Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. And don’t forget snacks. Sometimes feeding yourself (and your family) can feel like a full-time job. But food is essential for survival and an unavoidable expense in a household’s monthly budget.
The average American household spent $7,729 on food, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics.
Of that, families spent just over $4,000 on food at home and just over $3,000 on food away from home — which includes take-out and delivery.
While spending money on food is completely necessary, there are plenty of opportunities to go overboard in this category. Between impulse purchases at the grocery store, morning lattes and take-out, food expenses can add up quickly.
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If you’re looking at your budget searching for ways to save money on food, you’ve come to the right place. Here are some possible tips and tricks for spending less money on food so you can focus more energy on any other financial goals, like paying off debt, saving for retirement, buying a house, or funding your children’s education.
Related: Do you spend more than your peers?
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1. Eating out less
Sometimes there is nothing as luxurious as heading out to eat after a long day. Enjoying a delicious dinner without actually having to cook or clean is super relaxing.
But when you go out to eat, you’re paying a premium for that leisure. Most restaurants charge about a 300% markup on the items they serve. When you dine out you’re paying for convenience, service and ambiance.
Takeout or delivery options aren’t much better. One study found that ordering delivery was nearly five times as expensive as cooking at home.
Cooking at home could not only help you save money on food, but it could also have added benefits for your health too. Research has shown time and time again that cooking at home can lead to healthier choices.
The more people cook at home, their diet is healthier, they consume fewer calories and they are less likely to be obese or develop Type 2 diabetes
If the thought of cooking at home is overwhelming, you could start small. You might consider setting measurable goals like eating all of your breakfasts at home or packing your lunch at least three times a week.
As you get used to preparing those meals for yourself, you could branch out into other recipes.
You might want to build an arsenal of meals and recipes you and your family love, then start adding one or two new recipes a week. Cooking is like any skill — the more you do it, the easier it gets. Familiarity with recipes and your kitchen can go a long way in simplifying the cooking process.
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2. Learning to meal plan
Cooking at home can be cheaper than going out to eat, but cooking for yourself can pose its own set of problems. It takes time to think of ideas and shop for ingredients before you even start cooking.
One option for those looking to cook more at home is to try meal planning. By planning your meals at the beginning of the week, you could potentially save money on food and simplify the process of cooking dinner every night.
Meal planning requires making a list, which could help keep you organized while you are at the grocery store. Don’t feel like you need to prep all of your food for the week — you could start by picking a protein, a hearty veggie and a grain that you can use a few different ways.
Having a few different sauces and dressings on hand is one way to mix up the flavor and keep meals exciting all week long. There are a variety of resources online to help get you started and keep you inspired. Choose My Plate, run by the USDA, is a resource worth checking out if you’re new to meal planning or are looking for some budget-friendly meals.
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3. Extending shelf life by storing food properly
Are you constantly throwing out wilted herbs, sad-looking greens, or questionable fruits? Now might be a good time to make a change. Americans waste nearly 150,000 tons of food each day, and globally, one-third of all the food produced in the world is either lost or wasted each year.
Storing your produce properly could help minimize your food waste by maximizing its shelf life. Produce that tends to rot — think apples, pears and other fruits and veggies that emit ethylene gas — should be stored in a low-humidity drawer.
Produce that has a tendency to wilt — think leafy greens like spinach, arugula and kale — should be stored in a high-humidity drawer.
Herbs need a bit of humidity, so instead of storing herbs in their clamshell, you might consider wrapping them in a damp paper towel. If they have the stems, like cilantro, dill, parsley, or mint, you could place the stems in a cup filled with water.
If you find yourself using a lot of herbs, you might want to try starting a small herb garden. This could give you easy access to your favorite herbs, plus, since it’s a living plant, you won’t have to throw away any wilted parsley or cilantro after just a week.
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4. Maximizing freezer space
You could make the freezer your friend by stocking up on staples like frozen veggies, fruits and grains. Buying meat in bulk could cut down on cost, and you could freeze it in individual portions.
This way it’s easy to pull out exactly what you need for dinner. If you have fresh herbs on hand that are on the verge of going bad, you could chop them up and freeze them. You can even freeze whole citrus.
Certain meals, like soups and chilies, take well to freezing. If you’re making a meal that freezes well, you could double the recipe and freeze half.
What’s better than a home-cooked meal that you just have to defrost? Having convenient food options on hand could make it easier to say no to takeout when you’re in a bind for dinner.
Using your freezer to its full potential means staying organized. If you label everything with a description and date, it could eliminate any confusion or concern over what exactly is in your freezer.
You might want to take a sweep of the pantry and freezer before hitting the grocery store. If anything needs to be used, you could build a meal around it. If anything is close to expiring, it’s now on your radar so you could use it instead of wasting it.
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5. Shopping smarter at the grocery store
You could make a habit of reading the weekly sales at the grocery store you shop at most frequently and make note of when items go on sale. Since most grocery stores follow a six-week sale cycle, you could end up scoring a deal on some of your staple items by paying attention.
Another way to shop with purpose and save money on food? Coupons. Each grocery store usually has its own coupon policy, so you could get familiar with your local store’s policy.
Some stores have apps where users can link e-coupons directly to their rewards card, simplifying the couponing experience. There are also independent coupon apps that could help you streamline the couponing process.
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