I have a love/hate relationship with the grocery store. I love that I have food available to me. I hate that the food that’s good for me costs so much money. I love feeding my family. I hate figuring out what to feed my family.
My husband and I share the food responsibilities and even with both of us shopping and cooking, there’s no time or patience for bargain hunting across multiple grocery stores. And couponing feels like a second job when I’ve already got three jobs.
So I finally researched how we can easily save money on the products we buy most: fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein, wine and coffee. Here are the best tips I've found for both when you head to the grocery store, and after you bring your groceries home.
Part 1: How to save money when you buy food
1. Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season and buy frozen out of season.
Take a picture of these charts from CUESA for easy reference.
A. Vegetables; the good news is that a lot of vegetables are harvested year round.
B. Fruits and nuts; the bad news is that not a lot of these are harvested year round. Only avocados, lemons and oranges are in season all year. Apples and almonds are only in season August to November – which is surprising to me. I didn’t know nuts had a season. (I know there’s a joke here somewhere but I don’t intend to make it.)
The Center for Urban Education and Sustainable Agriculture also has a great way to search for recipes by season and type.
2. Splurge on some organic fruits and vegetables but not all.
Some fruits and vegetables carry more pesticide residue than others. These are what the Environmental Working Group have dubbed the "dirty" and "clean" fruits and vegetables.
A. Always buy organic:
apples, grapes, nectarines, peaches, sweet bell peppers (red, orange, yellow) celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, snap peas, spinach, hot peppers, kale, collard greens
B. Don’t have to buy organic:
asparagus, avocado, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangoes, onions, papayas, pineapples, sweet corn, sweet peas (frozen), sweet potatoes
If your favorite produce isn’t in the best or worst, you can find where it ranks here. Spoiler alert, bananas and broccoli fall midrange.
3. Save on dairy.
A. Organic milk has twice the shelf life of regular milk. So, yes, it’s double the cost but it’ll last you twice as long.
B. You can freeze butter for up to six months. In fact, some folks recommend freezing butter for better taste. You can also freeze Greek yogurt but the consistency changes a bit so it might be best for smoothies.
C. I know I wrote that I don’t like couponing, but it’s okay in small doses. With dairy, check for coupons just for the brands you use most. Some of them even email you offers. Here are links to Stonyfield, Simply Organic, Horizon and Simpletruth.
4. Buy meat and coffee in bulk (and paper products).
A. Buy meat in bulk or on sale and freeze it. Costco has a good deal on a three pack of organic ground beef. You get three for the price of two elsewhere.
B. Buy coffee at Costco. I know, I said no multiple store trips, but Costco is worth a run once every six weeks for coffee alone. We can make it a month and a half on one huge bag of Starbucks whole bean French Roast for around $20. Compare that to about $55 if we were buying weekly in the grocery store.
C. Don’t buy other perishables in bulk. Costco can save you so much money and time on toilet paper and select-a-size paper towels (which sit safely in your garage for months). But there’s a good chance you and your boyfriend aren’t going to get through twelve ripe pears in three days.
Part 2: How to save money by not wasting food
The average American household wastes 20% of the food it purchases. That averages out to about $2200 a year in the trash.
So if you’re the average American household, you can save almost 200 bucks a month just by not wasting food. Here’s how:
1. Make use of the random food currently in your possession.
A. Supercook helps you find recipes based on the ingredients you have available. So if you select crackers, chicken and butter, 21 recipes pop up.
B. Search for crock-pot recipes by meal, ingredient or cuisine. Or The Frugal Girls have a great list of crock-pot meals that are five ingredients or less. If you’ve got cream cheese, salsa and frozen chicken breasts, you’ve got a meal.
2. Store fruits and vegetables correctly
You can get very specific and give each fruit and veggie the same individualized care you wish for your children (i.e. storing asparagus upright in a little water or wrapped in a moist paper towel) but if just want the basics, here you go:
A. Don’t wash any fruits or vegetables until you’re ready to eat them. (The possible exception is dirty lettuce. Rinse it. Don’t pull it apart. Wrap a paper towel around it to absorb moisture.)
B. Most produce needs to breathe. Remove twist ties or rubber bands. Store refrigerated items in open or ventilated bags.
C. Fruits and vegetables should never be stored together because certain fruits, like apples (not Fuji or granny smith) and bananas, give off ethylene gas which causes the ripening process to quicken. This explains why my potatoes kept sprouting while stored next to my apples.
D. Use that gas to your advantage and store one apple in a brown bag or bowl with avocados, pears, peaches, etc. to accelerate the ripening process.
E. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, onions, tomatoes and garlic never go in the fridge because the cold changes their taste and texture. But don’t forget about them. You do not want to leave potatoes in a cabinet in your college apartment while you go home for the holidays. Trust. Me.
F. Separate bananas to slow ripening. They can be refrigerated or frozen for smoothies if they are ripe and you know you won’t be able to eat them quickly enough. The cold does turn the peel brown but the inside is ok. You can even refrigerate half a banana as long as the peel is on it.
G. Avocado halves can last for a day in the fridge with the peel and pit. Just cut off the brown parts.
H. Remove the greens from carrots, beets and radishes before storing in the fridge. The greens suck out all the water.
3. Store food in the freezer.
Lots of foods freeze well; raw meat, beans, casseroles, tamales, enchiladas, soups, butter (see above), bread and even eggs. There are two main tricks to freezing food in a way that you’ll actually consume it.
A. Prevent freezer burn. Use containers and bags meant for the freezer and push out as much air as possible before closing bags.
B. Stay organized. Label your food by date and product and freeze foods in dinner portions so you only have to thaw what you can eat within 24 hours.
Here are more ideas about freezing your food from Epicurious.
And most importantly:
4. For the betterment of the world, stop wasting wine.
My husband and I often pour out half bottles that we never got to finish. So here is my gift to all of us; pour the remaining wine in a mason jar with as little room for air as possible and store it in the fridge to slow the oxidation process for several more days (not that you’ll need that long).
Image: Dave Mulder