One of my big goals for 2012, was to slash my grocery bill. I used to be a coupon queen, and I was spending about $100 a week. That money included all of our food and household items for my family of 5 (family of 6 when my stepson is here). I thought I was doing great. I would look in my pantry and see 12 boxes of fruit roll ups, 17 boxes of white pasta, and 30 cans of name brand beef stew. This year, I wanted to try to spend the less money each week – while buying better quality food and cooking from scratch more.
I learned something very interesting over the last year. I stopped using coupons, I spend way less on groceries, and my kitchen is better stocked than it’s ever been before. The last two months, my grocery and household budget bill has been averaging $70 – and that includes the $32.50 I spend each week on produce. That is a 30% savings! I still say that my budget is $100 a week; but out of that, in just the last year, I’ve saved enough to buy a water bath canner, canning supplies, a juicer, a dehydrator, and a nice blender. I’ve also switched to better oils. We finished all of the vegetable oil and canola oil in the house and I’ve made the switch to organic coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil. I’ve been able to stock up on staples; now my pantry is filled with bulk brown rice, quinoa, couscous, oats, various kinds of beans, organic flour, and different types of seeds and nuts. I don’t think we’ve ever eaten this well, and we are reaping the rewards with better health, higher energy levels, and more family time together at the table.
Here are the basic things that I did in the past year that have made the most impact on reducing my grocery bill and allowing my family to eat better and higher quality foods.
Be realistic with your budget – take a week and write down what you really spend. Count every penny, from the coffee at Starbucks to the pack of gum for the kids at the gas station. You can’t slash your budget until you realize what your budget really is.
Use cloth napkins and kitchen towels instead of paper towels – If your budget is too low to do this outright, then just buy half of the paper towels you would usually buy and buy a few kitchen towels at your local dollar store. My dollar store sells them 2 for $1. Within a few months, you should have a nice collection of them. As the cheap towels wear out, use them for cleaning, and buy nicer ones or a matching set for your daily use.
Skip the cereal isle – make breakfast. Homemade breakfasts are so easy and so adapatable. We are often rushed for time in the mornings, so I usually make a dozen muffins at night. They are great when paired with a piece of fruit and glass of milk. The kids love pancake muffins with a tiny bit of maple syrup on top. I use any pancake recipe I have laying around, but I always make them from scratch. I tried to use bisquick once, and everyone wrinkled their noses at it. Cooking from scratch just tastes better and it is so much healthier for you. Don’t worry about the type of flour or the amount of sugar at this point. Just get in the habit of eating a homecooked meal every morning. As your grocery budget realigns itself, you will have more room in it to buy foods that are healthier.
Plan your menu and inventory your pantry and fridge – I don’t even have to explain this one. Plan meals around what you have at home and what is in season and on sale.
Bake your own bread – baking bread is simple and it’s so rewarding. I can buy a 25lb bag of all purpose flour, a 16 oz package of yeast, and a container of table salt for less than $10 (at my local Sam’s club – I think Walmart has similar prices). Look up “Depression Era Bread” for more information about the specific recipe. These three ingredients will be enough to make you 35 loaves of Depression Era bread. Even with the white flour, it’s healthier than almost anything you can buy at the store. Remember what I said earlier – You can buy healthier flour and start playing around with different ingredients later. Don’t be a perfectionist about this. It’s just bread. You don’t need a bread pan, you can use a casserole dish, a cookie sheet, muffin tins, or whatever you have on hand.
Make your own laundry detergent and wool dryer balls – Laundry detergent and wool dryer balls are simple to make. I posted directions about how to make them here. I’ve since found that I like the liquid version of the laundry soap better. It’s pretty much the same thing that is posted on that link, just dilluted with hot water and mixed in a 5 gallon bucket.
Look for a local co-op or farmer’s market for fruit and veggies – I order our produce from Bountiful Baskets. I like them because I can skip a week if I need to without having to pay. I also enjoy the extras that are available. I order two baskets each week for my family of 5, and it’s plenty of produce for us. It might be too much produce some weeks, but we share the scraps with our rabbits and our compost pile. Speaking of which….
Start a compost pile – I know this seems like a strange thing to add to this list, but I think it deserves a place here. If you are forced to look at your produce waste on a regular basis, you will start trying to come up with ways to make that amount of waste smaller. I hate wasting food. The solution for me is to take one day a week and prep all of the food that I can. I chop veggies, wash fruits, pickle cucumbers, brown ground beef, and shred cheese. It seems like a lot of work at the time, but I’ve found that if I can make a meal easy for me to put together at the last minute, I’ll follow my menu plan and be less tempted to waste a meal worth of produce.
Have a few easy meals always available – We’ve all had meetings that end late, or last minute errands that we have to run. When this happens, it can be very easy to justify stopping for food. If you have a few easy meals at home, you will be less likely to stop. I usually have a stash of rice and bean burritos in the freezer along with a few pounds of precooked ground beef that I can add to spaghetti sauce easily.
Make your own snack food – It doesn’t matter what you love to munch on – figure out a way to make it from scratch. It’s going to be cheaper in the long run and much better for your body. If you don’t have time to make snacks, cube cheese and have it available with fresh fruit and vegetables.
Skip the isles – I’m not sure about other parts of the world, but in most of the grocery stores I’ve been in around Dallas, Texas, the real food is located around the outside of the grocery store and very rarely can it be found on an endcap or grocery store isle. For the most part – – Real food does not come in a box.
Eat less meat – You don’t need meat at every meal. It’s easy to stretch meat by using small amounts of it to season things without having to make meat the center piece of the meal. Everytime you do eat meat as the main part of your meal, save the carcass or bones and throw them on the stove (or crockpot) with water to simmer for a few hours. The liquid makes a great stock you can use to cook rice in, make soup with, or season beans with. Quality meat is more affordable when you can get 2 or more meals from it.
Skip soda – Stop drinking soda. It’s addicting and it’s really bad for you. The kids and I usually just drink water, whole milk, or fresh squeezed citrus juice when it’s in season. I kicked my coffee habit, but I still love unsweetened tea. Luckily, a box of tea bags is cheap and will last for awhile.
Learn to cook from scratch – Follow recipes until you understand the “why” of what you are doing, then adapt recipes to suit your family and your current resources. Once you understand which spices go best together, how baking soda and baking powder differ, ect…, you can start to branch out and create your own culinary masterpieces. Try as many recipes as you can get your hands on. Learn to make granola, make homemade yogurt, make cheese, make ice cream, make scones, make anything that sounds good to you. Learn to love to cook. Enjoy the process and reap the rewards.
It doesn’t sound hard does it? It’s really not – but it takes dedication, and a desire to change. I think I could lower my grocery bill even further if we cut out all of the extras that we get, but we are in a comfortable place right now and I’m proud of all of the changes we’ve made to our eating habits. I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings!