Food Overspending on Groceries? Here's How to Change That

by Mai Pham | October 30, 2020

How can you spend less money on groceries when you love food?

Take it from me, a food writer, it's something I've had to work on. I started to write about food because I don’t just love to eat, I love eating well. I’m also an avid home cook who will attempt to make everything from scratch using the highest quality ingredients I can find.

When I’m grocery shopping, I often find myself easily enticed by whatever is fresh, in-season or just delicious sounding that day. It could be a cluster of fresh king crab claws. Or a bundle of just-in-from-Europe white asparagus. And who can pass up a beautifully marbled ribeye?

These grocery store indulgences do add up. I didn’t realize how much I was spending until I looked up the monthly at-home food expenditure for a family of two. As of May 2020, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated this to be $405.30 for those who are thrifty and $805.70 for those who spend liberally. My spending surpassed these numbers by as much as 50%.

Clearly, I needed to curb my grocery spending. But how could I achieve this while still catering to my inner gourmand? Thankfully, I also have a healthy appetite for research. So, I tapped three experts in the food world — globetrotting chef Michael Mina, cookbook author Andrea Nguyen and nutritionist Jill Nussinow — for practical advice on how to eat well and still stick to a budget.

With their help, I've pulled together nine simple strategies for saving money on food — from buying in bulk, to pickling and freezing, to tapping your local butcher or fishmonger for the freshest sale items — that will help you shop smarter and more economically without skimping on quality.

1. Plan your meals around a well-stocked pantry

I never realized how important a well-stocked pantry was until chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Michael Mina of San Francisco, CA-based Mina Restaurant Group cited it as one of the strategies he employs across his 40-plus restaurants.

“Having a well-stocked pantry with a nice selection of spices, nuts, legumes, grains, and beans along with oils, vinegars, etc., is the best way to make the most from your shopping and keep things interesting,” Mina advises.

And it makes sense. Before a grocery store run, shop your pantry first. Use it as a starting point for all your shopping, so that you can plan your meals in advance. Maybe you’ve got enough for a pasta night without having to buy any groceries. And spices like paprika and cumin would work just as well in a Mexican-themed meal of enchiladas as it would in an Indian curry or a Moroccan chicken tagine.

When you have a pantry with all the necessities, you can invest in high quality raw ingredients — whole organic chicken, wild caught-salmon, organic greens and more — and cross-utilize them to pull together any number of easy recipes, even last minute.

2. Befriend butchers, fishmongers and produce department folks

Andrea Nguyen, author of several cookbooks including Vietnamese Any Day, credits her mother for teaching her the importance of knowing the people who work in key grocery store departments. “They’ll direct you to the best deals and freshest food,” says Nguyen.

They’ll direct you to the best deals and freshest food.
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“The butcher will save me the steak that’s on sale, and the fishmonger will cut me a center-cut filet when I ask so I don't have to buy the whole thing,” she says. And in the produce section? Nguyen shares conspiratorially, “They will even cut and sell you half a papaya or watermelon.” Purchasing a portion size you'll actually use is easier on your budget and leads to less food waste later at home. 

These in-store experts will let you know what is a good bargain right now, and might even offer preparation tips if it's not something you've tried before.

3. Buy in-season produce, then freeze, pickle or ferment

I always look forward to stone fruit season in the summer, because I love peaches. I just never thought about preserving them beyond the season. Jill Nussinow (aka the Veggie Queen), a registered dietitian and cookbook author, recommends freezing, pickling or fermenting in-season produce as one of the best ways to save money and maximize nutrition.

When you buy produce in season, you get them at their most competitive price point and at their prime point of ripeness, which is also the most nutritious and flavorful. Nussinow advises stocking up on sale items, blanching them quickly, then freezing them with the date clearly marked.

Firm items like carrots, beans and eggplant can be frozen, while high water-content items, like okra, onions and green beans can be pickled or fermented. “There’s nothing like pulling out a bag of peaches in January and making a peach crisp,” she says. “The best things to freeze are the things you kind of know you are not going to be able to get and are not going to be as good when you want them later.”

Cropped shot of a farmer carrying a crate full of fresh produce

4. Shop the weekly sales ads

New grocery store circulars typically come out every week, with sales beginning on Wednesday and ending on Tuesday. Newspaper subscribers get them with the Sunday paper; some may receive them in the mail on Monday or Tuesday; and shoppers can access them online.

Nguyen advises making a shopping list of the hot ticket sales items — the front page deals are the best bargains — then shopping on Wednesday or Thursday. (A shopping list is also key to staying focused and avoiding impulse buys that can add up.) She suggests going early in the morning, if possible, when the stores have just put out fresh stock so that you can have your pick of the best items before the weekend rush.

