Everybody’s Got to Eat! Thinking About Food

by Beth · 12 comments

in A Frugal Family,Frugal Food,Series

Thanks again for your helpful comments on last week’s introduction to the “Thinking Outside the Wallet” series.  This kind of exchange is encouraging to me because it reminds me that there are so many of us who are in the same situation—trying to have the best possible life on a frugal budget.  I’m going to try and incorporate as many of your suggestions as I can into posts in the upcoming weeks.

One commenter, Kelly, mentioned food.  Since this is my “bête noire” budget category as well, and tomorrow is a national holiday dedicated to eating, what better place to start?  I realize that I tend to spend too much money on food, but I have a hard time sacrificing quality for quantity, and I’m picky about wanting good, healthy, fresh ingredients for my family’s meals (although that probably is smarter budget-wise in the long run, right?).   I like to eat local and organic as much as possible, but those foods can also be significantly more expensive.

First of all, I think it’s important to think about where you choose to shop.  We’re lucky to have a weekly open-air market in the village where we live, and the fruits and veggies are much cheaper than at the grocery store.  Taking part in a produce co-op can also be a time saver, as baskets can often be delivered right to your door on a weekly basis.

Here are some of the guidelines that I try to follow in managing our family’s food budget:

1. Stay home.
The single biggest change in our food budget moving from the U.S. to France was that we virtually eliminated dining out.  Eating at a restaurant in France is much less common than in the U.S., particularly as a family.  We eat out maybe 3-4 times a year now, compared to once or twice a week when we lived in the States.  It’s a cultural difference, but also a frugal one—a three-course meal with wine doesn’t come cheap!

If it seems like a deprivation to stay home, keep in mind that most of what you cook for yourself will taste better than a takeaway pizza, anyway.  At home you can make it just the way you like it, and if you’re short on time, using a store-bought crust can have a pie on your table quicker than you could run out and pick it up.  If you have kids, making homemade pizza is a great way to involve them in food preparation as well.

2. Grow/make your own.
Since the financial crisis, I’ve heard more and more stories of people planting “victory gardens” in their backyards.  Granted, big gardens can be a lot of work, but the rewards are great—fresh produce at your fingertips, for a fraction of what you would pay in the store.  Because we live in an apartment and have no land for gardening, I plant in hanging boxes in our front windows, which get lots of sunlight.  I’ve been particularly successful with herbs in this spot, and we enjoyed picking our own fresh thyme and rosemary this past summer.

We also make our own yogurt (overnight, for little effort and big savings), and I’ve been reading lots of easy cheese-making recipes lately that I’m hoping to try soon.

3. Get organized.
Even if you’re buying them at the store, the fact is that fresh foods are very cost-efficient compared to pre-made, packaged foods.  Where I’ve had problems in the past is in actually using the fresh foods before they go bad in my veggie keeper.  If we all had the time to go shopping every day this wouldn’t be a problem, but I’m lucky to find once a week when I can get to the grocery store, and our freezer isn’t big enough to use the “make big batches and freeze them” method.

As with most aspects of the frugal life, with food it really helps to be organized.  I make sure that I have a particular use in mind for everything I buy, and I try to jot down a meal schedule for the week using the ingredients I have on hand.  I stack items in the fridge based on the ‘use by’ date, and we eat accordingly.

4. Waste not, want not.
Another big change for me in terms of my food budget was learning not to waste food.  This was a shift in my thinking that happened over time, and it hasn’t always been easy.  I tend to eat by my cravings, which means that if I’m hungry for Indian food and there are leftovers from the night before in the fridge, I’m going to be very, very tempted to ignore the leftovers and reach for the curry powder.

In addition to cooking the freshest things in the fridge first, I DON’T make extra portions of a meal.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but it keeps me from having leftovers of something in the fridge for a week when I don’t really want to eat them.   It also makes sense for us because we have limited freezer space.  We still have at least one night a week as “leftover night,” and I heat up leftovers for lunch at work, which is a big money saver over the sandwich shop across the street.

In keeping our food budget under control, these are the methods that work for me, and I don’t have to sacrifice the freshness or quality of our food.  There are easier ways to shop and eat, but good health is just as important, and to me it’s worth a little investment of my time to eat well.

What about you?  How do you think outside the wallet when it comes to food?


1 Nancy November 24, 2010

I have to make a conscious effort to use the fresh veggies in my crisper before they go bad. I’ve learned that if I prep the veggies as soon as I come home from the grocery store, it’s easier for me to be sure they are eaten before they go bad. It might be that I make a big green salad, chop onions for use later in the week, make a veggie plate for snacking, slice or chop veggies for the freezer (peppers are one I do often or pair them with sliced onions for a fajita mix). Doing this removes some work on a week night when I’m tired after a day at the office and don’t care to spend too much time in the kitchen.

