Looking for how to save money on food (so that you can spend more of your paychecks elsewhere?), and how to spend less money on food you love? I'm going to show you how to save money on breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, AND eating out!
Food is one of a family's biggest expenses each month.
I've seen families of 4 who spend more than $1,000 on food, and I've met families of 2 who spend more than $1,000 on food.
So, how much you spend on food is really up to your own tastes.
Still, we could all find ways to decrease our costs, no matter where our food bill is starting out at.
To make this helpful to as many people as possible, I listed out each category of food spending on a continuum from most expensive to least expensive because we are all in different places for food expenditures — and offer money saving tips along the way.
I will do this for the following meals: breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner. In order for you to save money on your food bill, you can read money saving tips in the category that you are in, or take a step down from where you are.
How to Save Money on Food and Eat Healthy
When I went to Walmart the other day to research for their new price matching program, I noticed something that I just couldn’t ignore. Among probably 50 or so different varieties of cheese in the dairy section there was one that was called “Cheddar Melt” that was cheaper than all of the rest.
Cheaper is always great, so long as you getting a quality product you can make use of.
However, as a person who works in regulations, I know that everything that the government regulates has a definition.
That means that someone cannot dye a piece of tofu yellow and call it Cheddar; cheddar has federally-enforceable attributes that any product who labels itself as such has to meet.
Now you can see my concern.
Why would this product have to call itself “Cheddar Melt” instead of just plain old “Cheddar”?
Consumers have seen these types of products over the years, the type that are close to the real thing with catchy names concocted to mislead. Some of these products have done so well in fact, that their shelf space is unquestioned…even if they are really not food in the truest sense of the word.
If you look at the ingredient label of Cool Whip you will see milk, but mostly you will see all kinds of crazy ingredients whipped together. “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” is another one of these successful products after its campaign in the 90s with Fabio.
What appears to be different is the sheer volume of imitation food that passes muster because it’s cheap in a rough economic time. I know I was shocked with what I found.
Here are two more examples to stay away from:
- Peanut Butter Vs. Peanut Spread: Peanut Spread is federally defined as a product where more than 10% of the ingredients are not peanuts. I bought one of these Peanut Spreads (Peter Pan) for just $2.19 (a normal jar of peanut butter of equal size was $2.34, Skippy). In smaller font under the label “Peanut Spread” it states that it is “60% peanuts”. Some of the “other” ingredients include corn syrup solids and hydrogenated vegetable oils. It should be noted that there is an asterisk after the corn syrup solids and soy protein concentrate ingredients; the footnote says “Ingredients not in regular peanut butter.”
- Cheese Vs. Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product: My husband, Paul, is a cheese monster. The man can take out a 1 lb. brick in three days’ time; thank goodness his cholesterol is still normal. About a year after moving in together I started to moan and groan about the $10 we were spending on cheeses every week. He agreed that it was a lot of money to spend on cheese, so the next time he went to the grocery store he brought back some weird forms of cheese-wannabes as a solution. These cheeses were detestable! From then on out we made a rule that no matter the extra expense, we only wanted real cheese in our home or no cheese at all. Perhaps you have grown up on American cheese sold in those individually packaged pieces and you see nothing wrong with it. Well, it appears that manufacturers have taken this a step further. For $0.99, I was able to snag 12 slices of something called Sandwich-Mate Singles…aka “imitation pasteurized process cheese food”. The first few ingredients include “water, interesterified soybean oil, food starch-modifed, whey, [and] gelatin.” American Choice sells 16 individually packed “Imitation American Pasteurized Process Cheese Food” for $0.99 as well. Their ingredient list is just as disgusting.
Let me show you how to save money on groceries while still eating very healthy, and how to stop falling for supermarket sales tricks. In the meantime, let's move on to discussing how to save money on the various meals and snacks throughout the day.
Save Money On Breakfasts
I love cereal. When I was a child my mother instituted a rule that once a year we were allowed to pick out a “sugar cereal” for our birthdays. My cereal of choice on that precious day was Fruit Loops (my brother and sister always chose Lucky Charms, but I hated the way the marshmallows felt grinding against my teeth). During my teenage years she loosened up a bit and allowed us to choose whatever we wanted, which led me to my love affair of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. That lasted 3-4 years solid, at which point I went back into a Fruit Loop craze. I think I lost my sugar-cereal tooth sometime during college (my sugar tooth in general is definitely still around!). When I was in Florida, my more adult palette was introduced to Honey Bunches of Oats. Mmmmm.
