Right now, food feels very f*cking expensive. It is expensive by all measures. For numerous reasons food prices are rising and we're feeling the effects as customers and consumers.
I feel it. Food is my domain at home. From meal planning to shopping and cooking, food is solely my task to manage in our shared household. I like it that way, I find the process of creating meals soothing and I have a system for how we eat at home down so that it feels not effortless, but manageable. My husband handles laundry, the car, and numerous other tasks so that I can stay in my comfortable domestic domain.
This means I also track our grocery expenses. Since the start of the pandemic, our food costs have risen about 20%. The squeeze hurts a bit. And if we feel it as solidly privileged upper-middle-class millennials without kids, I can't imagine how others are feeling it.
Thankfully, I have many years of experience making my home food life feel abundant with a very small budget. College and grad school got me right in that sense.
So I've decided to round up my top tips for reducing grocery costs as food prices rise. I'll preface this with a note that many of these tactics require investment. Either financial, to pay for memberships or buy in bulk to save on costs per ounce, gram, etc. Or, they're time-intensive, requiring extra investment in the form of precious hours. I hope they're useful.
My Top 5 Tips For Combatting Rising Food Prices
1. Get better about eating what you have at home
This isn't just saying "we have food at home" and forgoing ordering out. Rather, before doing any grocery shopping really open up your cabinets and fridge and dig through. Here's my basic routine:
Do a thorough inventory. Go through your pantry, cabinets, fridge, freezer and wherever else you store your food and make a list of everything you currently have. You likely have much more food at home than you think.
Make a grocery list and meal plan that incorporates the random bits from the back of your fridge and the lonely jar of sauce in your cabinet that's been there forever. Google recipes that can make use of the ingredients you already have at home. And check out my method for using up leftovers to craft amazing meals.
For even more tips on cutting grocery costs by starting with what you have at home, You Need A Budget also did a great series on this on TikTok where someone went from spending $1,200 on groceries a month to under $400.
2. Get good at grocery store math: Do the calculations, take notes and shop around
Not all stores display the unit price (price per standard unit of measurements like ounce or pound) for goods. And yes, the unit price can be unreliable. But paying attention to the unit prices for your favorite products, and which stores nearby seem to have the best consistent unit prices, can help you put together a grocery list that saves money. The larger jars/bottles/jugs are not always the most economical. Neither are the sale items.
Those mental notes about where to get the best prices on the items you regularly buy come in handy if you have the ability to visit multiple stores per week. For example, our local Wal-Mart has the best prices on most food items, but generally not for other items we enjoy like tahini. For those goods, a run to the local health food store is going to save us some cash. Make sure your costs on gas don't offset your savings in groceries, though!
3. Give up on brand and product loyalty
I really like Califia Barista Blend Oat Milk for my coffee. Realllly like it. But unless it's on sale, it's getting cut from the list at the moment in favor of other items that are more cost-effective. Swapping between kinds of milks, nut butters, cereals, etc in favor of what's the most affordable rather than what you like the best is a great way to save. Yes, I'm advocating for eating things you don't necessarily like.
4. Buy in bulk and/or join a membership store
I put these together as they both may involve buying more upfront, to pay less per unit. A Costco or Sam's Club membership may cost you, and the items sold there are often in large quantities, but it's worth checking them out to see if you'd end up saving on groceries overall. You can also split a membership with a roommate or check out stores with bulk bins that don't require memberships.
For dry goods, our local health food store has the best prices in the bulk section by far and I've found the same in previous places we've lived. For beans, rice, pulses, and other pantry items, bulk sections are often the cheapest. Plus, you can store those goods in your pantry for a long while and reduce trips to the store if you buy in larger quantities.
5. Use convenience strategically
Know your weaknesses and plan accordingly. Very few people are going to make everything perfectly, from scratch, using only the best-priced ingredients, all week long. So plan for your common pitfalls. My weakness is the end of the workweek. There will absolutely be one day where I can't imagine cooking and end up ordering delivery and paying entirely too much in fees. In contrast, at the beginning of the week when I still have the energy I'm very likely to feel fine about soaking a pot of beans.
So my calculus is based on my own personal areas of weakness. Dry beans are much cheaper than prepared beans and I will find time to make them throughout the week. So I get the dry beans and save some money. And frozen pizza or a frozen burrito is much cheaper than delivery or takeout, so I get the frozen pizza. And ramen? I love ramen. So I keep a few packages of a relatively more expensive packaged ramen on hand, so I can add my own toppings at home and mimic one of my favorite takeout comfort foods for a fraction of the price.
Were any of these tips on saving money while food prices are rising helpful? Do you have any other tips to add? Drop a comment and let me know!