I've been able to manage my food expenses very well by adhering to the following principles:
1. Waste--I take care not to throw food away, buy what I'm actually going to eat, and make sure it gets frozen before it goes bad. I've read that 25% to 50% of all edible food in America goes to waste, with the weight leaning toward the higher end of that spectrum. Imagine your budget with a 25-50% savings!
Not to sound like your mother, but food really is money. Why would you buy something only to throw it away? Please consider not only your budget, but also the huge drain on the environment and other resources through agriculture.
2. Eating rarely in restaurants:
- That $8 at Subway would have bought you a home-cooked steak dinner.
- That $4 beer at a bar could have bought you a 1/2 gallon of organic orange juice.
- The going rate for a tiny vending machine bag of chips is 70 cents--Its only $0.69-1.29 at the local co-op for a full pound of bulk, organic grains (which could feed you for a week!)
3. Being prepared when I'm on the road so that I don't have to blow $5 at a convenience store for a few snacks. That's the cost of 2 full organic dinners at home! A package of nuts or seeds you keep in the car could be just the right amount of preparation in case you are out longer than expected.
4. Buying in bulk. I bought a 1/2 cow, organic and grass-fed. Top of the line quality, and locally raised. College students, neighbors or families could share the expense and the freezer space. A great community builder. Organic meat at conventional prices.
It can be daunting to make such a purchase--how much meat can a person eat? Frozen meat should not be kept any longer than a year, and a 1/2 cow can feed 2-5 hungry adults or a small family for a year (assuming that you eat other meats besides beef, as well). But don't fear, you can also buy smaller quantities in bulk, such as a 1/4 cow, 1/2 pig, or whole turkeys, etc.
5. Gardening--gonna try to do better next year when it comes to preserving. But my family, friends and I enjoyed a bounty of fresh veggies and herbs all season from our gardens. I won't need to buy fertilizer because I'm composting. I should soon learn how to preserve seeds, as well.
It also doesn't take much preparation to cook at home, which the Omnivore mentions in the linked article. Its a myth that restaurants save you any time or energy. I agree with this point, among many others: I can cook a nutritious meal in the same time it takes you to pack up the family, drive to a so called "fast food" restaurant, order, and drive back. Its also cheaper than the price of a so-called "extra-value meal" at McDonald's. So tell me what is the advantage of "fast food"? Not matter how busy you are, you still need to eat.
The trick is just to make sure you are well-stocked. Keep your freezer full of things you regularly use. Dry beans and grains keep for a long time. I only keep a small amount of fresh items--some bread, fruit and milk. The rest is frozen so few things go bad.
Bread machines and slow cookers should really put the nail in the coffin to the idea that "homemade" means "labor intensive". But most of my quick dinners bypass these time-saving devices entirely.
There are certainly other ways to save money--eating low-cost items like rice & beans and learning how to scavenge at free food events. All valid approaches. But I'm saying you can eat a bountiful, diverse diet of healthy, organic foods, and still eat on the cheap. AND by following these guidelines you'll most likely eat healthier and be a better environmental steward, too.
There is a misconception that organic food is only for yuppies. You can go to the grocery store and see organic foods sometimes double the cost of conventional. People are often outraged at the thought of spending so much on organic. But think of what you could have bought the next time you blow $3 on chips, or when you eat at a restaurant for the 5th time this week, or scrape whole plateloads of food into the garbage, or make your daily pilgrimmage to the vending machine for pop and a snack. Organics do not deserve the elitist image they have. They are a logical, sensible and even economical food choice in a comprehensive budget that uses food wisely.