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- You can cook healthy, delicious meals for $300 a month with careful planning.
- Determine which stores offer the best value for certain foods and shop accordingly.
- Experiment with flavorful – but cost-effective – cooking methods, such as adding spices and seasoning.
I love to cook. I like to think that I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the past decade-plus, during which my wife and I have primarily dined in. Whether whipping up a quick pasta dish for the family or grilling burgers, brats, and steaks for a backyard full of friends, I enjoy pretty much every aspect of meal planning, prep, and execution.
What no one likes, however, is spending hundreds of dollars a month on groceries, especially when a good portion of our food invariably ends up in the trash. (TheNational Resource Defense Councilestimates the average American household spends $2,200 per year on wasted food.)
It’s no easy feat to routinely prepare a variety of nutritious, flavorful meals while staying within a reasonable food budget. But with an hour or so each month devoted to planning your meals ahead of time and with a keen eye for the best prices for necessary ingredients, you can prepare a healthy, tasty dinner for four every night of the month for only about $300.
Before I dive into the details, let me say that in fact I usually cook for three people: my wife, my son, and myself. But we often have a friend or in-law (or two or three in-laws) join us for meals, and we’re about to add another nuclear family member in the form of a daughter, so soon enough it will be four at all times anyway.
Where you shop matters
You can pay three different prices at three different places for the exact same food. Spend the time to figure out which vendors have the best prices for your regular purchases.
If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with a plethora of food vendors, you can start saving yourself dozens of dollars each month without changing the things you eat simply by shopping around. When my wife and I were first married, we used to spend a good portion of our Saturdays shopping for groceries, both because we actually enjoy food shopping and because we had the lay of the land down pat in terms of pricing. Also we didn’t have kids yet, so free time was actually a thing.
Our local Trader Joe’s always had the best prices on pasta and beer. The Vons had great pricing on bagged salad and crackers. Whole Foods was our go-to for meats because we tend to go organic in that department. We hit the local farmer’s market for produce and bread. And when in season, we hit our own backyard for tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
I estimate we saved an average of $40 per week just by taking the time to divide our grocery shopping among multiple vendors. It helped that all three of the stores mentioned above were in walking distance of our house and that when we drove the circuit to said stores and to the farmer’s market we logged all of three miles, round trip. Your grocers and markets might not be so conveniently placed, so there a cost-benefit analysis to run regarding time and transit logistics/expenses (AKA gasoline or train fare).
Figure out when to buy in bulk and when to pick and choose
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Buying foods in bulk is great as long as you’re not wasting in bulk as a result. (Or forcing your family to eat the same foods seven nights a week!)
It only makes sense to buy certain foods in bulk. Dried staples like rice, pasta, flour, and other such foods keep for months without refrigeration and make ideal bulk purchases. When you see a great price on rice, stock up. Get the biggest bag of flour you can find. Keep the pantry full of pasta. And so forth.
On the other hand, some foods should be purchased with specific meals in mind. Leafy greens tend to wilt quickly and can’t really be frozen, thus making them a poor choice for bulk buying. Don’t worry about a great deal on a huge box of salad if you’re likely going to toss most of it anyway; go for the bag that’s half the price despite being a quarter of the quantity and you’ll probably end up spending wisely.
Then there are a lot of foods that fall into an in-between category; they keep pretty well for days, but won’t stay good for weeks. In this category we find many fruits and veggies, breads, dairy products, and more.
Some fruits freeze well for later use in smoothies or baked goods, so go ahead and get berries and bananas, for example, any time you see a good price or whenever your fruit supply runs low. Carrots, potatoes, and onions keep well but don’t freeze well, so buy according to your meal plan, selecting as many as you need from loose bins, not buying in pre-weighed bags. Other vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower, taste fine when cooked from frozen, so go ahead and buy them from the frozen aisle and know they’ll be ready when needed.
Most meat freezes well as long as you get the air out of the bag to avoid freezer burn. I’m not big on buying pre-frozen meat, largely because I get impatient while thawing, but this is often a good way to get good prices on your protein.
The long and short of it is you should buy as much food as you know you’re going to eat based on your planned menus, and only stock up beyond that on things that can freeze or that keep for long periods without special storage.
Cook cheap foods in fancy ways
You can make a four-person serving of restaurant-quality mashed potatoes for about $4. Add baked chicken and roasted garlic broccoli and the meal goes up to a whopping $12, give or take.
Seriously, though, with $1.50 worth of potatoes, about $.25 worth of butter and sour cream, a 50-cent scoop of dried chives, and maybe a half-dollar’s worth of milk, you’ll have awesome mashed potatoes. (Leave a bit of the skin on the potatoes before mashing – this makes them feel fancier for some reason.)
Boneless, skinless chicken breast will cost you about $1.99 per pound if you shop well, so figure each diner gets an ample serving of roasted chicken and we’re maybe up to ten bucks, likely still lower. And finally add half a bag of broccoli florets bought frozen and baked with a dusting of garlic powder (call that a quarter), we’ve arrived at $12 for a home-cooked meal that will nourish and satisfy. (Maybe add a few nickels more for a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar drizzled over the chicken)
This cheap food/fancy cooking paradigm works in almost countless ways. Boring old rice becomes exciting when you fry it with a bit of oil and toss in diced onion, peas, corn, and, chicken. A $2 box of pasta, a $4 jar of sauce, and a handful of shredded mozzarella makes a zesty baked ziti; add a bag of salad and you’ve got a fine, filling meal for about $11.