How to Eat Cheaply & Still Eat Well

by Katy on June 5, 2014 · 18 comments

The following is a reprint of a previously published post. Enjoy!

There is one category of budgeting that can make a huge difference in your spending, and that (no surprise here) is food.

Of course, food is not simply an expenditure. Food physically fuels us and is also one of life’s greatest pleasures. From preparation to consumption to clean up, food defines our days and nourishes our souls.

But that doesn’t mean we should just eat whatever we want whenever we want. Not only would that method clog our arteries, but it would also drain our bank accounts. But does a commitment to cheap eating relegate us to nothing but bland lentils and oatmeal? (Not to malign lentils, as one of my favorite dishes is red lentil soup!)

So is there a sweet spot of spending less on money on food without sacrificing the joys of food? I say yes, and here’s how.

How to eat cheaply:

  • Cook at home. I cannot emphasize this enough, as a single meal in an expensive restaurant can pay for entire week of groceries.
  • If you are eating out, save it for a special occasion. Also, drink the water and forgo the appetizers and dessert. Restaurant servings are usually plenty big enough.
  • Save eating out for food you don’t know how to prepare at home. So forget eating hamburgers at Applebee’s, and instead head for ethnic restaurants like Indian, Thai and Japanese.
  • Eat seasonally. This means strawberries in summer, asparagus in spring and pears in the autumn. Not only will you take advantage of sales, but the produce is most likely fresher.
  • Keep a few frozen meals stashed aside for those inevitable crazy evenings. This will save you from pizza delivery and MSG-laden takeout Chinese.
  • Buy your spices in bulk. And if it’s something you use irregularly, just buy a small amount.
  • Buy in bulk, but only if it’s food you eat regularly and can use up before it goes bad. A 50 pound bag of oatmeal is only a bargain if you eat it up before the moths do.
  • Teach yourself to cook. The internet has made it possible for anyone, anywhere to research recipes without the necessity of a cookbook library. Want to make chicken enchiladas for dinner? Great, just look it up on Allrecipes.com or a similar site.
  • Allow that not every meal has to be a Julia Child masterpiece. Nothing wrong with omelets for dinner, a homemade salad and store brand ice cream for dessert.
  • Don’t pay other people to chop your lettuce, peel your carrots and mix your salad dressing. These convenience foods cost more, add chemicals and age your food. It only takes a few minutes to wash and chop a head of lettuce, and your product is superior in the end.
  • Don’t overbuy to the point where you end up wasting food. Be realistic about how your family eats and shop accordingly . Yes, spinach is good for you, but if it always ends up as slime, switch over to what your family actually eats.
  • Grow your own food. If you have soil and sun, you can grow some of your own food. Even if it’s just a tomato plant in a 5-gallon bucket, you can still play farmer.
  • Store your leftovers in clear containers. This one is huge for me. If I can’t see it, I forget it’s there. Invest in a set of Pyrex lidded containers and actually see the treasures that lie within your refrigerator.
  • Pack your own school and work lunches. Not only will you save money, but it’s a perfect way to use up small amounts of leftovers and your lunch hour will no longer be spent buying food. (More time for reading blogs!)
  • Talk to your friends and families about their go-to frugal recipes. Everyone has their own favorite cheap meals, and is usually happy to share.
  • Replace expensive ingredients with cheaper options.
  • Tuck leftover bits of perishables into soups, pasta salad, fritattas and salad.
  • Eat less. Easier said than done, but always a admirable goal.
  • Either work with a meal plan or practice the pantry principle. Either way, you’re able to pull dinner together without drawing a blank at 5 P.M.
  • Keep inexpensive snacks on hand both for both kids and adults.

I’m sure there are methods for cheap eating that didn’t make it into the list, so it’s now your turn. What do you do to keep control of the food budget? Please share your ideas (or even a recipe!) in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan June 5, 2014 at 9:42 am

I shop for my food online here in the UK. It stops the family from impulse buying and makes me buy literally only what I need and stick to my food budget and meal plans.

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Katy June 5, 2014 at 9:50 am

Do they charge for delivery?

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Susan June 5, 2014 at 10:17 am

I got a bargain deal on delivery. £20 for an ENTIRE year. We would spent that on petrol in one month for food shopping! Winning!

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Angie June 5, 2014 at 10:11 am

I love this topic! One of my favorite tips is to familiarize yourself with the lower-priced yet higher-nutrition foods. Learn some good recipes for those foods. Learn how to like them if necessary (at least try! taste buds do change). In my area of the country, some of the foods I use a lot are sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, bananas, apples and carrots. That’s just a few but they are things I buy almost every time I go to the store. They are pretty cheap as well as pretty filling.

Another thing I do is record most of the meals we eat. I have a spiral-bound notebook that I record almost every meal I make in (I cook pretty simply so it’s usually a quick entry), along with the date. This helps me when I need some inspiration, and it also helps me remember some good dishes that I kind of threw together on the spot that might otherwise be forgotten. Lol

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WilliamB June 5, 2014 at 10:11 am

Great list. Here are my suggestions for additions:

* Overall, think in terms of improvements, rather than insisting on the ultimate cheapest solution. So delivery pizza is cheaper than California Pizza Kitchen, frozen pizza is cheaper than delivery, and homemade is (usually) cheaper than frozen.

