Back to school has always meant back to reality… this year especially, because it sure doesn’t look like the economy is going to get better any time soon.
Mama’s family loves to eat… and eat well (I know, I brought that upon myself)… so I’ve got some tips on how to save a few bucks when you’re food shopping. I’m sure you know the most basic rule: Don’t go grocery shopping hungry. Now, if you are serious about cutting back on your grocery budget… keep reading.
1. STOP EATING OUT AND START COOKING MORE. I know a lot of you loath cooking. You’d rather clean the bathroom grout with a toothbrush than make dinner. But if you cook one dish every day (and I don’t mean oatmeal in the microwave), you’ll save money and probably have leftovers for another meal. Make protein-rich quinoa. Eat it hot one evening and as a salad the next day (or the day after). I know this is a reach, but on the weekends double up on something else that you are preparing. Roast two chickens or two top sirloin steaks. That way you’ll have extra for later in the week. If you do something like this every day, you’ll never be forced to make an entire meal from scratch.
2. SHOP YOUR KITCHEN. Before you go to the grocery store, shop in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Assess what you have and what you really need. Use the things that have been sitting there for a while. That bag of beans? Pull them out and start soaking them immediately. Those cans of diced tomatoes? Make a simple sauce for pasta. Frozen chicken? Thaw it for tomorrow’s dinner (hmm… maybe serve it with the tomato sauce and pasta).
3. MAKE LISTS. You’ve gone through your kitchen and you know what you need… so start a list. In fact, start two lists. Why two lists? Because you shouldn’t buy everything in one store. LIST 1 is for the grocery store, LIST 2 is for the big box discount store like Sam’s Club, Target or Costco. I actually keep these lists taped to one of my cabinets so everyone can add what we need (if you just used the last box of tissue… put it on the list!). I know it’s a pain in the rear to go from store to store, and sometimes it doesn’t make sense, depending on where you live. But IF it’s possible (and you aren’t just being lazy), try it out… you’ll save a lot of money.
- List 1: Only food. Real food with one or two ingredients. Not processed food with 14 ingredients. Exception! Condiments, canned tomatoes, bags (not cans) of beans, frozen veggies and juice concentrate.
- List 2: Non-perishables that you use (and use up) regularly: paper products (towels, plates, cups, napkins, tissues, toilet paper); storage products (re-sealable plastic bags, foil, plastic wrap, wax paper); cleaning items (dish detergent, fabric softener, floor cleaner, bathroom cleaner, kitchen cleaner). Perishables that you use so often they won’t go bad or rancid (cooking oils, sugar, coffee). Don’t buy those massive jars of dried herbs and spices… they have a short shelf life. Spice blends are usually loaded with salt or sugar, so beware of those, too.
4. MEAL PLANS. These lists always encourage you to “plan your meals for a week.” For me, that’s always been a bunch of hooey… life gets in the way. But if you have at least two or three meals tentatively mapped out (even in your head), you can go to the store and buy exactly WHAT you need and not what you THINK you MIGHT need. You’ll also be less likely to make impulse purchases.
5. TO COUPON OR NOT TO COUPON? I’m all for clipping coupons and using them for the things that you really need. But most coupons are for processed food and crap you shouldn’t be eating anyway. When there is a coupon for, say, eggs or spinach, clip it and use it.
6. BUY IN SEASON. You know it’s foolish to buy a $6 dollar pint of blueberries in February (unless you live below the equator). Tomatoes bought in the dead of winter are going to taste exactly like that: The Dead of Winter. As tempting as those strawberries may look in January… they aren’t going to taste like they do in July. Don’t waste your money. Need a berry fix? Buy frozen.
7. SKIP THE PRE-COOKED, PRE-GRATED, PRE-PEELED. These are invariably more expensive and loaded with extra ingredients. Shredding your own cheese will take a little extra time, but it will save you money. Fruit that is peeled and packaged in those plastic clamshells is usually twice as expensive as the same items a few feet away that’ll just need a quick rinse when you get home.
8. EXAMINE YOUR SOUL. While you are shopping, think: Do I really need this or do I just want it? Are you just rewarding yourself? Sometimes we see things in the grocery store and we think, “Wow! If I buy this and that, I can make that great recipe I read about last week.” Except you know you won’t. Pull up your big boy pants and keep walking.
9. WATCH WHAT YOU DRINK. I’m talking about everything from bottled water, to juice boxes to that boxed wine you buy every week. The price of this stuff really hits home… not just in the wallet but environmentally, too (I should know… you should see my recycle bin).
10. SOMETHING YOU SHOULD DO, BUT I DON’T. These lists always tell you to look for the store brand or the generic because it costs a lot to market brand-name products (and you end up paying for it). Sometimes I buy the store brand, but sometimes I don’t. I can’t tell you why. Maybe I’ve always had a thing for Paul Newman (those eyes!), but it probably has more to do with knowing that a particular product tastes good and delivers consistent quality.
We all want what is best for our families. I would love to buy only organic and shop only at the chi-chi specialty markets that line-catch every fish and hand-harvest every carrot. Do what you can with the resources that are available to you… that’ll be the biggest reality check. In the long run, that kind of attitude will pay off huge for you and your family.