How do I shop and cook to maximize my grocery budjet?
November 3, 2010 11:57 AM   Subscribe

Which grocery items are the cheapest (most cost effective) in terms of how far they go to actually feed yourself and your family?

If you wish, include in your answer what form or quantity (for instance, in bulk) gets the best price. Also, if it matters, we have a costco nearby, but not a Trader Joe's or a Whole Foods (I'm in Western Canada).
posted by kitcat to Shopping (60 answers total) 121 users marked this as a favorite
Rice bought in bulk from an Asian grocery store.
posted by Think_Long at 11:59 AM on November 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

Rice, flour, pasta.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 12:00 PM on November 3, 2010

We get 10lb boxes of oats from Costco and large 2-packs of peanut butter and combined those give me breakfasts for a loooong time.
posted by ghharr at 12:00 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Rice, dried beans, pasta, oatmeal (rolled oats), flour. If you need meat, I find that a big ham, with the bone, will go a long way in a wide variety of dishes.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:02 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Beans and lentils for protein and calories (and other good stuff). Flavour with whatever you want. Oatmeal too.
posted by bread-eater at 12:03 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Blue Ribbon Long Grain Rice, 25 pounds for $8.66 from Costco.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:03 PM on November 3, 2010

Nthing dried beans & rice.

Also, eggs.
posted by pecanpies at 12:03 PM on November 3, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah...that should read 'budget'.
posted by kitcat at 12:04 PM on November 3, 2010

Since you mentioned both shopping and cooking, you may want to check out some of the so-called "Mommy Blogs." There are numerous blogs dedicated to feeding a family on a budget. Many have shopping lists, menus, and other resources, all available for free.
posted by pecanpies at 12:04 PM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: Eggs and Peanut Butter.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:08 PM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Just about any grain product bought in bulk (the aforementioned rice, flour, pasta, etc) will drive down your cost per meal. Potatoes are also versatile, healthy, and cheap. The downside is that they don't have the same shelf life that something like rice does.

Having recently purchased a used chest freezer, I'm starting to experiment with making large quantities of stuff myself that I would normally buy and freezing it. Tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes was bust. the sauce turned out great but it was a pain in the arse to seed all those tomatoes and it wasn't that cheap. I'm going to try the huge cans of tomatoes next and I think it is promising.

Generally, the more of the work that you do, the cheaper its going to be. I started making my own pizza crust and that is stupid cheap and surprisingly easy (which I'm hoping to augment with homemade tomato sauce). Putting together the actual pizza is kind of a chore but one easily solved by adding hands.
posted by VTX at 12:11 PM on November 3, 2010

I'm a big fan of non-essential food (like cakes and cookies and such), and you can save a LOT of money by making your own treats rather than buying, say, a pack of chips ahoy. Get bulk flour, sugar, and butter from Costco (sealed properly, the flour and sugar can keep for ages and you can freeze the butter) and make all of your own goodies. (You'll also eat less junk food this way since you can only bake so often--and cookies will be seen as a special treat rather than just another snack.)

But for real food: rice, beans, potatoes, fresh fruit and veggies.
posted by phunniemee at 12:11 PM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: I don't know if this fits your requirements, but I think "milk" is a good one. It's filling, versitile and can combine with other ingredients mentioned above (e.g. flour, butter, eggs) to form different dishes (e.g. quick bread).
posted by cranberrymonger at 12:13 PM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: Split pea soup is one of the cheapest healthy meals imaginable -- a pound of split peas ($1) plus some salt and spices (and maybe some onions) will yield enough soup to feed an entire family and then some. Add some bits of bacon or ham if you'd like, although I find it pretty tasty sans meat.
posted by pluckemin at 12:14 PM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Dried -> Canned -> Fresh -> Processed
posted by mkultra at 12:17 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

We can make several meals (for a family of six, including somewhat-picky kids) out of beans, rice, tortillas and cheese. Beans and rice one night. Refry the beans, and we've got stuff for quesadillas, tostadas, or burritos. It's cheap, it's healthy, and the kids will actually eat it. You can make your own tortillas for super-cheap, but the store brand tortillas are cheap enough for us.

Eggs are awfully handy too. Fried, scrambled, boiled eggs can all make meals in and of themselves, but more importantly, omelets and frittatas are perfect for using up leftovers. Little bits of leftover meat or vegetables or cheese that wouldn't make a meal by themselves can all go in a big omelet or frittata so you can use every bit of it.

