Like many shoppers, I have noticed my grocery bill getting bigger each week. To compensate for my family’s busy schedule, I have also been turning to shortcuts, like pre-packaged snacks and meal kits, which further add to our total bill.
To counteract these pressures, I applied all my go-to savings tricks: opting in to my grocery store’s loyalty programme for extra discounts, using a credit card that gives me a bonus cash back on grocery purchases and planning our weekly menus around sales. Still, shopping for my family of five continued to give me sticker shock.
For extra guidance, I turned to budgeting and cooking experts experienced in making food spending more manageable. Here are their best tips for saving money on food:
Control what you can
While so much about the economy can feel completely outside of our control, including rising interest rates, inflation and supply chain challenges, our food spending is actually one area where we hold a lot of sway, says Erin Lowell, a US-based lead educator at money-saving app You Need a Budget.
By spending more time cooking or substituting cheaper ingredients, you can feel an immediate savings impact, she says, unlike with other costs, such as bills or rent, which can be harder to change.
Ms Lowell suggests assessing how much effort you’re currently putting into minimising your food spending and taking that effort up to the next level.
For example, if you currently order pizza for delivery, then consider buying a frozen pizza for a quarter of the cost. If you already buy frozen pizza, then consider making your own from scratch for just a few dollars’ worth of ingredients.
Plan your meals
“When people are overspending on food, it’s almost always because they’re eating out too often,” says Jake Cousineau , a personal finance teacher in California and author of How to Adult: Personal Finance for the Real World.
Planning ahead is key to combating the temptation to order takeout at the last minute, he says.
“If you meal prep on Sunday and make six to seven meals, you’re not faced with that decision of ‘should I order out or prepare food?’ every night,” Mr Cousineau says.
He typically cooks meat for Sunday that he can use in tacos, pasta and salad later in the week, for example.
“You can do the heavy lifting on Sunday, then mix and match throughout the week.”
Planning also helps you to avoid food waste, which is another budget killer, warns Rob Bertman, a certified financial planner and family budget expert.
“Buy in bulk for things you know you will go through, but if food sits in the freezer or pantry and gets thrown in the trash, that gets expensive,” Mr Bertman says.
He and his wife keep a list of the potential side and main dishes they have on hand in the freezer, fridge and pantry so they don’t forget to use those ingredients.
Be resourceful in the kitchen
Maggie Hoffman, a New York-based digital director at cooking website Epicurious, suggests substituting recipe ingredients for ones you already have at home.
“Be confident in your cooking: If you have farro, use that instead of brown rice. Use hot sauce or vinegar instead of lemon.”
Ms Hoffman also recommends “next-overing”, which is transforming the previous night’s dish into something new. Roast chicken one night can become enchilada fillings the next, for example.
Beans, which are generally inexpensive, are also a flexible staple, she adds. You can serve them on their own or add them to salads or soups.
Keep your pantry well-stocked
Investing in staples can end up saving you money because then you can quickly make last-minute meals instead of ordering in.
“I try to keep five to 10 easy, budget-friendly meals in the house at all times,” Ms Lowell says. For her, that list includes ingredients for homemade pizza, frozen fish with fries and a pasta dish. “It’s never expensive and I’m always happy to eat it.”
My grocery bill is still higher than I’d like it to be — even the savviest shopper can’t outsmart this level of inflation — but it’s more manageable with these tips.
And my children have learned some frugal habits of their own, such as the simple pleasure of cooking lentil soup for dinner and the savings that come from packing their own snacks.