Food, glorious food! By far the most hotly requested topic for me to cover (via my query to our Frugalwoods Facebook group) was: food! I had no idea you all were so interested in what we eat! But the more I got to thinking about food (not hard for me to do), I realized that food plays an interesting, and sometimes divisive, role in our broader society and in the lives of those charting a frugal existence.
Food is, after all, an absolute necessity. And for this reason, many a nascent frugal acolyte makes the mistake of blithely skipping over the line items of food–groceries, take-out, restaurants–in their budget. I know this to be true because that used to be me!
Prior to enacting our regime of extreme frugality, I figured that since food is a mandatory component of life, I didn’t have to pay much attention to our grocery bill. Oh innocent child of summer, how wrong I was! While food is clearly a necessity, expensive food is decidedly not.
Revolutionizing the way Mr. Frugalwoods and I eat took some doing–and it wasn’t an overnight change–but here’s the thing: it’s a change you only have to make once. Nowadays, we don’t labor over meal plans or truck calculators to the grocery store or grow all of our own food (yet… ). The key to eating frugally is the same as doing anything else frugally: make it an ingrained habit that’ll pay dividends for the rest of your life. Mr. FW and I don’t reinvent the food wheel every month or even every year–rather, we know what’s inexpensive, what’s healthy, what’s manageable to prepare, and what we like to eat.
A successful frugal meal plan (and a frugal life in general) is all about prioritizing what matters most to you. If you adore fancy cheeses for example, find a way to save in other areas of food procurement in order to facilitate your cheese habit. For us, healthful eating is important; hence, we spend a bit more on mostly organic produce, dairy products, and meat.
The goal of our food frugality isn’t to consume the dirt cheapest vittles on the market, rather, the goal is to strike a tenable balance between tasty, healthy meals and a reasonably low grocery bill. As a frame of reference, we typically spend around $300-$350/month on all food and beverages for the three of us (two adults and one baby).
Our diets aren’t perfect and I’m no nutritionist, but we do try to skew to the healthy side of things (with allowances for the important food groups of chocolate and cheese… ).
The Four-Point Food Formula
Before I enumerate the specifics of our meals, let’s recap the easiest ways to save money on food:
- Do not eat out. Or do so rarely, like we do.
- Do not buy your lunch out at work. I liken this to shooting oneself in the proverbial financial foot.
- Do not purchase coffee on the go. Here’s how cheap it is to brew cafe at home.
- Waste not. Food waste accounts for a gigantic portion of many a grocery bill–don’t become a victim! And, folks, there’s no excuse for not eating leftovers; don’t even try to justify wasting food. If you’re just not that into your chicken tetrazzini on the second night? Pop it in the freezer to munch at a later date.
Become A Grocery Guru
Now that we’ve established our ground rules, let’s examine our weekly grocery trip in greater detail. Believe it or not, much of your savings are determined before you ever set a toe inside the grocery store!
1) Carefully consider where you grocery shop.
Price compare between stores and evaluate bulk options in your area, such as Costco, BJ’s, or Sam’s Club. If you’re shopping at Whole Foods every week, there’s not a whole lot you can do to reduce your grocery bill to the level of frugal weirdo–best to check out a more reasonably-priced joint. And there are very few ingredients that only Whole Food carries–trust me, I’ve checked–you can find nearly identical organic/health food items just about everywhere else. For example, did you know that BJ’s has a fabulous organic produce section?
I don’t price compare every week–that would take forever. Rather, my strategy is to shop for my normal items at each local grocery store over the course of several weeks and then evaluate the prices in a spreadsheet. This is the practice I’m conducting right now in Vermont and although it takes a bit of work, it’s well worth it for the overall savings. In Cambridge, as soon as I identified Market Basket as my thriftiest local option, my price comparison work was over.
2) Create a list in advance.
Don’t be a roving, wild, list-less shopper! That’s a surefire recipe for impulse purchases. Make your list in your actual kitchen while looking at your actual supply of food–check for hidden boxes of pasta in the pantry and lingering lemons in your produce drawer (P.S. what is it about lemons? I always find them rolling around in random places… ).
Food waste often occurs because we buy more than we need for a given week. Not only is tossing food bad for your wallet, it’s horrendous for the environment. If you like to have some extra foodstuffs on hand in case of zombie apocalypse/snowstorm/unexpected visitors, go the shelf-stable route and stock up on things like dried beans, olive oil, and rice.
3) Meal plan.
Parallel to list-making is knowing what you want to cook for the week. Mr. FW and I aren’t hardcore meal planners, but we have a vague notion of what we’re going to eat every day before Babywoods and I hit up the grocery store. This is a mandatory advance practice for us because Mr. FW does all of the cooking and I do all of the grocery shopping (and yes, I have to call him from the grocery story for ingredient clarification at least once a week… ).
4) Invest in frozen pizzas.
