BUDGET BYTE PRINCIPLES
1: PLAN YOUR MEALS
Take the time, once a week, to think about what you want to eat for the next 5-7 days. Decide on a few recipes then make your grocery list. Look in your refrigerator, freezer and cabinets to see what "left over" ingredients you have on hand that need to be used up (if you're throwing away food, you're throwing away money). Make a mental (or physical) list of these items, hit the internet and search for recipes that use those ingredients. I also plan my meals around items that I find on sale for really good prices. I usually thumb through the weekly sale fliers (or check them out online) looking for really good deals. Planning ahead will keep you from wandering aimlessly through the store picking up umpteen snack items because you don't have one real meal idea.
2: USE INGREDIENTS WISELY
One of the reasons that I started Budget Bytes is because I don't believe that you have to just eat ramen, rice and beans to eat on a budget. I love food and I don't think that some things are off limit just because they are expensive. Often times, if you have an expensive ingredient you can pair it up with something inexpensive (like rice, pasta or other grains) to bring the cost per serving back down. Also, expensive ingredients are often the most potent so you can use them sparingly and still get a great flavor (think sun dried tomatoes, pesto, walnuts). So, choose your recipes based on the ratio of expensive ingredients verses inexpensive ingredients and use potent/expensive ingredients sparingly.
3: PORTION CONTROL
Portion control will help you slim down your waistline and bulk up your wallet. We've gotten used to gigantic sized portions in our country and it's time to start reining them back in. When you eat more food than you need, you are quite literally spending money that you don't need to spend. When you dish out a meal, try giving yourself less than you normally would and see how satisfied you are when you have finished. If you are still hungry you can always go back for more but this way you won't be feel obligated to finish what is on your plate if it is more than what satisfies you. When I make a meal, I try to portion out the entire recipe into smaller containers as soon as it is finished cooking. If I put it all into one big container, every time I go for some I have the possibility of over serving myself. Sounds OCD but it also makes my meals "grab-and-go" which is quite convenient.
4: DON'T BE AFRAID OF LEFTOVERS
After working in the food service industry for a few years, it has come to my attention that many people these days are afraid of food if it was not prepared that day or even a couple of hours prior. What those same people don't realize is that when they go to a restaurant (almost every restaurant), the food that is served to them was not prepared from scratch that moment. It is more convenient and cost effective for restaurants (and us at home) to make large batches and use them over a period of a few days. If stored properly, cooked food is quite safe and delicious for several days in the refrigerator and a few months in the freezer. For specifics, visit Foodsafety.gov. Sure, sometimes there will be textural changes (fried foods may become soft, for example) but many times the flavor of food gets better after a day or two! The time in the refrigerator allows ingredients to marinate and flavors to marry. In my recipes I try to address issues related to storing leftovers to keep the best flavor and texture.
5: THE FREEZER IS YOUR FRIEND
Take full advantage of your freezer, it will save you money! Last week while grocery shopping, I came across an enormous pork tenderloin on sale for only $4.99 (regularly $8.99). You BET I bought that thing even though it wasn't on my menu. I knew that it would freeze well and I could simply thaw it out and use it for my entree another week. Also, since I cook primarily for myself, I often freeze extra portions of meals. If I can't scale down a recipe to a size that I can consume within 5 days or so, I'll just freeze the rest. It's wonderful to have frozen meals just waiting for you when you are too tired, too busy or too sick to cook (or if you're out of money and there is still a whole week till pay day! ha!). For more information on how to effectively freeze different food items, visit The National Center for Home Food Preservation and be sure to click on General Information for food that doesn't freeze well and other basics.
6: SHOP WISELY
We all have different reasons for shopping where we do (supporting local business, a preference for natural or organic items, location/convenience etc.) but be aware of your options. Check for local or seasonal produce markets and ethnic groceries. Produce markets are almost always less expensive than produce in grocery stores and often times the quality will be much better. Ethnic grocers usually have great prices for ingredients that are not common and offer a wider selection (you might get inspired!). As you become more budget conscious and start to cook more, you'll begin to make a mental price list of your most commonly purchased items. Soon you'll be able to spot inflated prices immediately and you'll know which store offers the best prices for different items. I don't visit 4 or 5 stores every week but as I'm planning my menu I will plan which store to shop at based on where I can get my most expensive ingredients at the best price. Usually, I go to one grocery store to buy my canned, frozen or otherwise packaged foods and the produce market for fresh produce.
If you have any other tips or practices that have helped you cut your food budget, please share them! A million minds are better than one!