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

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By: Paul SablemanCC BY 2.0
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?

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

  1. The same thing happened to me after I read Food Rules, as well as his other two books on food. This is pretty much how we eat now and it really has made me more mindful and much more appreciative of the awesome food I am getting through a variety of sources.

    I laughed at your statement about ice cream. We received an ice cream maker as a gift…I thought it was completely impractical, but after making my own gelato, I can’t bring myself to buy any of the stuff in the grocery store. It’s not nearly as good!

      • The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato & Sorbetto by FW Pearce & Danilo Zecchin. If you want to learn to make nearly authentic gelato, this book is an awesome resource. I know true Italian gelato, and these recipes are so deliciously close! It was at my public library.

      • Jenis Splendid Ice Creams is a gerat book. Not gelato, but some seriously awesome ice cream recipes. This book has ruined me on pretty much all store-bought ice cream, because these are so tasty and easy to make! (And if you live in Columbus, OH, you can visit one of her shops, but since I’ve moved this is how I get my fix)

  2. Love it!!
    We eat whole, fresh and organic, gluten free, and buy local pasture-raised meat.
    Our other (non-animal) sources of protein are quinoa (love the stuff), hempseed and buckwheat 🙂

  3. Great article! Your suggestions were the exact same ones I would have made.

    I spent a year living in an intentional community where we fed four adults with $400/mo for groceries. We ate well and often had money left over for the occasional roomie dinner out. We did it by skipping most meats, cooking from scratch (few canned/frozen goods), making enough dinner to have leftovers for lunches, gardening, avoiding store-bought sweets, and rotating kitchen duty so the cooking from scratch didn’t get tiresome. The kindness of those around us helped a bit, too.

    If you can’t imagine implementing all of the tips above, start small: cooking one meatless dinner a week or taking one community-ed cooking class. Eventually eating well will feel so good that you won’t want to go back!

    • Having someone else to cook sometimes can definitely make a difference. I only have so much creativity in me and cooking night after night tends to exhaust it until I go “Fuck it, tuna mac it is” or “Fuck it, lets just order Burger Win.”

      • Now that I do most of the household cooking on my own, the freezer is definitely my best friend. I also keep staples handy in the fridge (chopped veggies, cooked rice/pasta/grains, beans, etc.) so I can easily mix up a meal when I have no time or energy. One of my favorite quick and healthy dishes is stir-fry over brown rice or veggie-enriched pasta. If I have the grain cooked and the vegetables all sliced and ready to go it takes less than ten minutes of just throwing stuff into the wok. Other quick balanced favorites are soup, burritos, and salads.

  4. YES to farmers markets! I live within a few blocks of a year round farm stand and on my last trip bought 2 sweet onions, a red onion, a bundle of asparagus, a head of lettuce, three apples, a grapefruit, a bunch of kale, and a pound of potatoes for $11. About the same, if not less, than the grocery store but no tempting to buy other crap and the quality was WAY better.

  5. Great tips!!! We also eat as much fresh, unprocessed, organic stuff as we can. I think this really means that we waste less and eat out less.
    Two of my favorite cost-saving ways to eat – 1. Buying local meat in bulk (direct from the farmer). We bought a 1/4 of beef last fall for approx. $4/lbs. We are still working our way through it.
    2. CSA or Community Shared Agriculture – last year we were spending $100/month on a weekly GIANT box of fresh, organic veggies. We had so many tomoates that we froze and were still eating in the winter and bags of basil that we made into pesto cubes. So cheap and we are supporting young, future farmers!
    I love eating and reading this made me hungry 🙂

  6. I do many of these things! It’s difficult at times to give up the convenience or packaged foods, but it definitely makes me feel better. Gardening can be done anywhere – we have so many potted plants in our kitchen and living room, and we are raising rabbits to lower the cost of meat. Hopefully, we can eventually have a small farm!

  7. I’ve been trying (and succeeding somewhat) to eat this way for most of my adult life, and I cannot eat most processed foods, at all, anymore. They literally make me sick.

    Once you start eating real food, you’ll NEVER want to go back!

  8. Cat I’m intrigued by the Soybeans. How much space did it take you to grow them and are they vining?

    I would also like to add that an earlier post by Helen Jane about meal planning adds to the budget cut and the healthier eating by like times 80. I love this idea and the weeks I actually remember to do it (and not ignore the alerts on my calendar every Sunday to) I cut my grocery bill by about 50% and the times I go to the store by about 70%.

    So that post combined with the above article should lead to all kinds of ass-kicking meals at basement prices.

    • THANK YOU for the HJ link. I’ll incorporate that!

      I run four 4×8 square foot gardens and a long terrace…so I’d say about 64 square feet of beans. I devote a lot to beans. But when we were doing a community garden plot it was about eight square feet of beans — two four foot rows. It was a respectable harvest that yielded enough for the winter, too.

