How to Cook on a Budget

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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! :)

foodmoney(source)

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.

shopping list(source)

Here’s the game plan:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Recipes:

Chicken Chili with cornbread
Macaroni & Cheese
Sweet Chili Lime Tofu
Loaded Baked Potato Soup

Grocery List:

Tofu

2 potatoes
cauliflower
green onions
garlic
apples
bananas
tomato
lime
veggies/spinach

tomato sauce
black beans

bread

deli meat

milk
1/2 cup light sour cream
reduced fat cheddar (2)
yogurt

cereal

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.

stocked(source)

Fridge:

  • Eggs
  • Shredded cheese
  • Salsa
  • Tortillas
  • Onion
  • Potatoes
  • Yogurt
  • Condiments: ketchup, mustard, butter, salad dressing, jam, milk (whatever your preferred variety is)

Freezer:

  • Chicken breasts
  • Large beef/pork cuts (for crock pot meals)
  • Bacon
  • 90/10 Ground beef
  • Corn
  • Edamame
  • Berries
  • Shredded cheese
  • Frozen spinach
  • Bread
  • Booze
  • Frozen Kashi/Amy’s meals (for lunches)

Pantry:

  • Pasta
  • Beans (black, baked, northern)
  • Tomato sauce
  • Rotel
  • 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
  • Garlic

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.

cookingfortwo(source)

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.

AND/OR…

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.

steak1 steak2

5. Experiment

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.

somethingnew(source)

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!

pantry

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

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Comments

  1. ktlovespie 09.21.2011

    I usually try to plan out meals, make a list accordingly, and don’t buy impulse items. I also love love love our local Bargain Smart discount store. I can get bread for $1.25 a loaf and picked up Method Laundry detergent for $2 (it’s $7.99 at Target!!)
    I don’t buy much junk food/soda/ice cream, or convenience foods like frozen pizza, fries, and chicken nuggets, though I do make exceptions for Hamburger Helper (BF loves it and its something he can cook) and frozen pastas such as ravioli.
    Other things I save on: I make granola instead of buying cereal, make my own soap and alternate the store bought laundry detergent with homemade.

    Anyone have any good slow cooker dinner recipes?? 4 days out of the week I don’t get home until after 8pm which makes it hard to get dinner on the table at a timely hour. Leave a comment here or at my blog!!

    • trixie485 09.21.2011

      I have a meatloaf in the slow cooker right now…I haven’t tried it yet but is smells amazing!

  2. trixie485 09.21.2011

    I started making dried beans in the crock pot on a day when I have time/remember. Then I freeze them in ziploc bags. I know beans are cheap but if you buy the ones that are organic or have low sodium the prices go up. So I can make a few bags of organic low sodium beans for 89 cents! Plus the weird bean goo in the can is sorta creepy!!

    • ktlovespie 09.21.2011

      I always wondered if beans froze well. Giving this a try some time!

  3. These are great tips, Kristin. As usual, your post made me smile. :)

  4. christa 09.21.2011

    #1 tip: shop at aldi.

    • Amber 09.23.2011

      Aldi and Trader Joes is the SAME company (affiliations). So, it may have a different label but the same things are going in both. Aldi is a great resource for inexpensive shopping however, watch the ounce per dollar ratio. A lot of times, they look cheap to the eye but the ounces is several less than what you would get in a typical grocery store.

      • Tanya 04.10.2013

        I did not know that

  5. Abby 09.21.2011

    Will you PLEASE post your recipe for sweet chili lime tofu???

  6. All great advice! Unfortunately, I am really, really bad at sticking to a budget and not wasting food. I overbuy like crazy. Terrible habit that I am trying to break. I really do hate wasting anything!!

  7. Lauren 09.21.2011

    Great tips girl! I actually touch on most of these when I speak to my clients and students about budgeting for a healthy lifestyle. Haha, that picture of the man and woman in the kitchen cracks me up!

