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- I've made some simple changes to the way I feed my family over the years, and they're saving me substantial time and money.
- I'm taking a mindful approach to meal planning and shopping on a schedule instead of shopping on a whim.
- I also take advantage of sales to stock up on essentials and use the items I buy for more than one meal so nothing goes to waste.
- In total, I save about $1,200 each year — the cost of one of my monthly mortgage payments.
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Despite fluctuations in my marital status and the number of kids gathered around my dinner table, one thing has remained constant throughout my adult life: My family and I need to eat, which means I spend (what can feel like) endless time and money at the grocery store each week.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, which publishes a monthly food plan that suggests how much money Americans should be spending on food, the average cost of groceries for one person ranges from $165 to $345 each month (dependent upon age, gender, where one lives, and the quality of food purchased). Over the years, a keen focus on meal planning and bulk purchasing has allowed me to slash my grocery bill without sacrificing the quality or quantity of healthy food filling my fridge and pantry. Here's how.
I start by creating a meal plan
I am a scheduled shopper. Each week, after having assembled a meal plan for seven nights' worth of dinners, I make one trip to town for groceries. Planning ahead and minimizing shopping trips forces me to optimize the ingredients I do purchase — most of which come from my community's local food co-op (essentially a grocery store that is "owned" by the people who shop there).
My initial perception of the co-op was that it was trendy and expensive; upon further investigation, I learned the high volume of organic and non-GMO foods sold there yield prices far lower than the conventional grocery store.
Since becoming a member (the one-time fee in my case was $150, paid over SIX years!) I keep a running list of all the non-perishable food items I use on the regular (from brown rice and farro to dried beans and boxed stock — plus the probiotics and vitamin supplements we use every month), and I do a big shop during each of the quarterly Owner Appreciation Days when everything is 15% off. Last week I got just shy of $200 worth of pantry staples for $170.
I also use these opportunities to stock up on organic fruit and berries when not in season. While not so great for eating out-of-hand, frozen fruit stands up to oatmeal, yogurt parfaits, smoothies and baking really well — plus, the price is far lower. A four-pound bag of Kirkland organic frozen strawberries at $12.99, for instance, saves you about 50% off the price of organic fresh strawberries purchased out of season.
Even occasional splurges (like that $13 jar of Justin's almond butter or $6 for Newman's Os) feel less guilt-provoking at 15% off. Plus, most food co-ops have a Buying Club that allows owners to shop from thousands of items offered by the store's primary suppliers for significant discounts on large quantities.
I use what I buy for more than one meal
Once home with my loot, I am a big fan of cooking once and eating several times. It never used to bother me much that I'd buy a bunch of organic scallions for a particular recipe, use two, and leave the rest to languish in the crisper drawer until they were rendered inedible. I know, I know: Scallions don't break the bank. But they do serve as a symbol of how shopping on a whim — or incorporating ingredients that are less common for me — can be expensive and wasteful.
To avoid this pitfall, I focus on recipes that I can make once and eat three times in different iterations. Last week, my daughter found a recipe for Mexican cilantro lime rice bowls with spiced black beans and salsa. Gulp. Kind of an intricate recipe but, since I want to support her burgeoning vegetarianism, I enlisted her help doubling the recipe and this is what transpired: The first night, we ate the rice bowls for dinner; during clean up, I immediately put two portions (individual glass containers with plastic lids work great) directly into the freezer for an amazingly healthy and fresh lunch option later in the week, especially on a night where the rest of us are eating meat. The next night, I stuffed the leftover spiced black beans into our veggie quesadillas and served them with a side of leftover salsa; on the third night, I turned what remained of the beans into homemade black-bean burgers.
While my family eats a primarily plant-based diet (another hack that has absolutely cut my food budget by up to 20%), this strategy works for meat eaters, too. A double batch of roasted chicken thighs with root vegetables one night can be used to fill burritos the next and be shredded for BBQ pulled chicken sandwiches the third.
This hack is a clear win-win: I no longer have to beg my kids to eat the same old boring leftovers; there is zero waste; and I saved big: A 16-ounce bag of Field Day organics dry black beans ($1.99), served as the protein base of three family dinners plus two lunches and saved me a whopping $20 that week by cooking once and eating three times.
Mapping out my family's meals saves me loads of time and money in the long run. Rarely do I stop for last-minute menu items on my way home from work — partly because I work from home, but mostly because I am a planner.
Planning this way makes me more creative in the kitchen
This way of shopping and cooking has forced me to get incredibly creative with what I've got on hand. Remember those organic scallions? I'm subbing the extras in a recipe that calls for onions, or throwing them on the grill with our quesadillas, instead of letting them go to waste. When I can't use something up right away, the freezer is my friend for knobs of ginger or a cup of leftover stock that might otherwise spoil in the fridge.
A quick calculation reveals my investment in mindful meal planning/scheduled shopping saves me $22 each week, on average, as compared to a time before I cooked/shopped this way. In short, applying these simple strategies has allowed me to save almost $1,200 each year — a whopping figure, equal to my monthly mortgage payment, which just might help me shave a few years off of that 30-year fixed loan I'm chipping away at.
Go ahead, give yourself permission to think outside the conventional box: check out your local food co-op, look for menus that can be cooked once and will feed your family several times, then commit to a scheduled shopping strategy. While employing even one of these strategies will likely feel time consuming at first, I guarantee it will make your shopping, cooking, and eating more enjoyable, which, when running a household on a budget, pays great dividends in the long run.
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