When money is tight, the food budget is the one area that usually gets trimmed first. Let’s face it, they can turn off your gas bill, but they can’t lock your pantry! Cooking on a tight budget can be a challenge; but by keeping a few rules in mind you can keep the table full without sacrificing your health in the process. By learning the tricks that grocery stores use to entice you to spend more, you can beat them at their own game and still serve nutritious, tasty meals.
1. Always Shop With a List
Purchase the Sunday paper each week and clip the coupons from the special inserts. You will almost always save much more than the cost of the paper, but the trick is to only clip coupons for products you already use. Often manufacturers will print large discount coupons to promote new items, but if you save $2 on a $6 item you wouldn’t have bought in the first place, in reality you’ve “lost” four dollars!
2. Wait for Sales
Keep a pad handy for items you’re running low on and add them to your shopping list when they go on sale. Most stores run the same items at discount on a rotating schedule and you will see foods such as coffee, tea, condiments and meats on sale at least once a month. By never paying full price, you’ll save a bundle and shift those extra dollars to more nutritious foods.
3. Make Your Menu Flexible
Make a menu before you shop. List your main meals for the next two weeks or month and the side dishes you’d like with them. This way you’ll avoid quick trips to the store for a missing ingredient and save money on “impulse items” as well as having the advantage of being able to prep some meals ahead of time. Be flexible; just because you’ve written “Shrimp Alfredo” for Wednesday the 12th doesn’t mean you can’t shift the meal to another day if shrimp doesn’t go on sale.
4. Meat Department Markdowns
Check with your store’s meat department and find out what time of day they mark down their products. Usually they are required by management to have this done by a certain time each day and you can purchase close-dated meats and poultry at a deeply discounted price. Make sure you use or freeze the items within the original expiration date to ensure food safety.
5. Shop Local
Shop your local Farmer’s Market for fresh fruits and vegetables. Try to buy in season, and be aware that markets also have “come on” items that are at a high markup. Be aware of the going prices for items and stock up when you find a good deal.
6. Plan Ahead
Plan your cooking time wisely. If you know you have to work late on Thursday, cook a double meal on Wednesday or prepare a crock pot meal that will cook itself while you work. This way you can avoid the temptation of eating out just because you’re tired and it’s late.
Remember – don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. While that macaroni and cheese may only cost a buck and the kids love it, always keep in mind the nutritional values of “fast-foods” that are tasty. You won’t see your savings if the end cost is a lowered resistance to illness due to lack of nutrition.