This month we'll be sharing solutions that are so simple and easy—and at times, automated—that they feel like magic. Hocus Pocus celebrates all the small ways you can trick yourself into living a better life.
There are a lot of ways to spend less money at the grocery stores. Couponing or buying cheaper food are two that come to mind, though neither are always ideal for our sanity or our health. But there are ways to plan ahead and mentalities you can adopt about how you plan your meals, shop for them, and cook them that will reduce your monthly grocery bills without compromising quality.
Before You Go to the Grocery Store
Don't knock it 'til you've tried it — and not just for a week. You will save so much money from buying only what you need and from not making those extra last-minute runs to the stores. You'll also save yourself from going out to eat because you'll have what you need to cook a meal and you won't have the mental hurdle of figuring out what to make. I use Plan to Eat and love it. You can drag saved recipes onto a calendar and it'll populate a list for you.
Choose meals with cheaper protein sources
As you're meal planning, look for meals that use alternative protein sources, such as beans or eggs.
Choose some dishes with meat as a flavor rather than the main attraction
As a corollary to the above, try to use meat as an ingredient rather than as the star of the dish. Think soups, pastas, casseroles, etc.
Choose one soup
Soup is a great money-saving dish because it's filling but the ingredients can be stretched. Take a soup meal up a notch with slices of a delicious baguette drizzled with olive oil, broiled, and scraped over with a garlic clove, or add grilled cheese sandwiches to the menu that night. Serve with greens dressed in olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper.
Choose one vegetarian meal
In keeping with a meat-reduction money-saving strategy, go full-on herbivore for at least one meal during the week. If this isn't something you normally do, you're also growing your menu repertoire this way. Win/win!
Plan for at least one leftovers meal
Rather than buying ingredients for a whole separate meal, double one of your recipes for the week. This often turns out to be cheaper, and you'll also save yourself a night of cooking. You could also save a whole meal for later.
Check for any staples you already have and make substitutions when possible
For less frequently used ingredients (like hoisin sauce or miso in my house), make sure you don't already have some hiding in the fridge or pantry before you buy a whole new bottle. Also look over your pantry, fridge, and freezer with your shopping list in hand and make a little game of seeing what ingredients you might be able to substitute for things you already have. For example, by all means use brown rice instead of white if you already have it.
Decide beforehand which snack foods and indulgences you'll allow yourself to buy
The overarching theme of planning ahead continues here with including treats and extras in your list. Without depriving yourself entirely of foods that you could really do without, cut down on extra expenses by deciding beforehand what chips, cookies, and specialty drinks you'll buy on your shopping trip. This prevents the "oh that looks so good" shopping cart fill-up.
We all know what happens if you go shopping on an empty stomach. Fill your tummy before heading into the danger zone.
While You're Shopping
Put your blinders on
You're immune to specials and check-out line enticements. Remember, stick to your list! The only exception is BOGOs* but only for staples that you use regularly. Don't forget, stores aren't putting things on sale and making them presentable and within easy reach to save you money.
*buy one get one
Consider buying generics
Reaching for the brand you always buy? Hold your horses. Look at other brands and especially generic store brands and consider trying them. Many stores will give you a refund if you try their generics and they're not to your liking, so you have nothing to lose — and even something to gain if you find the Publix spaghetti noodles are as good as the fancy Italian brand.
Trade time for money
Don't buy the chopped onions or the pre-washed lettuce. Go one or more steps backwards in the cooking process and brace yourself for doing as much of the prep work as possible at home. The savings will add up. Psych yourself up for the extra time in the kitchen by borrowing an awesome audio book from the library, downloading a good podcast, or heck, soliciting the help of loved ones and conversing! Pro tip: Tell yourself, "There's no such thing as pre-made salad dressing" and make your own at home. It's fast, easy, and oh so much tastier — and cheaper!