Always, always, always have some frozen pre-made food on standby. This is your frugal defense against resorting to take-out or a restaurant meal. Life is imperfect and there will be nights where your awesome intention to whip up boeuf bourguignon is just flat out not gonna happen.
Such as the time our pipes froze at 8pm and Mr. FW had to re-plumb our kitchen, or the time our flight was delayed and we arrived home starving at 9pm, or the time we were in the hospital for a week with our newborn. But on all of those occasions? We had a frozen pizza to the rescue! Yeah sure, it’s unhealthy, but so’s most take-out. And at $3.00 per pizza, at least we’re only failing in one category (health) as opposed to two (health and money).
We also keep a reserve of homemade frozen meals in our chest freezer, which we regularly cycle through so that they don’t atrophy and become victims of freezer burn. Prior to Babywoods’ birth, Mr. FW whipped up a veritable plethora of frozen meals for us to munch as new parents, which turned out to be one of our best ideas ever. We liked this technique so much that Mr. FW continues the practice and periodically makes gigantic vats of something (usually chili, split pea soup, rice and beans with chicken, or chicken tikka masala) in order to freeze portions for future consumption. It’s a hedge against problem nights and, it’s also a relaxing option when he’s not in the mood to cook.
5) Eschew pre-made and packaged foods.
Ok excepting those emergency pizzas, for the most part Mr. FW and I don’t buy packaged or pre-made foods. It’s cheaper–and often healthier–to make everything from scratch. Buying stuff like bread, cookies, and hummus is convenient, but pricier than the DIY route!
Life Is Too Short To Stress Over Cooking
Mr. FW and I typically eat the same rotation of meals everyday for a period of time (maybe a few weeks or months) and then switch over to a new menu. We do this in part because it makes cooking and menu planning nearly effortless and in part because we both go on food jags where we crave the same meals on repeat.
But most of all, it’s just plain easiest. I hear from a lot of folks who are daunted at the prospect of formulating prodigious menu plans each week and my answer is: don’t! Create an undemanding rotation of meals that your family finds palatable and then spend your time (and money) in other ways.
I’m of the opinion that not every meal has to be a huge production. No one has ever perished because they ate sandwiches for dinner. If you love to cook elaborate meals, then go for it! But if you feel overwhelmed at the prospect of cooking every night–don’t! Cook large batches once a week or create a stash of frozen meals to defrost throughout the week. Simplify, frugalize, and enjoy life.
Our Daily Meals
Since there were a number of especial requests from readers for our summertime menu, the below is what we’ve been eating the past few months here on the homestead. Sidenote: if you’re interested in what 8-month-old Babywoods eats, here’s how I make all of her baby food from scratch.
- Rolled oats topped with walnuts, a banana, or berries from our garden
This is a prime example of an inexpensive, easily repeated meal that makes frugal menu planning less arduous. I, in fact, feel so strongly about the thriftiness of this first repast that I dedicated an entire post to it! We purchase our oats in bulk from BJ’s, which is how each serving pans out to a scant 0.10. Walnuts are an excellent complement providing bonus protein and are–yet again–a cheap bulk buy from BJ’s.
I pour organic milk (another bulk procurement from BJ’s) atop my porridge for a dash of calcium and added nutrition–a habit I started in pregnancy and continue now that I’m breastfeeding.
- Homemade bread topped with peanut butter or avocado
- A salad adorned with dried cranberries
Back when we were both working in offices, we were devotees of our uber frugal 0.39/serving rice-n-beans combo because we (and by “we” I mean Mr. FW… ) could cook a huge vat on Sundays and then portion it out for the week’s luncheons. Advance batch cooking is a fabulous way to reduce the strain on one’s weekday schedule and stave off the temptation to eat out.
Now that we both work from home, our lunches trend more towards leftovers or an amalgamation of food from the fridge. An uncomplicated summertime lunch for us is homemade whole wheat bread with flax seeds topped by either peanut butter or an avocado. Here’s the bread recipe I use in my ancient, hand-me-down bread machine (sidenote: I love King Arthur Flour recipes!).
On the side, I throw together a salad of organic greens topped with dried cranberries (purchased in bulk at BJ’s) in lieu of dressing.
A PB sandwich is also a handy take-away lunch on days where we’re out and about during lunchtime. I usually take a sack lunch with me anytime I leave the house–I get hungry early and often and it’s easier to have and not need than need and not have.
- Almonds (gotta buy nuts in bulk in order for them to be cost effective)
- Popcorn (although that’s more of a wintertime thing for us)
- Other fruits and veggies at random
I’m a snacker–always have been–so I need to have a stock of healthy snacks on hand.
Since moving to our homestead in May, we’ve dedicated ourselves to outdoor labor on our land in an effort to take advantage of our delicious–yet brief–summertime weather. Most evenings after Babywoods goes to bed, you’ll find us outside weeding the garden, harvesting whatever’s in season, splitting wood, felling trees, mowing the grass, and the list goes on.
