11/15/2012 8:45 PM ET|
How to cut your food budget in half
Lowering your grocery bills and becoming healthier can go hand in hand if you follow these 8 steps for food shopping and meal planning.
We all lead busy lives. And it's too easy to throw money at "quick" food solutions because we're too tired to figure out a better way to function. But the food budget is the single easiest way to reduce expenses and derive more satisfaction out of everything you eat.
I don't particularly like to cook. But I have seen the results both in my health and finances by making an effort in this budget area. Here are the eight easiest ways I have found to cut your food budget in half:
Become vegetarian. There are a lot of reasons to eat a plant-based diet, and I like Leo Babauta's post "A Guide to Eating a Plant-Based Diet" for laying out the reasons. Meat is expensive, and although I like a good pot roast every now and then, I am equally happy eating rice and beans and other vegetarian options as the main staples of my weekly routine. You need only four to five recipes to alternate.
Limit alcohol. I dated an alcoholic for a few years and after that time quit drinking almost completely. I rarely keep any alcohol in my home unless I am having friends over or planning a special occasion. No one "needs" alcohol in the home all of the time, and if you do, you might have bigger problems than budgeting.
Quit buying ready-made solutions. I have a friend who is maintaining a gluten-free household, so I know how expensive a gluten-free loaf of bread can be. But if she makes it herself, it costs only a fraction of the retail price. This is true for almost anything you can buy premade (although you won't catch me baking my own bread anytime soon). If you use a lot of something, try to figure out how you can make it yourself in volume. It's cheaper for me to buy bulk steel-cut oats and cook a pot of it for the week than to buy instant oats.
Plan menus two weeks out before grocery shopping. Carve out time in your schedule (about 30 minutes) to plan your breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks for the next 10 to 14 days. Start by checking your kitchen cabinets for what you already have on hand, and build your menu to use up cans of soup and other staples. Consider keeping a folder of recipes you want to try. Once you have a completed menu, build your grocery list. Remember to check on toothpaste and other sundries so you don't come back and suddenly notice that one thing you absolutely need.
Grocery-shop three times a month, and stick to your list. People who eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables always hate this tip. I eat lots of vegetables and fruits too, and I have found that if I bring them home, prep them immediately and keep them in airtight containers, most stuff easily lasts 10 days.
Designate a "meal prep" day. Every 10 days or so, I spend three to four hours cooking big batches of stuff -- rice and beans, morning gruel, root vegetables, a casserole to freeze, etc. I know that if it takes me longer than 45 minutes to prepare a weekday meal, I'll go rogue and order takeout. So I precook lots of stuff to throw into salads or stir-fry, or just so I have something I can pull from the freezer the day before.
Keep a list of what's in the freezer. I might have something really delicious in my freezer but totally forget I have it. So I keep a list on the fridge that I update every 10 to 14 days when I am planning my next round of meals.
Keep comfort food ready to go. There are times when I just don't want to eat as healthfully as I usually do. When I am driving home after a long day, nothing sounds better than takeout. So I keep fixings on hand for things that sound better to me than takeout, like a grilled cheese sandwich or Beecher's Mac & Cheese.
How to make this work for you
To implement lasting change, I recommend keeping the following in mind:
- Don't go 100% on anything at first. You can't just flip a switch and make all of these changes instantly; I see many people make huge strides forward, then fall off the wagon because they tried to take on too much change at once. Strive for small steps at first, then build on those initial victories.
- Focus on health, not dollars. It's actually more motivating for me to maintain these practices as a foundation for healthy eating than to think of it as cutting back. So I don't focus on the specifics of the money I am saving; I just know that I am.
- Reduce the frequency of an expense instead of dollar amount. Instead of saying that you'll cut takeout from $200 a month to $100 a month, commit to getting food to go less often. If you usually get takeout four times a week, cut back to two to three times a week. If you go out to restaurants three times a week, cut back to one to two times a week. When you’re trying to change, it's easier to focus on the behavior than the dollars.