Hillbilly Housewife
is my go-to source for cheap recipes on the weeks that we're really trying to keep our grocery spending as low as possible. It's not always terribly healthy, but it's a great starting point for creating a whole lot of food out of a little bit of money.
posted by Dojie at 12:17 PM on November 3, 2010

Is convenience a concern at all? Dried beans are much cheaper than canned, but I will let a bag of dried beans sit on my shelf for months while I eat pound after pound of canned beans. Dried beans aren't the better value if you never want to cook them.

Beans in general, though, probably get you the best nutrition and longest shelf life for your buck.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:19 PM on November 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Lentils, rice, eggs, peanut butter, tuna, carrots, onions, and potatoes.
posted by anderjen at 12:22 PM on November 3, 2010

it's more expensive, but organic milk lasts longer. I buy it in three packs from Costco. Powdered milk lasts even longer.
posted by Sara Anne at 12:22 PM on November 3, 2010

Everyone else seems to have covered grains and legumes, so I'll dive into the meat end (assuming you're interested). Do you know how to break down a chicken? On sale, whole chickens go for as little as $0.88/lb. That's almost as cheap as onions.
Ever cook spare ribs? We can get them at about $1.70/lb. Roasted with salt and pepper, they're filling and will go a long way.
nthing eggs. A properly poached egg can make anything seem special. A Nicoise salad is actually pretty cheap per portion, but feels pretty damn fancy when you're eating it.
Final tip: corn tortillas are dirt-cheap, and fry up beautifully. If you have fresh corn tortillas, you are only 15 minutes away from bean and cheese nachos, chalupas, or tacos.
posted by Gilbert at 12:23 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Re: Sara Anne's comment: organic milk lasts longer because it's ultra-pasteurized, not just plain-ol'-pasteurized (it's not the organic-ness that does it). And if you find yourself throwing out half-gallons of stanky milk often, it is ABSOLUTELY worth the extra $0.30 upfront for milk that won't go bad for a month.

And re: Metroid Baby's comment. I second this, extremely emphatically. If you have nothing to do all day but stay at home and come up with frugal-but-delicious recipes, dried beans are great. But if you typically stagger in the door at 7 PM, howling children clinging to each leg, house a wreck, etc. ... canned beans are your friend in SO many ways. You can instantly make a big bowl of dip, or tortillas, or burritos, or some kinda hearty "stew" concoction... and you're actually likely to do so! If you've got nothing but a bag of dried pintos, OTOH...

I also buy pallets of tofu at our local Asian foods mega-mart. A buck per asceptically-sealed pack of waste-free protein. Mmmn, tofu.
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:37 PM on November 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Also great items to extend the budget: meat and fish, and frozen veggies, when on sale, if you have freezer space. (Many filling and less expensive meals like chilis and casseroles and stews freeze well too.) Many freezers, if basic, aren't at all expensive either. The trick is to maintain a log so you know what is in there and can plan for when to thaw and cook/eat.
posted by bearwife at 12:40 PM on November 3, 2010

Beans. They're probably a quarter of what I eat, by volume, because of habits instilled when I was a kid and we had no money.

We also made our own tortillas and pasta and bread - you save a lot by buying salt, sugar, and flour instead of the stuff that's made using those components.

Most of the really inexpensive, high-nutrition foods are very shelf-stable in their most basic form, so searching AskMe for posts on food storage will yield additional ideas.

If you join Costco, avoid buying flats of extra-large muffins or "buy 6, get 2 free" deals on jumbo sized bags of chips, chocolate syrup, and such.
posted by SMPA at 12:41 PM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: Cabbage often goes on sale around here for 69 cents a head (and some of those heads weigh a couple of pounds, so we're talking 35 cents a pound.) It lasts for a ridiculously long time in the fridge, and you can do a ton of stuff with it: shred it and use on sandwiches, make it into slaw, add it to vegetable soup, saute it and add to mashed potatoes to make colcannon. You can also substitute cabbage for the potatoes in a scalloped potato recipe.