To maximize savings and efficiency, consider downloading the apps of your grocery stores you visit and joining their loyalty programs. The app will allow you to add digital coupons and sales items directly to your shopping list, with cost-savings applied automatically at checkout.

“Have no shame,” Nguyen says. “Saving is smart, and buying sale items from a circular just leaves you with more money to buy more expensive specialty products when you need them.”

5. Purchase store-branded products

From dairy to grains, canned vegetables to paper towels, store-branded products are often as good as or better than branded products. And the savings can be substantial, from 10% to as much as 50%.

For the most cost savings, look to items that are considered “top shelf,” and then choose a store brand substitute. Extra-virgin olive oil, organic lactose-free milk, canned tomatoes and organic oatmeal are just a few items that I’ve picked up for a fraction of the price of traditional name brands.

6. Buy in bulk, portion out

Maybe there was a buy-one-get-one offer, or special package pricing for a larger quantity of meat purchased. While bulk buying can seem more economical, it only saves you money if you don’t end up wasting the stuff.

Buying a large package of protein like ground beef or chicken breasts? “Portion out what you’re going to use, then freeze the rest immediately,” says Nguyen. Uncooked meats go bad fairly quickly even if kept in the fridge, so rather than waiting for the meat to spoil, freeze usable portions and plan to thaw overnight when you need them.

Portion out what you’re going to use, then freeze the rest immediately.
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For pasture-raised and heritage meats, another money-saving option is to purchase a “share” of a whole animal through a local ranch or specialty butchery service and pool the share with friends and family. Local ranches can offer half and quarter animal shares that can be portioned by cut, vacuum-sealed and stored frozen for up to six months.

And, if you plan it right, you can carve out some time on the weekend to prep a few recipes (even freeze fully prepared meals) to help set you up for the week ahead.

7. Visit smaller, specialty grocers

“Don’t limit all of your grocery shopping to the large supermarket chains,” says Nguyen, who lives within walking distance of three different grocery stores, including an independent one. For example, Asian grocers are known for their fantastic live seafood sections featuring large tanks with lobster, crab and local fresh catch, as well as all manner of pickled, preserved and fermented vegetables. 

From the local butcher for specialty meats to the Asian grocer who stocks hard-to-find sauces and spices, buying from small or non-mainstream grocers will save you money. Pricing can often be more competitive, and you'll discover a wider variety of choice on international foods ranging from frozen dumplings to jasmine rice to fish sauce.

8. Shop with a cash back credit card

A way to offset food costs without any conscious budgeting or deal hunting is to use a cash back or rewards credit card that offers cash back or rewards points on grocery purchases.

In addition, many credit cards may come with sign-up bonuses after you meet qualifying spend requirements within an initial time period as a new cardmember — say, the first three months.

With certain rewards programs, earned cash back can be redeemed as a billing statement credit.

9. Curb impulse buys: Get your groceries delivered or order curbside pick-up

Sure, you might have to pay a delivery fee or a service fee when you order ahead online for pick-up, but it can be a cost-effective convenience. Plus, when you’re not actually in a store browsing, you’re a lot less likely to indulge in impulse buys and stick to what's on your list of essentials.

Money not spent is money saved. Plus, outsourcing a grocery store run is a budget-friendly way to save precious time, too.

5 money-saving food delivery options

You can also augment the staples you pick up at the grocery by signing up for food shares and subscription boxes. You'll receive high-quality meats or in-season produce and also support small agricultural businesses. 

1. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

Shop direct from a local farm or sign up for a share with a local CSA for pickup or delivery through the Local Harvest Network which lists farms across the country. 

2. Imperfect Foods

San Francisco, CA-based Imperfect Foods is all about delivering (and not letting go to waste) the fruits and vegetables that aren’t pretty enough to sell at retail. Save up to 30% on grocery market produce, pantry items and dairy with a weekly food box delivery.

Smiling men unloading groceries from canvas bags in kitchen

3. Pasture-raised animal share

Purchase whole animal shares of pasture-raised veal, goat, duck and chickens from the ninth generation farming family of Rossotti Ranch family in Petaluma County, CA. 

4. Fruit and vegetable subscription

Get organic and natural fruits and vegetables by the subscription service Farmbox Direct, which partners with local farms across the country.

5. Mix and match meat delivery

Mix and match 100% grass-fed beef, free range organic chicken and heritage breed pork, for home delivery via the Boston-based Butcher Box.

Mai Pham

is a Houston-based food, wine and travel writer whose work appears in Forbes Travel Guide, Thrillist, Modern Luxury, Houston Chronicle and more. Follow her culinary adventures @femme_foodie.