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5 Ways To Cut Down On Food Costs

Gourmet Meal Made With Local, Seasonal, and Homegrown Ingredients

We’re feeling the crunch – are you? When I’m shopping lately, I see different things in other people’s baskets – more basic foods and less superfluous foods. Higher end restaurants are feeling the financial crunch, taking advantage of happy hours is the new ‘in’ thing.

I wrote the following article a year ago at the soon-to-be-offline Creating Edible Landscape. It still seems very relevant, so I thought I’d share it with all you new readers here.

5 Ways We Cut Down On Food Costs

The following five changes include a double bottom line to food costs: costs to your pocketbook and costs to the environment and society. Some of these may be obvious, some may not. And whether obvious or not, hopefully this list will help you stick to doing them!

1. Buy in bulk. Rice, pasta, flour, oats and other grains, raisins, tea, coffee, soaps… a lot of daily items are available in bulk. Your regular grocery chain may not have very many of these items in bulk, so you might want to branch out and look at a store that does. We buy many bulk items at our local produce stand, several at our independent grocery store, and a few at our local health food store.

There are also a few products I still buy online. When I do buy online, I make sure to buy enough supplies for several months. The product is often discounted this way, and I pay less shipping charges in the long run. Not to mention fewer gas-guzzling trips UPS has to make to get it here.

My rule of thumb is that if we can handle it in our budget, we should invest in more now in order to save later. So, if I know I’m going to use a product in the future, and it has a long shelf life, I will buy a bigger amount. White vinegar, for example – we use it for cleaning, so I know we’ll go through a large bottle eventually. A large bottle will save packaging, and it will be cheaper than buying several smaller bottles over time.

2. Eat seasonally and locally. This is sometimes tricky, because our regular grocery stores have done their best to make all sorts of things available to us from all over the world. And some seasonal items are counter-intuitive. I had to convince my husband once that citrus really is in season in the winter. To him, fruit = summer. Generally true, but there are exceptions.

Our local independent grocery store puts local, seasonal foods right up front in the produce section (or even at the door as you walk into the store). Your store may do that as well. There is usually an abundance of whatever is seasonal, and often they are on sale. Here is a great link to find out what’s available in your area – enter your state and the month, and it will tell you what’s in season! The BBC has an awesome chart here, with some seasonal recipes here.

When you eat locally and seasonally, you cut out a lot of the processing, transporting, refrigeration and storage, and nasty preservatives. And instead you preserve the nutrients, the flavor, the environment, the local economy, and generally, some of your money.

3. Eat less meat and cheese. The bottom line is: meat that is good for you (and good for the environment) is expensive. I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years, and I’m not asking you to go cold tofurkey here. I eased my way into eating less meat over a year or two, by gradually phasing it out. For a long time I let myself eat my favorite meat dishes. Gradually, even eating those favorites seemed weird to me, and eventually it was easy to stop. But I digress. All I’m saying for now is to eat less meat.

If you’re worried about your protein intake, make sure to eat whole grains – which you’ve bought in bulk, of course! Also, beans are a great source of protein, and they are quite inexpensive. (Please see these posts by Crunchy Chicken and Chile Chews, for further information about beans.) But you don’t have to eat just beans – even vegetables contain surprising amounts of protein!

And, the second part of this is sooooo difficult for me, because I love cheese. But good-for-you organic cheese is really getting expensive. I do want to start making cheese, and cost will be a good motivation. But in the meantime, I am going to start eating less cheese.

4. Stop Eating Out. You’re tired, you’ve had a long day, the kids are past hungry and so are you. But it’s not good for either of you to eat out. Neither physically or economically. And I’ve found that eating out (particularly fast food) is sometimes more stressful, too!

So make sure you have some easy recipes in your repertoire. We eat a lot of pasta with simple tomato sauces and a side salad. Or roasted veggies with some quick cooking couscous. Taco night can be quite easy: open a can of beans, throw some tortillas in the toaster oven, grate some cheese and cut up a few veggies…. I’ve been encouraged by some of our readers here to write up some more recipes, so I plan to do that.

