For many of us, the holiday and winter months are an excuse to splurge on our grocery budget. We’re buying more booze, shelling out for prime cuts of meat, and, of course, buying lots of apps and snacks (long live the cheese plate). Unfortunately, this can lead to a feeling of being strapped for cash when the thaw begins.
If you’re feeling the need to tighten the purse strings this spring, you’re not alone. And happily, it’s easier than you think. I chatted with some of my chef and recipe developer friends to find out how they save money on groceries this time of year. Their tips were all sneakily efficient (my favorite is #1!). Let’s take a look.
1. Seek out end-of-season items.
“Stores often put end-of-season or post-holiday items on sale in order to move the product,” says Ron Hsu, the chef and co-founder of Atlanta’s Lazy Betty. He discovered this tip because he often shops for his family celebrations after major holidays (because he spends the actual holidays cooking in his restaurant). “I usually find a lot of good deals after the main event,” he notes. “And because end-of-season items are closer to expiration, they’re priced lower.”
Many of us shop with the best of intentions, only to watch a crisper drawer full of fresh, seasonal veggies slowly wilt. Einat Admony, the chef and owner of NYC-based Balaboosta, avoids this problem by shopping every day, or close to it: “Buy only the food that you’re going to cook for the evening to avoid throwing away expired ingredients.” If a daily grocery expedition isn’t feasible for you, consider doing a major shopping haul once a week for staples and nonperishables, and refreshing your produce supply once or twice before the next trip.
3. Cook with things you’d normally throw away.
We’re not talking about spoiled or rotten food. Instead, Admony encourages us to look differently at things we would normally consider compost. “Turn overripe fruit into a jam, and pickle every vegetable that’s about to go bad,” she explains. “And don’t throw away beet tops, green leeks, or carrot tops; they are all delicious and easy to cook.”
4. Hit up a farmers market.
“If you have one in your town, check out the farmers market,” says Brooke Brimm, a plant-based chef and cookbook author. Farmers don’t have the brick-and-mortar overhead costs that can drive up prices in grocery stores, points out Adam Richman, a food TV personality who is hosting the new History channel series, Adam Eats the 80s, which is why these seasonally focused greenmarkets are relatively inexpensive. Another reason why green markets are superior to delivery services or basic grocery stores? You can speak directly with the people who grow your food!
5. Grow your own produce.
“This may be called, ‘not so surprising,’” says Christoper Scott, chef and co-founder at Butterfunk Biscuit Company and Top Chef alum. But for him, growing his own food is a must. Scott lives in New York City, so he applies urban farming techniques — and you can too, even if you don’t have much (or any) room for a garden. Set up a container garden on your window sill and you’ll save those few bucks, here and there, that you’d normally spend on store-bought bunches of herbs.
6. Cook. Usually at home. Mostly soup.
It sounds counterintuitive for a restaurant chef to suggest you cook at home, and yet that’s just what Bryce Shuman, the executive chef at NYC’s Sweetbriar, encourages us to do this spring. “Soup or stew might not be the first thing you think of when you think of warmer weather, but it’s a great way to utilize 100% of the usable portions of raw ingredients. And the leftovers are even better.” Shuman notes that soup doesn’t have to be a heavy, hearty affair, like that mid-winter chili. “One of my favorite warmer weather stews is poached Cornish game hens with spring garlic and baby dill.”
7. Preserve, preserve, preserve.
Ed Cotton, the exec chef and partner at Jack & Charlie’s no. 118 in New York City, is an ardent fan of springtime flavors. His tactic for enjoying them all year will save you money in the long term: He preserves spring produce when it’s at the height of ripeness. English peas, he notes, cost much less in the spring when they’re fresh. “Buy a bunch in bulk, shuck them, and store in airtight zip-top bags in the freezer,” he says. Of course, wild ramps are a big seasonal hit; you can forage for them in the wild or buy them at farmers markets. Either way, you’ll want to preserve their garlicky goodness. Cotton pickles the bulbs and uses them on sandwiches. The green, leafy tops get blanched and blended into a purée, which you can use in fancy mayonnaise, pesto, and homemade pasta.
8. Buy whole chickens once a month.
Across the board, whole chickens are more affordable than pre-processed parts, like boneless breasts. But Andrew Zimmern, the TV food personality, chef, and author with a new Substack newsletter, has an even more insider-secret: Those chickens will eventually get even cheaper. Keep an eye out for when product turns over in your store, and shop on days when meat is marked down for quick sale. “I butcher them into parts, and freeze them in pairs for fast defrosting.” The bones and scraps go into a DIY stock. Does this really save money? “50 cents on the dollar,” says Zimmern.
9. Think outside your usual grocery store.
Zimmern regularly includes his neighborhood’s Asian and Mexican grocery stores during his shopping trips. The quality of their produce and meat is top-notch, and it’s typically much less expensive than at chain stores. He lists mustard greens, bok choy, cabbage, garlic, shallots, ginger, bananas, apples, and oranges as his regular scores. Plus, you may even find a new favorite ingredient. “At my local Mexican supermarket, skirt steak was recently $11.99 a pound. That incredible cut isn’t available at any other supermarket in my city,” he notes.
How do you plan on cutting grocery costs this season? Tell us in the comments below.