Thursday, February 5, 2009

The top 10 ways to save on groceries

I was on recently looking for easy, after-work recipes (love this website, if you're a foodie, definitely bookmark it!), and I came across a fabulous list of ways to save at the grocery store. I am in no way an accomplished chef or even come close to one (I once accidentally lit a bag of microwaveable popcorn on fire -- in the microwave), so when I perused the items on the list, some seemed like a far cry from what I normally do in the kitchen. Roast my own deli meat? Who am I, Martha Stewart? Definitely not, but after I got past the Betty Crocker stereotype of some of these tips, they actually aren't that hard or time-consuming, and best of all, they're very creative ways to save you money!

1. Pick and Choose Which Organics You Buy. Save on the items where buying organic doesn’t give you as much benefit, like onions and avocados. These crops retain the least pesticide residue (peaches and apples are the worst, according to the Environmental Working Group), so if you buy organic for that reason, you can feel OK about purchasing some conventional produce.

2. Skip the Deli Counter. It’s not very hard to roast your own turkey or beef for sandwiches, and you’ll enjoy substantial savings. Even precut turkey tenders are about $4 cheaper per pound if you roast and slice them yourself versus the $8.99-per-pound roasted turkey at the deli. Plus you can season it exactly how you like. If you’re not very well versed in roasting meat, invest in a cheap meat thermometer and you’ll feel a lot more confident.

3. Make Your Own Granola. Even in bulk, granola and cereal are expensive (Chow found them in the $3- to $8-per-pound range). Put a few cups of plain rolled oats on a baking sheet; toast them in the oven for about 20 minutes (stirring once); toss them with about a quarter cup of honey, some vanilla, a little bit of brown sugar, and a tablespoon of vegetable oil; then put them back in the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes, and you’ll have a base to which you can add whatever dried fruit and nuts you want, like this recipe for peanut butter and coconut granola.

4. Buy Spices in Small Amounts. Spices are often used in very small amounts, so don’t waste money on the big jars at the grocery store. Instead, see if you can find what you need at ethnic markets, where Chow has found the spices packed in little plastic envelopes to be considerably cheaper. If you have a store in your area that offers bulk spices, buy only as much as you need. (I blogged on this phenomenon a few months ago here.)

5. Don’t Pay a Premium for Health Fads. Pomegranate juice is a darling of superfoods enthusiasts, bartenders, and chefs, but it carries a hefty price tag. Christie Matheson, co-author of Wine Mondays: Simple Wine Pairings with Seasonal Menus, suggests using less expensive cranberry juice (look for the highest percentage of juice), which has the same “tart, tangy flavor, lends a pretty scarlet hue to cocktails, and comes loaded with antioxidants.” It’s about $3 to $6 cheaper per quart.

6. Find Sparkling Alternatives. Real Champagne is expensive. If you want to drink some bubbles, Matheson suggests popping open a cheaper bottle of Spanish cava. It’s “made according to the same traditional method, and can be just as dry and delicious.”

7. Make Mock Maple Syrup. When things were tight growing up, this writer's mom would simmer brown sugar with water and whatever spices were on hand (say, a vanilla pod that might otherwise be tossed after scraping) to make syrup for pancakes and waffles. It’s good, and it keeps you away from the nasty commercial substitutes out there if you can’t afford to buy the real stuff.

8. Create Snacks from Scratch. Prepared foods like pesto and hummus cost $4 to $6 for a tiny package, but they’re easy to make. For hummus, put a can of garbanzo beans in the blender with some lemon juice, garlic, salt, a dash of olive oil, and, if you have it, a dollop of tahini, then purée. You can throw in whatever else you like at this point: herbs you might need to use up, olives, roasted peppers, etc. Likewise with pesto: Skip the $6 package and buy a bunch of basil, then put the leaves in the blender with olive oil, garlic, salt, and a handful of nuts (pine nuts are traditional, but you won’t miss them if you use less expensive almonds or walnuts).

9. Use Substitutions for Fancy Ingredients. Crème fraîche is a sour cream–like ingredient common in recipes like Chow's Savory Onion and Leek Tart and Winter Greens Lasagne, but it can cost nearly $10 per pound, and might be hard to find. readers suggest using sour cream instead, or you can make this simple version suggested by Matheson: “Sanitize a small nonreactive bowl in your dishwasher or boiling water, combine 1 1/2 teaspoons of buttermilk with 1/2 cup of heavy cream, cover the bowl, and let it sit at room temp for 24 hours. Stir it and use it, or keep it covered in the fridge for up to a week.”

10. Chop Your Own Greens. Bagged salad mixes are a terrible value. Instead, buy a fresh head of lettuce, and when you unpack your groceries spend an extra five minutes washing, drying, and chopping it up, then store it in a bag in the refrigerator. It’ll be just as convenient, fresher, and cheaper. []


Julie said...

Not only are bagged salads expensive, they are a huge harbor of bacteria. Much cheaper and healthier to chop your own. Thanks!

Budget Mama said...

I'm definitely guilty of buying the bagged greens. It would be a savings to buy and chop.

Emilita said...

Most of those I'm on board with, but some, I'm not so sure. It's probably because my diet is different than what the people are eating and the meals they are planning. Like maple syrup - I've been known to eat the synthetic stuff in my day, but even now that I've been turned on to real maple syrup, I don't use it enough for it to make a significant dent in my food budget. Maybe if I made pancakes for a family of four to six people several times a week, but not as a single person who uses the stuff a few times a month, if that.

Plus, since I'm usually cooking for one, portion size and finishing all my ingredients is a big issue. So even though it would be cheaper to make my own sandwich meat, I don't know what I'd do with 3 pounds of roast beef. (Well, eat it. But that's a lot of servings for one person, especially since I don't usually freeze deli meats.)

I've been able to save money by replacing meat with other proteins like beans, eggs and tofu in some meals. I also make sure to balance the protein, particularly meat, with plenty of veggies and starches. That helps make meals cost-effective and nutritionally balanced.

But I sometimes buy bagged salads. That's a habit I'll gladly break.

Cali Bar Girl said...

Bagged salads also go bad faster! I love the article on which produce items to buy organic...I got so used to buying organic when I lived in London b/c it was often cheaper than non-organic (certain organic items like bread were subsidized by the UK government...wish that were the case here)!

BTW, I just realized now that you had commented on my blog before! I don't know why I never got the alerts before. I have a new blog now (same account, different blog title) about planning a budget wedding. Thank you for all of your tips!

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