A LOT TO DIGEST
Americans spend a lot of money on food -- $7,023 last year in the average U.S. household, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From grocery shopping to cooking to dining out, these 50 tips and tricks can lower expenses and contribute to a lifestyle that's healthier for the body and the planet.
GROW YOUR OWN
Growing foodstuffs at home can mean anything from planting a thriving, year-round garden to cultivating a few potted herbs. However big or small the operation, it will yield enjoyable home-grown food for a tiny initial cost. Gardeners can also save seeds and swap plants with other green thumbs.
Related: Autumn Cornucopia: 10 Vegetables to Grow in Your Fall Garden
Communal meals allow everyone to make just one dish and partake in a feast. Scheduling a monthly or even weekly potluck with friends or neighbors can be an exciting way to diversify meals and get recipe ideas while saving money on food.
BUY IN BULK
Buying ingredients in large quantities usually reduces the unit price. Identify your household staples and load up on nonperishables and other foods eaten often enough that they won't go bad. Examples may include grains, milk, eggs, and condiments such as ketchup or peanut butter.
STOCK THE PANTRY DURING SALES
When shelf-stable food such as jars of marinara sauce and dried pasta go on sale, take advantage of low prices and stock the pantry. Having convenient food to prepare at a moment's notice will ensure there's always an inexpensive meal option on hand.
CUT OUT SNACKS
Americans spend a lot of money on snack foods, most of which don't contribute much to a nutritious diet. Cutting out chips, pretzels, cookies, and the like will help save money and encourage healthier eating.
BRING FOOD ON THE ROAD
Food on planes, trains, and highways costs more, because vendors know travelers have limited options. Keeping granola bars or some almonds and raisins in a travel bag can save from spending a lot more on a snack purchased on the go.
Related: 13 Healthy Homemade Snacks
USE FROZEN FOOD
Frozen foods, be they berries or pizza dough, can last months longer than their fresh counterparts and often have similar flavor and texture. Choosing frozen food cuts down on spoilage and waste, and at a cheaper price, is a no-brainer.
Related: 16 Foods to Freeze for Later (and How to Do It Right)
ALWAYS SAVE LEFTOVERS
Whether it's a serving of potatoes from a home-cooked meal or a side of vegetables that didn't get eaten at a restaurant, saving leftovers is a money-saving idea. The small portions can be enjoyed as a snack or light meal rather than tossed in the trash.
GET CREATIVE WITH LEFTOVERS
There are also plenty of ways to turn leftovers into exciting new dishes. Repurposing food for meals to come is often easy to do, and key to avoiding waste.
SET A BUDGET
Setting a food budget may be challenging until it becomes a habit, but it is one of the best tools for keeping finances in order. Having a spending limit will encourage practical purchasing and hone your ability to spot a good deal.
SLOW COOK CHEAP CUTS OF MEAT
Large and tough cuts of meat can be challenging to work with; it takes a long time for the fibers to break down into tender morsels. Using a pressure cooker or slow cooker makes the process easy and coaxes out a better texture and flavor.
Meat is one of the most expensive ingredients in many meals. Focusing on meatless meals helps save money while diversifying nutrition. Some of the savings can be put toward higher-quality meat to consume in smaller quantities.
Eggs are high in nutritients, and even organic eggs are inexpensive. Using them as a primary source of animal protein helps keep costs low while making satisfying meals.
MAKE YOUR OWN STOCKS AND SAUCES
Sauces, stocks, and broths are costly when bought from the store. To pave the way for an easy homemade stock, save vegetable scraps such as mushroom stems, herb stems, ends of onions, and stray carrots in a bag in the freezer to use as the base. Freeze the finished stock in ice cube trays and put in freezer bags for easy use.
Related: 10 Easy-to-Make Foods to Stop Buying at the Store
Although most stores offer all kinds of produce year-round, out-of-season fruits and vegetables are higher in price and lower in flavor. Rework recipes to feature seasonal ingredients to get the best value, nutrition, and flavor out of every dish.