I try to keep in mind that eating out rarely saves much time. The time it takes to get to a restaurant, order, and settle down and eat – and then get back in the car and come home – is about the same as the time it takes to whip up a quick dinner at home and eat together around the table. And it’s more nutritious, tastes better, costs less, and is easier on the environment.

And the pleasure can be equally good, if not better. The photo at the top of this article is of a dish Matt and I sometimes treat ourselves to: fresh butternut squash raviolis from a local shop, sage from our window box garden, and mushrooms from a local farmer. A gloriously satisfying meal that costs around $5 for the two of us! It’s a nice treat, to be sure, at a fraction of the cost of eating the same meal out, and it only takes about 15 minutes to cook.

5. Junk the Junk Food. We eat junk food for the same reasons we eat out: because it seems easier at the time. And sometimes because it’s a treat (don’t forget it’s a short-lived treat!). Even the health food store junk food is generally quite processed, full of empty calories, highly packaged, and ounce per ounce quite expensive.

Junk food counts as “stuff” in my book, and I’ve vowed to stop buying stuff. My money can be put to much better use.

If you’re used to having a lot of junk food around the house, it won’t be easy to cut it out all at once. Particularly if you have kids. But slowly begin to cut back, phase it out, one by one, bit by bit. If your kids need a snack, feed them a whole grain snack, a fruit or a vegetable. They need these things to grow and stay healthy – they absolutely don’t need junk food.

Extra Credit:

6. Consume less alcohol. Better for your pocketbook, better for your figure, better for the environment. I know some of us need a drink occasionally to unwind, but just try to drink a little more sparingly.

What Else?

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19 comments to 5 Ways To Cut Down On Food Costs

  • Yeah! I got 100%. For those of you who have some work to do, never fear. It may look daunting at first, but before you know it, you’ll be saving money (and the environment) without any extra effort. I promise!

    One more thing to add. Growing some of your own veggies and herbs can really cut costs and you don’t need a lot of space. Sure, it’s nice if you have a big sunny backyard to work with, but growing your own is possible even in apartment life. Just assemble a container garden – herbs grow well inside; and if you have a porch, try growing tomatoes in a large bucket:

  • Good tips these- I keep thinking I should do a Meatless Wednesday chalenge on my blog- or any day of the week- I read somewhere, thhe green book I think, that if every american abstained from eating meat one meal a week it would have the same effect as shutting down a million cars or something like that. I have been trying to have one day a week meatless. which is hard, as I eat lunch at my mom’s almost every day, and she is kind of like Aunt Voula in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when Toula tells her her husband to be is a vegetarian- doesn’t eat meat-Aunt Voula: “What do you mean he don’t eat no meat? [the entire room stops, in shock] Oh, that’s okay. I make lamb.”
    As far as buying in bulk, I go to Costco. It is close to me at work. I also buy gasoline from costco. Beans. In bulk. How many pinto beans can you have on hand??? I buy my rice at the Used food Store(Grocery Outlet). Big enough bags to put in jars and vacuum pack. As far as drinking Alcohol, I don’t and it is not goof for others either. If they worked as hard on alchoholism as they do cigarette smokers in this country I would then be impressed. But as long as congress has their martini lunches it will never happen.

  • I made chevre a couple weeks ago for the first time (got distracted and forgot to blog about it)! It was super easy and turned out great. I’m going to try mozzarella or cream cheese tomorrow.

    Your list is right on target Melinda.

  • Citrus really is a winter food, huh? That really throws me off. I guess Mother Nature had to provide some way for people to get their fruit in winter! I probably should know this, since my family has an orange tree in the backyard, but I never really paid attention to what time of year it was when we had the gigantic bags of oranges to give away. I just focused on the “give away” part, as I was never a big orange eater.

