Frugal, healthy, (gluten-free — or not) groceries

A sweet friend of mine recently asked for frugal meal ideas.  Maybe she was asking for recipes, which I will list in a post later this week.  But to start out, I thought I’d post some general ideas — guidelines I use — to make it happen.  Feel free to add your own suggestions as a comment!

  • Nothing from a mix, nothing from a box.  With rare exception — like boxed breakfast cereal — I simply don’t buy anything boxed or pre-mixed or frozen-prepared.  Not only is this virtually always more expensive, but ready-made foods are almost always going to contain ingredients that aren’t healthy.
  • Stick to a budget. Don’t make excuses for yourself about why you’re not, or why you can’t.  YOU CAN.  Find a way!  Make it a game, a challenge.  First, if you don’t know how much you’re spending, figure that out by keeping track of receipts for a month.  Then, decrease that by 10% for a weekly or monthly budget and stick with it.  When you can easily shop at that decreased budget, decrease it by another 10%.  And so on.
  • This is rather an extension of the first tip, but start with whole food, single ingredients.  As a gluten-free (and nearly dairy-free) family, I find that the hardest thing to make is often the carb in the meal.  So, I figure that out first:  Corn, rice, potatoes, or beans, or a combination of those items.
    • Corn might be cornbread, corn tortillas (either ready-made, or homemade from masa flour), or simply prepared-from-frozen (organic!  From Costco!) kernels.
    • Rice may be rice noodles (from the Asian market — about $1 per 10-16 oz package), plain basmati rice (Royal King Sella is our fave — bought in 10 lb bags, $11.99 at the Asian market), basmati rice mix (with bits of dried veggies from Trader Joe’s – about $2 for a 1 lb bag, which for us, is enough for about 1½ meals)
    • Since I avoid russets, my favorite thing to do is chunk up red and yellow potatoes, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt and herbs (usually dried parsley and/or thyme, or fresh rosemary), seal in a heavy-duty aluminum foil packet, and place it on the grill.  Alternately, put it in a covered casserole dish in the oven.
    • Beans:  Refried beans, or beans from canned — check your ingredients to make sure you don’t have any junk in your canned beans.  Calcium chloride is OK, though not ideal.  Anything other than salt is not.  I often will sautee onion and garlic to add to canned beans, or get even fancier, adding various veggies, corn, and tomatoes.  Or, start with bulk, dried beans.  I need to do more of this, actually!!  In my pantry, I have probably 15 pounds of dried pintos, lentils, black beans, etc., but I often don’t plan ahead far-enough in advance to allow for that.
    • If I deviate from my list, it is ONLY for something that is at a fabulous price.  Even if it’s for a snack or treat, like chocolate bars, I’ll buy a 3-pack at Trader Joe’s for $1.79.  Or, recently, I found an organic chocolate bar for $0.50, on clearance.  Yum!  AND, I’ll only buy “extras” if they don’t make me go over-budget, even if it is a great price!
  • Know what a good price is for a grocery item, and don’t go over it.  Then, when that item goes on sale, buy in bulk.  Now, since I have limited pantry and freezer space, my “bulk” is typically not more than enough for a few weeks.  But, usually, when that “few weeks” is up, something else has gone on sale to replace it.
    • Meat:  I typically will not pay more than $2/lb for beef or boneless, skinless chicken breast.  I don’t pay more than $0.79/lb for other chicken.  I don’t pay more than $1.50/lb for pork.  Not more than $2/lb for any fish, and not more than $1.50/lb for turkey.  Accordingly, we never eat steaks.  Well, maybe once or twice a year.  I have to find more creative uses for more inexpensive cuts of meat, but I do!  I miss my rib eye, but it’s worth it.  Now, from what I understand, the Phoenix area — for some reason — is one of the least expensive places in the United States for groceries, so you may have to adjust yours up a bit.  But, still, be VERY choosy.  There are some weeks where I don’t buy any meat AT ALL, because it’s all too expensive, and we just live off of whatever I have in the freezer.
    • I don’t pay more than $2 for a box of “normal” cereal, and not more then $2.50 for gluten-free cereal.  This is accomplished through shopping the sales, using coupons, and buying in bulk.  For instance, this last shopping trip, I bought two “family size” boxes of Honey Bunches of Oats for $0.88 each.  I bought two big boxes of Rice Chex and Corn Chex for $1.50 each.  And, I bought a box of Gorilla Munch and a box of Koala Crisp for $2 each.
    • Do similarly for vegetables and fruit:  know what a good price is for canned, frozen, and fresh veggies and fruit.  We don’t eat a lot of canned veggies, but I do keep some on hand, and typically don’t pay more than $0.75 per can.  This winter, when so much of our nation’s fresh veggies were decimated by freakishly cold weather, we ate a lot of frozen peas, because those remained at a good price when fresh broccoli and zucchini shot up to $3+ per pound.  Much of this has to do with buying in season.  Don’t buy peaches in the winter when they are $3 a pound, even if they look good!  Wait until summertime!
