5 tips to spend less money on food, and eat better for it

A little more time spent planning and in the kitchen can lead to positive impacts on your health, the planet and your wallet, says Julie Van Rosendaal.

As food costs go up, our food columnist shares how you can stretch your dollar

You shouldn't shop when you're hungry but you should shop with a plan. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

For the past decade, we've rung in every new year with reports on rising food costs from Dalhousie University.

This year, they forecast a two to four per cent increase in food prices for Canadian families.

Canada's Food Price Report 2020, which is released jointly by Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph, predicts a four to six per cent increase in the cost of meat; a two to four per cent increase for seafood, vegetables and restaurant meals; a 1.5 to 3.5 per cent rise in the cost of fruit and one to three per cent for dairy, with bakery items staying about the same.

Altogether, researchers believe the average family will pay an extra $487 more than they did in 2019.

Fortunately, there are ways to counter the effects of those higher grocery store prices in your own kitchen. Here are five ways you can save money and excess packaging, reducing not only your food bill but your impact on the environment.

Learn to cook

Cooking from scratch using raw ingredients is always cheaper than prepared or convenience foods, even shortcuts like pre-grated cheese or chopped vegetables.

Making your own food also gives you the knowledge to use what you have, which in turn reduces food waste.

Knowing how to turn wilting produce into a soup or curry; turn random leftovers into an improvised pasta or quick frittata; or make cornbread, muffins, biscuits or pancakes out of dairy that's nearing its expiry date to keep it from going into the compost.

Remember, you can freeze most things you're not ready to use right away, and use them later.

Use what you have

If you're fortunate enough to have a walk-in pantry and/or a deep freeze, shop from it. Thaw and eat the chili you put away in the fall, or toss the surplus chicken thighs in the slow cooker.

All kinds of rogue leftovers can be reheated and spooned over a freshly baked potato. If you have a cupboard full of random grains, turn them into risotto or hearty breakfasts or put them in grain bowls or bean and grain salads.

Use up those bags of uncommon pasta shapes rather than buying more because that's what's called for in a recipe.

Buying fresh produce when it is in season can mean a better tasting product and a cheaper total at the checkout. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Shop sales and buy produce in season

Fruits and vegetables are at their peak when they're in season and not only do they taste better, they're cheaper when they're more abundant. You shouldn't  expect to eat strawberries and asparagus in January.

During the winter months, frozen fruits and vegetables are just fine, and if you can afford to, stock up when things go on sale as buying in bulk can be cheaper.

Prices fluctuate throughout the year, so if you can afford to buy staples like flour, rice, butter, oil, and canned tomatoes when they're cheap, stock up, but also remember to use what you have.

If you're in a position to pick up extra when items are discounted, it's a good time to donate a few to the food bank bin just beyond the checkout.

Plan ahead

Having a plan reduces the risk of last-minute shopping when you're tired and hungry, or impulse ordering, whether it's pizza after work or buying lunch when you didn't have time to sort something out during the morning rush.

Some families make weekly plans, and dedicate some time on the weekend to food prep.

This can look like cooking large batches of sauces, soups or stews, baking cookies or muffins for lunch boxes, or even prepping veggies, marinating meat or shaking up dressings to have ready to go during a busy week.

You can also make cooking a social occasion.

Spend an afternoon making big pots of soup, stew, chili, curry, or dumplings with help. It's a great way to spend screen-free time with your kids or catch up with friends, and everyone will have meals taken care of for awhile.

Beans are fibrous and cheap and can stretch a meal to feed more mouths. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Cook beans and lentils more often

They're cheap, readily available canned or dried, and good for us, as they are high in protein and fibre.

Beans and lentils are also a benefit to farmers as a huge prairie crop — they fix the nitrogen in the soil, helping with crop rotation.

To add to their benefits, this food is infinitely versatile, and used in virtually all cuisine around the world.

Bean dishes don't have to be vegetarian, they're a great way to stretch more expensive beef, pork, sausages and other cuts of meat.