Friday, January 31, 2014

7QT: Staying Frugal with Food

By Mary C. Tillotson

I was trying to come up with some fun wordplay for the title but after getting stuck between "Frood" and "Food-gal," I decided that wasn't a good idea. Being frugal with food, whether from necessity or disciplined stewardship, is a good idea. Here are some things I've learned:


Cook real dinners. If you don't know how to cook, get a book (or the internet!) and learn. It takes practice and you might have some evenings where you spent a lot of time on something that you end up throwing away, but you'll get better at it and it's the cheapest way to eat. If you take what Luke and I spend on groceries for a month (which includes things like shampoo and batteries, so this is really an overestimate), we eat (both of us) on just over $10 a day. That's the cost of, what, three Big Macs, sans fries? Fast food is cheap, but cooking is cheaper. (For more on this, read this helpful essay Cooking isn't fun, but you should do it anyway.)


Eat your leftovers. Any food that goes bad before you get around to eating it is money wasted. If you have enough leftovers for dinner, have leftovers for dinner. If you don't, have leftovers for lunch -- it'll make your bread and sandwich meat stretch a little longer. Tip: As you're eating your leftovers, note which foods taste good left over. I think pasta tastes better leftover, but mashed potatoes are no good the next day, for example. Adjust your cooking and eating habits with your preferences in mind.


On that note, plan your cooking around what you have lying around in the fridge (even if you have to buy more groceries to make the dish work). It's hard to buy the exact amount of ingredients for each recipe, so after you've cooked something, see what miscellany you have left. Do you have half a green pepper left over after the Spanish chicken skillet? Make something that involves green pepper -- put ham on your grocery list and make my mom's Impossible Pie. Does that leave you with extra ham, but no more green pepper? Maybe do some kind of ham and potato dish. And so on. We've found this is one of the best ways to keep food from going bad.


Be wary of scrimping on your grocery budget. Store-brand foods are cheaper, but might not be any better for your budget. We buy most things generic, but I finally realized I just didn't like the store-brand ham. I would put it on a sandwich, choke it down, then not put it on another sandwich until it went bad -- and then I'd throw it out, wasting the money we'd spent on it. Finally I realized it was actually cheaper to buy more expensive ham. I'd actually eat it. Stock your kitchen so you aren't tempted to say "Blah, there's nothing good here... let's go out." (See #7.)


Buy meat in bulk, near the expiration date, and freeze. We buy a package of somewhere between a half and a whole dozen chicken breasts, then wrap them individually in plastic wrap, put them all in a large freezer bag, and stick the whole thing in the freezer. (I learned in college that even with my handsome and very strong then-boyfriend's help, it's almost impossible to separate frozen chicken breasts without thawing them all, and I hear you're not supposed to re-freeze meat unless you cook it. So separate them before you freeze them, but they don't need individual freezer bags.) If you freeze the meat right away, the expiration date doesn't really matter, and meat is usually super cheap the day or two before it "expires." You can do this with any kind of meat and some other foods -- just break it down into meal-sized portions, put it in a freezer bag, and freeze.


Buy spices in bulk at a health food store. At health food stores, "bulk" doesn't mean enormous amounts; it means they buy enormous amounts and scoop out just the amount you want into a little plastic baggie. It usually costs something like $100 a pound but think about how much dried basil -- which sticks to things with static -- it would take to make a pound. (Probably several garbage cans full.) I usually spend about a dollar to fill up our little jar twice. (Fair point, spices don't cost that much to begin with. But they're important: they're what make your food not taste all the same. Plus, health food store spices are probably organic and better-tasting than the store-brand you're tempted to buy.)


Avoid dinners out (and when you do go, order off the lunch menu). For dates or hanging out with friends, go out for coffee, ice cream, or dessert. I heard someone on the radio suggesting feeding the kids frozen chicken nuggets at 6, then sending them to their bedrooms to be quiet afterward -- then, cooking a nice, elaborate, grown-up meal (where the meat and vegetables actually touch, the radio woman said). Hosting friends for a pizza and game night is cheaper than going out -- and a nicer frozen pizza tastes just as good (and is more convenient, and cheaper) than delivery.