    Starting to change that! There are so many clementines and oranges and mandarins in the stores right now. I wonder if Germany is better at eating local than we are. It’s too bad I don’t have more time here to figure it out!

    I have a question for everyone: Has anyone reading this tried making their own dried fruit? In summer I love eating berries and fruit with breakfast because it’s so good, but in winter I won’t buy berries (and I haven’t even pledged to eat seasonally…). I’m a little wary of commercial dried fruit, because of all the preservatives that could be put in them, and raisins. I hate raisins and they seem to be everywhere dried fruit related. But is it possible and easy to dry your own fruit in the summer to eat in winter so that you keep eating fruit?

  • These are important things to think about. Unfortunately we do all of them and still have incredibly high grocery costs :( But we will keep trying!

  • Good tips- we’ve been doing all of them for a number of years, and they soon become automatic. Here are a couple more- I do “big” cooking once a week, usually on Sundays. I make some kind of meat dish that will serve us for at least 3 meals, and a big pot of something else that will serve us for several meals. The pot of something else- chili, soup, stew, whatever, will either be flavored with meat (meat not the focus) or vegetarian. I started this because my husband has always worked evenings- this way he had food to take with him.

    In the summer I dry, can and freeze everything that is local and in season- it’s cheaper and I don’t have to worry about where it came from or how it is processed. Usually you can find classes on all of these methods of preservation at your local County Extension Center.

    I use a purchasing hierarchy when I buy any food, starting at the top and moving down:
    1) grow it myself (I live in the suburbs and have a small garden but even a tomato plant in a pot can produce well for you.)
    2) buy it from a local farmer
    3) buy it from a farmer’s market
    4) buy it from a locally owned, independent store
    5) buy it from a local chain
    6) buy it from a national chain whose ethics match mine
    7) buy it online.

    It may seem more expensive in the short run not to shop at the Big Box Stores, but investing in your community pays off in the end.


  • Great reminders!

    I personally do not care for the buy in bulk philosophy as I seriously do not have the space for it with nine humans in a small house and them not even having enough closet or shelf space; but I do buy specific staples in bulk like rice and dried beans and we do keep 5 gallon bottles of water for drinking with and enough on hand for emergencies as well–these stay in the garage to be lugged in when needed. I suppose I could add a few items to that listed–but space is our issue: I have to live in an aesthetically please and uncluttered environment, not just a well stocked and practical one. I am a visual person.

    And the link to see what is growing seasonally in our area is not working–do you have a site name to be Googled? I am very interested in this :-) And it always amazes me how resourceful you are!!!!

  • Di

    great tips, all of which we’re doing, although we did eat out a few times this week. I too recommend the growing your own, love my freedom garden!

    Also yep citrus is in season in winter, our citrus trees are loaded right now and it’s blooming again!

  • Shawna, Whoops – sorry the link wasn’t working for the NRDC site – it’s working now!

    You are so right, Heather & Di – growing your own food should definitely be on this list! Heather, there is a low-income housing apartment complex down the street from us – they have the most amazing bucket garden! Great link.

    Stephanie – dried fruit is quite easy to make. The easiest way is to buy an electric dehydrator (they are very low energy). You literally stick fruit in the dehydrator and a couple days later it’s dry. Or if you live in a sunny location, you can dehydrate in the sun.

    Willo, We have fairly high costs as well – overall food is getting more expensive. I guess the other thing to do is reduce other costs so that you can spend money buying good food. Afterall, it’s what makes our bodies tick!

    Rob, Great idea to have a Meatless Wednesday – I bet a lot of people would be interested!

    Deb G, Amazing how easy it is to make cheese. We don’t do it enough here. Last year we went though a phase of having homemade bread topped with homemade cheese and homemade meyer lemon marmalade for breakfast. Wow that was good!

  • I’d add “buy direct from farmers when you can” (through CSAs or from farm gate shops) and “trade your surplus with neighbours”.

