A Cheap-ass Hedonist's Guide to Shopping: 10 Ways to Eat Well for Less Money

I will admit, I'm a cheap bastard. I hate to spend extra money if I don't need to part with it. I am also a hedonist, with a taste for great food. So, with these two halves of my culinary whole, it didn't take long to pick up good habits to get the most out of every food budget dollar without sacrificing good meals to do it. These are some of my favorites.

1. Eat like a vegetarian or vegan more often and, when having meat, get/eat less
A simple grocery truth is legumes, especially dried ones, cost less than meat while providing great nutrition and belly-filling satisfaction. It doesn't need to be a sacrifice, especially with so many tasty options at hand. Indian, Chinese, Italian, Greek, most major cuisines have lots of superb dishes with beans, peas, and lentils. And a simple change of swapping out beef a time or two a week will not only make your body happy, but your wallet, too.

Considering the environmental situation, it's a positive change with extra benefits. Hell, I'm a dedicated omnivore and The Boss is even more so, yet we've found we don't even miss the meat when we change it up. If the flavor and texture are there, that's really all you need for a great meal.

Many people don't know an actual serving of meat is about the size of a standard deck of cards. So, what are we as a nation doing with these mountainous boulders of meat on our plates ... other than doing our bodies a disservice? Instead of more meat, which is harder on the body, substitute more veggies gradually until it's at that portion. If you shop smart, you can save a mess of cash while giving yourself a healthier bod. 

2. Use "Bang for your buck" ingredients
There are lots of great foods which, used sparingly, have a lot of impact in the finished dish yet cost very little because a small amount goes a long way. Think robust flavors, richness, tangy potency. Sun-dried tomatoes are a great example. While they may cost a bit more, you don't need much of them to add a wonderful depth to the flavor of a stew or sauce. Saffron, one of the world's most expensive ingredients, is similar. Though it can be quite costly, in a delicate dish just a pinch will give you rich luxe flavor you just can't get with anything else. How about gorgonzola or goat cheese, too? Big flavors can elevate the other ingredients without a lot of cost.

Also, stock up on smaller amounts of a wide range herbs, spices, vinegars, etc. Like the pricey stuff, as far as ingredients go, you can get lots of flavor bang for a whole lot less of your bucks by taking advantage of a good pantry. Now you can find a dizzying array of bold tastes, even in the plain old grocery store, waiting to jazz up your diet. Simple, dirt-cheap chicken pieces can be absolutely exotic and taste like a million bucks for a few cents-worth of shakes. Instead of buying the seemingly-cheap mega-jug of the same 2 or 3 options, get all MacGyver on your pantry. Save any small canisters and jars and fill them with new flavors from the less-expensive bagged herbs and spices, or even better, bulk bins. Try out new things you've always glanced over and make the most of them.

3. Shop Ethnic  & Farmers Markets
There is an even more cost-effective way to get and use bolder, more exotic flavors. Go to the source! Especially if you live in or near a major metropolitan area, there is no reason to not seek out uncommon ingredients in markets where they are common enough to have a nice, affordable price tag. Why pay a fortune for a tiny little bottle of sesame oil at the grocery store when you can get a larger one for a fraction of the cost just a few miles away in Chinatown, Little Saigon, etc.? If you plan ahead and restock a range of ingredients, you can keep your gas tank from taking those dollars back. Or, in LA or similar areas, bike, walk or use the affordable transit systems and give yourself an excuse to explore new neighborhoods. Also, check out when there might be festivals or open markets.

It's not too difficult to find a farmers market virtually anywhere anymore. While there's a lot of griping about super-expensive organic blah-blah at farmers markets, there's also a lot of great produce and other foods of exceptional quality and more developed flavor for great prices. Take your time and shop around, compare costs and quality between stands. Most importantly, don't be afraid to haggle a little, especially if you can get more produce from one or two vendors instead of spreading your dollars around. You can develop a regular buying relationship over time this way, which is a nice thing if what you're getting is good quality and you can trust it always will. Also, try to make your buying rounds close to the end of the market day for more common items. There is a much greater initiative to let you get away with more for less to not need schlep it back out. If you're afraid to miss out on a rare ingredient, just get that first and pick up the rest near closing. 

