Food Fixes that Help Stretch Your Budget
We think we should receive big kudos for serving up some of the brightest, most ingenious ideas for stretching our food budgets. We are happy to share them in this blog. But before we do, certain questions hang in the air like tiny food particles: Is it tacky to cut back on food costs? Will you be found out and people laugh and point at you? Most important, is it worth the effort?
But before hitting the food fix button, be sure you have examined the short—and long-term results of this endeavor. Yes, it’s a method to save money and not waste food (most mothers raising children in middle-class homes nagged them to eat what was on their plates because there were starving children in India and China). As young children, most of us didn’t know where both countries were located except far beyond our borders. To save food costs can be time consuming. Scavenging and recycling to save money may seem small potatoes, but it can have real effects on budgets and consciences.
Are you convinced? It also can be fun if you do with the right attitude and gusto. Challenge yourself.
Some gimmicks are readily apparent. Margaret’s husband had an aunt who was a serial sugar stealer, who furtively put the pastel-colored sugar and sugar-substitute packets in her purse when nobody was looking. Same with the plethora of plastic bags at the grocery store that seemed to inadvertently (wink, wink) wrangle their way into her purse and others’.
While we’d never covet sugar packets and rarely go for the plastic bags, give us some time and higher prices for food and we could rival our elders.
Some tactics are so out in the open it makes it easy to help oneself. Just ask Barbara the Scrounger who cannot resist grabbing a Fuji or Gala apple or fat navel orange to take home from her spa/gym. All are sitting out in a big bowl for clients to take after she and others work out and take classes or enjoy a sauna or the outdoor “aqua pool. “Why not drop one per visit in her purse, she reasons, when all have climbed at her grocery store.
Barbara explains that the gym used to offer bottles of water with its logo and those too became a souvenir for her to enjoy post-visit after a strenuous workout. For environmental reasons, the gym stopped offering them and asked members to bring their own water bottles. Make no mistake, the gym probably has security cameras and saw folks like Barbara taking their fair share.
Margaret the micro-eater knows how to stretch her food supply. Leftovers, which her late husband refused to eat, are a prime target. Chicken the second night can become chicken salad the second and/or third or the stuffing for a pasta or taco shell with the right ingredients and seasonings. Mashed potatoes one night can become potato pancakes the next. Veggies left over and a turkey or chicken carcass or hambone can be thrown into a pot with herbs, beans and water and a soup can be made or she creates a sauce with butter, lemon and garlic and pours it over pasta. Add chicken if there’s any left.
There are so many ways we’ve realized we can cut our food shopping prices with a little extra time and energy. Here are nine ideas to heed:
- Sign up for discounts at your favorite grocery store (if available). In other words, loyalty can pay. Barbara limits most of her grocery shopping to one store that offers a bonus program, which reduces her bill when she checks out. Examples are two-for-one specials, especially for pricey raspberries, blueberries and strawberries in the dead of winter but many other items occasionally are included such as a bag of clementine oranges, Thomas’ English muffins or her favorite brand of chunky peanut butter. These reductions are posted in the aisles and also in the paper fliers that her store regularly mails out and she usually dumps. Now she’s saving them and reading what’s on sale. Her grocery also offers gasoline points on every $100 spent, which leads to $2.50 off a gasoline card at the end of its pay periods. Think it’s silly? Hardly when gasoline has also climbed. Recently, she was in a celebratory mood when at the end of the period she received a gasoline card free for $25! No small chump change with what’s also happened at the pump.
- Shop smarter. It takes time to be a really good shopper once in the grocery store--time to peruse what’s there and compare prices and sizes. We also know not to go when hungry since it’s more likely we’ll buy more. And we put away our cell phones, so we don’t spend time looking at what’s there and who just emailed or texted rather than look at the aisles and what’s on sale. We’re also becoming good at avoiding impulse shopping no matter how good that bag of nuts or new ice cream flavor looks. And we know that many house and generic brands are actually the same as some of the pricier ones, just packaged with different labels. Get rid of that snob gene in most cases! People aren’t looking in your cupboards.
- Plan meals accordingly. Thinking of pricey fruit? Well, our moms taught us that it’s best to buy what’s in season, so go for those root vegetables in winter. And even if you come to the grocery with a shopping list to plan meals, consider varying it according to the costs. When fresh salmon—not farm raised—goes on sale, Barbara alters her meal plan. Same goes for certain cheeses, which have also climbed in price. And those cartons of eggs, which used to be cheap, keep going up. Barbara has room to raise chickens in her backyard but she’s not sure she’s up to becoming a farmer, though she just wrote an article on modern farmhouse style.
- Eat better. We all can justify spending more on quality. Who wants a cheap cut of meat or frozen fish? Not us. We can be snobs about certain things. But we also know how to balance expenses, the same thing we do with high and low shopping for clothing, which Michelle Obama was a pro doing. So, if we do go for that good strip or ribeye steak occasionally, we might pair it with side dishes that are affordable. Or when buying shrimp instead of a huge quantity, we might use them in a stir fry where they play a secondary role with a host of healthy colorful vegetables such as red, green and yellow peppers, onions, mushrooms and more being the stars. Sometimes, we do buy frozen shrimp when on sale since some brands can be very good and save a lot of money.
- Splurge occasionally. Why not when we only live once but then we might cut back after a gourmet meal for the next few days. And we’re fans of breakfast for dinner whether homemade waffles, pancakes (with blueberries), French toast and good omelets and frittatas using up mushrooms and other veggies or cheese. All are affordable meals and a fun change after we’ve indulged on organic free-range chicken, expensive fish and meat choices and the best lettuce and other ingredients for salads whether imported olives or heirloom tomatoes.
- Avoid processed and prepared foods. They’re expensive in many cases and also not so healthy. Skip the frozen mac ‘n cheese and learn to make your own healthy version—it’s also easy! And today there are so many wonderful blogs to guide us including the New York Times. Even store-bought bread may contain sugar. Make your own, which you may have learned to do during the pandemic. It’s not hard. One of Barbara’s daughters makes a challah weekly and another no-knead, yeast bread, she has dubbed “Mom’s bread.” Proof the yeast, add flour, add a few other ingredients, wait for it to rise and voila! It comes with a great crust, too.
- Rethink organic. Here we’ll probably get into arguments with some of our healthier friends. They cost more but aren’t always so much healthier. According to USDA data, organic foods are said to have fewer pesticide residues than conventionally grown produce, but the amounts for both types are within the level for safe consumption.
- Go online for coupons. Browse websites like Coupons.com, KellogsFamilyRewards.com, Printable Coupons from MySavings.com and PGEveryday.com. Find a lot and you feel you deserve a trophy or medal.
- Buy wine smartly. Find an expert at your grocery store or wine store who can suggest good ones for under $15. If you imbibe wine with dinner each night, why pay more? Save the expensive ones for big occasions. And it’s a challenge to find favorites. When you love one or a few, photograph the label and save, to repeat. Many newspapers also include favorite bargains. And these days it’s also chic to go “dry” for a month or so or try more non-alcoholic drinks.
We could go on and on with suggestions, recipes, flow charts, graphs and spreadsheets to help pare and spread out food costs. How you stretch your food budget is a very personal choice. We only hope that you have gained a helpful new perspective, one broad enough to offset the inflated prices that await you in your neighborhood food and beverage stores when you next shop.