September 7, 2015

Thirteen Ways I Keep Our Grocery Bill Low

Thirteen ways to keep your grocery bill low!

A few months ago, I wrote about my experience with Blue Apron, and in that post, I said that one of the main problems for me was how expensive it was.

Usually, I said, our weekly grocery bill for our family of 5 is around $75. And tons of people asked about how I keep our food budget so low.

I had big plans of showing menus for a month along with my grocery bills, but then right after I wrote that post, we started getting ready to move which means our grocery bill dropped like a rock since we were trying to use up everything in the fridge and freezer, and then when we arrived at our new house, our grocery bill skyrocketed for about six weeks while we slowly built back up our fridge, freezer, and pantry stockpile.

Last week, when I went to the grocery store, my bill came out to $64, so I feel like we're basically back on track. I can't FIND my receipt from that grocery trip (yes, I'm basically a paragon of organization over here), but here's what our dinner menu for the week and what I had to buy for it:
  • Wednesday - Roasted Vegetable Chopped Salad: I already had a big bag of chicken in the freezer, and a can of feta, plus two ears of corn that I'd bought last week on sale. I bought a lemon for the dressing, skipped the fresh basil (expensive!), and a three-pack of romaine lettuce. I had leftover zucchini from these cookies (which was actually leftover zucchini from a recipe I'd made a few days before THAT). I had all the stuff to make biscuits to go along with the salad too. I meant to put out some grapes that I'd bought but then Bart came home late and it was just me and the girls, so. . . no grapes. I think if I wasn't married, I would make dinner about once a week. 
  • Thursday - Butter Chicken and Naan bread. I needed a quick dinner this night, so I used a jar of butter chicken sauce I bought at Target a few weeks ago ($2.99) and added a chicken breast. I also had a pack of naan bread in the freezer that I bought a few weeks ago at Frye's. 
  • Friday - Pizza: I already had all the ingredients for pizza crust, half a bag of pepperoni, and a block of Parmesan cheese. I bought mozzarella (which was on ridiculous sale for less than $1 for an 8 oz chunk) and I bought a 58 cent can of tomatoes to make sauce with. I'll use some of the lettuce from Wednesday to make a salad with some homemade ranch, croutons made from the ends of store-bought bread, and add whatever vegetables are needing to be used up. 
  • Saturday: Chicken Picatta - I meant to make this last week, but then we had leftovers instead, so I already had everything for it.
  • Sunday: Sweet Potato Quinoa - I got quinoa from the bulk section (way cheaper than getting a package of it), plus I bought a few sweet potatoes. I bought some avocados and cilantro and a bag of baby spinach. 
  • Monday: Tacos - I made a crockpot batch of the meat a month ago and froze the leftovers, so we'll just cook up some tortillas (I buy the kind that you cook yourself), add some lettuce, avocado, shredded cheese, and sour cream. 
  • Tuesday: Street Chicken - I have everything on hand to make this except some pitas, but I'll just make some or use slices of the sourdough I buy every week.
My parents were coming for the holiday weekend, so I bought a few extra things for lunches, including a new loaf of bread, some sliced turkey from the deli, and a bag of chips.

I know food budgets and eating styles vary drastically from family to family, but here's what works for us and keeps our food spending in check.

Also, the bad news is that none of this is groundbreaking. It's kind of like when you hear that the way to save money is to spend less or make more or both.

