How to Save Money on Groceries - Part One

Who's ready to reduce household food costs? Here's how: Cook Your Own Food. If cooking more sounds like time and work, well, yes, it does take more time and work but less than you might think. That's because once you get organized, once you get the hang of it, once you cook more, the easier it is to create a self-sustaining system that means cooking only one or two things a day. The goal? To save money, of course. The benefits? Eating better too. Read on ...

How to Save Money on Groceries ♥ KitchenParade.com, a multi-part series packed with practical tips and ideas.
If you're new here, you may want to start at the beginning of this series, see How to Save Money on Groceries: The Introduction.
Or perhaps you missed last week's kickoff, Part One: Frugal Eating Starts in Our Heads. Otherwise, let's dig in again, shall we?

Many thanks to all who encourage this series, especially the readers forwarding thoughtful tips. From some, I hear worry, "I already use so many of the basic ways to save money on groceries. What if they're not enough?"

So for anyone feeling overwhelmed, maybe this week choose to do one do-able but big thing and then if it's helpful, keep it up when you tackle the next one do-able but big thing.

Writing this series, thinking about the topic, focusing on one or two meaningful changes each week, my own habits reveal themselves, bad habits included.

Just last week I reached for a second bottle of corn syrup priced two for $something. It was a good deal but how much corn syrup can one use? I checked for recipes calling for corn syrup. Just one recipe gets made often, my long-time favorite Skillet Cornbread. So one bottle would buy little, despite the price temptation of two.

Saving a couple of bucks today? That's a win.

Let's get to it, shall we?



Frugal Food Shopping Requires a Plan

We're still not ready to hit the grocery store.

That's because the trick is not to save a few pennies on hamburger or find a bargain on chicken breasts. (Anyone looking for ways to save money on potato chips and boxed pizza at all? Sorry, you aren't going to find it here.)

To save money on groceries, really save money on groceries, we must rethink what we eat and who's going to cook it. No surprise to regular readers, I stand for this:


  • Cut out prepared food.
  • Cook real food, ourselves.

Need to work your way into this more slowly? Okay, then. Try this on for size.


  • Cut out some meaningful portion of prepared food.
    Does that mean aiming for 80% or 50%? Or one meal a day? Or lunches out except maybe on Fridays?
    Figure out what works for you that's aligned with your overall goals. And then ...
  • Cook real food, ourselves.

COOK. COOK. COOK. COOK. COOK. COOK. COOK.

Cook something every day, every single day. Make soup one day, cook a roast on the weekend. Put together a grain-based salad that will last several days. Every single day, make something. The objective is to never be faced with cooking an entire meal from scratch, too overwhelming to contemplate at the end of a long workday.

It's my version of "meal prep".


If not every day, find your own rhythm, but do cook on a very regular schedule. For some years, my sister had good luck feeding her family by investing much of one weekend day cooking for the entire week. Whatever the rhythm that works in particular circumstances, it's done to avoid the vicious cycle of the drive-through and the convenience of carry-out and delivery. The less we cook at home, the more we pay someone else in order to eat. The more we cook at home, the more we save.


Focus on healthful dishes for meals. For those of us who love to bake, well, we could pop cakes and cookies out of our ovens every day. But to eat both healthfully and frugally, we should first take care of our core nutritional needs for breakfasts, lunches and suppers, that means soups and salads that keep, dinners that can be made ahead of time and/or freeze well. Then, once we reach a point where the fridge is stocked with a few days of food, celebrate by cooking something special, brownies or muffins, say.


But consider a baking exception when supper's going to be skimpy or repetitive. Few will complain about dinner when there's homemade bread straight from the oven. It might be simple corn bread on the table in 30 minutes or it might be homemade bread started as late as lunchtime, you can even let your stand mixer do most of the work.

And nobody but nobody will feel cheated knowing there's a sweet something to finish. The first lesson is from my own kitchen, the second from my mom's but a tradition I carry on. I even keep a special section in my 3x5 recipe box (home to my most-used recipes) titled "Skimpy Supper".


At first, focus on the main meal. For the moment, put breakfast and lunch on auto-pilot, cereal or fried eggs or pop-tarts or lunchables or whatever. There's more money to be saved at the main meal both short-term and long-term. So learn and apply these techniques to the main meal, then later on tackle other efforts.

