Avoid Expensive Ingredients to Eat Well & Spend Less

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When I first became a stay-at-home mom, I read the wonderful beginner budget book, Miserly Moms. In fact, I read it cover to cover every year for quite a while in order to keep myself sharp when it came to household spending.

Author Jonni McCoy points out that one of the most flexible line items in a household budget is food costs. Rent and utilities pretty much stay the same, but food? You can spend a little; or you can spend a lot.

Take it from the girl who spend $5000 in one year to feed herself and her ย husband. Yes, if you do your math right, you’ll see that that averages a little over $400 a month; I spend a little over $600 now to feed a family of eight.

My how things have changed.

It’s not that food costs have gone down since then. In fact, grocery prices have dramatically increased since 1995. (You can take a peek at how food costs have changed by reading theย USDA Food Costs Reports , compiled since 1994.)

Your Habits Effect Your Costs

No, the reason for our high food expenses were mainly because I cooked what I wanted when I wanted, regardless of season or sale.

I had my first baby in 1997. That first year living on one income was an eye-opener, to say the least. And I did my best to reduce our spending.

Food is our family hobby, so it was hard to cut things out. And honestly, it’s still hard sometimes. But, one thing has changed since I was a young newlywed buying hot house tomatoes out of season: my grocery spending habits.

Here are some of the means I’ve used to mend my ways:

If it’s not on sale, don’t buy it.

This is probably my most important rule of thumb. Unless it’s a special occasion, like a birthday, I rarely buy an ingredient at its regular price. If chicken breast is not on sale, we eat something else. If sugar is at an outrageous price, I put off baking or wait until I find a better price. I try only to buy items that are on sale.

However, when I see a great price, I buy a ton, so that when I need it, I have it — at a price I want to pay.

This has taken some getting used to over the years. But, now it’s almost painful to buy something not on sale.

Have a target price for most items.

Though the Miserly Mom recommends otherwise, I have never been great at keeping a price book. But I do keep a mental list in my head of what price is a stock-up price.

I have heart palpitations if I pay more than $2 a pound for meat or chicken. Cheese has to be under the $3/lb mark. And fruit and boxed cereal need to be under $1 per pound or box or they usually don’t see the depths of my cart.

These numbers have stayed fairly constant for the last couple years, except for the cereal. I’ve been avoiding the higher price and the excess sugar. Cereal deals haven’t been plentiful until this last week, so we eat other things for breakfast. “Other things” include items that I cook from scratch where I control the sugar content and the quality of the ingredients.

My 8-year old son is my grocery minion. He comes shopping with me each week and asks about 10 times, “Is this a good price, Mama?” To a third grader, an individual bottle of juice for a buck doesn’t seem expensive. So, together we’re learning about target prices and what is a good thing to stock up on. Individual bottles of juice would not be one of them.

Make most of your food from scratch.

Fourteen years ago it was not uncommon for me to buy jarred sauces, baking mixes, sandwich bread, or special canned ingredients like olives and chiles. But as I learned to watch prices I saw the prices rise, I started making things from scratch.

I found that we liked the homemade so much better than the box or the can. In fact, my sister and brother shake their heads since my kids do not eat the blue box of mac and cheese that we did as children, nor are they very familiar with red labelled canned soups. My oldest son was about four when he started rejecting bottled salad dressing.

As Aimee pointed out yesterday, “Not only is it cheaper to make your own real food staples, you know exactly what is going into your food. You can customize each item- be it a condiment, salad dressing or spread –ย  to suit your familyโ€™s needs, avoid allergens and cater to taste preferences.”

Making food from scratch helps us to lower our food costs dramatically and improve our diets at the same time.

Avoid expensive items.

And it goes without saying that there are some foods I just don’t buy. Unless it’s a special occasion or on sale, I don’t buy filet mignon. Steak is rarely on the menu, unless it’s top sirloin or tri-tip, which go on sale frequently in Southern California.

I don’t buy boxed mixes, canned soups, spice mixes, or bottled salad dressings. Instead, I make my own. I substitute fresh jalapenos for canned green chiles. I buy sandwich bread and prepared baked goods only when I see a great sale or when they’re on clearance.

