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. Spices at Graziano’s are crazy cheap too. There are a few spices (like paprika) that are totally worth splurging on the expensive high quality versions. LOVE Offbeat Home!

  2. Comparison shopping is a good way to save money. Every week I go through the grocery fliers and compare sales-this lets me save money on staples like bread and cheese and chicken. I choose one grocery store for the week based on the best sales, and then meal plan from there. Meal planning also helps reduce my grocery budget, and forces me to be creative with my food. Roast chicken on sunday means sandwiches, stir-fries, or soup later on. Extra veggies mean a big pot of minestrone. I love multi-use meals.

  3. Not sure if this has been said, didn’t read through all the comments ( sorry!) But investing in a bread machine, slow cooker and food dehydrator makes a world of difference too! I’ve also found shopping at the farmer markets when they are open helps you save lots too 🙂

  4. Love this post! <3

    Lately, I've made the switch to making 80% of our meals home-made to help out with my food allergies. Stuff that I'm allergic to (like blue cheese, sweet potato and pears) seems to pop up in nearly everything pre-made. So, it
    s healthier, less allergens and cheaper. Woot!

    Question though, I really want to try out a yummy version of quinoa… but every time I've had it, it turned out really bland and taste-less. Any suggestions for a yummy way of making it?

    • I second the coconut milk.

      My deal with quinoa (and I eat it all the time because although I have nothing I’d consider an intolerance, most other food staples make me feel vaguely ill)is to pair it with things that have strong flavours, because they balance out nicely. Like capers, sundried tomato, green peppercorns, fresh fish. And you can go crazy with any herbs and spices you like. I’m also addicted to quinoa-spinach combinations, though those can be quite bland if you don’t get creative with them.

  5. #11. Skip the high-priced cereal and eat oatmeal. Way cheaper price per pound, especially if you source large bags in bulk.

    #12. Mix up/make your own cleaners.

    #13. Find your local bread bakery and buy day-old bread loves for super cheap and stock them up in your freezer. Here in Portland, this is The Healthy Bread store and the bread costs $1.50/loaf.

    • Don’t skip cereal altogether–learn to make your own granola! Buy tiny quantities of expensive flavor additions (like dried blueberries or macadamia nuts) from bulk bins, and you come out with a much cheaper and more nutritious cereal than anything you’d buy in a box.

  6. Fantastic article, especially for someone just starting their food buying. The whole idea of grocery budgets is super scary to future college graduate me, but this does make it seem a lot less scary. Especially since I’m a Des Moines girl and the farmer market is my favorite place to go when I’m back from school. I just never realized how awesome it is. And I too was in the “this is too expensive” camp but I’ll try to keep your advice in mind. Hopefully when I move back to town it won’t be too tempting. (Big hopeful there)

      • I pay $7/dozen for eggs at the farmers market too, because they are pasture raised and completely worth it. Considering the number of meals we can get out of a dozen eggs, they are still an awesome, relatively inexpensive protein. Land is expensive here (Southern California), as is the organic feed and the movable hen houses. The same farm also supplies the chicken and rabbit we eat.

        I usually buy a dozen for $7 from the one farm, and then a second dozen for $5 from another, older and more established farm. They don’t do the full traveling pasture thing for their chickens, but they are truly free-range.

        You can get eggs for less at the same market from caged chickens (who are treated humanely but fed exclusively feed), but I’ve tried them and they aren’t much better than grocery store eggs. Not even as good as the free range organic eggs from TJ’s. The $3.50 eggs were the first ones I tried, because hello, I don’t just *want* to pay more. But my husband and I both didn’t think they were worth it and went back to buying TJ’s organic eggs for $4+ a dozen until new vendors came to our farmers market.

  7. I hate seeing eggs labeled as “vegetarian fed chickens”. WTF?! If a chicken is allowed to be, well, a chicken it will scratch around and eat pretty much whatever it can fit in its beak. I’ve seen them consume everything from multitudes of insects to small frogs. Besides a variety of seeds and whatever other plants chickens enjoy. Amongst other things it’s small wonder that grocery store eggs are that pale sunny yellow rather than the eye searing orange of an actual free range chicken. Viva le farmers market! (apparently today is a soap box kind of day. Ha.)


  8. The only “issue” I would have with this is that I honestly don’t have time to cook. I go to school full time and work 45+ hours a week on my feet. My feet are in so much pain at the end of the day and I’m so hungry when I get home that I can’t deal with standing in the kitchen for half an hour or more to mix ingredients and wait for them to cook. Therefore, my diet consists mostly of stir-fry, pasta and microwavable foods. I do snack on raw carrots, but it doesn’t really make up for the junk I eat the rest of the time. Any ideas?

    • In the time it takes to cook stir fry, pasta, or microwaved dinners, you can totally make something yourself instead: Fresh rice! Eggs! Sauteed vegetables! Sandwiches! When I’m home alone, nothing I make takes more than 10 minutes, cause I’m laaaaaazeeeee.

      But this is even simpler: get a rice cooker. Cook rice with water, soy sauce or salt to taste, some frozen veggies if you’re feeling fancy (peas are great, and cook through well), and whatever else you want to throw in — set it to cook. It’ll take three minutes to set up, and then you can clean or shower or change clothes while it cooks.

    • Develop a tolerance for eating the same thing all week. I like to cook in large batches. I will take an hour or two on the weekend or one evening and make a big pot of something and eat it all week for dinner.

      For breakfast I crack an egg in a frying pan and go get dressed, make the bed, etc. It is done when I get back.

      Lunch is either sandwiches or dinner leftovers.

