We asked chefs, food bloggers, recipe creators, and more to share the hacks they use for making the most of the groceries they bring home.
Some people will tell you the best way to save money is to skip that customary Starbucks or stop making avocado toast. But real people know that coffee and avocados aren't the problem. Grocery prices are skyrocketing. Chicken is twice what it used to be. Even rice is more expensive. And did anyone else notice the 40-cent jump on Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Crackers? No amount of limiting non-grocery splurges is going to get us through the current pricing situation. The fact of the matter is that big companies are seeing record-breaking profits, but they're not passing it down to buyers or employees. Trickle-down economics is a sham, and now the working class is drowning in debt. But ya gotta eat.
You have to push the stupid cart around that stupid store and find ways to make your stupid household budget work for you. It's hard — and not in the "I like a challenge" kind of way. Grocery shopping right now is more mentally and emotionally taxing than ever before.
You aren't alone, though. Some of us have been pinching pennies for a long AF time, and we know how to stretch a budget and fill a pantry. Most importantly, you have a world of cooking and budget experts willing to help you plan accordingly. So, before you go shopping, take a tip or two out of the tiny food budget playbook.
1. Meal plan.
Walking into a grocery store without a plan always spells trouble. Meal planning for the week (or weeks) ahead helps you on many fronts. First, having a plan in place will keep you from falling back on drive-thrus and takeout. Meal planning also avoids overdoing recipes. It only takes a few weeks before White Chicken Chili Wednesdays go from excitement to monotony. Having a plan helps you stay on task at the grocery store and kitchen. That, in turn, enables you to stay on budget.
2. Use what you have.
Jessica Fisher from Good Cheap Eats says there's one way you should start every meal plan.
"Shop your kitchen," says Fisher. "That is: Plan your meals based on what you have so that you can avoid food waste and overbuying. Why buy more when you've got good stuff at home?"
Not everyone has room for (or the initial budget for) a well-stocked pantry. If you do, though, that should be your first stop when planning your meals. For many families, there's usually a "big check" week and a "small check" week. In those instances, using the "big check" to buy more meat and grab extra pantry items will free up your "small check" so that all you have to buy are fillers and some perishables. Using your pantry to meal plan doesn't require much additional work — you probably already do it to see "what you need." A quick glance inside can keep you from doubling up on ingredients and serve as inspiration for the week ahead's menu.
3. Use shopping apps to your advantage.
Shopping for pick-up or delivery definitely comes at a premium, as you have to pay the people doing the shopping and delivering for you. But there are ways to use it to your advantage, too. Jessica Randhawa, the head chef, recipe creator, photographer, and writer behind The Forked Spoon, says using apps saves her time and money in multiple ways.
"Instead of managing a grocery list, I can easily add items to my cart when planning recipes or add items if I notice I will soon run out of an ingredient," says Randhawa. "I don't have to run out to a grocery store or deal with my costly impulse-buying habit for new/random items. These grocery delivery services save me hours every week and can be easily copied at home by anyone in the range of one of these ever-multiplying services offered by almost every large grocery store. The reduced time spent driving, waiting, and wandering isles, coupled with the lack of impulse buying, has been a considerable saving of my time and money."
4. Buy in bulk carefully.
Take heed: Buying in "bulk" doesn't mean you have to pay for a special card to a members-only store. Even buying the 3-5 pound rolls of ground meat instead of the one-pound rolls can save you pennies per pound. The same is true for chicken, fish, and other meats. Bring home those giant packs (when you can afford them), then spend a few extra minutes breaking them down into meal-sized portions before storing them in the freezer or fridge. If you can afford to "go big" on meat once a month, you'll save money over time. Plus, you'll make those other grocery trips a little cheaper when you don't have to buy more protein.
"When restaurants buy food, they buy in bulk to save on costs, and the same can be true when shopping for your family," says Andrew Abraham from Yalla Oats. "For shelf-stable items that we use a lot of, we tend to buy in higher quantities. It is a higher upfront cost, but it averages out to hundreds saved a year. Plus, it means fewer trips to the store and less gas used each week. Think of things like pasta, olive oil, canned goods, etc."
You'll also save money by buying nonperishable items in bulk. Everything from canned tuna to toilet paper gets cheaper the more you buy at a time. While it may only seem like a few dollars per grocery trip, it adds up.
5. Store things properly.
Reyna Hirsh, for Move For Hunger, put it simply, "In fact, 35% of all food made in the U.S. goes to waste."
