Clever Hacks to Save Money on Food – Part III: Your Groceries at Home
Each year, $408 billion in food is thrown away in the United States alone, and food waste in homes makes up about 39% of that total. Yep, that’s right. Americans throw out just under $160 billion of the food they buy, every year. That’s a heck of a lot of food wasted, and along with it, a heck of a lot of money down the drain.
So how can we stop wasting so much food and get the most out of our groceries? After reviewing the best ways to save money on food before leaving home (Part I) and at the grocery store (Part II), we now turn our attention to how we can cut costs at home with the food we have.
At Home Money-Saving Grocery Hacks
- Learn How to Make Classic, Favorite, or Improvised Meals
- Cook in Bulk
- Go Veggie 1 or 2 Days a Week
- Stretch Your Meat Farther
- Use Recommended Portions
- Minimize Hunger
- Save All Leftovers
- Understand the Meaning of Expiration and Other Package Dates
- Organize Your Fridge
- Keep Your Food Fresher, Longer
- Bring Food On the Road and to Work
- Drink Water!
- Make Your Own…
1. Learn How to Make Classic, Favorite, or Improvised Meals
It’s pricey to eat out, order out, and consume ready-made meals. If you’re a kitchen-novice, learning how to prepare some classic, go-to meals is a great way to save money on food. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can choose your absolute favorite dishes — perhaps those meals you usually order through takeout — and add them to your repertoire! Not only will you save money, you’ll now have easy access to the most scrumptious food around.
If you’re a more experienced cook, start learning how to improvise. What a superpower, to be able to look at your pantry and fridge, and craft your own meals from whatever ingredients you find!
2. Cook in Bulk
Not only will this trick save you a LOT of money, it’ll save you time. Eat some of the food you’ve cooked immediately, and refrigerate or freeze the remaining food in portioned-out meals for the future (fridge for shorter periods, freezer for longer). The portions are absolutely key because it’s not safe to freeze, thaw, then refreeze food. When you are ready to thaw, the safest way is to put it in the fridge overnight.
To prevent freezer burn, remove air from bags before placing them in the freezer!
3. Go Veggie 1 or 2 Days a Week
If you read Part II of this blog series, you already know that you could save a lot of money by buying less meat. Meat tends to be the most expensive part of any meal so if you want to make a real dent in your costs, dub a couple days a week “vegetarian days.” You can find plenty of protein in other foods such as eggs, lentils, tofu, nuts, dairy products, and legumes.
4. Stretch Your Meat Farther
On those days you do elect to go carnivore, you might try using your meat in a casserole, soup, or stew. This way you’re still getting those delectable, meaty flavors without using more than you really have to.
5. Use Recommended Portions
Especially in America, we’re often served more food than we need at restaurants and in pre-packaged meals. This practice inevitably leads to confusion about how much food our body actually requires. To cut down on costs, check out this handy portion planner, which tells you how much to portion out for both adult and child servings for any given food.
6. Minimize Hunger
If you plan on trying Hack #5, “Use Recommended Portions,” you may find that you’re eating somewhat less than you’re used to. This doesn’t mean you’re not eating enough, however. While your stomach becomes acclimated to recommended portions, try the following things to minimize hunger:
Tea – This natural appetite suppressant should help limit the tummy rumbles between meals.
Fiber-rich Foods – Not only are fruits and veggies majorly healthy, they’ll help you fill up and prevent hunger!
Carbs – Make sure you’re getting plenty of carbs (i.e. rice, pasta, bread) during meals to keep you feeling full.
7. Save All Leftovers
Even if there’s only a small portion of say, asparagus, left from a home-cooked meal or a restaurant, save it! These morsels can fill you up between meals, keep you from depleting the rest of your food stock, and serve as an easy way to save money on food.
