The cost of food is one area that many people look at occasionally, perhaps once a year when they freak out about money and resolve to use theirs better, and then don’t revisit. Or maybe you look at your food budget every week, trying to find a few extra dollars to save. Grocery shopping is the one expense that is variable, you can cut back on luxuries if you need some extra cash.
But how is it possible to feed 4 people on less than $4/day each? That means breakfast, lunch and dinner, morning and afternoon teas and the occasional dessert. This is around 4½ meals a day for 4 people for 7 days a week, which is 6,500 meals a year on a budget of around $5,000.
It doesn’t mean that you need to eat badly or leanly, my family eat a well-balanced variety of dishes on this budget. Granted these tips are based on a family with very young children, but they can be adapted to save even the biggest family (with big hungry teenagers) money off their food bill. Here are some hints and tips on how to cut your grocery bill in sensible ways!
This may be a bit of an epiphany for you – embrace cooking but only when you can be bothered. Save money by having something easy in the freezer that you can whip up faster than you can dial for a pizza or pick up fish and chips. The idea of making dinner every SINGLE night for the week can make me want to scream sometimes and to be able to open my freezer, take out a premade meal, whip up some fresh vegetables or salad and serve an appetising and nourishing meal makes me want to kiss last-month Saskia on the mouth. Sometimes the stars align, and you have the time, space and money to do a couple of big-batch cook-ups. Make your family’s special Bolognese times 4, or a batch of meatballs large enough to wage war, or vegetable curry by the potload. Pack into containers and label (I use masking tape and a texta) then freeze. Check out our Once A Month Cooking book for inspiration.
Eat in season.
This translates to – eat what is the cheapest. Spring lamb, winter vegetables, stone fruit and many other things have a season. If you are on the hunt for asparagus in Autumn you’re going to be shocked at the price. Every fresh food has a season and it’s at its peak and conversely, at its cheapest. This may mean you eat a lot of the one type of fruit or vegetable or it may mean you can branch out when things are repetitive or boring you.
Bonus point if you buy lots and can, jar, freeze or dry it for the future. Ask your local fruit and veg store when things such as apricots or tomatoes are in season and buy a box or two then spend an afternoon processing them.
The other option is to buy in bulk in a more processed and easily stored form. Ask around for bulk options of chicken, beef, lamb or pork (the local butcher may have bulk deals as well); look at co-ops for bulk dry goods; or purchase from catering suppliers for berries, herbs and spices, or oils. It’s an initial outlay but will save you money in the long run.
Cook from scratch.
There are very few processed foods that can’t be replicated at home. It is always cheaper to make mains, sides, protein, vegetables, rice and nearly everything else from the basic ingredients. Look at what you eat and work out how to make it. You can then hand down some lovely family recipes for your fried rice or Bolognese sauce to your kids.
Learn about your food.
You will save so much if you know how to use products that you purchase, and also know how long things will last. If you learn the difference between a “best before” date and a “used by” date you will get more mileage out of your food. Buying in bulk only saves you money if you don’t then end up with 6kg of sultanas passed a “best before” date that you aren’t sure about using!
Learn about leftovers.
Your budget will thank you if you learn to wrap leftovers in pastry with a bit of cheese, or spruce up some plain rice with leftover protein and a dash of tabasco sauce. Stretch any leftovers to another meal and consider it a freebie.
Lower your standards just a little.
Instead of salmon steaks for dinner tonight, dice a small cutlet and put into a serving bowl before topping with risotto or soup, using the residual heat to cook the fish. A small morsel will flavour the bulk of vegetables, pasta, lentils or another staple and the focus can be on the in-season vegetables rather than the more expensive protein.
Think outside the box.
I make a breakfast fruit crumble for busy weeks, so we can have that reheated for a quick breakfast. It’s mostly fruit, very little added sugar and a basic crumble topping, baked in the oven after dinner is cooked. Instead of prepping oatmeal and fruit, this is reheated and yoghurt added. Oats and coconut fill bellies and are much cheaper than processed cereals! Eggs are as well and can extend leftovers into something that’s suitable for breakfast, lunch or a picnic dinner. It also avoids skipping breakfast, or worse yet, buying it on the run. Even preparing croissants or sandwiches in bulk and toasting them in the morning will beat the café at its own game.
Shop once a month in a bulk location and every second week at the supermarket. Shop each week for fruit and veges, milk and bread and commit to not just popping out for extra ingredients if you’re making tonight’s meal. For bonus points you could shop one week for meat, one week for veges and fruit, one week for staples and one week for eggs and dairy and your menus can fluctuate with the changes in your purchases. Towards the end of the cycle, you eat more vegetarian meals and less meat, get creative to stretch the cream further or learn about egg substitutes.
Learn to improvise
If you’re out of almond meal, swap it for oats. Out of eggs, swap them for any of the ideas that Google will tell you. Buttermilk missing? Add some vinegar to normal milk and save a trip to the supermarket. Some would sum this tip up as “GIYF” because Google really is your friend.
Reduce, reuse and recycle
Make stock to get an extra meal out of a chicken, or use the leftover sauce from a crockpot meal as the base for meatballs. Halve the expensive component of the meal (pine nuts, fancy cheese, expensive meat) and enjoy it as a highlight rather than the limelight. Recycle jars and containers so that you can buy in bulk and store correctly. Think about what you can make for snacks in particular because snack food is especially expensive per serve. Homemade slices, biscuits and muffins are easy to make in bulk and you’re increasing the efficient use of your oven if you use it to do more than one batch at a time.
Try to eat from the pantry or freezer for one meal a week, and this is essentially a “free” meal as you’ve already paid for it. Sneaky but effective and some of the best memories have been made with baked beans on toast or a picnic of unlabelled freezer surprise meals!
Lastly – go back to basics!
Look at the cheap cuts of meat to stew or make curry out of, the vegetables that are in season this week, the price difference between frozen and fresh (often frozen is cheaper and stores longer with lots of evidence to show that snap-frozen is actually more nutritious!), no name branded ingredients and portion control. Use other forms of protein such as beans, chickpeas or quinoa and explore a variety of cuisines if you’re not sure of how to cook them.
Meal planning and writing a list has two-fold benefits because it means that you can see what kind of week you’re in for and not over cater if you know you’re out for a meeting this week or lunch is at Nana’s this Saturday. It also means that each meal is covered and you save time and money by not making extra trips to the shop (with all the added temptations).
So what’s your family’s meal budget look like? Do you think there is room to save perhaps 10% of it next month? What other tricks do you have for minimising the amount of money you eat?