That said, you can make a big pot of Creamy Oatmeal, breakfast is done for the week. Need more variety? Freeze one or two breakfast's worth, pull them out in a week or two.


Recycle & repurpose. That soup? You made enough for lunches during the week and some for the freezer, right? That roast, there's enough for sandwiches and a casserole later in the week, yes? Is it the end of the week and all that's left are bits and pieces of more leftovers? Make Saturday Soup. Waste not, want not.


The more you cook, the less you have to cook. It gets easier, the more you cook. Once you continuously add to the home-cooked food in the fridge and replenish the basics, it becomes a self-sustaining system. When the system is at its most efficient, you'll cook only one or maybe two things for the main meal, everything else comes from the fridge or freezer.


Make time. Allow time. When you cook more, the fact is, you'll need to allow more time for cooking and the resulting dreaded cleanup.

So make time, allow time. If it's important, you'll make the time, create the time.

Use that time not only to make the night's dinner and all its attendant dishwashing and table-setting but also to get ahead of the next dinner, the next week.

At least for me, this extra time means that meal itself can be more relaxed because the cook is less stressed. I actually look forward to walking into the kitchen!

Rest assured, that time can be any hour of the day. For example, my sister knows that at the end of a work day, she's done. So she cooks early in the morning, before leaving for work. Coffee and Homemade Spaghetti Meat Sauce, anyone?


You've cooked it, now eat it. Your fridge may soon be home to more "ingredients" you've cooked/prepped rather than a "finished dish". Figure out at least one meal that everybody loves that kind of makes itself from what you've made ahead plus maybe something extra.

Are you big dinner salad people? Pizza people? Sandwich people? Meze people? Taco people?

Aim for prepping ingredients (or using up leftovers) that make putting a salad or pizza or sandwich on the table quickly.


Feeling tempted by carryout or going out? Don't do it. At least for awhile, push yourself toward cooking in, staying in. Otherwise, the system gets messed up. That's because the food you've meal prepped needs eating. It's not shelf stable. It's not going to last more than two or three days in the fridge. And the idea is to save money on food, not just groceries.


Be prepared for temptation. Have one fast meal that you can make in minutes, no matter when how late it is, no matter how hungry everybody is, no matter how tempting it is to pull into some drive-through. My husband is way better at cooking on the fly but also more prone to temptation. If I don't have a plan, well, it's hard to respond, "Let's not. I already have a dinner plan."


Stock the freezer but empty it too. Is your freezer a no-man's land? Does all that freezer food end up wasted? It happens and it's definitely my own weakness. Unless stocking the freezer for a special purpose (in the way a family expecting a baby or preparing for an illness might), aim for one meal in, one meal out. Maybe establish "Freezer Fridays" or something similar?


Extract all the value. When we splurge on bacon, save the fat in a jar in the fridge: it adds great flavor to stews and eggs. When we buy leeks, save the heavy green parts to make No-Waste Leek Stock and use this for making soup or braising meat. When we roast a chicken or buy a rotisserie chicken, after supper throw the carcass into a pot with sliced onion, chopped celery and a bay leaf to make chicken stock. If there's not time after supper, place the carcass in a freezer bag and freeze for cooking on the weekend. See why I call it No-Big-Deal Homemade Chicken Stock???


Work toward a handful of recipes that feed the family "on air". Call these recipes "ramen for grown-ups". Start with three grocery items that you never run out of. Is it pasta? Then maybe your "on air" pasta recipe is hot noodles tossed with cooked onion, frozen peas and lots of black pepper. If it's canned tomatoes, then maybe it's a quick tomato sauce. Learn how to cook eggs, say French eggs or Never-the-Same-Twice Vegetable Frittata.


Egg Night In fact, set aside one night a week for eggs for supper. While eggs are way up in price, they remain a great value. Plan "egg night" once a week and trade off making omelettes, scrambled eggs, fried eggs, frittatas, more. Then never allow your kitchen to be without one or more of these to be on hand.


Easy Egg Recipes ♥ KitchenParade.com, an inspiring collection with how-to's and recipes

We're Almost Ready to Buy Groceries. Almost.

Eat for free. Before buying groceries, get one more meal or two more meals from what's on hand. It might well be an odd meal, it might even not be that tasty. But it's "free" because if we shop and refill the fridge before all those odd bits are gone, chances are, they'll go to waste.


