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Fresh, healthy cooking on a budget. What's yours?

I recently have realized that I am spending *way* too much money on groceries every month. Is anyone willing to share what their budget is for one person? I need guidelines!

I am gluten and dairy free and focus on vegetables, high quality meats and fruit. I eat very little packaged foods and I cook a ton! I'm guessing I spend a lot of money on meat because I am picky about making sure it's local/free range blah blah, so I get most of it at the farmer's market. I also get most of my produce there with occasional Trader Joe's and Whole Foods side trips. I live in Southern California which is probably more expensive as well, although I am not sure about that.

If anyone has any tips as to how to cut down on what I spend, such as recipes, cheaper options for fruits/veggies, or is willing to share your monthly food budget I would be so appreciative! I need to get this under control!

Thanks in advance for any help!

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  1. Use the advanced search for relevant terms, like this: http://www.chow.com/search?query=econ...

    This is more a matter of priorities than recipes. You may need to do stock-up buying at warehouse clubs, more freezing of meals you've prepared, or planning meals based on reviewing the weekly supermarket sales flyers. It all depends on identifying and remedying your current weaknesses of planning and execution.

    1. Like you, I try to keep smart with the meats that I use, which means they are an occasional treat. They'd be so expensive to eat on a daily basis. Most of my meals are based around legumes, especially chickpeas, or grains, like quinoa and bulgur (not sure if bulgur is gluten free or now). I will use them in the place of a regular carb, say by sauteeing some squash and tomatoes and then tossing with chickpeas, but I also like to use them to supplement something that would usually be a side dish and turn it into a main meal. For example, this time of year I LOVE making zucchini pancakes, which I make with quinoa flour (and very little of it; mine are almost closer to latkes). Last night, they were my main meal, so I stirred some bulgur into the batter and it was really satisfying. And though a bag seems expensive, it makes so much that it lasts a long time.

      1 Reply
      1. re: katecm

        Focusing on cheaper veggies like zucchini is probably a good idea. Zucchini pancakes sound great and I have quinoa flour already so I'll give that a shot. Thanks for the suggestion. I don't eat a lot of legumes as I'm a little sensitive but I could up my rice intake to make things cheaper.

      2. Do you have a space where you can grow vegetables? I have squash, eggplant, Swiss chard, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and loads of herbs growing right now. I freeze extra squash, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs for use during the fall and winter.

        I still have to buy things like lettuce, carrots, onions, potatoes, etc but hey every little bit helps.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Njchicaa

          Also, growing herbs is a good idea. Doesn't take much space or effort and it cuts back on that expense and livens everything up.

          I think we could cut back on food expense by wasting less. My SO gets kind of extravagant about cooking and we end up with a lot. Planning more and freezing more would probably be a good idea for us.

          One thing I do is really watch the sales at our coop. There are new sales every two weeks and we like a lot of what is in stock. So I just watch for what's coming up and stock up when we can.

          1. re: Njchicaa

            I used to have a big vegetable garden but where I live now I just have one box. I'm growing tomatoes in plants and kale in the box because I'm a kale addict and it can be expensive. It's such a great money saver though, you're right! I wish I could grow more.

          2. How much are you throwing away? Are your eyes bigger than your stomach at the market, and then produce goes bad? Do you eat leftovers? I manage to eat on a very low budget--because I'm willing to eat from the same pot of soup until it's gone. or freeze half for another week. Also, I've learned my lesson at the farmers' markets where EVERYTHING looks good and I buy too much and then 1/4 of it (or more) goes bad before I can get to it. Shop frequently and buy less. Plan meals. Skipping dairy and pckgd. foods will save you a lot of money, but stretching what you use is the best way to economize. I get 4 meals out of one small chicken (roasted; sandwiches or shredded for mole' ; at least 2 meals of soup made with the carcass and what falls off the bone when I boil it).

