Living on your own? Make the most of your food dollars

Living on your own in your first home or apartment can be an exciting time. If you’re like many people, chances are your paycheck may not go as far as you would like. Food will be a necessary part of your budget, but one expense where you have some flexibility.

Learning and practicing a few basic skills can help you stretch your food budget:

  • Learn basic food preparation skills. With a few skills and the wide selection of food available in grocery stores, you can create a variety of meals. If you know how to cook ground meat, boil pasta and open cans, then you can create chili, spaghetti, one-dish casseroles, soups and stews.
  • There are a variety of websites that feature quick and easy recipes, such as “Spend Smart, Eat Smart” at http://www.extension.iastate.edu/foodsavings/Eat/. Some of the recipes include video demonstrations. If you don’t have access to the Internet, invest in a basic cookbook, or borrow basic cooking videos from your public library.
  • Investing in some basic food preparation equipment could save you money in the long run. A few pots and pans, plus a microwave-safe cooking container, sharp knife, cutting board and can opener can get your food preparation off to a good start. Beyond these basics you might consider a colander, casserole dish, baking sheet, roasting pan, griddle, spatula and crockpot. Thrift stores and garage sales often have basic food preparation equipment at low cost.
  • Plan meals and snacks that use low-cost, healthy foods. Planning meals and snacks helps you to have the foods that you need in the amounts that you need. If you know ahead of time what you will have for a meal and have the foods to make it, then you are less likely to stop at a restaurant on the way home from work.
  • Plan meals using foods that are a good buy and foods that you already have in your kitchen. Grocery store flyers and websites are ways to find out what is on sale. Planning ahead also reduces the chances of purchasing food that will spoil before you can eat it. According to a study at the University of Arizona’s Bureau of Applied Research Anthropology, the average American family throws out 14 percent of their food. Throwing away unused food is like throwing away money.
  • Take a few minutes to create a shopping list and use it when you go to the store. Using a shopping list helps you remember what you need so you don’t have to make extra trips to the store later. Be flexible if you find a better deal once you’re at the store. For example, if you planned to have baby carrots with your lunches this week and red peppers are a bargain, you might buy the red peppers instead.
  • Compare prices. Grocery stores display the unit price for food–generally the cost-per-pound or cost-per-ounce. Unit pricing helps consumers compare similar foods in different size packages or different brands. Keep in mind that the unit cost for meat may include bones that aren’t eaten, so a boneless variety with a slightly higher unit cost may be a less expensive choice overall. For more information on unit pricing, see the “Spend Smart, Eat Smart” website at http://www.extension.iastate.edu/foodsavings/shop/unitpricing/.
  • Eat at home more often and save money by bringing food from home with you. Low-cost, easy-to-carry snacks include fresh and dried fruit, raw vegetables, nuts, individually wrapped low-fat string cheese, low-fat yogurt, whole grain crackers and graham crackers. An insulated lunch tote and freezer pack can save you money because you can keep meals at cold temperatures longer.