I was flabbergasted. Not saving money by cooking at home? One of the primary reasons we cook at home is because we save lots of money (though another nice benefit is that we also get to eat tasty food cooked to our own preferences). So, after we were finished being flabbergasted, we came up with a list of suggestions for those who would like to save money on food. We've broken the suggestions into two broad categories: things you can do while shopping and things you can do at home to save money.
Saving money by shopping smartly
- Shop the loss leaders. Most grocery stores try to entice customers into their stores by selling a few items at a loss, while hoping to make the money up on other items the customers buy. Preferentially shop for loss leaders, and ignore everything else unless you really need it; this is probably the single most important thing you can do to save money on food. Looking at grocery store fliers before going shopping can help you figure out what the various stores' current loss leaders are, helping you plan your upcoming meals.
- Stock up on things you know you'll use. This combines well with shopping the loss leaders, as stocking up on items when they're cheap allows you to spend a lot less money overall. My SO and I drink 100% fruit juice daily; when not on sale it's typically fairly expensive ($1.50 per 1.5 quarts, at least), but we almost never buy it at that price. Instead, we wait for juice to go on sale, and then buy dozens of containers of it. The same goes for almost everything else we regularly use (canned tomatoes, flour, sugar, bacon, frozen vegetables, etc.). In addition to just saving money, stocking up like this allows you to be more flexible with your cooking, since you always have good amounts of your basics on hand (e.g., we always have lots of onions, garlic, and cans of whole tomatoes on hand, so we can whip up a basic pasta sauce whenever we want).
- Learn (or notice) when things are in season. This often goes hand in hand with shopping for loss leaders as well (since in-season produce is often sold as a loss leader), but besides being cheaper, produce is often also better-tasting when bought in-season. Holiday seasons often bring cheap prices on traditional holiday foods; for instance, if you're in the US and want to roast a whole turkey, be sure it's around Thanksgiving (or buy an extra one at Thanksgiving and pop it in the freezer to plan ahead).
- Consider frozen vegetables and fruit. Frozen vegetables can be stored for months (allowing you to stock up on loss leaders), and are often better-tasting than out-of-season "fresh" produce. We usually have frozen corn, green beans, peas, and raspberries on hand, which we can then use in a variety of recipes without planning. Note, however, that frozen vegetables and fruit aren't ideal for everything, so don't just blindly use them; things like frozen broccoli or cauliflower will never be as crisp as their fresh equivalents.
- Shop by price per unit mass or volume. This almost goes without saying, but when you buy something, look at how much it costs per unit mass or volume, and compare it to other, similar products. Bulk purchases are often well worth it when considered in this light. When looking at price, be sure to give store brands (generics) a try: they're often much cheaper than the brand name product, and many times taste just as good. Generics are especially good when it comes to raw ingredients (e.g., flour, sugar, baking powder, tomatoes, dry beans), but they're at least worth trying for everything you buy. Also, we find that coupons are rarely worth it, as most coupons are for brand-name items, and typically only bring the price of the brand-name down to something close to the generic equivalent. Additionally, since coupons are often for pre-prepared foods, you can almost always make the same food for less by cooking it from scratch.
- Consider making some of the things you buy pre-made by hand. My SO and I make almost everything from scratch; part of this is because we enjoy cooking from scratch, but it's also because raw ingredients are almost always cheaper than pre-made components. For example, pasta sauces, cookies, biscuits, pancakes, and salad dressings are all cheap and easy to make at home, yet expensive to buy pre-made. About the only foods we buy pre-made are sausages, baked beans, jams and jellies, dry pasta, and breakfast cereals. If you don't know how to make something by hand, just look it up in your cookbook; you'll likely be surprised at how relatively easy it is (unless it's ravioli).
- Get a rewards credit card and use the supermarkets' information-gathering ("rewards") cards. My SO has a credit card that gives 2% cash back on purchases made at grocery stores; it's like always shopping with a 2% off coupon. The supermarkets' information-gathering cards are always worth it; if you forget yours for a day, sign up for a new one. However, don't be fooled by how much you "saved" with the card, since you probably wouldn't have bought the items if they weren't on sale.
- Comparison shop between different grocery stores, and learn which stores have the items you want cheap. For instance, in our area Trader Joe's has cheap heavy cream, whole milk yogurt, free-range chicken eggs, artisan bread, and frozen berries; our local health food store has cheap nuts, grains, and produce; our local supermarket has cheap flour, sugar, and paper goods; and our local Japanese market has cheap rice, soy sauce, and other Asian ingredients. For goodness's sake, don't spend hours and hours comparing the prices at different stores, but every now and then go to a different store and see what their prices are like.
- Invest in a set of good leftover containers, and use them. Cooking in bulk allows you to get multiple meals from a single cooking event, making cooking more efficient (saving both time and money). Many foods freeze very well, allowing you to keep them for months and then pop them in the microwave when you don't feel like cooking. High-moisture foods (e.g., soups, stews, curries, pasta sauces) tend to keep the best, and can even taste better after the first day in the fridge. Despite the claims of many of my relatives who say that "leftovers never taste the same," I've never met a food that I wouldn't eat as leftovers. Note that old food containers (e.g., sour cream containers, yogurt containers, glass jars) often make good leftover containers (though they can melt in the microwave).
