strategies for cheap eating
October 17, 2017 10:05 AM   Subscribe

I've been unemployed for awhile so I've had to radically tighten my grocery budget. Since I was used to just buying whatever I felt like, I need to know how to be more responsible. I am not looking for recipes, I'm looking for general tips such as "buy toiletries from the dollar store, but produce at Aldi" or "download coupons from"

I do not have a Costco / Sam's Club membership and I don't have the room to store stuff in bulk. For the same reason, I'm not interested in XXTREEEM couponing. I mostly shop at Target for household goods. I have access to both downscale and upscale grocery stores including Mexican and Asian supermarkets. (IME those have better prices on fresh food and horrible prices on packaged items).

I'm nowhere near a foodie and my tastes are pretty pedestrian, but I am grossed out by extremely cheap things (e.g. potted meat, bologna, "cheese" slices).

I have limited cooking skills but I do have basic equipment (crock pot, stand mixer, stick blender). I am not going to buy another thing.

I will eat cheese but no other dairy products. I will not eat beans. I am not vegetarian but I am fine with only having meat once or twice a week. I cannot eat spicy foods.

I am not looking for recipes but "it's much cheaper to make ___ from scratch than buy it in a box" is fine.

I'm single and 99% of the time I only cook for myself. I'm a small person so I only need about 1800 calories/day.
posted by AFABulous to Food & Drink (63 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
It's much cheaper to leave the grocery store with lots of food if you mostly only shop the produce aisle. (They've started sneaking processed foods into my produce aisles. I mean: buy the fruits and vegetables! For maximum food on minimum budget!)
posted by aniola at 10:12 AM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Big Lots for toiletries, cleaning supplies, and snacks. Aldi for produce(seriously, go to a nicer suburban one, you'll see), cheese, salami, chocolate, frozen seafood and beer. Entenmann's outlet for bakery things. If Shop n Save is in MKE, they still occasionally run the 10.00 off 50 on random Thursdays but only advertise it in the mailer and you have to cut that coupon to get it.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 10:14 AM on October 17, 2017

*produce at the Mexican grocery
*beef at Smart & Final
*just about everything else (milk, eggs, rice, canned stuff, chicken, coffee, etc) at Trader Joe's.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:15 AM on October 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

It's getting to be the wrong season for it, but a good farmers' market or CSA can save you a lot of money compared to the grocery stores.

A mixture of 1/3 rice, 1/3 lentils (though those may be too close to beans), and 1/3 ground beef with some spices can be tasty, cheap, and covers your protein needs.
posted by Candleman at 10:15 AM on October 17, 2017

Asian supermarkets / Mexican supermarkets / etc. are absolute godsends, when it comes to cooking well and affordably. CHERISH THEM. It depends on your grocery, but you may find good prices on some staples there (rice, noodles, tortillas, spices, etc.) If you have a local fish market, that may be worth exploring. I can get locally-caught and quite cheap fish at mine -- porgy, in my case.

You're not into beans, but does that include lentils? They're filling, cheap, and not very beanlike, and can make comforting soups, dahls, and loaves/patties. Red lentils cook quickly and are hugely versatile. Chickpeas, similarly, are great for falafel, for dips, or to roast and throw on salads &c, without being entirely beanlike.

If you're wanting meat, chicken thighs tend to be the best bang for your buck. I've also found it quite affordable to get one good-sized whole chicken (4lbs or so), and roast / repurpose it for multiple meals. I can easily get a week of meals (roast chicken with veg and rice, chicken fried rice the next day from those leftovers, a couple lunch salads, hash or tacos or enchiladas or pot pie, carrot soup made with stock and with a little chicken thrown in, chicken veg curry) out of just one chicken.
posted by halation at 10:16 AM on October 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

Man, this is me. Or anyway it was me last year, and will probably be me in another month or two. Sigh.

I'm not super-amazing at frugal shopping yet but when I need to cut down my grocery bills the main things are:

Plan well and stick to the plan: I hate meal planning but it's the most surefire way to buy exactly what I need, and use what I buy, and nothing more. It may not feel like it's saving money at first but, at least for us, it avoids that "fuck, we're out of [thing], guess we better order pizza" derail. Nope, it is pork chop night and we are eating the pork chops and that is that.

Avoid waste: When I'm being frugal I try to shift away from delicate orchid foods (berries, for example, or nice breads) to things that I can reasonably expect won't be mold farms in a day (apples, sturdy pita). I didn't want to give up lunch salads but greens are expensive and fragile, so I learned how to cook them, and now the minute they start to wilt they become sauteed garlic greens. I bake a lot of banana bread for similar reasons. (Baking sweets from scratch, if they're simple enough, is always cheaper than buying them!) I freeze 60% of every bread so I don't lose any to mold.

Chicken thighs, pork chops, and polish sausage are good bang-for-your-buck meats. Lots of flavor and lots of ways to prepare them.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:16 AM on October 17, 2017 [26 favorites]

Eat the cheap greens (collard, mustard, turnip). I think I saved a few hundred dollars this year just by ditching trendy-priced kale.

Eat less meat. TVP is dirt cheap and shelf stable, seitan is dirt cheap if you make it at home.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:18 AM on October 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think my #1 tip for eating cheaply as a single person with low caloric needs is to get comfortable with leftovers and with eating the same thing a lot of the time. A few key sauces can make this easier.

My #2 tip would be AVOID SPOILAGE. Don't buy things you think you might like/might find a good recipe for. Only buy things that are regular staple parts of your diet (I know I can happily eat a roasted cauliflower every week), or things that you are genuinely excited to try.