- Shoot for compliance nine out of 12 months a year. I give myself permission to cut loose and enjoy myself more during the summer months and at the end of the year. These times tend to be more social, so if I get off track, I don't beat myself up for it. There will always be times of expansion in your budget; just set a date with yourself to get back on track.
For me, the key to maintaining these practices has been celebrating incremental improvement, being consistent and avoiding self-criticism if I get off track. With even a few of these tactics, you can see a large reduction in your monthly food bill and a significant increase in your health.
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Any article that tells you to nix the alcohol is worthless to me. And yeah, thanks for telling me that I have problems just because I enjoy alcohol with my meals. Stupid, sheesh.
I'm a former social drinker or about five times a week for 1-2 drinks per event. I stopped about five years ago (not sure exactly how long ago) for financial reasons and survived enough to live to tell about it. I have alcohol in the house now (leftover from Holiday cooking) that's in opened bottles.
I haven't touched them since I last added them to the fruitcakes. I've two bottles of sherry now
(both sealed) because I plan to make some fish or chicken dishes which come to life with a
splash of wine. The cognac I planned to give someone five years ago remains in the gift bag,
unpresented and of course, unopened. I wouldn't consider the fact that there's alcohol on my
premises a cause for alarm.
I voluntarily stopped drinking; I never required a friend to assist me to overcome the problem
nor enrolled in a retreat to help me get the urge under control. I've saved quite a bit not buying
liquor, developed new interests where once I dropped around in a post-contented Euphoric
state. I did however find that dining (or eating) had lost its glow, pleasure and great tasting
cuisine and became much less inclined to cook or experiment, i.e. the fun of cuisine
had disappeared. But I have this perfect, uninterrupted record of abstinence, and I like it.
you don't need worried about how to cut your food bodget in half.
Save money by becoming a vegetarian? Really? That's as far as I had to read to know this is a worthless article. For anyone wanting real information about cutting their food budget without cutting out the nutrient dense foods needed by your body to function optimally, check out the soon to be released (Feb 26, 2013) "Rich Food, Poor Food" by Jayson & Mira Calton.
This assumes a few things... first that meat is something you are willing to cut out of your budget on a whim and second that you have a huge freezer. I happen to agree that having a huge freezer is one way to save BIG on groceries in the long run. Buying during a GOOD sale on things can save 30-40% off even good price groceries to begin with. But I have lower grocery bills than almost anyone I have ever compared with and the BIG savings is on meat and not buying processed, quick to make box and bag food, as I call it.
I buy 95% of my meats direct from the farmer. To do this, you have to buy a half cow or pig and multiple chickens (ordered in advance) at a time. You need to put $20 a week into an envelope for at least 6 months in order to be ready for this, but then watch your MEAT COSTS GET CUT BY HALF. i AVERAGE about $3-3.25 a pound for beef. Yep, roasts and steaks too... at the cost of good hamburger. Grass fed, drug free small herd cow. Same for pork, because the processing is higher to have any of it smoked, or the sausage seasoned, cured, etc. Chicken costs about the same unless you order an entire freezer full at once. they run about $7-8 a bird, but they are at least twice the size as the one's in the store and again, this is a major consideration - DRUG FREE, full grown, free range chicken. The major producers of chickens mix antibiotics into EVERY feeding of the birds... and that effects our health. FDA is not protecting us there... they have to do it to keep them in the conditions that they do without having 1000's of birds dying on a regular basis with coop sickness... watch FOOD, INC. if you need to get your head around this one.
Finally, bags of potatoes and veggies, as large as you can get... cost pennies on the collar. Frozen bags of veggies are also very cost saving. We eat meat, veggies and a starch for a dinner meal almost every day - sometimes in the form of separate items and sometimes as a 'dish' from the crock-pot, or a casserole in the oven this time of year... the added benefit of oven heat in the kitchen in MN. To find farmers to buy from, search Google for "locally grown" listings or visit your states commerce website and there is more than likely a link. Once you start finding sources for local, whole foods you will be eating healthier and saving A TON of money on food.
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