- Learn how long ingredients last. Many fresh vegetables go bad relatively quickly (though some, like potatoes, carrots, and turnips, can be stored for weeks), but many other foods can be stored for months or years, so if you know you're going to use them, stock up on them when they're loss leaders. Sugar lasts nearly forever, canned vegetables last for years, and most frozen items will last at least 6 months. But since most things do eventually go bad, don't buy so much that you'll be throwing away lots in a few weeks or months. Some waste is fine (and is a common byproduct of shopping loss leaders and stocking up), but don't go overboard.
- Don't plan all your meals in advance. Most shopping gurus state that to save money you need to shop with a list; this is nonsense, primarily because it prevents you from shopping loss leaders. It is, however, a good idea to save grocery store fliers, hunt through them for good loss leaders, and then put those on your list. Once you've become familiar with the ingredients called for in your favorite recipes, when you get to the store (and/or when you look over the store's sales flier) you can determine what ingredients are cheap, and thus determine what would make the most sense to cook. When we go shopping we'll often have very vague lists, such as "veggies, fruit (apples?), baking soda, juice, ...", which allows us to survey the items available at the store and select the optimal combination of freshness, variety, and price.
- Learn (and be willing to research) new recipes for a variety of ingredients. When shopping for loss leaders you'll probably find that foods you're not used to cooking with are on sale, and thus worth buying (maybe turnips, Brussels sprouts, or some odd cut of pork will be insanely cheap). So, by knowing a lot of recipes, you'll be able to figure out something tasty to make with the cheap food you buy. Or, if you don't know a lot of recipes, be willing to learn them - go ahead and buy four pounds of turnips, and then when you get home look online (or in a good cookbook, see below) to figure out what to do with them. As a side benefit, this will increase the variety of foods you eat, thus reducing your culinary boredom and improving your nutritional balance. Even if my SO and I buy a 12-pound holiday ham, that might be the only time we buy ham that year, and even then we cook it up in five different ways, so we never get bored of it.
- Examine your meat expenses. Meat (beef, pork, chicken, fish, shellfish, etc.) is often expensive. To cut your meat expenses, we'd suggest learning how to cook cheaper cuts of meat (e.g., chicken legs work just as well as chicken breasts in most recipes), avoiding recipes that call for expensive meat (e.g., scallops, prime cuts of beef) except as a special treat, stocking up on meat when it's a loss leader, and/or reducing your overall meat consumption. One of the easiest ways to reduce your meat consumption is to learn to cook non-Western cuisines: many of these dishes have no meat in them at all (e.g., Indian dals, pilafs, and yogurt salads), and others (e.g., curries and stir-fries) use meat as just one ingredient among many. As a side note, it's easy to get enough protein without eating much (or any) meat, as long as you eat a varied diet1. Many non-meat foods have a decent amount of protein in them; for example, a cup of milk has 11 grams of protein, a cup of Cheerios has 3, a slice of whole-wheat bread has 4, two tablespoons of peanut butter have 8, one ounce of cheese has 7, a large egg has 6, and a cup of broccoli has 3 (for comparison, an ounce of raw chicken or salmon has 6 grams of protein; data for everything but the milk from here; milk data from a gallon of 1% milk in the fridge).
- Invest in a good, basic cookbook. I don't know why I'm bothering to write that header in the generic - there's really only one good, basic cookbook you need: Joy of Cooking. It's a stellar cookbook that includes recipes for just about everything (except drinks), and also includes an amazing amount of background information on how to do virtually everything in the kitchen from scratch. If you don't have Joy in your life, go get it.
- Realize that many recipes are flexible. Don't treat recipes as though they are cast in stone. If your recipe calls for red bell peppers, and when you get to the store you find that they're $5 each, consider alternatives (would green bell peppers work? What about broccoli or some other vegetable?). While the end recipe will not be exactly the same as the one in the cookbook, it can often taste just as good. Note, however, that this does require some cooking finesse, as ingredients that serve a direct functional purpose in a recipe cannot be substituted out (e.g., you can't substitute broccoli for peppers in a stuffed pepper recipe, and can't substitute corn starch for flour in a bread recipe). So, if you're a beginner, don't worry too much about this, and instead just focus on finding recipes that use the ingredients you have.
- Consider growing your own produce. While this is certainly not something everyone can do, consider growing your own fruits and vegetables at home. Things like herbs, tomatoes, berries, squash, and tree fruits (e.g., lemons, avocados, peaches) can be much cheaper and tastier when grown at home. Note, however, that you'll need to research what grows well in your area without much tending.
[Update November 2007: One common meme we've seen on the "I can't shop cheaply" topic is the claim that if you shop cheaply, then you can't buy fresh produce; this is patently false. To provide just one example of how produce can be bought cheaply, on a recent shopping trip to our local produce market we bought 62.25 pounds of produce (including red bell peppers, yellow onions, sweet onions, zucchini, butternut squash, apples, garlic, carrots, potatoes, yams, brussels sprouts, bananas, lemons, limes, and pears) for $35.67, for a total cost of $0.57/lb. Of course this relies on having a local cheap produce store that discounts in-season produce, and being willing to buy only the items on sale, but it's an example of what's possible.]
1 The Harvard School of Public Health suggests eating 9g of protein per 20 pounds of body mass. Thus, the average weight US female (165lbs) should eat 74 grams of protein a day, while the average weight US male (190lbs) should eat 85 grams a day (weight data from here).