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How to stretch your grocery budget

I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy through all the coronavirus chaos.  I don’t normally post to the blog on a Saturday night, but with all the frantic grocery store shopping going on I thought any helpful advice I can give should be NOW and not later… not even a day later.  Just like you I’m watching the news, feeling nervous and confused.  So many people are suffering right now from being sick, losing loved ones, or having lost their source of income.  It makes me sad and I just want to help.

We all need to eat, and when it comes to our grocery budget we all like to save and stretch our dollar.  With many restaurants closing and grocery store shelves bare, now it’s more important than ever to watch our grocery budget.  But not only is stretching our dollar important, shopping for the right foods is crucial right now for keeping waste down.  I’m here to share all my grocery shopping, budget, and storage tips to help.  Just like you, I’ve been to the grocery store to stock up (not hoard) groceries.  I’ve noticed what other people have in their carts and I can’t help but worry a little.  I’m not judging what people buy, just wanting to help.  I’ve seen a lot of frozen tv dinners, chips, ice cream, etc.  While these are ok (and yes we also buy these items at times) they’re hard on your grocery budget, and they don’t provide long term meal options.

I’ve racked my brain over the last few days with every helpful idea I’ve ever used, I hope you find these tips as valuable as I do.  Ok… are you ready??  I’ve got A LOT of tips… grab some coffee, sit down, and let’s get going.

Save money buying bulk food

MY FAVORITE MONEY SAVING GROCERY TIPS

Buy staple items – It’s time we all get back to cooking basics with crucial staple items.  Yeah, your meals won’t be readily available but with a small amount of time and effort you’ll save money and have the building blocks to make a meal at a moment’s notice, plus these items have a long shelf life.  Stock up on the basics like flour, sugar, rice, dried beans, oatmeal, pasta, nuts, oils, vinegars, and other essentials.  Also check out the bulk foods section to save even more money.  Amazon also sells bulk foods.

Prepare meals that keep on giving – Don’t just make a meal, make one that keeps on giving!  I frequently will roast a chicken for dinner with a few sides, day 2 we pick any leftover meat off the bones for a soup, salad, casserole – or to throw in the freezer.  Then we make stock out of the bones.  It’s the perfect way to stretch your dollar.  Roasts and other meats work well too, one night it’s a main dish, and the others can be turned into tacos, sandwiches, or soups.

Batch cook – When you have lots of fresh ingredients cook in large batches and then freeze.  You can easily get enough food to feed a family for days and you can freeze individual portions for single meals.

Refrigerate citrus and apples – Yes that bowl of lemons and apples looks gorgeous on the counter but did you know you can extend the life of citrus and apples by weeks if left in the refrigerator?

Invest in a produce keeper – My heart breaks when I throw out expensive produce that’s ruined.  Lettuce, greens, and herbs are partially vulnerable in the refrigerator.  Investing in a produce saving crisper can save you so much money in the long run.  You can purchase crisper inserts for vegetable drawers, this is especially crucial for older refrigerators without humidity technology.  You can also buy produce saving containers, which I use for my fresh herbs, they’re expensive!

Freeze meat – Unless you’re a vegetarian we all need some frozen meat in our freezer!  I try to buy meat in bulk, then I weigh them into smaller portions and freeze them.  I do this with raw and cooked meat depending on my needs.  Be sure to clearly label everything with a date and whether it’s raw or cooked.  For food safety avoid thawing meat on your counter.  It’s best to thaw a day or 2 in advance in the refrigerator.

Sort food by expiration dates – Expired food happens to the best of us, it usually puts me on the verge of tears to see something go to waste.  So check expiration dates and store food items accordingly, this is especially necessary with fresh produce!

Save every vegetable scrap – If you’re throwing away savory vegetable scraps you’re basically throwing away free flavorful seasoning.  I’ve talked about my veggie scrap bag before and it’s still crucial in our household.  Use vegetable scraps (especially celery, onion, carrots, herbs, and garlic) to make delicious stocks.  Even if the veggies are limp as long as they aren’t moldy or shriveled they still work, and save all of those onion skins too!  You can make chicken or vegetable stock to make delicious soups or to cook rice, couscous, or sauces.  It’s free flavoring for your food and makes such a difference!  I like to save my scraps in the freezer.