Allow yourself a splurge.

That said, I do have my splurges. Good coffee and good baguette would rank at the top. We have a true French bakery a few miles from our home, so we usually treat ourselves to the “real deal.” And as I said, earlier in the week, bad coffee just isn’t worth drinking.

But, good taste aside, the reason for the occasional splurge is to help you stick to your guns. If you feel “deprived,” it will be all that much harder not to buy the thing that isn’t the best for your family.

On the other hand, if you know that you can indulge in one or two little luxuries, you won’t “feel” poor. And it makes being wise so much easier.

Avoiding expensive ingredients is one major way that we have changed how we eat and how we spend. Do we miss the “good old days?” Not really. Are we eating worse? Hardly. Are satisfied? Absolutely.

Enough is as good as a feast.

This is part of the Eat Well, Spend Less series.

What ingredients do YOU avoid to save money?

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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  1. We don’t buy meat or any other animal products – we eat lots of beans though (cheap, cheap). In the end though I don’t think it saves us money because whatever money we saved we use to buy lots of produce and fresh foods.

    Often the processed ingredients you avoid for cost are good to avoid for your health – like boxed cereals. Oatmeal is just so much cheaper and healthier.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @renee @ FIMBY, well, I’m noticing since my latest cereal purchase, that one doesn’t overeat on oatmeal, but man, can they put down the cornflakes!

  2. Thank you for all the good reminders!

    While reading this, I thought you might have some input on the answer to this question: Do you know if it is cost effective to have a second refrigerator (assuming it is a fairly new, energy efficient one)? We already do have a second freezer, but moved to an area this past year where we are able to do more gardening and hope to use and preserve as many of our own vegetables as possible this summer. Our refrigerator does not hold a tremendous amount, and we are wondering about the value of having a second one to keep vegetables, and even stock-up items from the store, longer.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Tiffani, we don’t have a second refrigerator, though there are many occasions when I wish we did. I have no idea really on the cost effectiveness. I would think that it ranks high on convenience, though.

      • Heather says

        @Jessica Fisher, Here’s a thought: Last year, we lived in a place where we had a fridge that was JUST a fridge (BIG fridge, with a freezer spot just big enough for an ice maker) and our chest freezer for a freezer. I totally loved that arrangement, don’t have it anymore, ’cause we moved and we’re renting, but I would be thrilled to have that setup again.

  3. Kate says

    I struggle with our grocery budget. I shop Aldi and we don’t buy chips or soda or things like that, but I still consider a good week when I spend less than $100 for a family of three (well, four but the baby doesn’t count yet in the grocery budget!). I’ll have to check out that Miserly Moms book for some tips.

    And I need to get serious about a price book because I am incapable of keeping prices in my head. I buy milk every week but could no more tell you an average price than fly.

    In terms of avoiding expensive food… Um… (blushes and scuffles toe) I still do my shopping the “wrong way around.” Meaning, I find a recipe I like and then buy what I need for it, rather than basing my recipes around what’s on sale. Sigh. It just takes so long for me to do it the other way. I rely entirely on recipes, so digging through volumes of cookbooks trying to find something that utilizes ham hock (or whatever is on sale) exhausts me.

    • Jenny says


      I keep a list of recipes I want to make based on ingredients and I go to that list when going through the sales. Makes it easier to remember what I wanted to make and takes less time.

      • Kate says

        @Jenny, Terrific idea! I keep saying I’m going to create an Excel spreadsheet of recipe ideas. “In all my free time.” Ha.

        • Jessica Fisher says

          @Kate, don’t worry about some in depth system. Just keep your lists from week to week, marking it with the main proteins that you used. Then when those proteins go on sale, check your lists.

      • Jessica Fisher says

        @Jenny, that is a great idea!

    • I thought some of the ideas in Miserly Moms were good, but I didn’t like her recipes. I figure that if I am on a tight budget, good tasting food takes the sting out of it. I would look somewhere else to find recipes that taste much better like Mel’s Kitchen Cafe or Deals to Meals.

