12 Secrets to Spending Less at the Grocery Store
Pictured Recipe: Creamy White Chili with Cream Cheese
Americans throw out more than 25% of the food we prepare, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And wasted food means wasted money. Here are some easy steps you can take to stop wasting and start saving:
Tip 1: Make a game plan.
The most important step you can take to cut down on waste is to come up with a solid plan. Investing time up front planning your meals assures that you use everything you buy-and will result in less time spent planning and shopping later in the week. Think about your week ahead and plan accordingly. Find a few easy recipes you want to make, or rely on trusty favorites you know you'll love. Leave one day open for leftovers and another for using up pantry staples (try these Black Bean Tacos or these Eggs in Tomato Sauce with Chickpeas & Spinach). And to make sure things don't go bad in the fridge, plan on eating seafood or fresh meat toward the beginning of the week, and save meals with ingredients that have a longer shelf life (like pasta) for the end of the week. Give one of our easy dinner meal plans a try, so the planning is already done.
See More: 7-Day Budget Meal Plan & Shopping List
Tip 2: Write a shopping list.
Once you've got a plan, it's time to make a list. And once you have that list, stick to it. That's the best insurance that you won't spend extra money on ingredients you don't really need. You can 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. Not feeling techy? A simple handwritten list divided into store aisles will keep you organized and efficient.
Tip 3: Don't shop hungry.
We know you've heard this before, but we can't stress it enough-don't shop hungry! An empty stomach makes everything look appetizing, and if you want to save money and avoid waste you need to stick to your shopping list. So shop after a meal, or have a light snack before you head to the store.
Tip 4: Double up dinners.
It sure is handy when we can buy the exact amount of food we need to make the meal we've planned, but often that's not the case. We're often left with leftover ingredients that languish in the fridge or pantry and end up with a one-way ticket to the trash can. To help cut down on wasted food (and money!) consider doubling your recipe. You will likely have to buy more, but you will waste less. Leftovers make great lunches, and if what you're making can be frozen, you'll have a meal at the ready when you need it.
See More: 7-Day Dinner Plan: Cook Once, Eat Twice
Tip 5: Look for deals.
One approach to saving money and wasting less is to plan your meals based on what's on sale. Proteins like meat and fish tend to be the most expensive grocery items, so check the flyer from your grocery store to see what's on sale this week and plan from there. And while everyone loves a good sale, don't be swayed by great prices on items you don't need. If it's not on your list, you probably don't need it. But if you do go for anything, make it a shelf-stable item that won't go bad if you don't get to it this week. Oftentimes large chain grocery stores have optional rewards programs you can sign up for at the register that require a card or your phone number each time you shop. Yes, it's a pain to sign up for those things when you just want to pay for your groceries and go, but the savings are often targeted to items you shop for specifically and may be worth the effort.
Tip 6: Keep a well-stocked pantry.
A well-stocked pantry is essential to cost savings. Basics like olive oil, canned or dry beans, pasta and canned tuna can last for a while in good storage (usually a cool, dry pantry). Paired these with fresh or frozen ingredients and you've got yourself a healthy meal in no time. Always check to see what staples need replenishing and write them down on your shopping list as soon as you use something up.
Related: Guide to Stocking Your Pantry
Pictured Recipe: American Goulash
Tip 7: Make the most of leftovers.
Making sure your leftovers get used up is a great way to save money and cut down on food costs. It can be as simple as reheating what you had the night before, or you can get creative and make an entirely new meal out of the one you had last night. Got leftover chicken? Make curried chicken salad. Leftover cooked steak and ground beef make a nice addition to salads, and even leftover pasta can be added to soup instead of to your trash can. If your leftovers are freezable, great! Freeze them. Just make sure they've cooled and are tightly wrapped when you put them into the freezer to prevent ice crystals from forming. Also, label and date them so you'll know what they are in case you forget.
See More: Healthy Chicken Leftover Recipes
Tip 8: Shop around.
Many of us are lucky enough to have more than one grocery store option within a reasonable distance of where we live. If this applies to you, then consider shopping at more than one store. If the produce section at your favorite grocer hasn't been stocked since the weekend, the fruits and veggies might look a little worse for wear. Instead of buying less-than-perfect produce (which has a shorter shelf life), consider taking a trip down the road to see if another grocer has better offerings. If one store is your only option, that's fine too. Keep in mind you may have to be flexible in your planning and substitute an ingredient with something else if what you're looking for is less than perfect.
Tip 9: Create some meal-prep magic.
Yes, we've already covered planning your meals, but you can take it to a whole new level by jumping onto the meal-prep bandwagon. Think of it as the convenience of takeout with the benefits of a healthy homemade meal. Yes, it's a little work up front, but you'll have grab-and-go meals at the ready for the entire week. And since you'll be cooking in batches, you'll save money by reducing waste, prepping your own food at home and avoiding spending for food at a restaurant or cafeteria. All you need to get started are some good meal-prep recipes that can hold up in storage, and some different sizes of containers (which you can find easily in the food-storage section of most supermarkets).
Tip 10: Join a CSA.
A well-stocked supermarket is a good place to shop for fresh produce, but if you have the option, joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is even better. CSAs cut out the middleman by supplying fresh produce directly to you straight from the farm. That means your produce hasn't traveled far or sat on a shelf, so it will stay fresh much longer. Most farmers can give you a good idea of what their offerings will be ahead of time so you can plan accordingly. If going it alone with a CSA share feels like too much, split it with a friend or neighbor. You'll be wasting less, eating better and supporting your local community. It's a win-win.
Read More: How to Get the Most Out of Your CSA
Tip 11: Buy in bulk (but check the unit prices).
The bulk section can be a great place to shop if you want to avoid wasting food and money. If you need a cup of oats, you can buy a cup of oats and not worry about what to do with the rest of a larger package. But if you want to be extra savvy, compare unit prices. Unit prices are not the actual price of the item, but how much the item costs per unit (usually ounces or pounds). Price per unit is almost always listed on the shelf next to the item price. Sometimes bulk items can be more expensive per pound than packaged, so in our oats example, since oats are easy to store, you may be better off buying the package if its unit price is cheaper than what you see in the bulk section.
Tip 12: Avoid prepped meals.
Buying prepackaged meals at the grocery store may seem like a good way to avoid wasting food, but they come with their own problems. Sure the actual food may not go to waste with these neatly organized portions, but the packaging itself goes straight to the trash. Not to mention, some packaged foods serve more than one person which means you have to figure out what do with leftovers or eat more than one serving if you're buying just for yourself. Your best bet is to prep your own convenience meals at home.