DETERMINE CURRENT FOOD SPENDING
It's not easy! Start writing down everything you spend on food for at least one month. I mean everything — from the donut and coffee on the way to work to the fast food stops with the kids to lunch money to major shopping jaunts. This is what you are spending on food, and plan on a big shock. Your awareness of this total number is going to be the first and biggest step you will take to get into food control.
SHOP WITH CASH
When I go into the store without a checkbook or credit card, I am keenly aware of how much I have, and I shop very carefully to avoid embarrassment at checkout. If I have a checkbook, I go into some wild trance that "assures" me unlimited funds. It's crazy, I know, but I can just go nuts. So, for me, it's CASH ONLY. It requires that I plan ahead and exercise great discipline.
SHOP ONCE A MONTH
Hold on; let me explain. I call this monthly trip my "major shopping." I make this pilgrimage to a no-frills, membership grocery warehouse. I can fit an entire month's shopping (about 90% of what we need for the month) in my minivan. I shop pretty wisely and cautiously, so this fiasco takes at least half a day. But then I'm done for the month, except for picking up produce and milk.
They're hard to get rid of — so try and prepare only what your family will eat at any one meal. Many times, I will make two casseroles and freeze one for later. That doesn't qualify as a leftover! I call leftovers those small unattractive portions that are in odd-shaped and mislabeled containers, sitting in the refrigerator until they resemble biology specimens.
ELIMINATE CHOICES AT MEALS
Stick to a healthy, simple menu. Picky eaters will soon come around if they know their choices from now on are two: Take it, or leave it!
CHANGE EATING HABITS
There are many benefits to becoming semi-vegetarian. I think everyone agrees that the typical American eats far too much meat.
BUY IN BULK
I had to reorganize my kitchen and pantry, as well as clear a place in the garage, for dry food storage.
BECOME A SHELF-LIFE EXPERT
It takes a little time, but by repackaging bulk foods at home, you can save big bucks. I invested in a home vacuum-sealing machine. Vacuum-sealed cheese, meat, crackers, chips, cereal, etc., last for (what seems like) forever. I vacuum-seal most everything before freezing to eliminate freezer burn. I have used meat up to one year after sealing and freezing.
AVOID PREPREPARED AND PROCESSED FOOD
I had to start cooking and baking — tasks I thought I would not have time for. I started a weekly routine of baking cookies, bread, desserts, casseroles, etc. We couldn't completely change our prior eating and shopping habits overnight. I started with one or two pledges and went from there. Before long, I was actually cooking and baking from scratch and introducing my family to a whole new world of interesting and economical foods.
BRING SOME EXCITEMENT TO YOUR EATING AREA
In our "pre" days, we very rarely ate together at a table. Being busy and very unprepared, it was usually hamburgers in front of the TV. I decided if I was going to expect my family to be content with less sophisticated menus, I was going to have to create a very attractive atmosphere to transform macaroni and cheese into a gourmet affair.
I rearranged the family room and kitchen by moving the table and chairs from a dark corner of the kitchen into a new eating area at the end of the family room, right by the fireplace and next to a large window.
We installed a ceiling fan/light over the table, and voila! Our own restaurant! Since that time, we've sat down together for many, many meals. Even the simplest meal seems to taste better with such a cozy, well-lit area.
We began to do family things around that table — games, homework, crafts, etc. Creating this new setting cost us nothing. We just used what we had and did a lot of rearranging!
APPROACH THE SUPERMARKET WITH TREMENDOUS CAUTION
Start thinking of that place as the wicked witches' gingerbread cottage. It is beautiful. It smells scrumptious. It is very inviting. And it's going to get you, if you're not careful. From the moment you drive up, that store owner is doing everything possible to nurture your compulsive buying habits.
RESERVE EATING OUT FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS
There is no way you can eat out more cheaply than at home. Reserve that extra expenditure for truly important occasions.
LOAD UP ON 'LOSS LEADER' SALE ITEMS
These very low-priced items are the bait to get you in the store. If you buy nothing but these items, the store is not making much, but you are saving a bundle. Buy in quantities great enough to last until the next sale.
In addition to saving a lot of money by changing our food style, we eat much healthier, consume far fewer preservatives, enjoy delicious home-cooked food and have better family communication. We actually sit down and eat together. Amazingly, I am really enjoying the domesticity of cooking and baking, and somehow, I am busier now than I ever was!
Would you like more information? Go to EverydayCheapskate.com for links and resources for recommended products and services in this column. Mary invites questions, comments and tips at EverydayCheapskate.com, "Ask Mary." This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com, a lifestyle blog, and the author of the book "Debt-Proof Living."
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