25 Frugal Food Changes You Can Make Today
We've all heard about the rapidly rising cost of food lately. From corn to soy to dairy, our wallets are getting hit harder than usual during those weekly trips to the grocery store. So what's a dedicated frugalista to do to avoid busting her budget during these tough economic times? Why, I'm so glad you asked! I've come up with a list of 25 easy changes you can make today to keep your food budget down and your savings account up. (See also: 25 Healthy Changes You Can Make Today)
Make Your Own
Make-at-home versions of virtually anything are less expensive than pre-packaged, store-bought goods. The trick is to practice making your own food so it becomes quick and easy over time. Here are my favorite DIY alternatives to store-bought goods.
1. Salad Dressing
I actually prefer salad dressing made at home. My favorite standby is three parts extra virgin olive oil and one part red wine vinegar with various spices and garlic mixed in. Or, make your own favorite dressing or vinaigrette with the help of Allrecipes.
2. Bread Crumbs
Bread crumbs are easy to make and are a great way to use stale bread or crusts left behind by picky eaters. Simply pop the bread into a food processor, blender, or (my favorite “As Seen on TV” product) the Magic Bullet. Bread crumbs are handy for making meatloaf and meatballs, or dredging chicken or fish in before frying.
Like bread crumbs, croutons are an excellent way to use stale bread. In my little two-person household, we rarely use a whole loaf of bread in a week. The excess (when I’m not in need of bread crumbs), is cut into one-inch squares, topped with olive oil and spices, and placed in a 300°F oven for about 30 minutes (stir them about halfway through). Store in an air-tight container. Bonus — try making rosemary and butter croutons. De-licious! (For even more uses, see 17 Uses for Stale Bread.)
4. Tortilla Chips
Use extra flour tortillas to make tasty baked chips. Put your own spin on the chips by adding dried cilantro, cumin, or red pepper. Or, as an alternative, use left-over pita pockets to make pita chips.
5. Soup Stock
Soup stock is a perfect base to homemade soup (see #25 for ways to save by making soup), and you can make it out of the bones of just about any animal (chicken, fish, veal, turkey) and mirepoix — onions, carrots, celery, and sometimes other vegetables. Learn how to make different types of stock with these recipes from the Food Network. Just freeze bones and/or vegetables until you’ve accumulated all the ingredients, and you’re set. I love making stock on a Sunday afternoon while doing other chores around the house.
Buying granola in stores is generally pretty pricey, but fortunately, you can make your own for breakfast and quick snacks. The easiest recipe I’ve found so far involves only five ingredients — rolled oats, brown sugar, salt, vanilla, and nuts — although you can add in dried fruit and other items too.
7. Grind Your Own Coffee
This one is possibly the easiest change to make of all the frugal changes on the list. Ground coffee can be marked up to 30% more than whole bean versions, making it worth your while to grind your own coffee at home. (Not to mention the superior taste afforded by grinding your own beans.) I simply pop the coffee beans in my Magic Bullet (when not using it to make bread crumbs, of course) and grind away. For those of you without a grinder or Magic Bullet, consider investing in a basic blade grinder. It should run you less than $15 at any major grocery store chain.
8. Start a Garden
Make your own vegetables and herbs by growing them in a backyard garden. Start with the vegetables and herbs you use the most — in my case, just one tomato plant, green pepper plant, and some herbs will do for this year. If you’ve never tried out your green thumb, get started with some advice from the National Garden Association.
Some dietary changes are good for your wallet. Some are good for your health. And then there are those delightful few that are good for both. Here are my favorite frugal and healthy food changes you can make today.
9. Go Meat Free
No, I’m not suggesting you become a vegetarian permanently if you’re not one already (although you could also save money if you choose to go that route). I am recommending that you try incorporating one meat-free dinner a week into your routine. What I’m suggesting is nothing new — the Meatless Monday campaign was started in the U.S. in 2003 and by April of 2011, the American Meat Institute found that 18% of Americans regularly participate in Meatless Monday. Not only can it be argued that eating a vegetarian dinner once per week is healthy for individuals and healthy for the planet; it can also help save on groceries, since meat is one of the most expensive proteins you can buy.
10. Try One New Protein You've Never Tried Before
While you’re at it, why not incorporate other sources of protein into your diet on a regular basis? According to the Mayo Clinic, people who eat a more plant-centered diet normally eat fewer calories and less fat, weigh less, and have lower cholesterol levels. They also save money, since protein sources like eggs, tofu, and beans cost less per-ounce than meat.
11. Eat What’s in Season
Eating fruits and vegetables during their natural growing season saves you money because those peaches you love don’t have to be transported halfway around the world! Not only that, but they are more packed with vitamins and nutrients (also due to less required travel and storage time) and they taste better, too. Check out this handy list of fresh fruits and vegetables by the month.
