1. Never buy full-priced meat. Most grocery stores have an area in the meat department reserved for meat that’s at or is fast approaching its “sell by” date. Often these packages are marked down by 30%-50%, or even more. (Some stores are better than others for this; for instance, Safeway regularly marks its meat down by 50%, while Fred Meyer hardly ever does.) Even if you’re not looking to eat meat that particular week, always browse the discount-meat section every time you go to the store. My personal rule is that I will never buy beef or pork that costs more than $2.99 a pound, or chicken that’s more than $1.99 a pound. If you find something at a good price, take it home, portion it out, wrap it, label it, and freeze it. We have an auxiliary chest freezer in the basement devoted solely to frozen stocks, leftovers, surplus frozen butter, and individually wrapped portions of meat bought on markdown.
2. Don’t eat meat for every meal, and when you do, don’t make it the centerpiece. Even at just $2.99 a pound, the cost of meat adds up. You’d be surprised just how much satisfaction you get from a wee 8-ounce steak sliced over a big salad than you would a huge hunk of meat plopped down in the middle of your plate.
3. Bake your own bread. I bake bread twice a week, every week, and freeze the individually wrapped slices. This way it always stays fresh and can be used for everything from a side for soup to sandwiches or bread crumbs. It really did seem like a pain in the butt for the first few months, but now it’s just like any other chore. If you’re intimidated by the mere thought of making bread, check out Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipes—it will seriously change your life.
4. Make all your own sauces, stocks, spice blends, and condiments. NEVER buy any of these items pre-packaged. It’s cheap and easy to make your own, and it will always taste fresher. It should also be noted there is no finer salad dressing than a simple drizzling of balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
5. Stock up on bulk foods. Spices, flours, sugar, oats, cornmeal, whole grains, dried beans, and even sometimes dried mushrooms can all be bought in bulk IN MOST CASES for a fraction of what it would cost to buy them pre-packaged. This isn’t always the case at some supermarkets, like Fred Meyer, so be sure to compare the packaged with the bulk. Try to find a store that specializes in bulk, like Winco or a natural-foods store, and stock up. (We keep oft-used bulk staples, like flour and rice, in buckets.)
6. Practice targeted grocery shopping. Do you know how much a package of Chinese egg noodles costs at the regular supermarket? $3.79. Do you know how much they cost at the Asian market? $1.50. This is why we take thrice-yearly stock-up trips to Winco for bulk foods, the Asian market for Asian ingredients, Costco for staples like butter and flour, and Grocery Outlet for cheese. That way we only have one weekly trip to the regular supermarket for produce and incidentals.
7. Develop an arsenal of breakfasts and lunches that cost no more than 50 cents. On days where we have leftovers, lunch is a no-brainer. However, on days where there aren’t any, we need to have a cheap, quick alternative. Here are a few of the lunches we make, in addition to the above banh mi sandwich, which costs 49 cents. I eat this for breakfast pretty much every single day, while B. usually has a couple of our hens’ eggs and some toast.
8. Don’t snack, or at least keep it to a minimum. Neither B. nor I are overweight, and this is a big reason why. It also saves a ton of money. If we are hungry in between meals, we grab a piece of seasonal fruit, something from the garden, or a super-cheap prepared snack like gingered carrot pickles.
9. Dessert is OK, as long as it’s cost-effective. These cookies, for instance, only cost 7 cents each. We also make sorbet and frozen yogurt based on whatever fruit happens to be in season and on sale.
10. Keep as big a garden as your yard allows, or claim a plot at your local community garden. The savings we’ve realized from growing our own organic herbs and vegetables is staggering. Plus, during the summer months we’re able to grow certain heirloom tomatoes, onions, beans, peppers and such that you just can’t find at the store.
11. Take advantage of seed exchanges, or start one yourself. I grow almost all my garden plants from seeds, many of which come from trading with friends. I often only use about 1/3 of a packet of seeds, so giving the other 2/3 to others in exchange for other seeds is a great way to build variety. (I cut small envelopes in half, copy information from the label, and tape them shut. Most seeds are good for a few years past their “packed for” date.)
12. Keep chickens, if your neighborhood allows it. Chickens are super low-maintenance and eat mostly insects if you let them loose in the yard (be sure to construct a fence around your garden). With crappy, non-organic farm eggs costing 12 cents each at the store, keeping your own flock of chickens is a no-brainer. If you have surplus eggs (which you probably won’t, since fresh eggs last 4-5 months in the fridge, but just in case), neighbors and friends are usually more than happy to accept them in exchange for a portion of their own fruit or vegetable harvest.
13. Cook every day, from scratch. I prepare every single meal I eat, every day. Believe me—not every day do I want to do this. I come home exhausted and tired from work just like everyone else, but I know how important it is to keep the food budget in check, so some days I have to force myself. But I never regret it in the end. Not only does it have the added benefit of allowing me to know exactly what I’m putting in my body—including the ability to calculate the calorie count, if need be—but it saves us thousands upon thousands of dollars a year and has allowed me to develop my cooking skills beyond what I ever thought they’d be.