Thirteen ways to keep your grocery bill low!
  1. Meal Planning is KEY. You can tell from this week's menu that I don't always make everything on the menu. Sometimes the afternoon gets away from me and we have pancakes instead. Or I warm up a can of beans and make vegetarian tacos. I know people hate meal planning (one of the most popular things I share on Instagram are my weekly dinner menus). It doesn't have to be fancy, but planning out what you're going to eat every night for dinner is going to save you so much money. And also mental stress, too, which is worth a lot in my book.
  2. Keep breakfast and lunch simple. Most of our food dollars go to dinner, and we keep breakfast and lunch pretty streamlined. I buy oatmeal in giant containers or bulk and my girls have that most mornings. Sometimes they have cold cereal and I either buy something on big sale or the off-brand version (I also don't buy sugary cereals - think Chex (my favorite), plain Cheerios, or Kix). I have homemade granola with plain yogurt (which I also buy in large containers) and sprinkle with some cashews (bulk section) and some mini chocolate chips. Bart has a muffin, which I make a batch of every two weeks. Bart and the girls have pretty simple lunches (fruit and veggies, pb&js, string cheese, reusable pouches of yogurt or applesauce, and some pretzels). Save the more exciting breakfasts for the weekends. 
  3. Keep your dinners simple. I don't have the time or interest in making complicated meals most nights for dinner. I try to find recipes that don't have too many ingredients (like these 5 ingredient recipes) and I don't pick recipes that use tons of ingredients I'll have to buy new. I'll look specifically on Pinterest for things that use up ingredients I have that are perishable, like feta cheese or bell peppers or zucchini or whipping cream. For side dishes, I usually just do fresh fruit and a salad or sautéed vegetable. Maybe biscuits or garlic bread. I'm not saying dinner has to be boring - I try lots of new recipes - but if you're staring down the barrel at a 90 minute dinner recipe on a Tuesday night, chances are good you're going to bail. 
  4. Skip or substitute obscure or pricey ingredients. Spices are a killer here. Thanks to Winco, I can usually buy spices from the bulk section (I love that about Sprouts, HEB, and Whole Foods too), but if you don't have that available to you, don't spend $4 on a bottle of smoked paprika. I keep seeing recipes with that ingredients and I keep using my regular paprika I bought for $1. If you need 1 Tablespoon of something, Google a substitute or just leave it out (blog secret: I almost never use fresh basil because it's so expensive and I haven't gotten around to planting my own and I'm not CRAZY about basil, although I like it fine. If you see a recipe of mine with optional basil on it, I've almost always just slivered some spinach leaves for a pop of color in the photos. If you can no longer trust me, I understand). If a recipe calls for a cut of meat that's way more expensive than a similar one on sale, I go right ahead and swap it for the cheaper one. 
  5. Make a grocery list. No good has ever come of walking into the grocery store without a shopping list. You'll buy things you didn't intend to and forget things you did intend to buy, and then you're back at the grocery store the next day to do it all over again. Figure out a system that works for you (I divide my grocery list into six parts (produce, meat, dairy, frozen, dry/can, and misc) so I don't miss a fruit I needed that was hidden between two dairy items) and stick to your list. I am pretty firm about not buying things that aren't on my list unless I see something I legitimately meant to have on the list. 
  6. Don't buy things with coupons (or on sale) that you wouldn't have bought anyway. I'm guilty of this too, but if you wouldn't have looked twice at some fancy yogurt or diet drink, don't buy it just because you have a coupon. $1.00 off of a $3.00 item is still $2 you didn't plan to spend. And $2 adds up fast. 
  7. Don't go to the grocery store too often. I am fairly religious about only going to the grocery store once a week. If I forgot something, I deal with it. If we run out of milk a day before shopping day? We can drink water. I Google a substitute, skip that ingredient or eat something else. Every extra time you swing by the grocery store, your budget will suffer.
  8. Is a warehouse store really saving you money? I was just listening to The Kitchen Counter Cooking School (it's excellent) and she talked about how many of her nine students bought things in bulk and then couldn't use them up before they went bad, meaning they didn't save money at all. We have a Sam's Club membership because my parents have a business one and they've added all of us on. I go every couple of months and buy only the things I absolutely know are saving me money (butter, string cheese, goat cheese, and baby wipes, basically). 
  9. Go to one grocery store. Grocery shopping is kind of a THING for me, what with three small children, so I'm definitely not looking for ways to do more of it. And I find that when I go to multiple stores in order to take advantage of sales, it doesn't really save me that much money because I end up buying more. Plus, gas and the gigantic hassle. I've just given myself permission to not try to save 50 cents on yogurt by visiting two stores. If your store price matches, all the better, but honestly, I've never done it. 
  10. Go easy on the expensive things. Milk is actually super cheap here (less than $2/gallon), but I'm amazed at how much people spend on milk. We buy about three gallons a month - my girls eat it on their cereal and occasionally with graham crackers for a snack, plus I cook with it when needed. I also almost NEVER use more than one chicken breast in a recipe. I'd rather bulk up with vegetables because they're healthier and also way cheaper (zucchini for 88 cents a pound? Win). 
  11. Buy VERY few snacks and fun foods. As I was reading the comments and emails from the Blue Apron post and looking at my own grocery budget, I realized that one of the main things that keeps my bill down is that I don't buy many fun foods. We eat pretty basic foods around here. Anything fun we do eat is almost always when it is on killer sale (like when Capri Suns were on sale for 98 cents for a box of ten) or I buy it in the bulk section. I don't buy fruit snacks or many chips (in large part because I could eat ALL the chips in the store), cookies or single-serve packages, or fun cereal. I know this is not a fun answer, because I love new and exciting snacks and food as much as the next person, but if you're really serious about bringing down your grocery bill, the sodas, the packaged foods, and snacks and treats will make a huge dent in your bill right away. This definitely means we are the least fun house in the world to babysit at. 
  12. Try SO HARD not to waste food. The worst thing is to pay for food and then bring it home to rot. I eat leftover for lunch most days and if stuff starts to build up over a few days, we have leftovers for dinner (this may not be the most popular night of the week, but. . .I frankly don't care. I'm not interested in throwing away food, and I find that it's usually not as horrible as everyone anticipates leftovers being. And if you don't LOVE dinner one night of the week? Too bad. I am a mean mom/wife). I try to freeze stuff before it goes bad, like tablespoons of tomato paste so I don't have to buy a new jar every time I need 1 Tablespoon, or blocks of cheese.
  13. Eat similar kinds of things so you don't end up throwing things away. We have pizza every week, so I'm never throwing away pepperoni that's been sitting in the fridge for six weeks or a moldy block of mozzarella. We eat salad several nights a week, so it's rare for a head of lettuce to go bad. I don't have just ENDLESS variety of foods that don't get used. I have no problem buying a quart of buttermilk because I use it all the time, so I know it will get finished.
I would love to hear how you keep your grocery bill low without subsisting on ramen. And if you have questions, I'm happy to try to answer. 

