What's your "cooking budget?"
In trying to save money for a new home, my husband and I laid out a monthly budget that we try to stick with. We rarely eat out and have set aside around $250/month for me to spend on food (cooking). This is definitely do-able for just the two of us (ends up being about $8.33 per day) but makes it difficult to build up a good spice collection, for instance, or to splurge on any higher-end ingredients. Keeping healthy, nutritious meals on the table (3 per day) on that budget can be a challenge!
Note: we were married recently and are starting from scratch here... very little in the way of "staples" in our cupboards.
In browsing these boards, a lot of great ideas come up that I'd love to try (my husband will eat anything and I LOVE to experiment with new foods) but simply getting the ingredients I'd need for many of these things would be too costly. For example, one indian dish could mean I'd need to buy lamb, fresh veggies, curry powder, cumin, fresh ginger, etc... none of which we have in the cupboards because there's normally no room in the budget for them. Those items could add up to way more than the $3 or $4 I have to spend on dinner. So I typically resort to pasta, homemade soup, chili, sandwiches, etc, which are fine, but not very exciting.
I'm wondering two things:
a) Any thoughts about how to continue to cook 3 healthy, balanced meals each day while also trying to expand our culinary horizons and stock the cupboard with an increased number of ingredients to always have on hand?
b) What is your "cooking budget," and how do you generally split up your spending to cover day-to-day needs (getting a meal on the table) and building your stockpile of ingredients?
One more note: This post is not meant as a complaint. I relish the opportunity to cook for my dear husband and try to look at the budget as a fun "challenge" rather than just a restriction. Just looking for ways to do this better! :)
You've gotten a lot of good tips and managing costs within a budget is very important. However I think you may not have allotted enough money for food. Of course you can get by on that figure but as a person who enjoys cooking and dines out infrequently, I think it would make sense to reallocate your budget so that you have more to spend on diverse quality ingredients if possible.
That said, the single most important thing that you and your husband can do for your marriage is to manage your finances wisely and live within your means. I am not suggesting for a second that you deviate from that path!
I spend about $150 a month for me alone (technically) BUT almost all the dinners are for 2 people because I cook for my boyfriend. I'll tell you what I typically buy, and what I typically make with it:
Sliced bread (from Trader Joes or cheap brand at grocery store)
Dried pintos, black beans, garbanzo beans, lentils
Green bell peppers, serrano peppers, onions, carrots, broccoli, cabbage (all from Mexican supermarket)
Eggplant, beets, chard, dandelion greens, yams (from Japanese/Korean market)
Pickled veggies (Japanese/Korean market)
Canned smoked mussels
Tomatoes (if cheap and in season)
Hummus (Trader Joes)
Cheap cheeses (cheddar, smoked gouda, goat)
So typically I make HUGE pots of veggie soup with lentils or beans in them. This will last me for a couple dinners and a couple lunches.
My breakfast and lunch is usually toast with hummus, toast with mayo and smoked mussels, toast and tomato.
Other nights I'll make a garbanzo-bean stir fry, or a japanese-style noodle soup with tofu and yams, or grilled cheese and tomato soup.
Basically, I just buy the cheapest vegetables and the cheapest sources of protein (usually beans or tofu). Starches aren't really a problem getting on the cheap.
Edit to add: I get my spices in small amounts from the Mexican supermarket. They usually have $.50 or $1 packages of spices. I would buy larger if I could, but it always seems like I'm just making it each paycheck!!
You mentioned Indian cooking...for those spices and such, shop at Indian(and other ethnic) markets. I've been making curries, which require various spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander, etc that I would pay $4 for a tiny jar at the grocery store, but at the Indian grocery store(luckily there is one near me), I paid $4 for a huge bag. I end up using these spices in other things as well. Asian markets are good too for lots of things. For produce, I just shop around, Whole Foods usually has pretty good deals, surprisingly. Farmers markets, and shop in season. I cook a lot from scratch, so I buy things like walnuts(I use these in a lot of things, and snack on them raw) in bulk. I've been thinking about doing a CSA box, they seem to be good for the adventurous type who likes a challenge :) I buy organic milk and make my own yogurt with it...a quart of homemade yogurt is less than $1.50. Just don't buy processed food and you can afford to do this, I'm a student on a budget. Have fun!
I love the idea of being creative on a small budget. We spend about 75$ a week for two of us, plus the cat.
