Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Saving Money on Food (the No Compromise Way)

by Colleen from

There are lots of ways to save money on groceries, but often along the way something is lost. We all have our ideals and our lines we don't want to cross, but when saving money becomes very important, compromise often seems necessary.

However, there are ways to save money on food without compromising flavour, freshness, or the ideals of local, sustainable, organic, etc. Here are some strategies I apply with my grocery budget. The result is that we eat well (flavour, nutrition, etc.) without spending a fortune, and we feel good about what we eat too.

(One caveat is that these are Strategies, not Rules. Nobody is perfect, but if you have guiding principles that operate most or even much of the time, you are probably doing pretty well. I am far from perfect, and have even been known to order a pizza once in awhile! Gasp!)

Strategy #1: Plan Meals

Yes, the "organized housewife" blogs are right: planning meals is your first step in saving money on food. It's a good idea to develop a system. I use the following categories to cover five nights out of seven, and then plan for leftovers the other two nights: meat (this could be red meat or poultry), fish, beans, vegetarian, pasta. The bean and pasta recipes can include meat in them, but preferably as a flavouring agent, not a main note. Each week I write my meal ideas in my Moleskine Weekly Notebook with the shopping list on the "notes" side. That way I can reference past weeks' meals to inspire me.

Strategy #2: Cook from Scratch

The principle here is to shop for ingredients, not processed foods. So I buy flour, yeast and salt instead of bread. I buy ground beef, canned tomatoes and chili powder instead of a taco kit or frozen burritos. I buy chicken, onions and pasta instead of chicken noodle soup. It does take extra time, but I really enjoy cooking and baking. I enjoy the challenge of learning to make new things like tortillas, and of finding simpler and more delicious bread recipes. It's a very frugal hobby as long as you follow the next principle.

Strategy #3: Keep it Simple

These days, food porn abounds, but it turns out Gordon Ramsey is right: the truth is, fresh high-quality food prepared simply will taste fantastic and doesn't need fancy distractions to make it a good meal. There are many ways to implement this strategy. For example, we often have soup and toast for dinner, and don't feel lacking for it. I love pan sauces, but try for recipes that use things I have on hand. (Unfortunately) I've cut way back on my consumption of fancy cheeses, especially since Parmesan has skyrocketed for some reason, but it means that when I do get a chunk, I really really enjoy it. Keep it simple and let the food speak for itself, and you won't end up with expensive herbs & condiments languishing in the fridge. Which brings me to . . .

Strategy #4: Reduce Food Waste

It doesn't matter how much you saved on that loaf of bread, or how cheaply you made that soup; if it ends up in the garbage, you are throwing money away. This hit home for me a few weeks ago when I looked in my fridge after a week away and saw it was nearly full--of rotting vegetables and infested leftovers. Eating up leftovers promptly has been an important part of this strategy--if they aren't enough for the next day's dinner, I make a point of packing them for lunch. My freezer is another great help. If something is nearing its best-before date, I can slip it into a Ziplock baggie and put it in the freezer for inclusion in some future soup, sauce or casserole. The point is, look at any food thrown away as dollars in the garbage, and you will find the motivation to reduce food waste.

These four strategies help me to save money on food without compromising my ideals or the quality of what we eat. They can apply whether you shop at a big chain store, your local farmer's market, or your own backyard. They may take time, but then again, so does couponing! For my own part I would rather spend my time with my hands in some dough than searching down coupons and trading them online.

What other strategies or guiding principles do you apply to save on groceries? Let me know what I've missed!