Miscellaneous tips: Chicken is usually the cheapest meat (especially thighs and legs), and it freezes insanely well so it's worth buying the family pack and putting the pieces up in one-or-two-serving packages. Eggs are usually the cheapest protein for your dollar. You can often bulk out recipes that call for ground beef with grains (rice, bulgur wheat, whatever).
posted by mskyle at 10:20 AM on October 17, 2017 [9 favorites]

(Cannot stress the planning thing enough. Like for real I just went to my fridge and realized that I've planned badly -- I have too much fresh stuff to eat before I leave town in a few days and some of it's just going to go bad, and I am so irked. That's like $8-10 I didn't need to spend. PLANNING.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:23 AM on October 17, 2017 [14 favorites]

Potatoes are cheap, filling and tasty, and go with pretty much everything. Don't peel them, wash them.
You can cut them into wedges, microwave them on full blast for 5 minutes, and then fry them in a bit of oil. Yum.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:23 AM on October 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

Leanne Brown has a free PDF of her cookbook: Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/day.

It also includes tips on how to shop and what kind of bargains to look for, and where paying a bit extra really matters for food quality.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:29 AM on October 17, 2017 [13 favorites]

Arm and Hammer Powdered laundry soap at Big Lots/Dollar Store lasts longer and works better than the liquid stuff, plus no plastic to recycle.

Paying a little more for dish detergent (Second Generation is good) is worth it--it hurts when you realize it is more costly, but you can use a teensy bit at a time and ultimately it lasts longer.

Most people use too much detergent in both laundry and dishwashing machines. It isn't necessary.

Learning to make a nice, passive bread like the No Knead bread recipe that is everywhere is useful--you can make good bread for pennies on the dollar and it's fancy and you really don't have to do much of anything--it is time consuming only in the most passive of senses.

Dry ingredients like garlic and onion are underrated and good staple items and great to have if you want to add some flavor to whatever.

It took me a long time to accept this but it's preferable to just buy frozen broccoli if you can't reliably use the broccoli you got from the produce department. If I didn't have those frozen, I wouldn't eat them.

If you can splurge, the olive oil in the cans at the bottom of the shelf are ultimately much cheaper than the smaller amounts if you compare per gallon costs. Typically I don't look too hard at that but with olive oil, I do.

It's worth it to have even cheap wine around. When my husband and I were laid off many years ago, many a cheap-o romantic dinner was had over six dollar bottles of Shiraz. (Votive candles are also cheap (Dollar Store/Big Lots) and can give the feeling of warmth and luxury for very little money.)

There is a Sunday Meal Prep subreddit, and the Frugal subreddit, both of which are good places for tips.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:32 AM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: One additional thought - which Blast Hardcheese mentioned - I have a hard time with produce spoiling because I live alone and can't eat it quickly enough. I love most fruit, plus spinach, tomatoes, bell peppers, snap peas, broccoli and the occasional carrot.
posted by AFABulous at 10:32 AM on October 17, 2017

If you want to do the "cook up big batch of $THING on Sunday for the rest of the week routine," make the large batch underseasoned and underaccessorized so you have the flavor room to throw in garlic and carrots on Tuesday but ginger and broccoli on Wednesday (or whatever).
posted by PMdixon at 10:33 AM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

On update: freeze your produce. Cruciferous vegetables usually do well in the freezer, as do onions and peppers. Usually this is best done after some amount of chopping/cleaning.
posted by PMdixon at 10:34 AM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sticking to ethnic markets is a great strategy, and was my number 1 suggestion. Oftentimes there are lower-rent $category only stores, like Produce markets that primarily sell fruit and veg; these can be on par or cheaper than even ethnic markets. The produce quality can vary, however. It's best to use the stuff up quickly. But my local produce market has things like apples for 1/4 the price as the grocery store across the street. Our local produce market will often sell discount produce that's on it's last legs. This shit gets turned into smoothies with the aid of a stick blender.

Does the beans-exclusion also extend to lentils? Because Daal is like, super, super fucking cheap. It needs not be spicy (hot), but is often rather spiced. Spices seem expensive, but find yourself a grocery store with a good bulk section and get only exactly what you need, and you'll be fine.

Smoked and cured meats, while more expensive per weight, have more intense flavor and far less is used to flavor a dish. If the base of a dish is mostly starch or veg, sometimes a bit of smokey/cured meat can make a meal much nicer. Greens+Smokey Sausage+Potatoes+Onion+Garlc+Broth is a regular around these parts. It holds well, is easy to scale and sustains.

Broth! Buy whole chickens and learn how to butcher them yourself (it's really just like 7 cuts, here's a great demo), just make sure your knife is sharp. Whole chickens are almost always cheaper than purchasing their constituent parts. It's fairly easy, and then you get to turn the carcass into broth, which can be used in a dozen different ways to feed yourself. This isn't a time-efficient way of doing so, but you can take a basic broth (nothing but chicken and water) and add the aromatics in later. If you have a 'base' broth, you can add in wildly different aromatics and have that one broth service all sorts of meals.

There's a trend in produce sections to move towards packaged shit. Avoid at all cost, as you mention, spoilage is rampant with that game.

Now that you have the broth; Noodles. Noodles come in every stripe known to mankind. If you have access to an asian grocery store, you'll have access to tons of cheap, fresh noodles that are nigh endless in variety. Noodles fill you up. Noodles are cheap.

Depending on where you live, your neighbors might have some large rosemary or other herbs growing near wild. I've never felt guilty about snipping an inch or two off for a meal, especially when that amount of herb costs several dollars at a grocery store.

Eggs are a fantastic source of sustenance, and there are like a billion ways to cook them. Personal fave (that ties in with broth and noodles) is soft boiled.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:36 AM on October 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

To add to the places A Terrible Llama linked, EatCheapAndHealthy on reddit is good for general strategies as well.