Until the garden gets up and running, we buy produce, and really, that's probably our largest expense. This week I spent half of the grocery bill on fruits/veggies. The rest was the weekly perishables, and one or two staples.
Hubby is a hunter, and we get a lot of free beef (point here is to make friends with hunters/farmers who have too much, or volunteer to trade things, or cook their products with your flair, then share). I also buy the cuts no one (ok, not no one, but not mainstream I suppose) else eats- like pork neck bones or hocks, which take more work, but are flavorful and much cheaper!
I cook on weekends and on evenings when I'm by myself, and I cook in bulk (ie: four meals in one go, then freeze). This lets me buy in bulk (to an extent), and have a huge variety in the freezer at any point.
For the most part I hate food shopping, though I love cooking, and so my goal is to eat out of the existing pantry as much as possible. Once in a while I say "ok, just buying milk and juice this week". Even with a small (newer, not as well stocked) pantry, you'd be surprised exactly how much food is actually there.
Good luck with your budget- you've inspired me to try to go for less too!
Gross sales of all restaurants in the US are forecasted by a trade organization to be $537 billion this year. The US population is right at 300 million, so we spend $1790 per person annually, $149 monthly, in restaurants. Those broad figures would include the items in your query.
I have learned a lot about controlled spending from my DH who is a financial fanatic.
Rules # 1-10. Never spend more than you have. Pay cash. If you must use credit cards, pay them off in full every month.
Additional tips from Fleur who does most of the shopping and all of the menu planning and cooking. My DH just loves to eat , and does the cleanup, Thank God!
Don't be tempted to buy more than you need, even if it is cheap and on sale. You can always go back for more. This has cut back on the amount of food spoilage, which is a total waste.
Unless you are feeding a large family, buy only enough for the two of you, with some leftovers if someone is definitely going to eat them. I do not eat leftovers, but my DH does.
Example,: I recently made the Spinach Salad with Herbed Dressing we have loved at The Dock in Montauk. I bought 1/2 lb of bacon, not the one lb, one chicken breast, pounded thin by the Butcher. A little more, but there is no waste. BTW it was delicious.
Wow ... that is so not the cheapest way to eat. Buying 1 chicken breast? Anyone who doesn't buy a whole chicken is missing a lot of cheap meal opportunities. Buying more when things are cheap (or cheaper in bulk) and *preserving* the excess is generally more economical. This can be as easy as freezing the raw ingredients or freezing half the finished meal for use later.
While I agree with you in principle, the problem some of us have is tiny freezers, and so sometimes we have to choose between buying in small quantities or letting food go to waste. I do try to buy a whole chicken myself, and have the butcher chop it up for me per my needs, and save the backs etc. for stock, but sometimes, i.e., right now, my freezer is so stuffed with chicken carcasses, awaiting fall soup making, that I couldn't put another thing in there!
I have a tiny freezer too, so I sympathize, but perhaps I don't eat quite as much chicken as others. In the summer I tend to eat a lot more vegetarian or mostly-vegetarian meals. Chickens are something I tend to buy in the spring/fall/winter when making stock isn't an unpleasantly hot activity.
Exactly - and for some reason, my freezer is chock full of carcasses from the early summer! Hence, I've been buying small quantities of chicken during the summer, though I did manage to squeeze in some chicken feet into the freezer over the weekend, in anticipation of stock making!
We don't like to eat meat, poultry or fish that has been frozen. Therefore, I buy only what I will need for a specific dish. In the end, we save money, because there is no waste, and nothing gets spoiled or thrown out.
I lived in France for many years, and got used to the concept of shopping daily for fresh food. We tend to eat that way, even the States.
I do freeze stews, ragus, meatloaf and meatballs in quantity, though.
We don't have a particular budget limitation, but do not like to waste food.
We are not looking for the most economical, per se. We just don't like to waste food.
We like everything very fresh. I always buy meat, fish, seafood, poultry the day I will cook it. Same with vegetables.
There are many tips for people who are on a limited budget, such as suggested above.
We dine out a few times a week, and I cook or my Grandmaman.
I am happy to know that I am not in this alone. My DH and I are pretty much doing the same thing within the same budget you are. I have picked up a few very useful hints thus far.
Coupons! Now.. this doesnt work SO easily for me because for some crazy reason most coupons are for windex and fruit loops. I have found several sites that you can d/l and print coupons for namely organic, natural, etc.
