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The portion of your budget that you spend eating out and buying groceries presents the opportunity to save a great deal of money. There’s no need to become a couponing expert or purchase large volumes of food at warehouse stores. You can spend a lot less money on meals without suffering through bland dinners, even if you aren’t an experienced cook.

Strategies to cut down on impulse purchases

Have you ever wondered why the area where you wait in line is also the place with the smallest and most expensive snack items and magazines? While you wait in line after a long grocery shopping trip, you are most likely to grab a candy bar or small bag of chips for the ride home. Relaxing on the couch (after unpacking your groceries) with the latest issue of People Magazine and a king-sized Snickers bar looks like a great idea on the way out of the store.

With kids along for the ride, it can be nearly impossible to get out of the store with only the things on your carefully-crafted list. If you can, do the grocery shopping on your own. If you need to bring the kids along, give them each a small allowance and let them spend it on anything they want. Don’t budge on their budget, though.

When shopping stick to your list. This is the best way to avoid impulse purchases that can ruin your plan to save money at the grocery store.

Start with the basics

Every culture has a few basic staple foods, chosen and favored for good reasons. They are filling, versatile, and inexpensive. Rice, potatoes, pasta, and beans are options that cost very little but have the potential to help you create a satisfying and delicious meal without spending a lot of money.

Here’s a list of foods that you can buy with the change in your pocket, for less than a dollar per serving along with a few ideas of what to do with each:

  • Eggs- Try them fried on a soft tortilla with spicy fresh salsa and black beans
  • Peanuts- Add to Asian dishes, put salted peanuts into chocolate chip cookies, mix with popcorn and M&Ms
  • Almonds- Put roasted chopped almonds on top of salads or add them to rice
  • Pinto beans- Add canned, rinsed, plain pinto beans to ground beef at a ratio of 1 to 3 to make meat go further
  • Black beans- Add canned, rinsed, plain black beans to salsa along with a can of sweet corn to make a dip
  • Chicken thighs- Replace more expensive boneless skinless chicken breasts with boneless skinless chicken thighs in any recipe that calls for chicken breasts
  • Garbanzo beans- Drain and rinse a can of garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas), mix with leftover roasted vegetables and serve in a pita with hummus
  • Canned salmon- Strain the liquid, mix with shredded provolone and cook between two flour tortillas for a new twist on quesadillas
  • Canned or packaged tuna- Mix oil-packed tuna with chopped apples and celery for a new kind of tuna sandwich
  • Popcorn- Sprinkle on parmesan cheese and pack a Ziploc baggie full in your lunch instead of potato chips
  • Pasta- Add olive oil, red wine vinegar, and leftover roasted vegetables to cold cooked pasta (any shape or type) for an instant pasta salad
  • Brown Rice: At about $.18 per serving, this filling grain is widely available, easy to cook, and delightful in casseroles, soups, and as a side dish
  • Garlic: For just pennies, you can add a clove or two of smashed and chopped garlic to melted butter or olive oil and use on warmed bread or popcorn

Sometimes, it makes sense to spend a bit more money for an ingredient if there’s a lot of flavor or nutrition included. Getting more for your money means investing your grocery budget in foods that offer as much value as possible. Here are two examples of foods that are worth the extra money:

Heirloom tomatoes in season

These delicious tomatoes have very little in common with the ones sold in grocery stores year ’round. Take your BLT to the next level by using both yellow and purple tomatoes. Chop and mix tiny red and brown cherry tomatoes with fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, balsamic vinegar and oil for the perfect fresh bread topping.

Local honey

Honey, especially from local beekeepers, has an infinite shelf life. Use it to balance out spices in savory dishes or just add a bit to your tea. Honey has medicinal value, as well. It’s been helping to heal wounds for over 5,000 years.

When to spend on organic food

Even if you prefer to buy organic food and understand how important it is to avoid pesticide-laden produce, it can be challenging to get past the price tag at times. Fortunately, there are many sources of information about where your money does the most good in the organic section of the grocery store.

Some produce has a much lower exposure to dangerous chemicals during growth and in transit to the store. The Environmental Working group indicates in their “Clean Fifteen” report that there are some items worth spending a bit more for when you see the Certified Organic sticker. Here are the vegetables and fruits that it’s safest to buy from the non-organic section:

  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cauliflower
  • Grapefruit
  • Cabbage
  • Pineapples
  • Sweet corn
  • Avocados
  • Asparagus
  • Onions
  • Frozen peas

Buying these organic fruits and vegetables is a good use of your money, as opposed to purchasing the conventionally grown versions:

  • Strawberries
  • Grapes
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Celery
  • Spinach
  • Peaches
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Imported nectarines
  • Imported snap peas

Some farmers’ markets present an ideal venue for acquiring locally-grown vegetables and fruits that are in season and inexpensive. Produce grown close to home usually costs less money and tastes better because it’s in season and didn’t travel thousands of miles on a truck.