Some other comments:
- Frozen spinach is cheap and really useful for adding some greens to whatever. Like eggs.
- Unless you really love salad, I would avoid salady stuff--it goes off too quickly and you need too many different fresh vegetables for it to be good (IMO). Eat carrot sticks or $vegetable-of-the-week (cherry tomatoes, cucumber) with your lunch if you like fresh veggies (I do).
- Brown rice is more nutritious, freezes better, and is harder to screw up the cooking of. It's more expensive though.
posted by quaking fajita at 10:43 AM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Agree on the planning - it's a great way to reduce waste. Buying cabbage to use on tacos? Then you plan another meal using it as well later in the week. Make a list of all the stuff you like and then you can group them easily into meals that use similar ingredients.

Re: bulk items - these are GREAT money savers. You don't have to buy a lot - you can buy exactly the amount of rice or pasta or spices or whatever you need for what you're cooking, with no leftovers to store. Same with veggies - do some prep once a week so stuff is ready to go when you want to cook. Figure out how to repurpose leftovers so they don't seem like leftovers (roast chicken one night, tortilla soup another, a stir fry another). Buy whole/unprocessed versions - whole carrots or cabbages or lettuce, not prepackaged ones. Whole chicken instead of parts. Seasonal produce is cheap, but produce in general is not always and frozen can often be a good alternate.

There are good recipes (Serious Eats, Epicurious, NY Times) etc. - I would vote for learning to make anything you like to go out for so you can still have pizza or whatever. Lots of ideas here. I would read this, too.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 10:43 AM on October 17, 2017

Order some groceries from Vitacost. I buy oatmeal as well as larabars there to save money. I also get my toiletries there, but that's because I try to buy cruelty-free, which is more expensive in regular stores. What's cheaper for you will vary, so you'd have to go through the website. They're definitely oriented toward what I'll call "health" brands. They have free shipping for orders over $49.
posted by FencingGal at 10:44 AM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Cheap protein without beans is tough but doable:
Plan on lots of eggs and cheap cuts of meat in stews.
Get some vegetarian cookbooks from the library if you don't already have the knowledge. Tofu, tempeh, and vital wheat gluten (for making seitan) are all pretty cheap.
Whole grains have lots of protein, and brown rice and steel cut oats are very cheap. Quinoa is expensive but you can mix it with other grains like rice.
Powdered milk is also a good sub for protein, works best in recipes rather than straight.
Yogurt is great and cheap if you make it in batch from scratch (pretty easy).
Peanut butter cost pennies and can be a base for many meals (peanut noodles, African peanut stew).
Can you eat peas? Split pea soup, etc is very cheap.
posted by veery at 10:44 AM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a hard time with produce spoiling because I live alone and can't eat it quickly enough.

One tip I use that saves me money and prevents this from happening: for produce sold by the pound, you can pull out what you need. I will sometimes pull two kale leaves out from different bunches, and I end up paying 31 cents for it, and it doesn't spoil. You can break off a tiny piece of ginger. You can buy two loose mushrooms to chop for a stir-fry. You can pull out one cluster of grapes, even if all the bags contain 2-3.

(This works best if you are close to a store, and doesn't work with places like Aldi, but it can make a difference with cost and waste.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:45 AM on October 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

The most drastic cutting to my grocery bill happened when I was really serious and diligent about making menus and sticking to them. I HATE doing it, sadly, but it really did make a huge difference.

There are some grocery items at Target (if yours has a grocery) that are, at least in my area, cheaper than they are at the grocery store. Off the top of my head: cereal, milk, snackies like chips (except for the super cheap Kroger tortilla chips), and some frozen stuff.

On preview: seconding a fiendish thingy's suggestion on pulling out only what you need in produce sold by the pound.
posted by cooker girl at 10:46 AM on October 17, 2017

Yes, seconding the broth idea. Crock pot? You're golden. Buy soup bones, turkey necks, oxtails--that kind of thing, at the right store: if it's a hipster store, they'll mark it up because it's peasant food--and throw in crockpot on low with water. Flash fry cheap vegetables like carrots, celery and greens, and add them to the broth with cooked noodles, rice, barley, potatoes, whatever--do a different assemblage every day so you don't die of the dull. Buy just a few of the high end vegetables you like to use as freshcrunch garnish on top of the soup. You can make a bell pepper last a few days this way. Add water to the crock pot to replace what you take out, until it gets too low in umami, whereupon toss and start over with a new base meat. You can put an entire uncutup frozen chicken directly into the crock pot, add water to cover, and start drinking the proceeds the next day, and you can live off of that for nearly a week before it gets too tired. Oh: ONIONS. They're cheap as dirt and they make everything delicious.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:49 AM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

One of my big cooking-for-one discoveries has been frozen produce. Budget Bytes has converted me to the virtues of frozen broccoli, which is cheap, doesn't spoil, and comes pre-chopped and ready to go. Frozen veggies work for stir fries. Aldi has cheap frozen produce, although I'm not sure there's a huge difference between Aldi and the store brand at the supermarket.

Chicken thighs are pretty cheap. I make a batch like this and then put them on salads or in sandwiches over the course of a week. I get salad stuff at Aldi.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:54 AM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

How tight we talking? I eat paleo on $40-50 a week. It's not a cheap diet. here's how:

Visualize every plate in thirds. Choose one item per category. You can make it into a soup, salad, stir-fry, roast, slow cook stew or sandwich.

1/3 PROTEIN: Eggs, chicken, fish, meat, lentils, tofu, tempeh..

1/3 VEGETABLE: Whatever you want! Greens esp, and frozen..

1/3 CARB: Rice, quinoa, bread, noodles, tortillas, root veg, white or sweet potatoes, onions, corn..

Drizzle as much oil, fat and mayonnaise as you like over everything. Choose fatty cheap cuts of meat – eat the gristle, or turn it into stock! Don't buy prepackaged or highly processed food at all – any supplements you buy should be things like "herbs, spices, pickles, olives, pesto, mustards, flavorful sauces" that pack a punch and last a long time. Drink water or tea if you must, but skip coffee – too expen$ive.