I have also learned that generic doesnt always mean "cheap" or bad quality. My DH and I are gourmet driven but have learned that buying the store brand goat cheese works JUST as well. It has the exact ingredients in it, and is usually a bigger quanity for much less than the cute little 4oz pkg in pretty wrapping.
I now buy my chicken, and sometimes tuna from a free range, organic butcher. I have found buying it in bulk from them has saved me a ton of money. At the grocery store I'd usually pay 9.00+ for a package of two organic chicken breasts. At my butcher I usually get 6-8 lbs for 15-18 $.
The last lesson Ive learned is never buy produce from the grocery, it's horribly over priced. I only buy my produce from road side stands and mini markets. I have averaged to get 3 or 4 times as much produce for 1/10 the price.
At some point, once my DH and I have our careers at full steam ahead and have plenty of money for restauranting and gourmet food I will surely continue to implement my current way of grocery shopping, it just makes sense.
These are all great ideas! Regarding meat, use it as an accent rather than a primary focus. Learn where the cuts you like come from & how to cut them so you can take advantage of a good sale on say a blade chuck roast & know how to cut out the flatiron, the rib-eyes & the rest for stew meat & the stock pot. Check your library for "Cutting up in the kitchen" by Merle Ellis. Its an oldie but I have not found a book that explains clearer. Which leads back to "the freezer is your friend". This allows you to take advantage of these sales & new found knowledge! It also helps you maximize cooking sauce/soups/stocks in larger batches and ditto with beans. Canned beans are great time savers, but cooking from dried is so easy and inexpensive.
The less processed an item - the less expensive it will generally be (except meat & out of season produce). I've worked in natural foods & am always amazed how many customers have no concept that there are seasons for most fruits & vegetables. They think berries in Jan. should cost the same as July! So learn your locations seasons to take full advantage.
Consider using a food dehydrator. It is a great way to take advantage of seasonal bounty if you don't want to can, and the results take up less space!
Have fun with it - its a bit of a challenge working in all the components. But rewarding and creatively challenging!
We are usually at $75 for two/week. That covers 5-6 dinners, all lunches, snacks, beverages except for wine. We don't do much for breakfast except weekends. I eat an average to slightly less amount, BF is a very enthusiastic eater. But we are eating from a very established pantry & not starting from scratch like you.
I'm more or less in the same boat as you. Here are a few pointers:
SALE FLYERS! Whole chicken was cheap this week, down to 65 cents a pound. So I bought 4, broke them down and froze them. Kept the bones for stock and now I'll be set for a few weeks. Also nabbed some cheap pork and my favorite cereal was on a 2-for-1. So, I spent a little more this week but I'll make it up in the following weeks.
Plan a menu so you can overlap some ingredients and minimize your waste. No sense in buying 10 bucks worth of herbs that go bad in a week when you can spend 5 bucks and use them all.
Farmer's Markets can often be good for a bargain. So can store brands.
In short, plan ahead. It'll keep you from making detours that can be expensive and wasteful.
If this budget is self-imposed and you can focus on the amortized cost, then you have a lot of options. If it's limited by income, so you truly only have $62.50 per week, then it's slightly more awkward. However, based on your description, I'll assume it's the former. I would buy a lot of pantry staples in bulk to start with. This will make the first month expensive, but following months will be substantially cheaper, so it will average out to your budget. Some good things to start with are flour, sugar, rice, lentils, beans. Eating at least some vegetarian meals will help a lot, as others have commented. If you have the time and inclination, baking your own bread and biscuits will also be much cheaper. You'll just need to add yeast, salt, baking powder, baking soda to your pantry and you'll be able to do just about any baking with only a couple other add-in ingredients dependent on what you're making. Stick to seasonal produce, and shop at a farmer's market if you have one available. It will be both better quality and cheaper than imported out-of-season produce. If you want something like tomatoes out of season, buy them in cans. They'll have better flavour because they'll have been canned when ripe and in-season and they're more likely to go on sale than the fresh. Buy your meat in less-prepared formats. Packages of boneless-skinless chicken breasts can often be as expensive as buying the whole chicken because of the labour the store has put into preparing it. Buying a whole chicken also has the advantage that you can make soup stock with it, which is an easy and economical staple to have in your freezer. Freezing things when they're cheap is also useful. Some things are cheaper in larger sizes, but you rarely need that much... tomato paste is a good example. I buy the largest tin, then freeze it into ice cube trays to make useful portions. You can knock them out and store in a bag or plastic container once they're frozen. Hope some of these tips help.