Given that we often don’t turn in for dinner until around 7:30 or 8pm, we’ve streamlined our evening meals to the extreme. Plus, since it’s hot and we don’t have air conditioning, we like to avoid using the oven as much as possible. Creating a seasonal menu that’s reflective of your family’s schedule and predilections is ideal.
- Grilled chicken (or salmon) atop a salad:
- Our favorite summertime dinner this year is grilled chicken salad. I buy chicken breasts in bulk at BJ’s and Mr. FW marinates and grills them up once a week. Sometimes salmon subs in for the chicken. His marinade is a combo of olive oil, garlic, cayenne pepper, paprika, fresh basil, chives and thyme from our garden, salt, and pepper. The cold chicken is portioned out each night atop a bed of kale, spinach, arugula, and whatever’s growing in our garden. We finish it off with some capers (another bulk purchase from BJ’s) and a homemade dressing of freshly squeezed lemon, mustard, sliced ginger, olive oil, salt, and pepper–combine these ingredients and whisk together.
Homemade hummus and raw veggies:
- Mr. FW makes a version of hummus without tahini (because tahini is $$$$) by combining the following in our food processor: garbanzo beans, fresh garlic, Chinese chili paste, salt, and olive oil. This is a divine summer meal because you can make a huge batch and eat on it all week long. Plus, no need to turn on the oven!
- Scrambled eggs:
- A quick option that doesn’t entail too much stovetop heat. Throw in some chives for extra fanciness.
- No-cook Mediterranean plate:
- A combo of olives (bulk buy from BJ’s), sliced cheese, and whatever else we have floating around the kitchen, usually paired with a salad.
- If feeling very fancy and/or entertaining guests, we make this mega easy Focaccia bread.
- Pea pasta:
- We really need to come up with a better name for this one… It’s a summery combo of green peas, arugula, parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a tiny bit of bacon for flavoring (because bacon!). Mix in with some pasta and squeeze fresh lemon on top.
I admit to having a sweet tooth… dark chocolate, dried fruit, and anything I bake all fall into this category. I’m the family baker and my technique is to–wait for it–bake in bulk from scratch. In the same vein as all other food preparation, there are immense efficiencies to realize with bulk preparation. I only have to pull the ingredients out of the pantry once, I only create one set of dirty dishes, and I only have to run the oven once.
If I need to make, say, a pound cake for church, I’ll triple the recipe and freeze the other two cakes for future use. I then label by date and contents and pop ’em in our chest freezer (sidenote: I think we’re going to need a second freezer thanks to all of the rhubarb and raspberries from our garden in there right now… ).
Just yesterday I defrosted a pound cake I’d made in May and whipped up this black raspberry compote (with black raspberries from our garden) to take to a party. Through trial and error (and oh, it was a bad error too… ) I’ve discovered that my KitchenAid mixer (probably my favorite gift from our wedding 8 years ago) can hold a max of a tripled recipe–apropos enough, that’s also the capacity of our oven. I’ll sometime quadruple, but that’s usually just too much batter (ask me how I know… it was not pretty).
Another baking hack I employ is freezing individual servings of a given dessert. Then, Mr. FW and I can savor just one piece of, say, oatmeal applesauce bread at a time as opposed to gorging ourselves on the whole loaf.
- We’re coffee devotees and like to have one cup of regular with breakfast and a cup of decaf in the afternoon. During the winter, I drink tea during the day as well, but not so much in the warmer months.
- If you’ve ever read Frugalwoods before, you know we’re certified seltzer junkies. And proud of it. In fact, our seltzer habit is proof positive of our luxuriously frugal lifestyle. Sure, it’d be cheaper to live without it, but our goal isn’t to squeeze out every last cent of savings–our goal is to create a frugal existence that takes into account the stuff we enjoy. This approach is precisely why our frugality is tenable for the longterm. Oh and of course we hacked a supremely frugal solution to our seltzer addiction (see here and here).
- I’m a wine fan and I’ve discovered the most economical route is via boxed varietals. I know there are plenty of super cheap bottle options out there, but the problem is that I don’t drink wine fast enough and so any bottle I open invariably goes bad before we can consume it all. This is where the genius of boxed steps in: it doesn’t go bad! I like the Bota Box, House, and Black Box brands.
- Mr. FW likes a good beer and I do too from time to time. Finding that intersection of thrifty and delectable is key here because life is too short to drink foul beer. Founder’s All Day IPA and Long Trail’s Green Flash IPA are his two faves at the moment.
What Do You Eat?
Food is a very personal aspect of life and so I’m in no way prescribing that you too should eat what we eat–you might hate these foods! Rather, I’m sharing our menu in order to give you a sense of what a frugal day of eating can look like. You’ll have to innovate your own frugal recipes to incorporate the foods you prefer, but you can follow our overarching principles in order to drive down the cost of your groceries.