  • Use coupons.  Our local paper, the Arizona Republic, has a delivery special where we ONLY receive the Wednesday and Sunday papers.  Wednesday contains the weekly food ads, and Sunday’s paper includes manufacturer’s coupons.  As a very particular family, there is a GREAT deal that we simply cannot or won’t eat.  But, when I’m cutting coupons, I ask myself, “Would I buy this item if it was on sale AND I had this coupon?”  If the answer is yes, I clip and file it.  Using this method, even with special diets, I typically save $8-20/week in coupons.  While that wouldn’t qualify for “extreme couponing”, it makes it worthwhile to spend $2.25/week on our newspaper subscription and the 30 minutes or so, weekly, that I spend on coupons.  I have a small expandable file, to which I weekly add the new coupons.  I also go through it thoroughly, once a month, discarding expired coupons and reacquainting myself with what coupons I have.
  • Use a list and stick to it.  I keep a running list which I update daily, as needed.  I just use a sheet of printer paper, folded over, which I keep on my countertop.  It is broken down by the store from which the needed items come:  General grocery, Sprouts (natural foods & produce market), Lee Lee (Asian market), Trader Joe’s, Costco, Target, and misc other stores (like Ross or the dollar store).
  • Then, when I make my weekly shopping list, I use the food ads.
    • First, I peruse an ad to find out what’s on sale (a true, good sale), and add that to my shopping list for that store (I also break down my shopping list, per store, to sections — general grocery, produce, meat, deli, dairy, natural foods, etc.).  During that time, I also match coupons according to what’s on sale.
    • After I have determined what is on sale at what store, I then look at my list of items I need, and see if I have coupons for them.  If not, I place that item on my shopping list for whichever store has the best price for that item.  OR, I delay its purchase for a week or two and just do without.
  • Plan your weekly menu based upon what is on sale!! Meal planning is a fabulous time-saver.  However, if you plan your menu not knowing what’s on sale, you’ll end up spending $5 per pound for that beef roast, thereby saving time, but spending a good $15+ more than you needed to.  Therefore, I decide what I will make that week after I see what is on sale.  I plan my menus a little more loosely:  “OK.  Chicken thighs are $0.49/lb.  We’ll have baked chicken thighs to go with the broccoli that’s on sale…  Pork shoulder is $0.99/lb.  We’ll have green chile pork in the Crockpot on Friday;  it can cook while we’re on errands and the library.  I can get ground pork for $1.29 and ground beef for $1.59/lb at Lee Lee;  we’ll have meat loaf, too.  That’s all the meat on sale… so I’ll take a package of boneless, skinless chicken breast from the freezer and make stir-fry on Monday…  I’ll need to pick up a few snow pea pods from Lee Lee, too.”  And so on.  That’s my “menu planning.”  Part of that is from cooking for my family for 16+ years;  I know what I can make, and cook almost exclusively from scratch.  When I use a recipe, it’s because I’m feeling a need for creativity, or I’ve found rutabagas on sale, and I need a rutabaga recipe.  🙂  I will seriously use recipes only about once every three weeks.  But, that’s not necessarily a budget-saver;  it’s because I have rough recipes already in my head, which I use to match what’s on sale with what I know I can make.
  • This is more of a time-saver than budget-saver, but for each dinner, pick ONE time-consuming item to make, and make everything else easy.  For instance, my family loves corn bread.  But, that takes a while to mix up and bake.  So, if I make corn bread, you can bet we’ll be having grilled chicken (easy!  Sprinkle with Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute and a little sea salt, grill until done), steamed veggies (plain), and canned (all-natural) chili beans.  And so on.
  • Make your own.  I make my own gluten-free baking mix.  I make my own trail mix.  I make my own gluten-free bread when I have time (which isn’t often, lately, so we just go without).  I bought a package of Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Quick Oats and have plans to make my own g.f. instant oatmeal packs, though I haven’t done it yet, using dried cranberries, cinnamon, brown sugar, and stevia.  When I make veggie dip, I make my own:  Plain sour cream or plain yogurt with sea salt, white pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and herbs like thyme, dill, and parsley.  CHEAP.  EASY.  HEALTHY.  TASTY.  Don’t buy $2+/pack of “dip mix.”
  • Use portion control or go without.
    • We do eat a few chips:  I often buy ONE large bag of tortilla chips and ONE bag of Kettle Chips from Costco.  I enforce portion control during lunch time, and almost never use chips as a snack.  I never let anyone (except my husband, who loves chips & salsa) just sit down with an open bag of chips.