Stop wasting food

Most households throw away 25% of the groceries they purchase. Reducing waste is one of the fastest ways to immediately decrease the amount of money you spend on groceries.

Of course, no one throws away perfectly good food for fun. There are a few ways to minimize waste in the kitchen to help reduce a grocery budget. The first step is to understand how much food you and your family consume. If you repeatedly cook too much food, pack up the leftovers, and they spoil in the refrigerator, preparing less is the answer.

Only buy what you need

The lure of buying more so you can pay less is real. Buying in bulk doesn’t work for most families, though. It’s just too difficult to keep track of and properly store large volumes of food. Most produce, meat, and fresh foods taste best within a few days of bringing them home. If you can’t consume perishable food within three to five days of purchase, it’s usually a better deal to pay a bit more for a smaller package or portion than it would be to throw 25% to 50% of it away when it goes bad.

Before grocery shopping, check your refrigerator and cabinets. Take your grocery list to the pantry and double check it for items you already have on hand. Not only does this cut the cost of your shopping trip, but it also prevents you from wasting ingredients you have in the house, already.

Consider your containers

For many families, leftovers are a real problem. You can change the situation by starting with the area of the kitchen where you store the containers you keep for leftovers. This project shouldn’t take long, but it’s crucial if you want to end the chaos in your refrigerator.

Go through your containers and recycle any mismatched pieces. Lids that don’t belong to a container and containers without lids are just clutter. If you have family members that bring lunches from home to school or work and they frequently throw away or forget to bring back the containers, buy a disposable brand that’s good for only a few uses.

No one wants to play a guessing game when it comes to leftovers. Put a roll of painters tape and a black sharpie in your silverware drawer. Label leftovers with the contents and the date or day of the week before you put them in the refrigerator to eliminate the mystery.

If you want to improve the likelihood that someone will eat what’s in the refrigerator, it’s essential to make the process simple. Pack leftovers in single servings whenever possible. Use containers that are microwave safe.

Clean out the refrigerator often

If you have a dedicated day for grocery shopping, it’s crucial to clean out your fridge before leaving the house. Leftovers that are more than five to seven days old may no longer be safe to eat. Toss them and wash the containers. Throw out any mystery items, quickly wipe the exposed areas of the shelves and the seal around the door, and make sure to check the bottom of the crisper drawer for vegetables and fruits past their prime.

Here are some ways to get a bit more life out of food that’s approaching the end of its usefulness:

Dedicate a Ziploc bag or container for berries and keep it in your freezer. When you clean out the refrigerator, put hulled strawberries, pitted cherries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries that aren’t quite fresh enough to consume out of hand in the container. Frozen berries are a great addition to smoothies. They add a sweet flavor to plain water and can even keep your white wine chilled without watering it down.

Put chicken bones, skin, giblets, and cartilage in a one-gallon Ziploc freezer bag. Add onion skins, celery that’s past its prime, and dried out carrots to the bag as well. Store in the freezer. When the bag is full, dump it in a large pot, cover with water, and simmer for 12 to 24 hours. Add salt to taste, strain, and freeze in containers for a wonderful homemade stock that’s great in soups and as a warming drink.

When bananas start to turn black or get spots, put them in a large Ziploc bag. Store in the freezer until you have enough to make banana bread. When you thaw them at room temperature, they’ll slip from their skins effortlessly.

Use a website like MyFridgeFood to plan your next meal around ingredients you have on hand. Not sure what to do with those frozen artichokes and the can of salmon in your cabinet? A little bit of research could lead you to a new dish that your family will love. It can be frustrating to make dinner when you don’t want to spend the money or take the time to go to the store. Use the power of the Internet to quickly find a recipe that uses ingredients you have on hand.

Get in the habit of meal planning

It’s less time consuming than clipping coupons for over-processed foods, simpler than deciding what to cook every night for dinner and removes the temptation to blow your food budget on take-out or fast food. Meal planning can be as complicated or simple as you wish, but it’s always a game-changer when it comes to saving money on meals.

You can pay for a subscription to a site like eMeals, which works well for a lot of families. Download the app, choose your recipes, export the grocery list to your favorite grocery store’s online shopping site, and either pick up your food or have it delivered.

If you have some extra time and want to skip the subscription fees, meal planning is easy to do in a free and hands-on fashion. Make a list of your meals for the week, assemble a grocery list, check your pantry, and go shopping. Post the meal plan on the refrigerator as a reminder and cook according to the list.

For many households, reducing the food budget offers a way to reach financial goals. A bit of organization and thinking ahead could mean hundreds of dollars in savings every month.

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