Over the past eight to ten years, I've picked up cooking tips and tricks by listening carefully to others, researching and learning the hard way. I've come a long way since then and would love nothing more than to share some of what I've garnered so others can reap the benefits. I earnestly hope this article (part one and two) will help fledgling and experienced cooks save money and eat healthier in general. Cheers!
1. Check the Price Per Ounce & Scrutinize Labels
If you're a teenager, college student or just starting to cook and shop for yourself (there is no age limit here), you may be missing out on the surest way to save money on your groceries. Nope, it's not extreme couponing. The majority of coupons are for super processed name brand products that typically cost more and are chalk full of fillers, additives, and chemicals. Not to mention the fact that they generally have little nutritional substance.
Off Brands Are Not Always Best
And no, the answer is not to rely solely on off-brand products like "best choice", "always save", etc. Oftentimes those products are exactly the same as the name brand alternatives, just cheaper. This immediately draws folks who are penny pinching, which I can understand.
However, many times the off-brand products also contain additional unwanted ingredients. Is it worth paying an extra ten, twenty or fifty cents--even a dollar more--to have a product that's more...for lack of a better word, "pure"? If you can afford it, yes! But the only way you'll come close to deciphering a product's quality is by scanning the ingredients.
You've Gotta Read, Read, Read Those Labels
And what goes hand in hand with scouring the ingredients label? Only the surest way to get the best value for your money: comparing the average price per ounce (also know as unit price) between similar items. It's possible that your local grocery stores already list the cost per ounce on the price label. If not, it's easy to do the math with a calculator. Bring one with you to the store or use your cell-phone.
Here's an example of Comparing Average Price Per Ounce:
Product A: Jarred Spaghetti Sauce
Ounces (listed on the jar): 12
Average Price Per Ounce: $2.50/12 = 0.2083333 (20.8 cents/per ounce)
Product B: Jarred Spaghetti Sauce
Ounces (listed on the jar): 32
Average Price Per Ounce: $3.99/32 = 0.1246875 (12.4 cents/per ounce)
Looking at price alone, you'd assume that Product A is a better deal because it's cheaper. However, if you calculate the unit cost, it's actually .084 cents more per ounce for Product A than B. If you were to buy Product B at the same price per ounce that Product A is sold for, it would cost $6.65 for a 32-ounce container of jarred pasta sauce.
If it's a product that you will use before the expiration date or can freeze for later, it's more cost efficient to purchase Product B.
However, cost isn't the only factor here. Let's suppose that Product A is organic and Product B isn't. Let's also suppose that Product B has high fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and soybean oil in it. If it were me, I'd browse around for a third option that only had basic spaghetti sauce ingredients like tomato paste, water, onion, garlic, oregano, salt, etc. and see if I could find a better price per ounce than Product A.
Sometimes a third or fourth option isn't available and you'll have to choose the lesser of two evils. In that case, what is more important to you: saving a few dollars or eating a product without processed ingredients? It's a personal decision, but it's something to consider every time you shop.
Side note: If you can't find a product worth paying for, learn to make it from scratch instead. In many cases, this is the cheapest option.
2. Avoid Individually Wrapped & Ready-Made Products
When you purchase pre-portioned or ready-made foods and drinks, not only are you paying more per ounce than if you were to portion or prep everything yourself--and wasting a lot of packaging in the process--but usually you're consuming a product that is full of additives to keep it fresh longer.
Pre-Shredded Cheese Versus Block Cheese
A common example is shredded cheese. It's certainly not hard to grate your own cheese, yet many people rely on the packaged stuff to save time. Unbeknownst to them, the food companies cover the shredded cheese with additives to keep it from sticking together (you know, what normal cheese does.) They call it "caking". Common anti-caking agents are potato starch, corn starch, cellulose powder (derived from wood pulp) and calcium sulfate. I don't know about you, but all I want in my cheese is the normal stuff: milk, enzymes, and salt.
The best way to avoid this and save money per ounce is to buy quality block cheese (I try to buy 100% grass-fed when it's on sale) and shred it yourself. It only takes a few minutes to do with a good cheese grater.
Unless the cheese you buy says "made with milk from cows not treated with rBGH" or "rBST-free", there's a great chance it's made with milk from cows treated with synthetic hormones, namely recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) and recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Read here to learn more about them. If your favorite brand isn't labeled, call their customer service line and ask them directly. (Sorry, cheese tangent.)
Buy Drinks & Snacks in Bulk Or Make Them at Home Then Package Yourself
Back to the main point. Why waste money on individually wrapped one to five-ounce packages of crackers, cheeses, fruits, nuts, dried fruits, fruit snacks, yogurts, chips, cookies, etc. when you can buy them in bulk at a MUCH lower cost per ounce and portion them yourself?
The same goes for bottled waters, iced teas, juices, electrolyte drinks, coffees, sodas, and smoothies. It's so much cheaper and healthier (most bottled drinks are high in calories, which come from sugar and corn syrup) to fix them at home. Make a fresh batch every day, every few days or once a week and bring homemade drinks with you in a thermos travel mug, stainless steel water bottle, or glass water bottle with a silicone sleeve.
If you regularly buy bottled drinks and hot beverages from coffee shops or convenience stores and switch to making your own, you'll save hundreds of dollars a month. Literally. When my boyfriend tallied how much money he was spending on Red Bull every month, his jaw dropped.
