The second part of better grocery shopping is deciding what you need to buy to make meals for the family. If most of the meals you eat are prepared by someone else (restaurants and take out), then buying brand-name frozen dinners, salad-in-a-bag, and a Sara Lee cheesecake will probably cost you less on a per-meal basis. Your time counts here, too, as it takes less time to put a frozen dinner in the microwave than it does to drive to Wendy’s and back.
So if you’re paying big bucks to let someone else do most of the cooking, then it’s time to learn some basic cooking skills. Almost without exception, anything you cook at home will cost less than the comparable item you buy from someone else. It is easy to fall into the trap that take-out food and restaurant dollars don’t count in your food budget. They do. If you are eating it, then it counts as part of your food budget.
While I’m talking about restaurant meals, here’s another bit of advice: if you have food left on your plate, take it home and eat it for lunch the next day! Anyone who works in a restaurant would agree. They see huge quantities of partially eaten meals are thrown out every day. You wanted this meal enough to go out of your home, order and pay for it. It isn’t shameful or poor to take home leftovers. And the waitstaff are happy to help you take food that they don’t have to throw away. So ask, and save a little money to pay off a little more debt and build up your emergency fund.
When learning to cook at home, the best advice is to start simple. Take for example Hamburger Helper and its vast array of minimal-cooking-skill cousins and salad-in-a-bag or a frozen vegetable. Follow the directions on the box and get familiar with a pan, the stove, and a knife and cutting board. As you get better at it, you can try enhancing it with onions and peppers, more spices, more whatever you think it needs. This is not a bad way to begin.
Learn to cook with a mind open to possibilities. Cooking is always mucky work. It is going to involve some messiness so don’t be shy or dainty. What you see in restaurants and on TV shows have very little to do with putting food on the table, day after day after day. You will be your own prep cook and your own cleaning staff, topics that cookbooks rarely address and cooking shows never talk about at all.
If you want formal training in cooking, then ask a family member who cooks regularly for lessons or look into one of the many books on “how to cook.” Your library has dozens of titles available. A very good, older book is “Cooking for Absolute Beginners” by Muriel and Cortland Fitzsimmons. This is a Dover Publications reprint of a 1946 title. It is extremely basic, detailed, and doesn’t assume you want to do anything fancy.
Look at cookbooks aimed at kids as well. They are very basic and simple recipes. Or try the Betty Crocker beginner cookbooks, too. Use your library and try the books out before you buy them for your home library.
It is absolutely worth learning basic cooking skills as you will never be able to minimize your food budget if you don’t cook. Look at potatoes as an example. Regular, whole potatoes on sale in the produce department can cost as little as 40 cents a pound, sometimes much less. If you crave microwave-ready baking potatoes that someone else washed and wrapped in plastic wrap you’ll pay triple the price. Instead, scrub a potato, prick the skin with a fork and microwave it for five minutes. If it isn’t done to your liking, nuke it a few minutes more. There. You just saved money.
Cheaper and Better
The difference in price can get even more extreme, and you can avoid paying it with minimal cooking skills. Take Betty Crocker’s boxed Scalloped Potatoes. It isn’t that difficult to peel and slice raw potatoes and layer them in a dish with cream, butter, and seasonings and bake until done. Your version will not only be cheaper, it will taste better. You have no way of knowing how old those dried potato slices are that Betty uses. You also avoid the amazing list of chemicals that Betty adds to make her product shelf-stable.
Frozen potato products leap upward in price per pound as well. Ore-Ida might like you to think so, but it isn’t that hard to peel and cut up potatoes, season them well, and roast them in the oven. Is it worth paying $2 a pound for TaterTots versus 40 cents a pound for regular potatoes and doing the work yourself? If you want to save some money, the choice is obvious.
There is one tradeoff you’ll make when home cooking, and that is it takes more time to cook from scratch. When I’m fainting with fatigue and out of time, I turn to our version of fast food: canned soup and buttered crackers. But still, plain unfancy cooking can take less time than going out through the drive-through and coming back home. You have a much better idea of what you are eating and how much salt and grease is in your food when you make it yourself.
