12 Tricks to Slash Your Food Bill
With roughly 10 percent of the typical American paycheck spent on food, it's easy to assume eating right costs a bundle. But research says otherwise. According to the USDA Cost of Food Report for May 2019, the average adult can eat a healthy, nutritious diet for as little as $40 a week per person. But actually doing it? Well, that requires a little know-how.
Related: 10 Ways to Reduce Your Food Waste
1. Start with a plan
Cooking at home can translate into big savings. But you'll need to have the right foods on hand. "Before I go shopping, I plan my weekly menu, so I'll be able to purchase all the ingredients I'll need for the week," says Toby Smithson, M.S., RDN, CDE, a Diabetic Living advisor. Next, make a list to ensure you won't forget anything. Organizing it by aisle of the store can guide you toward the produce section and away from the snack food aisle.
2. Eat all that you cook
The average American tosses more than 240 pounds of food a year. "Decreasing food waste is one of the most effective ways to save money," says Melissa Joy Dobbins, M.S., RD, CDE, host of the SoundBites nutrition podcast. "That's why I'm a big fan of repurposing leftovers. For example, if you have some leftover roasted vegetables, plan to use them in rice or soup, or as pizza toppings." You can also add diced cooked chicken to quesadillas, pasta, and salads, or use up the leftovers in your fridge by serving them tapas-style as small plates.
3. Save those scraps
Pack bits of stray ingredients like chopped onions, tomato paste, chicken broth, beans, brown rice, quinoa, or fresh herbs in zip-top freezer bags. Then label, date, and store them in your freezer (they'll stay fresh for at least two months). Leftover broth is perfect for pan sauces and gravies (you can quickly thaw it by placing the freezer bag in a bowl of warm water). And you can toss frozen veggies and herbs directly into hot soup or pasta sauce.
Related: Recipes to Use Up Food Scraps
4. Know your store
"Getting familiar with your store's sales cycles is a great way to stock up on shelf-stable pantry items or foods you can freeze," says Tami Ross, RD, CDE, author of Diabetes Meals on $7 a Day—or Less! "My local supermarket always puts their meat on sale on Sunday morning, so I can find really great prices and then freeze it for future meals." Talk to the store manager and salespeople to learn key sale days for meat, chicken, and fish (some of the highest-ticket items in the store) as well as whole-grain cereal and pasta, rice, frozen fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, and low-sodium canned beans and tomatoes.
5. Be a loyal customer
Choosing one loyalty program and sticking with it can add up to big savings, says Ross. If you have a smartphone, download your store's app for access to digital coupons. If not, clipping coupons from the newspaper works too. Using just five 50-cent coupons per week saves $130 annually ($260 if you shop on double coupon days). Check out your store's weekly circular, or sign up for their email newsletter for additional bargains.
6. Venture beyond the butcher counter
There are loads of inexpensive protein options throughout the store. Think eggs, low-fat milk, and unsweetened yogurt in the dairy aisle, tofu in the produce department, frozen peas and edamame in the freezer section, and canned tuna, salmon, and beans on the center shelves. Consider basing one or two meals each week around vegetarian protein sources—one study found that eating a plant-based diet can save $750 a year.
7. Make friends with frozen produce
"Frozen produce is a game-changer for my clients who are looking to eat healthfully on a budget," says Jessica Cording, M.S., RD, a New York City-based nutritionist and health coach and author of the forthcoming The Little Book of Game-Changers: 50 Healthy Habits for Managing Stress & Anxiety. "It's frozen at the peak of freshness, so its nutritious goodness is locked in. Plus you can often find your favorites at lower prices than fresh produce." Not only is frozen produce less likely to spoil, it's pre-prepped so it's a huge time-saver.
Callout: For the biggest savings, choose frozen asparagus, artichokes, corn, spinach, and berries, which are usually the most expensive fresh picks.
Related: Fresh vs. Frozen Vegetables
8. Be savvy about beef
Cuts of beef can vary substantially in both price and fat content. Sirloin and top, bottom, and eye of round are the leanest cuts. Since sirloin can be a little pricier, stretch it by pairing it with veggies in shish kebabs and stir-fries. Eye, top, and bottom rounds are more economical. But since they can be tough, they're best cooked long and slow in stews, soups, and chili.
9. Consider generics
Choosing generic products over brand names can save you 20 to 30 percent—but it pays to compare. "There can be a wide variety in quality and taste between store- and name-brand foods, so it really comes down to trial and error," says Ross. "For example, my local supermarket has an heirloom tomato sauce with no added sugar that I just stumbled upon and it's better than any brand name I've tried." Ross recommends trying generics for staples like dairy products, flour, and canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, and for nonfood items such as mouthwash, ibuprofen, and fabric softener.
10. Weigh convenience
When you're on a budget, it may seem like there's no wiggle room for convenience foods. Yet, that's not always the case. "Sometimes it's worth a little more to be able to quickly put together a salad or vegetable dish that everyone will eat and enjoy," says Dobbins. Plus, some pre-prepped foods are actually cheaper than whole foods, such as shredded Cheddar, which can be half the price per pound of some wedges. Other convenience products, like canned beans, are so inexpensive that they're practically a no-brainer.
Callout: Stock up on canned goods when they're on sale, then store them in a cool, dry spot.
11. Shop in season
Seasonal produce doesn't just taste better, it's also less expensive. To learn what's in season where you live, download the Seasonal Food Guide app. And, consider growing your own produce, especially veggies with a short shelf life like tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and fresh herbs. Whether you can plant in your backyard or in a small pot on your patio, you can find seeds online and in stores for less than a dollar per packet.
Related: Eating in Season: A Recipe for Life
12. Think outside the supermarket
A monthly trip to warehouse clubs like Costco, BJ's, or Sam's Club can be a smart way to stock up on nonperishables like whole-grain cereal, olive oil, canned tomatoes, and frozen produce (provided you only buy what you'll really use). Dollar stores can also be a smart stop for foods like canned tuna, oatmeal, eggs, bread, beans, peanut butter, and frozen fruits and vegetables. One American Association of Diabetes Educators study found it's possible to buy a week's worth of healthy, diabetes-friendly foods for two at the dollar store for only $39.
The average grocery store carries a whopping 30,000 different items to choose from! Narrow your focus to foods that are low in cost, packed with nutrients, and versatile, making them the perfect building blocks for healthful meals and snacks. Here are 12 of our favorites, with their average prices per ounce:
- Canned salmon (42¢)
- Peanut butter (11¢)
- Plain nonfat Greek yogurt (13¢)
- Whole-wheat pasta (14¢)
- Frozen spinach (11¢)
- Frozen berries (18¢)
- Old-fashioned oats (12¢)
- Bagged apples (8¢)
- Bagged romaine hearts (18¢)
- Canned beans (5¢)
- Whole chicken (11¢)
- Popcorn kernels (8¢)