Does it feel like you are spending more at the grocery store each week? You are, and it’s not just because you are staying home and cooking more. Food prices have skyrocketed since the pandemic began. Poultry is up 11 percent; beef is up 20 percent; pork costs 8.5 percent more. And it’s not just meat that is more expensive: People are paying 4 percent more for cereals and vegetables, and egg prices have spiked 10 percent. The reasons for the price increase are many: Supply chain disruptions, meat packing facilities closing due to illness and demand outpacing supply. Prices may not go back to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon, so we've come up with some simple tips to help you shop smarter and waste less.
1. Use what you have.
The first important step to saving money on food is to take an inventory of what food you already have. Start by going through your pantry and freezer. Check expiration dates and throw out anything that has expired. Make a list of what you do have and use recipe apps like Allrecipes Dinner Spinner, Supercook and BigOven to find recipes you can make. Try to shop only for fresh items you need to supplement your meals. You might be surprised at how long you can go without a big grocery bill by using up what you have.
2. Make a menu based on sales.
Every week before you go shopping, make a weekly menu. Sit down with paper, pen and your local grocery store weekly flyer and plan meals based on what is discounted that week. This is especially important for meat-based dishes. Also, consider your schedule while planning. On the days you will be busy right up until dinnertime, make that evening’s meal a simple one — or start something in the slow cooker earlier in the day so it’s ready when you are. (And, you will be less tempted to make a fast-food run!)
3. Stretch meat.
With the high price of meat, simply buying what is on sale will help your budget. Another way to stretch meat products is to cut down just a little on the amount you put in a recipe. If a recipe calls for one pound of ground beef, use three-quarters of a pound. It’s a small change that no one will notice. Pack away the extra meat in a ziplock bag in the freezer and after three meals of using the reduced amount you will have enough for an extra dish.
Another great way to stretch meat is by adding a nutritious filler. This idea works best for casseroles, soups and stews. For ground beef, use a half-pound instead of a whole pound and add a can of pinto beans to the recipe (this works especially well with Mexican flavors). In a casserole that includes diced or shredded chicken, use half the amount of meat and add an equal amount of cooked rice.
4. Go meatless.
Your mom might have told you that you need to eat meat at every meal to get enough protein, but the truth is that most Americans consume roughly twice as much protein as they need. Remember that plants, legumes, eggs, dairy products and grains also contain protein. Consider serving up a vegetarian dinner once or twice a week.
5. Cut produce costs.
Fresh produce can be a budget buster, especially when you find it in the back of the fridge past its prime. Purchasing just the right amount of produce that includes what veggies will be in your weekly menu will automatically cut down on waste.
Save money by purchasing frozen fruits and vegetables instead of fresh. Frozen produce has the advantage of not going bad when you deviate from your menu, and frozen foods can be just as nutritious as fresh. Some studies have even shown that frozen produce contains more healthy vitamins and minerals than fresh because it is picked and then flash-frozen. Fresh produce is often picked before it is fully ripened and then trucked across the country, making it less than fresh.
Another money-saving tip for fresh produce is to prep it yourself. Invest in a good vegetable peeler, knife and maybe even a salad spinner to chop and wash your own veggies. Pre-prepared foods saves time but not money.
6. Get out of your store “comfort zone.”
Everyone has their favorite grocery store, but it might not be the most economical. Try checking out other stores. Places such as WinCo Foods and Grocery Outlet may not offer the convenience of other chains, but they do offer big savings. Even if a cheaper store is in an inconvenient location, it may be worth going there once or twice a month to stock up on staples.
7. Use coupons.
Most major chains have a free app with which you can browse sales and e-coupons. You can add coupons to your store membership account that will be redeemed at the register when you enter your card or rewards number. As far as manufacturer coupons go, in my shopping experience, they seldom save me any more than buying items on sale or opting for the store or a generic brand does. If the coupon is for an item you were already going to purchase, then obviously it will help lower your bill. But often coupons are offered for newer products and might just add an item to your list that you wouldn’t have bought in the first place.
8. Try a rebate app.
You may have heard of rebate apps like Ibotta, Target Cartwheel and Checkout 51. These are apps used to get cash back when you buy certain items. For example, with Ibotta you might see a $1 rebate for a product. You won’t get $1 taken off of your bill at the register; instead you will need to take a picture of your receipt and upload it on the app. When you have collected $20 in rebates, you can get a gift card in that amount or a PayPal transfer. Every app works a bit differently. Search your phone’s app store to see what is available and what works for you.
9. Avoid impulse buying.
Stores employ entire marketing teams to generate impulse buys. Those flashy displays work, or they wouldn’t use them! It can be hard to stick to your list while shopping — especially if you bring the kids. If you find that you are regularly deviating from that list you worked so hard to prepare, then a delivery service might help you save. Some stores offer grocery service where you give the store your list, they shop for you, and then you pick up the bagged groceries. Service charges vary but usually run about $5. Instacart is a service in which shoppers buy your groceries and bring them to your home. Services like Instacart cost more, but if paying a fee eliminates impulse buying and gives you time to cook that scratch meal for the family, it might be worth it.
10. Switch to store brands.
Many feel that store brand items are of lesser quality than name-brand. This is not always the case. Consumer Reports found that in a blind taste test, store brands were equal to — or even better than — national brands. But the only way to know is to try. Canned goods are a good starting point. When added to a recipe, it will be hard to tell the difference in canned tomatoes, beans or corn, and you can save up to 50 percent. Even if you keep your favorite name-brand cereal or spaghetti sauce, substituting even a few of the regular staples you buy will cut that bill.
11. Stop throwing out food.
Studies show that the average American family throws out about one-third of the food they buy. If you spend $900 per month on groceries, that is $300 going out with the trash. Families can cut down on waste with a few simple tips. First, if you are making a menu and only purchasing the food needed to prepare that menu, this will automatically cut your food waste drastically. Leaving one night open on your menu plan per week to have a “leftover buffet” can be helpful as well. Set out all the leftovers buffet-style and let family members choose what they want, adding a salad and a loaf of bread to round out the meal if needed. Or, use leftovers up by sending them to work or school in a thermos for lunch.
It’s so easy to forget about food in the fridge — especially produce — until it’s too late! Here are a few habits that can help. When you come home from the grocery store, place the new items toward the back of the fridge and bring the older stuff to the front. This will serve as a visual reminder of what needs to be consumed first. Consider moving your fresh veggies to a more prominent part of the fridge (instead of the crisper drawer) so you see them each time you open the door. Place fruit that doesn’t need to be refrigerated in a pretty bowl on the counter for grab-and-go snacks. Seeing what you have on a daily basis will help cut that waste.