It’s almost impossible to shop by committee and still stay on budget. While your spouse may help keep you on target, it’s an almost certainty that children will want things that are not on your list. Leave the little ones at home and stay focused on the budget.
Tip #2: Easy does it
You will want to stock up on canned goods and other non-perishables when they are on sale but you need to go easy on the perishables. Buy just enough perishables for one week. There are two reasons for this:
First, these foods have a short shelf life, a week or two at most for most fruits and vegetables. There’s no reason to buy more perishables than you can eat in a week.
Second: Overstocking your fridge often leads to waste. A full fridge gives the illusion of abundance and you may not pay attention to food until it’s spoiled. Food waste is death to your budget, so keep the stock in your fridge to a minimum. (More on food waste in just a bit.)
Tip #3: Buy in bulk
Whenever possible, buy in bulk. Dry beans at the grocery store cost about $2 for a one-pound bag, a bargain price for a calorie-rich meal. But you can buy a 25 pound bag of beans at the warehouse store (Costco or Sam’s Club) for $35, a savings of $15. The same is true of most other food staples. You know you are
going to use them over time, so get enough to last for three months or more.
Along these lines, consider buying straight from the producer. Cut out the middle
man and buy your beans and grains from the elevator. Those same
beans that were $35 at Costco are $20 at the elevator. That makes them a super bargain.
Go to farmer’s markets and make a deal with the farmer for regular access to his produce. Buy a ½ or ¼ side of beef or pork and stock your freezer. Both you and the farmer come out ahead with these kinds of arrangements. And since you know the producer, you can be assured that you are getting the best quality food.
Tip #4: Waste Not, Want Not
Waste has a huge impact on your food budget. Experts say that as much as one-third of the food we buy goes to waste. Here are the four most important things you can do to reduce your food waste:
- Understand food labels. Download this free food storage chart. It explains what those labels mean. It also gives the shelf life of dozens of foods that you buy every day and how to best store everything.
- Plan your menu. Remember that menu planning is the first step to shopping. It’s also an important step to managing the food you buy to ensure there is no waste.
- Don’t overbuy. Buy just enough perishables for one week. Since these foods have a short shelf life—a week or two at best for most fruits and vegetables—there’s no reason to buy more than you can eat in a week. Also, overstocking your fridge means that some foods might get ignored or pushed to the back, never to re-emerge until they have spoiled.
- Manage your bulk purchases. Write the date of when you buy items that go into your pantry and make sure that your oldest foods are always brought to the front.
Here are a couple other things you can do to reduce waste:
Have a leftover day. Once a week, check your fridge for leftovers and turn them into a meal. Put veggies and leftover meat into a pot with a nice bone broth for a tasty soup. Or combine leftovers with a sauce, top with crushed crackers and bake as a casserole. Don’t let leftovers go to waste!
Save the fat from your meats and use it to fry or sauté foods or to enrich other dishes. Bacon fat is a especially tasty. Fried eggs and hash browns just aren’t up to par unless they’ve been fried in bacon fat.
Don’t throw your bones away! Make bone broth instead. Save the bones from your rotisserie chicken, turkey dinner or pork chops. Turn these bones into a tasty, nutritious broth that is the foundation of dozens of meals.
Likewise, save all your vegetable scraps. All those veggie parts you usually throw away? Make a vegetable broth with all those leafy celery ends, tough asparagus ends, broccoli and cauliflower stalks, carrot peels and veggie scraps. Or add the scraps to the pot of simmering bones for a more flavorful bone broth. Cut the stems of broccoli and cauliflower into slices or cubes and add them to soups or casseroles.
Compost any veggie scraps that cannot be used to make soups or broth. It won’t necessarily help your food budget, but it will make your garden happy.
Americans throw out a staggering 40 million tons of food every year. At least half of that waste occurs during
production and transportation and in restaurants and institutions (like schools and hospitals.) But about half of that food waste is consumer waste.
This waste has a huge impact on the environment. Spoiled food is the single largest component in our landfills. As the food breaks down it forms methane, a greenhouse gas that is up to 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. But more importantly to today’s conversation, food waste is death to your budget.
There are several reasons for food waste. The biggest one is spoilage. About two-thirds of food spoilage is due to food not being used before it goes bad. The remaining third of spoilage is the result of people cooking or serving too much food.
Another contributing factor to waste is confusion over the date labels. More than 80% of Americans discard perfectly good food simply because they misunderstand expiration labels. Labels like “sell by”, “use by”, “expires on”, “best before” or “best by” can be confusing. Many will needlessly toss this food to avoid the risk of a foodborne illness.
Tip #5: Cook from scratch
You save a lot of money when you cook from scratch. Yes, it is much more convenient to have the food prep already done for you and all you have to do is perhaps mix in a couple more ingredients and heat it up. And after a full day at work, who wants to come home to more work?
When you first start cooking from scratch it may seem to take forever to make a meal. But that is only because you haven’t practiced enough. The more you cook from scratch the more efficient you will become. In time you will find that cooking a meal from scratch takes about the same amount of time as ordering and picking up meals to go.
Start with treats. No more cakes and cookies from the store. Make them from scratch instead. Get yourself a popcorn popper and make popcorn
instead of snacking on chips. Make treats once or twice a month until it becomes easy to do. These homemade treats cost a fraction of the store-bought varieties.
Then start making your weekend meals from scratch. After you’ve gotten proficient at that, make an extra meal on the weekend to eat on Monday. Check out my Five Meals for $5 cookbook. It shows you how to make five meals from
one rotisserie chicken. It’s a great way to combine the convenience of ready-cooked meat with the economy of made-from-scratch meals.
Have your children help you with meal prep. I had all my boys start helping me at a young age, peeling potatoes and carrots and learning to chop vegetables. By the time they were 10 or 11, they could follow a recipe with little or no supervision. By age 12 or 13 they could make a meal on their own. I’m delighted that all three of my sons have become very good cooks.
When you make meal preparation a family affair you will all have time to catch up with each other and reconnect. It makes meal prep a lot quicker and easier for everyone. And then there’s the added bonus that your children will develop important life skills.
When you first start gardening you might not be able to grow all the fruits and vegetables that your family needs. But you will get several tasty meals from your garden. And over time, as you expand your garden a little every year,
you can be producing much (if not most) of the vegetables that your family eats every year.
If you really feel ambitious and your city ordinances allow it, try keeping a few chickens in your backyard. Chickens help keep the bugs down in your yard and give you the most delicious eggs. Three chickens will give you 12-15 eggs a week and provide endless entertainment.
This is a good start
There are lots of other measures you can take to keep food costs down. You’ve probably already heard many of them: don’t shop while hungry, use coupons, buy store brands, check the unit pricing, etc. But these six are the ones that will have the biggest impact on your food bill. Start today with one or more of these tips and add more as you are able.
We can’t control the unpredictable rise in food costs, but this is a good start to keeping the food bill a little more manageable.