            9 Replies
            1. re: staughton

              I do have some waste I think, but not a lot. I try to plan meals but maybe I need to write it down and be more formal about it. I eat leftovers for lunch everyday and rarely go out for lunch. I cook almost all my meals. But yeah, the farmer's market is so enticing! I've been thinking about a CSA just as a way to control what I spend - I have to eat what they give me and wouldn't have the temptation. But I *love* going to the farmer's market every week and I think I'd be really sad to give that up. Probably more chicken and least beef would be a good idea too. I've yet to make a whole chicken as I'm a little intimidated by it but I like the idea of using the bones for broth so I should give it a shot. Thanks!

              1. re: ScarletB

                My favorite way to roast a chicken is from Marcella Hazan; here's one variation I found on the internet .. there are many others. I get a chicken from the best butcher (I find I don't like the organic ones, they are tough). I don't poke the lemons; I quarter them and stick them inside. When I dry the chicken (thoroughly) inside and out, I use Viva paper towels .. they don't shred .. Target carries them.

                It's not hard to turn the chicken over after the first 1/2 hr, it's not that hot yet and I use bunched up paper towels to do the job.

                This chicken stays very moist and is delicious cold, too. I buy chickens that have not been frozen and cook the day I buy (or next day, at the latest).


                1. re: ScarletB

                  Not sure where in S. CA you are, but in most areas you can go to a different farmer's market practically every day of the week. Going multiple times throughout the week was "entertainment". It was a chance to enjoy the fresh air and wander around and relax. So if you are going to only one weekly farmer's market, I'd check out the other ones in the area. That way you won't be tempted to overbuy and then not be able to use all that you buy.

                2. re: staughton

                  One tip that's worked for me at farmers markets.

                  I go towards the end of the market. Growers often want to give you deals or throw in extra things then. I don't want to give them less than they need, but think they are looking at reloading trucks with things that didn't sell.

                  When I go at the end of the market, I miss the things that sell out. Thankfully, my SO likes to go early and can get those things.

                  This happens to work with my nightowl schedule anyway, but may work for you too.

                  1. re: karykat

                    karykat, your reply reminded me of what a new "local" resturaunt in Dayton, called Olive's buys local at a near by farmer's market. She makes bids on what is left for produce etc that can be used in an entire week's menu. She doesn't buy anything she can't use in her already planned out menu. The farmers really don't want to put it back on their trucks.

                    It's wonderful - the owner explained how and why certain items appear on the menu. She really believes in reusing recycling, repurposing whenever she can. And saving when she can on fresh fruits and veggies. As a business woman she contacts the local farmers for all other items she can't buy at the market.

                    1. re: chocolatejam

                      Cool. It sounds like it works for everybody.

                    2. re: karykat

                      I'm in L.A. and we buy almost all our produce from the Farmer's Market - it's easy to overspend, but also easy to get deals. We often go within the final hour of the market when they're about to close - most leafy greens will be down to $1/bunch at that point, fresh fruit down to about $1 or $1.50 a pound, seconds on fruit as low as $.20 a pound, though more typically $.50-$.75...it's a bit like a CSA simply because one week everyone will be sold out of apricots but have tons of peaches and tomatoes; the next week you'll get a massive box of heirloom tomatoes for $10 and not a speck of fresh fruit in site, but plenty of spinach left over... We work with what we can get that week, and fill in any gaps from Trader Joe's. I've often found if you like the tops of root veggies - beet greens, radish greens, etc. - you can get those for free just by hanging around a stall for 2 mins and asking. Most people ask for theirs to be removed, so if you ask the farmer when they're not jampacked, they'll have a few extra bunches they'll give you for free. Two weeks ago we spent a grand total of $12 at the market and walked away with 4 pounds of peaches, 5 pounds of apricots, 3 large bunches of leafy greens that lasted almost 2 weeks, 2 melons, and a big fat heirloom tomato that lasted 2 meals.

                      Alternatively, if you go within the first hour of opening, they'll be sorting out the seconds, and you'll have a better selection - the deals aren't as good as when you go later, but there's usually still something of a discount and most of the seconds at that hour are purely discounted for cosmetic reasons.


