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Cooking Economically, Finances, Frugality, Homemaking, Saving Money

How We’re Keeping Our Food Costs Low Despite Inflation + Rising Food Costs

How we're keeping our food costs low even with inflation

Like the rest of the world, we have not been immune to rising food costs, empty grocery shelves, and inflation occurring on everything from our heating and utility bills (which were already on the high side due to our home being older) to the gas we put in our vehicles (which was already more expensive because we live rurally) to the monthly premiums we pay on our insurance.

We used to have an “easy” buffer in each month’s budget that could be spent on fun things like eating out or day adventures and on financial goals, but now, that buffer is quickly becoming nearly nonexistent.

Perhaps you find yourself in a similar situation, and if so, I’d love it if you commented below about anything that you’ve been trying or doing lately in order to make your budget stretch.

Below, I’m sharing the strategies we’re currently employing to keep our grocery and household budget at around $500 for our family of five, which we’ve tried to keep it at for a couple years now. (Note: This budget also includes ALL our household goods in addition to groceries, which means things like diapers, laundry detergent, printer ink, etc.) Previously, this was an easy budget to stick to that still allowed a lot of wiggle room for treats and more expensive produce options, but lately, it’s definitely been more of a challenge. Here are some of our time-tested strategies we’ve used for years in order to keep our food budget low when times are tight:

Note: There are affiliate links to any specific products and services mentioned below.

Define More Extreme “Steps” You Can Take if Necessary + Prioritize

What I like most about the “steps” outlined below is that you can mix or match which ones are easier for you, and you can also go as extreme as necessary into each one, if it comes to that. These guidelines help me to keep my grocery spending in check while I’m at the store, and they’re just general good guidelines to keep in mind when you’re trying to meal plan around a limited budget.

Step 1: Convenience to Scratch

Here’s the perfect example of a “step” that can be taken to multiple extremes, if you need to. The less extreme version would be going from pre-prepared things like frozen dinners, instant oatmeal packets, and pouches of minute rice to easy, make-it-yourself alternatives, but you could also ramp this one up to include baking all of your own bread instead of buying it pre-made, whipping up a batch of your own yogurt, or preserving your own food (either from things you grew or raised yourself or from things you bought in bulk at the store).

I make a lot of our food from scratch, but not everything, so if food prices keep on rising, the next “extreme” that I’ll go to is to stop buying pre-packaged snacks for my kids. I love buying things like string cheese, applesauce pouches, and the little cheese-and-cracker packs so the kids can serve themselves in the afternoon at snack time rather than requiring my assistance, but we definitely don’t “need” the convenience of those things. If we have to cut back further, I’ll just need to step in more with their afternoon snacks and do things like cut up whole fruit for them, buy cans of applesauce rather than the individually packaged pouches, slice up some cheese from a large block, etc.

The next more “extreme” step I’d take after that is to start making all our own baked goods from scratch. I do this quite a bit anyway, but I definitely don’t do it with everything. I’ll often make gluten-free bread for my husband (who has celiac) because it is FAR cheaper than buying a loaf from the store, but I still sometimes buy the store loaves for him, too. If it comes down to it, I can start making all of our bread, crackers, hamburger buns, etc. from scratch rather than buying them pre-made.

So look at where you’re spending on convenience (whether it’s fully prepared meals or things like pre-cut vegetables and fruits) and cut back as you need.

Step 2: Fresh to Frozen or Canned

With prices on produce skyrocketing over the past year or so, I’ve just been saying no to a lot of our favorite kinds of fruits and veggies (even sometimes when they’re in season!), just because the price is so prohibitive. However, because we still need to eat lots of produce to be healthy, I’ve been turning a lot more to frozen and canned options, which are usually just as nutritious.

We’ve also been favoring cheaper fruits and vegetables (apples, carrots, potatoes, oranges, bananas) more frequently and saving the more “special” fruits and vegetables (berries, nectarines, plums, etc.) for when they’re in season and an okay price.

Step 3: Preferred Brand to Generic

We buy the generic brand of a lot of things, but I’ll admit I’m a snob when it comes to certain foods, like cheese and chocolate. I’m sure that if you look around, you’ll find that there are certain brands you’re loyal to as well, whether it’s your preferred type of laundry detergent or a particular kind of cereal.

While there are some cases where you can definitely tell a difference between generic and a brand name, there are equally as many (if not more) where you really can’t. Try switching over just a few types of items with each trip, and you’ll see that the fifty cents here, dollar there really does add up at the register.

The more food prices rise, the more things I’m converting to generic on, and if things get bad enough, I will even forgo my Tillamook sharp cheddar (*sob*).

Step 4: Make substitutions

One of the most valuable skills I ever learned as a cook was how to make substitutions when a recipe called for something I didn’t have on hand. As a beginner cook, I used to run to the store every time that happened so that I was often going grocery shopping 2-3 times a week.

