Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Buying Groceries for $30 (or Less) a Week

Grocery shopping with my husband, I sped past the aisles of delicious food for the back of the store where I knew the butter would be. Shocker of shocks, my Aldi's butter prices had doubled, and I couldn't afford it that week. I knew that Walmart – less than a block from Aldi – would have cheaper butter. The trick there is getting past the bakery, the spice rack that calls my name, the coffee... everything. I was hungry, and I knew whatever I saw had the potential to tempt me.

Then it happened. I saw the clearance section. I didn't know this existed until that very moment, and I stopped in my tracks. Most of it was overpriced teas that had dropped to reasonable prices, but there were cans of tuna half off, various grains at rock bottom prices, and a precious bag of high end, organic, blonde, coconut sugar for ¼ the usual price. I never ever buy specialty sugar, despite how wonderful it is, and I hemmed and hawed over it for a full two minutes before my husband plopped it into our cart and said it was worth it.

When my husband came to me with concern about our food budget (which was only $60 a week to begin with), I told him I would try to only spend around $30 a week for groceries. This includes whatever staples we need. Frugal grocery shopping is one of the most exciting aspects of my life. I don't say that in exaggeration or to be over-dramatic. It truly thrills me. I love pinching every penny and seeing how delicious I can make each meal. This month, I managed to feed us with around $20 a week. How do we do it? 

Cook with what is currently cheap
With the price of eggs skyrocketing over the past year, I've really had to rethink how I cook. I used to make a lot of egg casseroles and quiches (we love quiche). Now I make more soups and skillets. 

Know where you want to spend the bigger bucks
We know we use about two cartons of eggs per week and about one gallon of milk (we used to use three gallons a week, but this is a place we cut back). This alone is about $8-$9 per week, so I have to carefully dole out the rest. If it's at all possible, we prioritize drinking whole milk. I'm a nursing mother, and we're active, so the fat is important. (We rarely, if ever, buy fat-free or low-fat foods. Have you ever noticed that low-fat means more sodium?)

Keep a list - and keep it transient
I always have a grocery list with me, but I also keep an eye out for special deals so I can make adjustments. This is especially nice in cases where I might be able to save 50 cents in one place to use in another. This week, I had baby carrots on my list, which are normally the same price – per ounce – as the regular carrots. We like the taste better, and I save time by cooking them whole instead of chopping the bigger ones; however, the regular carrots were half off, this week, so I got those instead and spent that money on – you guessed it – clearance priced coconut sugar!

Take charity where you need it
We get a small box from a local food pantry during the week. What we get is incredibly unpredictable, so I can't count on anything in particular, but there is often one lean meat, some form of organic grain, a vegetable, and a half gallon of milk. There is usually a snack or granola bars which I don't eat, but my husband takes them to work (he works late, so we don't eat until 8:30 PM three nights a week). This gives us a small buffer, and I try to incorporate everything we get into the meals for that week.

Some people, I'm sure, would feel uncomfortable with this, but we do it to make ends meet. There have been times when things weren't so tight, and we didn't get a box for a couple months. We try to make that decision based on current need, and it really helps.

Know your cheap ingredients
When I figured out my budget, I also wrote out a list of cheap ingredients. Not recipes – just ingredients. I'm pretty good at throwing something together without a recipe, so just knowing I could make do gives me a little wiggle room if, say, the meals I planned to make end up too costly for that week. I cut the more expensive ingredients, replace them with cheap ones from my list, and I make them work. We eat a lot of beans, barley, and lentils. I buy frozen vegetables, with the exception of potato varieties and onions. We love our broccoli and Brussels sprouts especially.

Don't buy cheap food you don't like
You should enjoy what you're eating. Remember that clearance section? There was a five pound bag of cornbread flour for fifty cents. FIFTY CENTS! I picked it up and put it in my cart. It seemed like a no brainer. Then I took it out of my cart and put it back on the shelf. We never eat cornbread. We don't like cornbread. Why spend the money when we won't eat it?

Use expensive ingredients as garnishes
Another thing that helps is using meat and cheese as garnishes and not the main dish. I rarely use a meat as the main dish, except for special occasions. When I do need a meat, I still buy the cheapest per ounce, but I use as little as possible so I have meat for meals in the weeks to come. For example, I needed chicken breasts for a meal, last week, and I saw I could get double for nearly ten cents less per ounce. It was almost a third of my budget, but I made it work by improvising for a couple more meals than I had planned that week.

Don't buy what you can make yourself
It's important to make what you can from scratch. I never buy spice packets or canned soups. I also don't buy pre-flavoured grains (why pay $1 for garlic couscous when you could pay the same for double the amount of plain couscous?). I remember an occasion when I ran out of biscuit mix and made it from scratch in a pinch. I've made it from scratch since then. I also make most of our breads from scratch. 

If you don't have an ingredient, find a creative substitute
A healthy habit to build in the kitchen, when you're trying to cook frugally, is ingenuity when you need something. Can you use something you already have? This week, I knew I would need powdered sugar for a birthday cake, but I have five pounds of sugar at home. Instead of buying powdered sugar, I can blend the regular sugar into powder. When I need brown sugar, I can mix white sugar with molasses instead. If a recipe calls for a canned soup, I make a white sauce and flavour it as I like. Things like these allow you to innovate and be creative.

Keep your pantry bare
Perhaps the most effective way I have kept my budget low is by using my pantry. There are some who recommend always having the food in your pantry to make a few favourite meals if you need to, but I have never found this advice helpful. I'm sure it works for some, but the main idea with that is to protect yourself from the temptation of eating out or making boxed meals. Eating out and cooking boxed meals aren't options for us, so I can't be tempted! By utilizing my pantry, I save a lot simply by trying to cook with what I have and not trying to keep it stocked with anything in particular. If you can become creative with making sauces and combining spices, and if you keep a good supply of frozen veggies on hand, your pantry will rarely fail you. By cooking this way, I keep my pantry mostly bare, except for things like oil, flour, sugar, and the like.

BONUS: Shop at Aldi. No, there aren't coupons, but most things are excellent quality at an unbeatable price. 

There are many other ways to be frugal with food; I feel as though I could write for days. The key is finding ways to make it exciting and fun for you. Don't think of it as eating cheaply; consider it as a way to discover cooking anew. Do let me know of ways you make it engaging for yourself!

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