  4. I am totally in touch with this post! These habits you almost HAVE to have in order to survive on one income these days:-)

  5. nancy says

    I purchased and devoured that same Jonni McCoy book in the early 90’s when I took a 10 week leave of absence from work – living on one paycheck with 2 small children. I also met Jonni that same summer. I was thrilled. She gave me the motivation to keep my grocery budget in check. I also own her Miserly Meals cookbook. I still use it even after all these years.
    We prefer the homemade variety to the boxed or frozen in our house too.

  6. Jenny says

    Amen to everything in your post! I am the “on sale” queen. My kids are always asking “is _____ on sale this week so we can buy some?” I just can’t make myself pay regular price for anything.

    We also make so much from scratch. I always thought buying from scratch took so much time and more money, but I was wrong and it saves so much more money. My kids won’t even eat jelly, granola, salad dressings, or cookies from the store. And our house is the favorite place to be invited to eat dinner – the neighborhood kids are just hanging around at dinner time, waiting for an invite!

    • Kate says

      @Jenny, Wow. I’m so impressed by everyone who does so much “from scratch” cooking. I feel good about the fact that I get dinner on the table most nights (rather than eating out or ordering in) but our salad dressing definitely comes in pre-bottled format!

      • Diana says

        @Kate, You do what works for you! ๐Ÿ™‚ Just the fact that you’re cooking instead of getting take-out it a step ahead of a lot of folks. And most of these people who cook mostly from scratch have been at it a looong time. I’d say choose one thing you’d like to try making from scratch (maybe the red sauce on this site?), and see how it goes. If you like it, keep it up, and go on from there. Good luck! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • @Kate, Salad dressing is SO easy! When I lived in france, I found out that I couldn’t even buy bottled dressing. I learned how simple it was to whip up a salad dresssing. You can make it right before the meal, or you can make some ahead of time and keep it in the fridge. I have a few recipes for dressings here (with another one coming soon) that you can use to get started.

        I buy vinegar and oil in bulk, which makes homemade dressings even cheaper.

    • Heather says

      @Jenny, Once you’ve gotten used to homemade jam, the store stuff is just not worth it–and so much of the store jams and jellies nowadays are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup–you really have to look to find the sugar-sweetened ones.

  7. “Food is our family hobby” – love it, Jessica!

    This is an excellent post. And I’m so glad you added the part about allowing a splurge. Life is too short to drink bad coffee.

  8. Natalie says

    I agree that soups are a cheap, easy, quick meal that are essential to keeping stocked in the freezer. The freezer in my house is one for the hardest working machines around ๐Ÿ˜‰ My current stocks include turkey stock, leek and potato soup, mushroom stew with venison chunks (my husband bringing home a deer is one of my biggest secrets to budget meals!), sun-dried tomato minestrone, crepes, and all different kinds of beans and pestos. I’m excited to read this series. Thanks for sharing.

  9. G. says

    This post was really excellent. I shop very similarly and have found that making things from scratch is not only cost effective but, very healthy! Thanks for sharing your wisdom. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Amy M says

    I’m trying to get better in this area of our budget. Our family purchases a very minimal amount of processed foods. While I have done the coupon cutting thing I get very discouraged with the time it takes to organize a shopping trip with coupons. I also found that the majority of coupons available were for processed foods that our family just doesn’t purchase. With a full time job and two young kids I find that I choose to spend my time with them rather than pay strict attention to the sales. I do have a mental price list in my head for meats, cheeses and some produce and tend to stock up when there’s a price drop but for the most part I just try to stay away from processed foods, cook simply and prepare freezer meals. Our highest portion of the grocery budget is in the area of produce. I don’t buy organic all of the time but I am finding that at least 50% of the time that it’s actually cheaper in my grocery store than the conventional item. Kiwi for example is consistanty 10 cents less per kiwi if I buy organic but it never fails that if I am wanting to buy an item and I look over in the organic section to price compare that the organic item is cheaper. So, there’s a small tid bit…. DON’T ASSUME ORGANIC IS MORE EXPENSIVE ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Molly says

      @Amy M, Yes! Sometimes my local store has organic peppers cheaper than conventional, and they’re on the dirty dozen list!

