101 ways to stretch your food dollars
By Valerie Phillips
Food prices are going up. But here are lots of ways — 101 of them — to shave off pennies, dimes and dollars from your food costs.
Not every tip fits every situation. A vat-size container of salad dressing is cheaper per ounce, but not if it sits in a single person’s fridge for months on end. Remember, the most expensive food you can buy is the food that goes to waste.
Before you go
- For a week, track what your family actually spends on food. Don’t forget to include work lunches, restaurant meals, vending-machine snacks and convenience store stops. These add up quickly.
(Make sure you always have a little notebook on hand to note your expenses.)
- Have a plan. Jot down simple dinner menus for the week, using the weekly grocery store ads so you can take advantage of what’s on sale that week. Having a plan ends the 5 p.m. “what’s for dinner?” plight.
- Make a shopping list from your menu. Having the ingredients you need for the week eliminates extra trips to the supermarket, where more incidental items can end up in your grocery cart. (In this day and age, these little trips also cost a lot of expensive gas.)
- To save time, compile a basic shopping list of things you usually buy on a weekly basis, such as milk, lettuce, etc. Organize the list by the store layout and make lots of copies. Then each week it’s just a matter of penciling in the extra ingredients from your menu.
- Get out of the dinner rut. Check out cookbooks or magazines from the library or attend local cooking classes for new ideas.(The cooking classes are a great idea, if they are free. Start watching the Food Channel for great ideas.)
- For low-cost, nutritious recipe ideas, check the Food Stamp Nutrition Connection at recipefinder.nal.usda.gov. The recipes have cost-per-serving and nutrition data.
- Consider making from scratch many of the things you usually buy in prepared form, such as brownies or salad dressing.
- Time is a valuable resource. It’s usually not worth the time, or gasoline to hopscotch from store to store to save a few dollars.
- Consider the advantages when you choose where to shop. Some stores offer credit cards with rebates, discounts on gasoline, special coupons and so on.
- Club warehouses can save money, but be judicious. Can you use 18 cartons of yogurt at a time? Often you can find similar good buys and a better selection at a regular grocery store
- Sometimes you’re lured into buying things that lose their appeal and end up sitting on the shelf. To cure yourself of impulse shopping, every so often force yourself to make a meal out of those items in the cupboard.
- Consider group strategies. A neighborhood group or extended family might save by buying in bulk directly from wholesalers and farmers.
- Try shopping with cash, taking only an allotted amount to the store.
- Statistics indicate that people buy more when they are hungry or accompanied by others, especially children. However, grocery shopping can be a good learning experience for kids; let them find all the coupon foods and comparison shop with you.
- Don’t dawdle. The longer you’re wandering through the store, the more chance of impulse buys. (Take advice from the husband, all he wants to do is get in and get out.)
- Avoid convenience stores. They have higher prices and very few specials.
- Guard against nonfood impulse buys that could end up in your cart, such as the latest DVD, perfumes or toiletries. Do you really need them?
- Limit trips to the store. Multiple trips usually mean more incidental items added to the cart.
- Try “catch-and-release” shopping with high-end items. Put that bottle of name-brand, extra-virgin olive oil in the cart, and while you finish the rest of your purchases, ask if it’s something you can live without. Then before you check out, put it back on the shelf. After all, dreaming is free. (However, if you end up convincing yourself to buy these things, or you forget to put them back, this method isn’t for you!)
- Use the coupon inserts in your Sunday newspaper ads.
- To maximize coupon savings, use resources such as Pinchingyourpennies.com, the Grocery Guru at www.gurusdeals.com, or Couponsense.com, which help you to coordinate coupons with sales at local grocery stores. By using the coupon with the sale price, you can get items for a fraction of the cost(There is also a coupon site on Grandma.)
- Multiply the savings. Some people take multiple Sunday newspaper subscriptions for the coupons, and you can also ask your neighbors or relatives for the coupons from their paper.
- Check other sources for coupons: the “blinkies” in the red boxes on grocery store shelves, home mailers, “peelies” that are peeled off the product itself and printables off Web sites.
- Be wise about coupons. Sometimes a brand name with a coupon is still more expensive than a generic brand. And resist buying things you may not use just because you have a coupon.
- Some grocery stores match competitor coupons if you have the advertisement with you.
