7 Ways to Save Money as Food Prices Rise
Make every morsel of food count
According to the UN, global food prices increased by nearly 30 percent this past year. Here in the US, food prices have soared 9.4 percent during this same period. Demand at food banks has also increased.
The pandemic forced roughly 60 million Americans to seek help for food insecurity, according to Feeding America. At the end of 2021, as hiring boomed, demand for food banks returned to regular levels. But the relief was short-lived.
“High inflation leaves food banks struggling to meet needs.” AP News
How can this be in such a wealthy country?
While the following tips will help reduce food waste, the tips assume that people actually have access to food. Too many people do not. We need political will and policy to fix this rather than stretched-thin non-profits triaging the symptoms of hunger. We must treat the disease itself—inequality, a non-existent social safety net, insatiable greed, corruption. (Register to vote in the US here.)
And now for the tips.
1. Shop the fridge first
When we were taught to cook—if we were taught—we were told to look up a tasty recipe, jot down the list of ingredients, shop for those ingredients, prep the food, then put away the leftover ingredients and any leftovers of the dish. Done a few times a week, this can easily result in all kinds of food going to waste.
Instead, before you choose a recipe, look in the refrigerator and let the contents dictate what you’ll cook next. Have some leftover roasted vegetables? Throw them in a frittata, a galette or add a handful to hummus. Have leftover pesto you made with kale stems you saved? Top pizza dough with it. Build a grain bowl around leftover cooked rice or barley or farro.
Americans throw out about 25 percent of the food and drinks they buy. Cooking with the food you have on hand will slash food waste and save money—and time because you’ll make fewer trips to the grocery store.
2. View everything as a resource
Just as weeds are, in fact, plants, most parts of vegetables are food. Include daikon radish greens when making kimchi. Save your beet greens and sauté them, including the thick ribs you mince up. Or add beet greens to a pot of borscht. Save the stems of kale or chard, chop them up and sauté them along with onions for a sort of heretical mirepoix. No one will know!
The outer leaves of cauliflower taste delicious when roasted. Simply toss them in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast. Some cauliflower leaves have very thick white ribs. You can remove these, cut them up and cook them just like the cauliflower itself. Depending on your farmers’ market, you might be able to get cauliflower leaves for free! At my farmers’ market, some vendors remove the leaves and place them in a bin for customers to help themselves.
Think of every part of the vegetable as a tasty resource. You’ll have fun finding uses for everything, you’ll eat delicious food, you’ll save money and you’ll reduce food waste.
3. Eat more fresh vegetables
In a glass-half-full kind of way, the good-ish news is that vegetable prices, while higher, have risen less than the prices of many other foods. The USDA forecasts the following price increases this year:
Beef and veal: +16.2 percent
Pork: +14 percent
Poultry: +12.5 percent
Fish and seafood: +10.4 percent
Eggs: +11.4 percent
Dairy: +5.2 percent
Fats and oils: +11.7 percent
Fresh fruits: +10.6 percent
Fresh vegetables: +4.3 percent
Processed fruits and vegetables: +7.6 percent
Cereals and bakery products: +7.8 percent
Most of us don’t eat enough vegetables. They had cost less than beef and pork before inflation and now cost much less than those foods.
Once you bring your vegetables home, store them so they stay fresher longer and do a bit of prep (see number 5).
4. Buy pantry staples in bulk
Do this if you will eat all of the food. Otherwise, it may go to waste. The 35-pound bag of popcorn below at $24 works out to a little less than 69 cents per pound. The cheapest popcorn I’ve seen at the bulk bins costs 99 cents per pound.
Trying to buy everything package-free? Keep in mind that bulk stores fill their bins with giant bags of food like these. The bulk fairies don’t magically deliver them. Yes, you’ll have a large bag to deal with but if you bought individual bags of popcorn kernels, you’d bring home much more packaging. And if you buy pre-popped popcorn in plastic bags, this bag of kernels would replace at least 175 plastic bags of it. (I weighed kernels and did the math: One bag or popped popcorn would use less than .20 pounds of kernels. 5 x 35 = 175 bags.)
5. Be your own sous-chef
If it’s prepped, it’s eaten.
Recently, my daughter Charlotte showed me a great prep trick. She minces up several cloves of garlic, a few inches of ginger and a few jalapeños, mixes that up and stores it in a jar to use all week (or a bit longer). When she cooks dal or channa masala, for example, the most tedious prep work is done.
To extend the shelf-life of greens—spinach, kale, Swiss chard—the day I bring them home, I cut them, wash them, then put them in a clean cloth produce bag. Outside, I twirl the bag around like a human salad spinner, wicking water away from the produce, and put the entire bag of damp greens in the refrigerator crisper. This is like having convenient bagged greens on hand—without the plastic waste. The greens stay fresh for a long time.
Speaking of convenience, make this pita bread or this sourdough discard version, store it in the refrigerator for up to five days, and when you need pitas, tear off as many hunks of dough as you want pita bread and cook them on demand. Your pitas won’t have a chance to go stale—or to waste!
6. Cook like Grandma
Our grandmothers (or great-grandmothers, depending on your age) ran efficient kitchens. They preserved food. They fermented food. They knew how to cook every morsel of food. Their practical life skills served them well during hard times. And they tried to pass those skills down. Somewhere along the line, society rejected those skills and embraced convenience culture.
7. Grow food
Start with some easy plants to grow from seeds: herbs, beets, carrots, radishes, zucchini, kale and arugula. Plant a couple of fruit trees if you have space. You’ll plant once and eat for years after the trees begin to bear fruit (you have to be patient). If you don’t have a yard, you may be able to rent a plot at a community garden. (Go here to search for one near you.)
Growing even a little bit of food makes you appreciate food more—and waste less of it. Gratitude also helps reduce food waste.
The future of food prices
Food prices likely won’t ease up any time soon. Drought, high shipping costs, bird flu, supply chain problems and a lingering pandemic have all contributed to higher food prices. Russian aggression has worsened an already precarious situation. Russian soldiers have allegedly stolen grain and destroyed grain warehouses in Ukraine. Russia has also blocked the export of 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain, which, if left to rot, will exacerbate a global food crisis.
Even if Russia ended its war on Ukraine today, climate change will result in substantially smaller crop yields by as early as 2030, according to NASA. Less food leads to higher food prices.
Now would be a great time to grow even just a little bit of food. Maybe you’ll start with herbs this year. Next year, who knows? And as for food waste, there is no downside to eating all the food you buy.
I know enough food-saving tips to write a book. And I did! Go here to learn more.