In my last post in this series, I wrote about how many popular grocery-store-saving strategies just don’t work for me. Couponing, bulk-shopping, freezer-meal-cooking…they’re all solid methods for some, but don’t fit my personality, circumstances, or organizing style.
In fact, those strategies can have quite unintended consequences for me! Many times I’ve found myself buying a product I never otherwise would, just to use a coupon. More than once I’ve cooked a huge batch of some casserole or other, only to toss half of it out when nobody seems interested in the leftovers.
So many grocery saving strategies seem to revolve around getting as much food as you can for as little money as possible. But cost-per-ounce is only part of the equation. I’ve come to realize that what we do with food at home is just as important as how much of it we’re able to get for $100.
After all, I could spend hours shopping sales and carefully cutting coupons, but if my meal plan is bloated and leads to throwing food away, I’ve wasted my time in addition to food and money.
Based on a lot of trial and error, I’ve come up with a formula for reducing food waste that works for us:
Shop More Often + Buy Less Food + Make Simple Meals + Plan Great Leftovers + Shop The Pantry = Save Money, Time, And Food.
1. Shop More Often
I’ve experimented with every-other-week shopping, but I find that my “stock up” mindset seems to take over in those circumstances and I wind up with way too much food. I can sometimes stretch the time between store trips to 9-10 days, and the challenge of having to use items from the freezer and pantry can be a good exercise in resourcefulness, but I also operate best on a routine and find that setting aside a certain day of the week for shopping usually works best.
2. Buy Less Food.
Since I’m easily overwhelmed and distracted, loading up my shelves with tons of food at once is a sure path to waste. A well-stocked pantry is one thing, but a crisper drawer loaded with wilting produce and shelves so crammed with condiments and cheeses that you can’t find your way to the leftover chicken just leads to food going bad.
There are a few foods I will stock up on sale (meat, because I can freeze it; bread, because it will always get used) but one of my most effective money-saving strategies has been to simply buy less food at each shopping trip.
3. Make Simple Meals Your Family Loves.
Rest assured that I’m not talking about a steady diet of chicken nuggets or mac and cheese, here (though I’m definitely not above having a couple blue boxes on hand at all times.)
But I’ve found that there are certain dishes – beef stew, spaghetti, black bean tacos, roast chicken, baked salmon – that always disappear at my house, and that focusing my efforts on making them as nutritious and tasty as possible just makes more sense than taking a gamble on more exotic recipes most of the time.
That’s not to say I never experiment or that all of my meals pander to kid-pickiness; just that it’s a lot more satisfying and cost-effective to set down a dish that everybody can’t wait to dig into, than one that mostly gets pushed around on the plate (and later winds up the trash.)
4. Plan Great Leftovers.
One of my biggest meal-planning mistakes used to be shopping for too many main dishes without creating a real plan for leftovers. So even if everyone loved the stew, the next day it would get bumped from memory by a roast chicken, and then we’d have two containers of leftovers to deal with.
Now I try to put gap days between big meals, and treat leftover ingredients as being worthy of attention rather than an afterthought I’m trying to pass off on repeat. I’ll often plan new sides and veggies to accompany the main dishes that didn’t get finished, or come up with whole new meals (soups, stews, etc) to utilize leftover ingredients.
For example, last night we had baked salmon with smashed potatoes and broccoli; tonight we’ll finish off the salmon over brown rice mixed up with what’s left of the broccoli. There’s something about the psychology of getting a “new” meal (albeit one made with ‘old’ ingredients) that just seems to make everyone happier about eating it.
5. “Shop” The Pantry and Freezer.
Buying less food at once can take a bit of adjustment – I definitely went through a phase where I felt like there was nothing in the house to eat.
But I realized that having fewer perishables in the fridge forced me to get more resourceful and use what I do have in the freezer or pantry – and trust me, it’s usually plenty. It can also work to shake the kids out of always reaching for the “easy” food (another sandwich, etc) and get them thinking creatively about how to turn basic ingredients into food!
These tips may not be mind-blowing, but I think sometimes the simplest strategies for saving money in the kitchen can also seem like the most intuitive. Our culture has definitely adopted a “more is always better” mentality, and it’s easy to let that muddy up the way you shop and plan meals. As far as I’m concerned? Less is more, and the simplest path is often the most direct route to getting dinner on the table.