  8. I had the laugh at the part of you being the food police when your husband joins you on grocery shopping trips. . . . I am the same way! (And sometimes I take my power too far. –oops!)

  9. my number one tip is revamp the leftovers. i will often grill a big batch of chicken breasts, or slow cook a big crock of black beans and get 5 difference recipes out of them.

    p.s. i thought for a second that was your actual pantry!

  10. Mimi 09.21.2011

    Great tips! I’ve actually used you and your strategies in getting my own grocery spendings down. Last week, $44 fed me + my husband!

    P.S. I lol’ed at your caption for the people sauteeing veggies. I’m in public. Thanks a lot. (:

  11. Iowamom 09.21.2011

    It’s so difficult! We have 5 people in our family and we eat a ton of fruit and veggies which go so quickly. We have a half of a side of beef, some pork and chicken from a local farmer in our deep freeze which helps for preparing/planning a meal. I don’t buy a lot of junk and my kids know that. I plan meals according to supply in the freezer and pantry and then grab other necessary things that week. My oldest boy is literally eating us out of house and home! I told him he needs to get a job at the grocery store. ;)

    You gave great tips!

  12. A.J. 09.21.2011

    One of my tips is to try to cook meals involving as few ingredients as possible. The fewer ingredients you need, the less you will probably spend.

  13. Rachel 09.21.2011

    I use ALL these tips…For awhile I was feeding the 3 of us on $40/week, but I’ve gone back up to about $50/week. I’ve found that gardening has helped a lot with our produce budget, especially because it’s gotten my husband more agreeable to eating meatless meals!

  14. Abby Chambers 09.21.2011

    I love that pantry pic in #2. So wish mine looked like that. I might just clean out and organize my pantry tomorrow. It will stay nice for only a week I am sure :(.

  15. Heather 09.21.2011

    Thank you so much for the tips!

  16. Allison 09.21.2011

    HI ! I loved this post!!

    the best thing i’ve found i can save money on is making my own bread… it takes a little planning but i cant remember the last time i bought bread, and its really easy and fun to make! saves a lot of money and you know EXACTLY what you’re eating :)

  17. Definitely planning around sales at the store. That and mapping ahead meals ahead of time, utilizing coupons and eating less meat.

  18. Nicole 09.21.2011

    Thanks for sharing the tips!

  19. Great post! I just recently started planning out our meals ahead of time and couponing. Thanks for the tips.

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  21. Dawn Marie 09.21.2011

    Waste not, want not! ;-)

  22. I love the pantry picture you found. Wish mine could look like that! Normally I’m trying to shove everything in mine just so I can shut the door. Which – is probably why I can’t find most of my ingredients I need for recipes! :) Good tips – thanks!

  23. Chris 09.21.2011

    Check the store ads as you are getting your cart and be flexible about altering your menu plan to take advantage of a great deal – or at least plan to stow something in the freezer until you can use it. And I echo the use of reusable bags. I use these and L-O-V-E them:
    http://baggubag.com/#Shop
    They are really cute and practically indestructible. Having 3 of these in my purse means I don’t buy more than I can fit in them, because after years of using these I am positively allergic to plastic bags now.

  24. Dream Mom 09.22.2011

    I do a few things to save money:

