Just because you lack a serious dining budget, doesn’t mean that you have to eat like you barely have two pennies to rub together. Sure we’d all like to be able to eat out at the latest exotic restaurant any -or even every- night of the week, but that’s not really an option for all of us. Even if it isn’t a monetary thing, you may not have the access to restaurants that serve some of the foods that you’ve been craving. Regardless of the reasoning, I’m here to tell you how you can make the pricing more palatable to your budget.
GET TO KNOW YOUR LOCAL FARMERS’ MARKET(S)
It surprises me that there is a myth circulating that produce and other goods at the farmers’ markets are so expensive. Honestly, in all the different places I’ve lived around the country, I have yet to find one that is priced far above and beyond that of the local grocer. Sometimes the prices are comparable, but more often than not they are less expensive at the farmers’ markets. For me, spotting heirloom tomatoes at the local farmers market is such a thrill! Not just because the prices are lower, but because these fruits have just been plucked from the vine. If that alone doesn’t impress you then think about this: if you buy seasonal veggies in bulk then you can freeze or possibly even can them for use in the off season. This will save you from buying imported veggies during the winter months.
FIND THE ETHNIC MARKETS IN YOUR AREA
Granted, there aren’t any ethnic markets in my area… but I still have a secret: when Nigel and I drive down to Holland, MI we are always sure to stop at the Vietnamese grocer, Huynh Plaza. We can buy all the ingredients that we need for Thai and Vietnamese dishes (plus Chinese, Korean, etc.) while we are there. More amazingly, it’s at a fraction of the cost of the ingredients that we can find locally. We often purchase canned coconut milk for 69 cents or cans of single-use pre-mixed curry powders for 59-89 cents each. This is a great savings when you consider that the “cheap” (and lesser quality) coconut milk at the big box stores ranges from $1.29-2.99 per can and that the jars of curry powder (only red or green and not as flavorful) are at least $2.50 and then have to hang around in the fridge for awhile. Not to mention that we also have the option of picking out new ingredients that we haven’t used or maybe even seen before and don’t have to feel so guilty for experimenting because the price is so much less.
KNOW WHEN TO GO GENERIC
I have to admit there have been several times that I’ve been pleasantly surprised when using a no-name ingredient. As you might imagine, there have also been plenty of other times when you couldn’t have paid me to try it twice. Experimenting is good. It might just save you some dough like it has me. Of course you may not be able to find a generic version of Red Leicester cheese, but you can certainly find Extra Sharp Cheddar in the Great Value Brand at Walmart. Yes, I know it was near sacrilege that I just typed that, but it’s true. The Walmart generic does taste better than either Kraft or Sargento. Who knew? I tried it in desperation once and I haven’t looked back.
It’s also not a bad idea to ask yourself why you use a particularly high-priced ingredient. Believe it or not, there was a time when we used to buy some rather expensive extra virgin olive oil (or EVOO as Rachel Ray prefers to call it). After years of throwing money at the first pressing, we thought about what we actually did with it. Often it was simply used as an ingredient or as an addition to the pasta water to keep it from boiling over. Now we purchase plain old olive oil (yes, even generic) in a small bottle to have on hand when we need it.
CHECK OUT THE DISCOUNT/SCRATCH & DENT STORES
I know this may sound a bit odd, but don’t be afraid to check out the foods at Big Lots!, TJ Maxx, or your local scratch and dent food store. I like to head over to a Big Lots! because they tend to get foods in from all over the country and international items that I might not be able to buy from the other stores nearby me. You can find some nice imported oils, pastas, chocolates, etc. in these types of stores. Just keep an eye out for the expiration dates (if that’s a concern for you).
I’m also lucky to have two scratch and dent food stores within a 25-45 minute drive from where I live. I don’t shop at either store regularly, but when I do: look out! Not every item is dented, nor are most out of date. It’s ridiculous the amount of money you can save at these stores if you look (usually 50-70% below retail). Another amazing benefit that you might find if you look: one of our local scratch & dents also sells bulk spices! They come in several sizes prepackaged by the store owners at a fraction of the price that I find them at other grocers in the area. I just save my spice containers, clean them, and reuse them. This also saves me from having to recycle or toss out packaging. That’s a big bonus for mother earth too!
MAKE YOUR PROTEINS MORE COST EFFECTIVE
One of the biggest expenses at the store is meat. If you can’t afford to go-in with a friend on a quarter of a cow or half of a pig, watch for those great sales! There’s no shame in purchasing family sized packs to get the sale price and then package them up for the freezer once you get home.
Feel free to shop around too. You shouldn’t feel the need to remain faithful to a single store. Keep in mind that there are plenty of sale papers available for perusal online. If you prefer the physical hunt, you can still find several that come through snail mail or others that can even be found in the weekend paper. If you’re really good, you will even manage to “double dip” by hitting a sale and using store or manufacture’s coupons as well. Heck, if you can “triple dip” and use all three – more power to you! Also, don’t be afraid to look at the smaller stores in your area. I recently noticed that a small grocer called Best Choice Market (which carries many upscale and specialty foods) has the best price in the area on ground beef (sometimes up to a $1.00/lb. cheaper).
Keep in mind that protein doesn’t always mean meat. Don’t be afraid to add tofu (be sure not to use silken unless you’re making a dessert) to your meal. It’s more cost effective than other proteins and can really soak up the flavor. Another good idea is to use your protein as an ingredient in a larger dish. In our house, rather than serve everyone (Nigel, my mother, and me) our own breast halves, we can slice up a single breast half and make a stir-fry or a pasta dish that will feed the three of us. You may remember that back-in-the-day they used to call this stretching.
SEARCH OUT A REAL DEAL
If you’re looking for beautiful baked goods and don’t have the time or the talent to make your own, you can often get some excellent deals at the end of the work day. Many bakeries will discount their goods or outright give them away. If you’re really adventurous, you could save even more money by going to a local farm and partaking in the U-Pick programs that so many offer when seasonal fruits and vegetables are available. In addition, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) and Local Food Cooperatives (Co-ops) may wave fees or reduce the prices that you pay for volunteering to help out at the store or farm. Of course you can also take part in a community garden, but if that’s not available or would be too much of a time commitment, find out where there are public fruit trees in your area ripe for the picking! Free is definitely the best four letter word out there.
So there you have it! Just a few ideas to make a positive impact on your pocketbook and still enjoy fantastic foods at home. If you have additional ideas or would like to share an experience that has worked for you, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.