Quinoa is pretty cheap and it is a very good source of protein. You can make grain-based salads out of it, or use it like rice as a side dish, or eat it with milk, butter and sugar like oatmeal. It's really easy to make in a rice cooker but the stove-top directions don't seem difficult either.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 12:44 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a baby step to this, consider doubling your current Favorite Recipes, and then freezing the second portion with any leftovers. It will help you teach yourself how to shop in bulk: you don't always use the stuff that you think you will. :7)

We buy big pieces of chicken and then trim/flatten/spilt them ourtselves before freezing the pieces. Sure, I spent all Monday night hacking away at dead bird parts, but it beats buying those expensive chicken fillets at the store, and it's nice to know we have a freezer full of ingredients so we're not prisoner to whatever today's price is.

Also consider buying veggies when they're cheap. You chop them and freeze bundles of 1/4 or 1/3 cup. It makes for faster cooking later, and you're less likely to discard any excess.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:51 PM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: Pasta, dried beans, eggs, like everyone else said. Here's more.

Chicken quarters and pork butt. You can get an 8-12 lb pork butt for under $1/lb. That's going to feed your family 1-2 meals and then you have a bone to make soup with.

The cheapest cut of chicken I see is the leg/thigh quarter. I recently bought a lot of those for $0.39/lb. I typically see them for $0.89 when the next cheapest format, including whole chicken, is $1.19.

Beef is right out.

Buy what's in season. I fell into this backward. I was being very price conscious about vegetables and I ended up only buying what was in season. When tomatoes were $1.49/lb, they didn't look that good. In summer I found them for $0.79/lb and I snatched them up.

Buy ingredients, not foods
Yesterday I bought a box of macaroni & cheese in a box (not Kraft, but generic) for $0.40. I thought it was a pretty good price for a food. When I got home I realized the box had 5.5 oz whereas my typical box of pasta that I buy for under $1 had 16 oz. So my mac & cheese was tasty, but not nearly the good deal I expected.
posted by oreofuchi at 12:57 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

dried beans and rice
posted by OmieWise at 1:00 PM on November 3, 2010

Buy whole chickens on sale. Cut it yourself. Save inedible portions for stock. Freeze unused portions. A single chicken can feed a family of four twice, easily, in combination with grains and vegetables. The stock can be used to make inexpensive ingredients (vegetables) more enjoyable for the young (soup).

You can make a very good soup simply with a cup of lentils, one carrot, one stalk of celery, one onion, water, and chicken stock.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:02 PM on November 3, 2010

Also, make your own seasoning mixes. I've tried a couple of these. They are really easy, makes plenty for meals (and easy to scale up or down), really good, and really cheap.
posted by VTX at 1:06 PM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: Some things that look expensive on the outside actually go a long way, like bacon. I'll make bacon on a Sunday morning for breakfast, and save the grease, and keep back some crumbled bacon. The crumbled bacon might go in a broccoli or ceasar salad or in carbonara pasta, while the grease might be used to toss potato chunks in before roasting, or (if I'm feeling really industrious) filtered and saved and used to make savoury biscuits. There are all sorts of little ways to make food stretch.

Leftover mashed potatoes or oatmeal make awesome bread. Leftover hambones have been covered above. Pan juices make a good basis for broth. Leftover potroast vegetables can be combined with broth and a bit of wine and cooked down for a savoury sauce to trim something else. Handfuls of herbs from the garden can be salvaged at this time of the year by picking and washing (and getting rid of any brown or yellow leaves), stuffing in a blender with garlic, olive oil, salt, and whole peppercorns and swizzing away. Spread the resulting mixture on chicken or pork before baking or roasting for a herb-y, garlicky, peppery flavour.

There's something pleasantly stream-of-consciousness about cooking this way. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another.
posted by LN at 1:16 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Beans and rice.

To help them, canned peas or canned corn.

Corn chips, if you can get them cheap, are filling and go well with a lot of things. Nachos are particularly fun vs. tortillas.

Hot sauce can go a long way toward making cheap food palatable. We have about a gallon of Frank's right now.

Chicken thighs are great for soups (as are any generally tough or meh cuts of meat--cook them long enough and slow enough and they'll fall apart).

Tuna is relatively cheap and the best part--it's meat, but it's canned so it doesn't go bad.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:20 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh and we started saving a billion* a month when I banned meat from the house.

We don't really miss it; it's been replaced somewhat by cheese but we can get much cheaper cheese and it lasts longer.

posted by the young rope-rider at 1:22 PM on November 3, 2010

Most of what I came here to say was said--flour, beans, rice, (I would add corn meal/polenta to this--great under spaghetti sauce, stew, on it's own with some cheese), pork roasts, whole chickens etc. Counts for desserts too--flour, eggs and sugar cost a lot less than prepared cookies and cakes.