    Around here, organic free range eggs in the shops cost $8-$11 a doz. The freerange backyard eggs, which are unofficially organic, cost $4 a doz. Which is cheaper than the big commercial cage eggs.

    We’ve been budgeting more carefully, so that we know where the money is going. We were pleased to come in under budget this month. I think. We’re still getting the hang of keeping receipts and keeping track of the market budget.

    If you don’t want to cut out alcohol all together, but you want to spend less on it, you can try brewing your own beer. We also buy wine by the dozen from wineries.

  • Great list! We rarely eat out and when we do it is when out of town and at a restaurant that has several healthy choices. When we are going to be on the road, I bring stainless steel water bottles and pack snacks – a meal for 6 people is too much for me to plan out at this point. =)
    I would like to be able to buy more in bulk than we do and will begin by seeking out places other than Walmart that may carry the items we use. Living in a very rural location makes that challenging and a one a month trip. =)
    We do make a point of buying eggs and anything we are not growing from local producers.
    Great list!

  • Erin

    I am so inspired right now! And hungry!
    I have some great meatless recipes that are quick and easy and good for you. My husband is a diabetic and so we are always searching for healthier, lower carb ways to eat. These are 2 of our favorites:
    Veggie Skillet (I adapted this from a cook book about 7 years ago)
    In your skillet, lay a small layer of brown rice with enough water to cook it. TUrn on the fire and begin to simmer. Layer the rice with beans and veggies. We do a layer of pinto beans, a layer of green beans, some times some asparagus (it’s really up to you what you want to add), a layer of stewed (or fresh) tomatoes, a layer of corn, a layer of carrots, some onions and garlic, and then simmer it. Cook until the rice is ready (not the veggies- they can stay as crisp as you like and be added late). Add any herbs and spices that sound tasty and tempting. Lemon wedges and rosemary are always great. When the skillet is cooked, toss a few slivered almonds on top, and if you have it, a few sprinkles of cheese. Great in a tortilla or by itself, and VERY filling.

    SWEET Potato Fries
    Cut a few sweet potatoes (yams work too) into slivers (ours look like chunky steak fries). Toss in a large baggie (wash and reuse). Add a small bit of olive oil, pepper, Mrs. Dash lemon pepper, garlic, onion, etc (season to taste). Shake up until all fries are coated. Bake on a sheet (either greased or use a piece of aluminum) for around an hour at 350 – 375. Flip after about half an hour. You can smell when they are done! THey should be tender to the fork!

    Sweet potato tacos
    On the stove top, cook cubed sweet potatoes (or yams) in a drizzle of olive oil with onion and garlic and 1 chopped up anaheim chile. After about 10 minutes, add half a jar of your favorite salsa (i love southwest versions with beans and corn and all sorts of yummies inside). Simmer until potatoes are fully cooked. YOu will need to stir and flip them to keep the bottoms from burning. They should look like a reddish chunky mash. Serve in a tortilla with your favorite taco fixings!

    Last one:
    The snack bag
    I have about 30 single serving bags in my fridge with carrots. It’s great with peanut butter (the kind that is just peanuts- no salt, no preservatives, and def. no sugar). And it’s cheaper than jars like Skippy. It’s a flavor change, but it’s worth it- and your food has so much more flavor when you rid yourself of that stuff. Baby steps! I started with peanut butter. =)
    I also have single serving bags with dried cranberries or white grapes and nuts. Each bag is one serving and very filling. If I have this available, then we reach for it instead of making toast or searching for a quick edible fix. It’s healthy, it’s ready to go, and it fills us up.

    BTW, I love this site and all the tips that people add. It has been so useful and I only found it two weeks ago!

  • Great tips! These fall under the category of “duh!” Because as soon as you read it you hit yourself in the forehead and say… well… you get the idea. We’re pretty good on this point but we still gleaned a couple of great reminders and ideas from this. Thanks!

  • Food storage works too. We’re keeping ahead of food price increases by buying food in bulk when on special and storing for months ahead.