I follow the same pattern every day. Breakfast is 2 eggs and sweet potato hash with slivered onions, greens, bell peppers. Lunch is soup or salad. Dinner is stir-fry made of whatever's in my fridge or, possibly, a classic midwestern meat and vegetables dinner. When I have time I make big batches of more prep-intensive food. You can substitute leftovers for any of the above. If I'm really lazy, I visit my favorite cheap Mexican stand or Thai restaurant and order three days worth of tacos or pho.
posted by fritillary at 11:00 AM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I forgot the king of side meats: the ham hock. Ham hocks and collards. I guess this might depend where you are, but where they grow collards should always be cheap, especially if you buy the enormous bunches. Wash in the washing machine, strip them off the spines, cook in enormous soup pot with ham hock, freeze in batches, food for months.

Further pursuant to side meat, bacon. Freeze in two-strip allotments which you dice, fry and drain. Fry onion in the bacon grease 'til part-done, saute squash or okra or whatever hearty vegetable 'til soft, add the bacon back in, salt, pepper, delicious.

If you really want to save, don't toss traditionally tossed parts of vegetables. Like those collard spines. I've minced them and cooked them this way with bacon and onion, and they're fine. Not, you know, like eating yellow squash cooked the same way, which is sublime, but perfectly edible.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:04 AM on October 17, 2017

May I suggest noodles, if you have a passion for them. Noodles with cheese, noodles with red sauce, noodles with peanut butter, noodles with olive oil, noodles tossed with ground beef and cabbage, noodles with garlic and yogurt. They are easy to make and easy to add variety to, I guess.

If you can trick yourself into feeling enthusiasm or excitement for a couple of recipes, that could help! There are so many delicious and novel recipes that you can make with chicken drumsticks and tofu, to name two cheap protein sources. Lots of interesting Youtube resources. I think coming up with a Signature Version of these kinds of dishes could help. I personally need a protein of some kind not to feel deprived.
posted by karmachameleon at 11:05 AM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

#1 pro-tip: Don't buy anything that isn't on sale.

You can freeze just about anything you buy including dairy products like cheese. Now the texture might be a little different when you thaw it out, but it still tastes pretty much the same.

What I do is buy milk, cheese, meat, and produce when it's at a deep discount and freeze most of it in plastic zipper bags for use at a later date. It's the only way I can afford to eat good food that is healthy.

Also, find printable coupons on the internet. Many different sites. Google for printable coupons. Then "stack" the coupons with the sales at the grocery store for even more savings!

Check out the coupon blogs online, not to get into extreme couponing, but to find out how other people save money on groceries and other goods.

It's possible to save a lot of money with a little bit of work before you head to the market. Good luck!
posted by strelitzia at 11:10 AM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I know you said that you didn't want recipes, but then you also said that you had trouble with vegetables spoiling. Cabbage of all varieties is my go-to "cheap and doesn't spoil" vegetable. I used to hate it but have found a number of recipes I really like, to wit:

1. Coarsely grate and saute over medium-high in a fat for six or seven minutes, ideally in a heavy wide pan (cook longer over medium low and stir more for a thin pan). Finish by stirring in some of the following: butter, sour cream (for preference Mexican), hot sauce, salt and pepper, curry spices, curry paste. This creates a large, filling dish which you can top with an egg, meat or a sauce.) Red cabbage and green cabbage taste substantially different and it is worth having both on hand.

2. Make the cheap parts of the osaka cabbage pancake - basically, I make this with cabbage, egg, flour, sometimes some grated onion or carrot and powdered dashi. The fancy yam is great and sometimes I get that, but it's fine without. If you don't want to eat a bonito stock, any soup stock/broth/etc will do.

3. Cabbage and tofu in broth. If you have access to an asian grocery store, you can probably get some powdered spicy broth. (The ones I get are Korean or Japanese, usually.) Don't use too much water. Boil the tofu and cabbage until cabbage is done, top with sesame oil if you have it.

Basically I tend to use cabbage to bulk up a lot of main dishes. If you eat meat, you can poach your chicken or stew your other meat with aromatics and cabbage and you've got a main dish.
posted by Frowner at 11:13 AM on October 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

I have a hard time with produce spoiling because I live alone and can't eat it quickly enough


My local grocery store has a decent salad bar that sells by weight, and it is far far cheaper for me to get, like, a serving of chopped veg or a few ounces of cubed grilled chicken than it is to get the whole thing, cook it, and watch most of it die in my fridge uneaten. It's also really super convenient to get, like, a tablespoon of bacon bits and a little bit of shredded cheddar from the salad bar and throw that on top of a *baked potato to bulk it out for just a few cents. If your groceries don't have a by-weight salad bar, there might be somewhere else near you (a cafeteria, etc) that does, and as a single-eating person I've found it to be a great cost-effective savings in terms of hassle and waste.

*And while we're on the subject of potatoes, potatoes + whole milk is nearly nutritionally complete. I ate a lot of baked potatoes when I was super broke, and it was really ok because I fucking love potatoes. (I don't have to eat super cheap any more but I still love baked potatoes.) YMMV.
posted by phunniemee at 11:13 AM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

One additional thought - which Blast Hardcheese mentioned - I have a hard time with produce spoiling because I live alone and can't eat it quickly enough.

I don't live alone but I'm the only one who eats the produce, ha, so I run into this as well. One thing that has really helped me is to wash/chop/peel any produce right away and stick it in some tupperware or a covered dish. This makes me more likely to incorporate the veggies where I otherwise might not -- OH HEY, let me throw that bell pepper in with these scrambled eggs/put some apple slices into this oatmeal/throw some spinach and mushrooms into this pasta sauce.

Also yeah a lot of vegetables you wouldn't expect can be bought frozen or frozen by yourself.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:16 AM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

Frozen vegetables are usually considerably cheaper than fresh, and are healthier - they are picked when ripe and flash frozen immediately. Whereas "fresh"' is picked unripe and often stored before shipping. It may be as much as 2+ weeks old by the time you buy it. And of course with frozen, you only use what you need that day, and the rest stays in the freezer.