Planning meals for the week helps keep unnecessary items off grocery lists while maximizing the ingredients that are on hand. Remember to work in dishes made from leftovers and straggling ingredients.
COOK FOR THE WEEK
Go one step further: Choose one or two days to do the bulk of the cooking for the week. It can help streamline the use of ingredients, and large batches of food ready to be eaten as meals and snacks make it easier to avoid tempting takeout and pricey snacks.
STORE PRODUCE CORRECTLY
There are specific ways to store different fruits and vegetables to extend their shelf life, from keeping some fruits out of the refrigerator to separating certain types of food.
Many foods can actually be planted straight from the grocery store. Herbs, for example, can be placed in water until roots grow and potted for the rest of the season. Potatoes can also be planted and used to propagate an entire patch.
REPURPOSE STALE BREAD PRODUCTS
People have found marvelous ways through the ages to transform stale bread into tasty treats. Use old savory bread products to make breadcrumbs and croutons, and make bread pudding from sweeter baked goods.
ALTER RECIPES FOR THE INGREDIENTS ON HAND
If a recipe calls for basil but all you have is parsley, try the substitution. Chances are, it will work. The same goes for dishes that call for a variety of vegetables or meats. Use what you have on hand, rather than make an extra trip to the store to buy more ingredients.
Related: 10 Cheap Substitutions for Pricey Ingredients
INVEST IN PRODUCE-SAVING SHEETS
Modern technological advances have made their way to the produce drawers of refrigerators everywhere. Sheets such as Fenugreen Fresh Paper ($10 for eight) extend the life of produce, some say, allowing more time to use ingredients and cutting down on waste.
MAKE SELTZER AND SODA AT HOME
Soda is a daily indulgence for many people, and aside from the health concerns, it takes a toll on a budget. For people who drink a lot of the stuff, replacing canned and bottled drinks with a countertop seltzer maker cuts the cost per drink and allows control over how much sugar goes in.
SAVE FREE CONDIMENTS
Extra packets of soy sauce and ketchup from delivery or takeout meals can be repurposed for everyday use. The individual servings add up over time, allowing you to buy condiments less often and avoid buying entire bottles of the ones that aren't used much.
SHOP ONLINE FOR DEALS
These days, many of the best grocery deals can be found online. In addition to obvious sites such as Amazon, check retailers such as Nuts.com for shelf-stable staples and pantry items. Delivery is often free or low-cost for members and orders over a certain price threshold, which saves time, gas, and the hassle of going to the store.
USE CASH-BACK APPS
Take advantage of apps such as iBotta and Checkout 51 (which sends checks at every $20 step) to rack up cash back on grocery purchases. Users accept offers at certain stores, send a picture of the receipt, and sometimes scan a product's barcode to earn rebates.
Portioning out snacks and meals is invaluable when trying to budget food expenses. Using individual containers to store ready-to-go snacks and meals shows how much food is on hand at a glance and prevents overeating.
SKIP DRINKS WHEN EATING OUT
Alcoholic and soft drinks are marked way up in restaurants; even two nonalcoholic drinks can add up to $10 to the bill after tax. Skipping drinks and drinking free tap water while eating out will help keep the bill low.
For the pleasure of pairing food and wine without high markups, seek out restaurants that allow diners to bring their own bottle. Even when there's a "corkage fee," which can range from $5 to $20, it's cheaper than buying a restaurant bottle.
ENJOY RESTAURANT FOOD TO GO
Restaurant meals have advantages, and sometimes the convenience or a particular craving justifies the splurge. Enjoying the same food as takeout avoids the need to tip for tableside service, which these days adds a standard 20 percent to the cost.
PICK UP FOOD TO AVOID DELIVERY COSTS
When ordering food, pick it up instead of getting it delivered whenever possible. Tipping the delivery person adds 10 percent to 20 percent on top of any delivery fees.
