8 Easy Ways to Get More From Your Food Budget
For years, many people–my husband, mom, sister and even my son–told me to stop wasting so much food.
Even if I had set up a budget for my groceries, throwing away half a piece of chicken here or a handful of grapes there never seemed like such a big deal to me. If I was full, or no longer in the mood for that particular food, I had no problem tossing it.
That is, until I experienced a bad case of sticker shock during a recent trip to the supermarket. The cost of bread, eggs, fish—basically everything I was purchasing—had increased. And, according to the USDA, we can expect prices to rise even higher this year.
As I forked over my money and left with only a handful of bags, I realized just how important it is for me to pay more attention to what I spend on food … and to confront how much of it I shove down the garbage disposal.
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Unfortunately, I’m not the only one with wasteful ways. In 2010, 33 million tons of food was thrown away, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Obviously, wasted food means wasted money, but figuring out how to make your grocery budget go further can be a challenge.
To keep more food in your fridge (and more money in your pocket), try these expert tips.
1. Ward Against Freezer Burn
Those large bags or packages of frozen veggies or meat come in handy when you have a large family, but “each time you open a bag of frozen food, air gets in and will cause freezer burn within two to three weeks,” says consumer saving expert Andrea Woroch. Freezer burn will dry out the meat and make it less tasty. Woroch suggests going small.
For example, if you were going to buy a bag of frozen chicken breasts, you might want to buy a smaller package or, if you do buy the large bag and aren’t going to use it all in one sitting, tightly wrap and freeze single portions using resealable plastic bags or plastic wrap. “This allows you to grab a small portion to defrost instead of defrosting a whole package that may result in some of the food going to waste,” Woroch explains.
2. Salvage Meal Disasters
Even the best of cooks have off days. We’ve all accidentally scorched the rice at some point. But a mistake doesn’t mean your whole feast is reduced to rubble. Charmian Christie, is the creator of the Kitchen Disasters & Fixes app ($2.99), which allows users to search for solutions to a wide range of culinary problems. She suggests these general tips: “If something is falling apart, like your crepes broke, or an omelet stuck to the pan and tore when you removed it, ‘glue’ it together with cheese. If it’s too spicy, add a cooling agent like yogurt. If it’s bland, add something with intense flavor like balsamic vinegar or Worcestershire sauce,” says Christie.
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For your scorched rice, she suggests removing it from the stove and putting the part that’s not burned in a new pot. Then place a slice of plain bread on top of the rice and the lid on the pot for ten minutes. The bread will absorb most of the smoky flavor.
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3. Hit Up Google
If you have a lone potato to get rid of but don’t know what to do with it, turn to Google. Plugging in “1 red potato” plus the word “recipe” will bring up tons of ideas. Be sure to use quotation marks around the number and specific food to help you find recipes that use that particular item and amount, as opposed to just recipes with that item in general.
If you’re crunched for time, the Epicurious or AllRecipes Dinner Spinner apps (both free!) can also be helpful. You’ll find a way to use what you have before it goes bad—and you may discover a tasty new dish!
4. Freeze It
You probably already know you can freeze your meats to make them last longer, but you can prolong the life span of other items by putting them in the fridge, too. Anna Platz, a money blogger with Good Cents Savings, says cheese (either in the block or pre-shredded form), bread, muffins and many other baked goods can be frozen for months and still maintain their taste.
5. Be Smart About Buying in Bulk
If you find a super jumbo-sized bag of oranges on sale for $2, you have to buy it, right? Nope. “Though bulk food deals seem like a way to save on groceries, consumers toss tons of perishable goods that go bad because they simply bought too much,” Woroch says. She recommends you not buy perishable items at warehouse stores unless you know your family will eat them before expiration (or you’re planning a large dinner party). A better bargain for your money, she says, is to plan your meals based on weekly sales and buy only what you need. The Food on the Table app (free) will make personalized meal planning easy. (Check out more meal planning service options here.) In the short-term, buying smaller packages may cost a bit more, but the smaller portions will allow you to use only what you need, without it going bad or getting freezer burn.
6. Give It to the Dogs
Meat scraps aren’t the only thing you can toss to the dogs. Nicole Guillaume, owner of Amazing Mutts, says when veggies like carrots, celery and zucchini get a little too soft for human liking, they make good fodder for Fido. It’s best to cook the vegetables so they’re easier for your dog to digest. “Place them in a pot with water and brown rice and boil them until they are completely soft,” says Guillaume. Then, add a little chicken or cheese and use it to top your dog’s food.
Dogs can also eat fruit like apple and pear slices, and they can have yogurt or cottage cheese (as long as it’s not expired). When feeding your dog veggies, Guillaume warns that you should avoid giving him onions or garlic, which can be hazardous to canine health. But, on the whole, adding human food to your dog’s diet can benefit his health and your wallet. “Cheaper brands of commercial pet food are often lacking in vitamins and nutrients, so using this technique adds nutrition to your dog’s meals,” says Guillaume. And, depending on your dog, when you add leftover vegetables and meats, you may be able to reduce the amount of dog food by ¼ to ½ cup, she adds.
7. Put On Your Chef’s Hat
We’ve all been there. How many times have you thrown out a burnt or otherwise inedible dish? Improving your culinary skills by taking a local class, using online instructions or checking out cookbooks from the library can help you stop making expensive food mistakes.
8. Keep It Kid-Friendly
When your child doesn’t finish her plate, you’re faced with the choice of throwing it out or eating it yourself. Instead of wasting the food (or packing on pounds), start her off with kid-friendly proportions. “Use the USDA’s MyPlate site to get portion sizes that are appropriate for your children’s age,” recommends Jacqueline Keller, Founding Director and Executive Chef of NutriFit. If you know your child’s not fond of a certain food, or it’s her first time trying something, you may want to serve even less than suggested. The same goes for foods high in moisture or protein, like fish, dairy foods, poultry and eggs, because they spoil quickly, Keller says. If your kid wants more, she can always ask for seconds. By keeping the servings small, she’ll be more likely to try (and finish) her broccoli.