Bringing Food Costs Down

Food purchases can really eat into your budget! 

Not everyone's a "foodie". My last boss was content to drink a meal replacement nutrition shake instead of a hot lunch. I just shuddered for a second, thinking about that cold, watery, powder mix. Some people are happy to live off very simple foodstuffs. 

No thanks. 

The largest factor in my expenditures, as you might guess, was eating out. There's no deep dark secret about it, food costs a hell of a lot more when you eat out. I've stopped eating out, and I'm also turning a more critical eye on my food purchases to see what I'm actually getting for my money.

"But it takes so much time! I don't have time to cook a dinner every night."

You can make food at home, and you are going to save a ton of money doing so. Food doesn't have to be special, or fancy, to be good and you'll be spending cents per portion rather than dollars.

I'm not an expert. These are just my views on food and how to cut back on costs and what food means to me. Ultimately, you are responsible for your and your children's nourishment and you should make your own evaluation of your dietary needs, consulting your doctor where necessary. That said, I'm going to talk about food in the way that I know how to. 

No matter where you go, you are getting the same types of dishes.

So why not cook it yourself? There's nothing mystical about preparing any of the dishes we eat. Cooking doesn't have to be hard.

I don't stick to any special kind of diet. If you do, I'm probably not writing this for you. Chances are you already have a really strong handle on your food costs and making your own meals, since there is so little in the mainstream food scene to meet your needs. 

For more "traditional" eaters, everywhere you go, with the exception of some fast food, you are going to get three categories of foods. Meat, staple, and vegetable. Even if you eat a sub sandwich from a deli: meat (deli meat), staple (sandwich bread), vegetable (lettuce, spinach, pickles, onion, tomato, peppers, etc.)

At least in the US, meat is often commonly thought of as being the only viable protein source, and essential to making a complete meal. Most dishes, whether you eat out or at home, come with at least these two "sides". The meat portion of the dish, though, is often the star of the show. Things have definitely changed with our diets. The idea used to be that you would eat mostly staple foods, and add in a little vegetable, fruit, and meat here and there to supplement the nutritional qualities of the dish. We have access to a lot more meat now.

Still though, breads, pastas, potatoes, rices, beans, and cereals are common staples that you probably eat at least one of with almost every meal. These are a cheap, abundant, and effective part of a diet. You know how people "cut out carbs" to lose weight? Staples are usually carbohydrate-heavy food scources are very good at their job of feeding you, carrying a significant amount of protein, fat, fiber, sugar, minerals, carbohydrates, and probably even more (remember, not an expert). Make sure to mix up your staples frequently. Since the shelf life of staples is usually much better than your other ingredients, you can switch them up frequently and still buy in bulk. I have a 25 pound bag of Jasmine rice on the top shelf of the pantry right now.

There's nothing really wrong with the meat, vegetable, staple diet. It gives you a great template to fill out for the dinner plate. But guess what? The vegetarians aren't starving themselves. You don't need to eat meat, you just need to make a point of getting your proteins from other sources. It's not that hard. How does this help you?


Well, meat can be super expensive. You don't get everything you need nutritionally from meat, and you can from vegetables when combined with the cheap and filling staples that you are probably going to buy anyway. I'm not saying stop eating meat entirely, but maybe only buy meat when you see it on sale for a good price. Furthermore, buying and using less meat and using more staples in your dishes brings the overall cost of your dishes down.

Buying cheaper cuts of meat can get you a heck of a lot of meat for your money. Stew meats, in particular, are one of my favorite purchases. A few weeks ago I bought stew meat on sale, and dumped it in a pot with chopped onions, celery, and carrots. I let the stew cook in a large covered pot for somewhere around eight hours on simmer, like you would with a slow-cooker countertop appliance. 

Save all your bones and scraps for making stock and/or broth. I keep my leftover chicken carcasses now and turn them into broth. 

Fruit is tasty but not very versatile or important.

You may notice that the "meal" we find everywhere we go is missing fruit. The meals that we seem to be used to eating just don't include fruit. It doesn't really go with a lot of other things. Now, I've read that we can get all the vitamins, often attributed to fruits, that we need from vegetables. Bell peppers contain more Vitamin C than oranges. (I know right?) So you could cut fruit out entirely, which might not be a bad idea if you are already eating too much sugar. 

Fruit is delicious, but I don't eat a lot of it. 

Since we don't need fruit, I like to treat it as one of my foods that is only purchased as a snack food. Yes, combining some cut-up, fresh fruit with a bowl of yoghurt would be a delicious breakfast. Expensive too. I pretty much stick to bananas, though sometimes I buy oranges and apples, and I don't purchase them too often. 

