How I Plan to Stick to a Grocery Budget This Year

CC BY 2.0. Chun Kit To

When it comes to spending, food is my greatness weakness, which is why I need to establish better parameters.

One of my New Year's resolutions is to maintain a strict weekly grocery budget. Because I love to cook and eat good food, grocery shopping is where I tend to spend the most money. I get easily seduced by fun, exotic ingredients and mouthwatering recipes, but this predictably results in a bloated grocery bill. So, this year I will be shopping much more purposefully, paying close attention to the ingredients that have the biggest effect on cost.

(Already I do not purchase much in the way of processed, packaged foods or snacks, nor any sweetened beverages; but if you do, and are interested in reducing what you spend on groceries, this would be a good place to start.)

Here's what my new approach entails:

More frozen food: Bags of frozen peas, corn, green beans, and cauliflower can be bought in large quantities at very reasonable prices. They often go on sale. The supermarket where I shop even has huge bags of "imperfect" frozen berries for sale, which are nearly 50 percent cheaper than the regular berries. The great thing about frozen vegetables is that they can last for months and are always on hand for a last-minute recipe. For special occasions, I'll buy frozen juice concentrates, rather than fresh.

Beans, beans, and more beans: We already eat a bean-based meal, soaked and cooked from dried form, at least once a week, but I want to do a better job of stocking cans of pre-cooked beans in the pantry for emergency dinners. These often go on sale in bulk, but in the past I haven't bought them in large quantities; now I will, stockpiling in the basement if necessary. Cans of chickpeas are good for filling out curries where I've used minimal meat, such as lamb curry, or adding bulk to a Thai red curry with tofu. Beans can be blended for a quick vegetarian lunch spread or appetizer (white bean puree on baguette).

Get away from brand names: Many products have a marked-up price just because of their brand name. I intend to do a better job of looking at generic brands, rather than reaching for the one I'm most familiar with. Initially, this will require some research because generic brands may have longer, sketchier ingredient lists than brand names, e.g. coconut milk.

Shop zero-waste at the bulk store: I've been pleased to discover that certain foods, including almond and peanut butters, coconut oil, and ground spices, are significantly cheaper when purchased at my local Bulk Barn store. For example, a 250mL glass jar filled with ground coriander costs $5, whereas an amount half that size in plastic packaging is $6 at the supermarket.

Less out-of-season produce: I'm fairly good with this already, but want to be even more diligent. Of course, living in Canada means there is, quite literally, nothing but snow in season right now, but I can focus on purchasing foods that were in season most recently (fall produce, such as squash, potatoes, apples) and those imported the least distance (from the U.S., as opposed to Chile and South Africa) -- unless they're on the clearance rack.

Check the clearance rack first: In my grocery store, the clearance rack is located at the far end of the produce section, which is quite cunning. By the time people reach it, they've already stocked up on more expensive 'perfect' produce. I want to make it a habit to visit the clearance rack first thing. There's always a ton of bread on the bakery clearance rack, 50 percent off; I buy multiple bags of sliced artisanal loaves and bagels to keep in the freezer for kids' lunches and breakfast toast.

Less meat: In recent months I've enjoyed experimenting with more meat substitutes and will continue doing so, cooking with tempeh, tofu, paneer, seitan, firm cheese like paneer and halloumi, and, of course, the aforementioned beans. It helps to make a menu plan using vegan and vegetarian cookbooks.

Sticking to the pantry: Perhaps the most significant shift is my resolution to cook with what I have. This is something my mother always did, living in the bush with only once-weekly access to the grocery store. She made do with what was on hand and was a master of substitution. I, on the other hand, have the temptation of a huge store just minutes away, which makes it easy to dash out for a few ingredients, inevitably turning into a bigger shop. I want to focus on 'making do.' I'll dig out my very dated yet budget-friendly cookbook, "More With Less," to help with cooking simple meals.

How do you approach saving money on groceries?