- Organize your coupons so you can use them efficiently. Bonnie Childress of Ogden uses a three-ring binder with clear photo pages or baseball card pockets. Others use a filing box and take out the coupons they will be using and clip them to their shopping list on their way to the grocery store.
- Send in rebates. Teri Radmall of Eden puts all the money she receives from rebates in a separate account, and she’s now up to $200.
Cereals and baked goods
- One reason people avoid buying cheaper bagged cereal is because they’re hard to store and pour.Store them in a plastic pitcher with a pour spout.(Be careful with this tip, sometimes the cereal will go rancid if left too long.)
- Consider how much you can save by cooking whole grains for breakfast instead of cold breakfast cereal. Homer Cook of Layton said as a welfare volunteer, he helped a single mother of three cut her breakfast costs from $1,000 per year to $58 peryear by cooking cracked wheat based on Honeyville Grain prices.
- Buy whole-grain cereals and breads. They’re more filling, so you are satisfied with less. And they’re better for you.
- Go ’90s retro and pull out your old bread machine. Besides bread, it can be used for rolls and pizza dough.
- Make croutons or bread crumbs from day-old bread or hotdog buns. The crumbs can be seasoned and used as a “shake-and-bake” chicken coating. (Leftover bread also makes wonderful Bread Pudding and is so easy.)
- Seek out day-old bread “thrift” stores. But be wary of the temptation to overbuy empty calorie items such as cupcakes, potato chips and doughnuts. (Check the bread carefully, you don’t want it to mold. If buying more than one loaf, you can freeze it until you are ready to use.)
- Bake a batch of muffins from scratch for on-the-go breakfasts. Even if you use a mix, you’ll still save over bakery prices.
- Buy fruits and vegetables in season when they’re cheaper and taste fresher. When compared to the price per pound of meat, cheese, chocolate, etc., they’re a nutritional bargain.
- If you’re preparing a commercial meal kit e.g.: such as Hamburger Helper or a frozen pasta dinner, toss in a few more vegetables. Chopped bell peppers or celery, and frozen broccoli or peas add color, flavor and nutrition to what is usually a lot of starch, sauce and salt. They can also stretch the meal into more servings.
- Ready-prepped veggies cost more but may be worth it if you actually use those peeled carrots or sliced mushrooms. A huge percentage of fresh produce goes to waste sitting in refrigerators.
- A pound bag of chopped iceberg lettuce salad costs more; about $2, than a head of iceberg lettuce. Approximately $1 per pound, that you clean and chop yourself. But if bagged salad greens keep you from buying restaurant salads, there’s still a savings.
- If lettuce prices are up, vary your veggies. Consider cabbage, spinach, carrot or broccoli salads.
- Grow your favorite herbs year-round in your kitchen window. It’s convenient to be able to cut a few sprigs as needed, and packets of fresh herbs can cost $1.50-$2 in grocery stores.
- If you’re not up to planting a garden, add a few strawberry or tomato plants to your flower beds. You have to weed and water them anyway. Or add a fruit tree to your back yard.
- Yellow onions are often 40 cents to 50 cents less per pound than red/purple onions.
- When your favorite fresh vegetables are off-season, look for canned and frozen versions. Do the math and figure out which offers the best price per serving.
- Beans are an inexpensive protein. Add them to tacos, casseroles, salads, etc., so you can use less meat.
- Dried beans, per cooked serving, are often less than half the price of canned beans. But they take a lot of time to cook. Soak a batch overnight in your slow cooker on low heat, then portion and freeze for later use. (I don’t put the slow cooker on low; I simply soak the beans in it and turn on in the morning after I have added the onion, etc.)
- Vegetables frozen in butter sauce usually cost more than plain frozen vegetables, and they have more fat and calories.
- Price fruits with an eye on the cost-per-edible serving. If you are buying by the pound, you are also paying for any inedible seeds and rinds.
- When buying fresh greens by weight, be sure to shake off the excess water before you put them in your cart. Water hidden in between the leaves adds weight and raises the cost.
- Serve a vegetable “medley” when you have small amounts of several different vegetables. Mix together and microwave, and top with a little cheese or a sprinkle of nuts. (The vegetable medley also works well if added to some cooked pasta. This will give you a meatless meal.)
- Unless you buy powdered milk in bulk for a price break, you won’t save money over fresh milk. On a recent shopping trip, the Deseret News found that a box of generic-brand powdered milk that yields 31 cups of milk was $6.49. If you can buy fresh milk at $3 a gallon, you can get 32 cups for $6.