I stick to bananas because I can throw them in a bag or otherwise take them with me without needing container to keep them in. Bananas, especially, are a snack with some staying power. When compared to an apple or an orange there's really no contest, a banana will actually hold me over until my next full meal. 


Mix it up! There is an impressive variety of vegetables to try at most grocery stores. Have you ever had spaghetti squash? You bake it in the oven and then can serve it up like pasta noodles. It's so very delicious and easy to make. You just have to be extremely careful opening the squash. Don't cut yourself, okay? The last spaghetti squash I bought was both huge and cost under a dollar.

Bell peppers are awesome. I usually include them in quesadillas, stir-fry, and tacos. I am partial to the yellow and orange varieties since they are sweeter. Sometimes I slice up bell peppers and just eat them straight. They give a really good crunch.

Broccoli and asparagus are favorites, of course, but you can also try kale. See what you can find and give it a try, you 

I put caramelized onions in almost everything I've cooked in a skillet. Onions and mushrooms cooked together are a particularly great addition to any meat dish, not that you need an excuse.

Save your vegetable peelings, end pieces, and any other scraps for the stock pot. I find that celery is particularly good in slow cooked soups and stocks.

Dairy is optional and not very good for you.

Milk, cheese, yoghurt, and butter aren't necessarily the greatest things for you. "But ... but I need milk for calcium to make my bones healthy!" Nope, you can get more calcium from leafy green vegetables and it doesn't come with all the bad cholesterol. Yep, I know,"why did they lie to us on TV when we were kids?"As it turns out "Got Milk" was an advertising campaign, not a Public Service Announcement. Right now, milk is around $1.08 USD per gallon, but that's about the lowest I've ever seen it. When it's in the fridge I drink a lot of milk. I can easily kill a gallon myself. At normal milk prices, costs add up quickly. Once this, the great milk flowing of 2017, is over I'll probably go back to cutting out milk almost entirely. For now though I can get a gallon of milk for less than cost of a popular brand's liter of soda.

You don't need to buy butter. No one is going to argue that butter is healthy. If you cook with vegetable oils, you'll be doing margerinely better on the health side of things. One thing to note is that you are probably using "butter spread" already, which has a lot of vegetable fat in it anyway. Using small quantities of vegetable oil is cheaper, and probably way better for you in the long run.

I buy the cheapest real butter I can find. I don't know why exactly. Maybe it's the flavor? It's usually the store variety, cheap stuff that turns out being the real stuff with only milk, or milk and salt, present in the ingredients list. It can be hard to sort through the crazy amount of variety you'll see in the dairy aisle. If you find yourself running out of butter frequently, you are probably using much more than you should.

When I do buy cheese, I buy the 3 pound blocks of sharp cheddar. This cheese will stay good for a long time, and if it gets moldy before I use all of it I just cut off a layer from the outside of the block.

Buy food with a purpose. 

Don't just buy whatever looks good, that's why they say don't go grocery shopping while you are hungry. What role is the food that you are buying going to play on your plate? Is this a snack food, a dinner food, or a breakfast food? You'll notice I didn't ask about lunch. For us, lunch consists of either snack foods or, if we are hungrier, leftover dinner portions.

For whichever is your main meal of the day ( dinner is ours, so I'll write dinner hereafter), plan out three meals at a time when you go to the grocery store. Each meal item should be incorporated into a firm idea of what the meal it is a part of will be. Buying some of everything, so that you can make anything you want later is a sure way to produce waste. 

Make more food each time you cook.

If you commonly feel like you don't have time to cook, take comfort in the keeping of leftovers. I say to plan out three of your main meals at a time and when you read that above, you might think "I can't go to the grocery store every three days". That's not what that means! 

I normally cook a big dinner, heavy on staples, and then put the leftovers in large, covered pyrex bowls to eat later. This means that if there's no time to cook, I probably have something super good waiting everyone in the fridge. For example, if you have a spaghetti dinner one night, cook the whole box of pasta. You can keep the noodles separate 

You have already heated up the boiling water, preheated the oven, or gotten your frying pan sizzling on the stovetop. Though it can be very cheap, it does cost money to run your appliances, and there's no reason to waste money or energy. Why waste time later anyway, dealing with all the food prep? While you're already cooking, cook away! 

Make your own bread.

Making your own bread can save money too. Lets just talk white bread. A loaf of the cheapest store-bought, white bread is going to cost you somewhere around .89-.99 cents. I buy my flour for about .55 cents a pound. Each pound of flour makes a single large loaf of bread. Yeast is what can make the cost of your homemade bread go up. If you buy it in the little packets it is much more expensive, at about .45 cents per packet , but you save more by buying yeast in larger volume. Then, the cost to run the oven is about .20 cents. So, it will cost around $1.20 USD for a homemade loaf versus the .89 cent loaf. Assuming these non-bulk prices, there's a .30 cent difference between good homemade bread and the cheapest bread you can get at the supermarket. You could narrow this gap further. Now, this is up to you, but for .30 cents extra (and significantly less than any bread of a similar quality), I'll take my homemade bread every time.

