September 3, 2009

10 Tips for Thrifty Food Shopping


adorable french grocery list tote from darcyart

After my recent admission that I am going through some additional financial belt-tightening, a friend wrote to ask if it was really possible to live on $25 of groceries a week. It’s possible, certainly, but not all that fun. But her question got me thinking: maybe it’s time for a back-to-basics ways-to-economize-at-the-grocery-store brainstorm here on POP. Some of my ideas below are truly for people who are trying to eat on next to nothing. If you have a little bit more than that, you obviously may not need to be quite as extreme in your measures, but it never hurts to take a hard look at the bills and see where you could cut back. Add more ideas in the comments or brainstorm in the forum.

Stick with the basics. Bread, milk, and eggs won’t break the bank, but they will keep you full. Decide that most of your meals will pivot around a single theme for the week (sandwiches/bread, for example), and there’s lots of room for creativity. Make mayonnaise with an egg, pick up a tomato, and eat tomato sandwiches. Or grilled cheese. Or poached egg on toast. Or croque monsieur. Or eggs in a hole. Or French toast. You get the idea. Supplement additional ingredients as your budget will allow.

Rely on beans and eggs for protein. Both of these little spheres pack a lot of nutritional punch for being so easy on the wallet. Make quiches, frittatas, and omelets; make stews, bean spreads, and stir-fries.

Buy what you need. If you only need a 1/4 cup of walnuts, your best bet is visiting a store that sells nuts in bulk and only buying a bit. Same goes for spices, most of which will get old and tasteless before you’ve had a chance to use up an entire bottle anyhow.

If you buy more than you need, use the freezer. Sometimes the family-sized pack of free-range chicken is too good a deal to pass up, even if you live in a two person household. Wrap up the pieces, freeze them, and use them next month. Cook up a pot of beans and freeze in small containers. Pulse leftover herbs with garlic and olive oil in the food processor and freeze for fresh flavor in the cold months to come.

Avoid “snacks.” Anything that comes in a box, a bag, wrapped in plastic, or in individual packets is more expensive than a banana, a large bag of popcorn, or buying dried fruits and nuts in bulk.

Look at what’s on sale. This is a big duh, but sometimes we all forget. True, most of it is processed garbage, but at my local store ripe, fragrant tomatoes and cottage cheese were going for cheap. Did I see a salad in my future? You bet I did.

Hit the farmer’s market. What’s in season is in abundance; what’s in abundance is usually on sale. And asking the hands that grew your food how they like to prepare zucchini or plums is satisfying in the most elemental way.

Buy cheap coffee. I have three words and one contraction for you: Chock Full o’ Nuts. I know, you don’t believe it’s good. I didn’t either. But it is! Pinky swear.

DIY. Feeling really thrifty and filled with a can-do spirit? Bake your own bread, make your own yogurt, assemble your own Larabars. What we pay for is convenience, but if you have a little extra time, you can save yourself a few extra dollars.

Make friends with the humble vegetables. Depending where you live and what season it is, there are always stalwarts of the vegetable department that reside in the bargain bins. Onions, cabbage, fresh corn on the cob and green beans, for example, are cheap, cheap, cheap. Try recipes that make them the stars, like braised onions and cabbage over pasta, a caramelized onion soup, or a succotash of corn and green beans.

Okay, this is clearly just the beginning. What else?

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  • Alicia Kachmar: Something I started to do, as I’m always in budget mode, is read the back of the labels for the calorie count and nutritional breakdown. But NOT b/c I’m looking for these low-cal things. (Really, you’re gonna buy low-cal yogurt? You’ll have to eat more of them to fill up!) When choosing between a jar of peanut butter, or package of nuts, they may seem more expensive than a thing of rice cakes, or a gigantic watermelon, but the former pack in the calories. i.e. more bang for your buck.

    I remember realizing this when looking at a bag of natural foods trail mix. It seemed like a lot of $$$ for this tiny bag, but then when I did the math for the servings, it probably had about 1,500 calories in it! Goes a long way.6 years ago

  • Karen: Great ideas!
    I made a huge batch of granola last week. Everyone loved it and it lasted a long time. It was chock full of healthy ingredients and a little bit satisfied the sweet tooth.
    After reading this post I made an “egg in a hole” for breakfast. What fun!6 years ago

  • Kristina: I’ve found that getting handy with baking has been a huge money-saver in our household. Homemade bread for roughly 50 cents a loaf is awesome. So are fresh batches of zucchini bread, applesauce muffins, and bar cookies.

