You can afford better food: 10+ ways to get more out of your grocery budget

By on Apr 18th

I am NOT a picky eater, but I'm choosy about the food I buy. I haven't always been this way: when I first lived on my own, life was full of Pizza Hut and mac and cheese and ramen noodles and nary a vegetable in sight. I ate cheap and thought spending 50 cents on green onions was a splurge. Why spend FIFTY CENTS on an INGREDIENT when I could spend 75 cents for mac and cheese?!

The first changes in my adult eating habits happened when I read Micheal Pollan's rules for eating. That link is a LONG article, and well worth the read, but I'll summarize: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. And don't eat packaged food with more than five ingredients.

He goes on to say that if you're confused, you should stick to foods your grandmother would recognize. That's pretty simplistic, especially considering how many people I meet who think that eating healthy means spending more money. In real terms, how do you get "good" foods to fit your budget?

#1: Eat whole

The number one indicator of expensive food is this: is it processed? Are you going to the store and buying a whole pizza, a box of mac and cheese, a frozen Lean Cuisine, a deli-counter hummus? Instead of buying pre-made, pre-packaged foodstuffs, start learning to make your own pizza/pasta/egg salad/ravioli. The first few trips will sting if you have to stock up on ingredients, but once you get a pantry full of flour, sugar, salt, spices, butter, cheese, rice, you'll find your grocery bills suddenly drop. Personally, I spend that extra budgetary space on pricier goodies like SO MUCH GOAT CHEESE.

Batter Blaster is OUT. Photo by Atom Ess. Remixed under Creative Commons.

If you rely heavily on packaged food, try replacing one item at a time. Instead of buying cookies for a snack, find a citrus fruit you love and eat it to your heart's content! As long as I can find pineapple, oranges, or apples for a good price, I don't need to spend on dessert-y sweets. And I feel a lot better about over-indulging myself by eating an entire pineapple than I feel about eating a WHOLE box of cookies.

And for the love of Pete, no more stupid shortcut foods made of chemicals. Real food only!

#2: COOK!

You've got to learn to cook, if you don't know how. It'll take a while. Take it slow and simple, start with a few recipes you like, and have patience with yourself. The skills will come.

#3: Get the right tools

As you learn to cook, good tools will be an immense help. The most important tools in my kitchen are a good knife, cutting board, and rice cooker. I also love my cast iron pan like a brother — but I could live without it if I had to. These tools make my cooking experience more efficient and enjoyable, and I believe in having good tools for all jobs.

#4: Cut out HFCS

High Fructose Corn Syrup, that is. Corn syrup is still controversial, but this is the lecture which convinced me to drop it. I guess I should say…I cut back on HFCS. My rule is simple: I'm only allowed to consume it when I'm intending to eat sweets. I had to change the bread I buy, and the ketchup, and the juice, and the granola bars…It's in a LOT of food. And more often than not, it's led to my foregoing foods like jelly and bread — so again, I have more money to spend on SO MUCH LOCALLY-RAISED, GRASS-FED BEEF DOGS. Speaking of which…

#5: Eat less meat

Protein is expensive — most people know that. If you eat meat every day, try cutting it down to once or twice a week — eggs, dairy, and beans are cheaper sources of protein, so your gourmet dollars can go farther!

#6: Eat local

My best secrets are the local places I get treats. Des Moines has one of the best farmer's markets in the country, and it's just a mile from my house. This is one place where people exclaim, "I can't shop here! It's too expensive!" Friends, I assure you: It is only expensive if you're buying cakes and pies and soup mixes and Indian cutlets and vindaloo and deep fried vegetables and other on-the-go snacks. If you head to your neighborhood farmer's market with a bag, a bit of cash, and a need for eggs, greens, veggies, and local meats, you'll probably find you spend about the same as you would on a grocery store trip — but on local, organic foodstuffs. I get farm-fresh eggs from ACTUAL free-range hens who are not "vegetarian fed" for LESS than I get for eggs from "cage free" hens at Hy-Vee. Crack open one egg and you'll see the difference in the deep orangey yolks.

Local shops are also a secret boon. One of my favorite savings secrets is buying premium cheeses from Graziano Bros. — a family-owned Italian market with a killer deli counter. There, I pick up authentic parmesan that turns meals into gourmet fare — I'm effectively getting top-of-the-line cheese for about 75% of the price of lower-quality parms offered at the big groceries. While I'm there I also pick up imported olive oils, vinegars, and pastas at stupidly cheap prices. Your time looking for local food sources will be well rewarded — with money that goes father!

#7: Grow it

You ever had a really choice recipe that calls for cilantro or basil and cringed when you went to the produce department and found you have to plunk down $4 a bunch? Yeah. For less than $2, you can get enough seeds to plant YEARS worth of herbs — even in your tiny apartment. But not just herbs! Just about any vegetable will cost you less money to grow than it costs to buy each month. This is the real reason I garden: sure, I love providing my own food and knowing what goes into it, but mainly I get off on knowing I spent $12 on enough seeds to grow 20 pounds of edamame last year. Had I bought it frozen in the store, that much edamame would've cost at least $70. (By the way — 20 pounds is apparently more than I can eat in one winter! AWESOME.)

#8: Spice it up!

Invest in spices. You don't have to buy fancy spices. You can get vanilla extract if you want, and bottom-shelf cumin. Don't forget salt and pepper. There's a reason spice trade drove global exploration — that shit turns basic nourishment into a stellar meal.

#9: Form habits

Cook often. It'll keep you from wasting ingredients and get you used to freezing large portions of leftovers. You'll get better at cooking, to the point where it doesn't seem worth it to go out to eat because you can just make your killer sausage and parmesan risotto at home — and spend some of your savings on a bottle of wine to go with it! — instead. Meal planning also helps!

#10: Let your budget do the talking

Many people can't be convinced to change for their own health. If this is you, saving money might do the trick! Eating real food and cooking for yourself makes your grocery budget go much, much farther. You can spend all that extra money on ingredients for sugary confections, for all I care.

#11: From the comments

Buy in bulk. Bulk quinoa, rice, and other grains are often much cheaper than their packaged-up brothas. -Katie

Eat organ meats. There is no food that packs the nutritional punch, once for ounce, of cow liver. I can get a pound of it for less than two bucks. Beef heart can be treated just like stew meat and is cheaper than hamburger. -LXV

Don't be afraid of natural fats. Fatty meats are usually cheaper, and fat is one of the things that triggers the sense of saitey. A teaspoon of coconut oil floated on my cup of morning tea and a hardboiled egg is my usual breakfast. -also LXV

Buy what's in season. -ReadingL

Learn to make your own staples — like yogurt! -Nya

Investing in a bread machine, slow cooker, and food dehydrator makes a world of difference. -Thefluffyowl

The downside: I can't enjoy junk food any more

I started learning to cook — really learning to cook — at about age 22. Over the years I gradually weaned myself off buying boxed rices, frozen meals, and fast food. Now I am so unaccustomed to eating pre-made, packaged foodstuffs that the idea is positively un-appetizing. Except for ice cream, because it's ice cream. But when my parents come to visit bearing gifts of Wal-Mart cookies or want to pop a frozen meal in the oven, I'm more inclined to pass than to indulge. They just don't sound all that tasty.

How do you stretch your food budget? What do you ALWAYS have room for?

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About Cat Rocketship

I was the Managing Editor of Offbeat Home for a year and a half. I have a rich Internet life and also a pretty good real life. Hobbies include D&D, Twitter, and working on making our household more self-reliant. I also draw things.