These are my best practical tips to stretch your food budget. I do each and every one of these to help reign in my food costs. To do this successfully, you have to be mindful. Spend the mental energy making plans upfront like setting a budget, meal planning, and making shopping lists. This is probably my top practical tip, but we’ll get to that in more detail shortly. First, I want to make clear what this article is not.
What this is not
The following are meant to be practical, achievable ways to stretch your food budget. This is not:
- A promo article pimpling the latest couponing app. There are lots of ‘em and they can certainly help you save money on groceries. The tips shared here are meant to be practical for all, regardless of your level of technical prowess.
- A trendy food hacks article. Freezing leftover wine in ice cube trays is a cute trick and all, but there are plenty of articles that cover food hacks (some of which are surprisingly clever).
- A nutritional guide. I am not a nutritionist. I lean on food items like dried beans, rice, and pasta to stretch my food budget, but those might be foods you can’t or won’t eat.
- A moral diatribe. I’m not going to tell you what to eat or not eat. Can you save money by passing on things like alcohol, prepared coffee drinks, and junk foods? Sure, but it’s your food budget, spend it how you wish. I refuse to give up chips and Top the Tater.
I am a home-cooking meat-eater who enjoys a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains. I don’t have any dietary restrictions and am not currently on any particular diet. Not all of these tips may be applicable to you and your needs, but I hope you’ll find a few money-saving gems among these Practical Ways to Stretch Your Food Budget.
Make a plan
You’ve got a goal - to stretch your food budget. To do this successfully, you have to be mindful and make some plans. And then plan on sticking to those plans.
Set a budget - I won’t lie; I have varying levels of success here from month to month. But having a budget set (even if it’s a range) is a necessary starting point. Knowing what you’ve got to spend will help you plan your meals and guide your food shopping. I use meat as a focal point around which meals are planned, for instance. I am okay with spending more of my budget on meat, but when I’m ready to purchase I already know what meals I’m going to make with it.
Plan your meals - This can admittedly feel like a chore, but thinking ahead about what you might prepare for upcoming meals can save time and money. For instance, if I plan on making tacos one night, toasted sandwiches another, and a pasta dish a third evening, I’m reaching for a pork butt or family pack of chicken. I can repurpose the leftovers or divvy up the protein across dinners.
Plan your grocery store trips (or online grocery orders) -. Make a grocery list and do your best to stick to it; failure to plan ahead can steer your meal planning off course real quick. If the goal is to stretch your food budget, committing to your meal plans is key. And don’t shop when you’re hungry. Hanger can lead to some poor (and costly!) food purchases. Ask me how I know.
You’ve adopted a money-saving mindset and have made some plans. Now let’s get down to the practical bits.
Make meals that utilize similar ingredients
This tip speaks to the planning you’ll be doing, you mindful spender you! Part of successful meal planning is choosing recipes that use ingredients that overlap. For instance, I use a ton of bell peppers and onions when I cook. One day I may plan on whipping up some fajitas, but the next stir-fry might be on the dinner agenda. I can easily prepare two meals (I cook for two) with 1 bell pepper and 1 onion. Plus, if I have some leftover fajita meat, that may also make an appearance in the next evening’s stir-fry. This brings me to my next tip.
Like you’re surprised to see this here. I get that not everyone loves leftovers because let's be real: not all leftovers are good. I cook with the intention of having good leftovers, knowing that life gets busy and I don’t always have the time or energy to prepare an involved dinner every evening.
What are good leftovers? For me, this includes many types of meat, like pulled pork and grilled chicken. Leftover meats can easily be transformed into tacos or sandwiches or even a frittata. Check out these Leftover Pulled Pork Tacos, made with leftover pork that I reheated and treated like carnitas. Now that’s leftovers done right!
Rice or other cooked grains also make good leftovers. They can be added to garden salads and used to create “bowls”; use cooked leftover rice or grains as a base, add a protein and some veggies, and tie it all together with a sauce.
Whatever falls into your scope of good leftovers, my best tip here is to add something fresh or newly prepared when serving to give the dish new life.
You might also include re-purposing things you might not have previously considered, like bacon grease or pickle juice. Each can be used to stretch your food budget; instead of cooking with olive oil or butter, try bacon grease! Want an easy homemade vinaigrette? Use leftover dill pickle juice! Even foods you might not think can be repurposed like nachos can be used successfully to create new dishes. Or check out What to do with Leftover Pico de Gallo.
Browse weekly ads and look for discounted items
Duh, right? I’m sure most of us already do this to some extent. Mobile apps also make it easy to review weekly ads and find coupons nowadays. I ultimately separated this from "Make a Plan" because even if you plan your grocery list with sale items in mind, you might come across discounted items while shopping in-store.
For instance, every once in a while I’ll catch a “Manager’s Special” - a meat item priced to sell because it's nearing its freshness expiration date. I often snag these if they pass visual inspection, especially if the protein is an easy/acceptable swap for what I have planned for dinner. If I had Chicken Bacon Ranch tacos on the menu, but there’s a $5 price reduction on a package of pork chops, I’m making Pork Bacon Ranch Tacos instead.