    I’ve noticed huge price rises recently – but we’re still eating rice (for example) at 2008 prices, simply because we bought it in bulk then.

    If you do this, it pays to buy and indelible marker to mark packaging with the date of purchase and best before dates. I also keep a tracking database, so I know what I have in stock and food doesn’t get wasted by going out of date.

    I’m guessing I’ve saved hundreds of dollars by buying for storage :-)

  • I think this topic is going to be relevant for quite a while. You make a lot of good points. We like to eat out once a week but aren’t doing it any more. I like having a break from my own scene. But the truth is that most of my home cooked food is better than food we can get out anyway.

    I want some of that ravioli now.

  • We’ve been on a health journey for over a year now as a family – it’s been great! Not only was losing a bunch of weight fantastic but being able to run on a treadmill for the first time in my life was a thrill I can’t explain to anyone but myself. My wife and I were both at risk for diabetes the closer we got to 60 (which is still a long way off as I’m 34). What I love about this article is that the first thing we changed was our diet (insulin resistence) and in doing so we ended up doing a lot of these things by default!

    As for the meat thing, we don’t eat much cheese already, but we did locate a beef farmer not far from where we live who practically treats his cows like children. They actually eat what cows were designed to eat – grass and leaves, not corn or animal byproducts! As a family of 4 we are buying 1/4 of a cow for the year for $400 cut an packaged as desired. Not only is that not expensive but the quality of the meat is so far above what you will get at the grocer, and in at the health food store, that it warrants a note to the expense of meat mentioned above.

    I’m glad you are vegan and enjoy it, we were too about 10 years ago, but didn’t enjoy it. For those who would prefer to cut back more responsibly maybe finding a local producer like this farmer we found would be a better alternative.

  • Dustwing

    One note on the alcohol thing- it actually doesnt have to be expensive.
    Let me rephrase that- it doesnt have to SUCK to be economical. How so?


    I’m serious, try it- not only do you have complete control over what you’re drinking, it’s a soul nourishing thing and cheap to boot. 1g glass carboys arent too hard to find containing apple juice in places like Whole Foods, etc, and you can literally cultivate your own wild yeast out of thin air, add it to the carboy, install an airlock (just a drilled rubber bung and a plastic device, the combo runs 4$ at any local homebrew store and it reusable), set it and forget it, and then, hard cider :) Reuse the container again and again for small batches of wine, mead, beer, even soda and extract making.

    I know several homebrewers who will make wine from their extra tomatoes and onions, the result tastes like a bloody mary and is amazing for cooking. Essentially though you can ferment anything with a sugar content, and the process really is easy and fun :) I have a few large carboys (3 and 7 gallons respectively) but I’ve been finding the smaller ones are awesome for “what if?” batches. Currently I have a hibiscus/wild cherry bark/rose petal mead with Arrowroot honey, a black currant mead with wildflower honey, a champagne and a couple ciders. When Sea Grapes come back into fruit, I have another container waiting so I can go scavenge the otherwise ignored ‘ornamental’ fruit growing here and there and make a white wine from it :)

  • Kate

    I love the idea of home brewing and have made my own mead, but have yet to delve into more complicated recipes. Thanks for these inspiring suggestions, Dustwing!

    I was with you on this list except for the eat less meat. There are a lot of ways to use “lesser” cuts of meat to make delicious meals and still get your valuable animal protein source. Just last week I slow cooked a piece of beef brisket and got 5 amazing meals out if it. I have found chicken liver to be wonderful (when made into a creamy pate) and I have taken to making my own turkey sausage (at half the price) to avoid unwanted ingredients found in many commercial brands.
    Purchasing a whole chicken, rather than already processed parts of the bird is cheaper and you can often get a few meals out of it by using the carcass for soup at the end. Soup stocks have a high nutritional value and the best ones are made with the “throw away parts” of the animal.

  • These are really healthy advice! I would add gardening.

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