50 Smart Ways to Slash Your Food Budget
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.