    -Plan meals.
    -Shop only once a week. This includes planning my errands in order, so I can save gas.
    -Make as much as I can from scratch. It’s healthier and I use fewer ingredients. Also, when cooking from scratch, I cut veggies into smaller pieces to help them cook faster, i.e. potatoes to make mashed potatoes.
    -I purchase only the food I’ll eat in a week. That way, everything I eat is fresh and there isn’t any mystery meat or wondering how old anything is. By the end of the week, my refrigerator and freezer are empty.
    -Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season and then this year I learned how to freeze them to preserve nutrients. Go to “pick your own.org) and there are tips on how to blanche vegetables to preserve the nutrients. Once this is done, then it saves time during the week since your cooking time is reduced to 3-5 minutes on the stovetop since your veggies have been “pre-cooked” so to speak. They also tell you about farms where you can pick your own f & v although I haven’t done that.
    -I purchase glass jars and BPA free lids to freeze fruits/veggies.
    Some are freezer safe and some are not so you have to pay attention.
    -I bake all of my own bread, pizza dough, buns, cinnamon rolls and jam using my Zojirushi breadmaker (I have the one pound bread loaf machine.) I make pizza dough and then freeze half and keep the other half in a zip lock bag to use within the week. My breadmaker has a jam function so I can make fresh jam. I haven’t purchased a loaf of bread or buns since 2008. It takes just minutes to put the ingredients in the breadmaker and I use the “quick bread” function to bake the bread in 2 hours. I make my own dough for cinnamon rolls too.
    -Pay with cash over using a debit card. You’ll watch your money more carefully.
    -To save money, if you are new in an area, write down the top 25 items you normally purchase and then go to three different stores in the area and compare prices on those items. Since those are the items that you purchase the most, it makes sense to shop at the store with the lowest prices. I tend to have two stores I frequent, Whole Foods for more organic stuff and then another store that is more budget friendly, that has regular and organic items.

    Nice post.

  25. Sheri 09.22.2011

    Do not shop on an empty stomach!

  26. erika mc 09.22.2011

    Thanks! This post came at the perfect time… I’m on maternity leave and not getting an income right now. Now I only need to figure out what meals to make!

  27. I have to say “Go it Alone” is the best thing I’ve figured out for keeping my budget down! If my boyfriend comes with me he loads the cart with snacks. If I go, I pick up 1-2 snacks and he doesn’t complain!

  28. Hope 09.22.2011

    These are some really good tips. I also check coupon blogs like crazy. I will match up coupons to the stores circular so I can get better deals. Also, if you email companies for products that you buy regularly and enjoy, sometimes they will send you coupons :)

  29. Ashley 09.22.2011

    What great tips, thank you!

    I tend to keep our grocery bill around $50 a week for my Boyfriend & I. I also use coupons, and attempt to use lots of fresh produce and veggies. Thankfully, we have quiet the stockpile of food as well!

  30. Great tips, girl.

    My #1 tip is to grow your own food. About 6 months out of the year I can usually have a good crop of produce ready to incorporate into meals – which saves alot.
    I also keep all my grocery items simple and haven’t bought any prepackaged meals for years…making from scratch is cheaper 9 times out of 10.

    For two of us I probably spend on average $50 a week – and we eat quite well.

  31. robin 09.22.2011

    wow..these are some great tips krisitin..I also haver read all the comments…with 5 kids my grocery bill has always been a problem.
    I went to aldi’s yesterday ( a discount store here in charlotte) and was amazed how much I could have been saving on items like fresh broccoli, peppers, mushrooms , and tomatoes..plus their brand of chips (my kids love doritos which is usually $3.99 a bag) their knock off brand was $1.99…yep I’ve learned alot in the last 2 days..now I’m off to make a list and see if I can stick to a budget! thanks ..great post

  32. Seriously – I don’t know how you do it. I read the tips and “think” I do these things, but my list is SO expensive. You would die of shock if you knew how much I spend per week for a family of 2.

  33. Hey Kristin, You really hit upon my tips for shopping/eating on a budget. I really appreciate this post and hope that a lot of people read it.

  34. Jill P. 09.22.2011

    My #1 problem is that my boyfriend and I DO NOT like to eat the same things (most of the time). So shopping for both of us gets tricky.
    Problem #2 is that we’re both “emotional, spontaneous eaters”, meaning we like to eat whatever we feel like eating that day (crazy Pisces people). This can lead to a ton of over-spending if we’re not careful.

