I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about how to stick to and cook on a tight grocery budget. Whether you’re a college student feeling the pinch, or just trying to find ways to get more bang for your buck, hopefully these tips and tricks well help your dollar stretch a little further at the grocery store!
How to Cook on a Budget
1. Make a plan
Planning out your meals and shopping for the ingredients to make them once a week, is my #1 tip for cooking on a budget. Repeatedly driving to the store eats up gas and purchasing items like fresh produce without an idea as to how you’ll use it will almost always end up in throwing away unused/spoiled food, which is basically like flushing money down the drain.
Here’s the game plan:
- Decide what you could make with what you’ve already got on hand in your fridge/freezer/pantry, or what you could make if you only needed 2 or 3 more ingredients. Also browse your grocery store’s weekly online flyer to see if you can create meals based on what’s on sale that week.
- Try to plan a couple meals that use some of the same ingredients. For example, instead of using 1/2 a bag of baby spinach for a recipe on Monday and letting the rest spoil in your fridge, find a way to work the rest into one or two more recipes later that week.
- Write down the recipes/dishes you’re going to make and create a grocery list of the ingredients you don’t already have to make them. Here’s my recipe/grocery list (separated by aisles, natch) from this week:
Weekly Grocery Shopping List
Chicken Chili with cornbread
Macaroni & Cheese
Sweet Chili Lime Tofu
Loaded Baked Potato Soup
1/2 cup light sour cream
reduced fat cheddar (2)
Notice that I only needed to purchase 19 items (which really isn’t a lot) to create 4 dinners AND breakfasts & lunches throughout the week for Ben and myself, because I already had all the other ingredients on hand in my kitchen.
Which brings me to my second strategy for cooking on a budget…
2. Keep a well stocked kitchen
I always keep the following items on hand in my fridge/freezer/pantry. These items are the foundation of almost all my recipes, keep/freeze well, and seem to go on sale often which means I can stock up when they’re cheap, then purchase a few fresh ingredients later to create a well-rounded meal.
- Shredded cheese
- Condiments: ketchup, mustard, butter, salad dressing, jam, milk (whatever your preferred variety is)
- Chicken breasts
- Large beef/pork cuts (for crock pot meals)
- 90/10 Ground beef
- Shredded cheese
- Frozen spinach
- Frozen Kashi/Amy’s meals (for lunches)
- Beans (black, baked, northern)
- Tomato sauce
- Rice (white, brown and jasmine)
- Reduced sodium chicken broth
- Soy sauce
- Agave nectar/honey
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Balsamic vinegar
- Rice vinegar (used a lot in Asian cooking, which I adore)
- Non-stick spray
- Spices: garlic salt & powder, onion powder, thyme, basil, parsley, red chili pepper flakes, cumin, oregano, chili powder, nutmeg, cinnamon, all-spice
3. Cook only what you’ll eat
If you’re only cooking for one or two, or happen to hate leftovers, scale the recipe back, or halve it, so you don’t end up wasting food and buying a larger quantity of ingredients than you really need – ie 4 chicken breasts instead of 2.
Hahaha, these sautéed veggies are soooo hilarious!
Luckily Ben and I love leftovers so this isn’t usually a problem for us, but in the rare case where I simply cannot eat another bowl of leftover chili for lunch, I’ll package and freeze the remaining food in individual portion sizes to eat a few weeks down the road. I usually microwave the frozen meal for 2-3 minutes on 50% power, followed by 2-3 minutes on full power.
4. Repurpose leftovers
Use leftovers of one meal to create a completely new meal later in the week. Try Crock Pot Pulled Pork Sandwiches on Monday, then BBQ Pork Pizza on Wednesday. Grilled Steak, Veggies and Potatoes on Tuesday, then Steak, Feta & Artichoke Salad on Thursday.
Step outside your comfort zone and try new things! Cook up chicken drumsticks instead of chicken breasts, which are usually half the cost. Celebrate Tofu Tuesdays with $2/package tofu instead of Turkey Tuesdays with $6/lb 99% fat-free ground turkey breast.
6. Cook seasonally (and locally!)
Cook with apples, squash and brussels sprouts in the Fall, berries, tomatoes and sweet corn in the Summer – at the Farmers’ Market or co-op when you can – to reap maximum quantity at minimum cost. Click here for a peak-season guide!
7. Clean out your kitchen
Once a month, choose a week and challenge yourself to create 4-5 meals using anything and everything you have in your kitchen, only shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables. This could get interesting…and inexpensive!
8. Go meatless one or more days a week
Meat-based meals cost WAY more than plant/pasta/grain/legume-based dishes. Consider this: A pound of 90/10 ground beef at my local grocery store costs, on average, $4/lb. Extra firm tofu costs $2/package. That’s half the price! Same goes for beans. When’s the last time you saw a $4 can of black beans?
If you simply cannot or do not wish to go meatless, just use less meat. Instead of putting one pound of ground beef in your spaghetti sauce, use 1/2 a pound.
More cooking on a budget tips:
- Go at it alone. Try grocery shopping alone if you can (I know this is totally not possible for a lot of parents!) I usually go shopping alone and 9 times out of 10, I come in at or under budget. When Ben comes along, we inevitably pick up several items that I hadn’t planned on getting. Which is fine – I’m not the food police (ok maybe I am a little) – but I’m just saying, it’s easier to stick to the list when it’s just you.
- Clip carefully. Before I clip and use a coupon I ask myself if I’m just buying the item because it’s on sale, or if I really need it and the sale is an extra bonus. If it’s the former, I usually pass.
- Keep your eyes peeled. I always make sure to watch and make sure my produce is being rung up correctly. It’s easy to confuse a Pink Lady Apple (~$1.99/lb) with a Honeycrisp Apple (~$3.50/lb) which could add several dollars to my bill if entered incorrectly. BE NICE if you spot a mistake though!
- Rain check. If a store runs out of a sale item you want, ask the manager for a rain check. That way you can still save on the item when it comes back in stock.
- Reduce, reuse, cash in! Bringing in your own reusable bags to load your groceries into is not only good for the environment, but most grocery stores give you a discount for using them.
Hopefully these ideas and tips will help you save some dollahs the next time you visit the grocery store. Then you’ll have money leftover for the important things…like vanilla icing and graham crackers!
What are your favorite tips and tricks for cooking on budget?