I agree with most of the posts to your question, so I won't digress into ditto-ing.
I will add this, since it's something for which I must always on the look out: don't buy more that what you need. Be *really* realistic about this. Part of my cooking creativity has come from having too much of X and what-the-heck am I going to do with X? It's not fun. With only two of you in the household, be wary of buying too much. Creativity can take you only so far.
With a household of two, consider shopping at a venue where you can say: " I'd like one-third pound of pork, please." And for a decent price - I'm not advocating for high-priced venues. Try farmers' markets, where you can buy by the piece (i.e. bulb, tuber, bunch, etc). Try (as others suggested) ethnic markets. But do try to do a weekly marketing trip. Look at your stock and think of two lists: "what you need" and "what you have." Then get a third list in your head: "what can I do with what I have?
Your OP questions:
a) Many other posters , and my opinions. BTW...think: grains.
b) about $250-$350 dollars per month for three people (two adults and one teen...extra when our college boy needs food :), along with a dog, two cats, and three guinea pigs, who are my kitchen clean-ups machines)
Buy one powdered spice or flavouring a month, starting with the ones you would use most often. (For me that is cinnamon, since I use it in many sweet or savoury dishes.) When I lived in North America I used to spend $80 a month on food, and then every six months go to the bulk store to spend about $40 on things like rice, flour, cooking oil, and honey.
Other than that, I never did much bulk buying and froze things rarely - I can't get excited about reheated frozen things on a regular basis. Those strategies I find much more practical for a large family. Here is a breakdown of one particular month.
Creative cooking can also be the least expensive. Since there are many great sites that let you search for recipes by ingredient, you can look for things to make that use up what you already have on hand and look for new ways to cook familiar ingredients. For me, having people over is one of the least expensive and fun ways to use the entertainment budget so I also used to sneak 'entertainment' $$ into my cooking by having dinner parties; that is how I acquired some higher end ingredients...
When the holidays roll around, or your anniversary, or birthday, and your friends and relations ask what you'd like, tell them! Penzey's has nice gift baskets themed to different cuisines. Ask for cookbooks, cookware, etc. I stocked my first kitchen this way, and it didn't take me long. (My mom came through big-time. Every time she saw a new kitchen gadget, she bought one for herself, and one for me.)
My monthly food budget for our family of 3 runs 300-350USD monthly.
I heartily second everyone who has recommended ethnic groceries -- the prices on spices in particular are much better, and also on unique ingredients. Plus, the unique ingredients are generally higher quality then the mass market brands -- my no-english name on it quart of soy sauce cost about 4 bucks, and is a jillion times better then kikkoman.
When I needed to build up my spice cupboard (once when newly living alone, once after a disasterous house fire) I made up a list of the spices I wanted the most, and bought one a week -- in a few months time I was fully stocked again.
At this point, I estimate that I spend about 60% of my budget replenishing the house stores of our staple foods, freezer meats, etc, and about 40% on "fresh for this week" groceries such as milk, eggs, fruits, fresh veggies, etc.
Depending on how much difficulty you have getting to good shopping places, I would suggest making 1 new interesting dinner ever two weeks, or every week - or once a month, if that's what works for you. Less the cost of the greengroceries, any staples/exotics that you purchase for that meal go into your pantry, and are available there after.
My budget for two and a dog is about $80-$100 a week depending on whether I need stuff like olive oil, peanut butter, siracha and other condiment type things that I don't need every week. The dog gets sardines for his coat every week.
We have a mainly vegetarian diet and eat fish maybe 1-2 times per week.
As far as building a stockpile we have a great greek grocery store that sells spices in bulk and has a 50% off sale every Sept. I always take advantage of that. I also try to get at least one or two special things each week. I.e. jar of calamata olives, capers, can of artichokes, curry paste, tahini etc...
I don't use them all every week but over time have been able to build up a nice pantry. I usually avoid any packaged items like flavored rice, or premade sauces as they are pricey and usually need to be doctored up anyways.
For us the large ticket items are coffee and cheese. Trader Joes is great for these.
I don't usually get bored with the meals but occasionally get stuck in a rut. When that happens I try to buy an ingredient that I haven't had around in a while.
This month it was cauliflower and fennel. Sometimes a bunch of cilantro one week, basil the next when the farmers markets get going. Also in the summer I will grow a bed of basil and process it with a bit of olive oil and freeze it in little containers. It holds up nicely and can brighten any winter pasta doldrum.
