Eating meals at home, on the whole, saves you tons of money over eating out. For starters, you avoid restaurant markups, server tips, commuting costs, and meal extras that add up (like getting dessert when you normally wouldn’t eat one).
Beyond the obvious savings, there are many changes you can make to the way you prepare food, shop for groceries, and plan your meals to enhance your savings even more.
Ways to Save Money on Food When You Make Family Meals at Home
The tactics I use to save money on the cost of homemade meals fall into three categories:
- Planning ahead
- Making do
- Controlling costs
Strategy #1 – Planning Ahead: Save Money on Food with a Little Forethought
For me, having a plan in place is over half the battle. When I’m frazzled around 4 p.m. after a day of chasing around three rugrats, I sometimes can’t even remember my name, much less what I was going to cook for dinner! So, I like to apply a little bit of forethought to the week’s meals before I make a last-minute decision to go to Outback on a random Wednesday when we could save $40 by eating that meal at home.
Here are two different ways that I cut the cost of family meals over the course of a week by planning ahead:
1) Write down a formal weekly meal plan. The only way I can truly stay on track is to have a plan in place. Whenever I don’t make an actual meal plan, I don’t know what exactly to buy at the store, and I end up buying a bunch of random stuff. This can rack up $ real quick. And when I don’t have a plan, food tends to go to waste. So, I sit down sometime every Saturday to write the next week’s meal plan and buy the food on Sunday.
2) Freeze easy meals for lazy nights. Unless you’re the proverbial 50s housewife like me ;D, you probably can’t sustain eating in every day, day after day. When you have the means to afford a restaurant meal, the temptation can sometimes be too much. Self-imposed frugality has its limits. On those nights when you just can’t drag yourself to the kitchen to whip up a full family meal, it’s nice to have go-to easy meals waiting for you in the freezer. Whatever this means to you, I recommend having one or two on hand.
For me, it means making a double batch of White Chicken Enchiladas and freezing the second. It also means grabbing a Stouffer’s Lasagna when it’s on sale and throwing it in the freezer. This way, I can still have lazy nights without breaking the bank.
Strategy #2 – Making Do: Reusing Ingredients & Reducing Waste to Save Money on Groceries
I love “finding money” by way of reusing items and reducing waste in all aspects of life. I like to apply these principles to meal planning as well:
1) Incorporate at least one “leftovers” night. Unless you are a portion genius, one of those magical moms who can cook exactly the right amount for her family each time so that no leftovers remain (read: my mother-in-law), cooking at home every night inevitably results in a fridge full of random leftovers about 4 days into the week. Combat unnecessary waste by making dinner on Day 4 of your meal plan a leftovers night. If everyone participates, you will essentially get a free meal out of leftovers AND manage to save that food from the trash can.
2) Organize your pantry so you always know what’s in there and do a pantry challenge. At times when I think there’s nothing good to eat in the house, I will start digging through the pantry and realize I have almost all the makings of a good dish. Then I just need to buy the missing ingredient or two at the store. Saves me money in the short term and prevents me from possibly wasting pantry items that eventually go bad. When my pantry starts looking like a tornado hit it, I like to have myself a good pantry challenge day. :)
Strategy #3 – Controlling Costs: 4 Tricks to Cut Food Costs
Finally, I have four go-to means of shaving food costs:
1) Replace two weekly meals with two vegetarian meals. The cost of meat can really add up. Substitute with other sources of protein like beans for a fraction of the cost.
2) Grow the expensive ingredients. In our house, we go through tons of tomatoes & basil, and both of these cost quite a bit at the store. Basil is roughly $2.99 per bunch, the amount I would use for a meal (to top pizza, garnish pasta, etc). And making pesto with store-bought basil is just dumb…the amount it takes to make one batch costs wayyyy more than a jar of store-bought pesto. Alternatively, I’ve been using the same $3.00 packet of basil seeds for the past three years, and I still have enough to plant several more years’ worth of crops. I plant about six plants per year. This yields enough basil to keep us going all summer long (you can harvest it, and it keeps on growing!).
And at $2.50 per pint of grape tomatoes, it’s a no-brainer to plant our own. They taste better, have no pesticides on them, and one plant of Sweet 100 Cherry Tomatoes (that costs $3.50 per plant) will yield at least 15 pints of tomatoes over the growing season. You can easily see how those savings add up!
3) Buy in bulk and cook in batches. While I don’t do this often enough, it really is a good way to save some cash. Buy in bulk (especially meat), cook a humongous batch of whatever that makes, freeze it, and think of how much you’re saving every time you grab an batch-cooked item from the freezer! When we can get a great deal on ground beef, we make a huge batch of this pasta bolognese sauce and freeze it in family sized portions. It’s one of my lazy night go-to items, too! I just cook some pasta, stir in this sauce, and top with Parmesan cheese for a super quick, restaurant-quality pasta dish!
4) Plan meals based on what’s in season. Just as we eat tomatoes and basil all summer long, we limit these items during the winter. Eating in season means watermelon in late summer, squash and pumpkin in the fall, and citrus during the winter months. Even if you don’t know when each type of produce is in season off the top of your head, all it takes is noticing when items are their cheapest at the grocery stores – that always coincides with them being in season. Not only does produce cost a lot more out of season, I don’t like imagining what growers must do to the produce to keep it uniform looking throughout the year. It can’t be good for you.
Staying Motivated to Continually Save Money on Groceries
Let’s be realistic; trying to save, save, save all the time can get old real quick. I don’t use all of these cost saving meal plan strategies every week. I just keep them in mind as I plan weekly meals, and over the course of a year, the savings really add up.
How about you? Do you use any of these tactics? Can you estimate how much you are able to save with one or more of these strategies?
Do you have any tips to add to this list? I’d love to hear your ideas!
Paul @ The Frugal Toad recently wrote 10 Ways to Save on Food. I found several excellent tips in here, including one that I completely forgot about – shopping manager’s specials. Using this strategy can net you rock-bottom prices on expensive food if you’re willing to overlook expiration dates.