I felt a momentary sense of panic recently, after reading that Canadians can expect the price of fresh fruits, veggies and meats to increase again this year; especially for those of us living in more remote and northern communities. Our dropping loonie is mostly to blame forcing prices as high as $8 for a single head of cauliflower in some places!

To avoid that kind of sticker shock, and rising food prices in general, I’ll be sticking to frugally inspired habits that help us save money and feed our family of five on one full-time income in Northwestern Ontario.

Here are our family’s top-10 tested ways to stretch each grocery dollar.

1) Set realistic goals: Cutting your grocery bill in half right away might not be easy; it’s more realistic if you give yourself a few months of practice to save 20–30% on your current spending. There is also only so much fat to be trimmed from a grocery budget before taste and nutrition will suffer.  Finding your own sweet spot between frugality and practicality is key.

2) Track your spending: there’s a reason this tip is so often repeated by the experts—it works! By saving your grocery receipts for several months, you’ll see where your biggest costs are, and what you can—and can’t—cut out. From there, you can set up a realistic budget based on your income, expenses and cost-cutting goals.

3) Shop with a list: Try planning meals 7–10 days ahead.  Make detailed grocery lists and research where the best prices can be found. You’ll shop less often, but more strategically. Remember to compare the price-per-unit between brands while you shop, usually found in fine print on store shelves, to figure out what the real savings are.

4) Cut those coupons: Whether you clip from flyers, subscribe to online services such as Save.ca or use an app like Flipp, using coupons is a time-honoured way to save money on popular brands. Even shopping at a store that offers a points system, or similarly a credit or rewards card that you can eventually cash in for a rebate against your groceries, is a savvy way to cut costs while you shop. We use the PC Plus app and typically save at least $100 on groceries every year.

5) Buy in bulk: The simple premise is that buying more costs less per unit, so this is an absolute must for any cost-conscious grocery shopper. If you have the space, investing in a small freezer will make storing some bulk foods—think 10 lbs of ground beef, 4 loaves of bread, litres of seasonal fruit etc.—actually doable. Don’t have extra space?  Find a friend or relative to go in together on buying bulk items, sharing the food and the savings.

6) Stock up on sales: Buying multiples of your staple items when they are on sale, is a long-term saving strategy. We max out on canned tomatoes and beans; pasta and grains; sugar and flour etc., when they are marked down, knowing the occasional larger grocery bill for discounted staples still equals more savings overall in a year.

7) Cook more homemade meals: Not everything homemade will save you money (and certainly not time), but most are worth the effort in both taste and price.  Homemade pizza dough and sauce, muffins and pancakes, meatballs and burgers, and the humble casserole are all easy wins. If you’re spending time to cook from scratch, double the batches, put some leftovers in lunchboxes and thermoses, and freeze the extras.

8) Make some sacrifices, but not all: Saving shouldn’t feel like a punishment, so while my kids love cereal for breakfast, we compromise by serving less expensive things like toast or oatmeal half the week. We also drink more water than milk or juice, buy more generic than name brands, and eat meatless meals regularly. But we also like our organic produce and free-range eggs, and we don’t scrimp on coffee beans; following our other money-saving measures makes these choices easier.

9) Eat more local, in-season produce: Generally speaking, buying local fruits and veggies when they are in season will cost less than exotic, imported varieties. For those of us living in more northern locales, this comes back to needing a freezer, or a few spare shelves for canned preserves, so you can stock up when its cheap, and still get your vitamins all winter long.

10) Grow your own food: For pennies a seed packet, you can feed your family with fresh produce from a garden, or even just simple pots on the balcony (lettuce and tomatoes flourish in my containers). Other no-fuss gardening I enjoy is growing fruit trees, raspberry bushes and rhubarb patches in our yard. Fresh herbs planted in empty jam jars on a windowsill are also a fun and cheap way to reap the benefits of home-grown food.

Whatever approach your family takes to saving money on groceries, I can attest that tackling it together will be an excellent opportunity to teach your kids about budgeting, saving, and best of all, eating good food!

More info on combatting Canada’s rising food prices:
  • University of Guelph Food Institute’s annual food report
  • StatsCanada’s breakdown of household spending on food: how does your spending compare?
  • Carmen’s favourite book for frugal inspiration (available for free at your local library, naturally): The Complete Tightwad Gazette, by Amy Dacyczyn