8. Understand the Meaning of Expiration and Other Package Dates
“Best Before” and “Use By”
The first thing you should know is that the “best before” date has nothing to do with the safety of eating a product. This is simply the date after which the manufacturer claims the food may not be as fresh or taste as good. Note: these companies have an interest in setting these dates sooner to make you discard and buy more.
While the “use by” date is actually intended to indicate a date after which the food may no longer be safe to consume, manufacturers often set their “use by” date as a peak freshness time — not an indication of when the food will go bad.
Unfortunately there’s little regulation in this area, and a lot of food is wasted because of the misunderstandings and misrepresentations about expiration.
What’s Actually Safe to Consume?
In her post on the USDA website, Marianne Gravely from the Food Safety and Inspection Service says that “Food poisoning bacteria does not grow in the freezer, so no matter how long a food is frozen, it is safe to eat … Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition … Packaged foods (cereal, pasta, cookies) will be safe past the ‘best by’ date, although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor.”
Even perishable foods’ “expiration dates” should be considered in context. Sana Mujahid, Ph.D., manager of food safety research at Consumer Reports says that when it comes to these foods, “trust your taste buds and sense of smell.” You can also use the USDA’s Foodkeeper App (available on mobile as well), which lets you know how quickly an item should be consumed from the date of purchase. Of course, if the food is well past the “use by” date, throw it out, just in case. While we do want to save on waste, we should always err on the side of caution when it comes to our health.
9. Organize Your Fridge
There are two different approaches you could take when organizing your fridge for optimum savings. First ask yourself, “Do I often find expired and forgotten food at the back of my fridge?” If the answer’s yes, try “First In, First Out,” which can also be applied to your pantry …
First In, First Out
The “First In, First Out” technique involves separating your shelves between “old” and “new” foods. You should be consuming the older things (foods closer to expiration), before turning to the newer, fresher items. Challenge yourself to completely finish the “old” shelf before rotating the stuff from the “new” shelf onto this shelf, where it now becomes the “old” stuff. Rinse and repeat. It might also help to stack the taller items towards the back and the shorter things at the front, classroom picture-style.
Everything in Its Place
If forgetting items at the back of your fridge hasn’t been an issue for you, just focus on storing your food in the areas of your fridge where it’ll stay viable the longest. Check out this useful infographic to learn the best places to store different types of food in your fridge and freezer.
However you decide to organize your fridge, do make sure it’s organized. It’ll simply be easier to know your options and you’ll be less likely to forget a timely purchase when things are tidy!
10. Keep Your Food Fresher, Longer
Seal Your Food Well
While some food conveniently comes in resealable containers, a lot of products don’t. Make sure you’re using bag clips, rubber bands, or tupperware to fully seal these items and prevent them from going bad early.
Use Produce-saving Paper Sheets
These are an absolute treasure — but a well-kept secret — of the produce world. When you put a FreshPaper in with your fruits and veggies, it’ll help them stay fresh for 2-4 times as long as they normally would.
Freeze Bread, Meat, and Produce
If you find that your food goes bad faster than you can eat it, consider sticking it in the freezer. Bread can be thawed or even toasted directly from the freezer. And even if you’ve already cooked some meat, you can chop it into smaller pieces, freeze it, then throw it into whatever meal you like later. Fruit can go in the freezer for future smoothies, and if you microwave a frozen banana, you can actually peel and eat it as you normally would. Finally, vegetables can be frozen (except lettuce, celery and other water-heavy items) — just make sure to cook them first. Seal all these things well to prevent freezer burn.
Set Your Fridge at the Right Temperature
According to Consumer Reports, many refrigerator’s automated temperature settings aren’t accurate. Oftentimes the reading will be off by as much as 5°, which Larry Ciufo, Consumer Report’s test engineer, says “can be the difference between fresh food and spoiled food.” Many fridges don’t even have a temperature reading — you could be looking at arbitrary levels from 1 to 5, or even worse, “cold,” “normal,” and “colder.”