Even today the floor of my kitchen pantry is full of cereal that I scored at $2.00 per box or less. The only difference is that I now eat much healthier versions: for the last year and probably for at least another I am into Honey Nut Cheerios and Kellogg’s Special K with strawberries. Not only do I like cereal for breakfast, but occasionally I eat it for snacks. Once a month or so, I even eat it for dinner. On the weekends I enjoy more breakfast variety such as Paul’s bacon and French toast, a trip to our local Starbucks for an iced soy chai with a cheese Danish, or a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese. Periodically (every 3-4 months) we eat out at a Denny’s or an IHOP.
No matter where or what you eat for breakfast, there are ways you can save money. As always, I’d love for you to share your own breakfast money saving tips in the comments below!
$$$$$ Sit Down Restaurant: There’s nothing like a Denny’s or an IHOP on a lazy Sunday morning. If you have children, you can eat breakfast out at locations that allow kids to eat for free (usually on certain days of the week). Also, check out your junk mail as there are normally coupons for savings at breakfast restaurants like these. Know someone who has purchased the Entertainment Coupon book but does not like to eat out for breakfast? Ask them for their coupons, or offer to swap some of your coupons for theirs.
$$$$ Starbucks and Specialty Coffee Shops: The first thing you want to do is to join a loyalty program at the coffee shop you frequent because you may be able to earn free drinks. Next, you can always order a larger size then save half of it in the fridge for the next day. This will cut your drinking habit down as well as cost you almost half as much for the same great drink you enjoy (I do this with Frappuccinos, and find that I need to let it sit out for awhile to try and recoup the texture). For Starbucks, pre-load a gift card and register it on Starbucks.com (any gift card can be registered and can be loaded onto again and again). This can be your budgeted amount for the month, as well as save you money because if you use the gift card you earn points towards free drinks and you get discounts on added-value items (for example, I receive a $0.60 discount for the soy milk cost each time I purchase an iced soy chai). You can also learn to treat Starbucks and/or your specialty coffee shop as a treat instead of a routine. Challenge yourself to only go to Starbucks when you have cashed in some of your rewards points for a free gift card there from surveys, credit cards, Swagbucks, health insurance company rewards points (like Blue Points), etc.
$$ Frozen Pre-Made Foods: The grocery store frozen aisle is filled with pre-made frozen breakfast items. Fortunately, these items have a healthy amount of coupons in the Sunday circulars. To ensure that you always purchase them at rock bottom prices, you can stock up on sales (because they are meant to be frozen!), and for even more savings, pair the sale together with coupons. Also, there are almost always coupons for new products on the market, so if you are open to trying something new, you will save money.
$$ Keep Supplies at Your Desk: Oatmeal packets, granola bars, cereal and a bowl with a spoon, bag of bagels and a knife (cream cheese in the fridge), a pound of your favorite coffee, a box of tea—these are all items that cost very little per breakfast (and typically have at least a week’s worth of servings).
$ Make Your Own Frozen Foods and Lattes: There are tons of recipes out there that you can make and freeze for a hot breakfast without the added cost and oftentimes questionable ingredients of the pre-made frozen aisle at the grocery store. Try some of these out: Homemade Hot Pockets, Freezer Breakfast Tacos, Homemade Freezer French Toast Sticks, Breakfast Sandwiches, and Cinnamon Rolls. Many women around the web talk about how they have a once-a-month cooking day where they cook and assemble a month’s worth of breakfast foods for their families, and then freeze for convenient, homemade meals for 30 days! You can also duplicate your favorite coffee and tea drinks at a huge savings from going to Starbucks each day. Check out websites like starbucks-secret recipes, or google your favorite drink and “clone recipe”. This could save you a lot of money depending on the frequency of your trips to Starbucks.
Save Money on Lunches
I have a confession to make: I ate out lunch for every work day over the last two weeks. I could say that it was some great pre-meditated money experiment that I had budgeted for in order to show others how much it truly costs to eat out for lunches instead of packing a lunch from home…but then I’d be lying. It came about mainly due to exhaustion, the time change that stole an hour from my schedule, and laziness.
On the bright side, I was able to put myself into the shoes of people who eat lunches out at work in order to offer some helpful insights into their world (as it is something I rarely do). The cost for such perception? $44.68, or almost 37% of the total cost for us to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two people for two weeks (we typically spend $120 every other week on groceries and always pack our breakfasts, lunches, and eat dinners at home). And that was just for one person to eat one meal per weekday!
