3 ways to save money on food

I’m still trying to get over the whole CNN interview thing. It was surreal to be sitting there in the van at a soccer game clutching my cell phone to my hot cheek answering questions live on CNN. I was prepared for the time to be brief– I think it was all over in 4 or 5 minutes. But when the anchor lady wrapped it up and said goodbye, I still was left with my mouth open, clutching a page containing some key points that I had REALLY labored over. I thought I might as well put them up here. Many people are sure to already know this stuff. But when I was early on my journey towards frugal living, I appreciated hints from more experienced folks. So, for those of you who are new to frugal shopping, I offer:

3 First Steps Towards Saving Money on Food

1.) Clarify your own ‘big picture’. What are your goals? If you had $100 or $200 or $400 more each month, what would you do with it?
–Pay down the credit card?
–Sign your daughter up for music lessons?
–Save for a family vacation?
–Buy a new minivan?
–Save money towards becoming a one-income family?
If you have your goals clearly in mind, it is so much easier to avoid the ‘poor me’ feeling when it is time to skip pizza delivery and instead crank up your oven and pull out your own flour, yeast, and pepperoni. It’s about much more than an easy meal– it’s about giving yourself the ability to reach long term goals that are more important.

2.) Tally your actual food expenses. Most people have a general idea, but the exact figures may surprise you. Don’t forget to add in your restaurant meals. Even if you can look at your previous month’s records, I’d encourage you to save your receipts for the coming month as well. It will make step 3 easier.

3.) Chop at your top 10 list. Obviously it would be ideal if you could buy everything at the lowest possible price. But when you are just beginning to try to save money, keeping track of a million prices can be overwhelming. It is much more doable to begin by picking the 10 categories on which you personally spend the most money. Common ‘big’ categories include meals out, convenience food, snacks, meat, milk, cheese, fruit, and diapers. Whatever your Top 10’s happen to be, add up those totals for a month or two. (Look at last month’s receipts if you can.) Then focus on those ten areas. There are two ways that you can save money. Either you can buy less of the item, or you can spend less per piece ON the item.

Use Less
For example, in the restaurant category you could decide to go out to eat once a week instead of three times. In the snack category you could limit your family to a bag of chips a week and cut your cola consumption in half. If disposable diapers are draining your budget, you may decide it is worthwhile to invest in cloth diapers, which will pay for themselves in just a few months.

Spend Less
Obviously there are some categories that you don’t want to cut back on, such as the food your family needs to stay healthy. To save money on fruit, good options include limiting your purchases only to in-season fruit, which is more affordable. You can also aim to buy fruit where it is cheapest.

Currently we are eating lots of oranges, because one store in town is selling them for $0.48/lb. Yesterday I found Braeburn apples for $0.98/lb and bought a bunch. On the other hand, most likely we won’t buy watermelon til June, and it has been awhile since I’ve seen grapes at a low enough price that I’ll buy them.

In some cases you can use both these strategies. To save money on meat, serve smaller portions and incorporate a vegetarian meal into your rotation each week. Also make sure to buy the meat for as low a price as possible. Currently I have about 15 lbs of hamburger and 25 lbs of chicken in my freezer, all bought on sale for less than $1/lb.

Once you have gotten your personal top-10’s chopped down to size, pick another 10, check prices, and start chopping away on those.

Chances are, doing only these first three steps will allow you to save some money, which will give you the momentum and encouragement you’ll need to gradually make even more changes in your budget.

Click here for the Frugal Cookin’ Carnival.

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  1. Great tips! Some I already use, but it helps to hear them again.

    My favorite frugal meal planning tip is rotisserie chicken (we have a gas grill that hubby loves to use) the first night. A couple of nights later I toss all of the left overs-carcass, skin, uneaten pieces- all into a pot for chicken soup. Then I pick all of the meat off of the bones and add more spices and whatever veggies I have on hand- Carrots, celery garlic, onion, a can of tomatoes, zucchini. I also add egg noodles or rice, whatever I have. I buy the chickens whole for 99 cents a pound or less so 2 meals with meat comes out to around 40 cents per person (for 5 of us), plus the cost of whatever veggies you use.

  2. Great tips! I enjoyed stopping by your blog! 10 kids? I thought I was busy. I admire you and how you must balance it all.

  3. This is great ! Thanks !! I’m trying to cut down on our grocery budget as we are saving for an international trip.

    I do lots of these things. I do actually know what I spend per week ( we get paid weekly so I shop weekly ) on groceries. I like the top 10 list. I’m going to get on that straight away !!

