Frugal food: 10 DIY tips to save money while eating better and healthier

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Here at Boing Boing, we're fond of all things handmade, and of clever ways to stretch one's household budget. As the cost of staple foods and happy indulgences like coffee continue to rise, now is a good time to explore ways to save money on food with DIY smarts. Here's a list of 10 proven ways I've managed to cut my household budget—feel free to share more of your own in the comments. Also, apropos of nothing? Cats.

1) Drink water instead of soda. And drink tap water, not bottled water. Soft drinks don't contribute much to your body beyond chemicals and empty calories, and there is growing evidence that both the sugary-sweet and sugar-free varieties are associated with a variety of elevated health risks. Water is essential to human life. Your body needs it. And why waste money on bottled water that sits around in questionable plastics, possibly transported from the other side of the world with a ginormous carbon footprint, when the stuff that comes out of your tap is safe and healthy? (People who live near fracking sites in the US, or in developing countries without potable tap water, I'm not talking to you.) Sink-mounted water filters or filtering pitchers are an economical option if you prefer filtered water, but come on, quit wasting your money on bottled water. It's dumb.

2) Get to know your local farmer's market. And eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. They're nutritionally dense and an excellent use of your food budget. Growers near where you live who sell in-season produce are your best friend. I also find that locally grown produce at the farmer's market tends to be fresher, yummier, and lasts longer in the fridge than what I find in stores. Plus it's fun, and you'll get some nice gentle exercise walking around checking out what's looking good each week.

3) Prepare food at home and bring it to work instead of eating lunch out. I guarantee you'll save money. It's also easier to maintain a healthy, nutritious, calorie-appropriate diet this way. And I always found that preparing lunch at home was a more efficient use of my time than waiting in line with a bunch of other wage slaves during lunch rush hour.

4) Font-free foods are the best. The less you buy in boxes, the happier you'll be, and the more money you'll save. So many processed foods aren't really food, but nutritionally lacking "food-like products" engineered to stimulate us to eat more, buy more, and ensure that big food conglomerates turn a profit.

5) Can you make it yourself? If so, you'll save money and gain flavor. Salad dressings are just one example: they're overpriced and underwhelming when pre-packaged at the grocery, but so simple to whip up at home. Even a basic vinegar and oil dressing will kick bottled dressing's butt if you're using quality ingredients. Feeling more ambitious? Things you enjoy making and eating—for some, baked goods or slow-cooked soup, for others, more exotic hobbies like home pickling—can become a pleasurable and money-saving habit. Another simple example: those single-serving containers of flavored yogurt? Not very economical. Compare the cost per serving (and the amount of sweeteners and other garbage they usually contain) with buying a large tub of plain yogurt and mixing in honey, nuts, preserves, or whatever you enjoy with each serving.

6) If you eat meat, consider reducing your intake of meat. Try integrating more plant-based proteins into your diet. If this sounds crazy to you, start with just one meal a week. Tofu and beans generally cost less, ounce to ounce, than chicken, beef, pork, lamb, or fish. And they need not be boring. If you're new to plant-based cooking, the web is full of wonderful vegan/vegetarian blogs and free recipe sites that can help you learn how to include these foods in your diet. You don't have to become a vegetarian to enjoy them, though you may decide you want to because they are yummy, satisfying, and nutritionally rich.

7) If you drink coffee, brew it yourself. Buy freshly roasted whole-bean coffee, and grind it and brew it at home. You don't need a thousand-dollar espresso machine to enjoy good coffee, either: espresso drinks aren't inherently superior to a well-done cup of drip. And a cup brewed at home (perhaps packed in a thermos to carry to work) is cheaper (and IMHO tastier) to that $5 crappucino you buy every day from Starbucks.

8) Start a garden. If you're new to gardening, start small, with things you know you'll actually eat. Even if you're in the city without a yard, things like herbs, tomatoes, and lettuces can be grown in containers.

9) Buy in bulk, but only when it makes sense. This is a good way to save money on staples like legumes, nuts, flours, and grains in stores that offer bulk bins. And Amazon and big-box stores like Costco are well-established sources of savings if there are packaged items you know you're going to use again and again. Buying in large quantity won't save you money if you're not going to use it, though. See number 10.

10) Waste not, want not. We throw away a ridiculous amount of food. Ridiculous! According to the EPA, in 2010, more than 34 million tons of food waste was generated in America. That's more than any other waste category but paper. Food waste represents 14 percent of the total municipal solid waste stream, making it the single largest component of trash we throw away from our homes. Take a look in your kitchen trash can: how much of that is food? Can you do more to reduce the amount of usable food you throw out, with better meal planning and less impulsive eating out? Think of your frugal ancestors and how little they likely wasted compared to us today. What would your great-grandmother do?

Eat what you buy, and buy only what you will eat.

(images: Shutterstock)