One note about beans--you could make dried beans one sunday a month in the crock pot (or on the stove) and then freeze them in batches. Most of the cooking time is unattended and then they keep forever. SO much cheaper than canned beans.
posted by Kimberly at 1:27 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know if grocery stores work the same in Canada, but here I buy most of my food at Aldi (where all the above advice holds in terms of what to buy) and scour the sales flyers for regular grocery stores to stock up on "loss leader" meat--a loss leader is a product that is deeply discounted in order to pull customers in the door. It works out in the stores advantage if you buy a bunch of non-discounted stuff in the process, but if you walk out with as much loss-leader meat as they have on the shelf, and nothing else, it can be a useful way to cut costs without completely eliminating meat (and beef in particular) from your diet.

Canned is often less expensive than fresh for things like fruits, vegetables, tomato products, and nutritionally equivalent so long as you watch your salt intake. Canned salmon has got to be dirt cheap where you are!

Ethnic groceries also often have better prices on unprocessed food.
posted by drlith at 1:48 PM on November 3, 2010

If you're a bread baker, you can't do better than Costco's yeast -- last time I bought it, it was under $4 for a pound, which, kept in the freezer, lasts for many loaves.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:53 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Nthing whole chickens. Easily feeds two people for a week. Buy one chicken. Break it down into two breasts, two legs, two wings and the carcass. Freeze the giblets.
First night - Easy chicken curry. Cook double the rice you will need. Chop up one breast and brown in big saucepan or pot. Set aside. Brown an onion in some vegetable oil or ghee. Add 2 cloves of garlic and some chopped ginger, plus your favourite hot pepper, to taste. Cook for five minutes. Throw in a teaspoon each of crushed cumin, coriander seeds and turmeric powder. Cook on low for 5 minutes. Blend in blender until creamy with three fingers of water. Add 1/2 pack of tomato sauce. Return to pan and add chicken and two medium potatoes cut into cubes. Simmer for 30 minutes or so, until potato is soft. Serve with 1/2 the rice.
Second night - Fried rice. In big pan or wok, heat some garlic, ginger and scallions or spring onions in some oil. Don't burn. Add one beaten egg, stir until egg sets. Add whatever veggies you have from fridge, chopped small. Add rice from last night and a splash of soy sauce. Stir until rice is warm. Top with Sriracha sauce if you have it.
Third night - Tacos. Shred meat from chicken legs and make tacos.
Fourth night - Stew. Cook carcass with veggies in a pot all day to make stew. Save 1/2 leftovers, strained, for stock. Save other half for another meal.
Fifth night - Use remaining chicken breast and some stock to make General Tso's chicken (plenty of recipes online, it's surprisingly easy, if not the healthiest thing). Save oil from frying (you can use it four or five times).
Sixth night - Leftover stew - there will be some!
Seventh night - Finish all the leftover veggies, potatoes, bits of curry or fried rice.
Every third chicken, use the livers from the giblets packet to make pate and the wings you saved to make chicken wings. Yummy. Sautee the hearts or grill them for a nice snack.
One chicken, rice and some veggies feeds two people for a week, with easy recipes.
posted by conifer at 2:24 PM on November 3, 2010 [17 favorites]

Non-fat milk powder. Cheap, easy protein! Also an ingredient for DIY baking mix (pancakes, waffles, etc.) and DIY hot cocoa mix.

Cheap cheddar bricks are decently nutritious, keep a long time, and good comfort food.

Cream of wheat for iron. Mix in cheese or milk powder for protein boost.

Baking bread. Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day is a cookbook that will pay for itself rapidly (or try the library), and the bread is fantastic.

In addition to bones, you can freeze vegetable trimmings in a gallon bag and make your own stock.

In season fruit & veg: U-Pick + canning/freezing to save on berries & fruits. I also blanch and freeze greens when they're cheap.

For a specific dish, m'jadra (rice + lentils + onions + olive oil) is cheap and nice enough to feed company. I also ate an incredible amount of pasta + peanut butter + black/red pepper when my budget was really tight.
posted by momus_window at 2:27 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would like to 2nd oreofuchi's suggestion to buy ingredients, not food. Ready to eat foods are much more expensive than raw ingredients. A pressure cooker can get you from raw ingredient to ready to eat food much faster than conventional methods.

