It may be hard to stick to your food budget, but there are many ways to be resourceful with what you have without feeling as though you have your head just above water. (Chris Gash/The New York Times)

It may be hard to stick to your food budget, but there are many ways to be resourceful with what you have without feeling as though you have your head just above water. (Chris Gash/The New York Times)

9 Tips to Stretch Your Food Budget

These expert hacks can help you lower your grocery bill.

By Krysten Chambrot / The New York Times

There’s no getting around it: Food is expensive right now. It may be hard to stick to your budget, but there are many ways to be resourceful with what you have without feeling as though you have your head just above water. The tips below, from four budgeting experts, can help you maximize your food budget.

Focus on Cooking

It should go without saying, but cooking at home is almost always cheaper (and healthier!) in the long term than going out to eat or ordering in. To make it even easier on yourself, keep your pantry stocked with essentials to make quick, simple recipes: a fast pizza with store-bought dough, a stir-fry built on frozen vegetables, 15-minute quesadillas. Having a collection of recipes you love to make can curb the urge to call for delivery.

Eat Less Meat

Toni Okamoto, who runs the blog Plant-Based on a Budget, recommends cutting out meat at least one or two times a week. It’s the “one thing that comes up over and over again,” Okamoto said, in the budget cookbooks she has read, both vegetarian and not.

“If you can go meatless a couple of times per week, you can definitely save,” she said. Hearty eggs, legumes and tofu can all serve as sources of protein. And not only are they cheap, they often last longer in the fridge than the average piece of meat, meaning there’s less of a chance that they’ll go to waste when life inevitably gets in the way of dinner.

Avoid Wasting Food

Speaking of, several experts noted that wasting food is basically throwing money in the trash. “It always breaks my heart,” Okamoto said. Reframing it as such may have you thinking twice before you buy more than you need, or simply let something languish. If you’ve never given a lot of thought to curbing your waste, here are a few good places to start:

— Repurpose your odds and ends into something else, like pizza and soups, frittatas and tacos. Beth Moncel, who runs the blog Budget Bytes, calls them “anything meals.” She plays around with putting different ingredients together in a bowl and thinks of it as a fun experiment. Many recipes also have a bit of flexibility when it comes to proteins or vegetables, so feel free to improvise — you may find just your next favorite dish. My colleague Margaux Laskey made a habit of making something she called “kitchen sink pizza,” topping it with whatever was left in the fridge at the end of the week: dal, pot roast, pasta alla vodka. “All manner of leftovers,” she said, adding, “you’d be surprised what tastes great on pizza.”

— Be mindful of what you have. Get in the habit of checking what’s in your fridge, making a mental note of what you tend to throw away most, and either use it up or buy less of it moving forward. And don’t discount frozen produce. It’s picked at its peak, washed and chopped for ease, and doesn’t expire as quickly, meaning it’s fine if you can’t get to it immediately.

— Store your food wisely. Some foods are better held at room temperature, others in the fridge. Knowing which is which and packaging them accordingly can help you keep food out of the trash and save those dollars.

Sign Up for Coupons

Okamoto remembers the feeling of embarrassment she had when grocery shopping with her mother — and her mother’s accordion folder full of coupons.

“Now, you can be really discreet about coupons,” she said. You can clip them on your phone with store apps.

And don’t forget about price matching: Many grocery stores and big-box sellers often let you price match with competitors, or allow for adjustments if items go on sale within a certain window after purchase. To claim one, you often just need proof of purchase and a competitor’s price. So, if you buy something and see it on sale elsewhere, or at the same place later on, don’t be shy. See if the store offers a price match, and ask for one.

Know Your Grocery Store

Get to know your store’s layout, and use it to comparison shop. Stores often place similar ingredients — like beans, rice, spices — in more than one spot, and they may be cheaper in a different section of the store. And just because something is at a prime spot in the supermarket, advertising a sale, doesn’t mean it’s the best price for a certain ingredient. Brands often pay for placement in grocery stores.

“What may be front and center may not be the best deal,” Okamoto said. So keep looking around.

Learn your grocery store’s rhythms: It may have a consistent sale day, or a day when sales overlap. And get to know your grocery store employees. Beyond building community, having a relationship with the people who work at your grocery store may help you get a sense of what sales and deals are coming up.

Snack Less

It may not happen overnight — and that’s OK — but cutting down on snacking, and, in turn, buying fewer snacks, can have a significant impact on your grocery bill.

Moncel, of Budget Bites, says that over the past decade and a half, since she first started budgeting, she’s stopped snacking. It’s a habit she doesn’t even think about anymore.

“I just eat my meals, so that way I’m not grazing all day long and just kind of blowing through my food budget,” she said.

Learn to Love Your Store Brand

Private label food is often much cheaper, and the offerings are only expanding as retailers are trying to meet a growing need. And, depending on personal preference, you may find a favorite among the generic brands — or barely notice the difference.

Look at the Price per Ounce

Found on the price tag, a price per ounce indicator can give you a better sense of whether something is a good deal or not. A smaller container may be cheaper on its face, but it also may contain less. Checking the price per ounce can help you evaluate a real deal.

Lean on Your Community

You may be doing everything right when it comes to budgeting, but it still feels like it’s not making a dent.

“I could share all of the tips, tricks and hacks in the world, but the reality of it is people are still struggling to feed their families,” said Dasha Kennedy, of The Broke Black Girl.

Sometimes community support can help. Food banks, pantries and community gardens and fridges are all options for those who are still struggling to make ends meet. As are government SNAP benefits, which Okamoto factored in when planning her first budget.

“There are some emotional aspects of having to lean on your community for food, but there are resources,” Kennedy said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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