12. Cut Back on Processed Foods and Snacks
Those 100-calorie snack packs sure are convenient, but that convenience will cost you. For the most nutritious (and cost-effective) snacks, cut up fruits and veggies at the beginning of each week, divide into single portions, and store. If you just don’t want to sacrifice your daily Goldfish, buy a large package and divide into sandwich baggies to save over 30% of the cost on the single-serving packages.
Grocery Shopping Tips
The key to making frugal food changes at the grocery store is to plan, plan, plan! Unless you absolutely have to, you should avoid last-minute trips to the store at all costs. For when you have the luxury of time, here’s how I would use it to help minimize your food costs.
13. Shop with a List (and on a Full Stomach)
Sure, we’ve all heard this one before, but it bears repeating — shopping with a list helps you to avoid impulse buys, and so does shopping when you’re not a voracious bear. I plan a week of meals before going to the store and prepare my list (and stomach) accordingly.
14. Store Food Correctly to Help It Last Longer
Minimize food waste by storing your food correctly, whether it be in the freezer or fridge. Lifehacker has an excellent guide to storing food to get you started.
15. Shop the Sales
OK, people can get a bit obsessed with learning stores’ sales cycles and matching them up with coupons, but if you’re like me, you don’t have the time (or motivation). Instead, I make my grocery list and then choose the sale version of whatever I need. If you happen to see a pretty outrageous sales price, consider buying enough of that item to last you about three months (if possible) — that’s the general sales cycle for the majority of grocery store products.
16. Buy Store Brands
There is some debate as to whether shoppers save more money by buying brand-name items with a coupon or by buying store brands. The verdict is clear on store brands vs. name brands, however — as FreeMoneyFinance points out in several posts, you can always save a bundle by going with generic.
17. Shop With Coupons
…but only if you’re buying things you needed anyway. None of that Extreme Couponing nonsense where you have to store toilet paper in the bedroom, please.
18. Don’t Waste Money on “Deals”
If you save money on an item, but nobody wants to eat it, are you really saving money? This one seems to be a no-brainer, but it took me a while to catch on. Case in point — my fiancé does not like bread that is not pre-sliced. He says unsliced bakery loaves fall apart when he tries to slice them up for sandwiches. So even though it’s a bit more expensive, I buy the pre-sliced loaves of bakery bread. Lesson learned.
19. Shop in Your Own Pantry
Is your pantry and fridge full of random items that you need to use up, but you aren’t quite sure how? Use a site like RecipePuppy to plan meals based on what you already have at home.
Make Your Grocery Dollars Go Further
Use economies of scale to stretch your grocery dollars today. Only two people in your household? No problem! These tips apply no matter how many mouths you have to feed.
20. Buy Meat on Sale
OK, this goes with tip #14 (Shop the Sales) too, but it applies doubly for meat. Meat is one of the most expensive grocery items, per ounce, that you buy each week. If at all possible, buy your meat on sale. In fact, I plan my whole week’s meals based on what meat is on sale that week. The best day I have found to shop is, unsurprisingly, the day the specials in store circulars start (Thursday in my particular area).
21. Make Two Batches at Once
In my little household, we save money by making two or more batches of meals at once and freezing the extras. Lasagnas, soups, stews, and enchiladas are just a few of the easy-to-freeze meals I make in bulk.
22. Don’t Let Food Spoil
If you have some fruits or vegetables that are thisclose to spoiled, but have absolutely no way to use them up before they go bad, go ahead and slice them up anyway. Then, just pop them in the freezer until you need them. I always seem to have those last few stalks of celery that are beginning to droop in my crisper drawer — rather than throwing them out, I cut them into slices and freeze until I have all the ingredients to make chicken stock (see tip #5!). I also freeze extra fruit for smoothies and pies and dice surplus onion for, well, anything.
23. Brown Bag Your Lunch
I always re-purpose the previous night’s dinner for lunch the next day. For example, after enjoying some spaghetti and meatballs, I’ll set aside a few extra meatballs and sauce for a delicious meatball sub at work tomorrow.
24. Substitute Frozen, Canned, or Dried
Using one of these alternatives to fresh food generally provides the same nutrients at a lower cost. Furthermore, you can usually save any excess after using what you need, thereby minimizing waste. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also save money by buying fresh food in bulk and canning your own fruits and vegetables.
25. Make Soup. Lots of Soup
Soup is one of the most versatile dishes in the world: it can be cream-based or broth-based, vegetarian or full of meat, and it can accommodate just about any vegetable known to man. It is also, happily, quite cost-effective. I love making soup on the weekends from leftovers throughout the week: chicken and wild rice, turkey, and potatoes with ham are a few of my favorite leftover soup specials.