Shop your fridge, freezer & pantry first. Before shopping for groceries, what meals can be put on the table without spending a dime? Thaw that soup in the freezer. Turn that leftover roast pork and cheese into tortillas. My brother-in-law and nephew visited a few weeks ago, arriving a few hours early, leaving no time for a planned visit to the grocery store to stock up. Only by "shopping the pantry and freezer", I fed the three of us for a couple of days. One thing I could do better: tracking what's in the freezer, especially since my town is prone to power outages, which is why I now leave the chest freezer in the basement unplugged except at Christmas.


Keep running lists. When running low or finishing the last of a staple, add it to a running grocery list that's handy. Mine used to be a notepad on the fridge but now I rely on a smart speaker on the kitchen counter. "Alexa, please add such-n-such to the grocery list." It's hands=off!

And it's actually multiple lists, one for the grocery store, one for my favorite international store, another for Sam's Club, another for Walmart, another for Trader Joe's and during the summer, the farmers market.

In addition, consider keeping your personalized "stock lists" by grocery store, the items you can/only buy from a certain store. I love the jasmine rice from Trader Joe's and the canned beets from our local grocery chain Schnucks. If I'm already making the trip, I might not need rice or beets but am reminded, knowing they'll get used. The idea is to take advantage of the pricing/products from multiple stores while also limiting the trips to a particular store.


Food only! List food items separately from paper and cleaning supplies and personal items like shampoo, toothpaste and deodorant. This is a visual reminder that we buy groceries at the grocery store and we buy supplies elsewhere, where they're far cheaper.


Think "inventory". Instead of buying just one of a staple grocery, buy two or three. That way, you'll never run out, you'll never be tempted to run to the store for just one or two things. If your family drinks a lot of milk? Buy two or three gallons of milk. The idea is to never run out, to never require a special trip just for milk.


Save the circulars. In the Monday or Tuesday mail, the "junk mail" includes the week's grocery circulars that show what's on sale for the week. Good news, most of the circular can be ignored, pay attention only to the 'real food', which meat, dairy, produce and pantry staples are on sale for the week. Ignore everything with a brand name.


Write a meal plan, a menu, then make a grocery list. At the top of the plan, list what's in the fridge, freezer and pantry, also good values from the circulars.

Start with those items to build the week's menu. Be realistic, and definitely don't expect to cook a multi-course meal every night.

Especially if you're starting from scratch, set the goal of cooking one thing (plus, maybe, something easy like cooking a vegetable or making a salad) every day but make enough so there's leftovers. Within a couple of days, you'll set up a continuous feeding system. Every few days, you'll be able to take a day off, just to eat up what's leftover.


Be flexible. If "Tuesday night is always chicken night" you're setting yourself up for extra challenge, price-wise. Be prepared to move with the sale prices, what's in season, what fits with what's already on hand.

I've been at this long enough that I no longer need to make a meal plan. Every week, I might plan to make something in particular, after that, it's just cooking with what's on hand.


Plan your trips and orders. At the moment, gas is cheap but frequent shopping trips create their own time- and food-related costs. Make the most of the stops and orders. My running lists remind me when I'm nearly out of olive oil (and frozen peas and ...) so it's easy to add a bottle to the cart the next time I'm in Trader Joe's.


Wait. What about walking? Is it possible to walk to a grocery? Americans tend to "walk for exercise" instead of "walking to get somewhere". (Admittedly, this is different in urban areas with public transportation where people get around just fine entirely without cars.) I've taken to walking to the farmers market on Saturday mornings: it's cool and the dog loves it. I carry a backpack which limits my purchases.


Keep a copy of standby recipes handy. But we're all human, plans some times go awry. Let's say you're on your way home, you know you're even out of eggs, you're tired and everyone's hungry. Drive-through night? Carry-out night? Wrong and wrong.

Instead, keep a handful of recipes, ones that can made up quick (once you're home), somewhere handy. Time was, I kept a Word document with these standby recipes written in shorthand form so a single page hold 20 or 30 recipes in small type, two columns. These days? I'm use the Contacts app on my phone, with a special group just to copy/paste certain recipes.


Homework

Feeling motivated? Good! Here are some ways to get started now, for a week or a couple of weeks, by arming yourself with information and tools that reflect your own household's grocery habits.

