How To Save Money on Food
In this article, I will show you ways to save money by eating at home. This isn’t a recipe or how-to cook at home article; instead, it’s information about how to shop for groceries and stock your pantry and refrigerator in a way that allows you to cook quick delicious and inexpensive meals at home more frequently.
Save Money on Food – 800% Mark-up in Restaurants!!
Because of the high mark-ups on food in restaurants, one of the easiest ways to save money is to prepare cook at home. Check out some of these articles to see some restaurants’ markups.
In addition, when you eat out, you pay taxes on the entire bill, and unless you’re eating at a fast food joint that requires no tip, you’ll likely pay the waiter an extra 15-25% on the pre-tax amount. Granted, good service should be rewarded, but tipping definitely increases your overall food expenses.
In one of the articles provided above, a plate of spaghetti is used as an example. The food cost is $6 while the menu price is $14. (Realistically, I think the cost is more like $2-3 or less for simple spaghetti and canned sauce.) But let’s just play along and say that at the restaurant, the menu price is $14 while the raw food cost is $6 for an $8 markup. Assuming an 8% sales tax, the tax on the food is $1.12. If you tip 17%, you would add $2.38 ($14 x 17%). You total bill would come out to $17.50 ($14 + $1.12 + $2.38). Since the food cost is only $6, you’re paying an extra $11.50 by eating out or 3x the food cost. And this doesn’t even include any appetizers or drinks.
Eat at Home More Often: Stock Your Pantry and Refrigerator the Smart Way
Several years ago, I attended a meetup on this topic and it changed the way I shop, stock my pantry, cook and eat. It’s so remarkably simple that it just seems so obvious. Basically, think of food in 3 broad groups – meats, grains/pasta, and veggies/fruits. Now, we’re not trying to replace the USDA’s food pyramid or categories; we’re only categorizing food this way to help us shop and cook. With this approach, both fresh and frozen/dry/canned food can be used. With frozen food, there’s generally less waste since you only use what you need and can keep the rest frozen. You’ll note that in the table blow, I added a “condiments” category for basic seasoning and condiments you should stock.
Grocery Shopping & Stocking Categories
Fresh chicken, beef, pork, fish/seafood,
frozen chicken, beef, pork, fish/seafood, canned chicken, fish, canned chili, tofu as a meat substitute, eggs
|Pasta of all sorts, rice, bread, couscous, quinoa, barley, amaranth, dry noodles and ramen, etc||Lettuce, kale, string beans, avocados, tomatoes, onions, potato, broccoli, brussel sprouts, carrots, celery, cauliflower, corn, cucumber, peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, etc.||
Cheese, basic spices/seasoning/herbs, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, honey, hot sauce, tomato sauce, cooking wine
The key is to always have several foods in each category available in your pantry and refrigerator at all times. Think about all the times you ate out or ordered take out because you didn’t have food at home to cook. Shopping and stocking your home in this manner prevents situations where you’re out of food.
Let’s say you get off work and you’re hungry. You open the refrigerator and see some ground beef. You look in the pantry and see spaghetti and tomato sauce. With this line-up, you can make spaghetti with meat sauce in 20 minutes or less.
On a different night, you find some chicken breast and some carrots and celery and some leftover rice. Well, with the chicken and veggies, you can make a simple stir fry and serve it over rice.
At Saturday noon, you wake up with a lousy hangover and it’s too cold to go out to pick up fast food. You have some frozen shrimp and seafood, frozen veggies, and ramen. Well, just boil some water to cook the ramen and toss in the shrimp and veggies, and you’ll have a nice warm bowl of ramen in no time. And the ramen broth will help you with your hangover too!
Hopefully, you’re seeing how the “system” works. As long as you have food in each category, it’ll be fairly easy to make quick, simple, delicious, and inexpensive meals in no time.
Check out this entertaining video on stocking your pantry:
Save Money on Food by Shopping Efficiently and Inexpensively
In the past, I would shop once a week generally and spend probably 30-60 minutes in the market that’s about 10 minutes away from home. I would pick up the same stuff every week – different types of meats and seafood, fresh vegetables and fruits, occasionally some pasta and sauce, wine/beer, and maybe a snack or two. It wasn’t overly time consuming, but it’d take up 1-1.5 hours each week. Well, I started doing things differently and it saves 30 minutes to an hour each week.
Stock up at specialty stores
A few years ago, I started concentrating some purchases in large quantities at specific stores. For example, I now go to Trader Joe’s only several times a year. Each time, I load up on dry goods like pasta, pasta sauce, condiments, rice, quinoa, tea bags, wine, and chocolate. With the dry goods, I would buy enough to last me 3-4 months so I wouldn’t have to return. I buy these particular items because I find Trader Joe’s provides great value relative to many other stores. Similarly, there’s a Grocery Outlet nearby and I go there once every 2-3 months to stock up on frozen meats, sausages, and wine. I find that I can get good deals on these items. No doubt, there’ll be regional chains where you live that serve this purpose.
Buying Meats on Sale
In the past, I would try to buy fresh meats once a week. Recently, I started to stock up on meats whenever they’re on sale. In my mind, chicken breast below $2/lb, chicken thighs/drumsticks below $1/lb, steak below $6/lb, and pork below $2/lb are good examples of attractive prices in my region. What will be attractive of course will be different in your neck of the woods. The point is that you should become savvy and price conscious and recognize what represents good value, and when you see meats at attractive prices, you should stock up. Recently, I purchased five packets of 3 lb chicken breast for $1.99/lb. I froze 4 of the packets and baked one of the packs that week. At this point, I still have 3 more packs.