  11. I’ve had to make some decisions about what’s worth making from scratch and what I’m willing to pay for pre-made. Because while I love homemade bread, I unfortunately don’t have enough time to do it regularly as a working mom.

    Every family has to find the right balance for them and while I love getting a good deal and eating seasonally, there are some things I don’t want to compromise on… I don’t think that we could restrict ourselves to tomatoes only when in season!

    • Jessica says

      @Jen@Dear Mommy Brain…, Thank you so much for pointing that out. TIME. I have very little of it teaching and being in grad school. As much as I try to avoid processed foods, there are not enough hours in the day for me to truly begin implementing all of this stuff. I have become very price conscious over the last few years, but sometimes the necessity to eat before midnight overrides price as the bottom line. I would like to congratulate everyone who is able to manage it, and I am learning so much from everyone from all these tips.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Jen@Dear Mommy Brain…, and you know, it seems like seasons are changing constantly! You absolutely do need to reassess and find out what works best for you and your family.

      Disclaimer: I buy cheap, out of season tomatoes, not the expensive ones. LOL

  12. I also started out reading Miserly Moms, a great beginner’s guide I must say! Most of these tips are ones I already put itno practice but Jessica I have to admit I am a big fat SUCKER for those boxed rice and noodle mixes. My husband can only stand his food all mixed ina casserole or crockpot about twice a week so I cook a lot of side dishes and mashed taters are old hat here! Any good recipes for tasty rice and noodle sides?

    • Jessica Fisher says
    • Heather says

      @Stefani @SimpleMidwestMom, You SO don’t need a recipe for this stuff! Decide whether you’re having rice or noodles and cook them. Look around your kitchen and see what you have that sounds yummy in them, and put it in. Butter, garlic, sour cream, bits of ham, bits of hard salami, any sorts of cheese, you name it. We often buy jars of pesto from Costco (not the cheapest, but we love it–planning to grow a mess of basil this summer, so as to make our own), and usually keep hard salami around (a little of this goes a long way as a meat, and packs a lot of punch, taste-wise. We buy in big sticks from Costco). Noodles+pesto+little bits of hard salami is a quickie meal we all love, maybe with salad on the side.

  13. I do a combo of meal planning and sale shopping. Our grocery bill is down $70-$100 from our highest (weekly) usual. I still am trying to find ways to cut back … looking forward to spring/summer for our garden and skipping buying lettuces cucumbers and herbs. I’ve also cut out a lot of junk, including freezer fillers (pizzas for guests who might be over at lunch time).

  14. Diana says

    Yes, yes! ๐Ÿ™‚ I definitely have a target price for all the items I regularly buy. And I had no idea you could use jalapenos for canned chiles! Thanks for that tip! I’ve just been leaving them out.

  15. Rana says

    I’m loving this post. I shop the sales too, and all of my meat has been managers specials. My freezer is stocked. I am also doing a lot more from scratch cooking and baking. We just learned to make home made crepes today. Now I can’t wait to put some home grown fruits on top.

  16. Amanda says

    We don’t buy filet mignon, but we do pick up beef tenderoin, cut it into filets ourselves (youtube has many video tutorials) and save the small pieces for stew meat. It’s a lot more affordable this way, but still a luxury. (We have date-night @home, so it’s a nice treat w/o paying restaurant prices).

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Amanda, what a great idea! I’m going to look next time I go.

  17. Thank you for creating this series! Each article is sure to be packed with helpful tips.

  18. I don’t really avoid much – I just watch and wait. When the price is low, I buy! When it’s high, we do without or eat a certain item from my stockpile. I have learned a lot from your blog! This month I am trying something new. I’ve made a master menu and we are eating the exact same main course every Monday, every Tuesday, every Wednesday and so on, in April. (I’m not sure how it will work…it’s an experiment and we will be gone the last week in April.) What I do know, is that my freezer ALREADY contains almost all of the main course ingredients! So, all I have to buy are fruits & veggies, dairy and then stock-up items. We’ll see how it works. If you are curious, you can read more here:

  19. Great post, Jessica.
    And, I love that quote at the end of your post; I’ve been thinking about having it stenciled somewhere in my kitchen. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    I live by similar guidelines here.

