There's a Trick to Saving Money on Groceries

Public Domain. Pixabay – Pasta and bean soup

Eat simpler food.

Articles on reducing grocery costs are a dime a dozen. You can find them all over the Internet (on TreeHugger, too, probably written by me) and most contain the same tried-and-true advice, such as 'Don't shop when you're hungry' and 'Stock up on pantry basics when they go on sale.' This is good advice, but what has become apparent to me in recent months is that no amount of deal-hunting will save you as much money as eating simpler food.

This is not something that most people want to hear, least of all my food-obsessed self. We want to enjoy our hoisin-glazed chicken satays, our cheesy lasagnas, our char-grilled burgers with Caesar salad on the side. But the fact is that elaborate cooking of any kind, delicious though it may be, is expensive. As soon as the ingredient list reaches a certain length and calls for items that are not readily available in your pantry, nor frequently used, the grocery bill starts to climb.

On weeks when I am serious about slashing my family's grocery costs, I select recipes from cookbooks and websites that are focused on reducing cost, and I tell my husband to get ready for a week of simple eating. A few go-to sources are the old classic More with Less cookbook, The Complete Canadian Living Cookbook (with has a symbol at the top for cost-saving recipes), and Budget Bytes. I think of peasant food and the sorts of things people ate in different countries in the past; those are the sorts of basic, cheap, repetitive, yet hearty meals I'm striving for.

So, we end up eating things like homemade bean-vegetable soup, lentil dal, vegetable fried rice, huevos rancheros or omelets (the idea is to have an egg-based breakfast food for dinner), bean quesadillas, rice noodles with peanut sauce and tofu, pasta with tomato sauce, boiled frozen vegetables, a Spanish egg-potato tortilla. Kids' snacks are limited to bread with peanut butter and whatever fruit is cheapest (usually apples, if it's not summer). Breakfast is oatmeal.

I snack on peanut butter instead of almond, put milk in my coffee instead of cream, and mix plain Balkan-style yogurt into my granola instead of luscious Greek yogurt. I use apple cider vinegar in salad dressing instead of balsamic (that is, if I buy lettuce, which depends on its price).

I skip the expensive nuts and nut butters, cream, cheese, meat, cereals, yogurts, chocolate, butter, imported fruit, baguettes, tortilla chips and salsa, crackers, granola bars, juice concentrates, and pre-made hummus that I sometimes buy for convenience. And you know what? We survive. We do just fine.

The problem is that many of these fancier foods can be justified as healthy, and so they find their way into my shopping cart far too often, without undergoing the level of scrutiny that a less-healthy ingredient would. And yet, they're not essential, and certainly do not need to be purchased on a weekly basis. I can make do without them and save $50-$75 a week if I focus on buying just what we truly need.

A focus on simple eating and cooking does a number of things: It saves you money, but it also makes you more inclined to cook dinner from scratch because the recipes are short and easy. Even if it's not something you want to do every week, adopting a frugal week once a month can only help your wallet or your waistline. Give it a try.