Simple Steps for Reducing Your Monthly Grocery Budget

by StevenHelmer

Easy ways to reduce your monthly food costs that don't require any major sacrifices or lifestyle changes.

Since my wife and I don't have set incomes (I work on commission and she earns tips), we have some months when money is tighter than others. And, as a result of that, we have had to take steps to keep our monthly food budget at a reasonable level.
We both like to eat and we both like to cook big meals. So, because of that, we found ways that allow us to do just that by making some simple changes to how we shop and how we use the food we already have in our refrigerator and freezer. The best part is these are things anyone can do.

Fresh Produce is Your Friend

Fresh Carrots Prepared for FreezingThere was a time when we would avoid the fresh produce section because, at first glance, it seemed overly expensive. However, with some creativity, we found this section was one of the best ways to reduce our overall cost.

There are two main tricks to produce shopping. The first is finding foods that are versatile. Food items like potatoes, carrots and corn are typically low in cost and can be used in a variety of ways. Potatoes, for example, can be cut into fries, mashed, sliced or even cooked whole. They can be served by themselves or mixed in with other types of food. Plus, if you store them properly, they will last you for quite a while.

Another thing we usually look for when produce shopping are items we can freeze. We currently have about 6 pounds of frozen carrots in my fridge that we purchased fresh. The total cost for those carrots (which I found on sale) was about $3. If we would have purchased them pre-frozen, it would have cost us twice as much. We also have a couple dozen ears of corn that were purchased fresh, blanched and frozen plus quite a bit of zucchini (another food that isn't overly expensive and wonderfully versatile).

Yes, this does require a little extra work on your part. The carrots, for example, required peeling, slicing and blanching before we could freeze them. But, even when that extra time is taken into consideration, it was well worth it.

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Pay Attention to the Sell-by Dates on Meat

This is something I learned from my dad and is a trick that has drastically reduced my monthly meat costs and all it requires is paying close attention to the labels.

All meat (including things like hot dogs and bacon) has a sell-by-date and many stores will drastically reduce the price on or just before that sell-by-date. Even if they don't do this automatically, many managers will do it if you ask them to.

Reduce-priced boneless pork chops (with green peppers)Please note, there is nothing wrong with this meat. It's perfectly edible as long as you either use it right away or put it in your freezer as soon as you get home. And, the savings is often pretty significant. For example, I purchased some pre-made shish kabobs a few weeks ago. The original price on those was about $10. When I purchased them, I paid $4. 

One recommendation with this, it's usually best to shop as early in the morning as possible because, if stores do reduce the prices automatically, they will normally have the reduce-priced meat available right away. It's best to get there before other people buy it. I actually keep a cooler in my car so I can purchase meat before going to work.

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Ground Pork is a Great Substitute for Ground Beef

I discovered this a few months ago when I decided to make some sloppy Joes for dinner and discovered I didn't have any ground beef. I didn't want to run to the store so I ended up using a package of 

Pasta dish made with ground pork

ground pork I had in my freezer instead. To my surprise, there wasn't any difference in taste.

The main reason I even had ground pork in my freezer was the price. On an average day, ground pork is typically $1 less per pound than ground beef (sometimes more). And, if I pay attention to the sell-by date, I can often purchase it for as little as $1.50 per pound. This is roughly half the price of ground beef.

Obviously, you can't substitute ground pork for every recipe. For example, I wouldn't recommend it if you are making meat loaf. However, I have been using it in most of my pasta and chili recipes and, as long as I take a few moments to add some salt and pepper to the meat, nobody has been able to tell the difference. As a result, I normally purchase about 4-5 pounds of ground pork for every pound of ground beef I bring home.

Just a note: make sure you purchase plain ground pork instead of ground pork sausage. Sausage has a unique flavor and does not work nearly as well as a ground beef substitute. Plus, it tends to be more expensive.

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Be Creative with Your Leftovers

Stir fry made from leftoversOne problem my wife and I used to have to contend with each month was food waste. Since we like to make large meals, we often end up with leftovers in our fridge and, since we never seemed to get around to eating those leftovers, we ended up throwing away quite a bit of food every Sunday (our trash night). Not only did this mean we were throwing out food we already paid for, it meant we would eventually have to buy more food to replace it.

We corrected this problem by being a bit more creative with our leftovers. Since we knew the biggest reason they would get wasted was the fact we would get bored with the same food after a couple days, we, instead, started to find ways to turn those leftovers into something new.

One of our favorite methods is combining the various leftovers and having a weekly stir fry night. The beauty of this idea is we can clean out our fridge, have something that is completely different each time and minimize the number of dishes we end up using (we both hate washing dishes).

A couple weeks ago, for example, I was able to make a stir fry out of some leftover steak, chicken and pork as well as zucchini and Rice-a-Roni. And, while I did originally have some doubts about what the final product would taste like, it turned out to be pretty fantastic. Plus, since we ate the food rather than throwing it away, we had one less meal to purchase.

An alternative to the weekly stir fry night has been setting up a family-night buffet. Basically, everything that is in the fridge is set up on the counter in a serve-yourself buffet fashion. This allows us to combine certain foods in unique ways while, again, not using too many extra dishes in the process (mostly just our individual plates). The kids love this because they get to eat what they want and we love this because it eliminates a good chunk of the food waste by giving us one final chance to eat the food before it winds up in our garbage can. Plus, we can usually take things a little further by combining the buffet night with a family movie or some other form of entertainment.

A couple years ago, we also started putting some of the leftovers into freezer-safe dishes and freezing them. This turned out to be a great way to have easy-to-make lunches without having to buy frozen dinners at the store.

Updated: 03/02/2016, StevenHelmer
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DerdriuMarriner on 03/04/2022

StevenHelmer, Thank you for practical information, pretty pictures and product lines.
You and you wife certainly are persuasively creative in what you do to counter food waste.

In particular, I like your emphasis on carrots: such a healthy, tasty, versatile food (although my feline sentient Gusty always politely flicked them to the side when she participated in select people-food meals with me)!

All your suggestions make sense even as I particularly like the stir-fry night.

How would your daughters react to leftover-mixed casseroles, soups or stews and to leftover-topped noodles or rice?

CountrySunshine on 10/10/2014

I shop the fresh food aisles, and they do seem a bit expensive compared to the "ready made" and canned versions. Fresh food is better than processed, however. I hadn't thought of freezing fresh vegetables, but I do follow the other tips you suggested. Luckily, there are only enough leftovers for a day or two!

StevenHelmer on 08/24/2014

That's one of the ways my wife and I are very different too. I could eat something (like leftover chili, for example) day in and day out until it is gone. She gets bored with the same food after a day or two. That's why we compromise by being creative. My leftover chili, for example, can be used for chili dogs or chili cheese fries.

AbbyFitz on 08/24/2014

I find that I have a problem with leftovers. We get tired of having the same thing day after day" sometimes I'm not as creative as others and I can't think of anything new to do with them.

My aunt came up with an idea though. My uncle wouldn't eat leftovers. My aunt would freeze whatever was left over and then wait a few weeks and heat it up like it was a new meal. He never caught on!

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