Walmart consistently has 10 lb bags of chicken legs and thighs for about $6.87. So 69¢ a lb. If you don't have room in your freezer, you can boil it (I add cumin, garlic and some powdered bullion) until it falls off the bone, debone it, and it will all fit into a gallon ziplock bag. The broth can be used for soup, or frozen for later, or you can cook rice or noodles in it.

Trader Joe's is cheap for some cheeses (Brie, goat cheese), and oddball things like balsamic glaze, sesame oil, and good olive oil, but their produce and frozen prepared foods are not cost effective.

Grate your own cheese.

Do a search for "salvage grocery store" in your city. These can be insanely cheap. Basically, when a case of canned corn falls off the truck while it's being unloaded into the store, the store rejects it. Maybe the box broke open but all the cans are fine, so the salvage store buys them and they sell them individually. Or one jar of olives broke, so they sell the rest of the case. I once got a 2.5 lb. wheel of triple cream Brie for $2.50. (It was labeled as cheesecake, but I was even happier when I opened it and discovered it was labeled wrong.) I also once paid 17¢ a can for large, 28 oz cans of roasted peppers. Be very thorough when going through the store, because they're usually not very organized. To find the really good deals, I would go over every inch of the store with a fine toothed comb, so to speak. They usually have a combination of food from both grocery store and restaurants - so you often find things like a box of 12 frozen gourmet desserts, or duck-filled ravioli. I have shopped at these places for more than 10 years and never gotten sick. Do check expiration dates, especially on refrigerated items.

Don't assume Walmart is always cheaper. They often are on national brands, but not always, and usually not on produce. And their produce seems to go bad really quickly.

Even if you currently boycott Walmart, it's ok to shop there now. We do what we have to do to survive.

TVP, as mentioned above, is cheap. Use it in place of ground meat, and add mushrooms or broth to give it flavor. You can usually buy tofu cheapest at Asian markets. If you freeze it and defrost it, it changes the texture and people generally assume it's meat if you don't tell them.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:17 AM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

For fruit that won't spoil quickly, put apples and plums in the fridge. Some citrus will do ok on the counter for a while.

Vegetables in the fridge: carrots live almost forever. Bell peppers last a while. We eat enough grape tomatoes that I know those will get eaten, but have a plan for them, they do NOT last long. Cauliflower will live a while in the fridge. Buy spinach and broccoli frozen.

Eggs are an excellent protein, cheap and they last a long time in the fridge. Eat eggs for at least a few meals. (Mix em up with hash-brown potatoes and some veg and cheese, maybe bacon if you like that, and it's a delicious dinner frittata that you can make several meals out of!)

I saw someone recommending bulk purchase of dry goods above. I don't do that anymore because by the time I get around to eating that stuff it invariably has pantry moths in it. YMMV.

Honestly one person alone doesn't need to spend a ton on food. It's not like a family where you have several people with different wants that need to be accommodated. Make a menu for the week of things that store well, are easy to make and that you like - this is crucial, otherwise you won't stick to the plan. Repeat it every week.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:24 AM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Canned goods tend to go on sale this time of year due to holiday cooking and baking. Keep an eye on the local big supermarket’s circular and buy 10 cans of tomatoes (etc) when they’re 50 cents each. This is insurance against unexpected expenses in the future that might leave you with no grocery money one week. You mention space, canned goods will fit into an under bed storage box.
posted by cabingirl at 11:25 AM on October 17, 2017

You know those idiotic, phoned-in-bridal-shower-gift-consumption-unit, beautifully arranged and then shrinkwrapped baskets full of fanciful toiletries that nobody should ever buy for anybody? They show up at garage sales a lot, and whenever I see them, I snap 'em up. Bridal shower shampoo and body wash both work in foaming soap pumps, and I use the shampoo as shampoo. I won't buy partly used by now-dead people toiletries that show up in estate sales. I do draw the line there. But if it's never been opened and it's something I use, it's my policy to buy it if I see it at a garage sale. I try to stay out of drug stores and out of the HABA aisle at the grocery store as much as possible. Do not want to pay retail for my sodium laureth sulfate.

And I clean all surfaces with vinegar and water in an old Windex bottle.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:27 AM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you have an Aldi nearby, that's really going to be your best bet. Food that costs me almost $200 costs me less than half that at Aldi.

Buy chicken thighs instead of breasts, they're cheaper and higher in fat content so they're yummier, more filling AND easier to cook (they don't dry out if you leave them in the oven a little too long).

As far as the produce goes, and especially if you have a problem with it going bad, get the 99 cent bags of frozen vegetables (green beans, peas, mixed veggies... broccoli tends to be a little bit more but it's still pretty cheap) -- you can dump a bag into a bowl and microwave on high for 6 minutes (I stir and add butter halfway through) and voila, steamed veggies for a buck, that never go bad.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:28 AM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

More With Less is an excellent cookbook if you are trying to spend less and eat simply, just in terms of the ideas it offers, if not the recipes. There is some discussion of Christian/Mennonite principles throughout, but the overall message is inclusive of everyone wanting to live simply.

You should also look for DIY resources for many pantry items. I have worked out the costs of DIY vs. store-brand pickles, and mine are cheaper (if you do not take my labor into account.) Cooking your own staples is also a cheap form of entertainment. Sometimes the calculation makes it clear that buying something is the better deal, but when the ingredients are in season (for example, tomatoes for ketchup) you can make a year's worth for very little.