    Zucchini is one cheap vegetable. I buy huge ones and shred them in my food processor, to freeze for the winter. I just posted a recipe for one of our standbys:

    It’s cheap, I promise!6 years ago

  • Christine: I think my biggest tricks are 1) Having a great pantry (stocked with pasta, dried beans, and some canned goods like tomatos or tuna etc) at home – which is a bit of an investment up front, but well worth it over the long run and 2) Planning my menus for the entire week.

    When I plan ahead I can take into consideration what I have in my pantry – or what few ingredients I can use for several meals (got a big bunch of arugula? have arugula salad one night, pasta with arugula pesto another and the last goes into a frittata). When I was living by myself I was definitely able to live this way on only $25 a week.

    Next year my goal is to can more things, so I can take some of the (cheap) farmer’s market bounty from the summer, preserve them and then and save some pennies in the winter.6 years ago

  • Sara Rose: Make and freeze! Make and freeze!
    1. Tomatoes on sale? Make a huge batch of spaghetti sauce and freeze in a few tupperwares. Same goes for corn, lima beans, etc- blanch and freeze!
    2. Chili and bean soups also freeze/store really well.
    3. Often times the bakery at our grocery store has fresher, cheaper, healthier breads than the “bread aisle”.
    4. Two words- saltines and peanut butter = insta snack that is both salty and sweet and totally weirdly satisfying.
    It does well to buy in bulk for certain cuts of steak, you can wrap and freeze two steaks together for three or four steak nights and not have to shell out tons of moola.
    5. Simple breakfasts. Eggs and toast. Fruit and nuts. Oatmeal and dried fruit.6 years ago

  • Lisa (dinner party): These are all great ideas!

    When I do buy meat, I’ve learned to embrace cheaper cuts and parts: chicken thighs and drumsticks, flank and strip steak, chicken livers. All are tasty and much cheaper.

    It’s not food (or that much of a revelation) but I tend to go for the generic or store brands of paper goods like paper towels, or things like aluminum foil or plastic sandwich baggies. I can’t really tell the difference and it usually saves a little money.6 years ago

  • Kim Walker: I’ve been discovering the versatility of beans, which you’ve mentioned above. This week we’ve had red beans and rice, arepas stuffed with beans and huevos rancheros, all from one batch of dried beans. I think the rest need to go in the freezer, though, or my family is going to protest!6 years ago

  • Maria: Hmm… I think just using our my two hands is key. My housemate is always shocked that I spend so little on food and eat so well. But then I break it down: mostly local and seasonal, mostly fruits and vegetables, and I do almost all the chopping and stirring. I eat tomatoes in summer, and a lot of sweet potatoes in the winter. It makes me sad that we’ve become a culture reliant on single-serving this, 100-calorie packs of that, and just created so much unnecessary waste and expense in the process.

    Another one that seems obvious? Knowing what’s in my fridge and not throwing any food out. I keep a little running list of perishables on the door so I don’t accidentally forget a bunch of kale or a lone lime. I keep veggie scraps for stock, take leftovers for lunch, freeze extra cilantro in ice-cube trays before it goes bad. It’s strangely satisfying to know I’m not being wasteful.

    And thanks for your kind words, yesterday. I was chuffed to see a comment from someone whose writing and lovely unfussy lifestyle I admire!

    LOVE that tote.6 years ago

  • fran: I like planning several meals around one cut of meat–roast the chicken, then use the rest to make a stir fry, some chicken salad, and soup; pork roast one night, over rice later in the week. We have a family of four and we can get 2 full dinners, several lunches, and soup/stock off an $8 oven roaster.

    The crowd has protested the abundance of squash from our garden, however. I will be making some breads, muffins, and cake, as well as frying latkes for the freezer. Also pureeing some for soup thickener. The freezer is my friend.6 years ago

  • Alicia K, Oh, thinking calories per dollar is so smart!

    Karen, Mmm, granola. I am trying to perfect the perfect granola recipe for fall. So, so good.

    Christine, So true. Having a well-stocked pantry really makes all the difference in the world. And if you can’t make the initial investment of buying it all up front, you can always buy a little as you go: a big bag of flour one week, cans of tomatoes the next, etc.

    Sara Rose, I love your point about the grocery store bakery. Brilliant! And I so love your love of saltines and peanut butter. :)

    Lisa, Yay for cheap cuts of meat! This fall I hope I’ll tackle those big boys like pork shoulder.

