I had an epiphany at the grocery store yesterday. This epiphany was the product of many years of painful grocery shopping experiences from my early college days when I would wander aimlessly through the aisles picking up things like pickled pork feet and wondering how I would survive. It was rough man, it was rough...those were the days before I learned how to cook, the days before my butt started sagging, the days when I could eat three happy meals without physically watching the cellulite appear on my bum...
Anyways, the epiphany stemmed from a conversation between me and my boyfriend. Since we're both on a graduate student budget (roughly $1000/mo) my boyfriend and I have become amazingly good at grocery shopping for gourmet dinners for less than $5. We were discussing what a drastic cut our food budget has taken since we started shopping together 6 months ago when he said, "It's amazing how much money I've saved since I stopped shopping for what I wanted."
That's it, I thought, the key to saving money at the store isn't just shopping for deals, the key is not buying what you want. That was it. That was my grand epiphany.
Let's rewind back to my early college days, back to before I met prince charming, started a garden, knew how to separate my laundry by colors and thus wore a lot of slightly-pink-wannabe-white-shirts. I was she-who-lived-off-of-easy-mac-and-peanut-butter-jelly-sandwiches. Yes. I was the girl who went to the store and bought $50 worth of lean cuisines. Did I mention I was single?
Anyways, back in those days (when you walked uphill both ways in the rain to your car then drove to school and had to park a whopping 200 yards from class and still complained about it), I was actually quite envious of all the girls I knew who could cook, bake, and do domestic things. So I started looking over my roommates shoulders when they made dinner. I also tried reading their cookbooks, but my five-year-old mentality swept past the page long recipes and stared at the pictures instead. This was not helpful. Eventually, the interwebs started buzzing with food blogs. I stumbled upon Ree Drummond, otherwise known as The Pioneer Woman, and became enthralled with her recipes and the easy cook-by-picture-steps she posted (she's amazing, go to her blog, or buy her cookbook if you haven't already). I even watched Youtube videos...
In a nutshell, I learned to fry an egg and make some cakes. I was a poster child for those "nailed-it" comics that have popularized Pinterest.
My blossoming culinary skills (and 20 lb. college weight gain) lead me to a startling realization - I really wanted to eat healthy and enjoy my meals, I also wanted to be that girl who had people over for dinner and wowed them with her culinary originality. Mostly, I wanted a boyfriend who bragged about my cooking during lunch with the boys. The problem was that not only did I not know how to fry an egg, I also knew nothing about planning meals, and I was on a college budget. Around this time, my teeny, tiny, firecracker of a grandmother took me grocery shopping and showed me most of the ropes. She was in a wheel chair at the time and refused to let me help her get through the store despite only having the use of one arm at the time - and to make things even better - we ran into my old high school crush there, whom she loudly pointed out. I adore her for these type of memories, but also because she taught me how to find deals and she taught me how to cook a few staple meals. Thank god for my grandmother, because up until that point all I had mastered was one of my roommates salads (thank you Leoma!), sandwiches, boxed meals, and the drive-thru at McDonalds.
So I started trying to cook and budget for groceries. I basically lived off of the three recipes my grandmother showed me, only they were drier, more-burnt versions. That obviously got old, so I started trying to branch out. My one triumphant culinary moment during this time period was when I made the grilled onion and blue cheese cream sauce drizzled over a steak recipe that I found on The Pioneer Woman's food blog. That recipe post also taught me how to properly cut an onion.
I started planning these extravagant recipes that I found online, and they would usually cost $20-40 each in ingredients. I didn't really have the money to shop like that, so I would teeter-totter between eating like a king and eating rice with canned vegetables. Sometimes I would just go to the grocery store without any thought in mind about what to buy and come home with $180 worth of random ingredients, no plan, and no culinary skills to execute any recipes. I once made squash, tomatoes, and salted peanuts mixed with terryaki sauce in an attempt to make stir fry. It was terrible. Did I mention I was still single?
