A December 2019 USDA report estimated that the cost of food prepared at home for a typical adult couple in the continental United States ranges from $89.10 for thrifty people all the way to $766.80 for more free-spending types. Does your budget cry out for you to follow the thrifty plan, but your food receipts look more like you’ve embraced liberal grocery spending? Don’t fret. Many people find that they can cut way back on food expenses by merely stopping wasteful food shopping practices.
Throwing Out Expired Food
The average American family spends $1,500 a year on food they throw away. Yikes! One way to stop wasting food is to be a little smarter about expiration dates. Some dates are sell-by dates, which means the last day a store should sell the food item, not necessarily the last day you should consume the product: Don’t be too eager to throw something out if you’re a day past the sell-by date and the food item still seems fine.
Another trick to cut down on food waste is to clean out your fridge and pantry. Get the actual expired food into the garbage and donate good food you’re honestly never going to eat. Now, you’ll be able to see the good food that’s left. Put the things you need to eat first in the front and/or at eye level. Every time you bring groceries into the house, rotate them so that the oldest foods are always at the front and the newest in the back. Rotating your groceries helps ensure that you’ll eat them before they go bad. A well-organized fridge and pantry can also help prevent duplicate purchases. After all, how many bottles of ketchup does anyone really need?
Purchasing Name-Brand Foods
Another easy way to save at the grocery store is by making the switch from name-brand to generic or store-brand items. Stores like Aldi and Trader Joe’s have become very popular in America, and both chains focus heavily on store brands over name brands. You don’t necessarily have to sacrifice quality, either; most of the store brands are made in the same factories as the more expensive name brands. No one is saying you should give up on all name brands, though. When name-brand items are strongly preferred over their economical counterparts, watch out for sales and always use coupons.
Not Properly Using Leftovers
Throwing away leftovers is throwing away money. Leftovers from restaurant meals are included, by the way! Don’t be shy about asking for a to-go box. You’ve already splurged on the meal, but if you can get another meal (or even components of another a meal) out of the splurge, it’ll be a lot easier on your budget. Even basic things like leftover rice can be repurposed in multiple ways. Taking stock of leftovers at the end of every meal and incorporating them into your meal plan for the next day can decrease the amount of waste your kitchen produces and the amount of money that feeding your family consumes. In some cases, it can even get meals on the table faster the next day! If you can’t stomach eating the dish for another day, freeze it for later.
Maybe the most significant way to waste money in the kitchen is always choosing convenience items, like partially cooked items, or pre-prepped food, at the grocery store. There’s no need to start making marshmallows from scratch (though you certainly can), but items like prepackaged slow-cooker meal kits add extra cost to what could be an inexpensive meal of carrots, potatoes, and a cheaper cut of meat. Slicing vegetables yourself and adding your own spices from your cabinet can save you significant money.
Getting Take-Out or Dining Out Too Often
People between the ages of 35 and 44 spend more than $4,000 a year dining out. That’s almost double what people under 25 spend. It makes certain sense, though, right? People in that age bracket are the most likely to have kids at home, make a little more money than their younger counterparts, and are pressed for time due to family and work demands. But anyone can cut down on the amount they spend dining out (or hitting up an app to order delivery). The secret is a little bit of planning. A lot of dining out happens when people are hungry on the go, but you can plan ahead for those occasions by keeping things like bags of granola or nuts in your car or bag. Having a snack stash can help you stave off hunger until you get home. And keeping a few super-low-effort meals on hand, like frozen pizza or already cooked and frozen meals, means you are closer to dinner time once you get home.
Forgetting to Plan Your Meals
Have you ever looked up meal-planning online and then backed away slowly, intimidated by complicated charts or color-coded calendars? Don’t be discouraged. Meal planning should make your life easier and your food budget go down. Start by taking stock of what’s in the kitchen and what food needs to be eaten soon. Make a list of meals you can make out of those ingredients. Now, add on other meals you want to cook in the week ahead. Think about what meals will produce leftovers and how you can repurpose them. Congratulations, you just made a meal plan! Now, add any needed items to your grocery list and enjoy a better-organized kitchen and a slimmed-down grocery budget.
Forgoing Meal Prep
If you’re only familiar with meal prep from what you’ve seen on Pinterest, this might seem intimidating, but nothing could be further from the truth! As you put away groceries, think about what you can do right then to make cooking easier later in the week. Maybe you can cook up a pot of beans, start some containers of overnight oats, boil some eggs, and bake some potatoes. If tomorrow night is taco night, go ahead and cook up your protein now and throw it in the fridge, so it just needs to be heated up later. Even just chopping up veggies for salads or a stir-fry can help you avoid the siren call of takeout when you come home frazzled. You might also want to put together your own slow-cooker kits to stash in the freezer. Toss one in before you head off to work and dinner is taken care of!
Fried foods and soft foods typically aren’t great candidates for meal prep (the exception might be mason jar salads), but grains, heartier vegetables, and most roasted meats do well.