Unlike Old Mother Hubbard, most families are more concerned about an empty wallet than a bare cupboard. When money is tight, we quickly look for ways to cut back on spending. It’s easy to forfeit a night at the movies or a new handbag, but spending less on food isn’t so simple.
“Groceries are not the most fun thing to give up,” says Tracey Drabyk-Zirk, a rural leadership specialist working with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives.
“But lots of times we don’t suffer from the change. It’s just adopting a new mind-set.”
Here are five ways to create that mind-set and stretch your grocery dollars.
1. Set a budget
“Evaluating your spending habits will show you where your money is going,” says Drabyk-Zirk. Track your spending by saving grocery receipts. Separate grocery and non-grocery items, such as magazines and toilet paper, which are available at the grocery store but shouldn’t be included in your food budget. Then decide how much cash, not credit, you’re willing to devote to groceries.
TIP: While you have all those receipts at hand, notice when the prices on items you buy every week are at a high or low point. When the price hits its low, buy a few so that you can skip the item when it slides into the high range.
2. Involve the family
If you clean out the crisper once a week to throw away rotten fruit and veggies, you may as well be tossing loonies and toonies instead. “It doesn’t matter how good a food is for you, if you don’t like it, you’re not going to eat it,” says Edna Schutz, a facilitator with Home Economics for Living Project in Regina. Take note of preferences and eating habits. Ask the family to brainstorm ways to balance the grocery budget, so that everyone takes ownership of the spending plan.
TIP: When it comes to stepping foot in the store, solo works best. “Go alone or at least without family members who are going to bug you to buy more,” adds Betty Burwell, a home economist and money-management counsellor in Saskatoon.
Page 1 of 43. Plan a menu
Elizabeth Frank, a professional dietitian in Lunenberg, N.S., raised four children – her youngest is now 35 – while working full time. “I planned exactly what I was going to have for every meal – breakfast, lunch, supper, snacks, everything,” says Frank, who owns South Shore Healthy Diet and Nutrition Services. “That way I didn’t walk in the door and wonder what I was going to cook tonight.”
Menu planning allows you to use everything you purchase by building leftovers into the plan. If you’ll be roasting a chicken on Sunday, says Diane Collis, coordinator for the Vancouver Community Kitchen Project, then plan on a chicken casserole for dinner on Wednesday and chicken sandwiches during the week. “If you don’t meal-plan, it’s harder to keep your costs down,” she says.
Frank recommends planning a weekly menu based on Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating, which provides the recommended daily servings from each food group as well as portion sizes. “Portion control is half your money management,” says Schutz. “If you understand what you need, then you buy and serve according to that. It’s not how much fits in your stomach; it’s how much your body needs.”
TIP: In the beginning, Schutz says it will take about an hour to plan a menu for the week with the help of store flyers (most major grocery outlets post their weekly flyers online), Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating, a peek in the cupboard or freezer to see what’s already at home and locating the appropriate recipes. Once you have the menu, make your list of groceries for the week and don’t leave home without it.
4. Make it yourself
“If you’re buying anything that’s prepared, then you’re paying for the labour,” says Schutz. To save grocery dollars while increasing nutritional value, consider cooking from scratch and preparing as many ingredients, such as roasted red peppers, yourself as you can.
Cooking from scratch sounds pretty unrealistic, especially with the lack of time facing most families, but it is possible, and the money you’ll save may just convince you. A bowl of cut-up pineapple, for example, costs about $13 per kilogram. If you prepared a pineapple yourself – and it’s not that hard – the cost per kilogram would be about $3.50. Ah, the sweet taste of saving money.
Preparing ingredients is as simple as making your own broth for soups or cutting up your own veggies for a stir-fry. You can always buy a package of precut butternut squash, for example, which is about $7.48 per kilogram, but buying a whole squash and cutting it up yourself will cost about $2.18 for the same amount.