4. Make the most of Humbler (cheaper) ingredients (aka Peasant food is your friend!)
There are a lot of classic, generations(sometimes centuries or millennia)-old recipes out there in books, recipe boxes, and on the inter-webs, recipes which have virtually never changed. Often, they'll have a cheap cut of meat and a minimum of other ingredients, usually really super-cheap stuff, too. There is a reason for this. Many of these recipes are peasant food, meals born of necessity and perfected for years/decades/centuries. Poor farmers didn't have a lot of choice in which cuts of meat they shared with their families, reality dictated they needed to make the most of the desirable and keep only what they couldn't sell. Or, in the case of whole animals, they had to use every single bit of an animal they kept from market (thus realized no profit from raising). On top of that, they didn't have a lot else to work with, so the trick was to cook in a way to make the most of every ingredient and make it all stretch as far as possible. Plenty of peasant food has no meat at all, just whatever the more common produce in the region might be.

Using my family's roots as an example, Hungarian cooking is chock-full of chicken parts, cheaper cuts of pork, and the tougher cuts of beef might also make an appearance. There are lots of cabbages, potatoes, dense dumplings to stretch the meal further. Then, there are bold flavors like paprika, garlic, and caraway to elevate the basic ingredients. And, I'll tell you, when you're eating chicken paprikas, gulyas, cabbage rolls, or super-humble cabbage & dumplings, you're not going to feel anything but foodgasm.

Every cuisine has its peasant and country dishes, so there's lots out there to enjoy without digging too deeply into your pockets.

5. Plan your attack
It seems really obvious, but I'll say it anyway because I notice a lot of people at the market with no list, no plan, nada. This can lead to a bunch of impulse buys and what-the-fuck additions of costly items to complete meals based on one sale ingredient. Back when, we were struggling to make ends meet, I started doing something which has carried over into less lean times, planning our menu based only on what I know is on sale. Most stores have their sale circulars available online. Some, like Jons (a great store for bargains and groovy ethnic goodies), even have an interactive system to create and print your shopping list by clicking on items in the flyer and adding any other things not listed by hand. This allows you to make decisions at home without any rush and plan full meals where all the primary ingredients are significantly less and, the biggie, gives you a definitive list to check off and get out before you blow extra food dollars on impulse.

A plan has another good side-effect. I don't know about you, but I have a tendency to forget whether we're out of regular always-have items when I don't plan a list ahead. This has led to, on one occasion, having - I shit you not - 4 lbs. of butter, because I kept going to the store without a list, was making something with butter, and couldn't for the life of me recall whether or not I had any. And this was when we were not exactly flush with cash. It's kind of funny now, but then ... not so much.

6. Is it worth spending more?
There's a reason some brands cost more. Sometimes, it may be a reflection on the quality of the items themselves. But, often, it's really just a reflection of how much that brand is spending on packaging and commercials to make us think they're worth more. Is the fancy commercials-during-prime-time spice in the spiffy glass jars with lovely designed labels REALLY that % better the el-cheap-o bargain brand hanging in cellophane bags? In my experience, there is absolutely no difference at all, if not the cheapie actually being a bit fresher (maybe because they sell faster than the extortionist-priced image-based brands). Is the tomato brand paying for commercials on my TV worth paying more? Not when F&E and TJ's have excellent ones (often with organic and no-salt options) at a fraction of the price. Same goes for rice, pasta, beans, many cereals, oatmeal, the list goes on and on.

More often than not, they're just charging me more for the luxury of being part of their image-builder confidence scam when I buy their products.

Yes, sometimes it is worth a difference in cost, maybe even a pretty high one, but that should be a "pick your battles" sort of thing. Like I will never get any worcestershire by my brand. I've tried, but found other kinds didn't have the right punch, so suck it up and shell over the extra for the "good stuff". We all have our deal-breakers, the trick is to only break down for those.

7. Bigger is, indeed, better
No, not the ginormous you-will-never-finish-this-ever packages at warehouse stores bigger is generally not better! But, making bigger batches of lower-cost foods like soups, chilis, and stews is. There is a sort of pot-o-soup algebra at play when you up the base without increasing meat or costly veg. How much pea or lentil soup can you get away with making and still have the lovely flavor and bits of meat off that yummy leftover ham bone throughout? A lot more than you'd think! Often, you can stretch the flavor to at least 50% more volume, if not more, on your basic soup or chili meat. Most recipes are designed for servings, not the practical amount to not have more meat than you need in a serving, based on a standard unit. For example, most chicken soup recipes call for a whole chicken, yet have a paltry amount of broth or water (depending on how you're getting to your stock) because they're supposed to be only 4-8 servings at most. Yet, I can make a huge pot on one chicken, and that's without using leftovers and such wisely (which is next). 

The key to this strategy is to actually use the extras. These are the kind of leftovers which make great take-to-work lunches, slow-food meals on-hand for fast-paced days. But, if you don't like eating too much of the same, the next bit applies.