    Kim, Mmm, arepas. Way to get creative! I really can’t say enough good things about beans myself. :)

    Maria, I agree about the sad little 100 calorie packs. They depress me a little. And such a good idea to keep a list of perishables! My next thrifty goal should be saving veggie scraps for stock. I want to be like Jacques Pepin and not waste a thing.

    Fran, Don’t you love when magazines do features like that — four meals from one chicken or 3 meals from a pile of roast veggies. The abundance of late summer squash at my mom’s house always seems to get protesters, too — enough already! :)6 years ago

  • Elo: This article is great inspiration ! What i love at the lmoment is a cheap breakfast : the “pain perdu”, or “lost bread” : use your dry bread from the day before, douse (?) it in a mix of milk, sugar (brown is better) and cinnamon or vanilla, and fry it on both sides until golden brown. Delicious, plus you don’t waste any bread ! even better with the brioche, and i guess it works with whichever bun.6 years ago

  • Elo: Oh, and I forgot, add one or two eggs (them again!) to the blend.6 years ago

  • Kristina: Something to add, to tag along with Lisa (dinner party) is this:
    I try to buy foods in reusable containers. Like peanut butter, for example. Then when I’m reaching for a plastic baggie for that half a lemon, I can stop myself and put it in a jar instead. “Free” is even better than “cheap.”

    Some of our household’s empty peanut butter jars have been around for five years or more. They just keep on going…6 years ago

  • radish: okay, so i don’t know if you watch Flight of the Conchords, but they had an episode where they did a supermarket song and those words on the tote were in the song – it’s hysterical.

    I love Chock full o’Nuts… it is good. I agree. I’m kind of going through a Stumptown phase though and I cannot shake it!6 years ago

  • Megan: One of my favorite Gertrude Stein quotes is “Loving repeating is one way of being,” and it has become a motto for our lifestyle in a lot of ways — we live more economically and more ethically by eating a lot of what is seasonal.

    One way we have been saving is by getting creative with recipes — toss celery in things to add crunch and tweak flavor, substitute eggplant for chicken or protein in stir fry.

    To respond to the jars comment: YES. Sandwiches go in reusable tupperware everyday, use real towels instead of paper towel for spills, and it will amaze you how infrequently you will have to buy those staple items. Another way of thinking about it: instead of wasting a baggie to save half an onion, half a pepper, etc., just use the whole vegetable in a recipe, and save the leftovers!6 years ago

  • Amy C: Stock Bag! In the freezer I keep a plastic bag. Whenever I chop onion, carrots, and the like, i always have odds n’ ends, bits and pieces left over. I always save those bits and pieces and put them in the stock bag. When I roast some chicken thighs, I always take the meat off the bone and then stick the bones in the stock bag too. Once the bag is full (every two or three weeks), I dump all of it in a pot of water and simmer it and strain the broth after a few hours. Free chicken stock!

    Fran, I do the same thing. I only buy one meat item a week and stretch it into multiple meals.6 years ago

  • Emmalinda: Love your tips! I would say that the bulk section at Whole Foods (ideally I’d shop at a co-op, but there isn’t one in the whole city of Denver!) is my biggest hint–organic whole wheat flour for 69 cents/lb? Spices/nuts/dried fruits/grains/beans/lentils…it’s all here, fresher and cheaper than in packaging.

    However, Chock Full O’Nuts may be delicious, but it is not sustainable. Coffee is one place where I’m willing to splurge, b/c I know that the way it is cheaply produced exploits workers and eco-systems. Coffee is one place where spending a few more dollars puts money directly into a farmer’s hands and promotes sustainable agriculture practices. Fair-trade, shade-grown coffee can be found for about $10 a lb. It’s not cheap, but it seems worth it, in my mind. However, if the only way to have coffee in your life is to buy it cheap, so be it! I am one of those who believes life without coffee is barely living. :)6 years ago

  • Kristen: I don’t know what other parts of the country these stores exist but I live in Missouri and Aldi’s food store is fantastic! Really good quality for a discount food store and so much cheeper than the regular grocery stores.6 years ago

  • EB: I know it doesn’t sound like it makes sense, and I know it’s not an option for everyone, but if you can, grab a few friends and split a CSA box. We split ours between 3 couples. For 10$ per week we each duo gets more veggies and fruits than TWO of us can finish. That’s 5$ per person, supplemented with beans and the occasional animal protein. EASILY under 25$ week.6 years ago

  • Betsy Peggy: I learned to shop from my Dad, and he always shopped coupons. Every Sunday afternoon he would pick up a flyer from the grocery store, pull out the inserts from newspapers, and collect receipts from the week. Then he would plan out the week ahead with my Mom and buy accordingly.6 years ago

  • The Healthy Hostess: Loved the list! It made me feel good that I do most of those things and it make me think about the ones I don’t do! Thanks!!6 years ago

  • Sarah Jane: Never underestimate store brands, oatmeal and tinned beans. you can do everything with them!

