This post is a boiled down version of all of my shopping tips so you can update them to your tastes, favorites and needs. Understanding how to cook and shop can save money, time and lead to healthier eating habits.
Fun Fact: In the US, an average of 1 lb of food per person a day is wasted. This can add up to costing a family of 2 about $750 per year or of 4 about $1,500 per year. That money can be spent on car repairs, maintaining the home or even a vacation! The cost of food waste can be a large expense for a low and even medium income level family.
When cooking in the modern age having a strong focus on cooking efficiently is important. I have a full time job and enjoy extracurricular activities often. I do not have time to spend hours every day cooking. Cooking a meal can be time consuming so here are my tips to keeping the time required to cook per meal low.
- When you cook a meal, cook enough for 2 or more dinners so you don't have to cook everyday. I only cook 2 to 3 times a week and eat leftovers the days I don't cook.
- Cook some basics in advance. I will often bake 4 to 6 chicken breasts then store them in a gallon plastic bag in the fridge to eat over the week. The cooked chicken can be used in lunch sandwiches or even for dinner by just heating the chicken up and adding it to a meal. This will also cut down on the time to cook dinner since the chicken is already cooked.
My other pre-made staples are soups, I freeze the soup in quart bags. 1 is enough for 1 meal for me.
- When cooking dinner I like to only use one pot that everything can be cooked in. Depending on the meal components they can be cooked together or one item at a time. This will significantly cut down on the dishes you will have to clean up!
- If I want an easy meal I will cook a recipe that can be made in 1 pan in the oven. This provides a full meal but also time to do other things while it bakes. The clean up is also quick because I will put parchment paper in the pan for quick clean up.
In my cooking efficiency focus I like to be aware of food waste, below are my steps to limit it.
- If you don't want to eat the left overs for dinner again, take them to lunch or freeze them
- Keep meat in the freezer, don't store meat in the fridge unless it is cooked or you plan on cooking it the next day. This will stop it from spoiling.
- Firm Rule: I don't cook unless there are no left overs in the fridge to eat.
- A basic understanding of food safety can help you judge if food is still good to eat. After "sell-by" or "best-by" date, food is often still safe to eat. Check out the links at the end of this post to learn more about those dates, what they mean and general food safety.
My key to cooking is planning meals to guide my shopping trips and also having shelf stable basics. I buy a lot of shelf stable, versatile and frozen items because they either last long or can be used so easily in recipes. In this next section I will talk about understanding the portions to make a meal and using those amounts to build your shopping list. If I want to make a specific recipe I will buy special items but most of my list are items I buy every trip. Having a diverse pantry of basics will allow you to get creative or even "just throw something together".
Pantry basics/staples: These items I keep well stocked and re-stock as needed each shopping trip. - Seasonings (a seasoning set from a department store is a good start), rice, assorted cans of beans/veggies, lemons, stock (liquid, frozen or bouillon), bread crumbs, oatmeal, flour, sugar, salt, eggs, onions, green peppers and mushrooms
- I keep onions, peppers and mushrooms because they add so much flavor to recipes with a quick slice or dice.
Breakfast: I keep milk, breakfast cereal, breakfast bars and eggs in case I want breakfast. On average I eat breakfast once a week. Since I eat it so rarely I don't buy perishable items that can only be used for breakfast. The only perishable items in this group, eggs and milk, can be used in so many different things that I don't mind having extra on hand.
- Tip: I buy eggs by the 18, if you get fresh ones they can last more than a month in your fridge. When using eggs be sure to crack them into a spare container before adding them to your recipe so in case you get a bad egg it can be discarded without ruining your recipe.
- Also different types of milks have different shelf-life's in the fridge. An example is almond or oat milk will keep longer without spoiling vs cow milk so I buy oat milk if I know i'm not going to use the milk quickly.
Lunches: I buy items for my boyfriend and I to have lunch 7 days a week. I will also take leftovers from dinner to lunch too!
- Lunch meat and cheese, hand fruit, veggies (my staples are cucumbers and carrots), sandwich bread, chips/crackers, fruit/nut mix and lunch snacks if desired.