Gradually, however, I started learning how to budget for groceries and to cook a few "staple" meals. I even had a few boyfriends, cooked for some of them, and bribed them to brag to their friends about it. I finished college with two degrees and went to work in Southern California, where I lived with a wonderful woman named Lisa. Lisa taught me how to incorporate healthier ingredients into my recipes. About when I started shedding a bit of the weight I gained in college, I decided to go back for my Ph.D., to voluntarily live on less than $18,000 a year before taxes, and to re-open the chapter of my life where I try to eat healthy, gourmet meals on a $100/month meal plan.
I'm what you might call an over-achiever.
So, I moved 2,600 miles from home, cut my budget in half, and continued trying to live a healthy lifestyle. I developed some great recipes, found some even better ones (Pinterest and Ree Drummond, I love you), grew into myself, met my prince charming, and LEARNED THE ART OF GROCERY SHOPPING ON A BUDGET. Now, after much ado, I would like to share with you some of that "art."
Let me explain. When I plan a meal, I have a very rough outline. Every meal has three components and takes about 30-45 minutes to make (including bake time):
(a) A source of protein...this can be satisfied by BBQ-ing or baking chicken I got on sale, pork I got on sale, hamburgers I got on sale, ribs I got on sale, or any form of meat that I got on sale. The key words here are protein and on sale. Every type of meat I buy will be either (regardless of whether it comes pre-seasoned - I love these types) baked or grilled by me or my boyfriend: Prior to baking, I bread them by dipping the meat in whipped raw eggs, then dip the meat into a bowl of italian bread crumbs followed by a sprinkling of Susie-Q's Seasoning. To BBQ them, the meat is marinated for 5-10 minutes in store bought BBQ sauce then grilled.
Side note: For chicken legs/breasts I usually bake them at 350 F for 20 minutes on each side. I oil a sheet of aluminum foil placed on a cookie sheet, place the breaded and seasoned chicken there, then plop it in the oven. It's done if you cut one open and it's not pink in the center. For steaks, I broil them for 15 minutes each side or until you see the blood pooling on top (this means it's likely medium rare). For pork steaks I broil/bake 15-20 minutes each side or until it's no longer pink in the middle. Pork medallions only cook for 10-20 minutes total or until it's no longer pink in the middle. **ALL COOKING TIMES WILL VARY BY OVEN AND SIZE OF THE MEAT CUT, THESE ARE JUST GENERAL RULES OF THUMB THAT I USE, SO PLEASE BE CAREFUL**
(b) A source of vegetables...these can be fresh or packs of frozen vegetables that I again, got on sale (are you seeing a pattern yet?). I look through the produce section of the supermarket first for "manager's special" labels. This means that you have to use the vegetables within two days of buying them, or you can cut them up, shove them in Tupperware, and freeze them until you want them. What I have noticed is that during the summer there are more manager's specials on fresh produce and during the winter there are more sales (not manager's specials) on frozen produce. My boyfriend never knows if I will be coming home with a 5 lb. bag of frozen mixed veggies (they had a $5 sale once, and I bought three 5 lb. bags only to realize they wouldn't fit in the refrigerator...oops), or if I will be coming home with six corn husks (There is a six for $2 sale right now at Kroger, so, go, run, fast! Get the corn!), a manager's special bag of mixed greens (which I boiled and combined with oregano, rosemary, and a can of stewed tomatoes), or a handful of squash. The only thing he knows is that I always buy a bag of onions, cause onions are cheap and they add flavor to everything. Side note: if you are REALLY poor, like, for example, you had to buy your flights home for Christmas and spent 90% of your monthly income already and have like $10 left for food, cut a cross-shaped notch on the top of two onions, shove butter and a bouillon cube in the notch, wrap it in tin foil, then bake or BBQ for 30-40 minutes, it's a great side dish and it's cheap, cheap, cheap!).
