Many people think that, since they live alone or with just their partner, they really don’t need to buy a lot of food at one time. So they go grocery shopping a few times a week and only buy a few items to hold them over for a few days until their next trip. Occasionally they need to replenish things such as laundry detergent, toothpaste, etc.
The problem with this way of doing things is that you often end up buying more of an item than necessary, which means spending more money overall. Think of it this way. It’s just you, and you don’t drink a lot of milk. So you buy only a quart every three or four days. Do you know how much you’re actually spending on milk by buying a smaller carton every few days or so, instead of buying a larger carton once a week? Take a cue from my previous post about calculating the cost of a recipe. The next time you go grocery shopping, get your phone out and open the calculator app. Divide the price of a quart of milk by the number of servings listed on the label. Then do the same with a half gallon, and then a gallon. In fact, do it with all sizes of milk and multiple brands as well. Buy the one that represents the best deal, with the most servings at the lowest cost per serving.
“But I don’t drink a lot of milk,” you say. So, portion it out into the amounts that you’re most likely to use up in a few days or so, and freeze it. As you use up each portion, remove another one to thaw in the fridge. Milk can be kept frozen for at least six months. You’re saving money in the long run because you’re buying the milk less often, even though you’re paying a greater price simply because you’re buying the larger carton. Work smarter, not harder.
You can do this with everything you usually buy. Calculating the cost per unit (serving, ounce, load of laundry, etc.) is a great way to compare prices as you shop. As often as possible, you should opt for the most units per package at the lowest cost per unit. This strategy will help you identify areas of your grocery shopping where you’re spending too much and could cut down. If you get into the habit of using the cost per unit as a comparison tool, you’ll become more adept at spotting good deals and saving more money.
In the coming weeks, I will be uploading some printables you’ll be able to use to figure just how much you’re spending on groceries, and where you can cut down on that spending. Until then, here are some tips to consider when trying to keep grocery costs as low as possible:
Buy in bulk, and then portion into single servings. Sure, those single-serving bags of chips and snacks are convenient for when you’re packing the kids’ lunches, but you’ll save money by buying the large bag, box, or carton and then portioning it out. I use snack-sized resealable baggies, which hold one cup, but you can use whatever you want. This same method can be used for pretty much anything–cereal, rice or pasta, fresh or frozen veggies–you name it. Just put the single serving packs into the pantry or freezer and take out as much as you need.
Know the approximate servings per package of variable foods, such as packages of fresh or frozen meats. Whenever you want to make a roast, you typically buy one that is a good size for your family’s needs without being too expensive. You may search the meat case looking for the lowest price roast. The weight of the roast affects how many servings you can make with it.
Say you have a 2-pound roast. Figure your servings this way. Each pound of raw meat equals about two cups cooked (shredded, chopped, sliced, or ground). One serving of meat is between a third and a half cup, so one pound will yield four to six servings. That 2-pound roast will therefore yield between 8-12 servings. But there’s a hitch. Unless you’re portioning out individual servings of an entire meal, it really doesn’t make much sense to measure out a third or half cup of chopped, ground, or shredded meat at a time; I always portion it out into 2-cup portions for Recipe Components. The exception is when you’re portioning out whole pieces of meat such as pork chops or chicken breasts. When you buy whole meats such as this, opt again for the lowest cost per unit with the most servings per package. Take each piece and put it into a fold-close baggie, and fill a labeled and dated gallon-sized bag with your bagged chops or chicken breasts. Lay it flat in your freezer and you only have to take out exactly how many pieces you need. You can do this with raw or cooked meats. Meat can be frozen up to six months. To place the meat into the fold-close baggies, first turn a baggie inside-out. Place your hand inside and use the baggie to grab the meat. With your other hand, turn the baggie right-side-out, enclosing the meat. Finally, tuck the flaps in. Also, you can make your meats last longer by cutting larger pieces in half, thereby increasing the number of servings.
