When I had young kids and a full-time job, our dinner rotation varied only slightly from week to week. Being on autopilot was not exciting, but it took a lot less time and thought than planning new meals. It had another advantage; it kept our food budget relatively stable.
Those days are long gone; now my food choices and budget can be all over the map. There are weeks when we eat yogurt or eggs for dinner two or three nights and that sure keeps our food budget down, and other times when I save almost by accident because I've got a hankering for simple soups or stews made from beans, vegetables, and a bit of meat. On the other hand, if I'm not careful, I can spend a bundle making dinners with exotic -- and expensive -- ingredients.
Those who carefully plan every meal and shop as if it were a chess game hardly need my advice. These tips are for the rest of us.
My Top 10 Food Budgeting Tips
10. Don't lose track of the small items - They add up. Meals that require many ingredients you don't have on hand may be expensive, even if no single item is costly. On the flip side, saving a little on many items adds up too even though you might not notice if you just look only each item separately.
9. Shop the sales - Paying retail when you don't have to is what I call a "secular sin." If you are flexible enough in meal planning to take advantage of the sales, you'll save a bundle and still eat well. For example, fennel is normally a bit pricey, so you may not cook with it regularly. But when it's on sale, this shaved fennel salad is a quick and delicious dinner treat.
8. Don't buy something (especially large quantities) just because the item is on sale - Do you have boxes or cans of food that sit unused in your pantry because you bought them on sale and now you cannot remember why you thought that was such a good idea? Enough said.
7. Buy in bulk, but only when it makes sense - Often purchasing in larger quantities saves money, but not always. If the bulk item is less expensive and you can use or store it, then the purchase makes sense. I buy sun-dried tomatoes in bulk. They are much less expensive when sold that way, they store well in the pantry, and I make a simple pasta sauce/appetizer with them that freezes well. But sometimes bulk items aren't much cheaper by the ounce or pound than smaller quantities. Moreover, I try not to go overboard on fresh foods that spoil before I can finish them or grains that I use only infrequently.
6. Don't overbuy - Those of us who tend to be overly ambitious shoppers have to learn to restrain our urge to buy quantities we are not likely to use. Wasting food is not just bad on a personal level; it's a shame at a time when so many in the world go hungry.
5. Consider price per portion, not price per pound - Small portions of a relatively expensive cut of meat or type of fish can be just as budget conscious as larger portions of a cheaper cut or type. For example, flank steak is more expensive than chuck per pound, but thin slices of flank steak nicely arrayed on a plate with roasted vegetables may be no more expensive than a stew made with chuck steak.
4. Plan reasonable portion sizes for meals. By now it's a cliché that French women are thinner than their British and American counterparts (and others too, I'm sure) because they tend to exercise better portion control. This post is about budget, not clothing size, but the same portion control philosophy is a money-saver too. Conserve your budget dollars as well as your waistline with modest portions of food.
3. Plan meals and list ingredients before shopping. On weeks when I plan all our dinners, make a list of required ingredients and stick to it when I shop, adjusting only for sales I didn't know about before I went shopping, I give myself a medal.
2. Save receipts for a month and look at patterns. The first step in understanding how to save money is to look at your actual spending. If you find mistakes and patterns, learn from them instead of remaining blissfully unaware that you spend much more than you intend.
1. Eat before you grocery shop (i.e. don't go food shopping when you are hungry.) My mother's rule and a good one at that. If I hear my stomach growl as I enter the store, all is not lost -- provided that I buy a piece of fruit to eat before moving onto the aisles of prepared food and other tempting items that weren't on my shopping list.