One thing that has surprised me working with financial planning clients is that every single client (and I mean everyone!) talks about the price of food and groceries. My younger clients decry the cost of feeding a family with growing kids. My retiree-type clients worry that they can afford as many restaurant meals as they’d like. These are not usually people with money problems, but I suspect that the daily drip-drip of food costs builds up for all but the richest people.
In that spirit of concern for the price of food and groceries, I’d like to offer a few tips on how I think families can be satisfied with how much they spend on food and still eat very well. I am not an expert on how to spend pennies to feed my family, nor do I want to be. My wife and I share meal-planning duties, and I do most of the grocery shopping, and we’ve been juggling this together for over 10 years now.
My standards for groceries
I’m not interested in eating the absolute cheapest food I can buy. I think that’s an unhealthy aspect to our culture and, although I love a good deal, I don’t fixate on saving to the detriment of eating high-quality food. These tend to be our guiding principles at the Arnold house:
Eat lots of veggies and fruits. We belong to a CSA and really enjoy the delicious vegetables and occasional fruits they provide. Yes, we have to be more planful and thoughtful to use all the veggies we get, but it has changed how we eat. Plus, you get a lot of produce for the price of a CSA share, it’s not as expensive as you might think!
Consider generic or store-brand items. I remember the stigma attached to generic foods when I was a kid in the 1980’s (hello black and white box of corn flakes!), and I wouldn’t have guessed then that I’d be an avowed store-brand buyer now. Quality has come a long way, and though there are some items I pay a little more to get “name-brand”, I like this option to save money.
Make the meal. Although my wife and I are not hobbyist cooks, we do enjoy the satisfaction you get from making a good meal from scratch and not just reheating some prepared food. This has become much more challenging with little kids in the house, but we’ve developed ways to keep our heads on straight and still cook 5-7 dinners a week. I think this takes a lot of practice, being willing to experiment, and being patient with each other and dedicated. But the alternatives, like eating out all the time and eating lots of prepackaged stuff, don’t sound so good, either.
Saving on the cost of good groceries
Making dinners for a busy family 5 to 7 times a week with healthful, fresh ingredients is definitely time-consuming and could be costly. Here are my tips for keeping it under control money-wise:
Always shop with a list. This should make the experience faster and less stressful at the store. My mom, God bless her, used to wander around the grocery store for hours trying to figure out what she needed. I can do a week’s worth of shopping in an hour. The cost-saving comes from buying only what you need and making sure you’re not buying extra or unnecessary items. Don’t like shopping with lists? Give it a try for three weeks out of the month, and then feel free to go crazy for one shop each month. I think you’ll come around…
Keep a running list of items you need at home. This is a huge time saver, and easy to do whether you use a paper list or your smartphone for shopping. When you need to actually plan out your week of meals, having this running list already going will shorten the task.
Don’t shop hungry and leave the kids at home. Easier said than done some days, and I understand. Just know that being hungry and distracted leads to poor buying decisions, and guess what, the store likes it when you make poor buying decisions!
Stock up on sale items, but only if you use them. We don’t go to Costco (partly because we don’t have the storage room for huge quantities of items), but it’s also because I strongly believe that having lots of unused food, which can go bad, is no good deal at all.
Eat leftovers for lunch. We ALWAYS make enough for leftovers, and as both of our skills in the kitchen have improved, we don’t consider leftovers to be a step down in eating. I’m always surprised by people who buy their lunches, especially if they ate a meal at home the night before.
Avoid prepackaged foods. Meal kits and pre-assembled ingredients are convenient, and I guess could be a good starting point for you if you’ve never cooked at home. But they’re more expensive than buying and washing/cutting/cooking the items yourself.
Don’t be afraid of the freezer section for veggies, fruit, and seafood. Foods that are out of season, like blueberries in December, are cheaper and pretty good when frozen. For seafood, all of the stuff we have in Iowa is previously frozen, so why not just get it from the freezer case to begin with?
Use the club site or app for online shopping. I’m a big fan of Hy-Vee’s “Aisles Online” system, and I use their rewards program all the time to save on the cost of gas. I chuckle now because I held out for a couple of years when they first introduced the rewards program, thinking they’d be pestering me all the time with spam or junk mail. Surprisingly, none of that happens, and now I save $5-15 a week on gas because of the rewards.
Making fresh, healthful food and trying to save money while doing it is not always easy. We do eat out occasionally as a family, and pickup pizza when we need to. Making a good effort takes dedication and being flexible.
If you’ve wondered why you’re spending so much on food (and maybe not enjoying the meals), I encourage you to try a few of these tips, and let me know how it goes!