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13 ways to go grocery shopping on a budget

It can feel impossible to whittle down an already bare-bones budget, but one area that you might have more flexibility than you think is in your grocery bill. It is possible to pay less and still eat well. Try these tips for shopping — and cooking — smarter.

1. Time your shopping to sales cycles

Many grocery stores follow an identifiable pattern when it comes to sales. The next time your favorite food items go on sale, note when and for how long. After several sales, you're likely to see a pattern you can count on. Use this information to buy just enough of the items to last until the next expected sale.

2. Buy and prepare whole foods

Packaged foods generally cost more because of all the preparation and materials that go into making them. Save a substantial amount of money on your grocery bill by choosing whole foods that you prepare from scratch. For instance, buy fresh lettuce instead of bagged. Rather than buying pre-cooked meats, choose raw, whole pieces, like whole chicken and lean cuts of beef and pork. Raw vegetables are inexpensive and high in fiber, which keeps you full longer than many processed food items.

3. Use meat sparingly

High-quality lean cuts of meat and poultry tend to be pricey, but you don't need to cut these products out completely. Instead of making meat the center of each meal, save money by dicing up beef and poultry and using them to flavor meals. This works well with casseroles, pasta dishes, soups, and stir-fry dishes. Have a couple of meals a week where you incorporate inexpensive sources of protein, such as tofu and beans.

4. Have a clean-out-your-pantry meal

Challenge yourself once or twice a month to make meals using only the items you have in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. If you need something you don't have on hand, rather than going to the store, improvise and make substitutions. This is a fun way to clean out your cupboards in preparation for your next shopping trip. It's also interesting to see how creative you can be in the kitchen — all while saving money.

5. Bring only cash to the grocery store

If you only take cash grocery shopping, you'll be forced to make decisions between food items. This process results in you identifying the best deals and focusing on healthier foods that will stretch the farthest. Add up the grocery bill as you shop so that you don't run out of cash when you're checking out.

6. Buy in bulk and prepare and freeze

If there's a sale on food items you use often, consider buying them in bulk and then preparing them and freezing. For instance, if you discover a sale on green beans or zucchini, cook or blanch and freeze them. You  can use the zucchini the future to make side dishes or turn them into healthy “spaghetti.” The same goes for meat. Buy a large amount and then split it up and freeze it. You could also consider a wholesale store membership to get better prices on large quantities. Many stores offer trial or one-day “memberships” so you can test if the investment is worth it.

7. Grow your own vegetables and fruits

Planting a garden every spring and summer can provide you with a great deal of produce at very little cost. If you don’t have access to a yard, look into using pots on a balcony or small container growing in a window or with LED grow lights. Community gardens are also gaining popularity, check with local organizations to see if your area has available garden plots. Make the garden even more cost-effective by raising the plants from seeds. You could enjoy dozens of zucchini or tomatoes after paying mere pennies to plant them. In order to ensure that the produce doesn't go to waste when you have a bounty from the garden, look for recipes for excess produce. Plus, you can always follow tip #6 and cook and freeze certain veggies for future use.

8. Plant a kitchen herb garden

In addition to growing your own vegetables, consider planting herbs as well. Cooking with fresh herbs adds flavor to any meal. Store-bought herbs like basil and rosemary can be cost-prohibitive, though. During the winter months, try growing your own herbs in your kitchen window. When you need a sprig of parsley or a tablespoon of oregano or chives, you'll have them ultra-fresh and readily available. If an herb garden isn’t in the cards, consider subbing dried herbs for fresh. Dried herbs are actually more potent, so you’ll need less. A good rule of thumb is three times less, so if a recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of fresh rosemary, you only need 1 tablespoon of dried.

9. Eat seasonally

The more you eat in-season foods, the lower your food bill will be. Grocers tend to mark down fruit that is in season, for instance, because they have a lot of it and prefer that it doesn't go to waste. The easier it is for the grocer to get the food item, the more likely they will be to offer a discount. Consider also visiting your local farmers market where they'll have good deals on plenty of in-season produce.

10. Use coupons and rebates

In addition to paper coupons found in magazines and newspapers, you'll find that there are a number of coupon apps and websites.  Research manufacturers to see if they offer printable or digital coupons on their websites. Use several of these methods, and the savings are likely to add up.

11. Buy perishable items right before store closing

Many grocers make steep discounts on meat, produce, and other items that are about to expire. You can often find such grocery items marked down as much as 80 percent . Visit a store before closing or check customer service to see which days they offer discounted items. Also keep in mind that products are still okay to eat after the use and sell by dates – these are dates the manufacturer states the product is at its ideal quality, not true expiration dates. But as always, use your best judgement – if something smells funny, it’s probably not safe to eat.

12. Buy generic products whenever possible

Generic products and store brands are often very similar. The price, however, can be considerably cheaper for generics. This applies to a wide variety of foods, including grains and dairy products. Compare the store-bought brands against the generics and decide for yourself.

13. Avoid wasting food

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted in America. Avoid adding to that statistic in your own kitchen by making sure to use food or freeze it before it goes bad. This will help you stick to your food budget and ensure that you're getting the most out of your diet by consuming fresh foods that are nutrient-rich.

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