After years of hearing me preach the benefits of yerba mate tea, he's recently switched to drinking homemade brewed and canned yerba mate instead (YAY!!!). In my opinion, it's the perfect healthy alternative to energy drinks. I plan on writing a post about that soon, so keep an eye out.
When you buy meat or vegetables that are chopped, portioned and ready for cooking (as I mentioned above in #2), you're paying the grocery store to do it. Convenience items cost several dollars more per pound or ounce than the alternative, which is prepping the food yourself.
Sure, the ready-made kabobs, potato salads, sliced fruit and seasoned burger patties may look tempting, but they're easy and fast to replicate at home. And if you're truly concerned about saving time, simply pick one day a week to wash, cut and store food items that you can then use to assemble quick meals like tuna patties (pictured below).
Check out my Five Tips for Making Your Produce Last Longer article for suggestions on maximizing the longevity of fresh produce.
Aside from the cost savings, preparing and portioning your own meat and vegetables has one major benefit: food scraps. Save the peels, stems, stalks and ends from your vegetables in the freezer to make homemade stocks. Do the same with the unsavory bits you cut off from prepping your meat and combine those with leftover roasted bones to make nutrient dense meat broths or stocks.
My favorite thing to do as of late is roast a whole pastured chicken or slow cook a whole chicken in my crock-pot, then save the carcass for making homemade chicken stock. If you'd rather chop the whole chicken into pieces to cook individually, here's a great tutorial on how to cut up a whole chicken.
Imagine never buying sodium saturated store-made stocks again and cooking it for free from your own scraps. Isn't that awesome?!
4. Make Condiments and Dressings From Scratch
It's a known fact: Americans love condiments. Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing, honey mustard dressing, blue cheese dressing, hot sauce, salsa, vinaigrettes, relish...the list goes on.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of condiments and dressings sold in supermarkets and provided in restaurants are saturated with high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified (GMO) oils like canola and soy, lots of sugar and salt to make up for flavor lost from using less oil (in the low-fat or fat-free versions) and hoards of additives.
Seriously. Walk through the condiments and dressings aisle of your local grocery store and play the ingredients game. See how many bottles you can find that don't have corn syrup, MSG, natural flavors, artificial food dyes, or chemicals in them. Not many.
Who wants to slather their food with seasoned corn syrup and sugar? Blech. Not this gal.
Ditch the crappy products and save money by whipping up your own healthy condiments and salad dressings in minutes. For starters, here's my Buttermilk Garlic Ranch Dressing, Spicy Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette and Sweet n' Spicy Kansas City-Style Barbecue Sauce.
5. Source Spices from the Bulk Section or Specialty Markets
It's no secret that spices--especially spice mixes--sold at grocery stores usually come in tiny portions and are highly overpriced. Pumpkin pie spice is a great example of a seasonal spice that's sold at inflated prices, which is why I wrote a post explaining how to mix the spices yourself to save money. Other times, the pre-mixed spices have unsavory add-ins and lots of sodium, as is often the case with taco seasoning and lemon pepper seasoning.
In most cases, the best way to avoid the high prices and obtain the best quality product is to mix spices yourself. However, to get the best deal, you'll want to seek out the freshest whole or ground spices around, usually sold in bulk. The stuff at your local grocery may not cut it. Sure, it's there when you need it, but if you want to really save money, you'll head to an Indian or Asian Market.
Unlike regular grocery stores spices that have been lingering for who-knows-how-long (months or years, maybe?) in warehouses and on supermarket shelves, these markets go through whole and ground spices a lot quicker. That means they'll likely cost less per ounce than the alternative and are fresher, to boot.
This doesn't mean you should run out and buy 5 lb. bags of all your spices. Just buy what you need, or what you'll consume in the next six months to a year, so all the spices you have on hand at any given time are fragrant and pungent.
Note: If you live in a small town and don't have access to markets like these, you can buy high-quality, discounted herbs & spices online through sites like Mountain Rose Herbs and Thrive Market.
An even better way to ensure freshness is to buy certain spices whole and grind them yourself right before using. An electric grinder or mortar and pestle work well for dried spices like black or white peppercorns, cloves, cumin seeds, star anise...plus a slew of other stuff. I use my mortar and pestle every day to grind black pepper. There's a huge difference in flavor between fresh and pre-ground pepper.
Oh, and when you buy certain spices whole, you can toast them for a few minutes in a hot pan to concentrate the flavor before crushing or grinding them. Another perk of buying super fresh spices? The aroma and flavor from well-seasoned dishes will satisfy your senses and belly.
Stay Tuned for Part Two
I originally intended for this to be a single post, but it grew to such a size that I figured I'd split it into two. Sure, it wasn't as long as my unraveling the real meanings behind egg carton labels article, but sometimes long-winded, informational posts give folks brain drain and I wanted to kindly split it up to give 'em a breather.
EDIT: Here's the link to part two so you can get tips #6-10: Ten Tips for Saving Money On Groceries and Eating Healthier (Part Two)
I'd like to hear from YOU!
Do you have any questions, stories or suggestions about saving money on groceries that might help other readers?
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P.S. Keep Reading! More Posts From The Rising Spoon:
Note: The old image I used in this post (that's still floating around social media) was this image (used with permission): Pike Place Market by Robert Donovan