You can go from dry beans to ready to eat in 40 minutes versus 4 hours or overnight for the traditional soaking methods. The upfront cost new can be a bit much but if you hunt around you should be able to find one used (double check the seals and relief valves) for about $10. Dry beans are about 1/10th the cost of cooked, and you have more control over the salt levels.

Also, vegetable oil is cheap and incredibly calorieically dense. It makes beans and rice taste much better.
posted by ChrisHartley at 2:28 PM on November 3, 2010

The More-With-Less Cookbook is terrific.

Carbs: well covered
Protein: Beans, eggs, whole chicken, soup bones, kielbasa, cheap cuts that can be slow cooked into deliciousness.
Fruit/Veg: potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions, squash, applesauce,canned tomatoes and many other canned veg. Canned beets are tasty, if you like beets. Canned peas, not for me. Having a garden is a big help. Just growing my own basil and other fresh herbs is a big savings over the cost at the store.
posted by theora55 at 2:41 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the pressure cooker recommendation... in addition to cooking dry beans in 30-40 minutes, you can also do some nice things in a similar amount of time with large, cheap cuts of meat that would normally require all-day braising over low heat to become tasty. I picked up a Lorna Sass cookbook for tips, but there's plenty of info online as well.
posted by heliotrope at 2:52 PM on November 3, 2010

Oh! Almost forgot, the pressure cooker is also fab for quickly making chicken broth as well (you can use the bones leftover from conifer's week o'chicken mentioned above). Again, no hours of simmering, just 30-40 minutes in the pressure cooker with some onions, celery, bay leaves, etc.
posted by heliotrope at 2:56 PM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: Couscous. I like to steam vegetables over water, lemon juice, and salt and then use the water for the couscous.

Also, textured vegetable protein. It's like $1.50 a pound, but it's dried and super duper healthy. Surprisingly, my consumption method of choice is to make sort of a trail mix of TVP and dried shrimp from the Asian market. The shrimp isn't super cheap, but it goes a long way. TVP meatloaf, and it's pretty good, but also pretty nutri-loaf like.

Frozen peas, corn, blueberries, and spinach. Nthing cabbage.
posted by cmoj at 3:41 PM on November 3, 2010

Buy one chicken. Break it down into two breasts,

I just dropped in to be pedantic and say a chicken (or other poultry) has one breast. Break it down into two breast halves, etc.

The very best way to cook dried beans is here.
posted by bgrebs at 4:17 PM on November 3, 2010

Rice - cheap, and easy and quick to fix (boil for 20 minutes, hard to mess up). You can use it in a gazzilion things.

Canned tomatoes, fresh tomatoes when you can get them. But otherwise canned is better.

Canned beans are more expensive than dried, but still fairly cheap and much quicker to fix. You can find brands that have less cornstarch and other stuff added if you check the ingredients and look around a bit. Don't add salt to a recipe if the beans have salt added already.

Split peas and lentils don't require pre-soaking. You can buy those dried even if preparation time is a concern.

Fresh and frozen vegetables. (Both.)

Onions, eggs, potatoes.

Spices: It's great if you can get to a store that sells them in bulk, but if you can't, they'll still last for a long time. (Basic spices for me are red pepper, black pepper, garlic, oregano - your tastes will vary). A lot of recipes will say you must use fresh spices. You don't have to. Recipes will taste more succulent if you do, but they'll still be pretty good if you don't. Basic spices (your own version) are good to have if you're on a limited budget.

Soy bean oil - most store brand cooking oils are made of this. It's less slimy, cheaper (and I think, less bad for you) than corn-based cooking oils.

Meat - use it sparingly, mostly when you can get some on sale. Mix it in with other things that are also high in protein, like bean and rice dishes and stir fries.

You can salmon get cheap where you live? Go for it!

