We’ve told you before about the trend toward eating more at home â€“ a Food Channel-identified trend for 2009 that is already being validated by consumer behavior. So, how do you make sure that your eating-at-home efforts pay off?
We’ve surveyed our chefs and developed the following tips for controlling your home food costs:
1. Shop with a list, a budget, and a calculator to reduce impulse buys.
Sure, it takes a little preparation time, but it makes it so much easier at the store. To get to your budget, simply take your take home pay per month, reduce it by your monthly obligations and bills, and look carefully at what’s left. Divide it into the things that are priorities for you, starting with feeding your family. That’s your budget.
To develop your list, check your local grocery stores for their weekly specials. Coupons are fine if you need the product, but don’t buy an item simply to use a coupon, especially if you are getting something processed that might be cheaper and tastier from scratch.
In addition to coupons, the weekly discount fliers can help you make decisions. One of our chefs points out that reading the fliers helped him spot when a 3 lb. bag of Gala Apples went on sale at one store for $1.19 – apples that are usually $1 per pound at his usual store.
The calculator will help you keep track of your spending as you go. Until you get used to it, divide your list into essential items and start with those, then go back through the store for the non-essential items that fit within your budget.
2. Choose where you shop.
Money can be saved by going to Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart, or even to no-frills discounters like Food 4 Less or ALDI. Use coupons where they can be doubled or where you get loyalty rewards. Know the specials.
If you have coupons, be sure to take full advantage of them by checking the expiration date and visiting stores that double them. Many markets have loyalty programs, so go ahead â€“ give them your contact information and reap the benefits. A family of four may well find the occasional $10 gift card sent, or dollars off geared specifically to things you have purchased in the past.
And, if you live near a grocery store or pass one on the way home from work, simply plan to shop for produce and meats the day you need them. That way there’s no waste if your weekly dinner plans change.
3. Label and date your leftovers.
We may laugh about the Unidentified Food Objects in the back of the refrigerator, but think about it â€“ with a little planning, those items might have saved you lunch money, or been a good snack even if there aren’t enough for a full meal. Date them so you eat them up within the week.
4. Post a daily menu, planning around your highly perishable items.
Buy fresh herbs, lettuces, etc. and plan your meals so that you can use them up before they spoil. It helps to plan several meals that call for those things so that you’re not tossing them at the end of the week.
You can keep asparagus, sometimes broccoli, cilantro and other herb stems in water to prolong their life. Core and wash lettuce so it can hydrate when wrapped in plastic bags.
Writing your primary ingredients down helps you stick to the menu, and lets you see where you may have leftovers or items that can be used for more than one meal. So, pot roast and salad one night; homemade pizza and salad another; leftover pot roast in sandwiches for the weekend.
5. Buy in bulk but ensure freshness with a freezer and storage bags.
The problem with buying in bulk is that we allow cereal and bread to get stale, and meat to get old. Be sure you have freezer space (and label and date what you put in there) and a plan for using things in a timely manner. Your savings from bulk purchases only make sense if you use everything you buy.
6. Use up what you have. Take inventory of all goods and figure out recipes to use those old cans or boxes.
Best rule of thumb is to take everything out of your pantry and cupboards. Group them according to soups, fruits, etc. Sure, if you want to keep a can of chicken soup on hand at all times in case of flu, go ahead. Otherwise, figure out how to use up that canned tuna, that bottle of BBQ sauce, and that Italian dressing you bought on sale by getting creative in your recipes.
7. Plan your meals around things you can get inexpensively.
Plan your the best price deals into the meal. Cabbage is usually the best vegetable buy, so use it to make the meal go farther. Often carrots are the second best buy. Canned tomatoes are cheap and make a nice healthy addition to most items. If your family will eat beans, they are a good deal for protein and fiber. If lemons are $.70 each and limes are six for $1, by all means use limes. Sometimes pork is the best protein deal, and makes a great stew that costs less than if you used beef. If chicken thighs are priced under $1, use them in a Mexican braised dish. No one will ever know it’s not simply marinated white meat!
There’s no point in wasting your precious cooking time with a flop. So follow the recipe, stir the pot, don’t leave the kitchen and stave off kitchen disasters.
8. Watch portion sizes so you aren’t scraping plates.
Your home does not have to be an all-you-can-eat buffet. If you find you are continually tossing food that was taken, begin to serve small portions yourself and let them ask for seconds if needed.
9. Educate your family on product costs. Have them do the shopping, the clean up, the budgeting.
It’s amazing how frugally young people can eat when they are paying the bill. So go ahead and give your teenagers a taste of what it’s like â€“ then they’ll appreciate what you do (really!). Enlist their aid in choosing the menus, clipping the coupons, and shopping.
Stay away from frozen prepared foods unless it’s low cost singles for emergencies or if you really require a fast and convenient option on occasion. Some folks say shop the outside perimeter of the store for cost and health reasons.
10. Ensure protein over beverages or desserts. Return to the idea of some foods being a treat for special occasions.
Whether you are on a tight budget or not, dessert and soda pop does not have to be served at every family dinner.
Implementing these common sense tips will help extend your budget, and your nerves. Reward yourself and your family when that budget is met consistently by using the savings to go out to eat, or to buy a more efficient pan or utensil. It gets easier every month â€“ who knows, by the time the recession ends, you may never go back to your old habits!