  4. Thanks for the 3 tips. They weren’t obvious to me – at least not #1 and #3. I look forward to seeing how I can spend less to pay off my student loans and then help my children pay off their debts.

    I admire you too. 🙂

  5. So, you have to post a link to the piece on CNN for us!

  6. Yes! I totally missed the carnival because I was out of town – I’m about to go through it and look for it.

  7. I will have to tighten up financially over the next few years, so these are great tips. Thank you!


  8. Thanks for sharing tips Mary! Because you haven’t given enough advice already (heavy sarcasm here!), would you address snacks for so many kids?

    I have 5 kids, the baby is nursing.. so snacks aren’t an issue for her yet 😉 But when she does start eating I’m feeling nervous!! My kids are GREAT eaters and always eat all their food at each meal. But they still have a morning, afternoon, and evening snack too. So I’m constantly trying to figure out inexpensive, healthy snack ideas. Do you have snack ideas for large families? 🙂

  9. We did these things about 8 years ago. Back then I was all gung-ho with my price list etc. We cut out the eating out and all sorts of things. Then I got pregnant again, and sick again , and everything fell apart again. Then I got better and had a new baby and all sort s of family things happened and our tolerable food lists changed again. Now we are back in this place, working out what we can and can not do NOW and with older children I find that it is easier since they can make things from scratch as well. And due to our food requirements it is much easier to just make things from scratch using bulk ingredients–though at one time that was not the case. I guess my point is that this is not a one time thing, it is an ongoing thing because favorite foods change, food allergies change, needs change. And if you get too gung-ho it is easy to lose it all when you get sick or some family thing happens. The trick is to make it suit YOU and your family and keep suiting it to you and your family, which I guess is true of any financial advice.

  10. Heather,

    You made some excellent points. One of the reasons I wrote this particular post with only 3 tips is that I know how tempting it can be to go overboard at first– and then get worn out and not be able to sustain all the changes. I think we’re a lot more likely to stick with it for the long haul of we make the changes gradually and don’t feel obligated to do EVERYTHING that EVERY expert recommends….and like you say, choose the changes are most doable for your family.


  11. Thanks for the great tips, Mary! Our monthly food bill, with 10 kids, is currently more than our monthly house payment! I loved the food carnival, but my 7 year old and one of my 4 year olds eat more than my husband and I do together! My kids eat 4-5 plates of food at dinner. For lunch they eat 2-3 sandwiches each, plus fruit and a snack, and breakfast would be 5-10 pancakes each or 2-3 bowls of cereal each. I have no idea how to budget when they eat so much!

    I have thought about limiting the food they eat, but they seem hungry all the time! They have no parasites, are thin builds, are VERY active and 7 of them eat like every meal is their last! If allowed, they would eat every 2 hours! I have never seen kids eat so much in my life!

    Yesterday at a soccer game, they ate (provided by other parents); 4 popsicles, 2 bags of twizlers, a box of graham cracker stixs, and then an ice cream sundae. That was within an hour and then they wanted to eat dinner! My 4 year old can eat an entire pizza by himself! Help!!

  12. Great tips. Thank you so much for writing them down!!!

  13. Thanks for the great tips! The biggest thing I’ve done is keeping a price notebook. It’s just a little mead spiral pad that I take to the store with me and I write down the prices of things we usually need. So now, when I see things at their “lowest” price, I totally stock up (I freeze milk when I can buy it for $1/half-gal or $2/gal, I buy TONS of 97% fat free ground beef or boneless skinless ck breast when it’s $1.97/lb. and I only buy chips and crackers if I can get them for less than $1 each). Sure, you have to have room to store all of this stuff but it’s great to walk into a stocked pantry or freezer and “shop” in there for my dinner ingredients.

    Then, Mary’s #1 tip comes into play big time… what to do with the extra savings- we’ve cut our grocery bill by about 25% (some months more) by doing this. And it feels great to put the extra $$ into our savings account.

  14. You’ve done a stellar job with this, Mary. How God used you in surprising ways! And to bless real families down in the trenches.
    Standing ovation, friend.
    (And yes, echoing Shannon: any CNN link? ~warm smile~)

  15. As far as I know, there’s no link to the interview on CNN—I guess they just put some of the interviews up, not all. But I’ll let you know if I find out about video….


  16. Mary you are a rock star you CNN girl you!!!
    THank you so much for these tips. We are now growing to a family of 6 and the tips will definitely help!

  17. Thanks for this great post. This is my biggest area of frustration in our monthly budget. I also get overwhelmed when I read money-saving advice, so thank you for getting it down into simple steps!