Home cooking is a great way to save money on food and eating expenses. But when you first get into it and start enjoying the process – it can be tempting to spend more at the grocery store. Not to mention cooking tools, appliances, etc. As with nearly any interest or hobby, you can get by with what you have, but you also want to try new things, invest in, and even indulge. Being a full time homemaker for the past two years, meal planning is my number one job. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and as someone who has devoted her corner of the internet to homemade food, I truly hope that these tips will help you feel more comfortable and savvy when it comes to home cooking and eating, and save money along the way.
1. Plan your meals.
Start by planning your meals ahead of time, and always before you go to the grocery store. It may seem daunting at first, but as you do it again and again, it will become a part of your routine. I have a separate notebook for meal planning and it helps me remember which days are “off” days – night out, travel, take out, etc. Sometimes I look up the weather – unless we are in the midst of the season when the weather stays pretty much the same. But in the fall? It might be helpful to know that Friday is going to be 15 degrees cooler – perfect time for that grilled cheese and tomato soup.
Our perfect plan is for 3-4 days ahead of time. It might be different for you, depending on your schedule, grocery store proximity, lifestyle, etc.
The better you plan, the better the chance you will have to enjoy the process and save money and time on grocery shopping.
I have this menu chalkboard that I mostly use to draw on, honestly. But from time to time I will transfer our menu from my notebook to this board and it reminds me of what I need to do before dinner!
2. Wash your produce right away.
As a “waste less” part of saving money, start washing your produce as soon as you get home from the store! Chances are, you are going to reach for it when you’re cooking because there’s not going to be that extra step involved.
3. Use microfiber cloths for some clean up.
I grew up without paper towels. Sounds wild, but that was the reality for the post-Soviet era. As a result, I am very resourceful when it comes to homemaking, crafts, and anything where you have to be creative. One thing I remember very well from the way my mom ran our kitchen was to have a small cloth (often times made of old t-shirt or a pillow case) that we used to wipe the table and countertops.
Now, paper towels are a sort of staple in everyone’s kitchen – even in the post-Soviet kitchens. But if you cook a lot, you need to tidy up frequently and paper towel costs can quickly add up. They are great to clean up some extra yucky messes, but you can use (wash, and re-use) plain microfiber cloths to wipe up light spills, water around the sink, and so on. Just remember to wash them from time to time.
4. Learn to use every part of meat and vegetables.
This doesn’t apply to everything, of course. But, for example, you can save chicken bones to make chicken stock for soups and use carrot tops to make pesto! Broccoli stems are also edible, though I must admit, I haven’t tried using them, yet.
5. Buy things you use and eat the most in bulk.
Start by keeping track of what you buy most regularly, and what you end up wasting most regularly. I use carrots very occasionally in my cooking, but they last months in the fridge. So, it makes sense to buy a 5 lb bag of carrots instead of 1 at a time, because it’s a lot cheaper. Some supermarkets will put a helpful note on a price tag giving you the price per lb, quart, 100 units, etc so it makes it really easy to compare. Deli meats and cheeses go bad fast, so it’s not worth stocking up on something that can hurt you. But ground beef, Italian sausage, chicken breasts? It can be up to $2/lb less expensive to buy in bigger quantities and split in portions to freeze for future use.
These are some of our go to meals with freezer staples:
6. Buy store brands.
This is more of a preference based way to save money. Often times, it’s an identical product with a few dollars difference in price. It’s worth trying and comparing!
7. Challenge yourself to cook with what you have.
This ties into the #1, but there is wisdom of its own. Truth is, no matter how well you plan your meals, there are going to be things left over that need to be used. That is why for us, 3-4 days is an ideal time because whatever I did not use on day 1 will most likely be okay on day 4 so I can use it up with the rest of the odds and ends. And honestly, that is one of my favorite ways to cook – when I am challenged. But if you need help getting inspired, there is a plethora of recipes out there and you can most likely find a way to use the ingredients.
If you find you consistently end up with an ingredient you don’t know what to do with – maybe you don’t need to buy it? I learned that lesson with anchovies. I make Caesar dressing from scratch and I used to buy anchovies for the recipe. Out of 10-12 that are in a tin, I only used 2-3. The rest were repeatedly wasted, until one day, I switched to anchovy paste, which lasts so much longer in the fridge.
8. Buy two different kinds of olive oil.
Most recipes (on my website too!) begin with “preheat the olive oil…”. Or, if it’s a salad, it ends with “drizzle with olive oil”. My solution is to have two different kinds of olive oil – one for cooking, and one for dressings. I recently found one at Wegman’s that comes in a 100 oz tin and it’s marked “for cooking and sautéing”. I refill the bottle from time to time and at $19.99/100 oz it’s a money saver. And for all the “drizzle with olive oil’s”, I buy something nicer.
9. Switch to fabric napkins.
Not only do fabric napkins look elegant and make meal time seem more special, it is also much more environmentally friendly. Much like using microfiber cloths! I have been buying and sewing our fabric napkins for a couple of years now. I have a plastic basket on top of my washer, where all the kitchen towels and dinner napkins go. Once it’s full , I wash them altogether. It goes without saying that the cost of paper napkins can add up as well when you eat your every meal at home.
For example: 2 people, 3 meals a day, 7 days a week = 42 meals
42 napkins a week * 52 weeks a year = 2184 napkins
200 pack of napkins – $4.59
It comes to about $50 a year on a paper product that you throw away within minutes.
And yes, it costs money to do the laundry to wash fabric napkins, but you are going to be doing laundry anyways!
Of course, there are exceptions: cocktail napkins for your guests, or the roll of paper towels for chicken wings. I imagine it’s different as well with our elderly, babies, or people who need help feeding themselves. If caring for any of them is your responsibility, it’s okay to do what you need to do! But if you can wash your stuff – wash and reuse.
Lastly, about the napkins (I really like fabric napkins) – collecting them can be fun! It will elevate your table and your home eating experience.
I hope you found these ways to save money helpful and will apply them to your life! Above all, I hope you enjoy the process of home cooking and eating!
From Kitchen, with Love –