      They do not vine! They’re freestanding plants. They’re not terribly picky about where they’re grown, other than wanting full sun. Bonus: they fix nitrogen in the soil. OH and I have a whole post on growing them running next week!

      • Can’t wait to read this article! Soybeans aren’t routinely grown in my area, so I might not even find seeds where I live, but this is a topic I’m looking forward to read.

  9. The biggest way we stretch our budget is by eating less meat – it’s typically a once-or-twice-a-week thing. What REALLY helps us with eating less meat is cooking vegetarian dishes from vegetarian cultures. It’s much more appetizing (and adventurous!) to cook up a vegetarian Thai curry than to make spaghetti and meatless balls or something. I like meat, so trying to imitate it, rather than make something without it, makes me feel sad and poor. And no one wants that!

    • I live in a remote community where the meats I grew up with (chicken, beef, etc.) are only available as freezer-burned, nasty-pants, factory-farmed packs that look so bad in the store I can’t bring myself to buy (let alone eat) them. Although we’ve started introducing more local seafood into our diet, I have never been a seafood person, so this is a very slowwwwww process. For now, the result is that we eat almost no meat! We compensate with lots of eggs (which are kindof icky – not particularly fresh, of questionable origin – but I don’t mind it so much from eggs as I do from meat). Anyway. Food is EXTREMELY expensive here. We spend about double what we did when living in a large urban centre. Luckily, the frugal shopping principles that kept me down to $65/week for 2 adults in the city are now able to keep our bills low enough here that we can save some grocery money to place high-quality food orders with a fancy meat shop or organic food store and get it shipped to us. It’s not the farmer’s market, but it’ll have to do!

  10. Another tip which I would add in, is learning to can your own food. Its hard work, but it cuts down on cost like crazy over the winter and you can still eat locally and on the cheap. My husband and I made salsas, tomato sauces, canned tomatoes, applesauce, pickled beans, etc etc. All from our own produce (and my in-laws crabapple tree), it helped extend our home grown food in a very wintery climate. We knew exactly what was in everything, and we got rid of all the nasty perservatives in bought food.

    It also made great gifts for people. This year I’m planning on canning a lot more than I did last year since I am a lot more experienced now.

    • Also, freezing stuff! How did it take me until this year to realize the wonder that is my freezer? I buy fresh fruit and veggies when they go on sale, then freeze for smoothies, pies, casseroles, soups, and stir-frys later.

    • Canning is a great social event. Everyone brings their own produce and canning supplies, gathers in someone’s large kitchen, and chats while processing cans. You can swap surplus goods for more variety in your own kitchen.

  11. Yes! All these tips are so true!!! The only problem is getting my mom to understand that I don’t find fast food a treat anymore. She always wants to visit and get fast foods because she’s too impatient to wait for me to cook. She thinks she’s doing us a favor, no matter how many times I tell her that the food gives me the shits!

  12. The actual list is awesome. I’ve been thinking about submitting an article on number 8 but could never get enough to say. But seriously, even the most bland foods are improved by having spices handy. For example cheese on toast is ‘meh’. Cheese on toast + black pepper, oragano and paprika is awesome. (Suprisingly mace works too.)

    I have to say though the advice to only eat what your grandmother would recognise depends hugely on your grandmother. My grandmother could have been the poster child for bland, tradition “meat and 2 veg” cooking. My mum didn’t even know curry was a thing until she met my dad. And I could not live like that. (She was also a big fan of frozen ready meals.)

    Similarly the thing about not eating food with more than 5 ingedients does not work with curry, or most asian food and I couldn’t live without it.

    Finally I know what you, and everyone else who says this means, but I can’t help pointing out (because it really bothers me for some reason) that everything is made from chemicals. Not just food. Everything. Either it’s made from chemicals, it’s pure energy like light, or it doesn’t exist. And I don’t recommend eating pure energy or things that don’t exist.

    • I think the “no more than five ingredients” rule was meant to apply only to pre-made store-bought things, not recipes. If I recall correctly, anyhow .. it’s been over a year since I read Food Rules!

    • YES on “chemicals”. Funny, because that’s one of my pet peeves. :p

      And YES! More than five ingredients is COMPLETELY FINE for anything that’s not a packaged food.

  13. All of this is so spot-on! It’s how my husband and I eat fantastic food while on a shoestring budget, and also have money left over for occasionally entertaining and serving high-end, tasty party food. Except for the Grandma comment. Danikat’s Grandma sounds an awful lot like mine!

  14. I’d also add “shop at a small(er) market” to that list. I do almost all of my shopping at a small, locally-owned grocer that doesn’t stock ANY major commercial brands – only generics and natural/organic/local. I can’t explain why, but with fewer options I end up buying less junk and spending less money overall.

  15. I’d add buy what’s in season (somewhere). For example, strawberries aren’t in season where I live yet, but they are a bit further south. And they’re way cheaper, and tastier, than in, say, November.