(Buying powdered milk is a good idea, but for me the taste is not what I like. You can stretch your milk dollar by mixing about half and half with whole milk.)
- Buy a large container of yogurt and divide it into portions yourself. A 32-ounce container, at $2.79, yields four 8-ounce portions at 34 cents a serving. The same brand in single-serve containers was 50 cents each.
- Milk fat costs. You can often save about 10 cents to 20 cents per gallon by dropping from 2 percent to 1 percent or skim.
- If you use margarine instead of butter to cut costs, don’t use anything less than 100 percent margarine for baking. The lower-fat spreads have water and fillers that bake up poorly and when poured over popcorn turn it to mush. Real butter is approximately $4 per pound; 100 percent margarine, such as Nucoa, can be $1.50 to $2 per pound. Save the less-expensive spreads for your toast. (Some stores carry a generic brand of real margarine for little money.)
- Consider home delivery of milk and bread. It costs more, but it might save on extra trips to the store.
- There is no nutritional difference between brown and white eggs; it has more to do with the color of the hen. White eggs usually cost less.
- Freeze butter to keep its fresh flavor. Grate it, frozen, over toast, baked potatoes, etc. for portion control. (To keep butter fresh and soft on your kitchen counter; consider investing in a “Butter Bell”. Just be sure to change the water very often.)
- Finely shred cheese when topping pizzas, grilled ham and cheese, etc. You’ll use less.
- Unless they’re on special, breasts are the most expensive part of the chicken. Boneless, skinless thighs offer the same convenience for less, and dark meat is more moist and flavorful anyway.
- Take a cue from restaurant chefs who can make a small portion of meat or chicken look plentiful. They slice it thinly and fan out the slices on top of a mound of rice or potatoes.
- Tough cuts of meat are usually cheaper. Place a beef brisket in you slow cooker in the morning and by dinner time you’ll have tender beef, and a tantalizing aroma in your kitchen.
- Don’t throw out your bacon drippings. Some suggestions from Every Day With Rachael Ray magazine: Stir it into grits, use in place of oil when popping popcorn, saute bread cubes in it for croutons, add to cornbread batter, add to barbecue sauce and brush on ribs or chicken while they’re cooking.
- Compare meat costs by servings, not pounds. Bony meats are cheaper per pound, but they yield less edible meat per pound.
- Likewise, a large store-cooked rotisserie chicken at $6 is cheaper than buying a raw, 5-pound whole raw chicken at $1.30 per pound and cooking it at home. As a bonus, you can use the carcass and bits of meat on the bones to make chicken broth. (You can also boil the bones for a good soup base. Add vegetables, onion and seasonings. If adding pasta, pre-cook and rinse well.)
- Although the price of eggs has nearly doubled in the past year, a $2 carton of eggs can still supply a protein-rich meal for a family of six. Scramble them with leftovers such as chopped ham, crumbled bacon, chopped peppers, onions and so on.
- Buy ground beef in bulk quantities to get a better price. When you get home, divide meal-size portions in zip-lock bags and freeze. (If using this tip, be sure to double bag. You do not want freezer burn.)
- Big cans are often cheaper, but not always. Check the price per unit guide on the grocery shelf, which shows the cost per ounce. Also, consider how you use the product. If you buy a big can of tomato sauce, use a little and end up wasting the rest, you’re better off buying the small can in the first place.
- What to do with the last of the jam or jelly jar: Pour in some milk, refrigerate for a little while to loosen the jam stuck to the jar sides, and shake into a flavored drink.
- Generic brands can save money. But try one can first before you invest in a whole case to make sure it appeals to your family.
- Stockpile pantry items you normally use, such as spaghetti sauce or pasta, when they’re on sale. Keep a list of quick-fix possibilities on the inside of your cupboard door, such as spaghetti, meatball sub sandwiches, baked tortellini, etc.
- Invest in a popcorn popper. You can make 10 times as much popcorn for the same price as microwave popcorn. A three-pack box of microwave popcorn yields about 10 1/2 cups of popcorn for $2 to $3, depending on the brand. A $1.99 bag of regular popcorn yields 113 cups. You’ll have to add you own butter and salt, but you have more control over the amounts.