EAT OUT FOR LUNCH, NOT DINNER
Eating out is a fun indulgence, even for people trying to cut down on food expenses. Going out to eat during lunch provides the restaurant experience at a lower price. Lunch menus tend to list cheaper prices than dinner menus, and feature special prices or less expensive prix fixe options.
USE THE RIGHT CARD
These days credit cards come with many different reward options, including cash back and points redeemable for purchases such as groceries or dining out. Using a rewards card for food expenses can ease some financial stress.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HAPPY HOURS
Restaurants and pubs often have happy hour food specials alongside their drink specials. Taking advantage of low-priced appetizers and meals is a cheap way to fill up on restaurant food for less.
GO TO BUFFETS
All-you-can-eat buffets -- while not the healthiest option -- are a good choice when you want to fill up. For the price of one entree, restaurants offer a wide variety of options in unlimited quantity. Go hungry and eat slowly to maximize the opportunity.
PRESERVE PRODUCE IN SEASON
Make the most of farmers markets and preserve seasonal produce for the colder months when prices shoot up. Jams, chutneys, and sauces are all easy to make and can for later, and simply freezing fruits and vegetables works well too.
FIND KIDS-EAT-FREE RESTAURANTS
Many restaurants offer kids-eat-free promotions on certain days of the week. Taking a family out to dinner and paying only for the adults can be even cheaper than cooking at home. To avoid monotony, find a few restaurants in your area with this promotion.
PLAN MEALS AROUND SALE ITEMS
Scour grocery store circulars for discounts and plan weekly meals based on what is on sale. Start from the produce section for the main part of the meal and use supporting on-sale spices, condiments, and grains to flesh out the menu.
USE DRIED HERBS INSTEAD OF FRESH
Fresh herbs are expensive and turn bad quickly, which equals money in the garbage. Dried herbs are less costly than fresh and also last longer. A one-time purchase can add layers to your cooking for months.
SHOP MULTIPLE STORES
Visit multiple stores to complete your grocery list for less. Do some research to compare prices on foods including fresh produce, meat, dairy, and frozen foods at different outlets to plan shopping trips.
SEEK OUT SOCIAL MEDIA PROMOTIONS
Following favorite restaurants on social media can bring discounts and giveaways. In an effort to expand their reach, many restaurants offer discount codes through platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Places with a Foursquare account also sometimes offer freebies for people who "check in."
JOIN RESTAURANT MAILING LISTS
Signing up for emails from favorite restaurants does more than keep diners abreast of special events and seasonal menus; it often gives access to special pricing. Read the newsletters to uncover discounts and other offers divulged only to those on the mailing list.
USE DELIVERY APP COUPONS
Delivery apps allow searches for restaurants filtered by preferences -- including availability of coupons. Choose among the places offering deals to cut down on delivery and takeout costs.
Tea has long been used as a natural appetite suppressant. Drinking a few cups during the day can help you consume less food in between meals without the feeling of deprivation. Tea is flavorful but has virtually no calories -- even with honey. (Plain old water also does the trick for some people.)
EAT MORE FIBER
Fiber is an important part of any balanced diet. Eating a diet rich in fiber, especially from whole fruits and vegetables, will make you feel full longer, curbing cravings and the need to reach for pricey packaged snacks.
START FROM DRY LEGUMES
Dried legumes such as lentils and beans are cheaper than pre-cooked versions. They also last indefinitely, and dried beans have a much better texture and flavor than the salty canned versions.
SPICE IT UP
Using a variety of spices helps transform simple, low-cost ingredients such as fresh produce and cheap cuts of meat into flavorful meals. Just a few spices can be combined to create many different flavor profiles for a few cents a dish.
CHECK OUT CLEARANCE SECTIONS
Most stores have a small area -- usually tucked in a back corner -- with clearance items costing up to 75 percent off. Sometimes food is on sale because of a quickly approaching expiration date, but often it's still perfectly fine to eat.
Take a page from our ancestors and look to the land for food. A patch of wild berries discovered on a hike may be the most delicious, and totally free. Of course, always be careful when foraging for mushrooms and other edibles to ensure they are not poisonous.