I like writing stuff like this. I always get a bit nervous, though. You can only base it off your own experiences and we’re so different. Oh, and because of anxiety but that’s off-topic! I’m motivated by the thought of helping even just one person. Getting a good deal and shopping cheaply is always going to be a miniature obsession of mine. Even if I got hit by a truck of money I’d still want to optimize my grocery cart.
Now, that said. I live in a metropolitan area in the Midwestern USA. Urban and rural dwellers face different challenges with food prices and food accessibility, and that variation becomes even more widespread by region and by country. Some of these are applicable to most people, but I’d really encourage anyone with experience in different locales, regions, and countries to flesh out their own tips as well.
Base recipes around many of the same ingredients: Notice how a lot of recipes start the same way? Onion, garlic, celery, carrot? Potato? Diced tomatoes? If you write out your meal plan to share common ingredients each given week, you won’t be buying a million different ingredients.
Make a shopping list and a meal plan: It isn’t everyone’s style, but I find having a decently clear idea of what I want for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks stops a lot of impulse buying and “what the Hell do I do with this now?” when I get it all home. It also gets me out of the store faster and I’m all about the lifestyle. Time is money.
Keep bulk cooking recipes in your repertoire and embrace leftovers: I’m planning to write an in-depth guide on bulk cooking in the future. There are tons of stews, chilis, curries, and casseroles that can be made in excessive quantities for around $20 or less. Keep some in the fridge fresh to eat right away, and freeze the rest! You can pull them down for lunch or dinner whenever you need them. Also, leftovers. I know some people struggle to eat the same food many times in a row, but it definitely adds up quickly to prepare new meals for every day. Having your freezer stocked with these bulk cooked foods can provide the relief you need from any monotony in your meal plan that week.
Make classic and common ingredients the staples of your meals: We’re often enticed to try out the hot new foods trending in the blogosphere and news reports, but personally I find they’re mostly convoluted marketing terms and tangent reminders to eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You don’t need goji berries, pomegranates, pre-made green smoothies, chia seeds, or any of the nonsense the computer screen is screaming at you to eat. Many common foods of yore are often just as, and sometimes more, beneficial as trendy foods. Cabbage, spinach, potatoes, carrots, apples, bananas, peanut butter, eggs, dried beans, rolled oats, and dried brown rice are some of the major workhorse foods that are extremely cheap.
Don’t shun frozen and canned ingredients: You know what’s kind of expensive? Buying enough fresh tomatoes to make pasta sauce or tomato based stews. Berries, for much of the year. And, several more. Depending on how old the produce on your store shelf is, it’s not uncommon for flash-frozen fruits and vegetables to actually have retained more of the nutrition, too.
Shop sales: This sounds a little obvious, but flip open the ad for your favorite shop and see what specials they’re running. Plan some meals that pull in some of the items your store is offering up for cheap that week!
Buy produce that is in-season: Take a clue of what to buy based on what the Earth is currently providing your location. It will be fresher, taste better, and have traveled shorter distances, too. There are good lists out there about what’s seasonal and when. It will vary by climate, of course. There are also some fruits and vegetables that are always available at decent prices. Ahem, another plug for bananas.
Buy in bulk when possible: Understandably, this isn’t always an option. However, if the stars align and you find yourself with a few extra bucks and chicken quarters are on sale for something crazy like $.49/lb, load ‘em up. Freeze ‘em up. I also find that canned tomatoes or cooking stock will go on great sales and I’ll snatch a few extra up to shave a few dollars off in the long run.
Check if your favorite grocery spot does e-coupons and rewards: Coupons for stuff I actually eat is a bit of a rarity. Seriously, 80% of them are junk food and plastic bags. Boo. Oh, how much I’d love it you got coupons for produce. However, many stores offer digital coupons and rewards for shopping at their store. On occasion, I’ll snatch one up for an actual food item I want, but the real hook and sinker is my store of choice has a rewards program. Spend $200 in four weeks? Bam, $5 off your next basket. Uhm, yes please? It usually means you’ll have to become loyal to that store but if you’re already besties, why not?
Water is now your favorite beverage: There are a million reasons to drink water. I’m not saying you can never have your favorite refreshments, but supporting a serious coffee, juice, or soda habit can really add up. If you’re fortunate enough to have great tap water, it’s almost free. If you need filtered water or water bottles, it’s still less money over time when you make it your main squeeze.
Eat a little less meat: This sometimes gets people’s panties in a twist but you know what? Meat’s expensive, fam. Sometimes absolutely nothing I care for is on sale, either. We usually only eat it for dinner, but occasionally the divination of my holy document, the sales ad, imparts the words “vegetarian week.” Do what works for you, but I think it’s always very valid advice when trying to get a grocery bill down.