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If there is one area where almost all of us could save money, it’s food. We spend a lot of money buying groceries, eating out, ordering in, and snacks.
We are going to save your food budget with 26 ways to save on food costs.
Hopefully, groceries are your most significant source of food costs rather than eating out so let’s tackle them first.
1. It Pays to Plan
Whether it’s a vacation or a trip to the grocery store, when we don’t plan ahead, we spend more money than we have to.
Not only does planning save on food costs, it saves you time too because you aren’t scrambling last minute for something to cook or eat for dinner.
Go through your fridge, freezer, and pantry before you plan your meals. You have a ton of food in those that you are neglecting.
Use that food up by incorporating it into your meal plan before you go out and spend money on new food.
2. The Top Ten
Meal planning is not that onerous because we tend to be creatures of habit. You don’t have to come up with a new idea for dinner 365 nights a week. Think back to what you have eaten for the last week or two.
Chances are, the same handful of meals show up over and over. I like to browse new recipes, and I like to cook, but even I tend to eat the same ten to fifteen meals most of the time.
Sure, I’ll break out something new and special if I have friends over for dinner, but when I cook for myself, I tend to eat the same things pretty often.
So just come up with a list of ten dishes and meals that you and your family all like and are at least moderately healthy (no Hamburger Helper and boxed mac and cheese) and just rotate them most of the time.
3. Rinse and Repeat
While most of us don’t want to eat the same thing for dinner night after night, we seem to be less picky when it comes to breakfast and lunch.
These two meals also tend to be less demanding. It doesn’t take long to scramble a few eggs with a handful of spinach or to eat some yogurt with a little fruit added.
Lunch can be leftovers from dinner or a salad.
4. Shop With a List
Whatever we are shopping for, we buy less when we make a list and stick to it.
You might end up with a few extra things in your buggy when you food shop with a list but you will be a lot worse off if you go in with no list and no plan.
5. Avoid Temptation
Even with a list, some people just can’t resist certain things in the grocery. For me it’s cheeses. They all look so delicious, and there is always a new one that I want to try.
If this sounds familiar to you, you can avoid temptation by shopping online.
Some things are more expensive when you buy through a service like Fresh Direct or Pea Pod but try it and do the math.
If you spend less overall because you aren’t being tempted by all of the things in the grocery store, shopping with a delivery service can actually save you money.
6. Double Duty
When you plan your meals and make your list, make sure you are not buying a lot of single-use ingredients.
If you need carrots for a salad, also plan to make a carrot soup or to pack some carrots with a dip in your lunch.
Not all groceries sell small quantities of things like carrots or celery so if you have to buy them in a large quantity, make sure you incorporate them into other meals, so they don’t go bad languishing in the crisper drawer.
7. Find a Good Source
If you don’t know how to cook or you don’t know how to make budget meals, find a good source that teaches you. My favorite is Budget Bytes.
The author gives you step by step instructions complete with photographs, breaks down the cost of each ingredient and shows the cost of the entire meal, and I don’t think I have made anything from her site that I didn’t enjoy.
She started the site when she was pretty broke, so all of her recipes use pretty inexpensive and readily available ingredients.
If you are really hopeless at cooking or just don’t enjoy it, get a slow cooker. You can put almost anything in them and produce a tasty meal with very little time or effort.
8. Find a Good Store
You can find most grocery store circulars online. See what is on sale for the week and build your menus around those things.
If you have more than one store nearby, you can save even more money by buying what each store has on sale so long as you have enough time to do so.
Don’t overlook drug stores. While they mostly sell processed food, they do have sales, and you can get good deals on things like canned tuna and coffee.
If you use a lot of certain things that are shelf stable like coconut milk or tinned tomatoes,buying from Amazon or a bulk store like Costco can save you money.
If you are lucky enough to have ethnic groceries near you, be sure to check those out too. You can often find things much cheaper in those stores than your local big chain stores.
While things at a farmer’s market can be expensive (though some things are worth the extra expense because they taste so much better), if you have a farm stand or a pick your own farm, you can get fresh, local produce cheap.
At Frugal For Less, we would never tell you that you have to give up eating out entirely. Eating out is a pleasure. But there are ways to make eating out more affordable.
If you are lucky enough to live in one of the cities that Seated serves, you are going to send me fan mail for this one. Seated was in New Orleans for a few months and I was crazy about it.
For reasons unknown to me, they no longer serve New Orleans, and I’m still kinda mad about it!
Seated is a reservation site like Open Table. When you make and complete a reservation through Seated, and you will get $10-50 in rewards from Amazon, Starbucks, or Lyft!
Seated is currently available in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Austin, Denver, Providence, and Seattle.
Seated is (was) my favorite way to save on food costs.
You probably know that you can get restaurant discounts at Groupon, but they have a lot of other deals on food and drinks too.
A quick look at my local Groupon shows discounts for coffee shops, a juice shop, food, drinks, and a game of pool at a pool hall, and a tour and tasting at a distillery.
That last one would make for a more interesting and cheaper outing than just meeting a friend for a drink!
11. Let’s Do Lunch
If there is a high-end restaurant you just have to try, go for lunch rather than dinner. A lot of expensive restaurants will offer a prixe fixe menu at lunch which is considerably cheaper than dinner.
12. You Won’t Eat All That
American restaurant portions are enormous, way more than one person can or should eat in a lot of places. If you’re dining with another person, split an entrée.
This leaves more room for appetizers or dessert which are the best parts of eating out anyway.
Or you can order two appetizers for yourself rather than an appetizer and an entrée. This is what I usually do because I love appetizers. And it’s more fun.
