Eating out at restaurants is one of the most common budget busters, but learning to cook more at home can cut down on the $2,900 that a millennial spends on average on eating out each year.
But cooking more means you’ll need to buy more ingredients, which might make your grocery budget a little bloated. These tips from two cooking experts will help you spend less on groceries while cooking more at home.
1. Plan your meals
“You can’t wait until you’re starving and need food in five minutes because then you’re not going to make smart choices,” said Annette Economides, co-author of “Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family” and co-founder of the Money Smart Family blog. “Make a menu plan, but start easy and simple — plan out just your dinners at first.”
Simply having a meal plan could be an easy way to save hundreds of dollars a month. Pick out a week’s worth of meals yourself, or use a meal-planning tool offered by sites such as Cook Smarts or Pepperplate.
2. Choose budget-friendly meals
As you’re planning your menu, think through the costs of the dishes you want to make. Check your grocery store’s weekly mailer and see if you can plan a meal around what’s on sale, for instance.
Or you can opt for meals that are cheap, such as a rice-and-bean burrito bowl or a simple pasta dish. “Also, make a few vegetarian meals a week — that can save you a bunch!” said Jess Dang, founder of Cook Smarts.
3. Plan meals that share ingredients
While you look for cheaper meals, consider how you can make the most of the ingredients in each one.
“Be smart and thoughtful about your recipe planning,” Dang said. “Don’t just pick random recipes — let each recipe choice build on the next. If one recipe calls for cilantro or some cabbage, search for another recipe that will use up that cilantro or cabbage.”
4. Shop your pantry first
“So many people head to the store without checking for what they already have in their fridge, pantry, and freezer,” Dang noted. “Just taking five minutes to see if you have some items means you’re not buying duplicates.”
You can go as far as creating an inventory system for your kitchen. “I like to keep a freezer inventory,” Dang said. “Just a whiteboard on your fridge with a list of what you put in, so you can easily check for what you have.”
5. Go shopping with intent
Once you have your meals planned out, make a list of the ingredients you’ll need and make sure they fit your spending budget.
“Simply creating a list can help you save money and not overspend,” Dang said. “Without it, people find that they’ll just wander around picking up things here and there without knowing how they’ll necessarily go together.”
You also save time if you group items from a grocery store aisle together on your list. This makes your list easier to follow and cuts down the time it takes to cross-check your cart against your list.
6. Substitute ingredients if there’s a sale
“Stay flexible!” Dang said. “Remember your list is not rigid. If one of your recipes calls for ground beef but ground turkey is having a major sale, be OK with substituting.”
Economides suggested comparing different cuts of the same meat, too. If a recipe calls for chicken, “you’re not going to die if you don’t use boneless, skinless chicken breast,” she said. You often can find a better deal on a whole chicken, thighs, or wings, she said, and they’ll taste just as great.
7. Pare down food waste
Americans waste as much as 40% of the food they produce and buy, according to an August 2017 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit organization. If you cut down on your own food waste, your grocery budget could stretch further.
If you do throw food away, take note of any ingredients that consistently spoil before being eaten and consider buying less of those items next time. And when deciding what to make, consider which ingredients need to be used up.
“Things that spoil sooner should be used first in the week,” Dang said. “So cook up that chard right away, [but] the butternut squash can wait till the end of the week.”
8. Invest where it counts
“If you’re just starting your own pantry, it might feel like you’re spending a lot of money at first,” Dang said. “But over time, if you stick to cooking and finding ways to continue using those pantry staples, you’ll see your grocery [costs] drop significantly.”
“Get the right kitchen tools — it will help you and make your life easier,” Economides said. If simplifying the process means you’ll stick with the cooking habit, go ahead and invest in quality kitchen utensils.
9. Balance cost and convenience
As you plan your meals, weigh costs against convenience. An added expense might be worth it if it lowers stress and makes it easier to cook at home.
Using a grocery delivery service, for instance, can make shopping easy and painless. You also can look for dishes that need less prep time.
“If you look at the produce section, the bagged salad has become so large, and there are always markdowns,” Economides said. “And that’s literally just opening a bag, mixing the salad, and eating it” — making for a healthy side dish that’s easy and affordable.
10. Learn to cook the food you love
Maybe you’ve tried cooking at home but can’t shake your hankering for pad thai or street tacos. Before you revert to your takeout ways, try to make the dish yourself.
“If you have a meal you love, look it up on Pinterest,” Economides said. “You can find a bunch of recipes to recreate these restaurant meals.”
Finding the right mix of cost and convenience that also satisfies cravings can be tricky. But it can help you balance your budget and get you closer to the financial future you want.
“If you’ve got financial goals to become debt-free, to become independent, to pay cash for your next car, then you might need to make these kinds of sacrifices,” Economides said.
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