Eat at home instead of dining out. Cook from scratch rather than buying packaged foods. Those are two pieces of advice you will hear if you ask for ways to cut food costs. The issue then becomes how to balance the money you’ll save against the time you’ll sacrifice. Grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning all take time — even if you are making a 30-minute recipe from the pantry.
As food prices climb — eggs, fish, meat and poultry are up almost 6 percent from last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — more of us are looking for ways to embrace thrift over convenience, necessity over indulgence.
“One of the best ways to save money is to stop wasting food at home,” said Adam Lowy, executive director of Move for Hunger, a nonprofit group that creates pathways for people who are relocating to donate their nonperishable foods to food banks.
“The average family wastes $1,500 in food a year,” Lowy said. “We talk about tax credits, let’s just not waste $1,500 a year.”
Lowy said he and his family strive to reduce waste through cooking more efficiently, which naturally results in lower food costs.
Want to try it? Here are five reasonable strategies you can follow to help you strike the right balance.
1. Cook so one meal leads to another
The first step is to survey and organize your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Use that to create a week of meals. If you know what you have and what you want to eat, you can shop smarter as well as cook from what’s on hand, and plan so that one dish feeds the next.
“My family loves pulled-pork carnitas,” Lowy said. “We’ll cook a 10-pound pork roast for the first two nights, and then freeze it in small portions, which will last a month and change. And because you’re not pulling out giant portions, you don’t waste it.”
Brainstorm your meal plan with this in mind: The investment in making an inexpensive pot of beans with rice on Sunday can pay off in easy burritos and bean salad on Monday and Tuesday. A thrifty pot of tomato sauce with spaghetti on Wednesday can be used for a shakshuka and a simple pizza on Thursday and Friday. At the end of the week, try fending, the buzzword used to describe eating down the pantry and refrigerator by whipping up a stir-fry, a chopped salad, or an odds-and-ends cheese or charcuterie board.
Accept that if you’re trying to save money, you might not satisfy your every craving, but make sure whatever you do prepare is something you enjoy.
2. Lean into dried herbs and spices
Fresh herbs can be pricey, and too often we only need a bit to make a difference, so don’t shy away from using dried herbs and pre-ground spices. In a recent conversation with cookbook author Sabrina Ghayour, garlic came up. “They ask me why aren’t you using [fresh] garlic? Garlic burns,” she said, adding: “Because I’m lazy and maybe I don’t have garlic. Powdered garlic is clever, smart and you can control the amount more easily. And, you always have it on hand.”
Like many of us, Ghayour cooks every day for her family, so she relies on dried herbs and spices, which can last for more than a year if stored properly. If a recipe calls for fresh, remember this simple rule: Dried herbs are more potent, so use a third of the fresh herbs called for.
Buy the spices you use most. And, if a recipe calls for one you don’t have, ask yourself: Is it essential? Is there a substitute? No crushed red pepper flakes? Try adding black pepper or a splash of hot sauce.
If you do buy or grow fresh herbs, find ways to use them by making a simple herb sauce to add to eggs, salads or grain bowls; or chop and freeze them in small portion sizes.
3. Think of meat as a side dish
This one choice can help protect not only your wallet but also your health and your planet. No doubt your doctor has warned you or someone close to you to cut back on beef to protect your heart. Recently, columnist Tamar Haspel wrote about the impact of simply switching from beef to a less environmentally adverse animal protein, such as pork.
No matter which animal protein you choose, consider making it a supporting player. Add inexpensive beans as a supplement to meat. Try this with tacos, soups and burgers.
A few other ideas: If you’re preparing a chopped salad, add big flavor with just a few strips of crumbled bacon; slice thick chicken breasts into cutlets to stretch them; or mix chopped broccoli in your next chicken burger. Bulk up meatballs, Salisbury steaks or fish cakes with rice, breadcrumbs — even crumbled potato chips.
4. Check out the freezer section
If you’re thinking, “But fresh fruits and vegetables — and seafood — are so expensive, too,” you’re right. That’s why frozen vegetables, frozen seafood and canned fish (or beans for that matter) can be money- and timesavers.
Depending on where you live, the quality of the frozen seafood can be better than the fresh that is available. The same is true of out-of-season vegetables. The seafood often is frozen onboard the boat or just hours after being harvested, and the vegetables are picked at their peak and quickly frozen, too.
Put frozen cod filets in the refrigerator before heading to work, and baked fish can be on the table a half-hour after you get home. Leftover chicken and frozen vegetables can quickly become a savory cobbler or part of fried rice.
“And if you are using fresh vegetables,” Lowy said, “chop them up and freeze them yourself.”
5. Store your food properly
This brings us back to cutting waste. Make your freezer work harder for you. So many things freeze well, from flour, nuts and egg whites to shredded cheese, butter and berries, even frosted cake slices.
Think about this as you cook and plan. If you use two of the three chicken breasts in a package or a cup of those mixed frozen vegetables, date and record the amount/weight of the rest and freeze it. Use half an onion and bell pepper? Freeze the rest. All of that can be turned into a stir-fry or a soup later in the week. (Another fun idea is to quick-pickle scraps, such as onions, celery and carrots.)
For both cold and shelf-stable items, take time to move older items forward in your pantry and refrigerator, so you will use them first. Check for freshness, but think before you pitch it. Remember that a sell-by date is different from an expiration date, especially when it comes to condiments. The USDA Food Keeper app is a useful tool if you’re unsure.
“The feeling of ‘I did not waste today’ feels good,” Lowy said.