One Family's Strategies for Saving Money on Food

These tips are also useful for reducing food waste.

homemade veg pizza

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My husband always warned me that the grocery bill would start to balloon as our children grew, and though I understood it in theory, it wasn't until the past year that it really hit me just how expensive it is to feed three growing boys. They are still in elementary school, but they're shooting up like weeds and eating like bottomless pits. 

After finding myself making extra trips to the grocery store each week just to keep the fridge stocked, I've had to rethink my approach to shopping and cooking to ensure I get the most value out of the money I spend. It's too easy to throw money away on snack foods and other "convenient" groceries that disappear the moment they enter the house. The key is to shop for healthy, versatile, cheap basics that can be turned into satisfying meals. These are some of the strategies I use. 

1. Make More Soup

soup and cornbread
Black bean soup with cornbread. K Martinko

Now I understand why my own mother used to make so much soup. She had four kids to feed on a very tight food budget, and soup has a way of stretching miraculously, while also filling kids up. You can do so much with soup – make it out of vegetables, beans, lentils, pasta. Meat is optional. You can bulk it up with leftover rice or mashed potatoes, cooked grains, or canned tomatoes. I use good homemade stock and round out the meal with fresh cornbread, tea biscuits, or garlic bread, and a salad on the side.

2. Reduce the Meat

Perhaps the most dramatic cost-cutting tactic, eating vegetarian saves a significant amount of money – and is better for the planet. My family is not fully plant-based, but we're now at the point where we eat more vegetarian food than non-vegetarian – around four to five dinners a week. What has helped me here is figuring out which meatless meals are the easiest to prepare, the most filling, and the most delicious to eat, and then I repeat those on a regular basis. That's usually butter paneer, black bean burritos, pizza, mixed bean chili, lentil dal, baked beans, and Spanish potato tortillas. I find vegetarian cooking takes more work than meat, so establishing these go-to recipes has made a big difference for us.

It's also helpful to have a good selection of plant-based cookbooks to offer a steady stream of ideas. My latest addition is "The Complete Plant-Based Cookbook" by America's Test Kitchen and it's wonderful. I also bought an Instant Pot a few years ago that I love because it allows me to cook dried beans in relatively little time. (I don't always remember to pre-soak.)

3. Keep Breakfast Basic

baked oatmeal
Baked oatmeal is a breakfast staple in this household. K Martinko

It's easy to get carried away with breakfast and spend a ton of money on fancy cereals, eggs, bacon (or vegan substitutes), breads, pastries, special yogurts, and more. But breakfast is a good place to pare back and eat more simply, in the interest of saving money or reallocating it toward dinner costs. You can still fill yourself up with a bowl of oatmeal, a plate of toast with peanut butter, a serving of homemade granola mixed with plain yogurt and sliced fruit. Save the pricier treats, like maple syrup-drizzled waffles, for the weekends. 

4. Eat Simple Meals

This is a crucial point that's often overlooked in the mad rush to use coupons or take advantage of sales. Nothing will save you more money than choosing to eat simpler food – food that emulates the basic yet nutritious fare that has long fed people on tight budgets. This is partly why I stopped subscribing to food magazines, because they constantly showed pictures and recipes for fancy meals that required special ingredients and didn't stretch nearly as far as I needed them to. You can jazz up simple meals with condiments, salads, or occasional desserts. A lentil dal with a zingy mango-lime pickle on the side atop plain white rice is one of my all-time favorites.

5. Ignore Expiration Dates

It's been said many times on Treehugger and I'll say it again: Expiration dates do not mean the food has expired. As the U.S.D.A. notes, "Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law." Dates are not much more than the manufacturer's best guess about how long their food will taste its best. Instead of relying on dates, use your senses, both physical and common. In the words of a new anti-food waste campaign in the UK, "Look, smell, and taste" food before discarding. If you can use most of what you buy, you'll save money over the long term. Familiarize yourself with how to use older food. Wilted vegetables can be transformed into soups, sour milk into baked goods, stale bread into pita chips, tostadas, or crumb toppings.

To avoid getting to that point, always check the fridge for food that's nearing the end of its life and base your meal plan on that. Cook around what you have, not what you feel like eating. Don't worry – by the time you finish the dish, you'll be hungry for it. 

6. The 'One More Day' Game

Rather than racing to the grocery store because the fridge looks empty or because you're missing specific ingredients for a recipe, play what I call the "one more day" game. Avoid the grocery store for at least one more day, using what you've got instead of buying more. It's an interesting exercise in versatility and learning how to substitute ingredients. It will make you a better cook overall.

7. Make Your Own Bread

homemade bread
Homemade bread. K Martinko

If your family goes through bread as rapidly as mine does, you might want to think about making your own. I'm always surprised at how expensive loaves of bread are at the grocery store (even more so at a bakery), so if you own a bread machine or a stand mixer, it can save some significant money over time because flour and yeast are cheap. I usually try to make a double or triple batch of bread on the weekends so that we have a steady supply for breakfast toast, school lunches, and emergency snacks.

8. Have a Leftover Night

Treehugger writer Sami Grover calls it "Wing-It Wednesdays" in his house, when his family creates a meal out of whatever is in the fridge. My family doesn't have a designated night for this, but as soon as there are too many leftovers in the fridge, I pull them out of the fridge and pile them onto plates, reheating for us to eat. I also frequently eat leftovers for breakfast and lunch. The point is, not every meal has to be a properly planned meal; think of it as a way to get nutrients into your body while ensuring that perfectly good food does not go to waste. 

View Article Sources
  1. Fraser, Gary E. "The Vegetarian Advantage: Its Potential for the Health of Our Planet, Our Livestock, and Our Neighbors!Complementary Medicine Research, vol. 23, no. 2, 2016, pp. 66-68, doi:10.1159/000444902