For what it's worth, I don't have space for bulk storage either, but I use Costco for the things I can store (the produce is cheap and reliable; you just have to commit to eating an entire box of peaches or whatever) and for a cheap meal out (hot dog + soda, $1.50.) You can likely find someone who is willing to give you their "spouse" card or take you with them, so you can save the price of membership.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:38 AM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Wal-Mart. If you live in the Midwest, Meijers. Vastly prefer Meijers to Wal-Mart but we don't have them in the south. Yes, Wal-Mart. No, it's not fun. No, it doesn't feel particularly great to shop there. Morally - you have to decide. But, they do follow what people like, so I've seen a lot of organic options popping up there lately... everything from coconut flour to lemons to bread, until they decided not enough people were buying the bread and discontinued it. Sigh. But, when they do carry those things, they are cheaper.

The fruits and vegetables section in Wal-Mart has improved too, since I came to live in the South.

Farmer's markets, if you can find one where the food isn't covered with flies and they aren't charging local grocery store prices anyway. I have one that I like where I live. I avoid the rest. Trial and error sort of thing.

A frugal friend of mine used to go to the Chinese market to buy his fresh veggies.

My most important point: some things will cost less at some places than others, so if you're really prepared to be very frugal, expect to go to four different stores on one shopping trip to get everything at the lowest price. Also, look for BOGOs, which you can do online now for some stores, and which do save a lot of money on items that you use regularly. Coupons? Not for me, thanks. I find they make you buy things that you didn't need in the first place. Also, avoid clearance racks. Same principal as coupon use.
posted by Crystal Fox at 11:54 AM on October 17, 2017

I find boxed cereals and other prepared breakfast options are really expensive, not to mention loaded with sugar and salt. My three breakfast options are oatmeal (you can cook it in the microwave in 90 seconds), whole wheat toast, or muffins that I bake myself. Muffins are a great way to use up elderly fruit too. There are always recipes online for yummy muffins that can be made from whatever you have sitting around -- bananas, apples, peaches, etc.

Meat is less expensive if you buy it in larger packages, so I buy a couple of trays of whatever's on sale, cook it all at once, and freeze it three servings to a container. Then I get one container out a week and have it with rice, which I also bulk cook and freeze.
posted by orange swan at 11:55 AM on October 17, 2017

On avoiding produce spoilage:

1) shop the salad bar when you only need a little - of course it's ridiculous to pay $7-10 a pound for celery or whatever, but if you only need an ounce or two it can still work out cheaper than buying a whole bunch of celery and watching it slowly wither.

2) learn to love frozen vegetables, and
2a) think about freezing your own veggies. It's usually easier to freeze them where they're already cooked, but if, say, you buy that whole bunch of celery, saute it up in a pan (or even steam it) and freeze it in little portions that you can toss into a stir fry, soup, or stew.

3) As Blast Hardcheese mentions above, get the produce in eatable (or near-eatable) condition ASAP. Cut up the cantaloupe as soon as you get it home. Wash and steam the kale so that you can just heat it up in a pan.

4) learn to love hardier produce - carrots and apples rather than baby greens and peaches.

5) daily produce triage - always eat/prepare for freezing the thing that is closest to going bad. If you find you are constantly having to force yourself to eat the same thing, stop buying it.
posted by mskyle at 12:14 PM on October 17, 2017

Since you mentioned household products as well as food, I found that Dollar General has good prices on things like cleaning supplies, generic medications, personal care products, etc. Family Dollar might be worth checking out as well. (Dollar Tree's quality is usually too low to be worth it.)
posted by radioamy at 12:16 PM on October 17, 2017

My secret is eggs. You can usually get at least 18-24 for around $2, and you can add them to various recipes or make food with just them and a few other ingredients. Whenever I am tightening the belt we just eat eggs a lot for a while.
posted by corb at 12:27 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Go to your local food bank. This is what they are meant for! I have volunteered at food banks and many have fresh produce/fruit; it's not just canned goods. Some also have non-food items (like toiletries). No one asks for proof of financial duress.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 12:39 PM on October 17, 2017 [7 favorites] (Walgreens),, and will do all of the work for you when it comes to figuring out the best way to combine regular coupons, store coupons and sales to minimize your cost. They also have coupon website suggestions. It is like extreme coupons without the work. Get the store rewards card for Walgreens and CVS and use Cartwheel at Target.

Caveat: following these sites are like watching TV commercials where you start to think you need a bunch of stuff that you don't. Maybe have an alternative email account where you sign up for shopping websites so you don't get ads whenever you look at your regular email box.
posted by soelo at 12:40 PM on October 17, 2017

Dollar Tree's quality is usually too low to be worth it.
I do find their kitchen gadgets to be useful but not durable. As in, if you need a potato masher, buy this one for a dollar and it will work but not last more than a year or so.
posted by soelo at 12:42 PM on October 17, 2017

One particular ethnic market thing: several Middle Eastern/South Asian markets near me sell bags of very large pitas, around 14", for a couple of bucks. They freeze well and make good pizza shells, falafel and other wraps, etc.

2nding Frowner on cabbage being the immortal produce item that can hang out in the back of your fridge for months, ready when you are.

For the bulk frozen meat items like chicken, this comment about foil packet cooking from modernhypatia was really great for me, because it had never occurred to me to work out a good way to skip the defrosting stage of cooking with a frozen chicken breast.
posted by XMLicious at 12:44 PM on October 17, 2017

FYI you can get into Costco without a membership if you have a gift card. Maybe someone just happens to have given you a half dozen gift cards loaded with $5 each, that's a year's worth of Costco trips... It doesn't matter how much you buy, you just pay the difference at the register. I don't have a lot of bulk storage either but every once in a while I'll make a Costco run to get a load of nonperishables and stock my freezer.
posted by yeahlikethat at 12:53 PM on October 17, 2017 [7 favorites]

Pork is really great. Beef is bad for the environment, chicken is getting super expensive... but pork is delicious and nutritious, especially when you believe that medium rare pork is just as safe as medium rare beef.

