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A&E >  Food

Five reader tips for saving money on cooking and grocery shopping

One way to save money on grocery bills is to use what you buy wisely and taking advantage of your freezer.  (Shutterstock)
One way to save money on grocery bills is to use what you buy wisely and taking advantage of your freezer. (Shutterstock)
By Emily Heil The Washington Post

Grocery trips these days often end with an eye-popping moment when the total flashes onto the register screen. While nearly everything costs more because of higher-than-normal inflation, food is one thing we can’t cut from our budget. Recently, I wrote about ideas, many from budget-shopping experts, for saving money at the grocery store. My colleague Ann Maloney reported a companion story about how to pinch pennies in the kitchen.

Our articles elicited a ton of comments from readers, many offering their own time-tested strategies and tips. Here are some of our favorites (lightly edited for clarity, grammar and length).

1. Fine-tune your meal planning

Readers had great ideas for meal planning, which many said was key to saving money on food. “When planning a week’s worth of meals, I usually build in a ‘night’ for certain meals,” Pulham wrote. “Spaghetti night, taco night, soup-and-sandwich night, omelet night, salad night, chicken night, Crockpot night (usually weekends). I try to get creative for each so as not to have the same thing every week. I find shopping for these nights much easier and cheaper.”

Yappy Appy uses the grocery store’s sales flier (which some people noted is often available online) as a guide. “Making a menu around weekly specials from sales fliers takes very little effort.”

Greenwood71 offered a good idea for avoiding the temptation to shop for items that don’t go with your plan: “If it isn’t on the list and you really just have to have it, put it away and come back to it later. More often than not, I really didn’t need it.”

2. Make strategic use of the freezer

Good grief, our readers love a freezer! We had so many suggestions that involved large or separate chest freezers, though I should note that this isn’t for everyone. If you’re like me (small house, no garage) it’s a no-go. But if you have the room, a freezer might be worth the space and the investment.

Many commenters said they stock up on expensive proteins including beef, fish and chicken when they go on sale. Freezing leftovers was another popular suggestion, a strategy that can help reduce food waste – and avoid repeat meals for those who don’t want to eat the same thing multiple times in a week. “Vacuum sealers are great for storing leftovers without freezer burn,” Junebug wrote. “We wash/reuse the bags, and they last forever.”

“If you freeze the leftovers in one-meal portions, you don’t have to eat the same thing two days in a row,” Gotnoneck said. “I do this with chicken, stews, roasts, meatloaf etc., since I am cooking for two of us and often it makes sense to cook more than two portions’ worth. Saves cooking time, too. Cook once; eat twice (or more!).”

You can even use your freezer to save odds and ends. Reader D Leigh keeps a “soup bin” in the freezer. “I toss in leftovers like a small bit of rice, beans, etc.; meat trimmings and leftovers; bits of unused produce and trimmings (for flavoring). Frozen separately (in reusable containers), they give me a good variety of ingredients to create different types of soups, stews and stock.”

3. Be smart about buying in bulk

Buying in bulk works for some people, but others find it can lead to food waste (that is, money down the drain). Figure out what works for you and your storage situation. Sometimes, larger sizes don’t save you money. “I have checked the unit price for items ‘on sale’ and found it more expensive than the same product in a different size that isn’t on sale,” wrote Voyager1.

Comparing unit prices is important, as we wrote. It can also be a good way to engage kids, teaching them about being smart shoppers. “Price per pound, percentages, and basic math are all functions of grocery shopping,” said NYSkeptik. “Shopping trips with my parents were always math lessons.”

4. Know your store’s layout

Getting to know a store’s layout can help save you time and keeps you from wandering (when you’re far more likely to snag a pricey impulse buy). Another Fine Mess reminded us of a chestnut worth recalling: “The best advice is the oft-repeated advice to shop the perimeter aisles of the store, not the center aisles. It’s healthier and less expensive, generally, unless the bulk foods are elsewhere.”

Rivocci had an insider’s hack for scanning the aisles. “I worked in a grocery store throughout high school and college. I learned that it’s a good idea to always look at items that are not at eye level because that’s usually where the more expensive items are displayed. Look to the top and bottom shelves for similar and less-expensive items.”

Many shops have digital tools that could be useful. “If the store you shop at has a mobile app for your phone, it may have a lot of helpful features – shopping lists, a bar code scanner to add items, digital coupons, online ordering for pickup or delivery, a locator to find items in the store, etc.,” X Coder noted.

5. Join store loyalty programs

Many commenters find that coupons aren’t worth their time, and some complain that they often apply to highly processed (and therefore more-expensive-to-begin-with) products. But several praised the loyalty programs offered by various chains. “I can usually accumulate enough rewards to get anywhere from $10 to $15 off my receipt every month,” AnotherMom wrote. “Also, the grocery stores will send out coupons for 10 to 25 percent off several times a year. And getting my flu shot at the grocery pharmacy guarantees 10 percent off one shopping trip.”

“If the store you shop at has a loyalty plan: Use it all the time!” SBrudno advised. “I usually save around 15 percent each time I shop.”

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