In late November and early December, there are hundreds of places for the money to go.
Unlike car payments or rent, food is one of the more flexible expenses.
If we need more to spend on seasonal expenses, we might lop a little off our spending on food.
If we need more to spend on special foods for entertaining during the holidays, there are ways to cut down on everyday food costs to compensate.
It’s still a big challenge, especially for people who just have enough to get by, but there are strategies to make it a little easier.
Although people often have Christmas lunches with co-workers or holiday drinks with friends, much of the day-to-day restaurant spending can be cut. This includes coffee shop beverages, weekday lunches and fast food snacks.
With a little forethought and preparation, we can substitute less-expensive home-prepared food and drinks. Pack a lunch of leftovers or homemade soup, salad or sandwiches and pour some coffee into an insulated mug before leaving for work in the morning.
Instead of picking up bakery items for snacks, bake a few batches of muffins or cookies (your home-baked ones are likely healthier than the ones you buy, anyway), keep them in a plastic bag in the freezer so that they’ll stay fresh, and pack one for your break. Or better still, grab a clementine or an apple instead of a muffin.
If you have been packaging leftovers and freezing them to use at some later date, this may be the time.
There are three reasons to do this now. First, all the preparation has been done, and all that’s needed is reheating, leaving more time for shopping, wrapping or decorating. Second, food left too long in the freezer can develop off flavours, although it is still safe to eat. It’s better to use it while it still tastes good, instead of having to throw it out later when it tastes like the freezer. And finally, you are freeing up room in the freezer for Christmas baking and roast turkey leftovers.
Always work leftovers from the fridge, and fresh fruits and vegetables that need to be used up, into meal plans.
Too often, I have forgotten about cooked food and aging produce that is stored in the refrigerator until it is too late. Be diligent about using the food you’ve spent your hard-earned money on.
You have two to three days to use leftovers with confidence that they are safe to eat. Unless you are packing it up to eat for lunch tomorrow, you may need help to remember when a dish was cooked. Keep track by writing the date on a label that you attach to the container of leftovers — use a piece of masking tape or a self-adhesive label — or writing the date directly on glass or plastic containers with a grease pencil.
Generally speaking, you can save on groceries by taking advantage of specials. Plan meals around advertised specials instead of buying more expensive options.
Some higher-priced items are too expensive to buy, even on sale, when grocery money is tight.
I don’t spend my time travelling from one store to another, gathering up the specials at each. Gas costs too much, I don’t particularly enjoy shopping, and I’d rather spend a little extra time cooking instead.
Nor do I spend time organizing coupons, although I occasionally use one if it applies to something that I’d normally purchase. Couponing makes me feel manipulated.
It seems to me that the time spent on this money-saving activity is like a part-time job, and I prefer to work at other things. Also, coupons are more likely to offer savings on prepared and processed foods than for whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and meats.
If you are willing, and able, to take the time, you can prepare thrifty, nutritious meals using dried beans, peas and lentils. Only a small portion of the time is hands-on, while most of it is wait time as the beans soak overnight or cook for hours in a slow oven.
Lentils are the exception, the “fast food” of these dried foods, as they require no pre-soaking, and cook relatively quickly.
Stirfries and stews stretch the food budget, because less meat or chicken is needed per serving than for meals in which the meat is served as a dish on its own, such as roast beef or pork chops.
Another way to make meat go further in a stew is by cutting the pieces smaller. It feels better to me to have a serving of stew with eight small pieces of meat, rather than two larger pieces, even if each serving has the very same weight of meat.
When selecting produce, think about using less expensive winter vegetables such as carrots, turnip, potato, cabbage and onions as often as possible.
Be cautious about preparing them the same way every time.
It can make them seem boring, and make it more tempting to choose the more expensive imports.
A little planning makes it easier to spend less on food. Take advantage of what you have on hand, stretch the number of servings you get from more expensive protein foods, serve winter vegetables often in a variety of ways, and shop carefully.
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.