I enjoy the heck out of complex flavors and sauces and spices. But one thing I've been noticing lately is how delicious plain rice can be, especially the fragrant basmati rice.

I will grill pork on day one, slice the leftovers and serve it over rice for lunch day 2-4, and use any leftovers on a pizza or chop it up for with my eggs.

Best luck
posted by rebent at 1:03 PM on October 17, 2017

TLDNR- Dollar store for spices!!! Do you have a Dollar Tree near you? EVERYTHING in the store is $1 and they sell some foods as well.
posted by Amalie-Suzette at 1:28 PM on October 17, 2017

I've been unemployed...I have limited cooking skills

Now's the time to level up your cooking skills. When you're not factoring in time, it's much cheaper to make basically everything from scratch than buy it in a box.
posted by gueneverey at 1:33 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

TLDNR- Dollar store for spices!!! Do you have a Dollar Tree near you? EVERYTHING in the store is $1 and they sell some foods as well.

All the spices at Trader Joe's are $2 and personally I find them far more trustworthy.

The Dollar Tree is great for some things but honestly for food and food accessories you're way better off in an actual grocery store.
posted by phunniemee at 1:38 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you have access to Trader Joes, I find their plain frozen vegetables and fruits to be $1 - 2 cheaper than the plain frozen veggies and fruits at Harris Teeter (our local supermarket). This would also help you with spoilage; frozen veggies/fruits take a long time to go bad. I'd also recommend Trader Joes for spices. I think they have fresher stuff than the dollar store. Or if you have a local health food store, you can often find spices in bulk pretty cheap there. Then you avoid buying a $5 bottle of spice that you only use a teaspoon of and then it sits around for years going bad.

Homemade soup plus bread is a super cheap and filling meal. Start with a recipe or two (like a basic vegetable or chicken noodle soup) and when you get comfortable with that, you can customize by putting in whatever frozen veg you have on hand. Like when you have just a little frozen corn left, or half a cup of frozen peas, throw them in. As several people mentioned, chicken thighs tend to be inexpensive and make good soup meat.
posted by tuesdayschild at 1:49 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Per one comment above...I work at a hospital complex. We have what is essentially an employee cafeteria, but it in reality open to everyone. It isn't very expensive, we have a salad bar, and it's available to the public. Looking for resources like that is good - my boss often gets lots of salmon at lunch for less than he would anywhere else, because it's a flat per ounce price meaning lettuce costs the same as fish. See if there are any such options around you to supplement frugal grocery shopping.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 2:30 PM on October 17, 2017

No one asks for proof of financial duress.

This is going to vary regionally. Be prepared.
posted by windykites at 2:55 PM on October 17, 2017

I am unemployed, as well. Frozen vegetables are frequently cheaper than fresh and don't rot in the crisper drawer. If there's a food pantry, go get free food; that's what it's for. Lentils and green/yellow split peas are not beans, so if you can eat them, that's a bonus.(cooked lentils with butter, salt, pepper are fast and tasty) Eggs and canned tuna are terrific cheap protein. One local grocery chain usually has in-store day-old bread and usually a great selection, so I can have better quality for cheap. If they have marked downs on canned goods I know I'll use, I grab extra. Many areas have a store that gets a lot of out of date foods. Big Lots is okay for this, Marden's (in Maine) is great.

If I have romaine lettuce, I make tuna salad, scoop it with lettuce leaves. A sweet potato bakes in the microwave in 10 minutes, has lots of vitamins and fiber and is tasty with butter, salt, pepper. I make a big pot of chili and serve it on pasta or rice. I'll get a rotisserie chicken, enjoy the meat for several meals, then pull any remaining meat, make stock from the bones and skin, and make a chicken stew with carrots, onions, potatoes or other veg. Bisquick dumplings extend it further and are tasty. Stew beef is usually inexpensive; cook it long and slow and a small amount of beef makes a delicious stew. If you like curry, use curry spices, add potatoes, spinach, or other veg. Serve with rice, potatoes, or pasta. Basically, soups, stews, curries are ways to extend the meat, and then you serve it with potatoes, pasta or rice and the cost is low. Oatmeal for breakfast is cheap, healthy. If you like polenta, find corn meal and it's cheap and filling and a great platform for toppings.

To reduce waste, I freeze leftover rice and pasta; quality isn't perfect, but I hate to have food go bad.
posted by theora55 at 3:05 PM on October 17, 2017

Not the same as buying things in bulk, but get into the habit of buying extra nonperishable or easily frozen items that you regularly use when they are on sale. Key word - "regularly". Even if it's just, like, one extra.

Eventually it starts adding up and reducing your grocery bill. Also, having some extra food in your home is very important in emergencies and it reduces stress because you don't have to run out to the store unexpectedly for just one or two items.
posted by eeek at 4:27 PM on October 17, 2017

My motto, when I really have to lock it down (and this is part of a waste-reduction plan too) is "novelty is the enemy of frugality." If you can stand to eat a pretty basic template beginning to end - this might only be in 3- or 4-day rounds, not like months - so that you're only buying what you need and finishing it all, you are spending less money, it just means that food isn't going to be a form of entertainment.

So that might mean buying a pound or two of rice, two cans of beans, one or two frozen bags of a green vegetable, a pound or two of ground beef and eating that either 3 times a day or having a standard breakfast and eating your rice-bean-meat-veg hash twice a day until you run out. Finish one can of beans before starting the next. Eat a standard breakfast until you run out of it. If you have access to bulk bins, you can buy as much or little rice and oatmeal as you need rather than needing to buy ten pounds to get a decent deal on it, but also check your Big Lots/Dollar/99c rounds. Maybe your next four days are a cheap pork shoulder roasted, pasta, pasta sauce from a jar, and frozen green beans. If you need to bulk up the protein your three-to-five-ingredient meals, add an egg to each one - they expire slowest of all proteins barring frozen.