Limit snacks and instead encourage real meals –  Yes we have snacks occasionally but I try to limit them for everyone.  Snacking encourages mindless eating which is hard on the budget and the waistline.  It’s so easy to eat half a bag of pretzels and not even realize it. Snack food is typically expensive, not very filling, lacks nutrients, and prevents us from eating a proper meal.

Avoid buying boxed and frozen meals – I’m not saying don’t ever buy these items, we all need a last minute meal to grab.  These items are not only budget killers, they take up a lot of storage space and don’t usually provide a well rounded meal.

Create a “clean out the refrigerator” meal – This is one of my favorite tips.  Sometimes you just need to clean out all the leftover miscellaneous items from your fridge but don’t throw them away.  A few random vegetables or scraps of meat can be transformed into a delicious pasta, casserole, or stir fry.  You probably have an entire meal that can be made from refrigerator scraps right now!

Freeze bread leftovers – Have a piece of leftover stale bread?  As long as it’s not moldy save it!  Throw it in a freezer bag and save it and make homemade croutons (yum), put it in the food processor to make bread crumbs, bread pudding, or make a savory bread dressing.

Write out your meals – Sometimes I plan out my meals in my head and that does come back to bite me occasionally.  I say write it out, it’s so much easier to plan meals and save necessary ingredients when you see it written out.  It’s an extra step but it’s also fool proof.

Freeze leftovers after 2-3 days – Don’t worry I’ll eat that, cut to a week later and you’re throwing it out.  Life happens, and we forget about leftovers so do yourself a big budget favor and freeze uneaten leftovers within 2-3 days!  Is it worth risking good food going to waste?  Nope.  Trust me you’ll be thrilled to find a leftover piece of pizza, grilled chicken, or cup of soup when you’re hungry, broke, or can’t leave the house!

Freeze tortillas – Whether corn or flour tortillas, keep a stash in your freezer at all times!  They freeze and thaw quickly and beautifully, and they can help you create a ton of meals at the last minute.  Use tortillas for scrambled eggs, leftover meat, and vegetables for a quick meal.  Flour tortillas can also be quickly made into thin crust pizzas.

Freeze milk, butter, and cheese – I’m constantly freezing butter and cheese, you’ll lose a little quality in the texture, but they still taste and work great in recipes.  You can freeze butter for 6-9 months, cheese can last you a good 3-6 months if not more, and milk too.  Be aware that frozen milk turns yellow, although that doesn’t affect the taste.  Frozen milk is best used within 3-6 months, don’t forget to pour a small amount out for expansion.

When possible store pantry items in clear bags or bins –  It’s easy to lose track of essential items when you’ve got nothing but a sea of boxes in the pantry.  I’ll go into this during my next blog post, but life is so much easier when all of your food is clearly displayed in front of you.  It prevents waste and non-essential purchases, and seeing your food helps your brain go into creative cooking mode easier.

Get your kids to help with budgeting – I’m well aware that kids don’t always handle food budgeting well, trust me.  They want their fruit snacks now.  Why not get the kiddos involved to make it less challenging?  This is a great time to teach the basics of whole food and cooking from scratch.  Teaching your kids to cook is one of the best gifts you can give them.  Kids usually love to eat anything they’ve helped make.  Make food budgeting a fun game, see if your little one can skip their afternoon juice box and have water instead.  It can be a fun game where they earn stars.

Avoid non-nutritious sugary drinks – This can be hard for some, but sodas and other sugary drinks can kill the budget.  Don’t worry I’m not saying to give up coffee but consider swapping out juices and sodas for water or even home brewed ice tea can save you so much money, not to mention space in the fridge!

Staple pantry items

FOOD ALL STARS

Rice – We love rice, I usually have at least 3 different varieties in my pantry at all times!  It’s cheap, lasts forever, and goes beautifully in nearly everything from soups, casseroles, burritos, as a side dish, and let’s not forget rice pudding!

Carrots – Oh how I love carrots, they’re cheap, full of vitamin A, and they last so long in the refrigerator!  They make a great crunchy snack raw but they also taste delicious in so many other ways.  You can make a delicious pureed carrot soup (add a bit of cumin yum!) and my favorite is my roasted carrot recipe.

