Want to stretch your food budget to the max but find most tips completely unrealistic for your lifestyle? Learn how to save money on groceries, even if you’re a picky eater who really can’t cook well!
I’ve read every “how to save money on grocery shopping” posts out there lately because I’m really trying to get the most out of a small budget. I’ve noticed that just about all of them have one thing in common: they assume that you have cooking skills to rival a Chopped Champion. They talk about cooking everything from scratch, and by scratch they don’t mean “open a jar, mix with pasta, serve” scratch. They mean “make your own sauce and pasta from things like flour and stewed tomatoes” scratch.
Most of these guides also assume that you don’t gag when you even smell green beans, or get totally freaked out by the texture of rice, or think that lettuce tastes like leaves, or….I could go on and on. Long story short, both my son and I are extremely picky eaters.
Bottom line: those guides are outstanding for people who can actually cook and will eat just about anything. What about the rest of us, though? How can we save money on food without holding our noses while eating?
That’s been my major goal for the last month, and I think I’ve finally got it down. Whether you’re a picky eater with mediocre cooking skills or a 5-star chef, these realistic money-saving tips will help you, too!
How to Save Money on Groceries the Realistic Way
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1. Make a list of the recipes you know you can pull off
Right now (or when you’re done reading this), sit down and make a list of everything that you absolutely know you can make and that you’ll actually eat. I mean everything, even if it’s just sandwiches and scrambled eggs.
I use my Rocketbook to keep a running list. It’s like a regular notebook, except you can easily erase the pages with a warm cloth. I have it divided into sections: dinner, desserts & snacks, and recipes I want to try.
While you’re at it, make a list of frozen and other “convenience” foods that your family likes. I love BBQ Chicken Lean Pockets (I lived on them for months during the summer), for example, while my mom adores Ling Ling Yakitori Chicken Fried Rice.
2. Compare the cost of cooking to convenience
Here’s why I asked you to add those convenience foods to your list: sometimes they’re actually cheaper than cooking from scratch.
Let’s use homemade pizza from scratch versus “take and bake” for an example. Even if you’re just using a store-bought dough, jar sauce, and cheese, it’s going to cost you around $7-8 per pie. On the other hand, both Aldi’s and Walmart sell a delicious “take and bake” plain cheese pizza for around $5-6.
So don’t feel like you’re wasting money if you don’t cook absolutely everything from scratch. Sure, in some cases, it’s healthier to make your own, but eating a box of mac and cheese every ten days isn’t likely to send you to an early grave (unless your allergic!).
3. Plan meals around a set of “base” ingredients
I plan about ten days at time, and I try to group things together around a base set of ingredients while keeping it diverse enough that we don’t feel like we’re eating the same thing every night.
There’s two reasons for this. The first, obviously, is to save money. The second, though, has to do with our picky eating habits.
Both Jake and I like chicken. Jake doesn’t like potatoes. On chicken and potatoes night, I’m cooking one main thing that we’ll both eat, then I’ll give him some carrots or some other inexpensive side to replace the potatoes.
Here’s an example of a ten-day plan:
- Baked meatless ziti
- Chicken and baked potatoes
- Calzones (plain cheese for us, you can add in meats and veggies if you like)
- Potato soup
- Chicken Enchiladas (which is basically just chicken, cheese, enchilada sauce, and tortilla wraps)
- Mac & Cheese Night
- Cowboy Chicken Casserole
- Ravioli with Garlic Bread
- Chicken Meatball Subs or Chicken Burgers
- Leftovers night (this gets shuffled around depending on how many leftovers are building up in the fridge)
As you can see, these 10 recipes use a few “base” ingredients, including: chicken, mozzarella cheese, cheddar cheese, potatoes, and marinara sauce. I can save money by buying huge bags of the mozzarella and cheddar, two bags of potatoes (usually one red and one white) and a big “family pack” of chicken. Then I just buy smaller amounts of the add-ons.
4. Make a complete shopping list and check it twice
Up until last month, I was the queen of impulse shopping. I’d go to the store with no real plan and just walk up and down the aisles, putting together ideas in my head as I went. Inevitably, I’d end up forgetting at least half of the ingredients for my “on-the-fly” meal plan and need to go back to the store a day later. While there, I’d end up buying a bunch of stuff that I don’t really need because, hey, it’s on sale!
- Now, I write down every last thing that I need for all of the recipes on one large piece of paper.
- Then I check my fridge and pantry, and cross off what I have.
- Then I organize it.