Several years ago, I set myself a challenge where I needed to make at least one tweak or substitution to a certain number of recipes every month, and the lessons were invaluable. Not only did I become a better and more intuitive cook, but we also saved a lot of money because I wasn’t going to the store for every last thing (and often throwing extra things into my cart while I was there).

Additionally, many of the substitutions you can make are actually cheaper than going with the original ingredient, such as using a can of generic diced tomatoes rather than buying fresh tomatoes out of season (if they’re in season, it’s probably about sixes) or mixing a little lemon juice in with some milk rather than buying buttermilk or subbing in beans or mushrooms for part of the ground beef in a recipe. You can also go with more “extreme” substitutions to save money, such as making up some milk powder in recipes that call for regular milk, or even substituting a can of diced chicken for fresh or rotisserie chicken (though this only saves money if you just keep it at basically one can, which also cuts down on the meat in the recipe).

Step 5: Eliminate

Perhaps the quickest way to bring down your grocery bill is to simply eliminate what is unnecessary and that you can do without.

We’ve definitely started doing this with some things. I often would buy treats or special snacks for the kids (or myself), but lately, I’ve been simply eliminating many of those things altogether. When times have been tight in the past, I even made a rule — if I wanted a treat, I had to make it myself. Not only was this generally healthier (at least a little bit), but it also meant that we 1) ate fewer treats in general because I was having to make them every time, and 2) when I did make them, it was far less expensive than if I’d bought them pre-made at the store.

Back in 2020, I did an interview with my mom on how she managed to make ends meet during tight times when she had six kids to feed. One thing she said that stuck out to me was: “Stop spending your money on things that aren’t [real] food…don’t take your grocery money and spend it on things that are not nourishing for your family.”

Related Post: How to Make an Income Stretch with Six Kids {An Interview with my Mom}

In the past year or two, we’ve definitely been much more lax about buying treats and things that aren’t “real” food. And if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know that I have an on again/off again thing with Diet Dr. Pepper. Currently, we’re definitely in an “on again” thing with it, so that elimination alone would free up a decent chunk of change per month (probably around $30).

We’re not at the point yet where we’ve had to go there, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.

Step 6: Produce it Yourself

With the prices of fruits and vegetables skyrocketing, many people are starting to go the “grow it yourself” route in order to try and save money. This can be a bit of a tricky thing because often the upfront costs of starting a garden or orchard exceed any immediate savings you’ll have, but the long-term benefits can pay off huge.

There are a couple ways you can approach this from a frugality standpoint: 1) you can look to grow the more expensive produce purchases you make (such as lettuce, strawberries, asparagus, etc.) to save money, or 2) you can focus more on growing things to “bulk up” your diet and that especially have a higher calorie count, such as potatoes, corn, and sweet potatoes, so that you then don’t have to spend as much money on food period.

Because the vast majority of our garden space is dedicated to flower farming, I personally am not going to grow things like potatoes that can be bought fairly cheaply all year round. Instead, I’m choosing to grow things that are on the pricier side (like butter lettuce and salad mixes) or that taste so much better homemade that there’s almost no point buying them from the store (like tomatoes and cucumbers). I also have a bunch of other vegetable seeds we’ll fit in there as we can since we have them anyway, but that’s my general strategy for now. Note: We also have several established fruit trees on our property and planted another one last year, so come about July or August, we should be producing a lot of our own fruit as well.

If things get worse over the course of this year and into next, then I’ll definitely start planting fewer flowers and reserving more space for food.

large box of packaged foods
A recent Sam’s Club box shipped to our door. If I need to in the future, I could do things like eliminate the cold cereal entirely and eat things like oatmeal and eggs for breakfast instead, and I could substitute cans or jars of applesauce in place of the GoGo squeeze pouches.

Watch Food Waste

Back in October, I started a Zero Food Waste Challenge to see if I could go a full week without throwing away or wasting any food. It took me 7 weeks to finally reach true zero, but just focusing on wasting less meant that we cut down a LOT on what we were throwing away. We also saved a lot of money in the process.

My biggest takeaways from the challenge were these:

  1. Do regular fridge sweeps.
    • The quickest way to waste less food and therefore need to buy less food is to keep your fridge cleaned out and to regularly do a visual sweep of everything (and I mean everything!) in it and make note of what needs to be used up ASAP.
  2. Careful meal planning drastically cuts down on waste.
    • If you do a fridge sweep first and then make a careful meal plan based on what needs to be used up first, you’ll see that your food waste starts lessening immediately. You can also take meal planning a step further and coordinate it with your grocery shopping to make sure that you know exactly what you actually need to purchase AND how you’re going to use all of it. It’s important to make a plan for the use of the entire container or vegetable or whatever, because if you don’t, you’ll often waste what’s leftover. So, if you know you need half a bunch of cilantro for a recipe, make a plan for how you’re going to use the other half BEFORE buying it at all.

As part of my Zero Food Waste Challenge, I tracked the rough cost of everything that we did end up throwing away. It was eye opening to see just how many dollar bills we were essentially throwing in the trash every time we chucked something.