Don’t be put off by those “10 for $10” sales. If it’s something you kow you’ll be eating a lot of and often, go ahead and stock up. There has been a lot of negativity surrounding deals like this over the years, with some valid points. If you’re just going to buy 10 boxes of macaroni because of the price, you may end up wasting money if you don’t actually use that macaroni. However, things have changed since supermarkets introduced those deals. You used to have to buy all 10 in order to get the deal. Not so anymore; you can often get the deal with buying just one or two. The point is, when you see a good deal on something you like, go ahead and stock up on it!
Use some of your bulk items in casseroles, soups, and slow cooker meals. One of my local supermarkets has a really good deal on packaged meats every so often. So long as you buy at least five packages of the specially marked meats (mix and match), you only pay $5 for each package. If you find such a good deal on something that you just have to stock up on it, consider making a big pot of soup or a casserole with some of it. Soup is great because you can put almost anything you want in it. Soup also feeds a bunch of people, so its economical.
If you have precooked chopped or shredded meat in your freezer and don’t know what to do with it, make a casserole and pop that in the freezer. Most casseroles can be kept in the freezer up to six months. If you plan to freeze the whole casserole rather than portion it into individual servings, keep it unbaked. Put the baking instructions on it when you put it into the freezer, and remember that it may take 10-20 minutes longer in the oven when you go to bake it. Always remember to thaw a casserole at least 24 hours in the refrigerator, and take it out about half an hour before baking, while the oven preheats.
Slow cooker meals take very little effort to put together, and they pretty much make themselves. All you have to do is put the ingredients in, turn it on, and walk away. You may need to stir it once in a while, but otherwise it’s really hands-off. I like to start my slow cooker by about 10-11 in the morning so that when I get home from work it’s ready to eat (or, more accurately, portion out and freeze). Slow cooking is also the perfect way to make a lot of meat that’s destined to be shredded and portioned out for recipes. I buy big bags of those individually flash-frozen chicken breasts and thighs, put them in the slow cooker for about six hours with some water or broth, and then shred it all for the freezer. Beware, though. You really shouldn’t put raw, frozen meat into your slow cooker. It doesn’t get hot enough to allow the meat to come up to cooking temperature very quickly, so you run the risk of having food poisoning even if the meat is technically properly cooked. The long time at a cooler temperature with the meat being frozen means that any bacteria, such as E. coli or salmonella, have a greater opportunity to grow in the food. Always thaw anthing that’s raw and frozen before putting it in your slow cooker.
Buy and/or cook extra, and freeze whatever you’re not going to use right away. It takes the same amount of time and effort to make a double batch as it does a single batch; the only difference is that you’re buying the extra amounts now, while you’re there at the store and have the money, instead of making a new trip each and every time you want to make the dish. If it’s something your family requests at least once a week, it pays in the long run to have one or two batches of at least part of the dish premade, in the freezer and ready to go. Put the cooking/baking instructions for the dish on the container when you freeze it. This method is called batch cooking, and it works especially well with sauces. If you have a favorite sauce that you make fairly often, especially if it’s versatile enough to be used in multiple dishes and meals, you can take advantage of any sales on the ingredients and stock up. As I said, it takes the same amount of time to make one batch as it does two or three. Portion it out a batch at a time, label each batch with a reusable card with a recipe for using it, and freeze at least three months. To make reusable recipe cards for frozen foods such as sauces, buy pre-perforated printer sheets in the sizes you want. In Word, go to Envelopes and Labels; click on Labels and find the brand and item number of the sheets you have, and design your cards. Print them out, tear along the perforations to separate the cards, and take them to a copy shop to be laminated. Each time you use a batch of sauce, you wipe the recipe card clean with a damp cloth as needed, and place it in a drawer with a rubberband or something enclosing all of the cards together.
I hope this little crash course on making your grocery dollar go farther helps you out. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to sound off below!