We shoot for $100 a week for groceries, not always sucessful, but we try.
our family consists of Myself, my wife, a 6 month old baby girl, 2 cats, and a baysitter 4 days a week.
We eat meat with every meal, (alot of chicken & pork since it is cheaper than beef). We also like fish.
We typically do not eat breakfast, and my wife brings leftovers from previous days dinners for her lunches, and I bring a deli sandwich for my luch during the week.
Mon-Thurs are leftovers from the previous day, & thawing chicken breasts or fish from the freezer later in the week.
Saturday & Sunday we typically go out for lunch on Saturday, and I cook large portions for the Dinner on Saturday, and lunch and dinner on Saturday to have food for a couple of meals during the week.
Some of the expensive items are baby formula, diapers, & wipes which can account for $30+ a week. My mom sometimes helps out, and buys us diapers, wipes, and baby formula, so those weeks we have more $$$ at our disposal
Spices take time to accumulate, and I typically have on hand what I need for recipies I make.
Wow, these budgets of 200-250 per month are blowing my mind. Hubs and I spend at least 120 per week for just the two of us, two small dogs, a couple of cats, (ours), and some stray ones that hang around our property. We do not eat that high off the hog, either. Basically its chicken, fish, or ground beef. I applaud those of you who can manage your food budget this carefully.
I agree - wow. DH and I (and 2 cats) spend about $125 per week. I cook only vegetarian and in addition to our regular market I hit the greenmarket once per week. We only eat light breakfasts (usually just yogurt), I make sure to have leftovers for myself for lunches, and DH likes to get his "meat fix" out at lunchtime (so our food budget doesn't account for his lunches). It also doesn't account for the usually-once-per-week dinner out (or delivery). I'm amazed that you can keep your budget to just $250 per month. One thing I've always figured when calculating our budget -- when you buy something (olive oil, say, or other staples) you buy it once, but you should calculate its cost spread over its usage time. In other words, yes that $8 (or whatever) bottle of olive oil may tick up your budget this one week, but spread out over the life-usage of that bottle, it's really not that much per week. As for spices and such, places like Kalustyan's or Chinatown or "ethnic" markets with bulk buying are definitely the way to go. The same holds true for other items purchase-able without packaging and by weight -- at Fairway, we get our rices, oats, sometimes granola, flours, beans, etc. all by weight and it's much cheaper w/o all that packaging.
My food budget is $200 for 2 people, plus whoever else shows up hungry for dinner :)
You can get spices at dollar stores.
We only cook once a day, for dinner. I eat those leftovers, sandwich or anything else I can slap together for lunch.
I would say to mainly focus on the per pound/ounce prices of food, not necessarily the price for the can/box/etc.
I usually buy quick oats from the Co-Op/bulk area, which are less than $1 per pound and last quite a while. It's good for me since I don't remember breakfast that often, and I can bring it to work. Just add hot water!
Cut out meat. We buy chicken when it is on sale for $.90 a pound or less, and $2 pp for chicken breasts if we feel like splurging. Sometimes we will buy bacon, kielbasa or sausage for a flavoring/additive. Or, you know, just chewing a hunk of bacon. mmm. lol.
For protien it's more eggs, chickpeas, and beans. Beans are also great to use from soups to quesadillas.
I love seafood, but usually never buy a pound of it. I make sushi, marinate some pieces and eat with rice. These are pretty cheap spices from any asian food store. Some hoisin sauce, soy sauce, ginger, and maybe a little rice wine vinegar.
The idea of having a mexican, italian, etc, months are good to bulk up your spice pantry as well. I also enjoy
In all honesty, we eat a lot better than I thought on $200 a month. No more boxed foods, and we don't really go wanting for very much.
My roommate and I are in the $2-300/Month range, depending if there are any special events/holidays.
I shop much the same way yumcha (and others) do- Bulk when I can (CostCo once a month for meat, dry goods, etc)
Two visits to local grocers for fresh veggies, fruits, dairy, bread, etc.
We are both on a bit of a budget, so we eat pretty simply, but it does help that I am a professional cook and can dress up a simple dish!
As for stocking up on the fun stuff (spices, condiments, etc...) don't underestimate your local area ethnic markets! Between the Asian markets where soy sauce is half of what it costs in mega marts, and the Latin markets where dried spices and great cuts of meats and chicken are available fresh, if unpredictably!