(c) Bread/Grains/Cheap-Filler-Component...this can be a $0.49 box of macaroni, a $1 packet of 90 second in the microwave rice, or a $0.10 bag of rice that you flavor with broth/seasonings/whatever-you-want, a baked potato with butter and sea salt, or my personal favorite, a bagette/piece-of-bread/biscuit with butter, rosemary and garlic (I buy the giant jar of minced garlic because it lasts forever). If you want to get fancy bake it with some cheese on top or shoved in the middle. Again, I look for whatever is on sale.
For example, yesterday we went shopping and they had $0.99/lb. chicken on sale (roughly $2 a pack), so we bought five packs (which will easily feed the two of us for at least 7 dinners or 3 dinners and 4 lunches of leftovers). I know I can either marinade them in BBQ sauce, or bread them and bake them. I can also freeze them for use later on in the month/coming months. **Side note: to defrost meat, put them in the refrigerator for two days prior to cooking, do not defrost meat in the sink at room temperature!!**
The boyfriend found two packs of steaks on sale for $3 each in the manager's special bin. Those will be BBQ'd or baked, both using his awesome-one-of-a-kind marinade. You can also use Susie Q's seasoning or BBQ Sauce instead.
I found an entire rotisserie chicken on sale for a total of $4 (beer can chicken anyone).
We also bought some ground meat, and a pack of salmon filets which were on sale for $3 each.
In the vegetable department I found 6 corn husks for $2 total. I can boil them or BBQ them.
They had a manager's special on zuchinnis and yellow crook neck squash. I bought a bag with 4 of each kind of vegetable for a total of $3. In the frozen food section they had broccoli spears and spinach packs on sale for $0.89 each, so I bought some of those too.
For lunches we found peaches on sale for $0.99/lb., and bananas on sale for $0.55/lb.
Now, not everything we need is always on sale, but we generally buy the store brand/cheapest option in most cases. We do have a few things that we splurge on because of a preference for brand, but if you're saving money on 90% of your grocery bill, I don't see the harm in a few splurges if it's worth the quality. Some of our staples are: milk, butter, potatoes, white onions, lunch meat, swiss cheese, pesto, alfredo sauce, vodka spaghetti sauce, eggs, BBQ sauce, italian bread crumbs, cereal, as well as applesauce packets, bagged baby carrots, and packaged crackers for lunches. I have an herb garden to supplement our meals with rosemary, oregano, basil, and mint. I have been TRYING to grow tomatoes, but some bastardly black bugs are making this impossible, so I also have to buy tomatoes on occasion, but if the recipe allows it, I buy canned tomatoes cause they are so cheap. I've been trying to replace pasta with spaghetti squash, but that's kind of expensive so it doesn't happen very often. I also splurge and buy ground lamb instead of ground beef when I can.
That is our general list, and it generally costs us no more than $80-90 in total ($40-45 each) every two weeks. We use the left overs from each meal to take for lunches. Once every two months our bill will be $100-200 if we have to buy cleaning supplies, toiletries, household things, spices, olive oil, etc. etc. You get the gist. The main bulk of our grocery shopping however, is the protein, vegetable, bread and fruits, which we buy as cheap as possible. We go grocery shopping every 2 weeks (on or around pay day) and rarely spend more than $40 each.
I learned a long time ago that if you cook tasty, healthy meals and you plate them in pretty ways, you save a lot of money because you are less likely to go out and buy dinner (which can be $20-100 for two people each time). Also, never, I MEAN NEVER, grocery shop by going aisle by aisle, or go to the store hungry. The pain and suffering your bank account and kitchen cupboards will endure is NOT WORTH IT. That is a recipe for impulse buying that will only lead to massive grocery bills and piece-meal ingredients. My mom does this A LOT, which explains why she has an abundance of canned pumpkin, saltine crackers and canned oysters. None of these can be combined in a good way. Trust me, we've tried.
How do you save money on groceries?