A friend posted on her blog recently, her struggle to make good home cooked meals while balancing the budget she and her husband have established. As I perceived it, her main problems are going back to the store, cooking for two, and saving at the store. I have really thrown myself into the couponing deal-searching world in the last year or so, I watched my mom coupon as I grew up. I have found it to be a great hobby, one I can justify spending time on and really do enjoy. My friends make fun of me for my three ring coupon binder and my knack for the phrase, "It's cheaper at ______ this week." But I have figured a few ways to pare down the food bill, even without the coupon binder and ad studying. I wanted to share a few tips with my friend, and anyone else that struggles with these problems.
Going Back to the Store
Set a Menu, Be Flexible Within a Menu, Have Staples on Hand
I love to grocery shop, it is cathartic and relaxing for me, which is why I try to avoid them except for when I am on my designated trips. I try to grocery shop every two weeks. A previous post showed my menu board, I love this for planning my menu. I find I cannot plan two weeks of meals and stick to it. I plan my first week before shopping (but after looking at what's on sale in the ads), new recipes or specialty ingredients get planned on this week, then the week after shopping is my leftover week. I don't eat leftovers all week, I just use whatever is left in my fridge for dinners. Sites like Epicurious and Betty Crocker are great for plugging in what you have, and coming up with new meals. I also know that I always have pasta, tortillas, canned tomatoes, and chicken in the house to replace any meals I just don't feel like making that specific night. Be flexible with yourself, don't turn dinner time into a battle of your will against your menu. When I follow my menu I always know that a) I am going to use up anything perishable in my fridge and b) I can do new stuff in just another week.
Cooking for One (or Two)
Pre-package Your Bulk, Utilize The Freezer, Know Shelf Life
This is really hard to do! I have been cooking on my own for years and I still over portion my food on occasion. I have found two problems to deal with when you break it down, portion and price. The answer is bulk and freezing. I know buying in bulk seems counter intuitive, but buying chicken at $2/lb a couple times a month is much more expensive than buying it at $1.59/lb once every couple of months. I learned to add a step to my shopping trips from my aunt, single for 30 plus years, packaged everything after the grocery trip. I package my chicken/steak/ground meat into proper proportions by serving size (this helps if you are watching your weight too). This helps me track how much is left (when I need to restock), only use what I need (no chicken salad for two days to use up leftovers), and easier meal prep (shorter defrosting and cook times).
My mom got a freezer for me at Christmas last year. I have filled it with lots of different things. Rice, for example freezes well after cooking, when reheated in the microwave it re-steams itself. I also freeze spaghetti sauce, leftover canned black beans, and coconut milk. This is a good guide to what freezes well, and not. Sometimes it is trial and error with recipes, but the things that work out are worth it. I made individual fruit cobblers the other day and froze them individually. Now I can finish dinner, pop one into a mug, pop it into the microwave, and pop it into my mouth.
Produce can often present a problem as the fresh foods go bad on your counter or even in your fridge. Recently I bought some green zip top produce bags, 8 bags for $1 at the The Dollar Tree. I have kept my veggies in them the past month. They are great! I don't understand the science, but I can leave lettuce in them for three weeks and it is still fresh and crisp, snow peas stay crisp, and strawberries don't mold after a couple days.
Lastly, know how long things are really good for, meaning don't be fooled by "expiration" dates. I know some will disagree with me, but I stand by this concept. This is a guide for storing food, but I disagree with even some of these. Eggs are fine for up to 2 months (chicken scientist told me this, I am not kidding), asparagus keeps longer if you set it in a glass with a half inch of water in the bottom, and hard cheeses can be kept for a very very very long time, just cut off the mold.
Buy What You Use, Know Price and Ads, and Use Coupons
Saving money at the register is a balance of buying what you use, knowing prices, and getting money off. Obviously buying peanut butter is not a good use of money if you never eat it. And $1 off at one store may be $2 more expensive than another. And $1 off 4 of something is only good if you really will use 4 before they expire. The menu and freezing will help you know what you will use.
Knowing prices takes time. The best way to do this is to look at your weekly ads. Most grocery ads are online now, and you can even make a shopping list from it and print or email. When you are new to learning prices there are various places to go to find out what actually is a good price. I have found an EXCELLENT source for pricing in GrocerySmarts. This site allows you to select a store and look at the rating of the current prices in the ads. The red stars mean a great price, keep in mind there could be a greater price in another local ad, so look at them all. You don't need to run around to 15 stores to get the deal, Walmart price matches any grocer's ad.
GrocerySmarts also shows what coupons can be used with these deals, to sweeten the pot. The most thought of place to find coupons is in your Sunday newspaper., which can be purchased all week long at most Walmarts, or many newspapers offer weekend subscriptions. While this is the most thought of, the web has become an easy way for manufacturers to get there products to people, including coupons. My favorite coupon site is, Coupons.com. This site has lots of coupons to print right off the Internet. My favorite deal blogger Hip2Save has a coupon page where she links to lots of printable coupons from all over the web. She also has links to the Coupons.com coupons, WITH a zip code, since different coupons are released to different regions, but still work everywhere. I love Collin with Hip2Save, she has some really useful videos about how to use coupons if you are going to really get into the scene. RedPlum, SmartSource, and All You magazine offer printable online coupons too. Here in Utah a great money saver is the Smiths digital coupon feature. You can load digital coupons directly onto your card, and print out a list of what's on there. Finally, look at your coupons to see how many you have to buy, if you won't use two boxes of something, just get the one and leave the coupon on the shelf for the next person that does want two. But, just because you have never bought it, doesn't mean you won't. Kraft usually is higher price than store brand, but with a sale and a coupon, the Kraft could win out. And never feel bad throwing away a coupon, it is better than throwing away money.
I know this was a long post, but hopefully something in there was helpful. I have really enjoyed the process of saving money with the help of all these tools. Please feel free to ask questions or add to my notes if you so desire!