That's all for today! What ideas and tips do you have?

Join Jen with us!

Image by Tax Credits.


  1. Planning meals! I do at least a week at a time. I look at my list of meals, look at the sales, and then I know exactly what to buy at the store. No extras floating around the fridge, and no days where "oh crap I don't know what to have for dinner can you pick up a pizza on the way home?"

    1. That's really smart! I've heard this works for a lot of families. I have a really hard time buying the exact amount of an ingredient -- we'll buy tortillas for one meal, but they come in packs of eight so we have six tortillas left over. Do you run into this sort of thing? How do you handle it? Before our weekly grocery store run, I'll pull a few recipes based on what we have lying around in the fridge and put the ingredients we still need on the list. If there is a way to be more organized about it, I am interested!

    2. Freeze, freeze, freeze, even with just a small freezer! Tortillas freeze well if you put a piece of wax paper between them in their bag. And then, as long as you've got cheese in the fridge and a can of refried beans in the pantry, you've got another quick meal for some night when you're too tired to think of cooking. You can also make quesadillas using cheese and that little tiny bit of leftover whatever you've got, meat or veggies or both. Or brush the tortillas with olive oil, cut them up, sprinkle them with salt (or use butter and cinnamon and sugar) and then toast them in a 400 degree over for 10 or 12 minutes -- instant chips. Then you have a snack for the next couple of days. Or cook them the same way, but whole, and then you have the "shells" for tostadas.

      Okay, that was just tortillas, but what I mean is that if you can just find a way to save the perishable extra ingredients, they'll come in handy next week. I.e. don't feel like you have to find a way to cook with them right away. But if you count those extra ingredients as possibilities for later lunches, for example, you might even be able to completely eliminate buying bread and sandwich meat for lunch (except for treats, of course!).

    3. Definitely freezing. Or what I tend to do is use the "leftover" ingredients over the weekend, or for lunches, or when people drop by and our hungry... they sort of fill in the cracks. (For example, if there are two tortillas hanging out in the fridge, and we're going to watch a movie, oh hey! Let's make quesadillas.)

      We eat leftovers for lunch all the time, which means that I make more food than we need for only one meal. (I ALWAYS make enough for leftovers!) So if I bought an eight-pack of tortillas, I'd eat one for dinner and my husband would eat two, and then I'd send two to work with him the next day for his lunch, and I'd eat one myself... and then we only have two left, which we'll probably dispose of the following Saturday by making breakfast burritos or something. :) That's probably one of the reasons I don't waste food: I use a lot of what's in the package, even though there are only two of us (well, and the baby). I can freeze the "excess" food, but more likely, we'll eat it later on.

      And like anon. said above, a lot of those ingredients will last till the next week or more. I very rarely throw away food!

  2. Another tip is to peruse your fridge and see what you need to use up, then type those ingredients into your web browser. Recipes that will magically clear out your fridge will appear, and you have a plan for dinner.

    1. Thanks, Mom! That's a good idea, too. We actually started doing something like that (or, trying to) with our spices. We inherited / were gifted a bunch of seasonings we don't know what to do with, so we googled around for recipes that involve those spices. This is a relatively new idea so we haven't actually made a dinner under this plan yet, but I think it will broaden our tastes and get us out of a rut of cooking the same thing all the time.

  3. great article Mary. I spend way too much for food for just the two of us (plus the dog). your mom is very creative in putting together a meal with what she has in the frig or cupboard. I have always admired her for that. You have such a good role model in so many ways.

    1. She is wonderful! Funny, I hadn't thought about it as "creativity" before, but it really is.


This site is no longer accepting comments. Please check us out at and share your reply there. Thank you!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.