                      1. re: thursday

                        This is exactly our experience! Which is why a late riser like me and an early bird like my SO can get the best of both worlds!

                        1. re: thursday

                          I'll have to start hitting the farmer's market later I think! There are a ton near me but I like mine the best and most of the others are at hours when I work. The one I go to is on Sundays.
                          I will never understand people buying a bunch of beets and having the farmer take the tops. What a waste! I always look for the beets with the nicest greens.

                    3. Grow what you can and know where to shop. I don't know what area of Southern CA you're in but check to see if you have a 99 Cents Only store in your area. They stock produce on Saturday mornings and they get overflow/ surplus organic veggies all the time. I have a frige full of Earthbound Farms salad greens, kale, spinach, etc. for 99 cents a package (and I'm talking the huge 1 pound packages.) I'm also gluten free but do eat dairy (ouch... $7 a gallon organic milk...) but we (2 of us) eat very well and spend about $40-50 a week on groceries. Getting the cheap produce and then going to Asian and Indian markets next leaves me with money leftover to spend on good quality meat/fish/seafood. Southern California is FULL of places to buy good groceries other than traditional grocery stores.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: weezieduzzit

                        I never thought of going to the 99 cent store for organic produce but I will check it out. We do have one close to here. Thanks for the suggestion! So for two you spend about $200/month. That's amazing! I have my work cut out for me.

                      2. I hate to say it but your rules are going to cost you a lot of money. You are gluten and dairy free. If there isn't a medical reason for it, dairy is a very cheap source of protein. You like to buy local/free range blah blah at farmer's markets, Trader Joe's and Whole foods. I assume you like to buy organic. All that costs extra money and a lot of it. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are the most expensive places to by groceries.

                        The one thing you have going for you is you aren't vegetarian or even more restrictive vegan. You are at least free to use only a few ounces of meat combined with rice, noodles, grains or legumes. When you cook try to cook enough for 2 - 3 meals. Cook the kind of thing that reheats well and stores in the fridge. Steel cut oats cook up and store in the fridge so make a quart or more and heat it up 2 - 3 times in the morning for breakfast. Assuming you work, energy bars are about as cheap as anything to eat for lunch. Yeah yeah.... you can make energy bars. What ever you do, don't eat out of vending machines, taco trucks or restaurants. they are budget killers. And don't stop at Starbuck's. That is $15 - $20 for a 5 day week. For dinner, cook rice pilafs with some meat and mushrooms. Pastas meals are cheap. Again make enough for 2 -3 meals and eat left overs. If your parents live in the area, book a table at Mom's restaurant at least once a week. Mujadara or some other rice lentil combo you can get and it fills the nutritional needs.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Hank Hanover

                          It isn't necessary to be so grain heavy to save money. We spend $40-50 a week for groceries and only eat rice maybe once every 2 or 3 weeks- no other grains (and potatoes even less frequently than rice.)

                          1. re: weezieduzzit

                            I appreciate that. I don't eat gluten and dairy because I am intolerant to both, not because it's a fad. I am also intolerant of potatoes. I try to stay away from heavy usage of grains because I find they don't make me feel very good in general. Meat, fruit, veggies is what I focus on. I know most people don't eat like I do (actually, I know no one who does) but it's what works for me to feel healthy and well.

                            1. re: ScarletB

                              Exactly the same reason I don't eat grains. :)

                        2. I'm single and I live in Southern California. The 99 cent store is a good resource for frozen veggies too.
                          I buy reduced price meat at Smart and Final and bring it home and freeze in single portions immediately.
                          I eat oatmeal and almond milk every day for breakfast (purchase both at Costco)
                          I also purchase double fiber whole grain loaves of bread there ~~ two loaves for $5.
                          I buy butter, cottage cheese, eggs, mayonnaise, greek yogurt, cheese, a flat of apples, and cheese once a month or so at Costco. I do have a lot of meatless meals but since you don't have dairy, what I do won't be of much help.