37 comments:

  1. I do most of these things too. Another thing I do is to stock up on freezable stuff when it's on sale, especially meats. If chicken is a killer price, I'll buy four cases and stick them in my freezer. It makes that particular bill a little high, but it evens out in the end.

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  2. We don't. Food is something I spend a lot on, because I don't spend on much else and we really, really love to eat the amazing food available in this haven of agriculture we live in. I drive a rusty old minivan and buy almost all our clothes secondhand, which means I can buy a half cow when we need it, which is a lot (about three times a year) because my husband basically eats meat with a side of meat all the time.

    That said, I spend all our food money on real food. You think you have an unfun babysitting house? I don't even bake muffins. Or have graham crackers. This is mostly because if that stuff is there, I'm the one eating it all, and I really don't need that. So pretty much the only food we have that doesn't have to be cooked when we want to eat is nuts and cheese. And the sourdough bread my mother-in-law makes every week.

    We buy whole pigs (butchered and in boxes, I mean, not the live pig that we have to butcher ourselves), half cows, ENORMOUS blocks of cheese, five dozen eggs in a week (from the farm up the road) and a lot of milk. I was amazed that you only go through three gallons a month. We go through three gallons A WEEK. Granted, I use one gallon to make yogurt almost every week, but, well, I guess my kids just drink a lot of milk.

    You may have gathered we go heavy on the protein around here, which is not cheap, but is also not crap.

    We also got a premium CSA share this summer, which is certainly more expensive than when I grew everything myself, but then I didn't have to do the work of planting, weeding, growing, harvesting, and washing either. Or drive an hour round-trip to the grocery store. So definitely worth it to me.

    I just love talking about food. Can you tell?

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    1. I appreciate you taking this perspective Kristin. I'm currently living in the UK and I've learned that Americans spend much less (in terms of % of income) on their groceries. Good food usually costs more. (Organic, fresh, local, produce, poultry & other meats, quality cheese, etc.) I consider myself as frugal as the next person, but it has been a paradigm shift for me to remove cost as the #1 priority when it comes to grocery shopping. If our budget is feeling squeezed, I can usually find another place to cut it.

      Spending money on quality food is both an investment in my family's health, and an investment in our quality of life.

