Shop smart. Affordable, healthful eating starts with smart shopping. Surveys show that shoppers spend almost $2 for every minute they’re in the market, so shopping efficiently will save dollars and cents. Always make a list and stick to it. Picking up an extra two or three impulse items on a shopping trip can add $5 to $10 a week to your bill, or almost $500 over the course of a year. Clip coupons and cut costs by using your store’s loyalty card or frequent buyer programs. Don’t be snobby about store brands; the same manufacturers that make brand-name foods often produce generic foods that taste great and cost as much as 30% less than the name-brand products. Compare cost per serving and don’t assume that economy-size items are always a better buy, particularly if you don’t have storage space or the food spoils before you can use it. Keep in mind that you may be paying a price for convenience if a food has been grated, chopped, precooked, presliced, or individually packaged. Doing a bit of the food preparation yourself will slice your grocery costs.
Plan on leftovers. “Planned-overs” are a budget’s best friend. Save time, energy, and money by cooking once and eating twice. If you roast a chicken on Sunday, use the leftover meat to make chicken wraps on Monday, and save the remaining scraps for a chicken–rice soup later in the week. If you make a spaghetti supper, cook twice as much spaghetti as you need, and use half for a pasta salad for tomorrow’s lunch.
Leftovers have, perhaps unfairly, earned a bad reputation. Author Calvin Trillin said, “For 30 years, my mother served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.” But cost-cutting doesn’t have to mean serving the same, warmed-over meal three times in a week. Think about easy and interesting ways to stretch your entrées, perhaps by adding some fresh ingredients the second time around.
Eat out economically. Cooking and eating at home is less costly than eating out, and it is generally more nutritious as well because when you’re in the kitchen, you control the carbohydrate, fat, and calorie content of your meals. While eating at home is the ideal, the time crunch of busy schedules makes eating out an easier, but more expensive, alternative.
An American family of four spends $3,362 on average each year on sit-down, carry-out, and delivery meals. Careful planning can help prevent dining out from taking a big bite from your budget. Try not to eat out impulsively. Think about what’s in your pantry at home; it’s often quicker to microwave your own meal at home than it is to wait in line at a fast-food drive-through.
If you do go out, make smart nutrition choices from the menu and ask questions of the restaurant staff to satisfy any concerns you may have. Use the often oversized portions of restaurant food to your advantage. For example, have your dining companion order a large salad while you order a traditional entrée with side items. Combine your plates to save money. Or order a full meal and ask for a to-go container as it is being served. Pack up half of your entrée immediately. That way you won’t be tempted to overeat, and you’ll have another meal “in the bag” for the next day.
Grow a garden. Don’t overlook the bountiful benefits of a backyard or windowsill garden. For the price of a few starter plants or seed packets, you can enjoy your own home-grown fresh herbs or vegetables. Freeze or can your extra harvest for savings year-round. If you’re a new gardener, start small and plan carefully. Resources such as your county Cooperative Extension Service, the public library, and the Internet can provide more advice for your gardening situation. Of course, gardening is a bit of work, but as an added bonus, it is a stress-relieving activity that can burn up to 300 calories per hour as you plant seeds, push a wheelbarrow, or pull weeds.