Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Stretching Your Grocery Budget

A friend wrote me a note a few days ago and suggested I do some posts on low budget meals. Which I think is a great idea. Except that I don't know what is on sale in your neck of the woods today, or what your neighbor is growing too much of .... so instead perhaps a few tips on how I maximize my food dollars. I'm not promising all of these will work for you, but perhaps a few will.

Most of what I make is "budget" food - the french bread pizzas were because I had a coupon for free French bread. All the zucchini recently has been because of gifts of zucchini or zucchini included in my CSA share. Pretty soon there will be a lot of tomato recipes as the vines outside begin to give me ripe fruit. The steak I cooked on the grill was on sale and had a $3 off coupon attached to it beyond the sale price. Chili and other bean based meals are almost always a bargain, as are egg salads or chicken salad when you get the chicken for $2 a pound.

Fruits and Veggies:

  1. Free is always cheaper than any other option. If someone gives you zucchini, peaches or tomatoes that is the cheapest option for dinner tonight.

  2. Cheap is next best. So find your local produce spots, and especially in the summer, buy whatever is in season. Especially as transported produce is going up in price SO MUCH, stick to what your local farmers are growing. Flexibility is key to saving money. If I plan a salad and go to the farmers market and lettuce is too expensive, then perhaps we'll have a cucumber and tomato salad instead that evening. Or a tray of finger veggies - carrots, celery, pepper and grape tomatoes. Here is a neat post about what is in season each month. (Obviously it varies a bit - tomatoes ripen much earlier in Georgia than they do in New England)

  3. From what I've read, frozen produce is just as healthy as few day old "fresh produce". So especially for food you are going to cook anyway, check the prices on frozen veggies. Bell pepper is a good example - at Trader Joes I get a pound of tri-color pepper strips for far less than a pound of fresh peppers - and the price does not include the seed and stem I would discard from the fresh peppers. What to Eat is a great resource for balancing the health claims from the food industry so you can make informed decisions. After checking it out of my local library multiple times I finally bought a copy.

  4. Some fruit, especially, is really easy to freeze. I "put up" about 8 quarts of blueberries a few weeks ago because I found them cheap. I just rinsed them, let them dry for thirty minutes or so, and then put them in plastic containers and stacked them in my freezer. They will make great additions to pancakes, crisps, pies and sauces all winter.

  5. When cooking with fruit, I frequently buy "seconds" at my local orchard - when I make applesauce, for instance, I will end up spending only $25 or so on two or three BUSHELS of applesauce by buying the seconds. It might require a little bit of paring on my part, but most of the apple don't even need that. I did the same thing with 16 quarts of strawberries I froze and canned in May.


  1. I look for the "loss leader" sales at the local grocery store - the couple of really good sales they put on the front of the sales ad. Boneless chicken breasts for under $3/pound, for instance, even if I have to buy a five pound package to get that price. (In which case I will either make one big batch of something or repackage in smaller packages for freezing). Other good sales at times: steak, whole chickens, pork chops, ribs ...

  2. Look for the $2 or $3 off coupons attached to packaged meat when they are getting close to their expiration date. The other day I found 1 pound rolls of hot sausage which were on sale 2 for 4.99 and EACH had a $2 off coupon. Can't beat .50/pound for a sausage brand we really like! I've found similar deals on kielbasa, Italian sausage, bacon, scrapple ... likewise, if you can find a $3 off coupon on a steak that is already on sale, you can eat really well for just a few dollars. Find a few? Put them in your freezer for later.

  3. I've had pretty good success buying meat at BJ's. Not as good as the "scores" using the first two methods, but good prices. The ten pound bags of individually frozen chicken breasts are a particularly good deal. They also have good prices on frozen fish.

  4. Trader Joes and Aldi each have good, but not great prices on certain things - frozen chicken for both, frozen fish at Trader Joes.

  5. This only helps if you live near Philadelphia, but I sometimes stock my freezer at Shady Maple in Lancaster County. You have to buy in larger quantities, but you can get good prices.

Pantry Staples:

  1. Many items I only buy at Aldi: canned beans, chicken broth (when I'm out of frozen stock), canned diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, canned chick peas, flour, sugars, oatmeal, corn bread mix.