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  3. When my daughter was little, one thing I did that saved a lot of money was getting Tupperware cups and snack cups and sandwich keepers. I would put juice in a cup with a seal or package something like Cheeze-its or applesauce in a snack cup with a seal. Buying a jar or bottle or box is much cheaper than individual servings and better for the environment too.

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  4. We're the same way! Family of five (kiddos are 6, 4 and 2) and our grocery budget is $75 per week. Whenever people ask how we keep it so low I always tell them it's because we don't buy processed food. No lunchables, no frozen lasagna, etc. I also meal plan and love it! Our biggest saver has been that we shop at Aldi and absolutely love it, especially the produce prices. Solidarity sister!!

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  5. Wow!! We live in Canada, and definitely cannot spend that little on groceries! I do love your tips though! I agree, meal planning is awesome and does save us money! We need to get better at using up everything.

    A gallon of milk is just under $5-- and that's regular milk, not organic (which is at least $6.50). A pound of butter is also $5. A lb of cheese is easily $5 as well, if not more! We pay $6 for a pound of ground beef, and a can of tomatoes hovers near $1 on sale! Eggs are $3 for the cheapest dozen you can buy!! A bottle of regular paprika is $5!

    It's crazy how much food prices can vary across one continent. I WISH we could spend $75 a week on groceries, but it's just not feasible here.....

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  6. We spend $800 a month on food. If I try really hard I can get it down to $600. But I love trying gourmet, restaurant style recipes. We go through a lot of milk, eggs, meat. My three year old son is huge for his age (over 100 percentile) and has always needed more protein so I make him sausage at least three mornings a week. (Crazy but it helps keep his mood steady to start his day with a filling breakfast). I buy easy snack foods for my kids to pack their own school lunch (packaged teddy grahams, gogurt, string cheese, Apple sauce, rice Krispy treats, granola bars, individual packages of nuts from costco and juice boxes or boxes of milk to drink). Also all the convenience food really helps us to not get fast food. I buy myself protein smoothies ($3 each) and protein bars for when I'm out of the house all day running errands. I think I could really get our grocery budget down if I tried. I'm actually one of the people that asked you to write this article and I totally plan to pin it and reference it later. I do try week by week to find that balance of convenience, healthy and affordable and this really helps!

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  7. We do things pretty similarly. Our family of 7 (almost 8) has a weekly budget of $125, which includes diapers, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, soaps, new make-up for me, over-the-counter meds, and specialty items for my sons' food allergies.

    A couple other ways we save money is by 1) having a small garden (not huge savings in the summer but in the winter there will be savings from our canned / frozen items. 2) buying local, farm fresh eggs when possible and 3) buying 1/4 of a cow from a local farmer. After we pay the farmer and the butcher all our beef comes out at an average of $3 / pound - that's ground round, roasts, ribs, steaks, soup bones, and more. It's an amazing deal if you can do it - a big cost up front but worth it over the year.

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  8. You'd probably die if you Saw how much food my 11 and 9 year olds Put away. No way could I ever make a dish with one chicken breast for four people.

    Food is super expensive in my state. 5 dollars for a gallon of non organic milk. 6 or 7 dollars a pound for lean ground beef and I won't buy less than 90% lean. 7 dollars for a two pound block of cheese.

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  9. I love your blog, your tips, and your frugal style. We also have three little ones and I cook almost everything from scratch, including bread and other basics so I can freeze it and pull it out all month long. Having a meal plan is huge and I definitely need to be a bit better. The only thing I can't fathom is your milk. I know we drink a lot (we go through six gallons a week) but three gallons a month?! I make serving milk as a drink at least one meal a day a high priority for healthy bones, especially for my girls. But obviously, to each his own, and I usually don't ever post things like this so please don't take it as criticism, I was just shocked!! Keep up the posts, I use your recipes and book recommendations all the time!!

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  10. I loved this post, and then reading through the comments afterwards as well. Meal planning has definitely saved us so much money as well. We try to stick to under $75 as well, but we now go through 4 gallons of milk a week. Which I realize sounds insane when it's just Derek and I, and then two toddlers. $12 of our grocery budget is gone every week before we even buy our real food haha. What have you been doing for Star and baby food? Do you buy the containers of food or puree your own? We've been just buying it, but that's because $20 in baby food sounds like nothing when you don't have to buy $100+ in formula every month . Also, we're totally team one chicken breast per chicken meal, I thought I was the only one that did that!

