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Easy ways to cut your food bill

Sometimes paying for convenience is worth it. If that's busting your budget, though, try these simple tactics.

By Donna_Freedman Jul 18, 2012 1:30PM

Image: Parents and children eating at table © Maria Teijeiro/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Personal finance blogger Julia Scott just didn't get why so many people paid a premium for what she considered "unnecessary luxuries." Then she had a baby. Now she gets it -- but she doesn't like it.

"I'm worried I'm getting into the habit of paying to make tough situations go away. How do you maintain your resolve to be frugal under stress?" writes Scott, who blogs at Bargain Babe.

Her readers responded, and Scott followed up with a post called "19 tricks to avoid eating at restaurants." Are these ideas the answer?

Yes and no. For example, some neighborhoods are not good matches for a "food swap." Not everyone is going to make and freeze soup (although I heartily recommend the practice).

But some of the ideas are pretty Everyman: 

  • Cook once, but cook a lot. Make enough for a second dinner and/or to freeze.
  • Convenience food may be worth it. Rotisserie chicken, prebagged salad and French bread are pricey, but they are still cheaper than eating out.
  • Slow cooker = easy meal. Absolutely. See "The must-have kitchen appliance" for more on this topic.
  • Toss takeout menus. As soon as they show up in the mail or taped to your door, ditch them. Out of sight, out of mind.
Paying for convenience
Some nights you walk through the door so exhausted that the idea of starting a from-scratch meal feels impossible. Days (or weeks) like that are enough to make anyone want to reach for a delivery menu. (Post continues after video.)
Context is important, too. If you've just had a baby, are recovering from surgery or spend four nights a week in community theater rehearsals then give yourself a break, already. You won't go to Frugal Purgatory for a little short-term overspending.

But if long-term reliance on takeout Thai or frozen mac 'n' cheese is busting your budget, then it's an issue. We pay a lot for "value-added" items.

Sometimes it's worth it. But why routinely pay for things like prebagged salads or precooked, frozen rice?

Multitasking in the kitchen

Try this instead. Block out an hour or so after your grocery trip, then do some or all -- or more -- of these things simultaneously during that time: 

  • Put some vegetables on to roast. For tips on this, read Tamar Adler’s wonderful book, "An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace." Or roast some kind of meat. (Or do both.)
  • Set eggs to boil -- for snacks, sandwiches, running-late breakfasts or to add to salads.
  • Start a pot of rice. Leave some in the fridge for side dishes or stir-fry entrees. Freeze the rest.
  • Put some dry beans in the slow cooker. They can become burritos, a rice and beans entrée, get added to salads or those homemade soups, or just heated and eaten with salsa and a bit of cheese.
  • Start browning a good quantity of ground beef or turkey. Freeze it in portions to be added to pasta sauce or chili, or turned into sloppy joes.
  • Chop onions to freeze. Add some to the ground beef or turkey, though -- the delicious, caramelizing smell will distract you from your weepy eyes.
  • Wash salad greens. While they're draining, grate small plates of all-purpose cheese like Monterey jack and mozzarella (lots of ways to use these).
  • Mix a batch of meatloaf and freeze it uncooked. Move it to the fridge the day before you want to bake it. 

Your own prep work depends on your tastes and habits, of course. You might choose to spend that hour starting a batch of bread, marinating tofu, making yogurt, chopping vegetables for a week's worth of curry.

But do something. An hour or so of whirling and howling in the kitchen gives you the building blocks for multiple meals. You can grill some pork chops or chicken breasts -- or bring home that rotisserie chicken -- and create sides from what's in the fridge.

Put on your favorite music and have at it. During the week you'll have options. It will take about as long to put together a meal as it would to wait for takeout to be delivered.

More on MSN Money: 

Jul 18, 2012 2:33PM

If you don't own a freezer....think about getting one!  And they are cheaper to run if they are FULL, even if you have to put old milk jugs of water in them.

When you spy things on sale, you can then stock up easily since you can freeze it.  That includes milk sales too!

Jul 27, 2012 6:00PM
Grow a garden! Even if you grow things in pots. This year since I was moving a few times before actually getting into my home, I grew in containers. I grew 3 kinds of  tomatoes, 3 kinds of peppers,  cucumbers, carrots, & zucchini and squash, all in pots. Granted the zucchini and squash quickly grew out of their pots but everything gives so much produce that I can make all kinds of stuff.
Jul 28, 2012 8:29AM
Grow a garden but also invest in a canner and canning book (it will serve you for many years). Nothing tastes better than homegrown, homemade recipes. No preservatives, healthier and you know what you're actually eating.
Jul 31, 2012 1:21PM
I make a huge pot of spaghetti sauce every 4-5 weeks.  (I let it simmer all day-Yum!)  Then, it gets divided into smaller portions that me & the hubby can eat for dinner (+1 lunch for me).   It really saves a lot of time for us when we have to work late but want a decent dinner that's quick to pull together.    And on Sundays when the kids come by, I usually cook a rather large meal.   But, we have leftovers for Monday, and sometimes Tuesday and Wednesday.  

My crockpot also gets a rather good workout.    I used to only use it during winter to make soups & chili, but now, it works on cooking that pork or beef roast, whole chicken, etc.  :)
Some grocers and supermarkets make vegetables and fruits past their prime available for a song.  Cut out the black spots, chop them up and make fruit salads or add an over-ripe banana to some milk, ice cubes and a little yogurt for a fruit smoothie.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.