    Great tips everyone, thanks!6 years ago

  • Cordelia: What a bunch of great ideas! On another note, I used to make fun of my dad for buying Chock Full O’Nuts–at least until I had to start buying my own groceries. What a treat indeed!6 years ago

  • Evon T.: I bought one of those small vacuum sealers for food storage with the intent on buying chicken and turkey breasts in bulk, breaking them down, and sealing them individually. I realized though, that the new dilemma becomes the lack of freezer space. But Sarah, you have such wonderful ideas on the topic. Who would’ve thought of preparing meals by a particular theme? I just bought a house, and cutting back on food expenses is no option, so I’m going to incorporate the theme ideas into my own bachelorette pad. XOXO.6 years ago

  • Kristina, I’ve been doing that lately, inspired by a story my mom told me about a really poor friend she had who kept all her grains in the cupboard in empty peanut butter jars with red tops. It made such a graphic display for no extra money!

    Radish, I had no idea that tote was a Flight of the Conchords reference! Hysterical.

    Amy C, I’m going to start doing this stock bag thing immediately!

    Emmalinda, You got me. I blanked on the sustainability factor because I was blinded by the price. You’re right though, and in general, I really do try to be a conscious shopper. Wherever in the world good for your wallet, good for the planet, and good for your body intersect is where I want to live. I think it’s called Portland? :)

    EB, Great point about splitting a CSA box. I loved all your stories about the great produce you ate this summer!

    Great ideas everyone. Somehow I knew there would be no shortage of ideas on this topic. :)6 years ago

  • anon: sarah – how have you not joined the Park Slope Food Co-op! You will see your grocery bill slashed to the extreme, eat wonderfully, and not have to cut back on really anything. sign up for the orientation immediately.6 years ago

  • i know people rave about it, and i have thought about it. but the main reason i havent joined is that it’s a little far for me.6 years ago

  • Kasey at Thrifty Little Blog: As a single person, I’ve noticed that it’s easier on my budget when I go to the store just to get what I need. It seems that when I try to buy for the entire week at once, things end up going bad or going unused. The less I waste, the more I save!6 years ago

  • Diane Carol: I have a great pantry that I work to always keep stocked. It is filled with great buys when things are on sale. Some weeks I just refuse to go to the store and make myself prepare meals from the freezer and pantry. Period! It is a great feeling to make a wonderful meal from items purchased on sale! To get me out of the rut I occasionally fall in and to answer the age old perplexing question…”what’s for dinner tonight” – I just grab a few cookbooks for inspiration, then head to my pantry or freezer. I do can a few items (just finished salsa with a neighbor – shared in the cost and had a ton of fun drinking wine and chopping veggies). We also blanche and freeze corn (we just did 6 bushels between 5 families – many hands make light work) and I also am a huge fan of making homemade stock (some neighbors who have “no time” enjoy donating their carcases knowing that I will actually make the stock and share!). Bulk items are another favorite, but it can be overwhelming to have such a huge quantity – so these are always purchased between a few folks (grown kids who also love to save $). We’ve split rice, pasta, spices, dried beans, etc. It all adds up!6 years ago

  • Serafina: We too have been tightening our belts around here and I found one thing that really worked – I always used to go crazy for produce – buying a weeks supply at one time and forgetting about half of it until it went bad. Now – if I am making a salad with dinner – I get it that day. I buy only a few days worth of fruit at a time and we eat what is there. Too many choices usually means too much waste.

    Oh – the popcorn in the bag trick – fabulous! with a little bit of salt and butter – it was addicting! Thanks!6 years ago

  • e.liz.a: Excellent timing for this post! I just went part-time at my job as I can no longer take night/on-line classes for my degree. While I’m completely ecstatic with my choice, I’m also losing a third of my monthly income, which is somewhat daunting. Time is also at a premium (odd, because it usually works the other way– plenty of time/no money, or no time/enough money– in my experience at least.

