Prices are rising. I’m not sure how much…
Prices are definitely going up and the “official numbers” don’t show it accurately because they don’t measure the things I buy.
Milk stayed about the same at the big store, but chicken food went up first 12%, then about 20% very quickly. I don’t shop often, so I didn’t experience the sticker shock of the new norm for things like mayo and boxes of cereal, or companies shrinking packages to level off cost increases.
What’s the word on the street?
I wrote a book telling teachers to stop spending their paychecks on their jobs. Because of this, I’m still in a few finance and budget forums where I could see the mood on the street. Conversation changed from daily budget tips to panic, with people cutting out necessities and making extreme recommendations like eating spoiled food, going without heat, or even advising each other to sell plasma. It’s been a tough few years for many families.
Reducing waste, stocking a healthy pantry, cooking from scratch, and even growing a little food can take some of the sting out of inflation.
Americans waste about 25% of the food we bring home. The number increases to about forty percent when factoring in restaurants, stores, farms, and fields. I see this first hand because my family works at a farm store. If something’s close to or at “the date” it can’t be sold. Fruit or veggies that don’t look “right” for sale–they’re fed to the pigs, or tossed. It’s a shame. I “rescue” a lot of that food–it’s always good, healthy food. This helps save a ton on groceries, but more importantly, it respects the food and the farms that took the effort to produce it for me. Since I grow food (and it’s hard!) I know it takes months to get a single green pepper ready for my salad. Why would I want to grow that–then throw it away.
Ways to Beat Inflation
You do not have to grow food or hunt down your dinner to beat inflation. You can, but it’s not necessary. Here are some ways to take the sting out of the grocery bill:
Shop less frequently
Nobody ever goes into the store for “Just one thing.” If you do, and you come out with one thing, you’re amazing. If you’re like the rest of the things, your one thing ends up being a cart. Shopping once a month–or less–saves a ton of cash.
Keep a good inventory
Double check it before going to the store. This sounds obvious, but I always end up with double–or forgetting–something if I don’t. It’s how I ended up with double toilet paper during Covid (“Did I buy this or did I mean to buy this? Let me pick one up.”). That was a win but more often it means I get double of something I can’t use and it goes bad.
Shop with a list
The “stuff I need” items goes on a list. I go to the store and get just those things. I leave any family member behind who may make me veer from the list.
Even better–shop online
Shopping online eliminates walking into the store and guarantees I’ve shopped from the list. Sure–they get me with a “Did you forget this?” once in awhile but it’s easier to stay the course when avoiding the store. If I’m planning ahead, I’ll do curbside pickup. Delivery (and tipping) can be less expensive than going to the store when factoring the opportunity cost, but I can eliminate those charges by batching up all the errands and doing them at once–I’ll be out already, might as well pick up the groceries.
Grocery Store Tips: Avoid the Traps
The Sixty Dollar Watermelon
“People are paying sixty dollars for a watermelon.” The farm where my family works has a produce broker who’s a genius. He connects loads of food with places that sell food. It’s all types of food–upscale, seasonal, artisan, and even firesale loads of food that needs to be sold in the next week.
The trick to selling most groceries is appearance and display. A watermelon, in season, can sell for four to six bucks. Cut it up into pieces and put it into clamshells and it fills a twenty clamshells at five dollars each…and you’ve just sold that watermelon for sixty bucks.
My son works under the produce broker. He learned to cut, package, and market all the foods consumers don’t buy unless it’s prepped and convenient. Customers don’t want to cut their own fruit–especially things like onions, celery, melons, and pineapple. The store loves the Wall of Clamshells–sales and profit increase exponentially.
I avoid that section, and you should too. If you’ve been buying pre-prepped produce, commit to chopping, cutting, and storing your produce properly. You’ll save a ton. As a bonus–you’ll save the landfill from all those clamshells, too.
The Prepared Dinner Section
It’s the same concept as the pre-cut produce. It’s convenient, delicious, and takes the work out of your meal planning. But, it’s expensive and you don’t always know the ingredients in the food. Stores know you’ll pick up the prepped foods. They’ll have some rotisserie chicken spinning in the background so the whole department smells like family dinner.
Avoid this trap. Be inspired by the dinners–definitely take a look and say, “Oh, I haven’t made lasagne in a while.” Then, go home and make it from scratch.
Organic isn’t always the best choice
Organic food certifications are expensive and many farmers can’t afford them. Just because something’s not organic doesn’t mean it wasn’t grown with best practice in mind. Do the research.
Fight me on this one–I’ve done the math. I know a lot of extreme couponners. I used to be one. Back when I was a broke teacher, I went a little bit insane trying to save cash with coupons. I did not save money. I ended up with a bodega-sized stockpile of five and ten cent things–most of which I never used. And, it took me a ton of time preparing coupons and driving around town to do this.
I eat clean and am specific about personal products I use. There’s no coupon for lettuce or green peppers. Coupons were for prepped foods, junk cereals, and hygiene products I didn’t use. I donated most of my finds to the family shelter in town. That’s a great thing to do but if the objective is saving cash, I would’ve done better shopping with a list and buying only what I needed–even at full price.
