The first step to saving money is to avoid waste. Americans throw out more than 25 percent of the food we prepare, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That means we need to do a better job of using leftovers, learn what to do with food when it’s past its peak and most of all get organized. Here are some easy steps to take:
Start by being realistic about how many meals you’ll cook at home in a week. Do you have other plans? Want to eat leftovers for lunch? Next, decide what you want to eat that week. If it’s a busy week, try cooking a double batch of something on a night when you have more time to cook.
Related Link: EatingWell’s Free Meal Plans »
Some of us don’t love to plan meals in advance. If that’s the case then just pick some of the main ingredients. For instance you may want to roast a chicken one night and then make soup with the leftovers another night. Maybe you’re longing for pizza another night and something with ground beef another. That’s the start of a game plan.
Related Link: EatingWell’s 28 Day Meal Plans »
A well-stocked pantry is the best way to resist the urge to go out on those nights when you’re not sure what’s for dinner. With a few basics you can probably pull together a healthy, tasty meal in the same amount of time it would take you to go out (and for less money, too!). So always check to see what staples need replenishing or just write them down on your shopping list as soon as you use something up. Besides basics like olive oil and flour, make sure to keep things like canned beans, pasta and canned tuna on hand so you can quickly create a delicious dinner.
Related Link: Guide to Stocking Your Pantry »
Avoid choosing something like fresh asparagus in January, because that’s when you’ll pay big bucks for it (not to mention that it won’t taste like much anyway). Instead, in the dead of winter opt for cauliflower or chard. Of course once you get to the store you may see something that looks great and is on sale, so be flexible enough to change your plans once you get there.
Related Link: Healthy Food Guide »
Once you’ve got a plan, it’s time to make a list. That’s the best insurance that you won’t spend extra dollars on ingredients you don’t really need. Check your recipes to see what you’ll need to buy for the week. Get a head start by creating a list on your computer (in a spreadsheet program) that includes all the items you buy on a weekly basis, such as eggs, milk and bread. Then just print it out and add to it what you need.
If you’re a coupon clipper, great, go for it. But it’s best to do it after you write that shopping list. That way you don’t fall into the trap of buying things you don’t really need just because you have a great coupon for them. Check supermarket websites for coupons too.
Club stores, such as Costco and Sam’s Club, do have some great deals. For some of us (especially those with space in the house to store things like giant packages of toilet paper) the up-front membership fee pays for itself in no time. Two things to keep in mind when you shop at these stores: don’t go overboard and don’t always assume that you’re getting a better deal at the club store. Do a little research before you shop and compare prices per weight to those in regular stores. Go in with a plan to avoid overpurchasing. We like to stock up on boxed broth, olive oil, frozen fish, canned tomatoes and nuts (to keep in the freezer). Be careful about buying produce at these stores. Only buy it if you’re sure you can use it all up before it goes bad.
Ethnic stores and grocery store sections are great places to find interesting ingredients. And they often have cheaper prices on items like seafood, beans and fresh vegetables.
Farmers’ markets and grocery stores that carry local produce often have beautiful foods for top dollar. But there are some ways to eat locally and save money. Choose local fruits, vegetables and meats when they’re at their peak and likely at the best price. Visit pick-your-own farms for better prices, especially when you buy in bulk. Pick more than you’ll eat in the next few days and then freeze extras for later. Also, shop roadside farmstands, which sometimes have better prices. Try visiting your local farmers’ market just before closing, when everyone’s packing up—you may be able to bargain for some end-of-day specials.
Try to include a couple of vegetarian meals in your menu for the week. Skipping meat, even once or twice a week, can help save money, since meat is usually the most expensive part of a meal. And you will have a lighter impact on the environment—almost one-fifth of the world’s man-made greenhouse-gas emissions are generated by the meat industry, according to the United Nations.
Related Link: Meatless Mondays: Vegetarian Recipes You Must Try »
Plan meals where meat is used as a flavoring as opposed to being the central part of a meal. Just think about how most cultures around the world use meat—from Chinese chow mein to Italian pasta—and you get the picture. For instance, have a little sausage on a pizza or a bit of turkey along with plenty of vegetables in a panini.
Yes, organic usually means more expensive. Our take: if you can afford it, great. If not, you may just want to focus on picking things on the “dirty dozen” list of most contaminated fruits and vegetables to buy organic. The bottom line: the most important thing to do is eat more fruits and vegetables, whether they’re organic or conventionally grown.