It's fine to bulk prepare this stuff, but keep "bulk" meaning the next few days, not five random meals in the next 3 months. If you're going to up your cooking game at all, focus entirely on cheaper meat that you're actually willing to deal with and slightly more expensive stuff that tends to land in the Manager's Discount pile. For me, I cook us a lot of individually frozen boneless skinless chicken thighs, which come in at about $1.30 per thigh (one serving for a small-framed person or someone eating a lot of beans) - which is not the cheapest chicken in town but because they are frozen and more or less retrievable individually from the bag (sometimes two are helplessly stuck) I can cook one or two days' worth of them, they get eaten in succession, they get used up and nothing goes bad, which I can't say for other chicken options. I have the same issue with giant pork shoulders or cushion meat - cheap when on sale, but you have to split up the bag and freeze in smaller packages and I just throw it in the fridge because I don't want to deal with it and then throw it out when it starts to smell. So for two people I cook maybe a couple pounds of protein at a time, because I am not going to cook from scratch every single meal, but I also can't get overambitious or I waste food.

This is honestly the opposite of the "extra" methodology. As an anxious food-hoarder, I've got extra of everything but it complicates the streamlining process and I don't think it saves money in the way that money needs to be saved during unemployment. "Extra" is for when you are a little flush and can spend more to save more and have longer stores of food, but I believe it's more functional in the short/medium term to come pretty close to a just-in-time manufacturing situation, where you're taking your savings out of the comfort cost and intangibles. If you run so much out of money you cannot buy food and need to ask friends or food banks or whatever, your extra spending up front is going to prematurely shorten your cash stores by just about an equivalent amount of days of food.

Additionally, in an unemployment situation where you may need to move or suddenly have a longer drive or some other variable that will require some cash, now you've got extra food to deal with and it's not going to get you any gas. If you absolutely must stock in some padding for emergencies or the day before grocery day, buy a dozen cans of dollar store soup - the gunky stuff, not the 100-calorie business - because you can live on that for a few cans a day for a few days while you figure out next steps, and if it's just a question of being out of rice one night well, now you can have spinach bean soup.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:52 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you can't use up fresh produce don't buy fresh produce. Plain frozen and canned vegetables (as long as you watch the sodium on canned stuff) will keep you 100% alive and scurvy-free better than a bag of rotten spinach or liquid banana. It's fine. Preserved food saves lives. Maybe someone takes your name off the list in Hipster Heaven, but your teeth won't fall out.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:57 PM on October 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

Sausage stew. Try to get the sausages at a decent butcher with nice stuff like fennel in them. Then it can be garlic, onions, celery, bay leaves, overripe tomatoes, chard, okra, zucchini, green beans, black eyed peas, a few potatoes, whatever...
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:29 PM on October 17, 2017

Nthing Meal planning. I use this template.

I find that as I write down what I have, I almost always realise that I have about half the week sorted already. I spend most of the week eating up things from the week before, it's the joys of cooking for one.

I normally cook two or three evenings per week (which is why my meal plan has an Evening Plans column, I can't cook much those nights), eating the leftovers for a couple of lunches, and freezing the rest in single portions. These will then be eaten in the next week or two, to increase the variety in my diet (and decrease boredom!). I try very hard not to eat exactly the same breakfast/lunch/dinner combo two days in a row, and to not have the same meal for more than a couple of days, unless it's a favourite. I eat a lot of omelettes and ploughman's lunches on the weekend to eat vegetables up. Weekends are often not planned as specifically as the week.

I use my freezer a lot. I freeze portions of rice, meat from bulk packs, milk that's about to turn, veg that is going squidgey. Whole lemons and limes, yoghurt, leftovers. Pretty much everything except lettuce. I try to cycle through the stuff in the freezer pretty quickly though, and include it in my meal plan as a second priority to the stuff in the fridge, so that it doesn't continue to take up much needed space for the next batch of soggy celery.

I shop the specials. I get emails from the supermarkets that I frequent, and I look through for good savings on things that I eat a lot. Also super discounted convenience food. Sometimes you just want to throw something in the microwave, and it is possible to get frozen/canned foods down at about $1/serve. I don't generally stock up too much, as I know that many specials will come back in a few weeks, and I don't need to have that much on hand, coz I'm only one person. I also swing by the discount bins and check for discounted meat and veg. This can mess with meal plan, so I generally toss the meat straight in the freezer, but the veg often needs to be eaten fairly quickly, so I'll rejig the meal plan for that.

I keep track of what's cheapest where. I'm not perfect at this, but there can be a lot of difference in price, especially for vegetables, and less common staples. I think because people shop somewhere due to the price of milk and meat, but pay less attention to the cost of lentils, curry paste and couscous. I normally hit at least one supermarket and one green grocer a week. It's annoying, but the green grocers have much better fruit and veg, and it's cheaper, and I will go a little bit out of my way to save a couple of bucks if I really need something.

I ran the maths on some of my favourite recipes. The holy grail for meal cost for me is AUD$1/serve for me, so it was great to work out how much a recipe actually cost me. It's really easy to blow out the price per serve with one expensive ingredient, some things that I thought were budget meals actually weren't. Sadly.
posted by kjs4 at 10:22 PM on October 17, 2017

Well, crap. It just dawned on me that TVP and tofu are technically beans. Which I am actually quite aware of, since I'm allergic to beans, including soy, and therefore can't eat them. Sorry!
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:19 PM on October 19, 2017

Just about any leftovers (within reason - use your headmeats) can be frozen in a leftovers bucket, mixed with stock and/or crushed tomatoes (or some similar fluid), and cooked up into a decent stew at the end of the week.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:59 PM on October 19, 2017

A slight side tip but all of the cookbooks mentioned here may be available at your library for free. People forget about their library. They also have movies, TV shows and music if you want to trim your subscription services for budget reasons.
posted by srboisvert at 4:44 AM on January 12, 2018

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