The opportunity cost of couponning is enormous. There was the time I spent sorting, memorizing, and filtering through coupons, the gas and time shopping at fifty stores instead of one, and the fact I’d often do a couple laps a week–this wasn’t saving money, this was a part-time job that paid out in products I didn’t want or use.
I know people who coupon then sell what they get on Facebook marketplace. I’m sure they make money–but again, when considering the time meeting people, the emails and contact outreach–it doesn’t make sense to me. I stopped over a decade ago–the savings is real.
Skip Boxed Foods (and subscriptions)
You will almost always do better cooking from scratch. We are a convenience food nation. Meal delivery services say, “Only $6.00 a serving.” It’s deceiving.
I looked at a smoothie companies that batches, freezes, and sends smoothies as a subscription–fourteen frozen smoothies for $111. I can make a smoothie for a pennies. If I’m feeling freezer-to-blender lazy, I take a half hour and chop all the fruits and kale I use, toss it into freezer (or foodsaver) bags and take one out when I want one.
The markup on pre-cut, convenience foods, and delivery is huge. I’m talking to you, oat bowl at Starbucks. I use my rice cooker to make a week’s worth of highest quality steel-cut oats with fresh and dried fruits, nuts, hemp and chia seeds–whatever. I put it in jars for the week. Total cost: pennies a serving.
Scratch cooking price comparisons
Here are a few price comparisons:
- Watermelon: In season, I can get one for five bucks. The produce consultant says one watermelon, cut and packaged in all the clamshells at $5-$7 each can bring as much as $64.
- One mango: I get them on sale for $.99. Not on sale–$1.50 to $2. Cut mango in a clamshell: $5-6.
- Onions: $.99/pound to $1.50/pound. Pre-cut in a clamshell: $4.
- Two chicken breasts: $5-7 Buy it from the pre-prepped section on a skewer with a little marinade: $15.
- Bread: $4. A entire bag of King Arthur Bread Flour–what I use for my daily loaf of bread: $5. It makes five loaves of bread.
- An omelet at my local diner: $9. A 3-egg omelet at home: less than a dollar.
Those are extreme examples, but the closer you get to scratch cooking, the more you will save, and the better your food will be.
“But I don’t have the time!” I hear this all the time. Yes, it takes a little time to prep, cook, and source my own food, but not nearly as much as you’d think. By shopping less, prepping in batches, and coming up with a routine (for example: measuring and mixing the daily bread at night, tossing in the oven in the AM for a total of 5 minutes of my time), it’s really not cutting into my life.
I have a short list of places where I get my ingredients. I grow some, go to farms for a lot, order some, and hit a few global grocery stores for the rest.
- I have a Latin store, Indian store, Asian market, a Polish store for Eastern European ingredients and a Middle Eastern store. These are all cuisines I cook regularly. My pro tip: Shop for ingredients at the store where the culture uses them most. They’re most affordable and usually highest quality that way. Spices and ingredients native to a certain cuisine will be best and least expensive at that culture’s store.
- Shop or order in bulk. Some things make sense to do this. Others don’t after I account for shipping or local sales.
- Get dry bulk or shelf-stable items on sale, and buy enough to last until the next sale. Then learn to cook from scratch. Sometimes it’s a painful learning curve, but it works out better in the end.
- Have a short list of stores that are best for certain things–order delivery from them or stop in while in the neighborhood, and stock up as appropriate.
A famous financial person I’ve listened to said, “Nobody ever went broke buying a latte.” I agree, and I’m not too cheap to buy coffee at a good coffee shop, but for the most part I am my own barista. I can make almost any common beverage–better, I think–and have an unlimited supply.
Be your own barista
I’ve deconstructed and learned to make all the drinks I love: tea, coffee, french press, pour over, milk drinks with froth, espresso drinks, regular coffee drinks, boba (bubble tea), fruit-infused iced teas, kombucha… things with snooty Italian names. Originally, I did this because I don’t live next to a coffee house, but the end result is unlimited barista-caliber caffeine at a great savings.
I get the best quality ingredients. I have a few pieces of equipment–a French press, a frother, a Vitamix and a lever-pull espresso machine. I’m unstoppable. You can be, too.
Be your own bartender
Same thing for alcoholic drinks. I don’t really drink, but I keep a stocked bar of high-quailty mixers, alcohols, and wines. I can mix a proper drink. If you’re inflation busting, learn some mixology. A top-shelf drink at home with friends costs more than you’d tip your bartender.
Food Preservation and Storage
I do a lot of canning–not just from my garden. I often rescue unwanted food and “B-grades” (misshapen and non-commercial grade produce), from local farms and stores. After years of doing this, I can taste the tin in grocery store food cans. I don’t like it and I don’t want that in my diet.
Things I keep on hand: canned tomatoes, pizza sauce, soups, broths, chili, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, some “dinner sauce mixes” like curries and meats that can go into casseroles. I also have canned meats like chicken, ground beef, and meatballs.
Many hunters and fishermen I know can what they catch like venison and tuna.
