Save Money and Eat Better With a 7-Step Food Budget
OK, confession time: I usually eat rather crappy food at home, and I love to go out to restaurants. However, I've started really looking at how much money I'm spending on food, especially because I'm always suggesting the USDA food budget (PDF) to my clients in my day job. I decided to try that budget myself. Based on the changes I had to make and what I learned, here's my advice for saving money by cooking at home. (See also: How to Find Time for Home Cooking)
1. Take an Inventory and Plan Your Meals
The first step is to use this helpful food calculator to plan for how many meals you could realistically eat at home (because we all like to eat out sometimes, and there is nothing wrong with that). Next, make a list of the staples currently in your pantry and build on them. Most likely you have pasta hiding in there and a can or two of tomatoes. Try to build off what you already have before you buy more. (See also: Best Cooking Apps to Manage Meals)
2. Buy Fresh, Local Produce
Go for fresh, local produce rather than grocery store produce from God knows where. And I know, when you hear the words “Farmers Market” you automatically think everything will be too expensive. But think about this: at a farmers market, the food probably came straight from the source only an hour or so away. At a grocery store, the food might have come from a country far away and be a week or more old by the time it reaches your plate. And whether or not the farmer's market is an option, use this guide to extend the shelf life of your food from wherever you bought it. (See also: What NOT to Buy at a Farmers Market)
3. Buy Staples in Bulk
If you have a big family, this is a great way to save money. A friend of mine was recently a victim of the recession — she lost her job through layoffs, lost her house through foreclosure, and was forced to go on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for a few months. She has three children, two with diabetes and one with asthma, and times got tough. She said the only way she made it through it was with a Costco membership. So when you're planning out your staples, make sure you save at a big store. Just note that if you're single, buying in bulk can be a bad idea if what you're buying has an expiration date.
4. Organize Your Pantry
My parents often have the trouble of canned or boxed food expiring before they use it. It's not that they're wasteful; it's just that their pantry is too deep and hard to see into. If you have this problem, check out some ideas from the Container Store or Ikea websites (I don't mean buy them, but they can inspire great ideas) and dig around on "organize kitchen" on Pinterest. The Squawkfox has a helpful chart. And never put something with a short shelf life in the pantry. Always keep it out on the counter to remind you to use it. (See also: How to Organize Your Pantry)
5. Stop Buying So Much Junk Food
After a strict week of no extra spending, I binged — I hopped into the grocery store and purchased ice cream, fun-sized candy bars, Oreos, and Little Debbies. I then walked into my apartment and smacked myself in the forehead. I am a believer that chocolate can heal you, so you shouldn't give it up completely, but buying four different kinds of chocolate at once will not make you feel better. Instead, try allowing yourself on treat per week.
6. Don't Bore Yourself
My biggest problem is that because I make the same meals so often, I usually get bored. I can only eat so many rice dishes, pasta, and frozen meals. And I love all kinds of fun and tasty food, so when I just make the same things over and over, it makes me want to eat out more. So, make sure you keep it interesting; certain flavorful foods can go a long way — ginger, garlic, basic veggies, spices. Experiment and have fun. Eating Well has some great suggestions and the USDA's website (down while the government funding lapse continues — Ed.) helps you build cookbooks and recipes based on ingredients.
7. Save, Save, Save!
Okay, I don't mean eat gruel every night and skip breakfast. I mean, really try your best to not overspend on food you don't need. I've read many articles and talked to many clients in my day job about how they grew up poor and now want to make up for that for their family. I completely understand, but if you make more money than you need to spend, save! Spending it to prove you can will not help you in the long run — and saving will help cover you in case you encounter an emergency like losing your job.
What steps do you take to save on food?