How to Save Money on Groceries
Food is Expensive!
Sounds silly, but I have to say, "Food is expensive." Restrictively so for our household lately. The cost of beef, salmon, chicken and even pork has gone up about $2 in the past year. Even lamb, imported frozen from New Zealand has jumped up dramatically - nearly $20 for what used to cost me $9!!!. And, the fresh stuff? Well, that just isn't in the stores anymore at all. We don't eat pork because it makes us ill, but we haven't had lamb (our favourite) in almost 2 years simply due to the price. Frozen salmon is a luxury that we "splurge" on. And, just recently beef has become so expensive that when it goes on sale, we've been known to buy 4 or 5 roasts to cut up and freeze ... if the quality is acceptable. Most times, the beef which is supposedly fresh that day has a brown-green tinge to it *GAG* and we have to pass. We've been reduced to buying tubes of ground beef or chicken from the frozen section (4 lbs for $10) for most of our meat consumption.
We've jokingly discussed become vegetarians, but that will never happen. We're omnivores through and through. We've both experienced the lack of energy, fuzzy thinking and overall "BLAH" feeling when we go without meat protein, even when properly substituted with other proteins and a rounded diet. It's just not for us.
Besides which, the price increase has affected every section of the grocery stores - especially anything that is actually healthy. Broccoli which used to cost us 90¢ is now $2.99. Mushrooms went from 99¢ to $3.29. Fresh fruit?!? Well, that's a quality issue. Much of it is either so green when it's been picked that it's still bitter when it's supposedly ready for eating or so badly damaged/rotted that we can't justify buying it. There's always a celebration when we find quality food items at a decent price.
Most shopping trips, my husband and I fight back panic attacks at the check out, because the total for four bags of essential groceries is often $80 or more where we used to be able to walk out with all our basics for under $30. With our first child starting to eat adult food and another baby only a few weeks away, I some times worry that I might not be able to feed my family nutritious meals by this time next year if food prices don't get under control. I can understand why, throughout history, the wealthy ones were the ones that lived the longest and healthiest lives. Affordability and access to decent quality food makes a huge difference in a person's well-being.
Lessons from the Past
Both my husband and I went through some serious poverty before we met. We often marvel at how our experiences paralleled each other and look back at those horrible times with our ex-spouses with a surprisingly grateful eye. We both learned so much, especially when it comes to properly handling money and making a little bit go a long way. This includes food.
Years ago, one of my cousins remarked, "You're a miracle worker!" She couldn't figure out how I afforded to have meat on the menu every day. She usually fed her kids fast and simple meals that were heavy on either pasta or potatoes (ie. hash, stews or stovetop casseroles) that had very little nutrition to them. Yet when they were with me, I made sure that there was always meat protein of some kind in the meals, despite how financially crippled we were. She also marvelled that I could feed 2 adults and 3 children with one box of Mac n Cheese or 2 packages of instant noodles. Finally, she asked me to teach her my "secrets" and what I shared with her back then is still the foundation of how my husband and I manage our meals today.
The "Secrets" to Making Food go Further
Make Your Purchase Count
Buy as much for as little as you can when shopping, especially if it can be frozen or canned. Find the sales and get to them before they get picked over by other shoppers. If you can't get to the sales, get to a store that will "match or beat" their competitors. Then, stock up. As stated above, when our local grocery store has roasts on sale, we make sure to buy as many as we can afford to.
Two things that help with this:
1) An emergency fund envelope. No matter how small our income is, we find ways to make sure money ends up in that envelope at least once a month. Sometimes it's under $5, but we make sure to add more money every chance we get. Some simple ways of doing this are:
- Instead of buying a "treat", put the money it would have cost into the envelope;
- Taking our change from shopping and putting in the envelope (eg. if we spent $16 and had to break two $10 bills or a $20, we take the $4 change and put it aside);
- When a monthly bill is smaller than expected, we put the difference aside.
It doesn't seem like a big deal, but you'd be surprised at how quickly the money in your emergency envelope adds up with just these few ideas.
2) A chest freezer (energy efficient, of course). Ours isn't very big, however it fits much more than the little one that is part of our refrigerator and our family is still small. Eventually, we will have to get a bigger one, but for now, the one we have works. The benefit of a chest freezer is that you can slowly build up a cache of food for those times when sales or quality foods are scarce.
For families on a budget, this can seem like a daunting thing to get. Find one second-hand if you have to. There are many local sale sites online, such as Craigslist and Kijiji. Lately, I've discovered local "Yard Sale" groups on Facebook which have been generally a good experience.
Another way to make your purchase count is to find generic brands of your usual food (ie. PC or No Name brands). Even though a lot of frugal mommy sites tout the benefits of using coupons, I found that brand name items are still more expensive than generic even after coupon discounts. Plus, the time spent hunting for coupons for brands we actually use can be better spent doing other things.
Go for Quality
Quality isn't always reflected in the price of an item. I've paid full price for a package of meat only to get it home and discover that it was rotten on the underside. Always inspect your meats, fruits and veggies closely to make sure there are no signs of rot or damage. Even if you freeze meat that's starting to slightly turn, there is no guarantee that it will still be edible by the time you pull it out to use it.