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  11. I've recently decided I don't really like cooking (but LOVE baking) and am all about easy, quick supper recipes. I do basically all the same things as you. We eat leftovers until a supper dish is done which usually means 3 nights in a row, or 4 if I'm lucky. Also (almost always) only buying in season produce, shopping at Aldis, a lot of fruit preserving in the summer, and just not buying the junky stuff (like pop, juice, chips, individual size anything). We do $225/month for our family of 3....my 2 year old isn't a big eater though so that helps!

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  12. You mentioned reusable pouches for yogurt and applesauce. What do you use and where did you find them? I get tired of buying individuals of these for school lunches, and I can only fit so many Tupperware type containers in a lunch box. Thanks!

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    1. I have a set of Resqueeze Pouches that I won in a giveaway a couple of years ago and they are GREAT! I was initially skeptical about them sealing from the bottom, but they're better than other ones I've used that you fill from the top, and I've never had a leak. I seriously LOVE them.

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  13. These are great tips. My youngest daughter has a diary allergy that has increased our grocery bill quite a bit, so I am still fighting to figure it all out. We love to buy ground turkey from Sams Club. It is $13 for 5 pounds here in Michigan, and we use it in place of ground beef. I know a lot of people can't stand using it, but I don't notice a difference when I use it to make tacos, spaghetti sauce, or Korean Beef (one of my favorite pinterest recipes!).

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  14. Great tips! I live in New Zealand where food is pretty expensive. I have to work fairly hard to keep our weekly food budget to $250 to feed my husband and I, my 9 year old (ravenous!) son and my 7, 5, and 2 year old daughters! I almost never buy processed food and treats. I often cook a whole chicken and get three meals from it. We eat a lot of soup because it's cheap and healthy. Like you, I try really hard not to throw away food, I am a committed meal planner and I only go once a week to the supermarket. Am envious of the inexpensive grocery trips!

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    1. Hi Kelly I'm a New Zealander so it was cool to see your comment here. We have 5 kids and I can't seem to get mine lower than $300 per week. How do you make a chicken do 3 meals?? Legend

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  15. Excellent tips. For snacks I just pop popcorn on the stove and my girls are perfectly happy with that.

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  16. I love reading how others work to feed their families! We have 8 kids, though one is a musing baby and doesn't count in the food bill. Having 4 kids over 10 means a giant amount of food we go through daily. But I'm really frugal too. We generally have meat only 4 nights a week, and that's counting chicken. I make big salads that everyone has to eat before dinner. We go through a lot of milk (nearly a gallon a day) but I've always been a big milk drinker myself. My kids laugh that at their friends homes the rule is you have to drink a glass of milk before water, but at our house...no milk til you've had water! I don't buy very many premade foods, though I do but graham crackers! We have chickens and a small garden. You have great tips and really, using what you have and meal planning are the top two for me.

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  17. These are great tips, but I can see from a few of the prices you've quoted, your store is MUCH cheaper than mine. I live in the woods, and there is only one local grocery store. The prices are super-high because they know they can. I try SO hard to keep my bill down, and I already meal plan in advance, and I don't buy much processed foods, not counting snack crackers for my toddler. I spend about double what you do, no matter how hard I try. I make my own bread at home, and I make all my own baked goods, too. A gallon of milk, though I do buy organic, is $6.29 a gallon. I wish my bill could be this cheap, but my hands are tied based on where I live.

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    1. Forgot to mention produce. Zucchini for 88 cents a pound? My store has never heard of such a thing. Produce is extremely expensive, and I have to go easy on that too. Even if I want a salad with our dinner, many times I have to skip it.

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  18. I already knew it- but this just reaffirms that WinCo is the best! :) I really miss buying things in bulk.

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  19. How on earth are groceries so cheap there?!?!

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  20. i had no idea target had a butter chicken sauce!! i love the Sharwoods one, but it's a wee bit expensive so I will try that one and see if it's as good. I like to have mine with chickpeas though, so good!

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  21. Frozen basil little cube things from the freezer section in Trader Joe's (or HEB). Changed my basil loving life.

