Dear Home Ec 101,
I need to get our food budget under control, we spend a ton of money eating out. It’s starting to cause fights. I can’t cook, I can’t plan, and even if I could I wouldn’t know where to start.
Hopeless in Hopeswell
Today’s focus is on cost cutting through pantry building. In this case, the term pantry refers to the pantry itself, the freezer, and refrigerated items that have a reasonably lengthy shelf life (think condiments). Pantries are incredibly personal and dependent on your diet. What works for me may be a complete waste of money for my vegetarian neighbor or my friend whose son has celiac disease.
A little work now will save a great deal of money over time.
Gather your frequently used recipes and the sales flyer(s) for the stores you frequent. With the rising cost of fuel I cannot recommend leaving your usual route *Edit – This was written when gas was approaching $4 a gallon.* Some stores will match competitor prices and that can be extremely handy if you are willing to be patient with your cashier and possibly the manager.
List each ingredient for your recipes by section of the grocery store: Bakery, Dairy, Non-Perishable, Freezer, etc. As each recipe’s ingredients are added to your master list some will be repeated. Place a hash mark beside those items each time they are needed. Once you have finished, it will be fairly obvious which foods are staples in your household. In my home a sale on canned tomatoes or butter cannot be ignored. I’ve had more than one cashier look at me as though I have lost my mind. When butter is more than fifty cents less than its usual price I stock up. I don’t care if I may appear to be a rabid Paula Dean fan, it’s six or more dollars I can put to better use.
Examine the flyers and look for your staples. After you have budgeted for your current week (or two’s) food, take any leftover money and use it to purchase items from your list. Some weeks you may only have enough to buy an extra bag of flour, a box or two of noodles, or a few cans of tuna fish. This is perfectly fine. Each time you make a purchase on sale you are preventing a future purchase at full price.
Additionally, use sales as an opportunity to try out new recipes.
Super savvy shoppers create a pricebook of their pantry items. Each item is listed with its lowest sales price and the dates it has appeared on sale. Over time the cycle becomes clear and purchases are limited to just enough to make it until the next sale. This prevents the habit of overbuying any particular item.
Each week (or two) as you plan meals and make your grocery list don’t forget to shop from your pantry first. This helps keep items rotated and prevents any full price purchases of items already on hand.
Pay special attention to spices and remember to investigate sources other than the baking aisle of the grocery store. Personally, I have lots of luck buying herbs at a nearby health food store, some spices I pick up from the ethnic section, and the ones I use the most frequently are purchased in bulk when I make my seasonal shopping trip to Whole Foods which has a great bulk food aisle.
Next week we will examine when buying in bulk makes sense and when can be a waste of time and money.