One more thing: If you cut back on meat to save money, make sure you're getting enough fat to make up for it. One of the things we get from meat is protein, the other thing we get from it is fat, which is an extremely efficient and compact form of calories. Fry as much stuff as you can, drizzle oil on as much stuff as you can. Try to make sure you're not losing too many calories by cutting back on your meat intake (if you're doing that). You're not trying to starve yourself or lose weight here.
posted by nangar at 4:48 PM on November 3, 2010

Ramen Noodle Soup in the cup or the packaged block is good and cheap.
posted by sandyp at 5:22 PM on November 3, 2010

While everyone has offered solid answers in terms of ingredients, I will offer an answer in terms of cuisine. Look into Asian cooking, particularly Chinese and Thai. This is especially useful if you have any sort of Asian market nearby, as you'll be able to get large bottles of sauces for only a couple bucks, and they last for a long time, as well as cheap noodles, huge bags of rice in bulk, etc. If you don't have any meat, it's easy to just throw in eggs and scramble them in your stir-fry or fried rice, and it's just as satisfying.

I'm sure Central/South American cuisine can also offer you some ideas for inexpensive food preparations, though I'm not as familiar with that.

Your family will think you are a gourmet chef if you start doing this stuff, even if all the ingredients are dirt cheap.
posted by wondermouse at 5:37 PM on November 3, 2010

Really great ideas, so I won't rehash specifics, but once we decided to just avoid the supermarket, our food bill (which was already low) dropped to around $200/mo for most of the year. (It spikes in September, which is harvest time here, and we are buying much of what we'll preserve and eat throughout the winter. Thanksgiving and Christmas also drive it up some, and it's a little higher when my stepson is here. We are a family of four, sometimes five.)

We don't have Costco or Sam's here, so we order things like a 50# bag of rolled organic oats ($30) and a 20# case of organic bacon ($35) through a buyer's club. If you order at the right time, you can find hormone free butter for 99c per pound. It freezes fine. We haunt farmer's markets like crazy. We pick and preserve fruits. We dry, can, root cellar, and freeze. Throughout the winter, we eat sprouts and sundried tomatoes on sandwiches, but we extend our growing season for lettuces and tomatoes by using cold frames and indoor pots. We buy an entire grass fed steer at a time and freeze the beef. I make yogurt, soft cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream. We make and can all of our own condiments except for mustard. For unavoidable shopping (bricks of cheese, buckets of peanut butter), the restaurant supply store is our friend.

It's a lot of work at first, but then it just gets to be habit. I think it's also helpful that we shop entirely separately for non food items- plastic and paper items and the like. That way, we know that we spend $200 on food and $100 on everything else.
posted by Leta at 6:33 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Look for spices in the ethinic aisle(s). At Real Canadian Superstore they have a brand call Suraj which is always cheaper than those wee bottles of whatever and, if the spices are whole will last a loooong time.
posted by squeak at 6:49 PM on November 3, 2010

One simple trick: when I don't want or need a whole chicken, or am looking for chicken breast only, I buy split breasts of chicken, bone-in. You can easily slice the breast off and cook just the breast meat, but you also get the rib bones and some scraps. I throw them into a freezer bag with veggie scraps, and every couple months, cook up the whole lot into a new batch of chicken stock. And the breast meat bought this way is much cheaper than boneless breast, too.
posted by Miko at 7:06 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Lots of good suggestions above. The only thing I can think to add is to buy frozen veggies on sale (stock up so you can wait out the non-sale weeks) with coupons. I've gotten bags for free or the last time 35 cents. My grocery doubles coupons though and will take home printed ones from the net. I always check slickdeals if I don't have any coupons from the newspaper. They have a really nice alphabetical organized list of them.
posted by stray thoughts at 8:27 PM on November 3, 2010

In the same vein of spending little and getting more, you can grow potatoes in potato bags in your yard and get 10 lbs or more in 3 months or so, and if you cycle them you'll basically always be in potatoes, having only paid for the initial "seed" ones.
posted by lhall at 8:38 PM on November 3, 2010

