Like many shoppers, I’ve noticed my grocery bill getting bigger each week: February food prices were 7.9% higher than they were a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. To compensate for my family’s busy spring schedule, I’d also been turning to shortcuts like prepackaged snacks and meal kits, which further added to our total bill.
To counteract these pressures, I applied all my go-to savings tricks: opting in to my grocery store’s loyalty program for extra discounts, using a credit card that gave me bonus cash back on grocery purchases, and planning our weekly menus around sales. Still, shopping for my family of five continued to give me sticker shock.
For extra guidance, I turned to budgeting and cooking experts with experience making food spending more manageable, as the USDA predicts food prices will continue to increase, growing 4.5% to 5.5% in 2022. Here are their best tips for saving money on food:
Control what you can
While so much about the economy can feel completely outside of our control, including rising interest rates, inflation and supply chain challenges, our food spending is actually one area where we hold a lot of sway, says Erin Lowell, a Bowdoin, Maine-based lead educator at You Need a Budget, a budgeting app. By spending more time cooking or substituting cheaper ingredients, you can feel an immediate savings impact, she says, unlike with other costs, such as bills or rent, which can be harder to change.
Lowell suggests assessing how much effort you’re currently putting into minimizing your food spending and taking that effort up to the next level. For example, if you currently order pizza for delivery, then consider buying a nice frozen pizza for a quarter of the cost. If you already buy frozen pizza, then consider making your own from scratch for just a few dollars’ worth of ingredients.
Plan your meals
“When people are overspending on food, it’s almost always because they’re eating out too often,” says Jake Cousineau, a personal finance teacher in Thousand Oaks, California, and the author of “How to Adult: Personal Finance for the Real World.” He says planning ahead is key to combating the temptation to order takeout at the last minute.
“If you meal prep on Sunday and make six to seven meals, you’re not faced with that decision of ‘Should I order out or prepare food?’ every night,” Cousineau says. He typically cooks meat for Sunday that he can use in tacos, pasta and salad later in the week, for example. “You can do the heavy lifting Sunday, then mix and match throughout the week.”
Planning also helps you avoid food waste, which is another budget killer, warns Rob Bertman, a certified financial planner and family budget expert in St. Louis. “Buy in bulk for things you know you will go through, but if food sits in the freezer or pantry and gets thrown in the trash, that gets expensive.” He and his wife keep a list of the potential side and main dishes they have on hand in the freezer, fridge and pantry so they don’t forget to use those ingredients.
Be resourceful in the kitchen
Maggie Hoffman, a Brooklyn, New York-based digital director at cooking website Epicurious, suggests substituting recipe ingredients for ones you already have at home. “Be confident in your cooking: If you have farro, use that instead of brown rice. Use hot sauce or vinegar instead of lemon.”
Hoffman also recommends “next-overing,” which is transforming the previous night’s dish into something new. Roast chicken one night can become enchilada fillings the next, for example.
Beans, which are generally inexpensive, are also a flexible staple, she adds. You can serve them on their own or add them to salads or soups. “Beans are still the greatest thing around. Just give them a little marinade, add garlic and make sure they’re seasoned.”
Keep your pantry well-stocked
Investing in staples can end up saving you money because then you can quickly make last-minute meals instead of ordering in. “I try to keep five to 10 easy, budget-friendly meals in the house at all times,” Lowell says. For her, that list includes ingredients for homemade pizza, frozen fish with fries, and a pasta dish. “It’s never expensive, and I’m always happy to eat it.”
Lean on your community
While some local food banks have eligibility requirements, many are open to all members of the community who need the support, says Willa Williams, an Orlando, Florida, area financial coach at Trinity Financial Coaching and co-host of “The Abundant Living Podcast.” Some neighborhood gardens similarly offer the community vegetables and other produce at harvest time. “The food is here, so come and get it,” she says. “It keeps you from spending your food budget.”
My grocery bill is still higher than I’d like it to be — even the savviest shopper can’t outsmart this level of inflation — but it’s more manageable with these tips. And my children have learned some frugal habits of their own, such as the simple pleasure of cooking lentil soup for dinner and the savings that come from packing their own snacks.
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Kimberly Palmer writes for NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @kimberlypalmer.