    • I almost never buy “fruit snacks” or even fruit leather any more.  Fruit snacks are nothing more than corn syrup and food color (yuck — we haven’t eaten those for years!).  Healthy dried fruit snacks, even when bought in bulk, are at least 25-50¢ per serving.  A handful of raisins or even dried cranberries — even at $2.50/lb — are a LOT more cost-effective.
    • Virtually all gluten-free crackers are ridiculously expensive so I just never buy them.  I do, though, buy rice cakes (plain — Lundberg Farms is my fave brand) and Corn Thins.
    • Snacks are really the death-knell of a grocery budget.  Don’t buy ready-packaged snacks. JUST DON’T DO IT!!  EVER!!!  Make cookies from scratch and freeze half of them, or just have cookies once a week.  Let your kids make a jam sandwich for a snack.  Voila!  Cheap and easy.  (For my g.f. kids, it’s often a rice cake with jam or Trader Joe’s brand sunflower seed butter.)  Or, give them a piece of fruit.  We eat POUNDS AND POUNDS of fruit.  And carrots.  And other veggies.  It may seem expensive to buy loads of fresh produce, but it’s healthy, and it really is so much cheaper than packaged snacks.  Bananas:  15-20¢ each.  My local farmer’s market/natural foods store, Sprouts, will have oranges for 19¢ a pound 5-6 times a year.  Those weeks, I will literally buy 20 pounds of oranges (for four bucks!) — sometimes more! —  and each kid may have as many oranges as they like that week.  🙂  “Want a snack?  Have an orange.”  That’s about 5-7¢ per snack.
  • Keep a well-organized, regularly cleaned-out pantry and fridge, both so you know what you have on hand, and so nothing goes to waste.
  • And… so that you’re not spending all your time in the kitchen:  MAKE YOUR KIDS DO CHORES.  I am in a continual search of how to divest myself of chores.  I used to plan my meals around what was going to dirty the fewest pans.  Now that my 13yo nightly does the evening dishes, I find that I’m more ready to dirty and extra mixing bowl or saucepan, which many times, when cooking from scratch, you need to do!!!
  • If you eat organic (which we try to), find the most cost-effective way to do so.  For instance, at Sprouts, you can purchase a 5-lb bag of carrots for $3.99.  I run through five pounds of carrots in 2-3 weeks, sometimes faster.  Put a kid to work peeling carrots, cut them into sticks, and put them in a container, covered with water.  They will keep, cut, for a week.  Voila!  A handful of organic carrot sticks for about 20¢ per serving — and a quarter pound of carrots is a LOT of carrots for a snack.
  • Of course, if you live in a temperate climate, keep a kitchen garden!  At the VERY least, keep fresh herbs growing.
  • Preserve food:  Learn to can!  (It’s not that hard.)  We always take homemade beef jerky on vacation (made in a borrowed dehydrator).  And, of course, freeze meat that you’ve found on sale.  (One note:  If you live in the desert, like we do, chest freezers — usually kept in the garage — such HUGE, HUGE, HUGE amounts of energy.  So, figure out what you’re spending on energy and don’t pat yourself on the back too hard if you save a few bucks on the food, then you go spend it, several times over, on energy costs.)
  • (Edited to add:) Think yearly. In other words, ask yourself, “How much do I spend on this each year?”  You may be horrified to find out how much one little convenience is costing you, each year.  This isn’t actually groceries, but the first time my husband and I did a real budget, which was before we had kids, we were horrified to find that we were spending more than $2,000, annually, stopping for coffee and pastries each morning.  This leads to the next point:
  • (Edited to add:) If perfection is not possible, settle for improvement, as a step toward your goal.  My husband is a coffee snob, and though we agreed that we couldn’t continue with our $7-8 morning trips to Hava Java, but neither could we make the downward leap to morning MJB, either.  So, we compromised by buying high-quality beans and real half & half, to prepare at home.  About 15 years later, I’m still in a continual search for inexpensive-yet-high-quality coffee beans (I don’t spend more than $6/lb for them!).  With the amount of coffee we drink, we still spend about $550 each year on coffee and cream.  This still seems like a huge amount of money to spend on coffee, which is really a non-essential.  However, this is at least an improvement.  Or perhaps you feel like you simply must have a steak.  Well, then, make sure you’re buying that New York strip on sale for $4-5 a pound.  If you must have it fresh, keep it down to one expensive home-cooked meal per week (or even one a month) and do that in lieu of eating out.  Or, stock up when your favorite cut of beef is on sale, and put it in the freezer.  Or, make yourself a trade-off:  “We currently eat out two meals a week.  It’s important for me to have healthy, convenient snacks for my kids which cost an arm and a leg.  So, instead of eating out twice per week, we’ll eat out once, and use that $30 to add to the grocery budget specifically for snacks.”  And so on.  Just always be aiming for improvement.