If you’re looking to save money on groceries, make sure one of your key places to start is not wasting the groceries you already have.

Related Post: How I Meal Plan (+ A Month’s Worth of Meal Plans)

Favor Options That are Naturally Less Expensive

One key way we’re keeping our spending low lately is by favoring foods that are naturally inexpensive year-round, such as rice, oats, and potatoes, and cutting down on things that are naturally more expensive, such as meat and cheese.

I’m also looking for ways to go for the less expensive version of similar foods, such as buying and roasting a whole chicken rather than buying a package of chicken breasts, or buying hamburger in bulk and portioning it out myself. These methods are sometimes more time-consuming, especially because they often require prep work upfront, but the savings can be significant.

Since the point of this post is to save money, I’ve purposely held off on suggesting specific things to buy, but one purchase that’s paid for itself many times over is our Food Saver, which vacuum seals food to prevent freezer burn and keep it pristine while frozen and also re-closes bags that have been previously opened to maintain freshness. We used to have quite a bit of waste in the meat department especially because I either 1) forgot I had meat in the fridge and it eventually spoiled, or 2) I would freeze it in ziploc bags, but it would get such bad freezer burn or freezer damage that I would then throw it away because it was no longer good. Since we got our Food Saver, we almost never waste meat anymore, and when I pull out the vacuum sealed bags from the freezer, they look as fresh as the day we bought them.

One way to easily incorporate low-cost options regularly into your rotation is to dub a different night of the week as “rice” or “potato” or “soup” night. That way, when you go to make your menu plan, you’re already starting from a cheap base, whether that’s potatoes (mashed, baked, cubed, whatever) or soup (which will naturally use less of the more expensive foods). Our family almost never does a night where we each just get a meat on its own (such as a chicken breast or piece of steak or pork chop) and side dishes because that’s one of the most expensive routes you can go. Instead, we start with a cheap base (like rice, pasta, or mashed potatoes) and mix them up with different sauces, gravies, etc.

Go For Easy Wins + Discounts

Since we live kind of out in the country, we only have easy access to one major grocery store, and that’s the Walmart in the next town over. Our local store down the street is more expensive and much more limited in selection. Because of that, I don’t have the luxury of things like digital coupons (which I used to use all the time when I shopped at Smith’s, which is the Kroger store in Utah) or comparing loss leaders (those items listed on the front page of weekly ads) from store to store.

One easy way I still take advantage of some discounts is by shopping online and having things delivered to our house. Because I am a Sam’s Club Plus member, I can get everything shipped to me for free from them, and I also will make purchases online from Target and Walmart when they have something I need that my local store doesn’t stock, such as gluten free pasta. I just make sure I hit the $35 minimum for free shipping and stock up every few months on the item I need.

Since I grocery shop online at least once a month, I make sure to always use my Rakuten desktop app to get cash back from those stores. Sure, it’s only a few bucks, but it all adds up in the end, and it only takes literally about a second to hit the “activate cash back” icon that pops down when you add the Rakuten web browser tool. I also always use Ibotta after every Walmart or other store trip, just to save as much cash as possible. Seriously, if you aren’t using a cash back app or something similar already, you’re just leaving easy money on the table. (If you’re interested, you can also earn additional cash back from both Rakuten and Ibotta if you go through my referral links, which are linked here. No, these aren’t scams, and yes, I regularly get money back from both and use them weekly.)

Some Final Thoughts

I watched a YouTube video the other week that took an interesting perspective that I’ve been thinking about ever since. In her intro, the vlogger talks about how for a very, very long time, the majority of us have had it relatively easy — we’ve enjoyed cheap clothing, minimal inflation on groceries from year to year, and if a price wasn’t to our liking, we could usually go elsewhere to find a better one. Most of us have gotten used to things such as eating out at restaurants, ordering takeout, subscribing to streaming services such as Netflix or Disney Plus, and going on regular outings, to the point that they’re just “normal life” now. She compared this to her own childhood growing up in the 70’s, when no one seemed to have any extra money ever and when things like eating out and entertainment were true luxuries that happened rarely.

I could definitely relate to what she was saying.

Growing up, we were definitely not poor and always had everything we needed, but going out to restaurants? Going to the movies or to the zoo? Those were once-in-a-blue-moon occurrences, and I can actually clearly recall several of those memories, just because it WAS such a treat, rather than just another fun but regular day out.

The point is, rather than moan about how life is different now and how we’re perhaps needing to practice quite a bit more self-restraint than usual, we can pause to recognize that we are still fortunate enough to have food available to us and the money to pay for it, that we have homes to live in and to keep us warm, and that we now have the opportunity to remind ourselves that life’s most rewarding and enriching moments actually don’t have to require money at all.

I hope you’re doing okay, and if you have any strategies for keeping your own grocery and other costs low during these tighter times, please drop a comment below and share with all of us so everyone can benefit!