Food is expensive. In February 2015, Americans spent $58.9 billion on food eaten at home and almost the same amount ($57.5 billion) on food consumed away from home, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For that second category, which includes food eaten at restaurants and coffee shops, that's a 10 percent increase over last year, likely as a result of the improved economy.
Just because food is expensive doesn't mean you can't take steps to keep the cost under control. Even relatively small steps, like planning out your meals for the week to avoid last-minute takeout orders, can go a long way toward reducing your food expenditures. Here are a dozen more ideas to cut your food spending:
1. Buy in bulk.
You can often get a better deal if you buy more than one item at once at the grocery store, and this is especially true if you shop at warehouse membership stores like Sam's Club and Costco. While you pay a membership fee, you can score deep discounts when you stock up on pasta sauce or cereal. The same strategy can be applied to online purchases with retailers like Amazon, which sell grocery items. If you know your family goes through three boxes of granola bars a month, for example, you can opt for the "Subscribe & Save" Amazon option to reduce your costs.
2. Compare prices.
Taking the time to make apples-to-apples comparisons by looking at the price per unit can help prevent unpleasant surprises at the checkout counter. Fancy packaging and design can make it hard to tell how much of an item you're getting, so take a look at the small print or tag on the store shelf to see exactly what you're paying for. You might decide to opt for the cheaper off-brand item if the price is much lower.
3. Organize your recipes.
If there are a few dishes your family regularly enjoys, then keep them organized in a recipe book or binder, so you can more easily plan out meals for the week and make your shopping list. As an added bonus, writing down your recipes and keeping them organized makes it easy for children to take on cooking responsibilities as they get older. Planning out meals like this also makes it easier to use substitutions and repurpose ingredients for another night. For example, if you cook a roast chicken one night, you can use the leftovers as toppings on homemade pizza the next night.
4. Save food for later.
Making double and storing extras in the freezer makes it especially easy to whip up a meal on a busy weeknight. Pasta dishes, casseroles and soups freeze especially well and can even be frozen in individual containers.
5. Minimize meat consumption.
Meat tends to be the most expensive part of a meal, so skipping it can generate big savings. That doesn't mean doing without protein, though: Eggs and beans make great substitutes, and they're much more affordable.
6. Visit food blogs.
Food blogs, such as Smitten Kitchen and Cooking with Amy, offer instructions for hundreds of frugal recipes. Even people who are challenged in the kitchen can follow the step-by-step directions. If you have allergies or specific dietary preferences, then you can find the blog that serves your niche.
7. Substitute wherever possible.
For many recipes, home cooks can substitute pricey fish such as salmon or tuna with cheaper options like tilapia. Websites such as Allrecipes.com and FoodNetwork.com make it easy to findfrugal substitutions.
8. Make it yourself. Whipping up hummus requires little equipment other than a blender, and grating cheese just takes a few minutes. But in both cases, the end result is usually cheaper -- and tastier -- than store-bought versions.
9. Embrace starch.
Starch, such as rice, noodles or other grains, can really bulk up a dish. For example, adding noodles to a soup, or rice to a casserole, can turn a side dish into the main meal. It also leaves you fewer dishes to clean up afterward.
10. Shop in your fridge.
You might already have enough for a meal or two and not even know it; a can of beans and some salsa can turn into chili (with the help of onion, garlic, and other seasonings). Similarly, vegetables can become a hearty soup. You can try to make at least one meal a week based on the ingredients you already have.
11. Waste less.
If you've ever had to toss out an opened bag of salad greens because you forgot to use them by the sell-by date, then you know how easily waste can occur. Try to keep your fridge organized so perishable items are visible and less likely to be forgotten. If you notice yourself tossing out the same veggie each week, then consider removing it from your shopping list or buying less of it. And when you store items in your freezer, be sure to label them clearly so you defrost and eat them before they spoil. (The USDA recommends consuming casseroles within two to three months of freezing them, for example.)
12. Own the necessary kitchen supplies.
It might sound counterintuitive, but certain purchases, such as a Crock-Pot or a coffee maker, can actually reduce your costs because they make it easier to cook at home instead of dining out. If your kitchen is currently understocked, then make some basic purchases so you can quickly whip up meals from home.