The average American family spends $5,763 per year on food eaten at home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s $480 per month.
With food such a significant item in many people’s budgets, it’s not surprising that when money is tight, the grocery bill is one of the first place people turn to cut costs. The savings potential is significant, after all. If the typical family spent 20% less on food every month, they’d have an extra $25 per week – money that could be saved for retirement, a down payment, or college.
Taking a budget-minded approach to grocery shopping doesn’t have to mean endless nights of cheap ramen or bargain-priced frozen burritos. Smart shoppers can save big on food costs by making a few simple switches. The end result is a slimmer grocery bill without having to sacrifice quality or tastiness.
Here are five ways to save on your next shopping trip and still eat like a gourmet chef.
1. Go meatless
Swapping meat for plant-based proteins is a great way to save cash. A pound of lean ground beef costs $6.10 a pound, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A pound of dried beans is almost $4 cheaper, at just $1.47.
Overall, reducing the amount of meat you consume could save you $80 to $100 per month, according to Meatless Monday. Eating less meat can also translate into better health, as we’ve reported in the past. Opting for lentils over a steak could end up saving you thousands of dollars in health costs down the road.
2. Shop at ethnic grocery stores
Ethnic markets are one of the best places to go to get good deals on food, particularly produce. When a reporter at The Washington Post compared prices for vegetables at major chain grocery stores like Safeway and Whole Foods with the prices at ethnic markets, she found that the ethnic markets were 30% to 50% cheaper.
Why is a pound of tomatoes or a head of cabbage so much cheaper at these stores? Owners of ethnic markets are often better at getting deals from produce suppliers, according to The Washington Post, and they are more likely to cater to consumers who buy a lot of fresh produce and want to get it for a cheaper price. Plus, some of the fruits and vegetables they sell might be nearing the end of their shelf life, or they might not be as uniform-looking as what you’d find at a major chain.
Cheap produce isn’t the only way to save by shopping at ethnic markets. Spices and specialty ingredients can often be had for far less at these stores.
3. Grow your own herbs
Fresh herbs are an essential element in many recipes, but buying a big bunch of basil, cilantro, or parsley when you only need a tablespoon or two is expensive and wasteful.
Growing your own herbs can save you money and help add pizzazz to simple dishes like scrambled eggs. A large backyard isn’t a prerequisite. A small container garden doesn’t take up much space on a back porch or balcony. Those without outdoor space or people who live in cold climates can even grow herbs indoors. Chives, rosemary, and oregano can all thrive inside, according to Better Homes & Gardens, though some plants, like basil, will do better out of doors.
4. Visit your local farmers’ market
Fair or not, farmers’ markets have gained a reputation as being a place to go for expensive, organic produce. Some of them even seem to dedicate more space to stalls selling prepared food rather than fresh fruits and vegetables. But farmers’ markets aren’t just a place for yuppies to buy pricy heirloom tomatoes.
Several studies have found that food at farmers’ markets is often less expensive than similar items at supermarkets, as reported by The Atlantic. In one case, organic product was 40% cheaper at the farmers’ market than at the grocery store.
To get the best deals at your farmers’ market, shop around (some farmers may offer a lower price than others for the same item), buy in season, and shop at the end of the day, when farmers are more likely to give you a deal.
5. Choose less-expensive substitutes
Anyone who likes to cook knows the frustration of having to make a special trip to the store to buy a costly ingredient. Fortunately, there are cheaper alternatives to many expensive ingredients, though you may need to be willing to accept a slightly different taste or texture in the final product.
For butternut squash, delicata squash might be an acceptable substitute, according to Oprah magazine. In some recipes, feta might work as a substitute for goat cheese. Mixing a little lemon juice with milk produces a buttermilk substitute, according to Living a Frugal Life. Chicken thighs are cheaper than chicken breasts and also have more iron and zinc, according to Shape.
You can find more cheap alternatives to expensive ingredients here.