Easy Ways to Cut Your Food Bill
Personal finance blogger Julia Scott just didn't get why so many people paid a premium for what she considered "unnecessary luxuries." Then she had a baby. Now she gets it -- but she doesn't like it.
"I'm worried I'm getting into the habit of paying to make tough situations go away. How do you maintain your resolve to be frugal under stress?" writes Scott, who blogs at Bargain Babe.
Her readers responded, and Scott followed up with a post called "19 tricks to avoid eating at restaurants." Are these ideas the answer?
Looking for the best deals on your local groceries? Find them here.
Yes and no. For example, some neighborhoods are not good matches for a "food swap." Not everyone is going to make and freeze soup (although I heartily recommend the practice).
But some of the ideas are pretty Everyman:
- Cook once, but cook a lot. Make enough for a second dinner and/or to freeze.
- Convenience food may be worth it. Rotisserie chicken, prebagged salad and French bread are pricey, but they are still cheaper than eating out.
- Slow cooker = easy meal. Absolutely. See "The must-have kitchen appliance" for more on this topic.
- Toss takeout menus. As soon as they show up in the mail or taped to your door, ditch them. Out of sight, out of mind.
Paying for convenience
Some nights you walk through the door so exhausted that the idea of starting a from-scratch meal feels impossible. Days (or weeks) like that are enough to make anyone want to reach for a delivery menu.
Context is important, too. If you've just had a baby, are recovering from surgery or spend four nights a week in community theater rehearsals then give yourself a break, already. You won't go to Frugal Purgatory for a little short-term overspending.
But if long-term reliance on takeout Thai or frozen mac 'n' cheese is busting your budget, then it's an issue. We pay a lot for "value-added" items.
Sometimes it's worth it. But why routinely pay for things like prebagged salads or precooked, frozen rice?
Multitasking in the kitchen
Try this instead. Block out an hour or so after your grocery trip, then do some or all -- or more -- of these things simultaneously during that time:
- Put some vegetables on to roast. For tips on this, read Tamar Adler’s wonderful book, "An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace." Or roast some kind of meat. (Or do both.)
- Set eggs to boil -- for snacks, sandwiches, running-late breakfasts or to add to salads.
- Start a pot of rice. Leave some in the fridge for side dishes or stir-fry entrees. Freeze the rest.
- Put some dry beans in the slow cooker. They can become burritos, a rice and beans entrée, get added to salads or those homemade soups, or just heated and eaten with salsa and a bit of cheese.
- Start browning a good quantity of ground beef or turkey. Freeze it in portions to be added to pasta sauce or chili, or turned into sloppy joes.
- Chop onions to freeze. Add some to the ground beef or turkey, though -- the delicious, caramelizing smell will distract you from your weepy eyes.
- Wash salad greens. While they're draining, grate small plates of all-purpose cheese like Monterey jack and mozzarella (lots of ways to use these).
- Mix a batch of meatloaf and freeze it uncooked. Move it to the fridge the day before you want to bake it.
Your own prep work depends on your tastes and habits, of course. You might choose to spend that hour starting a batch of bread, marinating tofu, making yogurt, chopping vegetables for a week's worth of curry.
But do something. An hour or so of whirling and howling in the kitchen gives you the building blocks for multiple meals. You can grill some pork chops or chicken breasts -- or bring home that rotisserie chicken -- and create sides from what's in the fridge.
Put on your favorite music and have at it. During the week you'll have options. It will take about as long to put together a meal as it would to wait for takeout to be delivered.