I would always prefer to eat tapas style because it’s more fun to try a few different things rather than to eat one big plate of something.
13. Wait for Restaurant Week
Many cities have a restaurant week where local restaurants will offer a special price-fixed menu. You can eat in some of the best restaurants in your city for a great price.
New Orleans does this for the entire month of August (a time when tourism slows due to the heat and humidity) and an additional week in September.
Last year, Commander’s Palace, one of the best restaurants in the country offered a two-course lunch menu for $20 and a three-course dinner menu for $39!
Find out if your city or a city nearby offers a Restaurant Week and make your reservations!
I don’t like this one, but it is my job to convey information to you. If you really want to save money eating out, don’t order adult beverages.
You could also find a restaurant that charges a reasonable corkage fee and bring your own bottle of wine.
15. Make it Worthwhile
This tip may not necessarily save you money but remember, being frugal doesn’t mean spending the least amount of money as possible, it means getting the most for the money you do spend.
Don’t order something in a restaurant that you can easily make at home. I know that pasta looks good, but pasta is not hard to make. This is why I often order a steak when I go out.
I am only a middling cook, and I’m terrified to ruin an excellent piece of steak by overcooking it. So I never cook a steak at home but will often order it in a restaurant.
16. Taco Tuesday!
Some locally owned restaurants will have discounted specials on a particular night of the week. We have Taco Tuesday and various nights have been designated steak night by certain restaurants in New Orleans.
An excellent way to find these specials is to follow local restaurants on Facebook or Twitter.
17. Use the Right Credit Card
Some rewards credit cards offer cash back when you use them at restaurants. Chase Sapphire Preferred gives you 2.5% cash back, and Capital One Savor gives 3% back.
If you have an American Express card, check out the “Offers and Benefits” section when you log into your account. AmEx sometimes offers statement credits when you spend with participating restaurants.
18. Go Mexican
Many Mexican restaurants provide free chips and salsa, sometimes unlimited.
And Mexican restaurant corn chips are always so much lighter and crispier than store bought that it’s easy to fill up on them, so you only need an appetizer as a main course.
Sometimes not only can we not be bothered to cook a meal, but we also can’t even be bothered to go out for one! But we can still save money when ordering take out.
19. Order Early
If you’re having “one of those days” at work and just know that you won’t want to cook or go out, order from a restaurant that offers lunch specials and stick it in your office fridge to take home with you for dinner.
20. Use a New Service
A lot of food delivery services offer promo codes for new customers. If you are a loyal Seamless user, it might pay to give Grub Hub a try.
21. Watch the Fees
Ordering on Seamless when I moved to New Orleans was a big shock for me. In New York City where I had lived previously had not only an endless amount of restaurants to choose from but rarely a delivery fee or a minimum order amount.
New Orleans Seamless has just 164 participating restaurants, and most of them have a delivery fee and a minimum order, sometimes as much as $15!
If you choose to order out, be sure to select a restaurant that doesn’t charge a fee or have a minimum delivery amount.
The bright side to this is that I almost never order delivery so that has saved me some money for sure.
I will never stop missing bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll from the corner bodega delivered to my door though no matter how much I love New Orleans.
22. Stop Buying Lunch
Even if you only order in for lunch a few times a week at work, it adds up fast, and it’s not even food you particularly enjoy.
It’s often the same thing day after day, and you aren’t exactly paying for the ambiance when you’re eating hunched over your desk.
Bring dinner leftovers, make a big salad for the week (don’t dress it until you’re ready to eat it or it will go soggy), even buying frozen meals when they are on sale will save you money.
Buying lunch every day at work is one of the worst uses of your food budget so knock it off!
We eat our three meals a day, but sometimes you just need a little something to hold you over, so you don’t want snacks to put a big dent in your food budget.
23. Down Size
It’s cheaper to buy most things in bulk, but if you’ve ever sat with a whole bag of cashews, you know what that can do to your wallet never mind your waistline.
Buy your snacks in bulk sizes but portion them out into small containers or bags, so you don’t gobble them all down in one go.
24. Brown Bag It
Not only is microwave popcorn expensive, but it is also terrible for you. People who work in the plants where that stuff is made suffer something called “popcorn lung!” All you need to cook popcorn is a bag of kernels and some brown paper sandwich bags.
Pour a serving of kernels into the bag, fold it over a few times and microwave it for a couple of minutes. If you want buttered popcorn, melt some real butter!
I don’t know what that stuff is they put on microwave popcorn, but it is surely not butter.
If you want kettle corn style popcorn, melt some butter and honey together and drizzle it over the top with a good shake of salt. Delicious!
25. DIY Trail Mix
Trail mix can be a healthy snack, but a lot of the pre-made stuff is loaded with sugar and other weird, unhealthy things on top of being expensive.
Go to the bulk bin section of your grocery store and make bespoke trail mix!
That way you can add exactly what you want in whatever ratios you want because we all have that one thing we pick out of store-bought trail mix.
26. Pack it Up
If you are going to be away from home for several hours, or several days if you’re going on vacation, bring a few snacks with you.
Things like those little cheeses in red wax and hard boiled eggs won’t poison you if they aren’t refrigerated for a few hours.
Even more expensive snacks like protein bars are less costly than stopping into a café for a coffee and a pastry.
If you like to snack at work, don’t eat that stuff in the vending machine. It’s all junk food and expensive. Keep things like your pre-portioned nuts and DIY trail mix in your desk drawer.
Eat, Drink, Cook, and Be Merry!
Eating, drinking, and cooking should all be pleasurable things, but they should not be things that break your budget. With a little planning and creative thinking, you can save on food costs. Bon appetite!