If you have a good pantry of spices, know your way around the kitchen with some basic tools, and have a little imagination you can make an extraordinary amount of great food very cheaply.
Thai curry pastes like this one are a great way to add flavor quickly. At my local asian market they're about five or six dollars for that size and you only use a couple table spoons at a time.
I buy cans of coconut cream (not coconut milk) then halve them with water to use with the curry. On sale these are $.50 or $.80 each. Add some fried carrot and eggplant then serve over brown rice. Speaking of which, every three months or so brown rice goes on sale around here $10 for 20 Lbs. Cilantro and green onions are usually $.50 for a bunch and taste great in everything. They're the only fresh herbs that are routinely kept around in my house.
As far as meats go, you can find discounted meat on or a day before it's use by date. For pork or beef this is great and you will still have a couple days to use or freeze it. Chicken really needs to be used that day, and I don't think I have ever bought any that way. Mostly chicken can be found for a dollar a pound or under frozen, you are buying into the poultry industrial complex this way, but you know, you need to eat and it lasts a long time. A great way to get some sea food is to buy bay scallops. I can get them for 5 dollars a pound but I only need half a pound and it can make a dish feel really special.
If you get corn tortillas blister them on a burner directly, if using gas, rather than a pan. Remember that just about anything can be a sandwich and just about everything can be a taco.
posted by JackarypQQ at 10:58 PM on November 3, 2010

A big problem with many of the cheap staples like beans and rice and other grains is that they are missing some important nutrients, including Vitamin A. The Federated States of Micronesia had a significant problem with Vitamin A deficiency due to a diet based heavily on cheap staples like rice and beans.

Make sure you are getting vegetables and fruits cheap in season (usually the cheapest things are the ones in season!), and making sure that your daily meals have at least 2 or 3 different colors is a good start to making sure that you're not leaving out any important vitamins.
posted by that girl at 1:22 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Squash and yams are cheap, store well, and can be microwaved easily. Asian and Latino markets usually have plenty to choose from at much better prices than your supermarket.
posted by benzenedream at 1:26 AM on November 4, 2010

So how do you STORE all this bulk non-canned stuff?
posted by gottabefunky at 9:06 AM on November 4, 2010

I don't find storage too hard. Basically, I keep one or two of most staples in my pantry, and when I use the last or only one, I just pop it on my shopping list for that week. So I don't have a huge backstock of stuff.

For things like rice, lentils, dry beans, chiles, spices, I reuse jars. I inherited a collection of old mason jars/canning jars with lids, and once I've opened up a plastic bag and used a portion of the contents, I dump the rest into a jar. I also reuse regular spaghetti-sauce-type and pickle-type jars to hold leftovers that go back in the fridge, like soups or sauces.
posted by Miko at 10:25 AM on November 4, 2010

Response by poster: Miko's solution is smarter than this, but I buy glass canisters either from Ikea or the dollar store.
posted by kitcat at 1:35 PM on November 4, 2010

Amazingly, I have been able to save 50-75% on produce, grains, beans, and other staples by shopping at "international" markets. I didn't believe it either, but it's true. I think the produce doesn't look quite as nice as the typical higher-end grocery store's produce, but it tastes the same. I'm guessing that the international markets just buy what's left from the distributors at a discount. Also, if you have speciality ethnic stores around, some bulk items can be very cheaply obtained. I get giant containers of olive oil from the Italian (or other Mediterranean-ethnicity) shops. Bulk spices and condiments are also purchased from Indian, Asian, and African shops.

Some of my friends were skeptical of the quality or source of the produce. However, those worries were resolved when I took them on a grocery tour one day. I showed them that the exact same batches of conventional produce were being sold at Wegman's and Whole Foods for 3-4-5x as much.

Another trick to cheap eating is to avoid processed foods and to remember that a lot of foods that we eat are cultural anachronisms. Once I realized that grazing animals, cheeses, grains, other dairy were largely invented to help us store food, it was easy to change my habits. Cheap sea transport and refrigeration are pretty awesome inventions and keep me stocked with relatively fresh produce, year round. Yeah, it's not organic heirloom, but it's 10x better than the boxed and jarred stuff.

I used to be a big fan of meats and dairy products as well as all the other stuff in the box or the jar. But, now I eat mostly fresh produce, dried produce, bits of meat, nuts, tubers, and sometimes grains and beans - all nicely spiced and prepared, of course. I used to spend around $100 a week, and now I spend about $25 a week on food. Though, sometimes I do splurge and eat out.

I still like to support my local growers in the growing season by using the CSA, and I also buy from farmer's markets. However, you have to be very careful at farmer's markets: I've found that a lot of vendors are just selling the same produce and meats from the regional distributors. Make sure you ask about the source and technique of production.
posted by TheOtherSide at 5:42 AM on November 5, 2010

When you have a crapton of tomatos and want to make sauce, don't bother with the peeling and de-seeding. Use them as is, cook down a bit longer, and call it "rustica."
posted by yesster at 1:43 PM on November 14, 2010

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