If I have three chicken recipes that need a pound each, I write down “3 lbs of chicken” versus just “chicken.” I double check to make sure I didn’t forget anything, then I add in a few inexpensive snacks. I give myself wiggle room for about three impulse buys, and I stick to that list.
I’ve saved SO much money this way! Plus, I’m saving gas money because I don’t have to run down to the store 5 times a week!
5. Don’t fall into the “more is better than less” trap
Leftovers are great and all, especially if you can get two full meals out of one. On the other hand, it’s a total waste of cash to double a recipe only to end up throwing away half of it!
My rule: I make what we need for recipes that I’m not sure about, or that don’t reheat well (pizza and calzones are just gross reheated, and I won’t eat either cold, blech!). For those recipes that I know we’ll all eat reheated, I’ll make a bit more. Jake will eat leftover ziti, so I always make a big tray of that even though we’re just a family of three.
6. Do the bulk of your shopping at Aldi’s or Walmart
I used to do 90% of my shopping at Weis because it’s right down the street from my house. While they have some great sales on a few items, their regular prices are a bit too high for me.
With money being SO tight lately, I decided to give Aldi’s a try again. It’s been a while since I shopped there, mostly because the location isn’t very convenient. After seeing how much I saved, though, the hassle is worth it!
Walmart is also a huge money-saver, especially if you stick to the Great Value brands. I compared prices to Aldi’s, and for the most part, Walmart’s prices are only a couple of pennies higher in most cases, and lower in a few. Now, I’m buying 99% of my groceries at one of these two stores, and using the other stores for quickie things like milk and bread.
Sometimes, I’ll check out the other stores’ sales and occasionally find a decent “lowest price in the area” buy. Unfortunately, nearly every sale at Weis has a “must buy more than one” caveat. In too many cases, that “must buy” is a ridiculous number. I shouldn’t have to buy 5 cases of seltzer water just to get it on sale! I get so irritated that I just say, “forget it” and buy it elsewhere. Sorry, I’m getting off track. Long story short, shop Aldi’s or Walmart if you want to save money.
7. Don’t be a brand name snob
If you want to save money on groceries, you’re going to have to give up the notion that big brands are always better than store brands. Most of the time, the store brand tastes EXACTLY like the name brand because it IS the name brand, just in a different package.
Don’t believe me? Do a blind taste test one day! Sometimes, I think the Great Value stuff at Walmart tastes better than name brands. I LOVE their BBQ chips ($0.94 a bag) just as much as the brand-name BBQ Chips ($4.29 a bag at Weis, $2.98 at Walmart). And their Fudge Mint cookies? There is no way you can tell me they don’t taste exactly like Thin Mint cookies!
Of course, there are exceptions. My mom won’t eat any mayo aside from Hellman’s Real Mayo. I won’t eat knock off Pop-Tarts because no one can get them right. Jacob will only eat Cup O’ Noodles brand ramen noodle cups. We all have out little things, and that’s okay. If you really follow the other tips and stick to a good plan, you’ll more than offset the cost of a few name brand things. Just give the store brands a chance before you dismiss them. You might be surprised!
What about coupons?!?!
You’ll notice that I didn’t add anything about using coupons to this list. There’s a reason for that! You’ll save A LOT more money by shopping at Aldi’s or buying store brands than by using coupons. Most coupons today only offer a few cents savings on a product that’s already twice as much as the store brand.
Case in point, I have a coupon for $2 off TWO 8-packs or larger of a certain brand of paper towels and toilet paper. Sounds great in theory, but each 8 pack costs about $9 at my local Weis. So that’s $2 off $18. Not even a 10% savings, and brings it down to 16 rolls (and a total of 1,632 paper towels) for $16.
- On the other hand, BJ’s has a 12-pack of rolls (total of 1,920 sheets) for $14.99.
- Walmart has 12 rolls (total of 2,016 sheets) for $14.97.
Plus, both the Great Value and the BJ’s paper towels work better than the brand name in question, so I use less each time AND get more for less. Okay, so that wasn’t really a food example, but it illustrates my point. Often, you’ll save more money by skipping the coupons.
If you really want to use coupons, just load them digitally to your store card. You can do it through most store apps, and they’re the same coupons that you’ll find in the Sunday paper. That way, you’ll have them ready for a really great brand name sale item.
So far, I’ve saved at least $100 a month with this plan, and I’m hoping to reach $200 in savings next month! Your savings mileage may vary, of course, depending on the size of your family, how much you’re already spending, and so on.
Do you have any other realistic tips on how to save money on groceries? I’d love to hear them!