- When making s’mores, instead of buying chocolate bars and graham crackers, place the marshmallow between two chocolate-striped cookies. A package of Keebler Fudge Shoppe cookies is approximately $3 and makes 15 s’mores. You’d spend at least that much money on chocolate bars alone.
- Break the soda pop habit. If you normally drink a can per day, at 50 cents per can, you could pocket more than $180 a year.
- Every time you have a few leftover strawberries, peach slices, etc., store them in the same zip-lock bag in the freezer. Then every so often, whir them all together in the blender for a smoothie snack. (Also defrost them and serve as a fruit salad.)
- If you like the look of designer bottled water, buy it once and keep refilling with tap water, which is free. Many bottled waters cost more per gallon than gasoline. (This tip is excellent!!)
- Use food as a reward sparingly. Make treats more significant by using them only for special occasions. With obesity on the rise, most people don’t need them on a regular basis.
- Nip nighttime snacks. Go to bed a half-hour early and keep yourself from wanting a handful of chips while watching David Letterman. Your waistline will thank you.
- Keep an eye on your pantry inventory so you use up all the pancake mix or corn syrup before buying more.
- Oil goes rancid fairly quickly. Unless you use it often, buy in small quantities or refrigerate after using.
- Post a “must use” list on the fridge to remind yourself of the half-empty can of pineapple, three hot dogs, etc. that will go bad quickly.
- Label leftovers with date and contents before putting them in the freezer. You’ll actually use these things instead of having mystery containers stuck in the back of the freezer.
- Use and rotate your food storage. If you aren’t using it, it is basically a waste of space and money. Rule of thumb: Store what you use and use what you store.
In the kitchen
- Use smaller plates. Studies show that when people are served on larger plates, they take larger servings, whether they’re really hungry or not.
- One night a week have leftover night. Pull out all the leftovers from other meals — the half-cup of spaghetti sauce, the slices of ham or stray chicken breast, the chunk of cheese, the corn or peas. Bake some potatoes and let everyone pick the leftovers for toppings.
- Pack a lunch for the next day from dinner leftovers instead of eating out.
- Use meals to stretch your entertainment dollars. Go on a picnic in a park or get out the Dutch oven pots, have a hot dog roast or go fishing and then cook your catch.
- When serving buffet-style, put the low-cost items, such as salad or rolls, at the beginning of the line and the most expensive item — meat — near the end.
- Have meatless Monday meals.
- Homemade soups are a good way to use leftover meat and vegetables. Their liquid content also makes them more satisfying.
- Pasta or rice can also stretch small amounts of food into a meal. Throw in chopped pepper, ribbons of spinach or basil, chopped tomatoes or chicken or ham.
- Instead of serving fruit punch or juice at meals, use a pitcher of ice water with a few lemon or lime slices floating on top.
- Use small appliances, such as the microwave, slow-cooker and electric frying pan; they use less energy than a stovetop.
- Use the dishwasher only when completely full. Washing dishes by hand can cost more than one load in the dishwasher. Let the dishes air-dry rather than using the “dry” cycle.
- Don’t open the oven door to preview baking food. Each time you open it, the temperature drops by 25-50 degrees. It takes longer to cook your food and adds to your energy bill.
- Use your gift certificates soon after getting them. Many have expiration dates.
- Use frequent-diners’ cards. Some restaurants offer punch cards — if you buy 10 meals, the next one is free. For a family of six, it takes only two visits to earn a free meal.
- Go out to lunch when entree prices are often a dollar or two less than dinner.
- If a full-course dinner comes with soup, salad, drink and dessert, it’s only a great buy if you really want (or need) all that. You may be satisfied ordering an a la carte entree without the extras. Ditto combo meals in fast-food restaurants.
- Guard against up-sell, when you’re asked if you want guacamole with your taco or extra cheese for the fondue. If it costs extra, you might not want it that much.
- At fast-food restaurants, order a kids’ meal for yourself; if there’s no age limit. Most of the time, you’re getting a more appropriate portion of food, and a toy to boot!.
- Watch beverage costs. Alcoholic drinks can double your tab, but even soft drinks can add $10 to $15 to the bill for a family of six. Water is a healthier choice anyway. Be sure to specify “tap” water, some restaurants may bring you bottled water at $3 or $4 per bottle.
- If you feel you can’t afford to tip, choose a fast-food or fast-casual eatery where tipping isn’t expected. In sit-down restaurants, servers’ salaries are less than minimum wage. Tips make up the difference.