    Breakfast burritos are amazing. The brilliant Trent over at Simple Dollar posted a ridiculously easy recipe that has fueled my mornings for a few months now. Seriously, look it up. My entire office is now hooked on these things.

    Ditto on the popcorn snack idea- I bought a microwave popcorn bowl for less than $10.00 at Target about a year ago. Add the popcorn kernels (so much cheaper than microwave popcorn- and look very home-y in a clear jar sitting next to your pastas) add a bit of oil and stick it in the microwave. Wonderful- you don’t waste money on the microwave kind, and don’t ruin your pans making it on the stove top. I always sprinkle with white cheddar popcorn topping and chili powder- but that’s just me.

    I make batches of soup on Sunday and freeze them in individual servings. Chili is good for this, as is Lee Drummond’s (at French onion soup. Takes a bit of time on the weekend, but works for me- I’m usually doing homework at the kitchen table anyway.

    I recently ordered a recipe book entitled 70 Meals, One Trip to the Store, by Kelly Donlea. While it’s not really “foodie” food, it’s organized well and none of the recipes require expensive ingredients. The premise of the book is that you should be able to stock your pantry with the essentials (beans, pasta, canned vegetables), run to the grocery once a week for perishables, and cook pretty much any meal. This is a complete awakening for me- I’ve previously been the cook that decides what is for dinner at work, prints out the recipe, and buys everything that is required on the way home, including the bottle of wine and the flowers– never mind what might already be in the cabinets or the fridge. While the recipe book isn’t marketed as a guide to frugality, it certainly has helped me!

    I’ve so enjoyed reading everyone’s posts- Good luck to all! :)6 years ago

  • isableumarine: very lovely!!!
    in french we say pamplemousse, but why not!!!6 years ago

  • fefe: ha-i spent $27 at the grocery store this week and was amazed! it really is looking at what you have and making it stretch. i made nigellas chocolate peanut granola and am eating it for breakfast and a snack. took 1 pound of ground beef, and made tacos (taco tuesday) tonight and spaghetti sauce for tomorrow night. what is even better-all i have to do is make some pasta and heat up the sauce and dinner is served! i have to say-as cheese as it sounds-i like black box wine. i make it useful in my cooking and drinking! at costco it is $18 for 4 boxes of wine. we do not have trader joes in tx, so i am happy to have costco!! good luck-about to go make some frugal popcorn!!6 years ago

  • fefe: i mean $18 for 4 btls of wine-1 box…sorry!6 years ago

  • Elisha Lynn: Great tips! When I was living in my apartment I always went to the farmers market on Saturday afternoons. Right before the vendors are ready to pack up they offer AMAZING deals on their remaining food. Being thrifty + supporting local farmers = happiness.6 years ago

  • Anita Koller: There is a website that is very interesting and offers lots of budgeting ideas and recipes it’s called the Hillbilly Housewife and there are tons of money saving ideas years ago

  • P: If you like that reusable bag, you might also like this design!

    I asked the seller if she could put both the fruit and vegetable graphics on one of her tote bags, and she very sweetly obliged (at no extra charge!).

    The bag is wonderfully useful (yay for bringing leftovers to work as lunch) AND gets lots of compliments!6 years ago

  • Erika: I’m totally late to this party, but I’ve gotta say, the #1 way we’ve cut our grocery bill is by becoming pescetarians.
    It kind of sounds like you have too – with the egg and beans suggestion – which is a great one, btw.

    We’re Portlanders who had plenty of options when it came to sustainably, humanely raised meat, and we took advantage, but as you know, these methods cost more than factory farming, so our grocery bills were high.

    We made the decision that we’d rather go without meat/poultry than eat factory farmed meat, and I’ve noticed a GIGANTIC difference in our grocery bill.

    I suppose if you’re already scrimping and saving, this is no revalation, but it kind of breaks my heart that people buy cheap meat (read: factory farmed – don’t even get me started on how pig farms pollute rivers…) rather than go meatless during tough economic times…
    but, that said, I was raised in a meat-and-potatoes family, so I get it, I do.

    Anyway, it just pains me that vegetarianism isn’t mentioned as much (in all of the articles I’ve read, anyway) as buying cheap cuts of meat when it comes to grocery shopping during a recession.5 years ago

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A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.
- Henry David Thoreau