* Eat less meat. Best bet is to make dishes designed not to include meat, rather than trying to replicate meat. Asian cuisines are heavy on the less-meat options, while Indian is probably the best meatless cuisine there is.

* While buying prepped veggies is usually more expensive, if you’re buying just a little, or want to try a bit to see if you like it, then the salad bar is a great place to go. It depends on how much you’ll use before it goes bad. Also, per my first point, if the choice is prepped veg or eating out, go for the prepped!

* Plan your meals and your leftovers. It’s OK to work up to this gradually – again, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

* Your freezer is your friend. If you have too much of something, or its going to go bad before you get to it, consider freezing it. With a label! And, ideally, with a list so you know what you have available. (Example: recently spinach was on sale so I bought several pounds, then froze it for smoothies later. Yesterday the spinach was joined by several pounds of strawberries because I was luring into buying more than I could eat, by the low price and heavenly smell. Combine that with some of the 25 lbs of overripe or squished bananas I got for $2 a few months ago, and I have smoothies for the next month.)

And a quibble: “MSG-laden takeout Chinese” is a canard. One, the majority of Chinese restaurants do not dose their food with MSG. Two, there’s no actual evidence (as opposed to anecdoe) that MSG is worse for you than other forms of sodium.

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Barb @ 1SentenceDiary June 5, 2014 at 11:44 am

Love this list, all great ideas.

I have done two things which have helped immensely to stay away from takeout.

One: I have a few nearly ready-to-eat meals in the freezer. Usually the meals are homemade items such as chili or quiche, but sometimes they are purchased (e.g. burbon chicken from Trader Joes, or a lasagne from Costco). Although not the most frugal option, as WilliamB says above, even purchased frozen food is still a lot less expensive than takeout or restaurant meals.

Two: I use a meal plan for weeknights. I read the supermarket circular on the weekend, and make a plan for all weeknight meals. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s been great for me. At some point I realized I was picking up takeout because I just didn’t know what the heck we were going to have for dinner and I didn’t have time on the way home from work to start figuring it out. Now I have a plan for weeknights — it’s always flexible, as life is never dull and sometimes our plans change — but it has made a huge difference in spending less as well as reducing stress. As a bonus, my kids are learning to be better cooks, too!

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Mairsydoats June 5, 2014 at 1:36 pm

My biggest light-bulb moment lately was realizing that I could buy ONLY what I needed right then from the bulk bin. Buying in bulk doesn’t need to mean overbuying and having to store the extra!

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Madeline June 5, 2014 at 2:38 pm

I make sure that at least twice a week I make a little bit of a splurge meal, we are vegetarians, so I’ll buy a few fancier ingredients to make something different and exotic.. otherwise we get bored and want to go out and eat!

BEING vegetarian saves a lot of money.We happen to LOVE lentils, potatoes, brown rice,stir fries, eggplant meals, etc.

We have SERIOUSLY cut back on going out to eat, since we retired.Luckily, I love to cook,I love browsing cookbooks, and meal planning. We also moved to a small rural town in the mountains and there ARE NOT good restaurants here! THAT HELPS A LOT!!!!

Another thing I do is make sure to set a pretty table,use candles and nice dishes a few times per week,also to avoid wanting to “go out.” We play nice music.. relax with our own wine…

Eating at home can be a true pleasure once you get a few recipes under your belt!

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Margie June 5, 2014 at 4:03 pm

What a great post, Katy. Thank you!

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Lynn D. June 5, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Check out the ethnic markets in your town if you have them. I have a Mexican butcher who gets his meat from the same source as the higher priced stores and he makes his own dynomite chorizo. Asian markets have terrific deals. Day old bread stores have bread as fresh as the supermarkets.

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Shelley June 6, 2014 at 1:18 am

Your link to ‘meal plan or pantry principle’ doesn’t work and I’d particularly like to read this. I’ve done the latter for years but this year I’ve switched over to the former in order to use up some stock. Especially I wanted to make myself use some of the odd things I’ve bought on impulse or for a specific purpose and that get shoved to the back. I know that the tinned tomatoes will get used up just in the course of things, but that gelatine packet takes a bit more thinking. I’ve always taken some comfort from a full pantry, but when I focused not just on getting good food bargains but on spending as little as possible each month (and still keeping within my healthy eating rules) it changed the way I shopped and somewhat altered how I cook. I’m wondering if there is a balance between these two ideas? So hoping you’ll fix that link… Thanks!

