My family lives on a tight monthly cash flow, and often, the only place we can cut costs – besides the obvious, fun and entertainment – is our food budget. This is difficult for me to wrap my head around sometimes because while we have to live within our financial means, I hold nutritious food and scrumptious meals in high regard. And if you’ve never noticed, the cheapest foods are often the unhealthiest.
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Still, there are many ways I’ve found to save money on food:
Grow a garden
Whether you’re growing a couple tomato plants in containers on your porch or you have a half-acre spread on your farm, you can save a lot of money by eating the fruits of your planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting labor.
You can go on to reap the rewards year-round by freezing, dehydrating, canning, or otherwise storing your produce. Or, if you’d rather munch on fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter, consider turning a spare room of your house into a grow room.
Other ways to grow your own
In addition, we live on an acreage where we keep a flock of hens for eggs, a herd of goats for milk, and a flock of sheep for meat. As long as we manage the grass-based farm so that we’re not spending money on feed most of the year, we’re receiving nearly free food.
Making meals at home, rather than going out to eat at a restaurant or picking up take-out, can save a ton of money. To help avoid the temptation of going elsewhere to eat, prepare a variety of different types of meals and don’t be afraid to try new recipes. You might find, as I have, that many homemade versions are better than the restaurant dishes.
Pack lunches when running errands
Rather than pick up fastfood or snacks at a convenience store when you’re on the run, pack a cooler with sandwiches, a no-mess side such as carrot sticks or grapes, a couple bottles of tap water from home, and a snack for later.
Bringing food from home is a lot cheaper than buying it in town, and the kids will love having a picnic or the change in scenery if they’re eating while driving.
Find a food exchange friend
I have a friend who receives free ground meat from her parents’ farm but who is often in want of eggs and fresh produce. We do an occasional exchange, where she will give us several pounds of ground meat in exchange for several weekly drop-offs of eggs and garden-fresh vegetables. In addition, I have friends and family who “pay me” for babysitting and other tasks in food.
Buy in bulk
This not only applies to on-sale food items in the grocery store, but particularly for us with meat. We prefer to buy a whole beef or lamb once a year when live-animal market prices are reasonable, and then get it processed at a local locker, rather than buy higher-priced meat products in the store.
Consider wild game
My brother-in-law is an avid turkey and deer hunter, and he gladly will give us free meat as long as we pay for the processing. My husband also loves to fish, and we can eat well when he gets a big catch. Some states have formal programs that facilitate the exchange of wild game between hunters and non-hunting families.
I've never understood people who throw out their leftovers! We like to eat leftovers for lunch and then make a new meal for dinner. My husband loves it when we have leftovers, because it offers him variety other than the usual sandwich.
Keep your pantry and freezer well-stocked with ingredients that you often use and then plan meals around what you have available. I usually plan about a week at a time, as I go grocery-shopping once a week. I take a monthly food inventory of everything we have in stock, so I’m not out buying food items when I have them at home, stuck in the back of my cupboard.
I also have a list of meals that my family loves to eat, so that if I feel we’re getting in a rut of eating the same foods over and over, I can peruse the list and look for a different type of meal for variety.
I keep two grocery lists: one of basic food items that I’ll need soon to replenish my kitchen, such as onions and brown sugar; and one of “extra” food items that I enjoy but only buy as treats, such as miniature bagels and yogurt. I then circle items in the first list when we are very close to running completely out. I have a weekly food budget, and we go shopping at a grocery store with weekly sales and competitive regular prices.
I start with the circled items, tallying the cost of the items as I go on a pocket calculator, and then with the leftover money, I go to the first list of basic food items. If I have money left over after picking up the basic food items on the list, I go to the “extra” food items, paying particular attention to those that are on sale. I’m not an expert at couponing, but I try to use coupons for products that I regularly buy.
The grocery store we use also offers a $5-off coupon when we spend over $50 to be used toward the next purchase. Another way to buy smart is to pick out fresh produce that’s in season, such as oranges in the winter and melons in the summer.
In what ways do you save on your family food budget?