You don’t need to be an extreme couponer to save money. Making plans and being flexible when unexpected deals present themselves can help you stretch your food budget without a significant time investment.
Shop before you shop
I came across the advice to “shop your pantry” a while ago and have since incorporated it into my grocery shopping strategy. Occasionally I’ll find some forgotten gems like canned tuna or a bottle of barbecue sauce hiding at the back of my pantry. Or I might discover items that are nearing an expiration date that I should consider incorporating into my meal planning sooner rather than later.
Extend this to your fridge as well. Give things that have a shorter shelf life like fresh fruits and vegetables a once-over, as well as dairy products, before heading off to the store. And take a peek at your freezer while you’re at it. I make a large annual meat purchase from a local farmer to stock up my freezer, and also keep a variety of frozen veggies on hand. These items are best used within 6 months to a year, so make an effort to shop your freezer at least once a month.
The ultimate goal of shopping before you shop is to eliminate unnecessary, duplicate purchases, and ensure you are using food before it expires so it doesn’t go to waste.
Stock up on pantry staples
Dried beans, rice, and pasta are my pantry staples. They are my go-to's if I want to stretch my food budget because they tend to be reliably inexpensive and have a long shelf life, making them okay to buy in bulk quantities. You might also consider lentils, quinoa, farro, oats, egg noodles, and good old Ramen noodles. For instance, I often add pinto beans or rice to burritos so I can cut down on the amount of meat used since meat is more costly than beans.
You’ll find these types of food items on the bottom shelves at grocery stores. The shelves at easy viewing height are strategically stocked with more expensive items. Shop the bottom shelves if you want to save some money.
Root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beets also fall into the pantry staple category. Root vegetables are inexpensive and can be stored, unrefrigerated, for months at a time.
The downside to these types of pantry staples is that they can be time-consuming to cook. If you have an Instant Pot or rice cooker, you can expedite their preparation. I used to soak dried beans overnight, but I don’t have to with the Instant Pot. One of my favorite things to make is Instant Pot Pinto Bean Soup, which takes around 2 hours to prepare - in set-it-and-forget-it fashion. I cook 1 pound of dried beans for the recipe, then repurpose the leftovers, which can be turned into a bean filling for burritos or served as refried beans.
Consider making your own condiments and spice mixtures
I’m a condiment freak and spice hoarder. I am the person who wants to try out that intriguing barbecue spice rub and bacon ranch salad dressing. Turns out, that’s not so great when it comes to saving money. Condiments eat up food budgets quickly and often expire before they get used up. As someone who cooks for two, the struggle is real.
Nowadays, I try to stick to stocking the basics when it comes to condiments; things like ketchup, mustard, mayo, soy sauce, Worchestershire sauce, etc. You can make many sauces from this basic lineup, like this Honey Chipotle Sauce that contains ketchup and soy sauce. If you keep oils on hand - like olive or canola oil - you can make all kinds of vinaigrettes (and in smaller, usable quantities!) like this Jalapeno Lime Vinaigrette.
The same goes for spices. Their potency drops off after a year or so, so consider keeping the basics on hand, like onion powder, garlic powder, cumin, chili powder, basil, oregano, etc. You can easily make your own custom spice mixes instead of splurging on some pre-made mix you might not use all that often. And seasoning mixes like this homemade Taco Seasoning are easier to make than you may realize.
Outside of condiments and spice mixes, you might consider what else you could make at home to save money.
Shop seasonally to get the best bang for your buck
This is a tough one for me as a native Minnesotan. The window for fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables feels impossibly short. But I KNOW that those grocery store tomatoes suck and I shouldn’t buy them in January. Don’t waste money on produce that’s not in season - the rub is that not only is it more expensive, but it’s also not going to be all that flavorful.
If your desired fruit or veggie isn’t in season, opt for it frozen or canned instead. I always keep canned tomatoes and corn in my pantry. If you have the ability and ambition, you could also try growing your own. I have a small garden in which I grow tomatoes every year; I LOVE homegrown tomatoes, and I make and freeze tomato sauces for later use.
In lieu of growing your own fruits and vegetables, visit a farmer’s market if you can. I find that the quality is consistently good and is oftentimes cheaper than what's at my local grocery store.
A summary on stretching your food budget
There you have it, my top practical ways to stretch your food budget! Saving money on groceries requires effort, mindfulness, and planning upfront. Keep these tips in mind to help you keep to your food budget once you're prepared to shop.
Please do share if you have any tips on how you stretch your food budget!
A note on cooking and efficiency
Because some of the cheapest foods (dried beans, rice) often take longer to prepare, I recommend getting yourself an Instant Pot or rice cooker (but only if you think you’ll use it regularly!). These kitchen appliances quickly pay for themselves because they save you time by doing the cooking for you.