One big reason? We're not storing our food properly. Influencers in the neurodivergent world recently showed how they "hacked their fridge" and put produce on the door instead of in a drawer. If that will help you find and eat the food you buy, go for it. Just keep in mind that those drawers were designed to be the best storage places for your produce. Everything you buy in the store has an optimal storage situation. Make sure you're reading even bottles and jars because they often tell you to store them in the fridge after opening.
6. Try new proteins and ingredients.
"With food prices so high, I truly believe mushrooms are the answer when it comes to creative ways to extend your budget because they can add so much to meals for a relatively low cost," said Mackenzie Burgess, registered dietitian nutritionist, nutrition expert, and recipe developer. "Mushrooms make dishes like omelets, soups, and salads heartier. Not to mention, you can extend the servings of more expensive ingredients by layering in mushrooms."
Mushrooms are often a staple in the diets of those who avoid meat, as they're packed with fiber, protein, and antioxidants. Using mushrooms instead of meat in pasta or salads packs a big, nutritious punch without making such a dent in your budget.
Unlike the prices of various other types of meat, canned fish prices have stayed relatively the same and are still so low. Canned Alaskan Salmon is great on salads, in omelets, or for salmon patties. You undoubtedly already know the joys of canned tuna, too. And now it comes in more flavors than ever before, taking just a little work out of it for you. (Bonus tip: If you qualify for WIC and/or food assistance, a big push has led to the government allowing more fresh fish purchases using your assistance money.)
For many people, kids especially, beans can be a texture issue. However, most beans pack a ton of protein. That's why vegetarians rely so heavily on them. From adding them to soups and salads to using them in tacos instead of meats, beans can be a fantastic belly-filling option. And, with the right seasonings, you'll never know the difference.
7. Know when to buy pre-made and when to DIY.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that buying "fresh" or uncooked products, putting in the work, and making it yourself can be cheaper. After all, instead of paying for "labor," you are the labor — you pay yourself in savings. There are times when that's not the case, though. If you're spending money on an ingredient that you can only use in one dish or, worse, a large quantity of an ingredient that you only need a small amount of, you're wasting money.
For instance, when you consider the cost of the chipotle peppers, crema, and cilantro that you'd need to make something close to Herdez's Chipotle Salsa Crema, you might as well buy the jar. Seriously. Even Rachael Ray uses jarred salsa (and sometimes rotisserie chicken) to make her chili because she knows it's easier and more consistent.
You're already stressed out enough. Don't add "Am I spending enough time with my family?" to your list of worries. It's OK to pick a few meals a week to make from scratch and prep yourself while still relying on those pre-made (and reliable) staples to fill out your menu.
8. Hold off on all those fancy spices.
Lexy Rogers, MasterChef winner and author of the new cookbook Breaking Bread on a Budget, says the same goes for spice.
"Invest in a mother spice," says Rogers. "I love Tony's Creole seasoning. I use it on everything (no, I'm not a sponsor). The bottle is $4. I have to purchase one every couple of months, and it really cuts down on the random spices and seasonings I get tempted to buy. Find the right all-around seasoning for you and say goodbye to random money-wasting seasonings you'll only use every 25 recipes."
9. Make soup!
Lisa Lotts is the owner and publisher of Garlic and Zest and swears by the wonders of making homemade soup.
"Nowadays, everyone is dealing with high food prices, so to stretch my food dollar, I always make one or two big pots of homemade soup every week," says Lotts. "I use ingredients that are relatively inexpensive but go a long way — items like rice, dried or canned beans, diced canned tomatoes, pasta, and cheap but hearty greens, like kale and escarole. These types of ingredients stretch to make delicious pots of soup to feed the whole family with leftovers."
10. Make your own stock and broth.
Remember when quarts of stock used to be 99 cents? It doesn't seem like it was that long ago, but now those puppies cost almost $3 in the Midwest, where things are supposed to be cheaper. Did you know it's super easy to make your own? "If I have leftover chicken or turkey carcasses or ham bones or hocks, they add tons of flavor to the stock," says Lotts. "And they are essentially throw-away items."
You can make a mean veggie stock by freezing those veggie ends and peels until you have a giant bag full and then letting them simmer in water.
11. Freeze everything.
Most soup recipes end up making enough food to feed an army. This is great if you live in a firehouse, have enough children for a basketball team, or do, in fact, need to feed an army. But most families can't finish a whole pot of soup in one sitting, and we know most kids aren't fans of leftovers. Instead of putting it in the fridge to die, freeze it!
Use the giant cube trays meant for such occasions, try a large reusable bag, or even a storage dish with a lid. Freeze in individual portions or freeze in servings that are just right for your family. (Note: For a family of 2.5, we cut most recipes in half before we start. Then we still immediately freeze half after we make it.)