    The only solution really I’ve found is searching out deals. In the Twin Cities there are DOZENS of different types of grocery stores, and your bill can change drastically from one to the next. Get to know the store and their pricing/sales and you can find a great deal.

  35. Sarah 09.22.2011

    Re: coupons. If there is a product that you are a fan of, email the company telling them how much you enjoy their product and you would like some coupons. I did this with Sabra hummus and received a coupon for $.55 off hummus.

  36. Shelley 09.22.2011

    You’ve managed to summarize what I’ve discovered over many parts of the internet! With my change in jobs and income I need to save money – removing meat from the equation is a great idea. I haven’t been including meat in every meal lately which is good considering I come from a family that included a grilled hunk of meat with almost every dinner!

    My newest money saving idea is growing my own herbs in the winter. So many great recipes include fresh herbs but those cost a bundle at the store. If I grow basil, rosemary, thyme, and parsley at home, not only will I be saving money on store herbs, I won’t be throwing away what I don’t use… it will just stay on the plant!

    • Ashley 09.23.2011

      I stumbled upon this a while back, have not tried it but am planning to.
      “Consider freezing chopped fresh herbs in ice-cube trays. Drop a teaspoon or two of herbs into each cube and fill with water or chicken broth. Pop out the cubes to add to sauces or soups.”

  37. Teresa K. 09.22.2011

    Can’t do this anymore – but eat at your parent’s house at least once a week – lol!

    Or – no parents, no family nearby – stone soup with the neighbors/friends! ( you know – put a stone in a pot of water – someone has a carrot – a potato – an onion, etc.

  38. Michelle 09.22.2011

    This is a fantastic post. I’ve been borderline obsessive with sticking to a budget, meal planning once a week, clipping coupons (and I agree that if they work out as a bonus, great, otherwise I also pass), and trying to use what I already have. Love the idea of the on week challenge each month of using what you got. I’m so doing this!

  39. Great tips! I’m always on the hunt for pantry recipes.. the best few I’ve found so far are skillet gnocchi or janetha’s taco crock soup!

  40. Ashley 09.22.2011

    I use all of the same tips. I agree, Make a List! I do meatless a few times a month, and the same with re-using leftovers. And use coupons!! I also found with us (a family of 6) to buy in bulk! I buy meat (chicken, hamburger, pork chops) in bulk or big packages and always seperate and freeze. Believe me, it is the last thing I want to do after a few hours of grocery shopping, but it is much cheaper that way!

  41. Meagan 09.22.2011

    I need a deep freeze so bad! I have no more room for my fridge and I would love to make meals ahead of time so that on weeknights I can just pop it in the oven.
    I am worse when shopping alone. I usually stick to the list but if I’m alone I always find myself in the Home area, looking at cute cupcake liners and hand towels. :P

  42. MOM 09.22.2011

    Another great post for tips on keeping the food budget low:) I also look for the deals that the grocery store might have just for that store, i.e.,in store deals that might not be advertised. Also if the grocery (at least Hy-Vee or Hy-Vee drugstore) store is out of an item, instead of a raincheck they will usually swap another brand of the same item for you-just ask!

  43. Tracy 09.22.2011

    Totally unrelated to this post, but what did you end up doing with the gigantic zucchini?

  44. Sarah 09.22.2011

    We do leftover night once a week, make a list for grocery shopping and try to stick to it!

  45. Angela 09.23.2011

    Such a great, helpful post!

  46. Danielle 09.23.2011

    I am curious..How much do you and your hubby go out to eat/week would you say??

  47. Jessie 09.23.2011

    I love this post – I have been eating out way too much which isn’t helping my weight loss trials AND it’s killing my wallet.. seriously………….so expensive!

  48. [...] Savvy shoppers follow these tricks to eat well on a budget. — Iowa Girl Eats [...]

  49. Tia 10.24.2011

    These are great tips!

  50. [...] Iowa Girl Eats – How to Cook on a Budget [...]

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