As you start to figure out what you like, buy it!- Treat yourself to ONE or two things each time you shop- I know it's gauche to suggest buying spices you might have on your shelf for (GASP) a year or more, but if you buy 'em once... you'll have it for the next time.
When all else fails, do what we did- wait for your parents to go out of town and raid their spice racks (I mean c'mon, is my mom really going to use all that cardomom?)
As far as spices go, I've found that I get more bang for my buck if I shop in a place like Penzey's - all they do are spices. The stuff at the supermarket is old and often has little flavor. Spices from a spice company have more impact and flavor, and are often the same price or even a little bit cheaper than at the market.
You can do what you want to do (i.e., eat well for three meals a day while not getting bored and still expanding yor culinary horizons) by buying all the basic ingredients you want including spices and (cheaper cuts of) meats; and by not buying prepared, processed, or any other type of convenience food.
Case in point: our food bill would decrease considerably if I weren't so lazy. Organic, nothing-added fresh bottled orange juice is the consistently biggest item on our food bill. If I bought the oranges and squeezed the juice, I would save a big chunk of dough! Depends on what you're willing to do!
Hi Raeviola. Congratulations on your recent marriage.
I applaud you and your husband for coming up with a budget and seeking out creative ways to make it work. I hope you are finding lots of useful tips from hounds.
I totally agree with the tip to buy small amounts of spices from bulk bins, or from Asian or Mexican markets.
Have you considered throwing a housewarming party with a "stock the pantry" theme? I threw a party like that for my brother when he first moved away from home and it was great! Most of our family and friends know that he loves Mexican food, so he got tons of jarred salsas, Mexican seasoning packets, cans of chiles and beans, even a cheese grater and tortilla warming thing. Others brought everything from pancake mix and syrup to PB and J to pasta and sauce to pudding mix and graham crakers. Starting with a well stocked pantry makes a huge dent in your food budget.
Another idea is to host a pot luck. Name the theme and have everyone bring a dish to share. You can provide a cheap dessert (a cake mix [on sale] made in a fancy bundt pan can cost less than $2 in ingredients), and enjoy a great meal with your friends. Plus you can plate up some leftovers and stash them in the fridge for a later meal.
You may also want to consider looking into a local food co-op or community garden project. You can often exchange a couple of hours a week/month of work for produce or herbs. Check out farmers markets for "damaged" fruit and veg bins that vendors sometimes keep on the side of their stand. You can get slightly bruised produce at half off or more. If you go to the farmers market at the end of the market day, many vendors will drop their prices to encourage last minute sales. If they don't change up their signs, you can always try negotiating.
re: Non Cognomina
I think the housewarming party is an excellent idea! Things like booze and wine for cooking are going to cost more than most would want to spend. Same with herbs and spices.
I would throw out the budget for the very first shop. Stock up on pantry items that you know you'll use again and again. Then buy them as they get used. When we stocked our pantry, and it's just two of us, we spent about $400. But it was $400 well spent. I made sure there were "go to" items for when we couldn't shop - a snow storm - extreme ennui, whatever. That way we could have a pantry dinner and still be sated.
It also pays to know how to make simple things like pasta, bread, etc. In the long run it'll save you a ton. It's also relaxing and rewarding. If you make a big pot of sauce on a Sunday and freeze most of it, you've got several dinners ahead. The same with stocks. If you go to a butcher for your meat, you can ask for some bones for stock, and more often than not, he'll throw them in for free. Freeze them until you have enough to roast and turn into stock. Free lunch exsists.
The only thing I'd be careful about is buying in bulk when it's just two people. That 10 pound bag of oatmeal may seem like a deal, but when you throw it out because you couldn't get through it, and it seems to be moving a little... not so much. Only buy large versions of things you use often. Or things you can freeze once opened.
Saving money is a commendable goal. Scrimping on food is not a realistic way to get there. Where'd you come up with $250 a month? Even the most frugal numbers I was able to find suggest that typical US household spending on food is around 11% of PDI, so unless you are way way below the typical income level of US internet users you're probably shooting for an unrealistically low number. http://www.census.gov/compendia/stata...
