11 expert tips to stretch your food further when the budget is tight
Some will tell you that the best way to save money is to skip the regular Starbucks or stop making avocado toast. But genuine people know that coffee and avocados are not the problem. Grocery prices are skyrocketing. Chicken is double what it used to be. Even rice is more expensive. And did anyone else notice the 40-cent jump on Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Crackers? No amount of restrictive spending outside of groceries is going to get us through the current price situation. The fact is that big companies are seeing record profits, but they are not passing it on to buyers or employees. Trickle-down economics is a disgrace, and now the working class is drowning in debt. But you have to eat.
You have to push the stupid cart around the stupid store and find ways to make your stupid household budget work for you. It’s hard – and not in the “I like a challenge” way. Grocery shopping right now is more mentally and emotionally taxing than ever before.
However, you are not alone. Some of us have been pinching pennies for a long AF time, and we know how to stretch a budget and fill a pantry. Most importantly, you have a world of cooking and budgeting experts willing to help you plan accordingly. So before you go shopping, take a tip or two from the little food budget playbook.
1. Meal plan.
Walking into a grocery store without a plan always spells trouble. Meal planning for the week (or weeks) ahead helps you on many fronts. First, having a plan in place will keep you from falling back on drive-thrus and takeout. Meal planning also avoids overdoing recipes. It only takes a few weeks for White Chicken Chili Wednesdays to go from excitement to monotony. Having a plan helps you stay on task at the grocery store and in the kitchen. This in turn allows you to stay on budget.
2. Use what you have.
Jessica Fisher of Good Cheap Eats says there’s one way you should start every meal plan.
“Shop in your kitchen,” says Fisher. “That is: Plan your meals based on what you have so that you can avoid food waste and overbuying. Why buy more when you have good things at home?”
Not everyone has the space for (or the initial budget for) a well-stocked pantry. If you do, however, it should be your first stop when planning your meals. For many families, there is usually a “big check” week and a “small check” week. In such cases, using the “big check” to buy more meat and get extra pantry items will free up the “small check” so that all you need to buy are fillers and some perishables. Using your pantry to meal plan doesn’t require a lot of extra work—you’re probably already doing it to see “what you need.” A quick look inside can prevent you from doubling the ingredients and serve as inspiration for the week’s menu.
3. Use shopping apps to your advantage.
Shopping for pickup or delivery definitely comes at a premium, as you have to pay those who shop and deliver for you. But there are ways to use it to your advantage as well. Jessica Randhawa, the chef, recipe creator, photographer and writer behind The Forked Spoon, says apps save time and money in several ways.
“Instead of managing a grocery list, I can easily add items to my cart when planning recipes or add items if I notice I’m running out of an ingredient,” says Randhawa. “I don’t have to run out to the grocery store or deal with my expensive impulse buying habit for new/random items. These delivery services save me hours each week and can easily be replicated at home by anyone within range of one of these ever-multiplying services offered by nearly everyone major grocery stores The reduced time spent driving, waiting and walking isles, combined with the lack of impulse buying, has been a significant time and money saver.
4. Buy bulk carefully.
Please note: Buying in “bulk” does not mean you have to pay for a special card to a members-only store. Even buying the 3-5 pound rolls of ground beef instead of the one pound rolls can save you pennies per pound. The same applies to chicken, fish and other meat. Take the giant packages home with you (when you can afford it), then spend a few extra minutes breaking them down into meal sizes before storing them in the freezer or fridge. If you can afford to “go big” on meat once a month, you save money over time. In addition, you will make the other grocery trips a little cheaper when you do not need to buy more protein.
“When restaurants buy food, they buy in bulk to save costs, and the same can be true when you’re shopping for your family,” says Andrew Abraham of Yalla Oats. “For shelf-stable items that we use a lot, we tend to buy in larger quantities. There’s a higher upfront cost, but it saves hundreds a year on average. Plus, it means fewer trips to the store and less gas used each week. Think things like pasta, olive oil, canned food, etc.”
You’ll also save money by buying non-perishable items in bulk. Everything from tinned tuna to toilet paper gets cheaper the more you buy at a time. While it may only seem like a few dollars per grocery trip, it adds up.
5. Store things properly.
Reyna Hirsh, of Move For Hunger, put it simply: “In fact, 35% of all food produced in the United States is wasted.”
A big reason? We do not store food properly. Influencers in the neurodivergent world recently showed how they “hacked their fridge” and put products on the door instead of in a drawer. If it will help you find and eat the food you buy, go for it. Just remember that these drawers are designed to be the best storage places for your products. Everything you buy in the store has an optimal storage situation. Make sure you read the bottles and jars yourself because they often tell you to keep them in the fridge after opening.
