14 Grocery Store Items You’re Better Off Just Making at Home
Slash your grocery bill costs with some clever shopping moves and DIY recipes.
“Gourmet” frozen vegetables
Sure, you can buy an 8-ounce packet of peas in an herbed butter sauce, but why do so when you can make your own? Just cook the peas, add a pat of butter and sprinkle on some herbs you already have on hand. The same thing goes for carrots with dill sauce and other gourmet veggies. Try these tricks frugal shoppers use to spend less on groceries.
When you buy a pre-made sandwich, you’re really just paying for its elaborate packaging—plus a whole lot of salt, fat, and unnecessary additives. For the average cost of one of these babies ($2.50 to $3 per sandwich), you could make a bigger, better, and more nutritious version yourself. If you want to start grocery shopping online, here’s what you need to know first.
Premium frozen fruit bars
At nearly $2 per bar, “all fruit” or “fruit and juice” bars may not be rich in calories, but they are rich in price. Make your own at home. The only equipment you need is a blender, a plastic reusable ice-pop mold (on sale at discount stores for about 99 cents each) or small paper cups and pop sticks or wooden skewers. To make four pops, throw 2 cups cut-up fruit, 1 tablespoon sugar, and 1 teaspoon lemon or lime juice into a blender. Cover and blend until smooth. You might wish to add 1 to 2 tablespoons of water so the final mix is a thick slush. Pour into 4-ounce pop molds or paper cups, insert sticks, and freeze until solid. These are 29 things your grocer isn’t telling you, but every shopper needs to know.
Boxed rice “entrée” or side-dish mixes
These consist basically of rice, salt, and spices, yet they’re priced way beyond the ingredients sold individually. Yes, there are a few flavorings included, but they’re probably ones you already have in your pantry. Buy a bag of rice, measure out what you need, add your own herbs and other seasonings, and cook the rice according to package directions. You’re probably still falling for these supermarket tricks that make you spend way more than you need to.
Energy or protein bars
These calorie-laden bars are usually stacked at the checkout counter because they depend on impulse buyers who grab them, thinking they are more wholesome than a candy bar. Unfortunately, they can have very high fat and sugar contents and are often as caloric as a candy bar. They’re also two to three times more expensive, at $2 to $3 a bar. If you need a boost, a vitamin-rich piece of fruit, a yogurt, or a small handful of nuts is more satiating and less expensive.
Spice mixes like grill seasoning and rib rubs might seem like a good buy because they contain a lot of spices you would have to buy individually. Well, check the label; we predict the first ingredient you will see on the package is salt, followed by vague “herbs and spices.” Look in your own pantry and you’ll probably be surprised to discover just how many herbs you already have on hand. Many cookbooks today include spice mix recipes, particularly grilling cookbooks.
Powdered iced tea mixes or prepared flavored iced tea
Powdered and gourmet ices teas are really a rip-off. It’s much cheaper to make your own iced tea from actual (inexpensive) tea bags and keep a jug in the fridge. Plus, many mixes and preparations are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup and other sugars, along with artificial flavors. To make 32 ounces of tea, it usually takes 8 bags of black tea or 10 bags of herbal, green, or white tea. Most tea-bag boxes have recipes, so just follow along. Here’s how you can make your food healthier without even trying.
It’s a bad investment for so many reasons. It’s expensive compared to what’s coming out of the tap, its cost to the environment is high (it takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce and ship all those bottles) and it’s not even better for your health than the stuff running down your drain. Even taking into account the cost of the filters, water from home is still much cheaper than bottled water, which can run $1 to $3 a pop. If you have well water and it really does not taste good (even with help from a filter), or if you are pregnant or have a baby and you haven’t had your well water tested recently, buy jugs of distilled or “nursery” water at big discount stores. They usually cost between 79 cents and 99 cents for one gallon (as opposed to $1.50 for 8 ounces of “designer” water). You can reuse the jugs to store homemade iced tea, flavored waters, or, when their tops are cut off, all sorts of household odds and ends.
Washed and bagged greens can be a time-saver, but they can cost three times as much as buying a head of lettuce. Even more expensive are salad “kits,” where you get some greens, a small bag of dressing, and a small bag of croutons. Make your own croutons by toasting cut-up stale bread you would otherwise toss, and try mixing your own dressing.
Individual servings of anything
The recent trend to package small quantities into 100-calorie snack packs is a way for food-makers to get more money from unsuspecting customers. The price “per unit” cost of these is significantly more than if you had just bought one big box of cheese crackers or a bag of chips. This is exactly what you should do. Buy the big box and then parcel out individual servings and store in small reusable storage bags.
We checked unit prices of those small bags of trail mix hanging in the candy aisle and were shocked to find that they cost about $10 a pound! Make your own for much, much less with a 1-pound can of dry roasted peanuts, 1 cup of raisins, and handful of almonds, dried fruit, and candy-coated chocolate. Keep the mixture in a plastic or glass container with a tight lid for up to three weeks.
“Snack” or “lunch’” packs
These “all-inclusive” food trays might seem reasonably priced (from $2.50 to $4), but you’re actually paying for the highly designed label, wrapper, and specially molded tray. They only contain a few crackers and small pieces of cheese and lunch meat. The actual edible ingredients are worth just pennies and are filled with salt.
Gourmet ice cream
It’s painful to watch someone actually pay $6 for a gallon of designer-brand ice cream. Don’t bother. There’s usually at least one brand or other on sale and you can easily dress up store brands with your own additives like chunky bits of chocolate or crushed cookie. If you do like the premium brands, wait for that three-week sales cycle to kick in and stock up when your favorite flavor is half price.
Preformed meat patties
Frozen burgers, beef or otherwise, are more expensive than buying meat in bulk and making patties yourself. We timed it—it takes less than 10 seconds to form a flat circle and throw it on the grill. Also, there’s some evidence that preformed meat patties might contain more E. coli than regular ground meat. In fact, most of the recent beef recalls have involved premade frozen beef patties.