Green Bowl of Macaroni and Cheese

One of the ways individuals, couples and families waste the most money is on a bloated grocery budget. A lack of planning, a lack of creativity and no knowledge of what things cost at the grocery store can easily double the amount of money one spends on groceries each month.

Before our family of six had a solid plan for grocery spending, and before we were tracking our grocery spending, we “thought” we were doing pretty well with our grocery budget.

According to the USDA, the average family of four spends roughly $800 – $1000 a month on groceries. With my best estimate on our grocery spending prior to implementing a spend-tracking system, I figured we were spending about $600 or so a month on groceries. After going back and analyzing our 2012 grocery expenditures, it turns out that I was wrong: we were spending closer to $900 a month on groceries.

Granted, this is a pretty good budgeted amount, considering our family has six people in it instead of four, but I knew we could do better. One of the ways we lowered our grocery spending was to sprinkle several inexpensive and easy meals into our monthly menu planning. Below I’ll list some of our favorites, and then I’ll close with some vital tips on spending less on one’s grocery budget.

1. Macaroni and Cheese

You can’t go wrong with mac ‘n cheese: it’s a favorite of kids and adults alike. We do homemade mac ‘n cheese, always getting our noodles on sale (16 ounces for 99 cents), and monitoring the amount of cheese, milk, and butter we use, making it just creamy enough to taste good without going overboard on our budget. Cost? Roughly $4-$5 to serve our family of six. Want to spice it up? Add in some green onions, some leftover ham, or crumbled up crackers on top before you bake it in the oven.

2. Beans and Rice

We can feed our entire family beans and rice for less than $2. By buying the big can of refried beans at our local store for $1.38 (or by buying dried pinto beans and cooking them yourself) and by buying our rice in bulk and storing it in a food grade 5-gallon bucket, we can make this meal for dirt cheap, even with extras like shredded cheese, sour cream and salsa to spice it up.

3. Navy Bean Soup

A 16-ounce bag of dried Navy Beans at the store is around $1.50. Slow cook them, add in some diced onion, carrots and celery, season it with salt and pepper and you’ve got yourself a hearty, healthy bowl of soup for less than $2. Want to spice it up? Add in some chopped ham or chicken. 

4. Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup

A whole chicken can cost upwards of $5-$8, but we make homemade chicken noodle soup into a cheap meal with a simple tip: ease up on the meat in each batch, chopping it extra fine, add extra water and use your chicken to make three batches of soup instead of one, using noodles, carrots, celery and onion as cheap and healthy fillers. Approximate cost? $4 per meal.

5. Chipotle Rice

This is a family favorite around our house. Using our bulk rice, which costs roughly 5-7 cents per cooked cup, we spice it up by adding fresh chopped cilantro, diced red onion, and a dressing made of fresh lime juice, some extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well and serve. You can make this meal for your family for $2-$3 dollars easily. Want to spice it up? Serve it with black beans, salsa, sour cream and/or fresh guacamole.

Want 20 meal plans for just over $5?

6. Popcorn

Yep, just popcorn. We never buy microwaved popcorn: instead, we buy the raw stuff and cook it in our old-fashioned air popper. We then top it with real butter and serve. Not necessarily a well-rounded meal, but healthier than a frozen pizza and super cheap. Even with our organic butter, we spend less than two dollars to feed our family. Add store-bought popcorn seasonings or sprinkle it with Parmesan cheese if you want to spice it up.

7. Buttered or Parmesan Buttered Noodles

Talk about some serious comfort food: there’s nothing like a plate of noodles covered in butter, salt, and pepper. Eager for some extra nutrition in this meal? Add in some cooked broccoli, green beans or peas. Add in some Parmesan cheese for extra flavor. Cost: under $2 with just the noodles, less than three with the added in veggies and/or cheese.

8. Black Bean Soup

If you’re looking for a soup with a little more kick, try black bean soup. Buy the beans raw for roughly $1.50 for 16 ounces. Slow cook them after adding in red onion, chili powder, cumin, garlic powder and salt and pepper. We like to add in freshly chopped cilantro at the end, just before serving. The cost to feed a family of six: under $3. Spoon a dollop of sour cream or salsa on top to add extra flavor, or throw in some chopped cooked chicken with Mexican seasoning added to it.

9. Chili

Yes, decent chili can be made on the cheap. Start with a can of tomato paste ($1.32), a can of tomato sauce (99 cents), and the right seasonings to start. Then add in a can of kidney beans (79 cents), a half-pound of hamburger (on sale) chopped up very fine ($1.75), and add a half of an onion or a whole small onion(30 cents) diced fine. Add some water in to spread the meal out. For around five dollars you’ll have yourselves a nice meal.

10. Meat Loaf

Yes, you can absolutely serve a meal like Meat Loaf for $5. Just keep it simple. Get your meat on sale ($3.50 a pound is the most we’ll pay for hamburger), spice it up simply with onion, salt, pepper, salt, ketchup, and egg. Serve with baked potatoes (you can get an entire 3-pound bag for three bucks) and some frozen or canned veggies, easily added for 50 cents. Delicious, healthy and hearty.

So, what are some keys to spending less on groceries? First, always menu plan and make a list. Second, stick to the list. Third, don’t waste: today’s leftovers are tomorrow’s lunch. Fourth, buy and stock up on sales. Learn what goes on sale when, and budget accordingly so that you can stock up. Fifth, don’t be picky, be creative. Learn to think like a chef and make up new and different meals for cheap.

By using the above strategies, we manage to feed our family of six for between $400 and $600 a month. That includes breakfasts and lunches as well. With a little creativity, you really can lower your grocery budget and still eat great-tasting meals.