Save money and still eat well

As we go into Autumn and Winter, many of us are tightening our belts in preparation for leaner times (because of job layoffs, or just the naturally-increased spending that comes with wintertime holidays). Here are some ideas of how you can save money on grocery shopping, without sacrificing your health or palate:

1. Eat vegetarian. Meat is expensive and vegetables are not, especially vegetables that are in season.
What's in season right now? Autumn brings squash, apples, several times of tart berry, mushrooms, root vegetables, and leafy greens. Winter explodes with dark green leafy vegetables of many types, root vegetables, leeks, and (during the late Winter months) asparagus. Your grocery store will advertise what is in season, either through ads, marked displays, or simply by it being the cheapest thing in the veggie section.
Note: Sometimes prices are marked down because the veggie, fruit, or meat is about to go bad. What to do? Buy it, clean it, prep it, and freeze it. You can do this especially easily with meat, but for veggies just put them in a make-ahead casserole or soup and freeze it, and fruits can be prepped and frozen for smoothies. Voila!

2. Plan your weekly meals. Plan out breakfast, lunch and dinner and snacks. If you buy a bag of apples, have a plan for them. Don't buy anything that isn't going to go with your weekly menu. Take a day where you typically stick around the house and may have some free time (Sundays, for instance), and use that day to make up meals ahead of time, and plan your upcoming weeks' meals. I keep a list on the fridge of meals I have planned for, so as to not forget.

3. Eat oatmeal for breakfast. It is shockingly cheaper than cereal. You can buy it in bulk (and save money on both the brand-name markups and be green because you aren't supporting the waste-creating packaging....plus, it's cheaper!). Oatmeal of the rolled and steel-cut variety can be used in baking (breads, bars, cakes, etc) and in main dishes (toppings, toasted in soups) and never goes bad. It's a fantastic staple.

4. Don't fuss over side dishes at dinner, or desserts. You don't need the traditional protein, starch and vegetable dinner. Nothing is wrong with no side at all and no dessert. A restaurant meal is expected to be large- a meal at home less so. If you absolutely MUST have a side (the Queen is coming for tea, etc) stick to small portions of what you already have, like fresh veggies, or pasta with a light lemon sauce.

5. Eat your leftovers. If your household is sick of eating reheated what-we-had-for-dinner-last-night as lunch, encorporate the leftovers into a new dish. For instance, the roast chicken can be cleaned off the bones, and the meat shredded and used for quesadillas, or in soup, or even tucked into a calzone with sauce and cheese. Then boil the leftover bones in water to get homemade chicken broth. Got some cooked rice that's just sitting in the fridge, drying out? Reheat it with a little broth and toss in diced green chiles, cheese, and maybe a can of tuna, and you have yourself a simple, filling, totally new dish!

6. Bake your own bread. It makes a definite difference in price, and health, and as long as you aren't letting the loaf sit out uneaten for more than a week, you won't be wasting anything. Buy the bulk yeast instead of the packet stuff, for maximum cost efficiency. It's very easy (just requires time, and effort if you're making a leavened dough), and also can be fun and creative. Once you're comfortable enough with simple recipes like white and wheat, try oat, cheese, nut, beer, cinnamon, spiced, etc.

7. And the best tip- make more things from scratch. Seriously, most of what you're paying for in the grocery store is convenience. Everyone loves the option of being able to come home from a long day and have dinner ready to go in 10 minutes. You can still do this, if you make it from scratch and toss it in the freezer. It'll also be healthier for you, and cheaper. Plus, you'll be gaining confidence in your cooking ability, getting to be creative, making your house smell yummy, and learning even more tips and tricks for making your dollars stretch.

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