    • A slow cooker is my best friend when I’m working and studying 80+ hours a week. When I get home I just want to shove food in face and then bed. It’s lovely when there’s something cheap and wholesome that’s been cooking itself.

  9. In the store, “vegetarian fed chickens” just means that they’re eating grains. While chickens are naturally omnivorous, regular eggs come from chickens that have been fed powdered and chemically altered chicken feathers. No lie. While I’m okay with chickens eating worms and toads, I’d rather they not be fed feathers, which are not a chicken food. At least grain is.

    And to “Pixy” – I hear you. There are about a million egg recipes and they cook awfully fast. And you should make friends with the salad and the sandwich. I get a huge box of salad greens once per week. Then you can top it with a) a seared steak, b) throw some cheese and ceasar salad dressing and make a roll up, c) tuna salad d) chickpeas fried in a little olive oil with indian spices, etc. All of those can be made in 5 minutes.

    And a sandwich doesn’t have to be american cheese between 2 slices of white bread – ham apple and gruyere is amazing. Spinach, tomato and fresh mozzarella is great too. Roast beef and soft cheese and any number of veggies. Instead of frozen fries, buy premade polenta, slice it, and broil it for 5 minutes. I bet you could easily make a weeks worth of meals that take no more than 8 minutes, and then you can start experimenting. Good luck!

  10. Pressure cookers are amazing for cooking things such as dried beans and brown rice which otherwise take ages and loads of gas on the hob. Also great for stocks (lovely clear stock because the water doesn’t bubble) and cooking the cheaper cuts of meat. I was lucky enough to be given one for a birthday and it has really improved my diet, i’m now including all the things that I wasn’t organised enough to wait to cook in the past.

  11. We so do this (well, mostly–definitely dip into the occasional pre-made chicken kiev on occasion) And I totally agree with the bit about pre-packaged food starts to seem unappetizing once you’ve been cooking from scratch for awhile. Also, rock on Des Moines, Iowa!! I grew up in the Hawkeye State and I always feel a little thrill when I see great things coming from there. 🙂

  12. Another benefit to buying oats in bulk, beyond oatmeal, is you can toss the oats into a food processor or coffee grinder and voila, oat flour!

    You can bake with, put it in recipes that call for flour ( like cream sauces, or anything that needs to be thickened), and the only real difference is it produces a slightly sweeter taste. I use this in a tomato soup recipe of mine that is dairy free, to help thicken it and add a sweet creamy flavour.

  13. bringing this post back to life!
    me and my wife are really trying to eat this way, she has an incredible amount of food and chemical sensitivities and there is so much out in the grocery stores that make her feel like shit!
    i know it will be really hard to eat less meat for both of us, we usually have meat every day. chicken, beef and a big one, BACON!!! (we eat that A LOT!)
    what are some good, filling recipes to try out that will help us cut down on meats? (no shellfish, soy, dairy, ug i can’t think of any of the other allergies/sensitivities that she has right now… its to late at night!) thanks for your help!

  14. I guess the biggest thing is to shop around. I live near an Aldi across the road from a big box supermarket. I go to Aldi first and get all my dry goods and usually I can get 80% of my shopping done there. Then I visit the supermarket and get the rest. It’s a hassle to take extra trips but I’m saving a lot of money this way.

    I feel ‘locked in’ if I’ve made huge batches of meals. Instead I make sure I have meal components that go really well together. This week I had salad, cooked fish fillets, wraps and lamb mince. I just ate a lamb burrito and last night I had a fish salad.

    I find that prepping everything when I get home from shopping works best for me. This time around I cooked my mince, the fish fillets, diced some chicken breast into single serve portions for stirfrys and tossed the salad greens. Sure it took a while to fuss around in the kitchen but now everything is preportioned in tupperware in my fridge.

    So easy.

  15. This is a very interesting article with great tips.

    I moved out of my parents house and in together with my boyfriend a little over one and a half years ago. Especially in the beginning, when our money was tight and we had to buy so many things for our new household, I bought a lot of processed food. Not the really processed food like a microwave meal or frozen mac’n’cheese, but the packages that require you to add fresh ingredients and mix those with pre-made herb mixes and sauce mixes. Cooking culture here in The Netherlands is not nearly as poor as the American eating culture is made out to be, but we still have a lot of pre-packed crap for sale as well. I also stocked up on goods to downsize the bills when pre-packed food was on sale, but since about half a year ago we decided to alter out eating habits b/c we weren’t happy with the salt and sugar loaded crap we were consuming. I still buy food that has a long shelf life in bulks, but everything else we eat is fresh and unprocessed. We also decided to have a flexetarian lifestyle and eat less meat per serving on the days we do eat meat. We feel so much better now.

  16. I can’t believe this isn’t on here – COUPON the staples you do buy like rice and grains and non-HCFS bread. Arnold is a good brand that coupons once a quarter or so. Stack a coupon on a sale price to help stock up on things like bread, pasta, rice. It takes some time and practice, but it has really helped to trim our spending budget and I’m at the grocery store less often. Just buying meats and veggies in bulk every other month or so, and grocery store for ongoing needs. I have focused most of my couponing at Harris Teeter – sign up for your store deals and grab a Sunday paper each week, clipping only the coupons for products you know you’d want to use. Check out online products.
    Even if you don’t coupon, stock up when there are sales, or check the weekly store circular for $ off. Also look in to apps like ibotta for rebates on groceries, even whole foods and non-brand specific items.
    I have a small house, but the tiny stockpile helps in a few ways. I don’t overspend on constant trips to the store, I check the stock to see what we have before I get more, and we have more whole grain pasta and Horizon mac n cheese than you can shake a stick at. And you know, paying less for items that can stay in my pantry forever so I can have an expensive cheese occasionally.

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