Canning seems hard and time consuming, but it’s not. I can set up quickly, get things going, then while the food is processing, do something else.
This is important: If you’re new to canning, learn it properly. Stay away from forums and people telling you how their grandmother preserved food. Follow the USDA guidelines, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation, and buy yourself a copy of “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.” This is also called “The Blue Book” because one of the original editions was blue. Get the latest edition–food science is always evolving.
Avoid people that tell you, “This is safe, my grandmother did it this way for her whole life.” That grandma was lucky. Food science has advanced a lot–listen to it.
I was speaking with a senior citizen who told me to can meat by boiling it in a water bath canner (a big open pot) for three days (“Eight hours on the first day, Six on the second, and three on the third.”) If you’re lucky, you’ll just get food poisoning, but this can kill you. It will be a painful death, too. Meat or “low acid” food needs a pressure canner, which is a very specific piece of equipment.
Double up batches when you cook, and freeze them in meal-sized portions. I use my Food Saver sealer for this. Normally I avoid using a lot of plastics, but in this case, it keeps food from being freezer burned, so I can bulk freeze meals or freeze a year’s worth of blueberries after picking in July.
I dehydrate fruits and veggies. They’re good to snack on or toss in oatmeal. Lots of people get rid of dehydrators, so you can find one reconditioned on Amazon or even cheap or free in your local Buy Nothing group or Facebook Marketplace. Excelsior dehydrators are top of the line. Nesco deydrators are good, too.
Stock the Pantry
Keep all the scratch ingredients, cleaners, and paper products you need to run your house. Buy them at the store where they’re least expensive. The Big Box store isn’t always that place.
I save a ton using cloth napkins and cleaning rags instead of paper products. I get toilet paper and kleenexes at the big box store, whatever brand’s on sale. I keep an emergency “dog roll” of paper towels, too.
I said I don’t coupon, but there’s one exception–my big box/bulk store. It always has coupons for laundry soap, dish soap, and other cleaning products. They’re all on the app. I pay attention during my inventory so I can buy them when they’re a little less expensive, and I usually have extras on hand so I’m not waiting to the last minute. This also helped during Covid when many disinfectants weren’t available. I didn’t need them.
Chewy, Petco, and Amazon all have exceptional pet product delivery, but they have different price structures. Petco has a rewards system and overnight or DoorDash delivery if you’re about to run out.
Each has “subscribe and save” discounts. Petco also has a discount for buying online and picking up in the store. If you’ve got a store nearby and you’re running errands, you can save.
TL;DR–The Bottom Line
You can beat inflation. Cut your own onion, cook from scratch (even just a little!). Pay attention to your inventory. Shop less, and order online when it makes sense to do so. All of this saves you money, time, and gives you higher quality food.
Try these “from scratch” recipes
They’ll keep costs down, but, they’re also delicious.
Make yogurt at home. If you’ve got a low-cost source of milk, this is for you. Save some cultures for the next batch and it’ll stay alive forever.
Pesto and alfredo sauces. Sauces are a major place to save some cash. If you can deconstruct your favorites, you’ll skip the gourmet sauce aisle–basically two to ten bucks a bottle.
Tomato soup. You can go to Panera. Or you can have eight bowls of this for under two bucks if you’ve done your tomato freezing and canning. Even if you haven’t, you can get a case of your regional favorite 28 oz cans around the holidays on sale and stock up. Here, the big Pastene (local favorite) sale on these is pre-Thanksgiving and before Easter and Passover.
Here’s my article on eggs. If you’ve got chickens, you win. If not, eggs can be pricy, but compared to the cost of other meats and ingredients, they are healthy and delicious.
Bread pudding. Bread pudding is day-old stale bread turned into something fantastic. Fruit, brown sugar, caramel, jam, maple, or honey, chocolate, cinnamon, whipped cream–all work well here.
Daily Bread. Homemade bread is easy. I make the dough at night and bake it in the morning. Once you figure out the size of the loaf you’ll use in a day or two, you can tweak the ratios and avoid waste.
Stir-fried rice. This is my old recipe for stir-fried rice. I’ve been studying Chinese cuisine and cooking technique, so it’s about to get an update. Meanwhile: read Woks of Life and Omnivore Cookbook and learn from them.
Breakfast any time of day: Make pancakes or waffles in stacks and freeze the extras. If you skip the sugar, they double as panini, or fold it over for a grab-and-go wrap. Crépes (or “blini”) store well, but only if filled, rolled, and frozen. Then, they’re a pre-made meal.
Split Pea Burgers. This is a crowd favorite. It’s not a quick/easy recipe, so I double it, make a bunch, then freeze them flat. This is based on Alton Brown’s recipe but I took out the peppers, and add my own spices. You can, too. Follow the same technique for other flavor profiles or legumes. Here’s a black bean burger recipe Swap out beans, veggies, cheeses, and spices to mix these up.
Toffee. This is a fantastic candy. It’s best made on a low-humidity day. It costs pennies to make and isn’t that hard. You need some melting chocolate (chocolate chips), sugar, and water. That’s it.