To ensure your fridge is keeping your food at the ideal, long-lasting temperature, borrow or purchase a fridge thermometer (you can find these for only a few dollars online), and make sure your fridge is set at 37° F and your freezer at 0° F. Extending the life of your consumables will serve as a hugely cost effective way to save money on food.
11. Bring Food On the Road and to Work
Whether you’re planning to fly across the country, or simply leave for the old 9-to-5, bring food from home. Pre-packaged or takeout meals come with immense markups, and you’re paying for packaging, labor, and services you really don’t need to. When it comes to work-time meals, avoid inordinate spending and bring meals from home.
Food from airports, train stations, and highway rest stops are even more marked up than usual restaurant and takeout meals because these establishments know you’re in a hurry and don’t have other options. Do yourself a favor! Bring a room temp-safe peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple on your trip and skip the $12 Caesar salad.
12. Drink Water!
There’s nothing wrong with having a Coke or La Croix once in a while — it can’t be denied, sparkling beverages sure hit the spot. But if having bottled or canned drinks has become a habit, you could be wasting a fair amount of money, and in the case of soda, taking in a lot of empty calories.
Do some quick research to see if your local water is safe to drink straight from the tap — in most parts of America, it is. If you’re not a huge fan of the flavor, invest in a fridge water filter like a Brita. Do note, if your area has unsafe drinking water, a basic fridge filter like this will not make your water safe to drink. But even if you buy purified water by the gallon, you’ll still be saving more than by consuming smaller bottled and canned drinks.
13. Make Your Own…
Bread is one of the absolute cheapest things you can make. You really only need flour, a bit of salt, and yeast. You’ll save tons of money on this staple food if you have the time to bake it yourself. Plus it’ll be much fresher and taste way better!
If you’re one of those folks who have a bowl of cereal each morning, you have a golden opportunity to cut down on breakfast costs. Cereal is typically expensive, but the ingredients are dirt cheap. Porridge, granola, or muesli are used to create your favorite cereals, and very affordable to buy in bulk.
If you’re a once-in-a-while beer drinker, the cost of brewing your own beer will actually set you back money. But if you’re the type to crack open multiple cans a night, you could save hundreds of dollars a year on your beer budget alone and gain a fun new hobby while you’re at it. Check out the “Cost of Homebrewing Calculator” at the bottom of this post to see if it might be financially worth it for you to start brewing your own beer.
Soda and Sparkling Water
This is a tricky one because you really need to be consuming enough soda or sparkling water to make a soda stream worth it. But if your family of four regularly consumes these drinks daily, a seltzer maker could be a great investment. You can turn your homemade carbonated water into soda with either flavored syrup, or the healthier option, fresh fruit!
Veggies, Herbs, and Fruits
Now this might be farther than you’d want to go if you have little interest in gardening, but if you do have a green thumb and a love for growing things, kill two birds with one stone by growing your own food! Even if you don’t have outdoor space, you can still grow your own herbs and even fruit and veggies indoors with the right amount of light.
Stocks and Sauces
These costly flavor-adders can be made at home with things you already have! Check out these clever ways to make your own stocks and sauces.
Juice and Flavored Milk
OK, so you’re not really making these things, but using juice concentrate instead of juice cartons, and adding strawberry or chocolate powders to create flavored milk are great ways to cut costs on these tasty, kid-friendly drinks.
And that’s it! We’ve now covered all sorts of ways to save money on food at each stage of your grocery journey: pre-shop, at the store, and at home.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all “program” for grocery savings. To get the most out of these tips, slowly but surely incorporate the hacks that will fit most seamlessly into your life. Make sure you’re not spending too much of your spare time searching for sales or baking your own bread if these things are too much of a burden. If you don’t feel up for the heavier-lifting hacks, opt for simple techniques like joining your store’s loyalty program or switching to generic brands. Any ways to save money on food that you can turn into habits are going to make a difference in the long run.