  20. Actually, $5000 a year is just over $400 a month for a couple (which still seems like a lot, but not as bad as $600 a month :)).

    I love the tips! Another one that I hope will help us this year (with cost AND health) is joining a CSA. Unfortunately, produce in PA is really, really expensive, so we are hoping this helps!

    • Jessica Fisher says

      @Amanda, Obviously, I was stronger in English than in Math. Ha! Thanks for correcting my error.

  21. kelliinkc says

    I clicked through to your “mental price List” and saw that it was a post from 2009. Do you find that those prices are still applicable? Prices here have been going up so much since 2009. Anyone else noticing how small the cereal boxes are getting while the price is not shrinking? I think I am finally reaching the point of not buying cereal anymore!

    • Jessica Fisher says

      I’m sticking to my prices for the time being except the boxed cereal. I found one good deal recently, but they’re inhaling the cereal faster than they could eat a bowl of oatmeal, so I won’t be doing THAT again. But, we’ve gone months without cereal because of the higher prices.

  22. I love this series, you all have such helpful information! I too am trying to cut my grocery spending all while eating well. I blogged today about one approach I’ve started taking… maybe it will be useful to somebody as well.


  23. Taia says

    Don’t just look at food and costs to run a second refrigerator- look at gas (and time, if you’re short time) savings. It’s ~9 mi to the grocery store from my house and, depending on whether you count just gas or gas + auto expenses (depreciation, maintenance), that’s still a few dollars and probably an hour saved each time I avoid a trip to the store.

    • Jessica Fisher says

      good point. Location matters.

  24. Chris says

    Argh. I’m still in that place. $400 a month for my husband and I (baby is still breastfeeding). And that’s a good month, I’m usually a bit over. And I DO shop the on sale stuff. We don’t eat tons of meat or processed stuff.
    I guess I need to give in and buy the Miserly Moms book -I’ve been eyeing it for awhile but haven’t been able to find it used. We are so with you on the food is the family hobby thing though. It’s my main area of struggle right now. I’m a new(ish – 5 months) stay at home Mom and I want to get things under control in the groceries but it’s like I can’t get out of the store for under $100. So frustrating.
    If you ever get bored and want to do a grocery makeover or something, I could use it!

  25. I usually spend about 100 a week on food, for my family of two. We get our cheeses and eggs from the local farmers market (10 dollars for 24 ounces, and 8 dollars/2 dozen once every 2 weeks.) and our raw milk and butter from the farm (7.50 a gallon x 3 gallons, and 9.50 for 2 lbs) once every 2 weeks. Those same weeks we do the farmers markets etc, I also buy our meat and some veggies etc, other staples. We eat a lot of roasts, whole chickens and such because they last 2 people for several meals, and leftovers can be made into other things. Recently we’ve been focusing on whole roaster chickens (around 4 bucks for a 5 lbs chicken) and pork butt roasts (last bought for 8 bucks for a 7 lb roast) I love that I can use the bones for broth, and then add beans and veg and pasta to make hearty soups. On the off weeks we get just produce, sometimes pasteurized dairy if I need it.

    The biggest expenditure in our food budget is my Significant other though! He insists on supporting his 6-12 can a day diet coke habit(has to be the more expensive cans, doesn’t like the 3 ltr. bottles), which adds up to about 15-30 dollars a week, and his crackers/chips/pretzels habit, which is an additional 5-15 bucks. Half our budget is his snacking and drinking crap!

    Other than fresh produce which I buy weekly, I think we could last with whats in the fridge/freezer/pantry for about a month before we would start actually going hungry.

    Overall I think that’s pretty good, considering I know people who spend 2-400 for a family of two per week.

    Does anyone have any idea’s on how to get my SO to cut back on the junk? Sorry this turned out so long.

