Americans are feeling the effects of rising food costs. IFIC’s 2023 Food and Health Survey found that nine in ten consumers have noticed an increase in food and beverage prices in the last year. As a result, many of us are interested in cutting back on our grocery bills—wherever and whenever possible. While there are numerous factors that contribute to the cost of one’s food bill—including where you shop, what dietary restrictions you may have, and how many mouths you need to feed—there are a few tips you can employ to help you save money on groceries.
1. Simplify your meal planning.
While it’s tempting to whip up exotic dishes from the wealth of extravagant recipes you can find in cookbooks and online, a surprising truth is that many people feel satisfied with a fewer number of meal options per week—simple and nutritious favorites that can be repeated over and over again. Unsure where to start? Try this method: Choose one or two breakfast options, two or three options for both lunch and dinner, and two or three snack options. A few ideas to choose from:
- Yogurt, banana, and granola
- Eggs, toast, and a nut butter
- Oatmeal, milk (animal or plant-based), and frozen berries
Lunch or dinner:
- A few ounces of your favorite meat, poultry, fish, or eggs paired with pasta and a side salad
- The same protein options as above, but paired with brown rice and roasted veggies
- A vegetarian option: Pasta, lentils, beans, or quinoa with cheese and veggies
- Another vegetarian option: A tomato-, bean-, or barley-based soup filled with veggies
- Whole-wheat crackers and cheese
- Fruit and cottage cheese
- Granola with yogurt
- A protein bar
- Hummus and raw veggies
2. Before you head to the store, take inventory of what you already have on hand.
Often, we default to going right to the grocery store without taking inventory of what’s already in our kitchen. It’s likely that you already have some ingredients that can be used in this week’s meals. If you have non-perishables like rice, pasta, canned goods, and snacks (such as nuts, popcorn, or crackers) or any frozen items, how might you combine or add these items to this week’s meals and snacks?
3. Browse coupons and various store promotions before you shop.
Paying attention to current coupons and promotions—as well as purchasing in-season foods—can save you many dollars when you start combining sales. If you have more than one local grocery store, scan the coupons and promotions to see which are having sales and discounts. Typically, different fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins are on sale each week, so mixing it up will help deliver you a diverse diet.
4. Focus on budget-friendly foods.
Some foods are less expensive than others, so it’s helpful to be aware of a few go-to, relatively low-cost options. Think bananas, apples, cantaloupe, carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, peanut butter, popcorn, and oatmeal. Lastly, keep in mind that store-brand items tend to be less expensive than name-brand items. You can check the Nutrition Facts Label if you want to make sure the nutrition is similar.
5. Buy in bulk when it’s cost-effective (but be wise not to overbuy!).
Buying in bulk is sometimes the more cost-effective option, but not always. Consider how often items you buy in bulk go unused. If you end up wasting a portion of the bulk item, it’s no longer saving you money. Plus, did you know you can see the price per ounce of a food item at the grocery store? It should be located in very small print next to the price of the item on the shelf. This is a helpful way to compare the cost of items that come in various sizes. When deciding which size to buy, you might consider asking yourself three questions:
- How likely is it that I or my family will finish this amount of food before it expires?
- Is the cost per ounce significantly different from another option?
- Do I need or want this food, or am I purchasing it because it seems like a good deal?
6. Put your freezer to good use.
Frozen foods are incredibly underrated. Frozen fruits and vegetables without added sugar or sodium are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts—and they can be utilized in a variety of ways. For example, frozen vegetables are typically steamed or microwaved for a filling and healthy addition to lunch and dinner meals, while frozen fruits can be added to breakfast cereals and smoothies, or thawed and eaten as is. And most perishable sources of protein—like meat, poultry, and fish—can be stored in the freezer to extend their shelf life. If you buy meat on sale but won’t be able to eat it before it expires, you can easily freeze it for another time. Bread is also perfect for storing in the freezer for up to several months.
7. Properly store your produce and shelf-stable items.
Half the battle of saving money on groceries is making sure you aren’t wasting food throughout the week. Knowing how to store both perishable items, like produce, as well as shelf-stable items can extend the life of your food and decrease waste. Learn how to properly store produce and how to navigate date labels (such as “best by” and “sell by”) so you can make the most of your food budget.
8. Take time to prep food a couple of times per week.
While it may seem like you need to prep all your meals at the start of the week, that’s not necessarily the best course of action. First—that’s a lot of work! Second, you may not eat all of it before it’s gone bad, or you may change your mind about what you’d like to eat mid-week. It may be more practical to choose one to three days each week to dedicate an hour or so at a time for cooking. This way, you’ll have some food prepped without feeling overwhelmed, while still minimizing waste. An example schedule may look like: Cooking one lunch/dinner meal and prepping ingredients (think portioning or slicing!) for one snack and one breakfast option for one hour on Sunday, then cooking another hour on both Wednesday and Friday evenings.
We know the cost of food can be a stressor when you’re on a budget. We hope these tips can help you get more nutritious food to eat for your money while decreasing the overwhelm of preparing meals and minimizing food waste.