You have to let you dough rise, and bread usually bakes for a decent amount of time in the oven, so making bread does "take a while". The actual hands on time, though is not very much. You've got plenty of other stuff to do while it rises in a warm place and bakes in the oven, right?


Stop buying snacks that are terrible for you. When you are hungry, eat real food from leftovers. If you just want to nibble on something a banana, again, is a great hold-you-over. 

One awesome option for when you are on the move, that isn't necessarily cheaper depending on what you include, is homemade trail mix, or GORP. Please don't just buy "trailmix" at the store. It's super expensive and it isn't very good. Gorp made for easy and super stable (not spoiling easily), snacks and meals while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Yes "meals". Hikers pretty much eat constantly on long hikes, since they burn so many calories. I've eaten dinner, hung up my food bag in tree, and then taken it down again to beat my hunger into submission with fistfuls of trail mix.
At home, I take a huge pyrex bowl that has a sealing lid and fill it with cheap cluster granola (granola cluster cereal boxes are way cheaper than "granola" in a bag), almonds, dried fruit, chocolate-covered raisins, peanuts, or any other combination of ingredients that suits my fancy. If your trail mix (GORP is way more fun to say isn't it) is boring, its completely your fault. You are supposed to make it the way you like it! 

A thick slice of home-baked bread with butter and a slice of cheese is a personal favorite snack. I like a cup of tea with my open faced sandwiches. Maybe those Swedes got to me after all.

Breakfast foods

I make pancakes a lot. I mean a heck of a lot. My fiancee loves them and they fill her up very well before her 12 hour shifts. I usually make the regular-style, thick pancakes. Sometimes I'll mix some imitation vanilla extract in from the back of the spice cabinet. Drizzled honey from a mason jar full of the fancy stuff that I'm pretty sure we got as a present last year makes them special every once in a while.

I'll sometimes spring for bacon, though it's one of the most expensive things I buy. The best bacon I've found is actually store-brand thick cut bacon. Maybe it doesn't sell great, so they bring the prices down, but you get a heck of a lot more meat. I like my bacon thick and chewy anyway.  I save virtually all the fat from the pan. I'm very sparing with and protective of my bacon fat stores. You need very little in a non-stick skillet to make the best pancakes on the planet. 

Oatmeal was the bane of my childhood breakfast experiences. In recent years I've found that I very much enjoy a bowl of hot oatmeal that hasn't been made by my Dad. Man, he could really make a bland bowl of oatmeal. (Sorry Dad). My fiancee made me try some of hers one morning before I went to class a few years ago and it was awesome! She put all kinds of tasty stuff in it, like my GORP madness, and she converted me on the spot. Here's a good place to sneak your fruit in, if you so insist. Bananas, again, are a clear winner here (this is my article).

Oatmeal can be very cheap, and a giant container of it will last a very long time. As far as filling breakfasts with real staying power go it's really hard to beat the stick-to-your -ribs, "I'm not eating till dinner", "I should eat oatmeal more often" satisfaction of a good bowl of oatmeal. 

On trail I often make overnight oats for breakfast. Look it up and see if you'd like to give it a try. Some variations of oatmeal won't work as well as others. It can be surprisingly fluffy, creamy, and delicious. I especially like mine with a spoonful of jam in it. I wonder who's buying all the jam?

And now for the most delicious and unhealthy thing I make: biscuits and gravy. I'm from the South. I make it all from scratch, and it's dangerously easy. I use leftover bacon grease to make my gravy. I crisp up the bacon as much as I can without burning it and mix it back into the gravy when it's done thickening. The gravy goes directly on to the to biscuits, which are either halved or torn into smaller pieces. My fiancee didn't believe I'd baked my last batch of biscuits. I used buttermilk leftover from Thanksgiving and they were unreal. 

Lastly, you can enjoy cooking 

I'm sure you are constantly bombarded by advertisements and social commentary to the effect of "I don't have time to make dinner/breakfast" but it's really not that difficult. You do get better and faster with practice. Once you follow a recipe a couple of times, you'll get a feel for it and you won't need to read over it a thousand times to get your materials together and follow the steps. Recipes turn into little cheatsheets that you might not even have to use once you figure out what you are using and when.

I get a surprising amount of satisfaction when I see someone's facial expression change after biting into something I made. I have enjoyed getting better at cooking my own food over time and with practice. 

I hope there was something helpful or at least mildly entertaining here for you.