  16. As a person who ate leftover Easter candy for breakfast, this post is timely and helpful.

    My favorite whole food money saver is home made veggie stock. It’s cheap, preservative-free and way lower on sodium than store-bought. I freeze it by cups and I also pour some in ice cube trays so I have a little bit to add flavor to things. Also, it makes the house smell delicious all day when I make it. 🙂

  17. Just an addition, and I know its not for everybody, but hunting is a great way to supplement protein. My FH bow hunted a buck this season and we have had venison steaks, sausage, and ground venison for nearly 6 months. Deer tag and butcher costs basically worked out to $1 per pound, and its lean, natural, and delicious. Plus helping to control population, and there are plenty of uses for the skin, bones, and tallow!

    • YES! We live in rural Virginia, where hunting whitetail deer is a common way to bulk up your meat supply for the year, and a necessity for population control. Venison stew with garden veggies is my favorite, but you can do almost anything with venison. We also eat buffalo here, and it’s a very lean meat, but harder to find & more expensive. Another idea – if you enjoy fishing, get a license, and catch your own trout from a local stream. They are served as a delicacy in most restaurants but are a staple for many families who fish. Plus, it’s a fun day to spend with your family. Wild turkey is another meat that my family hunts for themselves.

  18. I like the HFCS rule, because sometimes I just want some damn peanut butter cups.

    Also, the bit about not eating things your grandmother wouldn’t recognize is hilarious to me, because one grandmother’s idea of cooking is buying a rotisserie chicken and microwaving some potatoes, and the other grandmother is a farmer’s wife who’s idea of cooking is either frying things in butter or boiling them until they’re all a uniform shade of bleh.

    I love them, mind you, I just wouldn’t want them in charge of my diet.

    • Perhaps great grandmothers would be better – my great grandmother lived in Poland with no electricity and no running water, chopping wood for the fire and fetching water from the well well into her nineties. That generation is probably the one to look to for health and food information since they didn’t have so many conveniences!

    • I totally second that. Both my grandmothers hail from Austria and Eastern Europe and their cooking is fabulous – but really heavy on meat, lard, gravy sauces, fried stuff, soups and stews, potatoes and cabbage being the vegetable of choice. I do prefer a more balanced and creative diet – and sushi, which they wouldn’t recognize either 😉

  19. 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.

    Don’t be afraid of (nature-occuring) 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.

    “the other grandmother is a farmer’s wife who’s idea of cooking is either frying things in butter..”
    lol, I can’t speak for the farmer’s wives in your family, but in mine they’re pushing 90 and still re-shingling their own roofs. (My great-grandma used to tell me to punch her in the stomach; the lady had rock hard abs.) And forget butter, they cook everything in bacon grease.

    Personally, I interpret “eat like your grandmother” to mean “eat like all of our grandmothers did,” not just my own. (because yeah, I do have a grandparent who will boil spaghetti for 30 minutes and then top it with ketchup because spaghetti sauce is too spicy.) I’ve got no issues eating my grandma’s steak and onions recipe, or eating like the grandmas of some of my german, indian, irish, italian, or scottish friends.

    (I mean this all in good, friendly humor Bird. We’ve all got to find the way of eating that works best.)

    • Bacon grease is a really tasty way to cook certain foods, such as scrambled or fried eggs, homemade potato chips, or hash (potatos, leftover roast beef, onions, parsley, salt, pepper). It might seem a bit odd at first, but why waste the grease if you are cooking bacon? It’s more flavorful than butter or oil and as long as you don’t cook everything in it, it won’t hurt you.

  20. Great article! I’ve read Pollan’s books and similar titles and changed my habits instantly. While I still love cheap food (hi there $58,000 a year college tuition) I try and do whole grain/local/green etc. Currently growing plants on my balcony- tomato, basil, cilantro, spearmint 🙂

  21. Buy from the bulk bins at Whole Foods or your local natural foods store. Quinoa in bulk is so much cheaper than the box of quinoa. Same goes for beans, nuts, etc. Bulk spices are also so much cheaper than the jars of spices!

  22. Pizza! We’ve started making big batches of pizza dough and sauce (and sometimes pre-grating mozzarella cheese) and keeping the extras in single-use portions in the freezer. Take it out to thaw a few hours before, add whatever toppings you have around, and presto! Way cheaper and better, and often faster, than delivery, which has completely lost its appeal.

  23. Learn to make your own yogurt: eas-peasy and so cheap. Here 400g of yogurt cost roughly $3.50, while you can make 1 kilo for less than $1.50. It’s also better for the environnement as the plastic of the yogurt cup cannot always be recycled.

    I would also add: cut on the grocery shopping time. We go the supermarket once a month to stock up dry pasta, rice… and go to the farmer’s market once a week for vegetables. This way, we hardly waste any thing (I am very serious about not letting food rot – it breaks my heart everytime) and we learn to make the most of whatever food we have in store rather than simply buy food every other day.

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