I'm probably going to open a Pandora's box but what sorts of expenditures do make in other areas? Have you compared your spending/budget with other profiles/statistics to see how you saving compare to national averages/percentages? I'd be surprised if the actual dollar amounts you can save are not far greater in other areas instead of food -- based simply on the PDI numbers you're likely to have a lot more cash flowing out into other areas... On a somewhat related note, I have a friend who is an attorney. He worked for one of those "bankruptcy specialist" places for a while, so whenever his frugal mother would criticize him for taking her out to nice restaurant or buying good quality groceries he'd tell her with authority "No body ever goes broke from spending too much on things they eat." :^)
OK, enough preaching, I will answer your actual questions.
I am always shocked at how much of an upcharge there is for buying any food in a small quantity. If you and your hubby don't have a freezer and can benefit from buying in bulk you really need to get one. You can get a helluva deal on the little chest freezers, sometimes you can get 'em "free" with an equal amount of frozen food coupons/rebates. Get a Foodsaver too. Vacuum freezing is the only way to keep stuff for long term. Both those things will get even more use once you get a house and decide to save for upgrading it... You ought to also try find some pals to split food with. For things like spices and things like bulk sacks of rice this the way to go. Unless you run a chili cook off, the bulk size of cumin is enough for several families and the bulk cost is probably a third or less than it for the little can. Ditto for just about every dried spice. And vanilla. And maple syrup. And honey. Get my drift? Also buy stuff when you have coupons, and store special and rebate/bonus. There a ton of "frugal living" sites that give the details on figuring out how to "layer savings". But you have to be able to USE all that stuff so that is where the sharing comes in. When I can get a deal on non-perishables I buy enough for my house, by mom, my uncle, my sister and then we split the costs. Very efficient.
OK, what is my actual budget. Me, spouse, two pre-school kids, one big hungry dog. About $100-125 a week. We eat great too.Fresh whole chickens are always a better deal than cut up, and if I do cut up a bird for boneless breasts we get carcass for soup and thighs/drumsticks for a fricasse. Couple of meals instead of one. When I make a roast or ham we have leftovers for sandwiches -- helluva lot better than deli cold cuts. Fish is not great re-heated, but buying in bulk doesn't really save there so that works out fine. When vegetables are in season they are cheapest and best, so we rely on frozen when they are a better deal. Some stuff freezes great (broccoli), other is worth waiting for. See a pattern? About 40% is "fresh food and consumed in a week staples" (like bread/tortillas ). About 25% is replenish the larder -- grains, salt, spices, oils. About 15% is optional -- wine, beer, liquor, softdrinks. Sometimes we get something that was a good price that goes in the freezer and that will be around for months. As long as it get used it is a value. If we have a party we tend to overbuy the "optional" stuff and treat ourselves for weeks/months afterward.
We once tried to estimate our food costs and arrived at a number of about $9 per day for both of us so we're at about your level. We have a big freezer, good grocery stores and eat at home most of the time. If you want to save, you need some capital so you can take advantage of savings by buying on sale, or buying in bulk. As an example we bought a whole pig and a whole lamb from local farmers. The cost ran around $160 for the lamb to about $300 for the pig. Both animals were butchered, cut up to suit our needs, and frozen. This has supplied just about all our red meat for about 18 months and we still haven't gotten to the bottom of the pork.
Shop carefully, always make a list and stick to it. Right now my only regular purchases are fresh produce and cheese because we have just about everything else, so our grocery bills are really low. When I see a good sale, I stock up so I buy coconut milk by the case, or chickpeas by the kilo.
I like the suggestion of eating from the cuisine of one region over a month or so. That way, you'll use the spices, condiments etc. and also get a good feel for how that cuisine arrives at its distinctive flavors. Learn to cook ethnic foods from countries less affluent than the US. Most people eat meat only occasionally. We eat a lot of bean, lentils and other pulses which I make using Indian or Mexican or Middle Eastern recipes. It's a healthy alternative to the meat-heavy American diet. I also make just about everything we eat from scratch. I think we eat better as well as more cheaply because of it. DH doesn't like restaurant food as much as he enjoys meals at home because our meals are tastier.
Get cookbooks from your local library. Our library is part of a fairly large consortium and their selection of cookbooks is vast. I just picked up Diana Kennedy's book on Mexican cuisine (still trying to get the hang of this) yesterday.
Cooking on a budget doesn't have to be dull, it will stimulate your creativity.
If you have an asian market near you, I highly recommend that you shop there for your produce and spices. You'll find they are much cheaper than your normal grocery store. You can also buy noodles there, and usually Indian ingredients as well. Most, if not all, cheaper than your regular store. It's where I've started to do most of my spice and produce shopping. It also definitely expands your horizons!
