Groceries, dining out and other food expenses often represent a decent chunk of the average monthly budget, and unlike the cable bill or a gym membership, it's an expense you simply can't just cut out altogether. You need to eat, one way or another.
However, there are plenty of ways you can cut your food costs by planning ahead, thinking creatively, and putting in a little extra time and effort. Here are seven tips to help significantly slash your food budget.
1. Shop Smarter
Learn to distinguish when something is truly a good deal and when it just seems like one. Just because a name-brand item is on sale, or just because you have a coupon for it, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the best bargain. Buying generic may still be cheaper. Keep an eye on "unit prices," which is where you'll really see the difference in value. A bottle of ketchup might have a lower sticker price than its competitor, but a higher cost per unit (such as per ounce).
2. Plan Your Meals
Planning your weekly meals ahead of time makes cooking easier — no more staring blankly at the fridge wondering what you can put together with the ingredients you have on hand. (And no more giving up in frustration and ordering takeout because it's easier.) It cuts out a lot of stress, reduces food waste and helps you make sure you're only buying the ingredients you'll need for that week.
3. Shop With a List
Develop a list based on the coming week's meal plan and don't enter a grocery store without it. Look only for the things on your list — no more grabbing things off the shelves just because they catch your eye. You're on a mission.
4. Stock Up on Basic Staples
Items like pasta, rice, beans, whole grains and eggs are cheap, healthy staples that can serve as the base for a number of meals that you can prepare on the fly. Always keep some on hand.
5. Cook More
There are tons of cheap, healthy recipes online that take 15 minutes or less to prepare. You can also make a large batch of something in a slow cooker on the weekends so you'll have meals for the rest of the week. The more meals you make yourself, the less you'll pay for convenience foods.
6. Don't Let Leftovers Go to Waste
Food waste is a huge money-suck, so learn to use your leftovers in creative ways. Omelets, stir-fries, casseroles, and salads are all great ways to use up the vegetable and meat odds and ends hanging out in the fridge.
7. Go Vegetarian — Sometimes
Making even a couple of meatless meals each week can help you save some money. Try protein substitutes like beans and legumes. Not only are they cheaper; they're high in fiber and low in fat while still helping you feel full.