As everyone looks for ways to cut the fat from their household budget, the food budget is often on the top of the list. But don’t despair--it is possible for families to eat cheaper just by shopping smarter. Here are some ways to trim down your food budget while still eating well.

Take Inventory of Your Pantry.

A well-stocked pantry is essential to paring down your grocery bill. How often have you come home, opened the fridge to find nothing to eat, and then proceeded to order a pizza? By making sure your pantry is stocked with the basics, you can prepare a pasta dish and have it on the table before the pizza delivery guy could ever find your door.

Here’s how: Invest in stocking your pantry (the basics include pasta, rice, chicken broth, sundried tomatoes, anchovies, canned tomatoes, canned clams, olive oil and staples such as russet potatoes, yellow onions, and garlic.) Always make sure you have butter and eggs in the fridge as well. Even if you only have 15 minutes to make dinner, that’s all the time you need to make a satisfying pasta dish using common pantry and fridge items:

Try This: Pasta with Clam Sauce

Serves 4

What You Need:

  • 1 pound spaghetti, linguini, or capellini (capellini is the thinnest pasta with the quickest cooking time, perfect for when the family is really hungry.)
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 2-3 heads of chopped garlic
  • 1 can of clams, reserving the clam juice
  • one lemon
  • ¼ cup chopped Italian flat parsley (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste

What You Do:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and proceed to add your pasta to cook. While that is boiling, melt the butter in a large saucepan on medium high heat. Once melted, add the garlic and sauté for about one minute, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the clams and clam juice and allow it to simmer for a couple of minutes. Remove from heat. Zest the lemon and set aside. Juice the lemon and add two tablespoons to the sauce. Drain cooked pasta and add into the saucepan with the clam sauce, coating all the pasta with the sauce. Top with lemon zest and chopped parsley and serve.

Learn to Love Leftovers.

Variety may be the spice of life, but it can also be very expensive when it comes to meal planning. Incorporate leftovers into your weekly meal plan. Not only will it save money, it’s a time saver too. Plan Sunday dinner so that a leftover dinner is always a given for Monday, and possibly for lunches for the early part of the week.

Here’s how: Prepare the classic roast chicken for Sunday, but instead of one, roast two. Stores like Costco often sell pairs of whole fryers for about $10. Serve one for Sunday dinner with carrots and mashed potatoes. Wrap and refrigerate the second chicken, and shred for chicken soft tacos for Monday night dinner. Still have leftover chicken? Add mayo, dried cranberries and toasted pecans and you have a fantastic chicken salad for lunch the next day.

Try this: Chicken Soft Tacos

Serves 2-4 (depending on how many toppings you use)

What You Need:
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion chopped
  • ¾ tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 pound leftover chicken, chopped into 1-inch cubes
  • tortillas
  • variety of toppings such as shredded cheese, olives, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, sour cream, etc. Serving refried beans will stretch the meal servings even more.
What You Do:

In a skillet, heat the olive oil, add onion and cook until onions are soft and transparent. Add garlic powder and stir. Add chicken and heat through. Pour in a serving bowl and place on table next to all the toppings. Your family can then fill the soft tacos with their favorite toppings

Don’t Just Make a List, Make a Calendar.

The best way to keep your budget in check is to make a meal plan not only for the week ahead, but to create a monthly food calendar to utilize bulk purchases.

Here’s How: Draw up your weekly meal list. Many stores post their weekly specials online, so you can research prices and plan your dishes accordingly. Buy larger portions of the sale items, divide into mealtime portions and freeze. Create your food calendar, which includes room to note not only the meals for the week ahead, but for several weeks out.

Suppose that ground beef is on sale for a ridiculously low price. Plan on making a meatloaf for Sunday dinner (with leftovers for Monday night). Now add a meal that incorporates the remaining frozen beef for the following week (say burgers with caramelized onions) and another entrée (spaghetti with meat sauce) for the week after that. By posting future meals on your calendar, you reduce the risk of frozen goods becoming permanent fixtures in your freezer.

Hit the Farmer’s Market.

People often stay away from the local farmer’s markets and fruit stands thinking that the supermarkets have the better deals. This is not always the case, and often savvy shoppers can fare much better at the farmer’s market than a traditional market (not to mention doing your part to support local agriculture).

Here’s how. If you are unfamiliar with the purveyors at the farmer’s market, check all the prices first—they can differ greatly from stand to stand. Shop for only the peak of season items, when food is at its ripest and most plentiful it will usually be at its cheapest price point of the season. Know exactly how much you need and just buy that—you might be surprised how much you spend on produce that ends up going to waste. Why not buy less (and buy local) instead?

Still not convinced that you can find deals at the farmer’s market? Then visit the market during its last hour of the day, sometimes the vendors will sell their produce at a greatly reduced price rather than take it back with them.

Penny Wise But Pound Foolish—Some Things Not to Do

Only buy bulk on items you continually use and which won’t go stale. Most people leave places like Costco after their first visit there with a cart that looks like they run a little league concession stand. Sure, 40 candy bars for $20 sounds like a great deal, but do you really need 40 candy bars? It only pays to shop at those places if you can stick to the basics.

Also, avoid the fast food dinner night, as it can kill your grocery budget. All the spur-of-the-moment drive-through trips add up. Instead, invest in a Panini maker for the nights you can’t bear to think about dinner. A Panini maker is nothing more than an Italian sandwich grill, but it transforms cold sandwiches into dinner-worthy eats. The sandwiches were traditionally made with ciabatta bread, but most breads work very well. Having an occasional Panini night is also a great way to use up lunch sandwich fixings in the fridge.

Try this: Yummy Panini Combos

  • Pesto, mozzarella and sliced tomatoes
  • Turkey, cheddar cheese, and chutney
  • Ham, brie, and mustard
  • Bacon, fig jam, and goat cheese
  • And for dessert or an afterschool snack: Nutella on sliced wheat bread.

Take time to plan your meals, and make sure to factor in your schedule and energy level when you get home. Know what nights you have time to cook, when you don’t, plan accordingly, and bring your grocery bills down a notch!