Eating healthy on a budget starts by getting organized. Contrary to what most people think, buying in bulk and freezing isn’t always the best idea.
If you’re unorganized, fresh bulk ingredients tend to spoil and freezer ingredients get frost-bitten — then later tossed when it’s time to clean out once a year.
But cooking at home is still cheaper than eating out, just start by compiling a list of your go-to family meals for starters, then get ready to load your cart and lower your grocery bill.
Shop Your Favorite Meals
Print out 2 weeks worth of recipes, making yourself a “recipe matrix” so you can get an idea of any grocery staples that you have in common — like carrots, onions, celery, tomato paste, canned tomatoes, and spices.
So instead of buying the smaller sized canned tomatoes or bag of carrots, go for the jumbo bag and save. Buying the large size (that you won’t have to store) means that you’ll be using the ingredients two or three times that week. The more staples you can use in different ways, the more you’ll save. When you use several canned, jarred, or shelf-stable ingredients on a weekly basis, then buying them at a bulk club might be the cheapest way.
Also plan to serve a side salad at least twice a week. Serving salad as a side dish is easy and it ensures that it doesn’t spoil. Plus, it makes a lovely base for warm foods — so you can tuck the salad into the tacos, beef stew, or you can even use leftover taco ingredients to whip together a fast taco salad.
Always make your grocery list from recipes so that nothing goes to waste and you don’t end up buying a lot of extraneous items you don’t need. Keep a running list on your fridge for staples or things you run out of to limit trips to the store (saves gas, time, and buying items you don’t need), this also gives you time to check for coupons.
Generics — Some Are Just As Good
Some generic or “store brand” products taste just as good as their brand name counterparts. Cheese is one of them, and happens to be one of the items that has become more expensive in recent years. Try store brands of cheddar, muenster, mozzarella, and pepper jack and save $1-3 per item. Generic rice, pasta, beans, and other basic staples are a great place to trim your grocery total as well. Troll the paper for sales on canned goods, broths, and other items that store well in your pantry — but only shop for them if they work in your recipe matrix.
Make Grocery Shopping a Power Trip
Mean business when you go to the grocery store. Start by organizing your list by isle, produce first and then meats — or however your store is organized. I’ve cut my time in half by setting it up this way.
Lingering in the isles usually means you or your kids are picking up items that catch your eye but aren’t on the list. I also paperclip my coupons to the bottom of my list and “star” the item that has a coupon associated with it so I pick up the correct brand.
Plan to go grocery shopping after you’ve eaten. Nothing is worse than shopping on an empty stomach and nothing can run up your grocery bill faster when you add tempting foods to your cart you don’t need!
If you’re cooking good quality meals at home, changes are you won’t be shopping a lot in the store’s middle isles where the junk food resides — so each week as you shop you’ll notice a pattern of how you walk the isles. This will also save time and avoid putting high-calorie snacks in your cart that can also jack up your grocery bill.
Do a Little Prep and Save
Pre-cut vegetables, grated cheese, and prepackaged or precooked items are more expensive $1-3 per item. An 8-ounce block of mozzarella or cheddar cheese can come in at $4 while two 4-ounce packages of grated cheese is around $6 — for the same amount.
Just by grating it, you’ll save 2 dollars! Along with grating your own cheese, cut your own beef cubes for beef stew, slice chicken breast into chicken strips, slice your own mushrooms, grate your own carrots, and make your own coleslaw mix from red cabbage grated on a box grater.
Don’t Be Spoiled
Spoilage is the #1 reason people’s grocery bills are high, because they toss and have to re-shop, and it’s tough for people when they have incredibly busy lives.
If ground meats seem to spoil before you can cook them, don’t toss them in the freezer. Frost-bitten ground meats “meet” the trash can when you manage to clean out the freezer once a year. If you buy ground meat, beef, turkey or chicken, plan on cooking it the same night or the night after, so plan to cook your meatballs, meatloaf, tacos, or burger the first night after you shop.
If you want quick ground chicken during the week, cut a chicken breast into cubes and place it in your food processor. Pulse 10 to 15 times for ground chicken. For fresh veggies, choose long-storing items like carrots, celery, onions, bell peppers that last a week.
For delicate lettuces and baby spinach, try to cook them earlier in the week (along with your ground beef, think meatballs and salad) or tuck in a paper towel to grab any moisture that could cause them to spoil quickly.
If there is an impromptu dinner out with the family, go have your fun! But plan on cooking any extra veggies or meat that may spoil the following night to make a fast lunch out of leftovers. So if I have ground beef that needs to be cooked, but I plan on making chicken that night, I still cook the beef with spices so I can make a taco salad for lunch the next day or quesadilla the following day.