If saving money is one of your New Year’s resolutions, take a hard look at your food bills.
In 2009, consumers spent on average 12.99%, or $6,372, of their take-home pay on food, according to the Department of Labor. Broken down by category, that was $3,753 on “food at home” and $2,619 on “food away from home.” By percentages, food comes in third on the expense list, behind only housing (mortgage, rent, etc.) and transportation (car payments, plane tickets, gas, and so on).
But resolving to spend less on food doesn’t mean resigning yourself to a 2011 full of ramen-noodle lunches, or one without a single dinner out. Small changes like the 11 tips below can have a big impact on your food budget:
In-season produce is more plentiful and usually available locally, two factors that can drop prices substantially. It’s also just plain better, as anyone who has risked a mealy January tomato or flavorless December strawberries can tell you. To take advantage of the best seasonal deals, try visiting the farmer’s market, joining a farm share and even planting your own garden.
Dine out creatively
Of course, eating at home will save you more cash. But when you do dine out, using strategies such as coupons (check Frugal Foodie every Friday for the latest dining deals) and happy-hour specials can cut your bill by up to 50%. Splitting your meal to bring home a doggie bag adds extra value, too.
Explore the bulk bins
You can easily save 30% to 50% buying grains, cereals, pastas, flours and beans by the pound, instead of in prepackaged quantities. The savings can be more substantial if you’re cooking say, beans or rice yourself instead of buying pre-prepared, says Denver nutritionist Kate Pheiffer. Bulk can help you have more dietary diversity, too. “You have the chance to soak them, ferment them, sprout them or roast them,” she says.
Use leftovers creatively
Instead of letting the remnants of last night’s dinner linger in the fridge until they are beyond salvaging, reinvent them for tomorrow’s lunch or — after a big holiday meal — another dinner. Even some scraps can be repurposed, with stale bread becoming breadcrumbs and bacon grease saved as an oil substitute. However you slice it, that’s at least one meal less to spend on.
Avoid food waste
While making your weekly shopping lists, try to find recipes that use foods that might otherwise linger — and expire — in the fridge and pantry.
Eat less meat
Meat prices are up 12% from last year, according to the USDA. In comparison, overall food prices rose 1.4%. By giving Meatless Mondays a try, or eating vegetarian until dinnertime, you could cut your grocery bills substantially – and benefit the planet.
Invest in a pressure cooker
Small ones cost as little as $30, and they cook foods faster and with less energy than boiling, steaming, baking or roasting, says Jill Nussinow, a.k.a. “The Veggie Queen.” Making a great dinner will be faster and — with lower gas or electric bill — slightly cheaper.
Learn kitchen first aid
Instead of throwing out kitchen disasters, learn think creatively to fix them. One cook’s ruined roast is another’s spiced, blackened feast — if you know the tricks to salvage it.
Scale back portions
“Make each packaged item you buy last as many days as there are serving in it,” says Rania Batayneh, a San Francisco- and Portland-based nutritionist. You’ll eat healthier, lose a little weight, and have to hit the grocery store less frequently.
Avoid impulse grocery buys
KitchenMonki has a new, free web tool that sends an aisle-by-aisle list to your phone, helping you navigate to find the items you need without scanning every aisle.
Making your own bread, jam and even lattes at home can be significantly cheaper than buying ones at the store of fast-dining restaurants like Starbucks. A homemade blended coffee shake, for example, could cost you $0.40 instead of $3-plus. Just weigh how much you’ll spend on equipment and your own time to make sure you’re actually coming out ahead.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.