1. Grab the smallest cart available: Studies have shown that grocery stores can do one simple thing that will result in you unwittingly spending more money — put out bigger grocery carts. So use this information to your advantage and always select the smallest cart available. And if only one size is offered, then either use the hand held basket (if possible), or make your cart visually “smaller” by filling it up with inexpensive produce first, before hitting the rest of the store.
2. Buy meat when it’s a loss leader: Imagine a world in which all your meat was 50 percent off (or more!) — it’s doable if you shop the loss leaders. Every week in major grocery store chains, there is usually one beef, one chicken and one pork cut on sale for 50 to 75 percent off its normal price. The objective of a loss leader is to get shoppers in the door of a supermarket, and though the store may take a hit on this one item, they know that you will also likely buy the rest of your groceries while you’re in the store (and make up the cost). I like to stock up on a few packages of these loss-leader meat items because meat freezes so beautifully. Then you always have a stock of various meats at the ready for diverse and cost-effective family dinners. (Wine is also sometimes a loss leader.)
3. Do some simple math in the produce aisle: Many produce items are offered both loose and in pre-packaged quantities. Mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, apples and oranges are great examples of items offered both ways. Take 10 seconds to do some quick math to determine the per-pound price of a package before deciding whether to buy loose or packaged. (Tip: Potatoes and carrots are usually cheaper pre-packaged, while mushrooms are cheaper loose, unless the packages are on sale. Apples and oranges usually end up cheaper loose, once I account for any bruised fruit that I might find in a package.)
4. Learn to be a flexible cook: Knowing how to swap ingredients in a recipe is a great budget cook’s strategy, as it gives you freedom to use less-expensive options (or ones that are already in your pantry). Think about the function of an ingredient when considering substitutes. Some examples: Lemon juice is an acid, so try using another acid, such as vinegar or orange juice, in its place. Soft leafy herbs such as cilantro, mint, basil and parsley, are often interchangeable. For deglazing a pan, wine could be swapped out for chicken stock, or water with a bit of wine vinegar or tomato paste, for instance. You can even use jam instead of fresh fruit when the fruit you want is not in season.
5. Don’t overlook savings for “inexpensive” ingredients too: Just because an ingredient is a “budget” item doesn’t mean there aren’t some savings to be had. A prime example is canned beans. Canned beans are a great convenience food. But did you know that for the price of one can of beans, you could make five cans’ worth of beans if you bought them dried and cooked them yourself? (To see how I do this and make my own pouches of beans equal to one can, check out this blog post.)
6. Splurge smart: We all have occasions when we want to treat ourselves. But exactly where you treat yourself can make a big difference in the bottom line. For a special dinner, swapping out a rib eye (bought as a loss leader!) and serving filet mignon instead can mean an additional $15 per pound. Instead, make a “safe splurge” by treating yourself in the produce aisle. For instance, buy a few ounces of expensive wild mushrooms to include in a risotto. The high-end mushrooms will make an impact for an extra dollar or two for the whole meal. Splurging in the produce aisle — perhaps some baby arugula or a beautifully bumpy heirloom tomato — allows you to treat yourself without blowing your budget.
7. Take advantage of the bulk aisle and salad bar: Buying large quantities in the bulk aisle will save money, but it’s only half the story — you can also buy small quantities in the bulk aisle. A handful of hazelnuts from that aisle will set you back only 20 or 30 cents — toast, chop and sprinkle over green beans or in an inexpensive lettuce salad and you have a fancy restaurant-worthy dish. And the salad bar is also a great way to grab a small quantity of a high-impact ingredient (such as high-quality briny olives for a tapenade). Other items to buy in bulk: nuts (keep in freezer), grains, oats and spices.
8. Leverage the supermarket staff: The folks who work at the grocery store are usually more than happy to help an interested and friendly shopper. Ask the person behind the butcher counter for advice on how to cook an unfamiliar cut of meat that is on sale. Or ask if he will break down a large inexpensive pork loin into a variety of cuts: chops, cubes and a few smaller roasts. The person behind the cheese counter is usually very willing to slice a smaller portion of pricey Gruyère so that you buy just what you need. Don’t be shy about asking the staff for guidance on the best buys they have going now (especially at the fish counter).
9. Know the prices of the ingredients you buy most: My philosophy centers on purposeful spending — getting the best price for what you want. When something is a good price, I buy more. If the price is really amazing, I stock up big-time. But in order to do this, you must know the per-unit price of the items your household consumes the most. Do you eat a lot of boneless, skinless chicken breasts? Or drink a lot of milk? Then know how much you consider a deal and what price makes it a steal. Have kids in diapers? Know how much (per diaper) you usually pay so you can compare.
10. Realize that supermarket savings are only part of the budget-savvy story: Ask any restaurateur — half the battle in saving money is in inventory management. Manage your pantry and ingredients wisely and you will save money. Also important: managing your leftovers. Remember that the most-expensive ingredient in your kitchen right now is the one you throw away. It’s important to know the best strategies on how to manage your ingredients once you bring them home, so nothing goes to waste.