By Matthew Thompson, Associate Food Editor for EatingWell Magazine
A few months ago, my wife and I noticed an interesting phenomenon: Our grocery bill, which used to be so consistent, had started to slowly, steadily creep up week by week. At first we assumed that rising prices were to blame -- after all, the economy is in the gutter right now -- but a quick double-checking of some of our staple purchases proved this wasn’t the case. No, it turned out that our grocery costs were higher simply because we had stopped focusing on our core money-saving strategies.
As any supermarket-savvy shopper will tell you, how you eat can make a huge difference in how big your bill is. Because each purchase is in itself so small -- will it really add up if I choose a $5 box of cereal rather than a $4 one -- it's easy for tiny decisions to accumulate into a substantial rise in your bill. For us, that meant that what seemed like perfectly normal eating habits -- a package of chicken breasts, a pizza, a few lunches out -- added up to major costs.
Now is as great a time as any to return to smart-shopping values. In fact, EatingWell's editors have identified six easy ways to save money that, when taken together, will put over $250 back in your pocket each month. (If you stick to these ratios every month for the year, you could save up to $3,000!)
1. Eat Vegetarian a Few Nights a Week
Try to include a couple of vegetarian meals in your menu for the week. Skipping meat, even once or twice a week, can help save money, since meat is usually the most expensive part of a meal. And you will have a lighter impact on the environment -- almost one-fifth of the world's manmade greenhouse-gas emissions are generated by the meat industry, according to the United Nations. You can save $17.33 per month if you replace one pound of sirloin [$5.99] with a 14-ounce block of tofu [$1.96] once a week for 30 days.
Make It: 21 Cheap Meatless Meals You Must Try
2. Minimize Waste
One of the easiest ways to save money is to make sure you're not wasting food. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw out more than 25 percent of the food we prepare. And a study at the University of Arizona that tracked food use and waste from production to the table to the landfill estimated that the average American family of four throws out $590 worth of food each year. So we need to do a better job of using leftovers and learn what to do with food before it's past its peak. You can save $49.17 per month. (Estimated value of the food an average American household of four wastes in a month.)
3. Plug in Your Slow Cooker
If you don't have hours to be at home tending a braise, then try a slow cooker. It will give you the same effect (i.e., it makes inexpensive cuts of meat meltingly tender), but you can plug it in, leave for the day and come home to a dinner like a Rich Chicken Stew made with chicken thighs (instead of pricier chicken breast).
Get the Recipe: Rich Chicken Stew and More $3 Recipes for a Crock Pot
Other inexpensive cuts of meat that work wonderfully in the slow cooker include pork shoulder, beef chuck and brisket. You can save $6.45 per month if you replace 1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast [$4.99] with 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs [$3.49] once a week for 30 days.
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4. Discover Great Ways to Use Canned Fish
Just like their fresh counterparts, canned salmon and tuna provide omega-3 fats, which help keep your heart healthy by lowering triglycerides and blood pressure. The difference: canned fish is significantly cheaper. You can save $18.53 per month if you replace 1 pound of fresh tuna [$7.99] with 1 pound of canned tuna [$3.68] once a week for 30 days.
5. Don't Order a Pizza -- Make One at Home
Ordering pizza seems like a cheap and quick solution for dinner. But a typical pie costs more than $15. You can make your own at home for a lot less and in about the same amount of time delivery takes. If you make pizza once a week instead of ordering you can save $43 per month. Domino's large, Brooklyn-style Sausage, Pepper and Mushroom Pizza is $17.58 with tax (but not delivery charge) included. Our Sausage, Pepper and Mushroom Pizza is $7.58.
6. Pack a Lunch
When you're busy at work, the easiest choice is to grab a bite to eat someplace nearby. The problem is that the cost of buying lunch takes a toll on your food budget. (The average lunch at the national chain Panera Bread, which specializes in sandwiches, soups and salads, is $8.50.) So try bringing a lunch from home. When you make dinner, think about what you're going to eat for lunch tomorrow. If you're making a salad, make a little extra and put it in a container, undressed. And what about your leftovers? If you have a little extra chicken or half a can of beans, toss that in with your lunch salad. Make more than you'll need for dinner, and reheat it for lunch the next day. You can save $118.25 per month if you replace an $8.50 lunch with a $3 lunch from home five days a week, for 30 days.
Must-Read: 3 Ingredients of a Get-Skinny Lunch
How do you save money at the grocery store?
By Matthew Thompson
Matthew Thompson is the associate food editor for EatingWell Magazine.