  2. For the little bit of cereal we eat at our house, I buy no-name brands of Os at Trader Joes or hit the really good sales at the store. (But we probably eat three boxes of cereal PER YEAR, so I'm far from an expert on this subject)

  3. Other items I buy as they are on sale, and buy a couple for my basement pantry shelves. This is actually a BIG money saver - shopping to stock your pantry from what is least expensive. Then you shop FROM YOUR CABINETS to plan your menu. Want to get your blackbelt in frugal good shopping? Study at the knees of The Tightwad Gazette.

  4. Check the price per ounce. Sometimes a sale will make the 10 oz price of "product x" cheap enough that buying the 25 oz "economy size" bottle MORE EXPENSIVE per ounce.

  5. Almost every spice I have is from Penzeys. If you don't have one near you, you have to order a few things at a time to make it worth the shipping, but their prices and quality are far superior to the grocery store. If you already have the spice jars, buy the little loose bags and refill them yourself. A few times a year I spend time refilling all my little bottles, and I think it saves me a good bit of money. As an example, a typical jar of basil holds about an ounce. At one of the local grocery stores, they would charge 4.25. But Penzeys has theirs for 2.79/ounce or 6.49/for a 4 ounces bag.

Most of the time I stay away from frozen foods, except for the highly unprocessed ones (frozen peas, frozen chicken breasts, frozen green beans). I do, however, have an inherited weakness for ice cream (I blame Grammy). So for that I stay flexible on brand. If Edy's is on a good sale we're eating that this month. Or Turkey Hill. Or Breyers. It's also an item on which I practice portion control - I can get far more servings at a half cup at a time than if I eat it in cereal bowl quantities.

Certain foods are expensive enough that I only tend to buy them if we have eating out money in the budget - for instance, if I pick up steamed crab legs and a baguette, it is a ready to eat special treat for under $20, but feels a bit more "special" than take-out pizza.

I think one of the biggest ways to save money on groceries is to NOT THROW THEM OUT. To do this, I have to pay attention to what I have on hand, and do my best to use them up. Epicurious (the website for Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines) has a really useful advanced search, so if you have two onions, one pepper and some roast beef to use up, you enter those and it suggests options.

When I have a slightly squishy banana I freeze it for a future banana bread. Most other fruits, if slightly mushy (peaches, apples, berries, peaches) get turned into a not-too-sweet crisp, which we then eat with ice cream for dessert and for a few breakfasts thereafter.

Most leftover veggies and meat can be used in one of these: fried rice, omelets, frittatas, quiche, or soup.

NOTE: In all of this I am NOT advocating eating food past the point of food safety. I'm only talking about when you can't stand a third day of ____ or a piece of fruit is no longer cosmetically pretty (but would be fine with a little paring).

But I suppose I have not really answered the question. What would I cook if I had no pre-purchased food which had been obtained from previous sales and a very tight grocery budget?

I would probably start with these ideas:

Chili, with lots of beans and 80/20 ground beef (which is pretty cheap - you drain the fat anyway) or ground turkey

Dishes which get a good bit of protein from egg: egg salad, frittata, omelets, breakfast for dinner

Dishes that mix carbs or inexepensive vegetables with the more expensive meat (preferably whole grains), especially when serving a crowd: pasta with sausage or meatballs, kielbasa cooked with potatoes and brussel sprouts, chicken pot pie, zucchini casserole, lasagna ...

I would buy bone-in, skin-on chicken and cut it myself - it is almost always cheaper.

I would depend on store brand frozen vegetables (mixed, green beans, broccoli, peas), inexpensive local produce, and the fresh vegetables that are almost always cheap: cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes.

When it comes to deciding whether to make something myself, I always try to figure out if I can make it significantly cheaper, tastier or healthier by making it myself. For some things I can not accomplish any of these goals. So, for instance, I have never attempted to make a cheese danish because for the once or twice per year I purchase them at the Entemanns outlet, I wouldn't be able to make it cheaper. It's already pretty tasty, and regardless of the kitchen which produces a cheese danish, it is never going to be healthy.


Sarah said...

This is a fabulous article, Karen! Thanks so much for writing it--it will be a wonderful reference! I'm really impressed with what a flexible cook you are. I don't feel confident enough to make as many last-minute changes as you do, but reading your blog is giving me encouragement and even a little gumption. I've already placed a request for one of your recommended books at the library. Many many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Chick, this is awesome. I might be able to make better food now. I'm glad God has blessed you with this talent. Among other things! :D

Anonymous said...

Where do I buy the pile of money at the bottom of the page? I haven't been able to find it for cheaper than $4/lb...