8. Stocking up + Saving for a higher-priced day
While you're making a bit extra, instead of risking it going wrong while waiting to be eaten again, sock a bit away as a future meals insurance policy. Whether you freeze up some individual meal or lunch portions or a larger container to thaw out for dinner + leftovers, the rest of a huge pot of soup, stew, curry, what have you is just one less meal you'll have to pay for when cash is tighter or one less meal you'll have to make time to prepare when the schedule is less forgiving.

Also, you can save a bit by getting family packs at the butcher counter, so use some and sock away the rest for another day. Take advantage of longer-lasting non-perishables like dried beans, rice, etc. They take forever to go wrong, if they even do, and the savings on these already cheap foods can be even more in your pocket. Especially your legumes, if you're heeding #1, will save you not only cost but salt if you buy dried and soak/cook as you need. Do the same with super-sale savings items when you can. The longer the shelf life, the more bulk savings actually make sense rather than being a way to lure you into padding your bill with volume you won't use.

There are particular times when you can expect to see items which are usually very expensive for ridiculously low prices. During the holiday seasons, most stores price turkeys, costly roasts, and good quality (read: not crappy and salty) hams dirt cheap to lure you in for the giant cartful of food you'll need for that big family meal. Steaks, ribs, and other grill-friendly meats get down to chuck and neck levels close to holiday barbeque weekends for the very same reason. Corned beef is practically free right before St. Paddy's. The list goes on. We all know the patterns, the trick is clear freezer space in time to shop based on that knowledge. While you can't keep meats frozen for extended periods of time without some quality drain, you can grab more when it's super-cheap to enjoy later down the line when you want it, but at way less than the regular price. 

9. Use what you have and only buy what you'll use
I'm guilty of it sometimes, as I'm sure many of you have been. There is perfectly good food right there under your nose, yet a trip to the store for more stuff happens anyway. Certainly, there are times when you just don't feel like having ____. But we all know lurking within all our pantries are plenty of beans, canned goods, noodles, in my case the makings for dashi, and whatever else, which have been there for months or longer. Once, when we had a spate of late-paying clients and money was super-tight, we virtually lived off the contents of our freezer and pantry, occasionally picking up a sale veggie or some milk or whatever. It showed us how much waste is subtle, there but overlooked because it's not going in the trash ... yet. 

Some of those lurking ingredients didn't really come into our pantry honestly. They were impulse buys, fanciful ideas of meals we'd like to make but won't. The best way to cut down on unused food is to not get food you don't intend to use right away (with the exception of emergency stores, of course) unless it's something non-perishable you use regularly at an irresistible price. I know, I've fallen for the cute packies of this and that, some of which still graces (or perhaps haunts) my shelves awaiting that golden day it'll finally be opened. I probably will again, but try hard not to fall prey to their charms too often. 

10. Rethink what's really trash
If you're really crafty, as well as dedicated to keeping the food budget down, you'll have noticed there is a lot of pretty useful shit that gets thrown out. I'm not talking about stuff that we forget to use before it's too late (but we're getting to that). There is a fortune in potential stock going to the compost heap or dump every day. Stock is a few simple ingredients and water + time. Save your bones in a bag the freezer. Do the same with veggie tops, mushroom stems, the green gnarly bits on leeks, outer bits of the onion, root and leafy bits of the celery, you get the picture. When you're ready to make soup, these will save you even more money by replacing those cans/packies of broth. You can even make stock way in advance, when you've got a free day to let something simmer for hours, and freeze in cup increments or even ice-cube-sized bits for later. Ham bones, beef bones, turkey and chicken carcasses, even fish skeletons and shrimp peelings ... they're not trash, but pots of soup just waiting to happen. And, since soup is a great cheap meal to begin with, it's a double-win for your wallet!

Additionally, we have become a society a bit too hooked on the notion of instant expiration. I've been guilty of chucking a bag of greens because I see a date and some wilty leaves in there instead of finding a use for the rest before they join them in ex-food territory. I've also been guilty of not being enough aware of what might expire when. Lately, I've tried to rethink my menu plans based on ingredients I think might turn the bend sooner than I'd like. The cool part is it's made me more creative and spontaneous, better able to think on my feet and come up with something on the fly. A glance in the fridge, instead of being an exercise in ignoring what I don't want to see, becomes a challenge to see how many on-their-way ingredients I can make use of while still creating something tasty.

So, in the end, developing cheap-skate tendencies has actually made me a better and more inventive cook. And made us quite a lot more healthy. All while eating delicious meals every day.

Most importantly, it's left a lot more money in our pockets instead of forking it over to Mssr. Ralph or Albertson or Von.

Got another suggestion? Please add it to the comments. The more, the merrier, where saving cash is concerned!