Despite the high cost of eating out for lunch, I found that some people do it because they need to space themselves from their work, office, or the people around them. In this case, you can pack a lunch but find a nearby park or a bench outside where you can sit and relax away from your computer screen. At my office there is a television tuned into CNN in the cafeteria downstairs; if I need to get away I just take my packed lunch and catch up on the news of the week.
$$$$$ Eat at a Restaurant: This is by far the most expensive way to have lunch. It can be a nice break in the day to eat at a restaurant, especially if you can extend your lunch break. Try to eat at restaurants with lunch specials, or just eat out when you have clients and it can be written off as a business expense (or otherwise legitimately paid for by your employer). Also, try to make eating lunch at a restaurant a treat instead of a routine; for example, if you currently eat out 3-4 days per week, cut it down to just Fridays as a mini-celebration of the weekend to come.
$$$$ Eat at a Sandwich Shop: A chain sandwich shop that I eat at occasionally is Subway. I use a Buy One Get One Free coupon and then save the extra sandwich for the next day’s lunch.
$$$ Eat at the Grocery Store: Whole Foods and Central Market are not the only grocery stores where you can eat your lunch. In fact, you can find lunch-worthy food from any grocery store. Pick up a single yogurt, check out the produce section and have your pick of any fruit or vegetable you want, pick up one of the small premade party trays…the options are endless. Also, you can find some great manager’s specials in the middle of the week to take advantage of because they need to be eaten within a day or two. While on my “eating out lunch” binge the last two weeks I scored a fruit and cheese tray for $2.49! I also found something I did not know existed: big frozen burritos for around $1 each. In a pinch you could certainly grab one of those and microwave it in the break room.
$$$ Pack Your Lunch with Premade Foods: You can always find coupons for premade foods and frozen entrees at the grocery store. While this is certainly not the healthiest option, there are some healthier premade foods creeping up in the frozen food and other aisles of every grocery store (if this is something that concerns you I definitely suggest looking at the labels of all foods that you purchase, even foods labeled as healthy/natural/etc.). Also you could purchase premade guacamole, hummus, or other dip-type foods and then re-portion them in reusable plastic containers. If you don’t currently have reusable plastic containers and you usually buy lunchmeat, buy the kind that comes in Gladware for the next few weeks and save the containers for future use.
$$ Pack Your Lunch with Homemade Foods: This is the option that I use most often. The $5 Dinner Mom has a great book out on breakfast and lunches for $5 or less (the servings are typically for four people at that cost). Tired of tuna fish sandwiches? Try her cranberry chicken salad sandwiches. You could also bring in a baked potato to make in the microwave (or a sweet potato for a healthier option) and bring in some toppings. Check Just Bento for some bento box ideas.
$ Pack Your Lunch with Leftovers: It is time-saving and cheap to snag an extra piece of lasagna, chicken, soup, or anything else you’ve had for dinner and just pack it for lunch the next day. It makes your morning run more smoothly (at least in my experience) because you don’t need to pack a lunch, and some dishes just taste great the second day. It is also less wasteful, unless you are all ready in a normal routine of eating your leftovers before they go bad.
Save Money on Dinner
We are all at various stages with our food expenditures. Perhaps you have mastered the art of grocery shopping but are still managing to bust your budget on restaurants. Or maybe you brown bag all of your lunches but can’t seem to get your monthly grocery bill under $400. Do you eat out for every meal, wondering how it is that anyone has time to plan what they are going to eat a week in advance let alone to boil some noodles?
Below is a list of money saving tips for you no matter what stage you are in. Once again, I will begin with the most expensive, and end with the least expensive. If you are looking to save some money, then read tips for the category that you are in. If you are looking to save a hefty amount of money, then take a step down the continuum.
$$$$$ Eat out at Restaurants: This is definitely the most expensive option. Once again, if you have children, eat at restaurants that offer discounts or at least have children’s menus. There are many restaurants where kids can eat free. If you are an adult and restaurant portions are just ridiculous for you (like they are for me), you may be able to split a meal with someone else, or even order off of the kid’s menu (if they have options other than just macaroni and cheese and hot dogs). You can also purchase “gift certificates” at a severe discount through Restaurant.com, though there are restrictions. I find these to be very cost effective, and the offering of restaurants is excellent!