I’m quite the carnivore and enjoy eating meats. In recent months, I’ve started to blend in tofu as a meat substitute. Typically, I can get tofu between $1-1.50/lb. Compared to ground beef and turkey at $2.50-5.00/lb, tofu can be a cost effective meat substitute. A lot of times, I’ll replace half the meat I would use in a meat sauce for pasta with tofu, so I still get some meat but in more moderation. That tends to work well for me. With the remaining tofu, I might use it in a salad for the protein or for another pasta dish the next week. My experience is that tofu can last several weeks. After opening it and cutting half up for immediate consumption, I’ll drain the water from the plastic container and put it in my own container and add some fresh water and put a lid on the Tupperware.
Save Money and Time: Shorter Weekly Shopping Trips
Because I have a lot of frozen chicken, sausages, and hamburger patties, I really don’t need to shop for meats for awhile. Not only did I buy these items on the cheap, but it’ll shorten my upcoming shopping trips. Nowadays, my shopping trips take only 30 minutes since I’m only picking up fresh vegetables, fruits, and maybe some fish.
Some people recommend shopping once a month. Basically, you get organized and prepare a long list and plan your meals ahead of time. By shopping once a month, you’ll save time, gas, and money. Of course you’ll rely more on frozen and canned vegetables, so that’d be the downside. As extreme as that sounds, some families do it. See how “America’s Cheapest Family” shops only once a month.
Cooking Efficiently to Save Energy
Baking several items at once. I’ve perfected cooking multiple items at once. I do most of my cooking on Sunday night ahead of the work week. Typically, I will bake the following items simultaneously at 350-375 degrees:
–Some type of chicken, pork, or beef
–1 or 2 portions of fish
–At least one type of vegetables (brussels sprouts, broccoli)
By doing this, I take advantage of a warm oven and reduce the number of times I turn it on and the amount of cooking I do. If I bake more than one item at once, I set a timer for the time the first item will be done. If I’m baking chicken, fish, and veggies in the oven at once, I typically set a timer at 25 minutes to remind me to take the fish out since that typically cooks the fastest. At that point, I quickly check the veggies and determine how much more time is required. Typically, the remaining meats take 30-35 minutes of total cooking time depending on size. Cooking this way saves time and energy consumption.
Most of the time, while food is being baked in the oven, I’m also cooking some rice, bulgur, or quinoa in my rice cooker. Using a rice cooker minimizes the amount of work I have to do. Some weeks I cook pasta instead of these other grains. So while food is being baked, I’m boiling pasta and then heating up the sauce and mixing the two on the stove top. In about an hour’s time, I can pretty much prepare all the meals (lunch and dinner) for the upcoming week. I then apportion them and put them in different containers for packed lunch. To save time and cleaning, I bake the food in oven-safe casserole dishes that double up as containers that used to store food in the refrigerator.
Of course, you can also warm up bread, tortillas, and any other already cooked baked goods in the oven while other foods are being cooked.
Steaming several items at once. The same principle can be applied to steaming and boiling. When I use a rice cooker to make rice or quinoa, sometimes, I will steam some vegetables using a steamer tray that came with the rice cooker. Similarly, you can do the same when you boil pasta if you have the right pot / steamer combination.
Turning Leftovers into More Meals
Soups. With leftovers that are still in good condition, you can use it for a soup, casserole, or stir fry. When it’s cold, I love making soups and crockpot dishes because it’s so easy. With soup, I just boil some water, toss in salt, bullion, and ideally some meat bone for a base broth. I chop up leftover veggies like carrots, celery, and onions. Sometimes, if I have leftover pasta or rice, I’ll toss that in also. It’s easy and often in less than an hour, I’ll have a nice warm soup for the week. An added benefit is the heat and steam from cooking warm up the home too in the winter.
Stir Fry. If you have leftover meats that are still good, one of the ways to refresh it is to add some fresh greens. Chop up some bell peppers, green onions, broccoli into small bite size and sauté them and add them to the meats. You can serve this with potatoes, rice, and just bread and have an inexpensive quick meal in no time. I find that adding some chicken broth to leftovers can add some moisture to food that may have dried up slightly during the refrigeration process and enhance flavors also.
Crock pot. For someone who’s busy and wants simple hardy meals, a crock pot can be your best friend. Just toss in your meat, chopped veggies, marinade, seasoning, and turn in on the right temperature setting, and in 5-8 hours, voila, an entire meal is done. There are countless crockpot recipes on the internet and some are specially designed to use few ingredients. I personally like to get everything together on Saturday night and right before I go to sleep, I toss everything in. By the time I wake up, everything is done. Because I wake up at least once to go to the bath room, I’ll go and check out the crock pot quickly, and usually everything is done after 5 hours, so I just turn off the crock pot when the food is done. If you have a smaller crock pot that fits inside your refrigerator, you don’t even have to transfer the food into a container.
So there you have it … with these simple to use tips, you now have the knowledge and tools to cook more meals at home, eat healthier, and save some money along the way. Bon appetite!
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