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Nine food budgeting hacks you need to know

Grocery shopping is a perennial chore, but it doesn't need to be complicated. With a little advance planning, it can be easy - and even cheap.

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    Grocery shoppers browse the merchandise at a local grocery store in the Little Havana area of Miami (Friday, June 12, 2015).
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What I spend on food makes up a large part of my monthly budget, so it's great if I can save a little when I can. The problem is, the most frugal methods of cutting down your food budget — meal planning, couponing, bulk buying, bulk cooking — are difficult to sustain given a busy lifestyle and, to be frank, lack of interest. Honestly, I'd much rather be binge-watching Netflix than couponing or meal-planning, and I don't have enough storage space to stockpile a lot of bulk items.

I've found that it's much easier for me to trim the budget here and there by using a few tricks. I can go crazy spending on restaurant meals, but limiting the number of times we dine out has helped our food budget tremendously. Many of these tips center around preparing meals easily and cheaply, without spending money at a restaurant.

1. Have Go-To Meals in the Pantry

How often do you get home at 6 p.m., only to realize you have no idea what to make for dinner, and you have no groceries in the fridge? When caught unawares, it's often easier to eat out or order in, but unfortunately, unplanned restaurant meals can add up quickly. Prevent last-minute splurges by keeping your pantry stocked with quick, easy-to-prepare, non-perishable, and cheap ingredients. Make sure you have at least three or four pantry-friendly meals you can call on in a pinch. Supplement this with frozen vegetables and a few frozen entrees like ravioli, meatballs, or salmon burgers.

For example:

  • Canned tuna + frozen spinach + spaghetti = tuna pasta
     
  • Dried red split lentils + chicken broth + canned tomatoes = lentil soup
     
  • Rice + canned beans + salsa = Mexican rice bowl (add a fried egg on top!)
     
  • Marinara sauce + frozen meatballs + frozen pineapple = Hawaiian meatballs
     
  • Dried ramen or soba + dried seaweed + frozen edamame = veggie noodle bowl

2. Make a Shopping List

Making a shopping list doesn't have to be intimidating — we're not talking about planning your meals for the whole week. It's more about preventing that moment when you get home from the grocery store only to realize you forgot the ingredient you went there for in the first place. Instead of shopping by the seat of your pants, make a list. In fact, make a list throughout the week, by writing down ingredients that you are running out of or know you'll need. Use the last egg? Put eggs on the list. Use the last can of salsa? Put salsa on the list. That way, you won't need to make a special trip to the store when you find yourself without important staples.

3. Reduce Food Waste

Most of us lose a lot of money through food waste. Something looks good at the store, and it sits forgotten in the bottom of the crisper drawer for the next two weeks. Here are a few easy ways to cut down on food waste:

  • Look in the fridge before you go to the store. Take note of what you already have and what needs to be used up.
     
  • Make a shopping list!
     
  • Use up leftovers for lunch the next day.
     
  • Only buy as much as you need. That giant bulk-size bag of chips might be a good value, but not if the chips go stale before you can eat them.
     
  • Make sure you can see at a glance what you have in the fridge — this might mean organizing or cleaning out your fridge.

4. Pack Your Lunch

Spending the extra time to prepare a lunch the night before work (or the morning of) can seem like a chore, but there are a few ways to make packing a lunch easier:

  • Keep groceries at work. My husband recently started doing this and has cut down on eating out from five meals a week to one or two. He keeps a bag of bagels or wraps at the office, and stores packages of deli meat, sliced cheese, baby carrots, and hummus in the office fridge. He's definitely saving money, and can use his lunch break to go for a run or a swim instead of standing in line to order food.
     
  • Plan to cook a little more at dinner the night before, so you'll have leftovers to bring to work the next day.
     
  • Portion out easy-to-grab containers of sliced vegetables, hummus, fruit, and other lunch components at the beginning of the week to make the lunch-packing process faster and easier.

5. Have a Snack Before Shopping

It can be dangerous to shop on an empty stomach — everything looks so appetizing. Stop yourself from giving in to the temptation by having a nutritious and filling snack before you go to the store. Plus, you'll need energy to wrangle all those great deals you'll be finding!

6. Stock Up on Staples

When you see non-perishable staples that you know you'll use on sale, be sure to stock up. If pasta is on sale for 79 cents a package, buy as much as you think you'll use before it expires. Same goes for canned beans, canned tomatoes, and pasta sauce. Sometimes meat goes on sale — you can freeze a bunch for use later (though don't buy more than you'll use in a couple months). The key to stocking up, however, is to only buy what you know you will use. Don't fall into the trap of hoarding food just because it's cheap. You'll only end up wasting more food and money.

7. Cook What's Seasonal and Cheap

Instead of buying groceries based on a recipe you want to try, look for recipes based around what's seasonal and inexpensive at the grocery store. This is especially easy if you have a smartphone. I often check to see what meats and vegetables are on sale, then quickly browse the Internet to see what dishes I can make with them and if I need to pick up any extra ingredients.

8. Buy Cheaper Cuts of Meat

Learn to cook the cheaper (and often tougher) cuts of meat. A pork shoulder roast is one of the cheapest meats that you can buy, and can make a pot of pulled pork (or my favorite, kalua pork) in the slow cooker that will last you three or four days. Instead of going for the more expensive chicken breasts, try cooking with inexpensive chicken thighs. And instead of roasting a tender rack of lamb ribs, barbecue a few crosscut lamb leg steaks. Optimize a rotisserie chicken by eating the drumsticks and thighs for one meal, and using the breasts for another dish (we frequently do chicken and dumplings), as well as making soup with the bones.

9. Eat Less Meat

Meat or fish is usually the most expensive part of the meals I cook at home. Try designating one day (or more) for a meatless meal. Instead substitute vegetarian dishes, like chickpea curry, pasta primavera, or vegetarian pizza. Eggs can be bought very inexpensively — try making a veggie and egg scramble for dinner, a quiche or frittata, or an egg and potato salad.

This article first appeared at Wise Bread.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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