Over time, your cooking skills will improve, you will learn to cook a wider variety of things and you will get faster at it. Unless you go to the CIA — I mean the Culinary Institute of America — you will probably never get as fast as a professional chef, but you will get better with practice. The better you can cook, the more you can get out of what is hanging around in your kitchen waiting to be used. This saves you money, using what you already paid for. More skill means you can take better advantage of the sales at the grocery store. You can use what is the best price versus what is the only thing you know how to cook.
Basic Shopping Skills
Whether you do most of your own cooking or not, you can still save significant money at the grocery store over what you are spending now. It all comes down to awareness and paying attention. Grocery stores are in business to make money, and they depend on you not paying attention, shopping with your stomach, and shopping on autopilot, except when you see something shiny and new.
Over the decades, they’ve developed ways to separate you from as much of your money as possible. Retail experts design and lay out supermarkets, and every choice they make is to encourage you to spend more than you want. This is why you have to walk to the back of the store to get a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk; the more food you pass by, the greater the chance you’ll pick up something on impulse. This is why the floral department (pretty and colorful!), the bakery (smells so good!), and the produce department (nutritious and colorful!) are usually located near the front doors, forcing you to walk through them on your way to other stuff. They prime you to want to spend money. This is why the checkout lanes are narrow and lined with the most expensive-per-item stuff in the store: it is the last chance the grocer has to siphon out more money while you wait for the shopper in front of you to finish up. Mmm, celebrity magazines and candy bars.
So grocery shopping is a skill, pitting you against a mighty industrial behemoth. If you are a poor shopper you may be able to cut your grocery bill in half! If you are better than average, you’ll still spend way less. Cutting your grocery cost is tax-free, too. You already paid your taxes on your income and spending less at the supermarket doesn’t increase your tax bill. It is pure profit for your wallet.
So how do you hone your skills?
First, learn to curb impulse shopping. Don’t walk through a grocery store and throw random things into your cart. Oh, that looks good. That might be fun to try. I’ll bet everyone will eat that. This method can also encourage food waste, if you buy products that don’t get used up and they rot or that no one will eat so it gets thrown out. Throwing food out is the same as throwing money out. If you compost your food waste or feed it to animals it isn’t as much of a waste, but still, why put expensive fancy produce in then compost bin when it is just as happy with carrot peelings?
You start with a list. What items do you need and what have you run out of? What do you regularly use and what do you cook on a routine basis? Even if you never do another thing, making a shopping list that reflects what you really cook with and what you have used up. Sticking to the list will save you some money.
It may help to keep a running list on the refrigerator so as things run out; they can be added to the list. You may be able to train family members to do this; I never could, but some people, I am told, have been able to do so. Having a list means that you don’t go to the supermarket on a daily basis. Unless you are extremely disciplined, daily exposure to all the come-ons in the grocery store is just asking to have your wallet vacuumed clean of cash.
So the list leads us directly to making fewer trips to the store. Damn few of us don’t have enough storage space in our kitchens for a week or two of food. I shop twice a week. I do my big shopping trip on Tuesday, followed by a run on Saturday for milk and half & half and fruit for Sunday breakfast. The second trip is because my family drinks a lot of milk and I can’t store enough gallons for the week. The list for second trip is kept as small as possible. If I could dispense with this second visit I would, as even with all my practice it is darn difficult to avoid spending extra bucks over what I budgeted. Those supermarket lures are really effective.
If I needed too, I could train the family to drink reconstituted dry milk instead of fresh and use more dry milk in our coffee instead of half & half. Then I could store a year’s worth of dry milk and never run out. There are people who do this quite successfully and they save money, too. We aren’t that dedicated now, but I do know that we could do this if we had too.
So tune in next week, and we’ll talk more about grocery shopping.