Cutting back on grocery spending has become a regular and necessary occurrence for millions of American families, but there are ways to make it easier.
That’s the message New Yorker Frankie Celenza, 32, wants all Americans to hear. Celenza is a chef and has an Emmy Award-winning cooking show, “Struggle Meals,” appears on the Tastemade video network, and focuses on teaching people to make tasty meals on a budget.
Inflation is easing, but food prices remain high. More Americans are, understandingly, strategizing with their meals. This is especially true for families. These parents recently told MarketWatch they are buying frozen meat, and skipping family activities to save money.
“I know everyone can’t cook every meal because we’re all busy,” Celenza told MarketWatch. “But in this time of high inflation where everything is more expensive — including food — I just like to remind everybody that when you’re paying for someone else to make the food for you, it also costs them more to make it, which means it’s a higher price for you.”
Last year, food prices rose 11.4% on 2021. Families are spending over $5,260 a year on food, per the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2021. So add another $579 onto that total for last year. “For context, the 20-year historical level of retail food price inflation is 2% per year,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, there are some money-saving tips on grocery shopping and cooking that could be quite effective, and yet are often underrated, and they may also put some of the fun back into cooking, Celenza said.
And so without further ado:
Tip 1: Fruits and vegetables in season can work out cheaper
Eating and buying groceries in season might be the most underrated money-saving tip out there, Celenza said. While the supermarket has every kind of fruit and vegetable, prices vary based on the complexity of the supply chain. Buying local in-season produce saves money due to a larger inventory, and lower transportation costs, he said.
Experts say many industries contribute to the production chain behind a single bag of supermarket potatoes. For example, the biggest chunk of a food consumer’s dollar goes toward the food-processing industry (24.6 cents), followed by retailers (19.9 cents) and wholesalers (14.7 cents), according to data from the Department of Agriculture.
You could be paying for the flight from Latin America if you buy asparagus in November, Celenza said. A simple walk through the nearest farmer’s market is an easy way to figure out what’s in season in your area, and farmers have a shorter window to get rid of their harvest produce before it goes bad, he added. But be warned: Farmer’s markets often have higher prices for items due to the smaller economies of scale.
Tip 2: Use leftovers and scraps to make secondary meals
The best way to save money is obviously not to waste food. An estimated 40 million tons — or 80 million pounds of food goes to waste in the U.S. every year, equivalent to 30% to 40% of the entire American food supply, according to official government figures.
“If they go bad, it’s lost revenue for that farmer. If we buy something, and we don’t use it, that’s lost revenue for us,” Celenza said. That is why food that is nearing its expiration date — while still good to eat — can often be purchased at a discount.
Celenza suggested using the same groceries to make three meals out of one. It can be done in two ways: Repurposing the scraps or the leftovers and/or making a larger portion of one dish and freezing part of it for later in the week.
In a recent episode of his TV show, Celenza made “veggie fritters” by chopping up the stems of greens and herbs he had previously used for a stir-fry and salad. The trick is mixing eggs and breadcrumbs to make everything stick together. He made a yogurt sauce from the remaining herbs.
In an episode devoted to leftovers, Celenza showed that almost everything can be repurposed into either a frittata — an Italian baked egg dish — or as a filling inside a store-bought pastry sheet, or even used in a bowl of fried rice. Thus, you’ve made three dishes from the same leftovers. And the best part? “You’ve saved a lot of money,” he said.
Tip 3: ‘Embrace the simplicity,’ and take back your time
Rather than thinking about saving money as a way to downgrade or simplify your meals, Celenza suggested seeing it as a way to take time back. This is a valuable change of approach, especially for parents who are busy with their kids. And if you have less preparation time? “The meal gets on the plate faster,” he said.
And there are lots to play and experiment in order to make mealtimes both satisfying and fun, he said. For example, a basic pantry with only salt and some form of vinegar will make almost everything taste good, he said, and the texture of food is oftentimes an overlooked but “wonderful” element. “It’s really easy to have a lot of mushy foods,” Celenza said.
In the aforementioned stir-fry, for instance, Celenza saved the broccoli stems to go with turnips, chard stems and spring asparagus. He calls it a crunch party. Another example: Instead of throwing away the pasta water, Celenza takes some in-season bitter greens, cherry tomatoes, leftover parmesan rinds to make a pasta sauce — with just a little water covering the pasta. The gluten and the starch fills you up. “You get more money out of the pasta,” he said. “It’s wild.”
Celenza said families can think about cold dishes as the hot weather approaches. Gazpacho, a blended chilled soup using raw vegetables, is a perfect solution for leftovers on a hot summer afternoon, he added. “Play with texture, play with acid and play with temperature,” he said. “Embrace the simplicity.”