I also use this same concept with meat (i.e., make a large batch of taco meat; brown ground beef with peppers, onions and Italian seasonings; cook chicken and either shred or slice it for later use, etc.).

2 Elizabeth November 24, 2010

I’m lucky in that I work in a whole foods grocery store and also in a supermarket, so I have the luxury of being in the know with specials and being able to buy fresh stuff every day. Having said that though, I try to do a big shop of staples once every few weeks too.

My boyfriend and I try to shop together so that we don’t double-up on stuff accidentally. I can’t count the number of times I’ve told him that I’ll bring milk home, and then get home to find he’s bought it too! It’s a pain to have to drink 4 litres of milk in a week when I’m not a huge milk-drinker!

3 Sandy November 24, 2010

I try to buy on sale and in season, especially at my farmer’s market, to help me determine what to cook. If I cooked everything based on what we were cravings or trying new recipes, I would probably go broke. Instead, I buy the sale items and whatever I can find at the farmer’s market, and I make meals out of that. If I have to buy more than one “special” ingredient for a meal, I don’t really prefer to cook it.

4 Beth November 25, 2010

Really good point, Sandy. Buying things in season is important as well. A lot of times I’ll tweak a standby recipe using seasonal ingredients, which can give me more variety in my meal planning, too.

5 Dmarie November 25, 2010

My weakness in food waste: veggies in the crisper are so hard to see, despite the clear drawers. and out of sight, out of… And with fresh broccoli and kale in the garden, I’m having a really hard time keeping up! As for leftovers, I sometimes toss curry into a leftover casserole or soup for a “new” meal. Curry is strong enough to completely change the flavor of a mildly seasoned leftover whatever.

6 Kimberly November 25, 2010

Lately, I’ve derived joy from using up the last little bit of a condiment I purchased for a particular recipe. It’s such an awesome feeling using it up, recycling the container and knowing that I won’t be wasting that item.

I also now make just enough food for our dinner, plus one portion for my lunch the next day. That step alone has made a tremendous difference in the food we waste.

I love your tip about stocking the fridge in order by “use by” date. I will be trying that!

7 elizabeth-flourish in progress December 6, 2010

THANK YOU so much for being a source of inspiration. I gave up shopping and needless spending for a year on my 30th birthday and it’s been a struggle, at times, to be optimistic and creative and have fun. I’m looking to your blog as a source of inspiration and ideas.

8 Beth December 7, 2010

That’s so kind of you, Elizabeth. I get so much inspiration for all of you as well–you really keep me motivated to find new ways to be frugal.

9 Guide at GrowingMoneyStart.com December 6, 2010

We may start growing food in our backyard! Our kids ask use every year to do that, but we have planted flowers instead. Perhaps this year we’ll take the leap and plant some veggies 🙂

10 Cassie December 14, 2010

Thanks for the awesome post, sometimes you need to see someone else writing it in order to put your own thoughts into perspective. I’ve had to fight the urge to cook too much ever since I moved out of my parent’s home. Mom will cook a meal for two, five people will come for dinner, and over half of it becomes leftovers. It’s been ingrained into me. 8 years later and I’m still struggling to cook for one. I’m becoming more and more aware of what it does financially though, and reading posts like this helps move it to the forefront of my mind.

Looking forward to putting in my garden this year 🙂

11 Natalia Payroll December 30, 2010

Appreciate your post. I would definitely start growing some in our backyard. At least, I will be 100 % certain that the food we will take are healthy. 🙂

12 LISA December 30, 2010

I buy food items in the clearance section. When foods are near their expiration date, they are placed in clearance. I look for meats and freeze them if not using immediately. I will use my crock pot for those that need to be consumed. I recently made ribs with bbq sauce on them in the crock pot. I have also put a roast in there with vegetables and a jar of gravy for easy fixins. The family prefers crock pot cooking. Tonight, I cooked up extra meat on the bones in the pot, and will use the meat for soup tomorrow (just add veggies/barley/broth) and cook in the crock.I buy clearance fruits too, for pies, smoothies and homemade breads. The kids’ friends at school eat store bought snacks and think my kids bring cool stuff for snack (?). I try to use whatever foods are on-hand to make interesting meals and save on our food bill. If we have leftovers, I will freeze them for another time so we don’t throw it out. I am trying to spend less on food but still have healthy meals. I also try not to buy alot of convenience foods since it makes me have to cook and cooking always tastes better than those high fat/sodium packed items. It’s tough sometimes but I’m a work in progress………

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