Remember! Baby steps are good! Tackle one thing at a time so you let yourself get overwhelmed. And what you think might work at first may not turn out to be the final solution. It's worth experimenting to figure out what's practical and doable for you.

We're in this effort for the long-term, not just for the moment.

Effort counts: pick just one thing that'll make a difference. Then do it.


  • Think through the best place to keep a running grocery list and standby recipe information for you. Is it on your phone? In your planner? In an app? Be sure to consider how the information will be kept mostly current and easily accessible. I can't tell you how many times I've put a bunch of information into an app, only to realize it just wasn't going to work for me. Ugh.
  • What's in your freezer now? your pantry? Take inventory. Make it a running list, simple to add and subtract. (My own goal this week? Figure out what's in the downstairs freezer! I put away so much food early this year, when grocery supply chains were stretched. It needs to hit the table sooner than later!)
  • Create a grocery list, one that can be reused. Separate non-food items like paper and cleaning supplies. If you shop at multiple stores, start with just one of the stores (or the one you plan to visit/order from shortly) and just the groceries you buy there most often.
  • Collect three standby, supper-saver recipes in some form somewhere that's easy to update and can be accessed from anywhere. Over time, you'll add to these recipes. Be sure to include how long it takes to get the dish on the table, start to finish.

Your Best Tips

Your Two Cents = Two Dollars = Two Hundred Dollars = Two Thousand Dollars = Two Million Dollars. Collectively Kitchen Parade readers must have thousands of money-saving tips. Please! Do share them, either in a comment or via recipes@kitchen-parade.com. I'll collect your tips for a special post to close this series. Your two cents, multiplied by thousands of readers, can really add up.


Bloggers! You know you want to chime in! Write your own post about how you save money on food and groceries, then link to the introduction post of How to Save Money on Groceries. I'll collect your posts to share with readers at the end of the series. Together, we can make a difference!

How to Save Money on Groceries ♥ KitchenParade.com, a multi-part series packed with practical tips and ideas.


How to Save Money on Groceries: The Series

The Introduction
Part One – Frugal Eating Starts in Our Heads
Part Two – Frugal Food Shopping Requires a Plan (you're here)
Part Three – How to Shop Wisely for Groceries (read this next)

Part Four – Investing in the Future (coming soon)
Part Five – Reader Tips & More Resources (coming in soon)

To follow this series of posts over the next few weeks (plus Kitchen Parade's usual recipes), sign up for a free e-mail subscription.

If you think a friend might appreciate this series (plus the usual recipes), please forward this post!


"How to Save Money on Groceries" is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg, author of the recipe column Kitchen Parade which features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. Quick Suppers are Kitchen Parade favorites and feature recipes easy on the budget, the clock, the waistline and the dishwasher. Do you have a money-saving tip that other Kitchen Parade readers might find useful? Leave a comment below or just send me a quick e-mail via recipes@kitchen-parade.com. If you like Kitchen Parade, you're sure to like my food blog about vegetable recipes, too, A Veggie Venture.

© Copyright Kitchen Parade
2008 & 2020 (repub)

Alanna Kellogg
Alanna Kellogg

A Veggie Venture is home of "veggie evangelist" Alanna Kellogg and the famous asparagus-to-zucchini Alphabet of Vegetables.

Comments

  1. Anonymous7/13/2008

    There is so much to think about here, my mind is swirling with it all.

    I didn't realize that food prices were going to keep going up, it seemed like they might reach a plateau and stay there.

    You're really making me think. This is good!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous7/13/2008

    Eat less. So obvious and yet no list I've seen before has ever said it so directly. Good work -

    ReplyDelete
  3. I read an article that said "the average family tosses 1.28 pounds of food a day, for a total of 470 pounds a year! That's like throwing away $600!" http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/nutrition_articles.asp?id=1103
    I know I am guilty of wasting food. For years I have planned meals for the next 5-7 days and done all the shopping at once, hitting many stores so I could get the best deals. I would guess 9 out of 10 weeks I don’t end up cooking everything I planned before things start to go bad. With cost of everything going up, I probably am throwing away $1000 a year. So to try to remedy my wastefulness of food and money, I am buying weekly staples for breakfast and lunches, but I am only planning 1-2 dinners at a time. This has been working fairly well. I have so much food in my pantry that I have stocked up on in the past so I already have a base (that I would like to slim down too). I have been making dinner choices by choosing a few ingredients that I have on hand and then finding a recipe or two to see what I am missing. I stop on my way home from work/school and pick up whatever last minute ingredients I am missing. I am adding less than 3 miles to my commute 2-4 days a week but I think even with the increased trips to the store, I think I am saving money. There is more of a chance for impulse items since I am going shopping more often, but for the last month I have been able to stick to the list and haven’t thrown out any produce or leftovers. Yay! Also, this has cut down on the amount we have spent on food because there is less planned so there is less food in the kitchen and we are much more likely to eat what we just bought.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Cara ~ Excellent, that's just the reaction I hope for, helping people really think about this issue seriously.