Don't take chances and don't be afraid to man-handle the food a bit. Squeeze your fruits and veggies to make sure they're the right consistency. Thump your gourds and melons. Pry apart the meat through the wrapping (carefully!) to make sure the meat is still fresh underneath or between the connective tissues. If it isn't good quality, walk away. Better to not spend the money at that store for those items than to make the purchase and then have to throw out rotten food. You might as well simply go flush your cash down the toilet if your food ends up in the trash.
Oh, and a side note on that: If you discover your food isn't up to par when you get it home and open it up - take it back for a refund or exchange!! Don't let your local grocery store get away with poor quality food! Make them look at it. Let them smell it. If they're a repeat offender - tell them you'll stop shopping there and why. Some store owners are actually unaware that the people in charge of ordering or the companies they order from aren't giving customers the best. If they improve, stay loyal. If they don't, go elsewhere.
Also, if you can find a local butcher, give them a visit. You can usually get decent quality for good prices at a butcher shop or local farmer. Some will even negotiate special deals if you buy in larger quantities and bring repeat business.
Cut Food Smaller
It's a trick that a lot of restaurants use and it works. As much as we all like big chunks of meat, mushrooms, etc. in our pasta sauce, you can make the food go further if you cut them into smaller pieces. Not too small. You don't want to feel short-changed or unsatisfied because food pieces are too small to taste. Just slightly smaller. For example, I slice my mushrooms so they're about half a centimetre thick (approx. .20 inches). This way, they're a good size to soak up the flavours of the meal. Then, I cut them in half length-wise (top to bottom) so they disperse more through the dish. Even though it's technically the same amount of mushroom, smaller pieces mean the mushroom will be enjoyed with every bite instead of every 3 bites.
This goes for cheese as well. Instead of slicing your brick of cheese for sandwiches, shred it. By using the smaller holes on your cheese grater, you get a finer shred which can be spread further. In this case, less is more. This also a good tip for getting your cheese top go further on nachos, burgers, tacos and any recipe that requires cheese.
Use More ingredients
Anyone who's complained about "filler", is familiar with this technique: Use more ingredients than you normally would. Sounds counter-inutitive, but this is one of my key secrets to making a meal feed more people for less money. Now, I'm not saying to double the amount used. I mean use more variety in the same small quantities - preferably of something that you were able to stock up on during a sale and things that naturally go a long way in a meal.
For example, a basic stir-fry might call for a chicken breast, 3 mushrooms and a quarter of a red pepper. I also include 3 broccoli florets cut into smaller pieces, one green onion and half a tomato. Those few additions mean that you can reasonably feed one extra person.
Make Use of Pre-Packaged Foods
Remember when I said I could feed 2 adults and 3 children with one box of Mac n Cheese? Now you have an idea of how it can be done. Before food allergies cropped up in our household, I was a rock star at using packages of instant noodles, generic brand macaroni and cheese, and raw wanton wraps to feed several people at once or a couple people for many meals.
Let's go back to that stir-fry example. Instant noodles, such as Ramen or Mr. Noodle, are quick and easy to make: Open the package, dump into hot water and let it soak for 2-3 minutes. Depending on your preference, you can add the flavour packet to the water and have soup or drain the noodles, sprinkle the seasoning on top and stir. This is great for a single person looking for quick bite, but it doesn't go very far and it isn't really healthy.
To make a real meal of that one package, take a single chicken breast and the rest of the ingredients I mention above. Remember to cut them fairly small (but not too small) so that they go a long way ...
- Fry the meat and veggies, using about half of the flavour packet to season with;
- Boil a half pot of water, snap the noodles in quarters (to make them go further in the meal), toss them in to boil for 2-3 minutes, and drain;
- Once the meat and veggies are cooked, add the noodles, sprinkle with the rest of the seasoning packet, and mix thoroughly;
- Remove from heat and let sit covered for a few minutes to let the flavours soak in.
(For a more detailed instructions and photos, you can visit my Wiggly Noodle Stir-Fry recipe.)
That's it. Suddenly with a handful of veggies and one chicken breast, you've created a healthy and tasty meal for two for under $5. Add another packet of noodles, a few slices of veggies and a second breast - Voila! You have a meal for 4 for under $10.
You can do the same with a generic box of mac n cheese. While the noodles are cooking, take a second pot and brown a pound of ground beef, a green onion and 2-4 mushrooms (depending on size). Make the Mac n Cheese the same as you normally would, then add the beef medley to it and mix thoroughly. Again, I suggest letting it sit for a few minutes before serving to give the flavours time to properly combine. Just like that, you have a healthy, inexpensive meal that can feed 4 adults.
By using these types of pre-packaged helpers, you save yourself the cost of fancy seasonings, expensive sauces, etc.
You Can Do It!
That's pretty much it. My big secrets are now laid bare for other families to use to help your groceries go further each month while still eating nutritiously.
Do you have more suggestions? Please, share them in the comment section below!
© 2013 Rosa Marchisella