6. Try new proteins and ingredients.
“With food prices so high, I really think mushrooms are the answer when it comes to creative ways to stretch the budget because they can add so much to meals at a relatively low cost,” said Mackenzie Burgess, registered dietitian, nutritionist, and recipe developer . “Mushrooms make dishes like omelets, soups and salads heartier. Not to mention, you can expand the portions of more expensive ingredients by adding mushrooms.”
Mushrooms are often a staple in the diet of those who avoid meat, as they are full of fibre, protein and antioxidants. Using mushrooms instead of meat in pasta or salads packs a big, nutritious punch without making such a dent in the budget.
Unlike the prices of various other types of meat, the prices of canned goods have remained relatively unchanged and still are So low. Canned Alaskan salmon is great on salads, in omelettes or for salmon cakes. You undoubtedly already know the joy of canned tuna too. And now it comes in more flavors than ever before, and just takes a little work out of it for you. (Bonus tip: If you qualify for WIC and/or food assistance, a lot of pressure has led the government to allow more purchases of fresh fish using your assistance money.)
For many people, especially children, beans can be a texture problem. However, most beans contain plenty of protein. That’s why vegetarians trust them so much. From adding them to soups and salads to using them in tacos in place of meat, beans can be a wonderful belly-filling option. And with the right spices, you’ll never know the difference.
7. Know when to buy ready-made and when to do it yourself.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it can be cheaper to buy ‘fresh’ or uncooked produce, put in the work and make it yourself. After all, instead of paying for “work”, you are the labor – you pay yourself in savings. There are times when that is not the case. If you spend money on an ingredient that you can only use in one dish, or even worse, a large amount of an ingredient that you only need a small amount of, you are wasting money.
For example, when you consider the cost of the chipotle peppers, crema, and cilantro you’ll need to make anything close to Herdez’s Chipotle Salsa Crema, you might as well buy the jar. Seriously. Even Rachael Ray uses jarred salsa (and sometimes rotisserie chicken) to make her chili because she knows it’s easier and more consistent.
You are already stressed enough. Don’t add “am I spending enough time with my family?” to the list of concerns. It’s OK to choose a few meals a week to cook from scratch and prepare yourself while still relying on your pre-made (and reliable) staples to fill out your menu.
8. Stay away from all the fancy spices.
Lexy Rogers, Master chef winner and author of the new cookbook Breaking bread on a budgetsays the same applies to spices.
“Invest in a mother spice,” says Rogers. “I love Tony’s Creole seasoning. I use it on everything (no, I’m not a sponsor). The bottle is $4. I have to buy one every other month and it really cuts down on the random spices and seasonings I’m tempted to buy. Find it the right versatile spice for you and say goodbye to random money-wasting spices, you only use every 25 recipes.”
9. Make soup!
Lisa Lotts is the owner and publisher of Garlic and Zest and swears by the wonders of making homemade soup.
“Nowadays everyone is struggling with high food prices, so to stretch my food dollar I always make one or two big pots of homemade soup every week,” says Lotts. “I use ingredients that are relatively inexpensive but go a long way—things like rice, dried or canned beans, diced canned tomatoes, pasta, and cheap but hearty vegetables like kale and escarole. These types of ingredients stretch to make delicious pots of soup to feed the whole family with leftovers.”
10. Make your own stock and broth.
Remember when liters of stock used to be 99 cents? It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but now these puppies cost almost $3 in the Midwest, where things are supposed to be cheaper. Did you know that it is super easy to make yourself? “If I have leftover chicken or turkey carcasses or ham bones or hocks, they add tons of flavor to the stock,” says Lotts. “And they’re essentially throwable items.”
You can make a mean vegetable stock by freezing those vegetable ends and skins until you have a giant bag full and then simmering them in water.
11. Freeze everything.
Most soup recipes end up making enough to feed an army. This is great if you live in a firehouse, have enough kids for a basketball team, or actually need to feed an army. But most families can’t finish a whole pot of soup in one go, and we know that most kids aren’t fans of leftovers. Instead of putting it in the fridge to die, freeze it!
Use the giant cube trays meant for such occasions, try a large reusable bag, or even a storage dish with a lid. Freeze in individual portions or freeze in portions that are just right for your family. (Note: For a family of 2.5, we split most recipes in half before we start. Then we still freeze half immediately after we make it.)