    Anonymous ~ Thank you!

    Jules ~ You make the excellent point how important it is for each of us to find our own rhythm that works for US, not for someone else. I'm not a "by the week" person either but I know people who live and thrive by their system. Thank you for chiming in, I hope you'll write a post of your own to participate.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Excellent series! I think you've hit the mark and hopefully people who have been struggling will be able to make a plan that works for them.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous7/14/2008

    I lost my full time job in January of this year, and have been temping since then. (Yay Michigan and their highest unemployment rate in the nation). Since my income has been cut in half, I've been squeezing my pennies at the grocery (and everywhere else!).

    Luckily, I am as frugal as the day is long. I have not eaten in a sit down restaurant once this year. I have eaten take out (pizza & chinese) on maybe 4-5 occasions since January, because...hey...I'm no saint! No fast food. No sodas at the gas station. No coffees.

    I agree that a well stocked pantry is the key to frugal eating. In fact, about every 6 weeks, I declare it a "Pantry Week," and eat meals out of my pantry or freezer. I love the challenge of throwing open the cupboards and just creating something yummy from what is already there. Beans usually figure prominently.

    I am looking forward to the rest of this series!

    ReplyDelete
  7. My favorite - eat food, don't throw it out! Of course, that requires the plannng and cooking part...

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm a huge fan of shopping once a week, and cooking as often as possible. I go to Trader Joe's, a 45 minute walk from my apt. I turn it into an adventure and make it my exercise for the day. This way my fridge is full of wholesome food the whole week. I feel healthier when i eat in, and good about my savings choices.

    For those who don't have time for a big grocery trip once a week, I work for a Consumer group called Consumer United (ConsumerUnited.com) and we offer $10 off grocery delivery when you sign up for Peapod by Stop and Shop. I hope this helps. Noelle

    ReplyDelete
  9. Anonymous9/19/2008

    I like how you write "Increasing worldwide affluence, especially in China and India, is increasing the worldwide demand for food ..." without so much batting an eye-lid when I've see so many "western world" people waste food that would feed entire families elsewhere in the world. Please try to realize everyone is entitled to a nutritious meal, not just you rich Americans!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Anonymous ~ No argument, all people are entitled to a healthful diet. Whether a Western-style diet is more healthful is questionable, even if it's one that's desirable.

    No argument, the Western world consumes too much meat and wastes far far too much food. You'll see in the subsequent pages to this post that I advocate against waste.

    Please know: I think we're in agreement. I apologize if I've suggested otherwise.

    Many thanks for taking the time to comment.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Legacy Learning Systems6/28/2010

    Great post. I'm always looking for more and more ways to save some money. Especially these days. I estimate I save about $2,000 per year using coupons and buying things on sale. Not bad for an hour or two's worth of work a week!

    ReplyDelete
  12. "eat less".. lol tell that to my family. but nonetheless these are great ideas... empty fridge happens to me at least twice a month. arggh!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I would love to cut down on the amount of food I throw away each week. It's mostly "leftovers" that were good one or two times, but then no one wants to eat them again. We are a household of 3 adult women (all would love to lose weight) and I do most of the cooking. So -- it's obvious -- I'm cooking too large! But a bag of beans yields 7 cups of beans at a reduced cost? Who wants to cook 7 cups of beans and then what do you do with all of that? I do try to cut recipes in half -- but. Also, one won't eat onions (I sneak in onion powder), one doesn't like anything but pasta, one is diabetic -- I will TRY, but I haven't much confidence that I will be successful.

    ReplyDelete

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. But I also love hearing your reactions, your curiosity, even your concerns! When you've made a recipe, I especially love to know how it turned out, what variations you made, what you'll do differently the next time. ~ Alanna