Rising food prices can make it feel like your grocery bill is increasing at an exponential rate. One week an item will be $1.50 and the next it’s up to $1.75, but it’s unlikely your income is growing as quickly. While most of us expect to pay top dollar for organic produce or grass-fed steak, even bargain staples aren’t that much of a bargain anymore.
Just because these staples are costing you more doesn’t mean you can’t find other ways to save. Many of us turn to packaged foods to help speed through cooking, but we don’t usually realize just how much we’re paying for the added convenience. These 10 grocery store foods are some of the biggest offenders on your grocery bill. Cut out these eats, and you could start to see a lot more money in your bank account.
1. Croutons and breadcrumbs
Tossing some croutons into a salad is a great way to add flavor and crunch. It’s also a great way to blow your money. You’ll pay at least $2 for a pretty measly package that might only last a week. If you opt for something organic or high end, expect to see a much larger price tag. The same is true for breadcrumbs. While a few bucks here and there might not seem like a big deal, it’s kind of ridiculous to pay for something you’re throwing away at home. Stale bread might not make a very tasty sandwich, but it’s ideal for turning into both croutons and breadcrumbs
To make croutons, cube the bread, toss with some oil, and salt, then bake until the bread gets crispy. This method from A Sweet Pea Chef is a good guide. You can also add any number of seasonings to make your salad toppers just as fancy as anything you see at the supermarket. For breadcrumbs, just tear up hunks of stale bread, then blitz into a powder in the food processor. Keep the crumbs stored in the freezer, so they’ll be ready whenever you want to make meatballs or crab cakes.
2. Pre-cut produce
Buying already diced veggies might speed up your stir-fry, but it’s not doing your wallet any favors. According to Care2, many pre-cut fruits and veggies can be double the price of their whole counterparts. Why the difference? Someone had to do all that cutting and packaging, so you’re paying for the ingredients as well as the labor.
Price isn’t the only reason to skip this supermarket convenience food. The story also mentioned pre-cut produce is bad for the environment, thanks to excessive packaging and refrigeration requirements, and less healthy, because the nutrients start to break down once the food has been sliced. This also explains why bagged lettuce seems to go bad so much quicker than a whole head of greenery.
3. Baked goods
Not everyone is a master baker, so it can be tempting to pick up treats from the grocery store. LearnVest says a supermarket cake that costs $20 can be made at home for just $5, even if you buy a boxed mix. Bread can also be a pitfall if you aren’t careful. The story said to check with store managers to find out when bread will go on sale, which will help you save a few bucks.
Things like six-packs of cookies can seem like a good deal when you consider cost per item, but that’s assuming you eat all of them. They’ll be stale after a few days, and it’s probably not the best idea to choke down three cookies every day just to avoid waste. The next time you have a craving for some chocolate chip goodies, try a different approach. Make a full batch of batter, then portion out the dough as you normally do, but only bake the amount you want for the next few days. Freeze the rest of the dough balls, and you can pull out a few whenever you want a freshly baked treat.
4. Already seasoned or marinated meat
Even the meat department is filled with options for people hoping to speed through dinner. You can buy chops, steaks, and ribs already marinated or seasoned. They have tasty sounding names, but you can save money by asking the butcher what he or she used to recreate it at home. Making your own spice blends and marinades is super easy, and you have complete control over what goes into them. Check out some of our favorites to get started.
5. Salad dressing
Bottled salad dressing isn’t always more expensive than homemade, but most of the good-quality ones are. And what’s the point in buying a bargain dressing if it tastes bad? You may as well throw it in the dumpster on your way out of the store. You probably already have the components you need to make dressing at home, and it will taste far better than anything off the shelves. The Christian Science Monitor has a great tutorial on making homemade versions of your favorites.
Contrary to what you might think, it isn’t necessary to make a new batch of dressing every time you want some greens. The New York Times likes an easy version with just four ingredients, because it stores in the fridge for at least a few weeks. Keeping a batch of this basic also means you can customize it for different meals by tossing some chopped herbs or a sprinkle of your favorite spice to a few tablespoons. Once you start making your own, you’ll never go back to the bottle.
6. Bottled water
It’s hard to argue with the convenience of bottled water. The price is a different story. Does it really make sense to spend more than $10 on something you can just get from a faucet? Worse yet, all that plastic is wreaking havoc on the planet. National Geographic reveals 80% of those bottles end up in landfills rather than being recycled.
If you like the portability, invest in a good water bottle. It’s endlessly reusable, and many are capable of keeping liquids cold a lot longer than any flimsy plastic. If taste is an issue where you live, there’s a cheaper solution. You can pick up a filtered pitcher to keep in your fridge for around $20.
7. Brand names
Most people go for the same brand of peanut butter, cereal, and bread simply because those are the versions they’ve always bought. It’s easy to think these products are more costly than generic ones because they’re better quality, but that’s just not true. The ingredient lists are usually remarkably close or even the same. Why pay more for a box of cereal just because it has a cute cartoon on the front?
If you think you have a sophisticated palate that demands name brands, think again. NPR reported, aside from a few items, chefs choose generic foods at the store. If the milk under the store’s name is good enough for the pros, it’s good enough for you.
8. Prepackaged salads
Prepackaged salads seem like a great idea for dinner or lunch any day of the week. You usually get a healthy mix of greens with add-ons like croutons and cheese and a packet of dressing, too. For the couple of dollars you’ll pay for the convenience food, it sure might not seem like much of a rip-off, but beware — these salads will end up costing you a lot more than if you were to just make your salad yourself.
You can get a small pre-made chicken Caesar salad at Walmart for about $4. You might consider this a great deal, until you break down the cost of each ingredient. You can typically get an entire head of lettuce for less than $1.50 and a 5-pound bag of boneless, skinless chicken breasts for about $11. We’re betting you have your favorite salad dressing already in your fridge at home, too, (hopefully homemade!) so you can easily get a lot more meals for your money by going the DIY route.
9. Microwave popcorn
Movies and popcorn go together like peanut butter and jelly, but the microwave bags of popcorn you’re accustomed to grabbing from the snack aisle are costing you a lot of money. According to Eat This, Not That!, you can buy a 30-ounce container of popping corn for about $4, and it will give you between 10 and 12 bowls of the snack. As for the microwave stuff, you’ll get just six bags of Orville Redenbacher’s Naturals popcorn for roughly the same price at Target. You’ll be getting a lot less for your money.
While certain brands like Orville Redenbacher’s are doing their best to make bagged popcorn healthier, you’re still getting a lot of preservatives and artificial flavoring. If you’re grabbing the Movie Theater Butter varieties, there’s a good chance you’re eating trans fats, too.
10. Jarred spices
If you know you’re going to finish the entire bottle, then perhaps it’s worth the cost, but many of us have a spice rack full of things we haven’t used in months. Instead of buying full bottles of dried herbs and spices, visit a Whole Foods or local grocery store to see if you can buy these items from the bulk section. You can purchase just what you need and you’re spices will stay fresher, too.
Consumer Reports also suggests shopping around for your spices, as certain name brands are significantly more expensive than others. Keep in mind, cheap spices may be cheap for a reason, too. They might not deliver the flavor you’re looking for, or maybe they’ve been sitting on the shelf for a long time. In either case, your bargain purchase a total waste.
Lauren Weiler also contributed to this story.