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Barb @ 1SentenceDiary June 6, 2014 at 5:16 am

Hmm… something is kinda wonky with the links, you’re right. I found the meal plan pantry principle post by searching:

http://thenonconsumeradvocate.com/the-pantry-principle-vs-menu-planning/

And if you are interested, there are a few other posts in a similar vein, which you can find by going to the top of this page. On the right, under the “email subscribe” box is a search box. Type in “meal plan pantry” and you’ll find a bunch of items. Enjoy Katy’s writing! (I surely do. 🙂 )

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Linda M June 6, 2014 at 3:26 am

Really enjoyed the post and other readers comments.
I might add and hope I am not repeating info.
1 Barter with others….trade what you have grown or have on hand. That way you build a network to tap into.
2. Share your excess garden items, etc. It is generous and things are not going to waste. But, it seems when you do this, others will be doing the same with you. We don’t share to receive…..but it seems it always seem to work out that way.
3. Can or freeze what you can from your excess, large purchases, food you are given. It does take a little time….but so does grocery shopping.
It is like a drive through on your home site.
4. Read through some old recipe books that stress stretching your food dollar. There are even some very good ones. Just check out at your local library. It will prompt you to make some good recipes and shake up your cooking if you are in a “cooking rut” and are kind of tired of cooking or thinking you are hungry for something new to scratch the itch.
5. Keep a jar in the freezer for tidbits of leftover vegetable….when full it is the basis for an interesting vegetable soup or shepherd’s pie. Also keep a jar in the freezer for tidbits of cookies, etc….this can easily be transformed into an easy crumb pie crust. Also, another freezer jar for bits of fruit and their juice….basis for a warm fruit compote when jar is full.
6. When chatting with friends, talk about you all have been cooking at home. It will give you new ideas for your menu planning and you can always learn economical tips from one another.

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Manda June 6, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Love these posts! Food is important….like VERY important, you can’t do without it to save money like some things you can. Most people think that if you are frugal than that means you are eating an unhealthy diet, and for many that is true but it doesn’t have to be that way. http://drinkingfrommasonjars.blogspot.com

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Donna June 6, 2014 at 3:18 pm

In north Texas, where I live, it is getting hard to eat seasonally if you shop at grocery stores. Almost all our fresh produce comes from Mexico, California, or Chile. It is very rare to see anything from Texas. So rare that the ads will state that fact and there are BIG signs near the stuff. While I know what is seasonal here, I have no idea what is seasonal all over the world. It’s easier, of course, if you shop at farmer’s markets; which is what I prefer to do.

Great Topic

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Linda in Mass June 7, 2014 at 6:13 am

I stop in at the store and browse the reduced rack for reduced meat. I know some people do not like the idea of reduced meat, but I have never had a quality issue. I have bought veal for $1.99/lb, chicken for $69/lb, steaks at $1.99/lb. I also look for roasts or steaks on sale and have the butcher grind it into hamburger. It comes out less expensive and it is leaner.

My veggies and fruit are all from a local fruit market which services the restaurants. If a restaurant does not take the items, they are sold at the store for a low, low price. I sometimes post on my Facebook page what I bought and how much I paid (see http://www.facebook.com/whatslindacooking). This week I bought a 5 lb bag of oriental veggies for $2. I will be doing a lot of stir-fry’s this week! I may try to freeze some to see if it will freeze well.

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JD June 9, 2014 at 7:28 am

1. The “More With Less” cookbook (Doris Janzen Longacre) is my friend. She was a Mennonite, and she filled her book with inexpensive recipes, and ways to use leftovers and odds and ends.
2. My freezer is also my friend. I actually did buy a huge bag of oatmeal. I divided it up and put the smaller bags in my chest freezer. As I use up the oatmeal stored in my old two-quart canning jar in my pantry, I refill from the freezer. I use my freezer for the other suggested uses, too.
3. Five gallon buckets are my friends. We bought compost at a bulk distributor plus we make our own, and planted buckets of tomatoes, eggplants, etc. We look for free buckets and also buy $2 buckets at Firehouse Subs on occasion.
4. Heirloom plants are my friends. We can save the seed and replant next year, for even cheaper produce next time. Instructions for seed saving are found easily in books and online, and it’s easy to do. We’ve done it a good bit.
5. Katy is my friend! She keeps giving me ideas and inspiration.

We are on a limited income but have to eat carefully for medical reasons such as my husband’s Type I ” juvenile” diabetes. We also find locally grown, organic and pasture raised foods to be a high priority for us, so although we still spend a good bit of money on food, we spend much less than we could be spending, thanks to trying many different money-saving tactics. I’m always eager to find more.

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Laraba June 12, 2014 at 4:03 am

My husband and I used to chuckle a bit at couples who would go to restaurants and buy one entrée to share…and now we do it! We both tend towards big appetites but we’ve found that usually one meal between the two of us IS plenty, and then we usually don’t have to bother with bringing any leftovers home. I have also made a major point in the last decade to NEVER EVER EVER order restaurant food or takeout because I didn’t prepare. Yes, we’ve had cold cereal for dinner a couple of times, but this commitment on my part helps me plan ahead and has saved us a great deal of money. We have a very large family (our 9th child is due next week) so every time we do splurge on a take out meal, it is a LOT of money. But we probably order take out only 5 or 6 times a year, at the most. We also don’t take our whole family to restaurants…it is way more exhausting then just staying home and cooking :-).

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