You gotta eat. But food costs money — sometimes lots of it. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians spend an average of 10% of their household money on groceries. That’s over $6,000, and that’s the average family.
If you have a large clan or you have special dietary needs, you could be spending more.
It’s not so bad. In Europe, the cost of food is higher and household budgets put more like 15% into food. However, the rising cost of oil and other goods has experts predicting a rise in food costs here in Canada, as much as 7%, which could up your annual bill by over $300.
As well, if you’re like me, you find the older you get, the more you drop on grub. When I was in university, I lived on pasta and eggs and bread. Now, my family has a taste for good cheese, fish, fancy breads, granola bars and splurges on organic veggies from the farmers’ market.
I would love to cut back my grocery bill. Yet I still want to eat well. Here’s some ideas for pulling this off.
• Cut back on cereal. Breakfast cereals are marked up a nasty 44% on average. I personally only buy cereal when it’s on sale. Otherwise, it’s just too big a cost! Kids adore cereal and it’s really hard to keep them in the house as much as they want and resist buying the crappy sugary cereals, which go on sale more often. Widen your breakfast choices with toast, eggs and oatmeal, all of which costs you a whole lot less.
• Avoid bulk . Ironically, getting big vats of ketchup or getting soup by the case won’t save you money long term. That’s because we eat 20 to 25% more when faced with a large package. Yes, you’ll gob on more ketchup and cook up more pasta if the container is larger. That’s not good for your health, and means you’ll offset any bulk savings by simply using up more.
• Don’t go nuts at sales. Stocking up your freezer or pantry with a sale item can seem like a great idea. But you’re putting out a lot of money and you might not even eat the stuff. (I grew up with a massive basement freezer: my mother was always finding whole frozen turkeys in the bottom, years old, that she inevitably had to chuck). This happens too when you buy in bulk: after a few months, you can either forget you’ve got the stuff, or the family can decide they no longer adore chicken noodle soup, rocky road granola bars or chicken kabobs. The stuff ends up filling up your storage space or hits the garbage.
• Buy in season. I think everyone knows this, but it’s so hard! This time of year, the stores and markets are full of great produce. It’s much more difficult in the winter to curb your taste for bananas and strawberries. Indulge a little in imported goods and learn how to cook root vegetables for winter. During harvest times like this, freeze up some tomatoes and do some pickling to preserve local stuff on the cheap.
• Make soup. It began as a peasant food, and it’s still the least expensive and most healthy thing you can cook. All you need is an onion and a bullion cube and you can turn your leftovers — veggies, meat, whatever’s lying around — into a feast for an appetizer or a lunch you can tote to work in a thermos.
• Visit the bulk store. Certain items like name brand spices have huge mark-ups at the grocery store. If you bring your actual spice jar to the store, you can weight the jar empty, fill it up with curry powder or thyme, and end up paying under $1 for a full jar and creating no garbage. Bulk stores let you buy just what you need of baking supplies, cereals and snacks. When you avoid waste, you save money.
• Go meatless. Not every day, but a few days a week create meals around beans or pasta and skip the meat — the most expensive grocery store item. If your family adores meat, simply serve your vegetarian meal without making a fuss, and they probably won’t notice. As well, cook with smaller meat portions. Stir-fries, soups and other dishes can be filling and tasty with just a small portion of meat.
• Plan your menu on the spot. Heading out to the grocery store with a set list to make a recipe often leads to pricey purchases. Instead, nab that cauliflower on sale and that reduced chicken, then get home and figure out what to do with it. The internet is your friend on this one: you can find a recipe for any ingredient on the spot.
• Order in instead of going out. For those nights when you just don’t want to cook, and everyone is starving, avoid dragging them out to the local family restaurant. When you eat out for a family meal, you spend almost half the bill on drinks, appetizers and dessert. At home, you can drink from the fridge (even popping open a cheap bottle of wine for the adults), cut up veggies to keep the kids amused while they wait and serve dessert from what you have in the house. Save your eating-out money for higher quality meals on date night!
• Avoid bottled water. I realize this is not exactly a food, but it sure is a way to waste coin! Invest in a good quality metal drinking bottle — in fact, get one for everyone in the family. Use these for work, outings, while watching on the soccer sidelines. Plastic water bottles create unnecessary physical waste (we often toss them and don’t recycle) and monetary waste when you’re spending $1.50 or so a bottle, when water from the tap is free, or already paid for in your water bill. Clearly, we should also be toting around our own hot coffees, but at least a frothy latte at your favourite coffee shop is an enjoyable indulgence, a bottle of water really isn’t.
• Avoid buying packaged goods. It may be impossible to eliminate packaged foods from your family’s diet. If you’re a hard working family, you won’t have the time to cook everything from scratch. But you can do half-scratch. Using baking mixes instead of buying baked goods, making homemade soups and sauces from cans of tomatoes and dressing up your own pizza on a bought crust are all great compromises.
• Shop often. Zipping into the store every few days encourages you to buy what you’re going to cook over the next few days, and throw out less.
I love food and I hate to scrimp when it comes to feeding my clan. But you can still enjoy good quality food and save. Just cut back on the waste and the rip offs and focus on the yummy stuff.
Writer for RateSupermarket.ca