Now that you want to be cheap and have some basic guidelines, let’s get down to the details of menu planning and grocery-shopping.
The number one way to reduce your grocery budget is to shop at Aldi (or other discount food stores). But you have to know what to buy there. They have many pre-packaged convenience items at relatively good prices, but these are still not the best deal. Choose your convenience purchases wisely and based on your needs. For example, I buy the granola bars but skip the frozen meals.
The second best way to reduce your grocery spending is to plan ahead. Aim to go shopping once a week. (Large families may need to go more often for fresh items). It’s inefficient to go several times a week because you didn’t plan ahead. That takes time, and time is money. At the same time, if you wait much more than a week you’ll probably run out of fresh produce, and you’re more likely to stop at convenient stores where prices are higher. If you go without a list, you’ll spend more because you’ll buy whatever looks good, and you won’t know how much you’re spending.
I go to Aldi and Acme most weeks. At Acme I buy sale items and the few items Aldi doesn’t have. The more expensive grocery stores often run great sales, but it’s not worth buying the items unless they are cheaper than at Aldi, or equivalent in price but of better quality. Every couple months or so I’ll go to Save-a-lot or Marc’s to stock up on a few items that Aldi’s doesn’t have, and that are cheaper than at Acme.
To make good choices, you have to know what’s a good price for most items. In general, Aldi has the best prices so pay attention to the prices at Aldi. This way you’ll be able to look at your grocery list and know how much it’ll cost before you ever get to the store. This allows you to plan your splurges, too. Also, pay attention to price per ounce when you’re comparing two similar items. This is listened on the price labels at Aldi.
Stock Staples and Spices
So that’s how I plan where and when I’ll go shopping. But how do I plan what to buy? It’s simple: make a menu. Before I go shopping, I spend about half an hour choosing recipes and writing out the ingredients I’ll need. I also look in the cupboards and refrigerator to see what staples I’m out of. You should always keep certain staples that are common in many dishes. Many cookbooks and web sites have lists of suggested staples. I tend to be a bit minimalistic when it comes to these. I don’t really think you need to have 3 types of beans in your cupboard at all times. But look at a list or two and adjust it according to your family’s typical tastes and needs.
I do recommend having a variety of spices, which are an easy, cheap, and healthy way to give dishes lots of flavor. In addition to the standard spices you’ll find at Aldi or Save-a-lot, invest in (when they’re on sale) more exotic spices like red and yellow curry, Chinese five-spice powder, garam masala, and smoked paprika. These are good to have because you can make Thai, Indian, and Chinese food that tastes like restaurant food. A $4 spice is much cheaper than a $30+ meal at an ethnic restaurant.
When choosing recipes, I look for three key qualities: nutrition, cost, and prep-time. I want dinner recipes to be high in protein, relatively low in fat, contain mainly staple ingredients and a couple other inexpensive ingredients, and not take too long (generally more than 30-40 minutes) to prepare. Once in a while I choose to overlook one variable in my health-cost-time formula, but if you usually follow this then you’ll be healthier, cheaper, and not spend too much time in the kitchen.
To plan inexpensive meals, I recommend eating mainly chicken and ground beef, plus two non-meat meals per week. I rarely spend more than $2-$2.50 per pound on meat. Save expensive beef and pork cuts or seafood for special occasions.
Lunchmeat, by the way, is a money pit. While I commend you for packing lunch instead of buying, lunch meat is often $8 per pound. That’s crazy! You could buy two 5-lb. whole chickens for that price at Aldi. Instead of packing sandwiches for lunch, make an extra serving or two of dinner the night before and pack the leftovers. It’s much more economical. Unless you want to eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. That’s cheaper, but Neil will never agree to that.
So shoot for $2 a pound for chicken breast and ground beef. And find a lot of ways to cook chicken. I’ll share some below. Even cheaper, however, is the aforementioned whole chickens at Aldi. They’re only 79 cents a pound. And you get a variety of light and dark meat (which Neil likes). The only drawback is that you have to clean the chicken—rinse it, take the bags out, and cut off the skin (if you want to reduce fat). Here are two good, easy ways to cook a whole chicken:
Spicy Rapid Roast Chicken: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Spicy-Rapid-Roast-Chicken/Detail.aspx
Baked Slow Cooker Chicken: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Baked-Slow-Cooker-Chicken/Detail.aspx
The good thing about these chickens is when you’re done eating them the way you cooked them, you can shred the leftover meat and add sauces or spices to make BBQ chicken, enchiladas, tacos, etc.
Beans are the best alternative to meat in meals, for the same reasons that the Taco Bell bean burrito is the healthiest, cheapest fast food option. Dried beans are the cheapest form, but since I only cook for two and those take a long time, canned beans are a good alternative. I don’t like to pay more than 50 cents for a can of beans. Aldi’s has refried, kidney, chili, pinto, baked, and Mexican chili beans. Periodically they carry chickpeas and black beans (my favorites). I also stock up on these when they go on sale at Acme. Here are some good bean recipes:
Butter Chickpea Curry (contains no butter): http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Butter-Chickpea-Curry/Detail.aspx
Black Bean and Salsa Soup: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Black-Bean-and-Salsa-Soup/Detail.aspx
Chickpea burgers: http://www.rachaelraymag.com/recipes/hamburger-recipes/vegetarian-chickpea-burgers/article.html
Easy Pasta Fagioli: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Easy-Pasta-Fagioli/Detail.aspx
Moroccan Lentil Soup: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Moroccan-Lentil-Soup/Detail.aspx
Also you can make your own bean burritos with refried beans, cheese, taco sauce, and tortillas.
Pasta, potato, egg, and cheese dishes are also good. Here are some options that go beyond the standard grilled cheese, spaghetti, and mac and cheese:
Spinach quiche (I skip the croutons): http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Spinach-Quiche-2/Detail.aspx
Quick Gnocchi (made with instant potatoes): http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Spinach-Quiche-2/Detail.aspx
Cheesy Potato soup: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Cheesy-Potato-Soup-II/Detail.aspx
Potato and vegetable enchiladas (substitute whatever veggies you like; spinach is good): http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Easy-Mashed-Potato-and-Roasted-Vegetable-Enchiladas/Detail.aspx
Thai Peanut Butter Noodles: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Peanut-Butter-Noodles/Detail.aspx
Spinach Calzones: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Unbelievable-Spinach-Calzones/Detail.aspx
The chicken breast and restaurant knock-off recipes will have to wait for next time. But please note that you can change recipes to make them cheaper. In most cases you can use dried spices instead of fresh if you want to reduce the cost. You can substitute different vegetables, use lemon instead of lime juice, or even skim milk instead of cream (just add a little cornstarch). If you want the best flavor, use fresh ingredients and don’t skimp on oils. But I cut fat and cost in most of my cooking and Neil doesn’t even notice the difference. Stay tuned for more tips and tricks…