Eggs – So affordable and versatile.  How about scrambled eggs over roasted asparagus?  A nice quiche or frittata will give you a high-protein, inexpensive meal easily.  If you have some chicken or vegetable stock you can easily make a satisfying egg drop soup.

Potatoes – Mash them, roast them, fry them, or bake them they’re so versatile.  Throw them in a soup or in a breakfast burrito, and is there anything more satisfying than a bowl of creamy potato soup?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Canned tomatoes – Yes I love fresh tomatoes but canned tomatoes are a HUGE staple in our house.  From making marinara sauce to soups, casseroles, and just about anything else you can think of.

Whole Chicken – Like I mentioned above I love meals that keep on giving days later and in many forms. I am constantly roasting whole chickens for dinner or just roasting them to shred the meat for soups and casseroles.  Then I make chicken stock from the bones, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.  We can stretch a chicken out for so many meals.  You can always freeze the bones in a ziplock bag until you’re ready to make stock.

Onions – We go through so many onions in our household it’s ridicious.  Onions are the base for nearly all the delicious food I make.  If you have an onion you’re pretty much guaranteed to come up with a delicious meal, they generally last a long time too.  Remember to save every onion scrap for stock making!

Lemons – Another item I’m always stocking up on.  Lemon zest tastes amazing pretty much everything, the juice is great for marinades, salad dressing, drinks, and let’s not forget lemon bars!  Lemons pack a punch and elevate your food in so many ways.

Couscous – Is also so versatile and it makes me feel fancy even though it’s really not.  Bought in bulk, it’s very affordable and makes a perfect side dish, or turn it into a main meal with some onion, tomatoes, olives, chick peas, and feta cheese.  Add fresh herbs if you’ve got them and a squeeze of lemon, it’s a very affordable vegetarian meal.

Legumes – I love keeping dried green split peas to make a comforting and budget friendly split pea soup.  I love the fact that you don’t need to soak them.  We also keep a variety of beans in the house to stretch out casseroles and soups or to provide as a side dish.  They’re full of protein, have a long shelf life, and are also super affordable… and filling.

Oatmeal – It’s affordable and healthy, and it’s a staple breakfast food.  Mix in creative additions so you don’t get bored with your oatmeal.  I love adding a few scoops of canned pumpkin, or some dried cranberries and chopped nuts.  Don’t forget you can make a savory oatmeal as well!

Money saving grocery tips

So now that I’ve given you my money saving tips are you wondering what’s in our house?  In the next blog post you’ll be seeing exactly what’s in my just-built pantry and how I organized it, but I’m glad to share our staple items now.

WHAT’S IN MY PANTRY?

Oatmeal, green split peas (love them!), corn meal, cocoa powder, couscous, pasta, assorted rice, nuts, flours, sugars, breadcrumbs, chocolate chips, spices, oils and vinegars, canned tomatoes, beans, olives, tuna pouches, non-perishable produce, and yes a few snack items and boxed meals.

WHAT’S IN MY REFRIGERATOR?

Essential produce, herbs, citrus fruits, apples, cheeses, milk, fresh meat that I’ll soon cook, condiments, and lots of eggs.  We love eggs!

WHAT’S IN MY FREEZER?

Meat and seafood of all kinds, chicken, beef, vegetable and seafood stock, leftover bones for stock making, butter sticks, frozen cheese -blocks and shredded, pie crust that has yet to be rolled, bread, yeast, leftovers, vegetables, soups, casseroles, and yes a few fun things like ice cream and sweet potato fries.

Money saving grocery tips

What works for one family doesn’t always work for another I know.  I just want to encourage everyone to get back to the basics and cook with real food while saving money and preserving all the ingredients we currently have to make life easier during this crisis!  As my husband would say, “Happy tummy?”  Yes I want everyone to have a happy tummy while stretching their grocery dollar to the max.

It’s great timing that we just finished building a new pantry in our kitchen, it’s been in the works for months.  I’ll be sharing my new pantry and organization tips next on the blog post.  Take care my friends, stay safe, healthy, and sane.  Until next time.