  26. What a great topic. Thanks so much for sharing. I am amazed at how drastically you were able to cut your grocery spending. That’s a big goal of mine for this year as I am cutting back my work hours to have more time with my four kids. I LOVE that your 8-year-old is getting involved in making frugal shopping decisions. So great that you are starting him young!

  27. diana says

    i agree with this but i do use coupons like crazy more all the time but you do have to cook mostly from scratch with the occasional go out to dinner usually pizza somewhere with a coupon even my kids friends know i’m the coupon mom and when they are with us usally ask is this a good deal ant lots of times my kids will speak up and say no they are learning the art of being frugal too very proud we don’t buy it unless its on sale and with a coupon even our car, thanks so much i want to read the book!

  28. Wow. This is so what I needed to read today! Thanks for the info about that book, I’ll have to try and get it from the library!

  29. Shannon says

    If I bring home a treat or something I don’t normally buy my kids say, “it was either free or on sale.” They know me too well.

  30. After 3 years as a housewife, I have a shoebox full of three years’ worth of receipts which I have never managed to organise and enter into some sort of overviewable (like that one? new word!) format. Consequently I have NO idea what we spend on food, but I’m pretty certain it’s more than 100 a week for two adults and a 2y.o. Heck, last week at the market I spent 35 bucks on 1 roaster chicken (why do ppl say these last multiple meals? That NEVER happens!), 100g of egg salad and 3 pretzels (I was hungry) 10 eggs, cheese, hard salami, and mandarins. All local, but still.

    The meat thing is definitely a weak point. I really like that “target price” idea – and agree I can NEVER remember what they are. Freezing stuff just doesn’t work for us; a) I’m in Europe = teeny appliances, and b) I never remember to thaw the stuff out in time.

    I get 25 eur worth of veg, milk and eggs delivered every week, so veg drives my menu and I shop from there. It *can* mean that we have some very odd soups at the end of the week, though!

    • Jessica Fisher says

      One trick, Lauren, is to set a number, say 100 eur? I have no idea. Get it out in cash on Monday. Then keep it in an envelope that you keep with you to pay for groceries. Just write on the envelope (if you want to be more techy) the details of the purchase. When it’s empty, you know you spent over what you thought you would.

  31. This is a great post and speaks so much to our efforts over the last few years to reduce our grocery store spending. Over time we’ve changed our buying habits and now spend $200 a month less than before. One thing that works for us to be very diligent about planning our meals, preparing a shopping list and only buying what’s on the list. I admit, we still do buy many of our staples, but we don’t overbuy and go for the generic brand when possible.

  32. Fleur says

    FishMama, thankyou for summarizing so clearly your supermarket savings techniques. In reading this I feel inspired to try to do better in this regard. I was working hard on this front but I realize now that I have been slipping – I must refocus again. Thanks for the great reminder!b

  33. What a great post! It’s funny how you do some things so much that they become second nature – and then when someone else says what they are doing to save money you realize, “Wow! I really do have a system in place! And I thought I was so disorganized!” So thanks for the encouragement!

    We avoid buying coconut milk and, well, all milks. I haven’t posted on making other milk substitutes yet, but my coconut milk one is here: http://wholenewmom.com/recipes/make-your-own-coconut-milk/

    I also make all of my own nut and seed butters. This saves a TON of money. Here is how we do that: http://wholenewmom.com/recipes/homemade-nut-and-seed-butters/

    Hope that helps! Love the tips and advice. Thanks a bunch!

  34. Great post! One thing that we do is NEVER buy tea bags. We get all our tea in bulk from Adagio or Upton Tea and use a strainer or tea ball. SO much cheaper than paying $4/box for 20 teabags, or buying at the coffee shop.

  35. Laura says

    I guess I am late in finding your site but so far love it!! And thanks for drawing attention to eating on a budget without sacrificing nutrition! So many blogs talk about eating on a budget but use loads of canned soups/highly processed foods, etc. And no matter the cost, we won’t feed our son meat or cheese with hormones (yes it costs more, but you pay for what you get!) and in fact we’ve switched to drinking almond milk (tastes the same in recipes!) Thanks again!!

    • Jessica Fisher says

      Thanks for your kind words. Glad you found Life as MOM!

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