Instead of buying a can of chickpeas ($1 for 540 millilitres), for example, buy a bag of dried chickpeas (about $2 for 900 grams) and rehydrate them yourself; the bag can produce three times the quantity of the canned chickpeas for just twice the price. An added bonus to creating your own ingredients is being able to use what’s appropriate for your family’s dietary needs, such as less fat, sugar or salt.
TIP: Learning simple kitchen tasks, such as how to cut up a chicken instead of buying boneless skinless chicken breasts, will save you money.
Page 2 of 45. Choose carefully
“I like to think of needs and wants on a continuum,” says Burwell. “A need could be eating a hamburger, and a want is eating lobster and steak. We’re all pushed toward the wants.” But sometimes we need to make a choice in order to save money and that means finding alternatives, such as using pulses (dried lentils and beans) and eggs as a source of protein instead of meat, which is more expensive.
“Eggs are wonderful,” adds Frank. “They’re cheap and nutritious and perfect for any meal.”
“When you buy locally grown food in season, you don’t pay fuel and transportation costs,” says Drabyk-Zirk. You’ll know what’s in season because it arrives at the store fresh and the sign with the price for that item will reveal its origin.
An alternative is to buy frozen vegetables, which are frozen at the peak of production.
TIP: Always compare the price of fresh, frozen, canned and dried. On a recent trip to the grocery store, fresh green beans were $4.39 per kilogram, the fresh but precut and
washed (convenience) green beans were about $8.80 per kilogram and the frozen were $3.39 per kilogram.
When the price is right
Finding a sale on food is easy if you know where to look.
• Be sure to mark any flyer specials on your grocery list to compare with in-store unadvertised specials, and always compare brand names with private store labels.
• Buying in bulk will save you money in the long run. The unit price for a small 900-gram box of rice is 51 cents. Move up to a 1.4-kilogram bag and the unit price drops to about 43 cents. The unit price of a two-kilogram bag is just 32 cents. Take home an eight-kilogram bag of rice and the unit price plummets to just eight cents. If you don’t have the storage space, share the bounty with a neighbour or friend.
• Some stores promote special shopping days, such as double-your-coupon days.
• What’s promoted in the flyers is definitely fresh, and there’s usually an extra quantity ordered for that period of time, says Tracey Drabyk-Zirk, a professional home economist.
Page 3 of 4Community kitchens
A community kitchen is a group of individuals who meet regularly to cook healthy, nutritious meals. They make meals planning easier for families across the country. The goal of most community kitchens is to save money by pooling resources, such as money, time and culinary traditions.
Who: Diane Collis, coordinator for Vancouver Community Kitchen Project, and three women she met through their children’s school. Her group is self-directed, meaning that everything is organized and financed by the four members.
When: They meet on the last Wednesday of every month for four hours.
Where: The women, who have become friends, meet at a different member’s home each time.
What: During a recent session, Collis took enough chicken and salmon patties to freeze and use for five meals as well as a tray of shepherd’s pie and five tubes of cookie dough to freeze for later use.
Why: “I’m in a community kitchen for lots of different reasons, but a spin-off is lower costs because we’re buying in bulk and using food and herbs from our gardens, and an increase in nutrition because I’m diversifying my food intake. I’m also making a social connection with people,” says Collis.
Quick tip 1: Eat before you shop
When it comes to shopping smart, hunger can affect spending. “When we’re hungry, we’re drawn to everything,” says Tracey Darbyk-Zirk, a professional economist.
Quick tip 2: Spend wisely
Betty Burwell, a home economist and money-management counselor, estimates that a reasonable amount for a family of four to spend on groceries per month is $700; for a single mother and one teenage boy, it’s about $400 per month.
Quick tip 3: Be choosy
Balance your time, money and energy. “If you want to save time, you’re going to spend more money, and if you want to save money, you’re going to need more time and energy,” says Edna Schutz, a facilitator with Home Economics for Living Project.
Quick tip 4: Treats are OK
If you really enjoy ice cream, for example, then buy it less often but still treat yourself, says Edna Schutz, a facilitator with Home Economics for Living Project. “Just recognize that foods that aren’t so good for you need to be a treat, not something for every day.”
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