I love to cook, and I’m always trying to save on groceries so I can have more money to buy healthy, fresh ingredients. Unfortunately, much of the kitchen frugality advice out there is impractical for my life: use a bajillion coupons (too tedious for me), buy everything at warehouses in huge quantities (I live in a small apartment), and store-hop like 3 different grocery stores to get the best deals (really?).
Instead, I’ve adopted a really simple approach that works for me, and I’m thinking it might make things easier for you, too: whatever you buy, just actually eat it.
Here are five tips to this end that require no coupons, little extra time or effort, and that you can use no matter what you like to eat and where you shop.
1. Waste not, want not
My husband makes fun of me for all the tiny containers in our fridge, but I use every bit of leftover food I can. Half of a leftover banana can be the base of a smoothie. Two slices of a leftover baguette can mean homemade croutons for tomorrow night’s soup or salad (plus they taste sooo much better than the bland rock-hard store croutons). If this sounds ridiculously frugal to the point of being obnoxious, get in touch with your earth-friendly side and just think of it as not wasting food. Since I’ve started doing this, the amount of food I have to throw out has considerably shrunk, and saving a few dollars here and there is a nice side benefit.
2. Magic produce saver spray
Produce is especially prone to waste because it can go bad so quickly. I learned this tip from Cook’s Illustrated: make a quick rinse that will help prolong the freshness of veggies by mixing 3 parts water to 1 part white vinegar, and soak hardy veggies for a few minutes before rinsing them off and storing them. The vinegar kills off mold spores and bacteria and will help produce last longer–hopefully in time to actually use it all up. (Don’t worry, your broccoli won’t taste like vinegar.)
3. Dry goods stockpile
I keep a list of the basic dry staples we eat on hand and then stock up on them when I find a good deal–sometimes this means at a grocery store with bulk bins sold by weight, at Costco, or just by buying a few extras if I happen to see them on sale. If I add to the supply a little here and there or when I run out of something, it only costs me a few dollars a week, and then I can focus on spending more of my grocery budget on fresh items like fruits, veggies, eggs and dairy.
I call this the carb cupboard.
It’s only helpful if you only buy what you actually use, though. Here is my list of items:
- Oatmeal: For breakfast and baking. I buy this for around $0.60/pound from bulk bins.
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat flour: For homemade bread, pizza dough, baked goods…etc.
- Dry cereal (I prefer boring bran flakes and Kashi, but if cocoa crunchie marshmallow milky doo-dads are your thing, that works too.)
- Whole wheat pasta
- Popcorn kernals: Healthier and less expensive than buying packaged microwave popcorn
- Canned tomatoes: for pizza sauce and other Italian meals. This GIANT can from Costco looks ridiculous in my cupboard (like, am I feeding a football team?), but it’s a better deal than buying smaller cans. Once I open this baby, I can divide the tomatoes I don’t use into containers and freeze them.
4. Freezer time
Speaking of the freezer: as much as I try not to waste food, I inevitably end up with leftover ingredients or extra food that sits in the fridge and slowly gets sour, moldy, and unappetizing–or inedible. My new trick is freezing whatever I can as soon as I suspect it might be doomed to the trash. I also pre-emptively freeze stuff that can go rancid in the cupboard. Some examples:
- Bread products: Regular sliced bread, specialty bread, everything from pitas to tortillas–if I don’t think I’ll eat them in time, I put them in the freezer. (Tips: If you want to toast frozen sandwich bread, defrost it first or it will end up really stiff. To get a frozen baguette or artisan-type bread back to life, rinse it with water and reheat it in the oven at 350 degrees until it’s warm and crispy.)
- Flour: The higher fat content in whole wheat flour means it can go rancid faster than white flour. Stick it in a plastic freezer bag and store it in the freezer to prolong the life.
- Nuts: Same goes for nuts–I freeze walnuts for baking, and almonds and sunflower seeds for salads so they’ll last longer.
- Veggies: Clean them beforehand, and if possible chop them up into the size you will eventually want to eat them. When I make soup, I usually have leftover vegetables like celery, carrots, and onion. I now chop up whatever is left and freeze it in individual bags. Later if I want to make soup again, I already have the basic vegetables ready.
- Fruit: As soon as any bananas start to get spotty, I peel them, put them in a freezer bag and save them for smoothies (same goes for berries).
- Cheese: Wrap up half a block of cheese tightly and freeze it until you’ve finished what’s left in the fridge.
Certain types of leftovers can admittedly taste downright sog-tastic after sitting for a day or two in the fridge, but eating up leftovers is like the cherry on top of the don’t-waste-food sundae. There are things you can do along the way to make leftover dinner more palatable as tomorrow’s lunch. For example, don’t mix dressing into a big salad before you serve it and store the extras. Add a little lemon juice to leftovers like hummus or pasta salad to freshen it up again. And make soup–it always always tastes even better the next few days.