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  22. I'm glad you like The Kitchen Counter Cooking School! I found it to be really inspiring. You are absolutely right about bringing and sticking to a list at the store. I actually really enjoy grocery shopping (weird, I know...) so I can do a lot of damage if I'm not kept on track! One thing that has really helped me with food waste is making a weekly soup night, with soup made from any leftover perishables (as Flynn also describes in her book). I've seen a substantial decrease in my weekly food expenditure since starting this.

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    1. Thank you so much for this tip!! What a great idea... Definitely going to do the soup thing

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  23. I loved this and all the suggestions in the comments. We spend almost twice that a week (though I budget for things like dog food and toiletries in there too since there is no way I'm going to *another* store just to save a few cents on Windex), but mostly because I really like to try recipes with rather fancy ingredients. That said, I especially loved the substitution/do with out points. I have been guilty of running to the store for just a gallon of milk and coming out with $50 worth of groceries and no real meals to show for it.

    One thing we've done to cut back on the cost of meat is to use beans or lentils with our ground beef. There might be a riot here if I subbed the meat out completely, but a mixture of 1/2 ground beef and 1/2 cooked lentils makes a really tasty taco/sloppy joe/shepherd's pie filling.

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  24. Oh! And in regards to the wasting food (which is so depressing to me, especially because of the aforementioned fancy ingredients), we made leftover night a bit of a celebration around here. We pull everything out and watch a movie while we eat leftovers. The food might not be as well-loved as other nights, but at least there is no complaining about it. Also, I buy tomato paste in a tube (when I can find it) to avoid throwing away the can. Has any recipe ever called for a whole can of tomato paste? I have never seen one that does.

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  25. Our grocery bill is comparable to yours, and I do many of the same things that you do. We especially save money by limiting the amount of meat we buy and cooking with lots of beans and lentils. It's not very glamorous, but it's cost effective and healthier. I know as our family grows older I won't be able to get away with using only one or two chicken breasts for our whole crew, but I doubt there will ever be a time where each individual gets his/her own chicken breast (or other meat serving) per meal.

    And I'm with you on the boring babysitting house. Last week when I'd talk on the phone with Ike about whose house he stayed at and what they did there, he ALWAYS brought up what kinds of snacks they had.

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  26. And having a garden! It's work for sure, but I have to buy hardly any veggies in the summer, so it's worth it for me. I think people eat way too much meat and milk (I'm sure someone will be offended). I have friends that tell me they just could not cut out the multiple glasses they drink everyday. And I manage to keep my grocery budget low while still buying a lot of quality, local, organic products. It's definitely not impossible.

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  27. Thanks for this - great tips! I've fallen off the meal planning wagon and desperately need to get back on. I too often make multiple grocery store runs in the same week which I know causes me to overspend and buy way too much food, a lot that goes to waste. Unfortunately though, I don't know if I could ever spend just $75 a week on groceries - our food is just so much more expensive in Canada, and it really depends on where you are in the country (for example, when we lived in BC, produce was dirt cheap, but not so much now that we are in a province over). I like the tip to freeze tomato paste - I try and do this too since I have almost never needed an entire can for one recipe (how annoying!) haha.

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  28. I love meal planning by the month. I try to make extra and freeze or reuse leftovers. I love shopping at Sam's but we usually only get the basics. There is a lot of "fun food" I never buy. But I do make a lot of things from scratch and my kids love that.

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  29. there are also a lot of versions of "family of five" when your teenage boys come home after soccer and lacrosse practice, joined by their sister after tennis practice, one chicken breast won't really work anymore. Expenses will vary with family size and configuration of course. This is a great start, but those spending more shouldn't necessarily feel as if they're not doing it right either.

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  30. These are all fantastic tips! I'm a huge bargain hunter — never like to spend a lot of money, especially on one thing or in one place — and I'm a *huge* advocate for meal planning! We are a family of four (one of whom is 13-months-old), and we average about $150 for two weeks worth of groceries. I can swing this shopping at places like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, too.

    I think another helpful tip is to purchase a deep freezer, if you can at all manage. This way, when things go on sale for a really good price, you can stock up, and save the money on subsequent trips. It's also great for meal prepping when you have a big life event coming up, such as when my youngest was born.

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