Dinner: My starting point for dinner is to build a 3 course meal meaning the meal has a protein, starch and veggie. From this protein-veggie-starch formula you can create millions of recipes.
- Protein: 1 lb ground meat or 4 chicken breasts is enough to cook 1 time, it provides 2 meals.
- Veggies: I use frozen veggies a lot, a 16 oz bag is enough for 1 or even 2 meals. I also get fresh veggies. Squash keeps for at least a month in a cool dry place so I like to stock up on them when they are on sale.
- Starch: My favorites starches are rice, potatoes or pasta. These can be found in various forms and varieties. I cook 1 lb of pasta per meal. I make 1 cup uncooked of rice per meal. I will cook about 1 lbs of potatoes for a meal.
Below is my shopping list from the descriptions above so you can see the quantities that I buy. This list will last me any my boyfriend about 2 weeks and will cost me between $150 and $200. If you haven't used items from your last trip, don't purchase more.
Pantry Staples - re-stock any used items
Breakfast - 1 gallon milk, 1 bag breakfast cereal, 18 ct eggs and a box of breakfast bars
Lunches - 3 loaves bread, 3 bags chips/crackers, 12 pieces hand fruit, 2 - 16 oz block of cheese
*Buy each week - 4 lbs lunch meat, 2 lbs lunch cheese, 2 lb baby carrots, 3 cucumbers
Dinner - Add to this list anything extra you'd like for special recipes!
- Protein - 3 packs of 4 chicken breasts each, 4 - 1 lb packs of meat that we like or what is on sale
- Veggies - 8 lbs of assorted veggies from produce or frozen. Think about 1 lb per meal.
- Starch - 3 - 1 lb boxes of pasta and 5 lbs of potatoes is enough for 4 meals
Now that you have your list, lets talk about tips to save money while you shop. I use various techniques to be aware of the cost of items. The 2 top tips are using sales and unit prices. I am also going to talk about a few common topics of saving money on food too.
- Look through your junk mail and use those local fliers from your preferred store to keep an eye out for sales, B(uy)O(ne)G(et)O(ne)s are my favorite!
- Some stores have rewards programs, I love taking advantage of them. The savings will add up!
- Review unit prices of different brands of the same product to find the better deal.
- A unit price is the cost of the item per unit or oz of product, this is found on the label with the price.
- This allows you to compare the value of products by comparing them on the same level, example per unit or per oz.
- A unit price can be different between different brands of the same product or even different sizes of the same brand. This is when savings can be seen when buying in a larger quantity, or in bulk.
Tip: If buying things in bulk break them into "per meal" portions when you get home if the item needs to be frozen, like meat.
- Sometimes even when an item is on sale it may not be the better deal. This can be checked by calculating the unit price.
- Often the generic brand of the same item will have the lowest unit cost. Buying generic food brands has saved me a lot of money. The name brands often make the generic brands so buying generic can save yourself some money on the same exact thing. Check out the link at the end of this post for some facts on generic vs name brand foods.
- Coupons can provide nice savings and can be found in paper fliers, online, store apps and even in store. Just make sure you don't by something "because" you have a coupon. That brand might not be the cheaper option in the aisle even with the coupon.
- I like to take advantage of shopping for groceries online then using the stores "pick up" program. It allows me to do my shopping at home, whenever, then spend only 10 minutes picking up my order groceries.
- I often shop at different stores for different items. Check out stores for bulk shopping, online, farmers markets and even discount grocery stores. When shopping at different stores keep in mind the difference in prices to help you in future shopping trips. The only concern I've had with shopping discount stores is that the produce isn't always as fresh as the main stores so the discount store produce may not last as long. If you are keeping produce for some time you may see a difference but if you are cooking it the same day enjoy those savings!
Thanks for reading! I hope this post has given you a lot of information on how to be a better home cook and a smarter shopper. Being mindful and aware of my food habits has saved me so much time and money. I have been able to spend the saved time and money on things I am really excited to do like travel and try new activities. I hope you can too!
See below for links to additional readings and facts from this post!
Guide to Meal Servings
Cost and Value of Generic vs Name Brand Foods
Facts on Food Waste
Additional Tips on Limiting Food Waste
Understanding the Use Dates on Food Packaging