A friend recently posted about her family’s grocery expenses on Facebook, and it generated quite a discussion. I originally typed up a massive reply talking about all the different things we do (and some we don’t) to try and manage the grocery bill for our family of five, but it didn’t feel appropriate there. So in the interest of trying to get blogging again and maybe, just maybe, helping someone along the way, I’m putting it up here.
It's easy to spend a lot on groceries. We spend about $800-900 per month on food, not counting restaurant meals. Compared to others in the mentioned discussion, generally families of 4-5, we were well on the lower end, but certainly not the lowest. We have figured a few things out on our own, but we owe a great deal of knowledge to the part-time nanny we had last year. She had worked as a church and camp chef for a long time, and I’m still amazed at how far she was able to make grocery money go. So much of the credit for this goes to her. I’ll start with some general thoughts, and then get into some specific things we do for different kinds of food.
I’ll start by saying we are big store shoppers. While we do regularly hit the farmers’ market, and occasionally grab organic items instead of non-, most of our shopping is done from regular bins and aisle of Safeway, Save-on, and the like. In general, I find Superstore, Costco, and yes even Walmart, have excellent prices on dry, canned and some frozen goods, but don’t offer any deals on fresh. Some local markets, like Denny’s, have excellent prices on fresh produce and can have some smoking deals on dry goods too, particularly ethnic items. This pricing can come at the expense of appearance, but I don’t generally need my peppers to be photogenic. Other markets have big store like pricing, so do your diligence. Tenth to the Fraser has a good article on produce markets in New West. Safeway and Save-on don’t offer anything special, but I consider them the baseline. In my experience, I’ve found Save-on to have slightly better regular pricing, but Safeway tends to have much better sales.
One of the commenters in the Facebook discussion mentioned a common complaint I hear, that premade food is so much cheaper than healthy food. I don’t buy into that. While it can take some planning, taking advantage of sales, and freezer space, there are almost always healthier, less costly options than pre-made. One example was given of chicken nuggets being cheaper than fresh chicken breast. Yes, if you want the best cut, fresh off the bird, you can often find nuggets cheaper than that. But if you go for thighs or whole birds on sale, it’s often cheaper. Heck, our Safeway regularly has 10 lb boxes of frozen breasts for only $25. Even on sale I don’t see nuggets for $2.50 a pound. Beans, noodles, rice, and other things of this ilk offer cheap, filling, and more nutritious alternatives to meals in a can or a box.
The biggest thing I learned from our nanny was to keep our kitchen, and in particular our freezer, well stocked. Firstly, it lets us get the most out of sales. But more significantly, by having a good mix of things at home, we minimize the six pm "we have nothing to eat" panic, running out to get "one or two things." Even if it's as simple as flour, eggs and milk (crepes or fresh bread) or some boullion and frozen veggies (soup!) we've really seen the benefit of ensuring staples are always on hand. It’s to the point now where a half full pantry or deep freeze drives me crazy. It also means when you're looking at that recipe you really want to make, but are missing one-two ingredients, you'll often have decent substitutes available.
We try stick to what's in season and use a small market instead of a big store. As mentioned they often have produce that doesn't look quite as nice as Safeway but is just as good. If we want off season produce (at some point in winter I will need a strawberry smoothie) we watch for sales in the frozen aisle. This is more for summer produce in winter; fall and winter produce doesn’t seem as volatile to me.
That said, this is the area I don’t mind spending some more money if the food is getting eaten. Yes, raspberries aren’t cheap come October. But the kids eat them like candy. If I’m spending a bit more to have them eating raspberries instead of Goldfish, I can live with that.
If you eat meat, I think this is the area that offers the most potential savings. First – eat less of it. As a teenager I was practically a carnivore, but have settled down since then. We typically have meat as part of 3-5 dinners a week, and it’s usually only a small part of the meal. Depending on what you use for proteins, going fully vegetarian can save you money. We’re not that hard core, so have found some other ways to keep our meat bill down.
The second biggest thing I learned from our nanny was to buy off-cuts and clearance meats whenever we find something potentially usable, and throw them in the freezer. Similarly, buy bulk packs, split them and freeze them. Fresh lean ground beef is usually $6-7/lb here, bulk packs regularly go on sale for $2.50/lb. If you know your way around a knife, buying whole chickens can get you several meals out of one bird.
Dairy's the hardest area for me to find any savings. I watch for deals on cheese, and a few kinds can be frozen reasonably well, but milk, butter and eggs? I got nothing. And even if we do find a sale and load up, we go through it so quickly it doesn’t last long anyways. I’d love to hear if you have any suggestions here.
For bread we do a few things. If we’re buying, we generally just get the store brand regular bread. If there’s a really good sale on store or name brand bread I’ll try and load up the freezer. Same for other breads – English muffins, bagels, tortillas - I get lots when there’s a sale, but like dairy we tend to go through them so quickly it doesn’t last long. For other specialty breads (herbed breads, banana loaf, etc), I’ve been pulling out the bread maker a lot more lately. One think I keep forgetting to try is the discount store McGavin’s Bread Basket on 12th.
Dry and Frozen Goods
I try and get these from the big box stores whenever possible. Their prices, especially their store brand items, tend to be unbeatable. Of course individual items are all different, but watch for sales and you can easily get things for 1/3rd the price of Safeway or Save-on. I find this drives me the craziest with things like crackers and snacky-type foods. When I get them from the big box stores I don’t mind quite as much when the kids devour two boxes in five seconds.
This is the area where you can often find the most straight up volume of food for your dollar. Again, things like dried beans, lentils, and rice are very cheap and provide a good base for the rest of your meal. For example, the other day I made a big pot of chili. Eating just the chili, it would have lasted two dinners and maybe a couple of bowls for lunch. But boil up a dollar's worth of rice to set it on and we had dinner for a week.
Those are the main things we do to keep the grocery bill from being, well not too painful at least.
There are lots of ways we could do better still. While we used to meal plan regularly, we don’t much these days, and it can provide significant benefits, ensuring you’re only buying what you need and making the most of it. We could make better use of our 'waste' food to make stocks and things like that. We don't use the produce markets or discount bread stores as much as we could. We don’t do any sort of canning or other preservation. While we'd love to spend less, overall we feel our grocery bill isn't completely insane for the amount of energy we invest in reducing it. And I feel we eat well, both in terms of quantity and quality.
That said I remember how much food I ate as a teenager, and I am afraid of what’s coming. Very afraid.