As much as I love food, I really don’t love spending a lot of money on it—especially if it’s not necessary. And when you cook your own food, it’s not!
Sometimes, this leads to me being “that guy” at Stop and Shop who stands in front of the beans section for 15 minutes, brow furrowed as I furiously contemplate the long-term implications of paying $.20 more for Goya instead of store-brand. I’m also the guy who has been using the same giant container of cumin for the past two years, because it was on sale this one time I was in New York… and I felt the need to bring it to use in Boston. I’m serious: I either had space in my suitcase for the giant box of cumin or an extra pair of jeans, and I took the cumin.
Here are some (slightly more moderate) money saving tips for you all to use before my coupon hoarding habit makes it to the silver screen:
Buy staples and non-perishables in bulk
Reduce your food waste by only buying in bulk when you know you are going to use a perishable item completely, or if you are buying something with a long shelf life. A 50% discount on a large value pack of chicken breasts is a beautiful thing that should be celebrated among friends at a barbeque in the summer sun—but if it’s the dead of winter and you don’t plan on consuming 10 lb. of chicken solo in the next week, it might be better to pass on the deal this time around. If you won’t use the food, it’s not worth the waste!
As far as non-perishables go, definitely buy in bulk if you have the space and the cash on hand to do so, but only for things you are guaranteed to use a lot of in the coming weeks. Things like salt, spices, olive oil, beans, rice, canned tomatoes, and frozen vegetables are great to buy in bulk to save money in the long run.
Have snacks on hand to avoid fast food
After a long day studying in the library or holed up in lab, nothing sounds quite as appealing as an $8 burrito at Qdoba (with all the fixin’s of course), or a nice foot-long from Subway.
I resist these temptations, however, with the knowledge that $8 could buy me a whole week’s worth of healthy snack food instead! Healthy snacks are great in these cases to hold me over until I have time to cook my dinner.
What should you be snacking on? Try to focus on food that is high in fiber and nutritional value, and stay away from junk food (which is less healthy and actually less satisfying). Raw vegetables, fruits, and nuts are my go-to’s. Measure fixed portions into plastic bags ahead of time, such as before you leave for class in the morning, to prevent overeating.
Don’t pay for prep work
It may seem that buying a pre-cut and mixed pack of stir-fry vegetables or a jar of already minced garlic is a worthwhile way to save time in the cooking process, but in reality the costs far outweigh the benefits. For the price of one package of pre-chopped onions, for example, you could buy a much larger amount of whole onions and chop them yourself. Stop and Shop sells one chopped onion for $2.30, but they sell whole onions at $.99/lb. So in reality, you could have three whole onions for the same price as one if you just chop them yourself.
The difference may seem small, but if you were to pick the pre-cut options for all the vegetables you buy, those costs add up. In terms of the time saving benefits of the pre-cut options, think of all the hours you spent on YouTube and Facebook this week. You can spare 5 minutes to chop an onion—I believe in you.
Use store brands and promotions
For simple items in the grocery store such as rice, olive oil, pasta, beans, frozen vegetables, and spices, there isn’t a significant difference in the nutrition labels of the store brands vs. commercial ones. Sometimes what you’re really paying extra for is the more attractive packaging and advertisements of commercial brands. However, you should always read the nutritional label to make sure that the store brand is not full of any added unnecessary or unsavory ingredients. But for something simple like brown rice, there’s not much room for interpretation. A generic Stop and Shop brand 5 lb. bag of brown rice is $4, as opposed to $6.40 for the same amount of Carolina rice brand.
In addition to brand markups in price, you are also paying for the convenience of not having to do squats in the grocery store: the lower-priced value items tend to be placed on the lower shelves, while the more expensive brands are right there at eye level for easy grabbing.
So save your money, do your squats! Talk about two birds, one stone.
Use your freezer
Justify your electric bill! Make the most out of your freezer.
It can be used to store frozen veggies, or even foods that you have cooked in bulk to eat for months on end (such as chili or a big batch of tomato sauce).
And if you’re a purist like me, you can also use it to make your own vegetable stock and avoid the artificial preservatives in some of the stocks that you get from the store. Simply save the scraps from any of the vegetable prep work that you do in a sealable gallon plastic bag; throw in a mix-mash of things, like pieces of onion, carrots, celery, ginger, garlic, or any fresh herbs that are about to go bad sitting in your fridge. When the bag is full, simmer the veggies in a big pot for 1-2 hours, using enough water to just cover them. Strain out the veggies and either use the stock immediately or pop it back in the freezer for another time. It may seem like a tedious process, but this will save you money on buying stock and also reduce your food waste. You can also make chicken stock by throwing in the bag some unused chicken parts—just be careful that the chicken hasn’t expired before you freeze it.
Roll with the seasons
The fact that even in the dead of winter you can still buy a plantain in Stop and Shop is something that’s often taken for granted. But the season of a particular vegetable is definitely reflected in its price, and when a type of produce is not in season, it’s going to be lower quality and higher price.
On the flipside, if a produce item is in season, it will be cheap and at its best quality: refer to the above chart from bodyhealthsoul.com and let Mother Nature guide your weekly cooking! She’ll save you some good money.
- Seasonal chart of fruits and vegetables: bodyhealthsoul.com
- Images: amateurgourmet.com (cover), deserthealthspecialists.com, businesswire.com