I’m sure many of you have additional tips.  Please leave them below!!


About Karen Joy

I'm a partially-homeschooling mother of six -- 3 boys ages 19, 17 and 15 years old, and three girls: 11, 8, and 3. I like birding, reading, writing, organic gardening, singing, playing guitar, hiking, the outdoors, and books. I very casually lead a very large group of homeschooling families in the Phoenix area. I have a dear hubby who designs homes for a local home builder and who is the worship pastor of our church. I live in the desert, which I used to hate, but now appreciate.

Posted on March 28, 2011, in Budget, Cooking/Baking/Food/Recipes, Get Organized!, Shopping. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Oooh, these are great tips as we start our new gluten-free regime. I’m bookmarking this to come back to once I finish clearing out our pantry and donating all our wheat to the food bank. Thank you!

  2. I no longer buy canned beans since I learned the EASIEST trick in the world for cooking them- use your crockpot! you don’t even have to pre-soak the beans. Just rinse, pick out any stones and broken pieces, put them into the crockpot and add enough water to be about 2 inches above the beans. In 6-8 hours on low, your beans are fully cooked. Once cooked, I package them for the freezer and they are ready to go. What a cost savings!

  3. Thanks so much, Karen, for making me feel like the worlds worst shopper! 😉 I knew I was a bad shopper but after reading this I feel like I am throwing money out the car window on the way to the store. I don’t do ANY of those things. Ron is forever asking me if there is any way to trim the grocery bills. I of course answer “no” because I had no clue about any of this. Yes, lots and lots of room for improvement here. I can’t believe how little you pay for meat. I NEVER would haved guessed that could be done. So now I know I will make you shudder when I tell you I just bought a huge 20.7 cubic foot upright (even worse on energy)freezer (and keep it in the garage) and have ordered a 1/4 of a beef and a whole pig to fill it with. The meat alone (all grass fed/pastured, organic) will be about $1200 but we should be set for a long time. Now I better find ways to be better about the rest of it. Thanks for all of the really great tips. And I love the idea above about the beans. I like to do my beans from dried but like you said, it is sometimes hard to plan that far ahead.

    • I remember about the freezer! Remember me asking if you were keeping it in the garage? 😀 I can bet, though, that buying a side of grassfed beef is a lot cheaper than buying it from Sprouts, where it’s $8/lb or so.

      Yeah, obviously, I don’t buy organic meat. However, I buy almost all of it from Sprouts, which at least is no-additive meat.

      I really believe that if you (meaning you-anyone) just keeps track of what you spend, then give yourself a challenge to lessen the expense by 10%, you can do it!!

  4. Chunked up potatoes are also really, really, really good if you roast them in the oven completely uncovered. Just make sure your pieces are biggish (bigger than an inch square), toss in olive oil with herbs and/or spices of your choice, and cook in a shallow dish (and make sure the potatoes aren’t piled too deeply in the dish) until the outsides are kind of crispy and the insides are really nice and soft. It takes quite a while if you bake at 350 (probably about an hour or so), but they turn out really well.

  5. Nice post, really informative.

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