I can't say I have a cooking budget, but I don't think we spend more than 250 a month on groceries. That factors in the cost of a Costco membership. We buy most of our meat in bulk from Costco, then repackage and freeze. That saves us some money. The asian grocer saves us some money. Milk, bread, butter, etc are usually what we have to buy on a weekly basis, along with maybe a few other things here and there. We'll get most of that at Wal-Mart, or I'll check the flyers and we'll hit the stores that have what we want on sale. It may be just a few bucks here and there, but over a month it really adds up.
i'd also make friends with your local co-op grocery where you can buy stuff in bulk, most notably for you, SPICES!!! you can buy weensy amounts of herbs and spices by weight (label carefully and seperate strong-smelling spices, such as cardamom, when storing). you will save big bucks vs prepackaged spices, and as a bonus, your spices will be super-fresh. as someone who has literally bought 3 cloves ($0.02, with tax) when traveling at a co-op, never undrestimate this resource!
you can purchase one pretty glass bottle/week at the same store and fill with your new favorite herb/spice, and you'll soon have a servicable spice rack. Also buy just as much as you need of more pricy bulk items, like wild rice, basmati, dried organic fruits. . .
i don't know about your diet preferences, but it makes sense to skip meat when on a tight food budget. learn to make some great veg dishes with great flavor and nutritional profile and use meat, depending on how much you love it, only for one or 2 meals a week (not counting leftovers), or only for one meal/day (breakfast meats are cheapest), or only when you can afford something FABULOUS. deborah madison's vegetarian cooking for everyone is a book absolutely every cook should own, imo-- but i bet your local library has a copy--it is a great book for the basics & also has thrifty tips for baking, soup making, etc. Good luck and don't forget to report back!
I'll second the bit about bulk spices - if you buy small quantities at a time in bulk, you get the freshest spices and spend 30 cents here, a dollar there, etc. 10 bucks could stock a spice cabinet.
Co-ops are great for this, as are local ethnic markets, esp middle eastern or indian ones.
good place to start: click on "co-op directory service listing"
co-ops are grocery stores that generally fall under the "health food" category, that are cooperatively owned by their members. the co-op acts as a buying club, sourcing natural & organic ingredients, local foods, bulk grains, pastas, spices, soaps, etc. the co-ops are open to all shoppers, and the co-op members pay a nominal, and often sliding, yearly household fee and in exchange typically get discounts on some items, can special order some items in bulk or by the case, and often get a dividend check at the end of the year (based on their total purchases) in the event that the co-op profits.
You've asked some good questions. I think the answer you are looking for is "thoughtful planning".
Buying spices and one time ingredients will fill up your pantry, but at a high expense, and offer little return on investment. - there was a good discussion about a month ago that talked about how to stock a pantry- you might want to search for it.
Initially, I'd say plan an Italian month, then a Mexican month or Indian month etc. Since most national cuisines share some common ingredients you'll be able to spread the cost across a whole months meals- depending on how tightly you budget, and if you can spare to spend lets say$5 each day at the end for a higher up front cost of buying the elements, you might be able to make it work.
Once you have the staples in your pantry, you can shop for your fresh ingredients when they come on sale, or when you see a good bulk price.
Last bit of advice, if you can avoid it- dont buy your spices from the grocery store- unless you need extra glass really bad. Most 'ethnic' food marts have spices in bulk or small plastic bags that will save you money if you dont have a spice merchant in your area.
I'd say a great start would be to grow an herb garden. The seeds are a lot cheaper than buying dried herbs, and fresh herbs make almost every meal better.
Look for sales and buy extra when the deal is really good. Learn to love your freezer. If there's a great deal on a particular veg or meat and you know you won't use it all before it goes bad, freeze it. A well-stocked freezer is a huge help in cutting weekly costs.
Compare the 'per ounce' cost for each item and you'll be surprised how much you can save. Sometimes the store brand is cheaper. Sometimes it's not. I've been spotted using the calculator on my cell phone. No shame in being frugal.
Maybe each trip to the store you can treat yourself to one spice. That couple of dollars will continue to pay off.
Thanks! These thoughts are really helpful. Yes, I am obsessive about comparing unit prices on items... Mom taught me well.
Going to start an herb garden this month, I think. That should help some. Those little plastic containers of "fresh" herbs in the grocers are ridiculously over-priced!
Thanks for the ideas.