                          I make soup on a weekly basis, and have a lot of salads as meals. Easy to do here in So Cal. I like farmer's markets too, but have to be judicious because I am a single household. Staying on a food budget is quite doable if you plan ahead and are willing to eat "planned-overs".

                          do I sometimes get bored? yes.

                          I save the treats and splurges for special occassions.

                          1. I eat and shop in a similar way. I like to use extra veg scraps for vegetable stock. You can save the veg scraps and peels in a quart-sized Ziploc bag in the freezer. Once the bag is full, put them in a large stock pot, cover with cold water, and bring it to a boil. Once it's boiling, lower heat to a simmer. Let it simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Let cool, strain, separate into plastic containers, freeze. Then you'll always have delicious, homemade vegetable stock on hand. It'll add more complex flavor to your soups and even make vegetable gravy (use a tiny bit of cornstarch since you're gluten-free).


                            1 Reply
                            1. re: breadwinner

                              I really, really need to start doing this! I eat so many vegetables and it does seem silly just to be composting the scraps. Thank you for the inspiration!

                            2. Aldi's is owned by Trader Joe's, or the other way around and have less expensive itmes.

                              Stock up on things when they are on sale. Especially meats.

                              Since you like to cook, do freezer batches at least once a week and you will always have a meal ready. Just add a healthy salad to your frozen veggie or meat dishes.

                              Do you have a friend who likes to cook? Instead of going out to eat, plan a freeze day together, then trade the meals to keep from getting bored. Better yet, do it together. Do it with several people. I'll bet there are many single people like to eat well, but feel limited because of the same issues you have, budget being one big one.

                              1. In your situation, I think what I'd do first is track my spending over, say, a month. Record what you buy, how much it costs, and also note anything that gets wasted (like food going bad before you use it). Then you know where to concentrate. The other thing I'd do is compare prices in detail - note down what it costs to buy your common items at the farmer's market, at TJ's and Whole Foods, and at the supermarket.

                                I suspect you'll find that you are shopping at the more expensive end of the line - farmer's markets are often substantially more expensive than the equivalent food item at a grocery store (you pay for that quality and freshness), and from my own experience when I lived in LA, TJ's and Whole Foods are nice, but also more expensive than the grocery store. So you may have to decide which is more important - price, or where you shop and the source of your food.

                                What I also found was that the cost of living was high in LA, but that there was a big advantage in living somewhere with a year-round growing season. Fresh produce can get *really* expensive when it's being shipped from overseas in the middle of winter.

                                To reduce meat costs and keep the quality up, try eating smaller portions of meat, or eat it less often, and supplement with cheaper proteins likes eggs and legumes. Use dried beans and lentils rather than canned (it takes some forethought, but does taste better). Go for cheaper cuts of meat - beef shanks rather than steak, chicken legs rather than breasts, or use organ meats.

                                For veggies and fruits, make the more expensive ones a special treat, and get most of your food from the cheaper ones. That may, for example, mean skipping the artichokes and asparagus, and eating more cabbage and cauliflower. Use canned tomatoes rather than fresh for cooking - cheaper, and unless it's the peak of tomato season, usually better quality. Check out the frozen vegetable options, particularly outside of the season for a particular vegetable.

                                Pay attention to sales, and when something you use is on cheap, buy a bunch and stock up, and buy items you use a lot (like rice, say), in larger quantities. Find a bulk spice source, and/or go to a good Asian market for spices and seasonings.

                                Avoid convenience foods, like pre-washed salad mix, or pre-cut veggies - you pay for that extra convenience. Gluten and dairy substitutes also tend to be pretty expensive compared with what they are substituting, so save things like gluten free bread or soy cheese for special occasions, and design your diet around naturally gluten free and dairy free ingredients.

                                Keep an eye on the bruised vegetable section for produce. For some stuff it's not worth it, but you roast slightly old peppers, saute old mushrooms for a good sauce, make apple/pear/guava sauce or banana bread, etc.