$$$$$ Takeout: Growing up, we used to do takeout once a week on Friday nights and it was always something I looked forward to. Still, for a family of five, we were paying upwards of $30-$40 for pizza, burgers, and the like. When ordering takeout, pick up the item yourself to save on tip and possibly a convenience charge (though of course that takes some of the convenience out of the equation).
$$$$ Ready-to-Cook Meal Service: These are popping up across the US over the last several years. They are a good option to save money if you are used to eating takeout or frequenting restaurants. Basically you go to a location that has prepared foods in a buffet-style way, and you get a list of meals for the week, as well as the ingredients that you need to assemble into containers. When you leave, you take home several days or a week’s worth of meals for X number of people with cooking instructions.
$$ Make Restaurant Recipes at Home: Many of the dishes you have come to love in well known restaurants have been figured out by websites such as TopSecretRecipes.com. Google your favorite dish and see if someone has figured out how to cook it at home—you will be surprised, and at a great savings to you.
$ Cook at Home: By choosing this option you not only save money on food costs, but you also save money on taxes and tips you would have to pay if you ate out. There are so many ways to get creative here as well. To start with, for dishes like spaghetti pie, lasagna, casseroles, and soups that freeze well, when you cook them make an extra batch and put it in your freezer. It will be such a wonderful treat to come home a month or so from now knowing that you can just pop it into the oven! It can also keep you from wanting to splurge on takeout due to time and energy constraints.
Lots of Moms around the internet are doing Once a Month Cooking Days where they make an incredible amount of food in a marathon cooking day and freeze it to enjoy the rest of the month. If you are low on time, try out crockpot cooking as well. I just cracked open our crockpot wedding gift and am psyched about putting it to good use (Thanks Uncle Glenn and Aunt Tracey!). Also, you can make your own frozen tv dinners that are much healthier and tastier than ones bought at the store.
Save Money on Snacks
If I could snack all day and not eat meals, I would. In fact, I eat light meals and then snack in between—it’s just how my body works and what makes me feel most satisfied. I always carry snacks around in my purse, and have purchased a few Tupperware containers so that I can snag some of our food out of the cupboards and put it into snack-sized portions. As an avid snacker, I’d like to offer some tips on how to save money on snack foods (for the morning time, after lunch snack, after work/after school snack, and after dinner snack; these are all on my menu).
$$$$$ Vending Machines: This is by far the most expensive way to snack (and most unhealthy). All of the items in our vending machine at work (even the smaller items) are $1.00 each now. Here’s a great idea someone at my office came up with: make your own vending machine. Most people wouldn’t want to keep a lot of snacks at their desk because they might be afraid to eat them (I hear this all the time). So, they came up with the idea to buy large quantities of snacks at bulk prices from grocery stores or warehouse-type stores and then have one person in charge of them. If you want a snack, you simply pay the cost at the time to the person in charge and pick it up from their cubicle. The variety is still there, the system works well, and you save probably 50% or more.
$$$$ Prepackaged Snacks: You can always buy single serving snacks from the grocery store and dole them out each day, but this can get costly as well. Try to buy in bulk when these items are on sale.
$$ Homemade Prepackaged Snacks: Here’s where you start to see some great savings. If chips are something you like to snack on, purchase a large bag and then baggie them yourself for individual, prepackaged snacks. You can also reuse the plastic bag in this case for the rest of the week, saving you money there. You can chop up blocks of cheese instead if purchasing string or pre-chopped cheese, purchase large containers of yogurt and re-portion them into reusable plastic containers, large bottles of applesauce, or anything other “prepackaged” snack food that you enjoy.
$$ Leftovers: If I have eaten out, I always have leftovers because portion sizes at restaurants have gotten ridiculous! I save the leftovers either for the next meal, or as an afternoon snack. Also, if there are leftovers from a meal we made at home that are not really large enough for another meal, I take them in as an afternoon snack.
$ Homemade Snacks: You can make your own granola bars, yogurt, pudding, applesauce, smoothies, chocolate covered pretzels, etc. Settle on a few favorite recipes and then make sure to purchase the ingredients in bulk when they go on sale to keep costs even lower.
$ Raw Foods: Generally raw ingredients such as fruits and vegetables will cost the least. Spend a little time in the beginning of the work or school week to chop up apples, carrots, celery, or really anything that is in season. You can portion these into plastic bags or reusable plastic containers for even more savings.
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