20 Secrets to Real Food, Cheap

Coupons aren't necessarily all they're cut
out to be. Courtesy: Fiscal Fizzle
Forget Extreme Couponing.

Coupons combined with sales net you mostly processed food, while requiring weekly trips to multiple stores and lots of time organizing ads and coupons. And for what? A box of Hamburger Helper that has about $.25 worth of ingredients in the box? A box of Cap'n Crunch that your teen scarfs in less time than you spent in the cereal aisle? Even if it's free, I'm not especially impressed.

Here I expound upon frugal eating secrets presented in my Grand Rapids Press feature (Creative and resourceful Grand Rapids mom feeds family for $100/month):

I like to buy my oats this way, too.
Courtesy: Heavenly Homemakers
1. Base meals upon inherently inexpensive ingredients. Examples are rice, dried beans, oats, and other grains and legumes. Things that grow when you add water usually fall into this category. If you can find these cheap in bulk or at a salvage store, excellent, but if not, they are still a food bargain. Use small amounts of more expensive ingredients, such as cheese or meat. If you're dealing with diet restrictions, don't necessarily try to replace "normal" foods, rather, find inexpensive foods you can eat.

2. Choose the right cookbooks. For the purposes of frugal cooking, a good cookbook is one which doesn't rely on convenience foods or odd, expensive ingredients. Vegetarian cookbooks are a good place to begin looking. Public libraries have cookbooks.

3. Once you have some interesting cookbooks on hand, think about substitutions, eliminations, and additions to make the recipe easier, cheaper, or to use up stuff you need to get rid of.

When you see a store with bins like this, see
if they'll sell you an entire 50-lb bag
at a discount. Courtesy: Groovy Green Livin'
4. See if your area has food salvage stores, or stores like Gordon Food Service or Country Life Foods where you can buy whole foods in bulk. Ideally, nothing will be wasted, but even if some is, you're still likely better off than if you were to buy smaller packages repeatedly. When you find a store that sells things in bulk, see if they'll give you a discount if you buy a whole big bag. Most people protest that they could never use that much, but consider this: if a 50-lb bag of oatmeal costs $20 (which is what I paid for my last bag), and a 42-oz canister of oats is $2, all I need to do is use a little over half the 50-lb bag to break even, and anything extra I use is essentially free food. As Amy Dacyczyn wrote in The Tightwad Gazette, don't feel that food absolutely has to be stored in the kitchen or pantry. You can put it under the bed if you have to, so storage needn't be a problem.

5. If you shop the salvage stores, buy lots when you find a good deal. Don't be afraid to stock up (see below). If you aren't sure if you'll like it, if you can, open one of the items (one that you'll purchase no matter what), and try it right there in the store. This will help you avoid a buying error, or its opposite, the dreaded I-didn't-buy-enough error.

6. Grow what you can, can what you grow. Even a tiny little garden can have a surprising yield. Freeze things; preserve what's in season. 

7. Eliminate waste. Cut off bad spots, use up leftovers, plan cooking around ingredients that need to be used ASAP. Freeze it if it looks like you won't be able to use all of it in time. Share with friends when you have too much, and later they're likely to return the favor.

My whole grain muffins have in
them more food, less junk.
8. Keep non-nutritive food purchases to a minimum. Consider only eating true junk food when you go to parties or events with treats. Homemade snacks can be air-popped popcorn, and, for example, tasty muffins that at least have some nutritional value.

9. Never say, "My kid won't eat that." YOU train your kid to reject good things and demand packaged and processed foods. If you're not good at this, check out a parenting book from the library--seriously.

Taking advantage of $.40/lb blueberries.
Unfortunately, there is no photo record of my
true foraging, so this photo will have to do.
10. Take advantage of opportunities for free food, such as wild berries, fruit in public places, and pumpkins after Halloween. Dumpsters at small grocery stores can also be really, really good; for instance, you can find a sack of potatoes where only one is bad, or cans that are dented. Some orchards might let you pick up drops free or really inexpensively--it doesn't hurt to ask. If you're too shy or are unsuccessful in finding free produce, check your local grocery for a marked-down produce area. Sometimes it's priced close to free.

11. Dress up humble foods with fresh herbs grown in pots, and plenty of spices. Ethnic grocery stores often have well-priced spices.

12. Save energy when you cook. When running the oven, fill it up. Use a pressure cooker (from a garage sale), and a homemade solar cooker. Keep lids on pans.

13. Cook big pots of food so you have leftovers and won't need to cook every day. You'll be less likely to turn to restaurants or convenience foods.

14. Cut out the weekly trip to the grocery store with homegrown produce. Eat seasonally (who wants a tomato shipped 1000 miles anyway).  Use dry milk--reconstituted properly, it tastes good. Or just incorporate it into recipes instead of drinking it.

Drink water. Courtesy: Laura's Last Ditch.
15. Everyday drinks=water or tea (especially ones brewed from your homegrown herbs).

16. Have a can-do attitude, and be thankful for what you have. Inexpensive doesn't necessarily mean inferior. If you cook from scratch a lot, you'll probably get good at it and come up with some mighty tasty creations.

17. Expiration dates are a suggestion. Inspect the item and use your good judgment.

18. Use scraps you normally pitch: celery leaves or radish tops can be chopped and thrown into stew; make apple or pear cores into vinegar; use dandelion greens from your yard on your sandwich; veggie scraps or bones can go into a dedicated freezer bag until you have enough to make stock.

19. Liberally use Google. You might want to make your own taco seasoning mix or vinegar, find a substitute in a recipe, or see how to make soap from your bacon drippings.

20. Some additional thoughts:

What you have in your pantry will be dried staples, along with whatever else you found that gives good nutrition and/or is filling for the price. Concentrate on getting a good value rather than a "good" discount  (90%-off caviar is still more expensive than canned tuna, so stick with the tuna, for example).

When it's time to cook, you make what you're able from the food you found that was a good food value. Try to match up recipes with the items you've already stocked, while avoiding the supermarket. I rarely have to shop, and almost never at the regular grocery store. I spend less than $100/month for a family of three, and spend no more time with cooking and shopping combined than I did when I couponed back in the day.

When you find yourself perusing the coupon circular in the Sunday paper or coupon websites, remember this: It's empowering to cook good food with inexpensive ingredients instead of depending on the whims of food marketers who decide what's on sale and what gets a coupon. And when you eat good, wholesome food instead of packaged junk, your kids learn good eating habits and the whole family enjoys better health.

Do you go to extremes to save on food? Leave a comment below. If you found this post helpful, please "share"!


  1. 2. The 50s Betty Crocker cookbooks are great for that!

    19. This Thanksgiving, my daughter made the green bean casserole. I bought green beans (in bulk - cheap), store brand cream of mushroom...and then I was like "I think I saw some french fried onions in the pantry....we don't need to buy some...". So...she made the casserole and we all served up a big spoon of it.....and then we all started looking around the table. eesh....what the heck... was it the beans....the cream of mushroom....whatever it was, that stuff was foul. Turns out the french fried onions in the pantry expired in 2007.

    21. The copycat Taco Bell seasoning has helped me avoid going out when we get our cravings!

  2. Tasting those onions before putting them on would've been a good plan, but you live and learn, I guess!

  3. Tammy here from Vintage Knocks (gintin2.blogspot.com). I love your blog and will be a regular. I have been able to reduce our household bills by changing how we do things. RETHINK,REPURPOSE, REUSE......Works for us.
    Talk soon, T.


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