How to rein in your grocery bill

Slow-cooker beans. / Christopher Simpson/The New York Times/File

Ten-dollar cartons of eggs. Seven-dollar gallons of milk. Two-dollar apples. Everyone -- even Cardi B -- is feeling the pain of jaw-droppingly high food costs driven by inflation and a flurry of other factors. It's scary to see your grocery bill skyrocket, but while no one can predict what's going to happen to food prices in the coming year, stocking up on certain ingredients when you spot them at a lower price can help you save significantly. We talked to a few budget experts and several New York Times Cooking editors and writers about what items they buy and how they make the most of them.


-- You may be new to budget shopping. If so, embrace grocery store circulars (you can use the Flipp app to track them). Make a list before you go, and if your grocery store has an online presence, compare prices.

-- Take a tip from Ali Slagle, a recipe developer and New York Times Cooking contributor, and stroll by your staple ingredients whenever you visit a store. You might discover a surprise sale.

-- Finally, the key to budget grocery shopping is being open to sacrificing convenience for a lower price. Consider visiting different stores to take advantage of sales. It can be worth it.


1. Cheese: Can you freeze hard cheeses like mozzarella and cheddar? The answer is yes if you plan on melting it. (The thawed texture might be a bit weird for eating out of hand.) Krysten Chambrot, an associate editor for New York Times Cooking, chops up fresh mozzarella and freezes the slices on a sheet pan, then pops them into a resealable plastic bag for quick pizzas. "It keeps us from ordering in and keeps waste down for two people," she said. Buy shredded cheese (or block cheese and shred it yourself) and freeze it.

2. Butter: Genevieve Ko, a deputy editor for New York Times Cooking, freezes butter or, if she has the time, turns it into cookie or pie dough, or fully baked treats, and freezes them to enjoy later. (Keep an eye out for sales around major cooking holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.)

3. Milk: Natasha Janardan, a social video producer for New York Times Cooking, buys milk at a dollar store, where she can get a gallon for $4.19 instead of $7. Consider ditching dairy milk altogether if you don't use a lot of it to begin with. These days, alternative milks are typically cheaper, and "a half gallon of oat milk lasts longer than whole dairy milk," said Caroline Lange, a writer, recipe developer and tester in Brooklyn. You can also freeze milk. The consistency will change slightly, but it still works perfectly fine in baked goods. (The same goes for yogurt and buttermilk.)

4. Eggs: Don't be afraid to buy a few cartons if you spot them at a good price. They keep for three to five weeks in the fridge (or longer). You can also freeze beaten eggs in ice cube trays, then pop the cubes into a resealable plastic bag to thaw for later use in baked goods or for scrambled eggs. Or make a couple frittatas -- or bake mini frittatas in muffin tins -- and freeze them for busy mornings.


5. Ground meat: Alli Powell, creator of the Grocery Getting Girl, an Instagram account dedicated to budget shopping and cooking, buys ground meat in bulk or on sale, then divides it into half- or 1-pound portions for freezing. Genevieve Ko suggests making meatballs, samosas or dumplings, which freeze well and can be cooked straight from the freezer.

6. Stew meats: Stock up on bone-in chicken thighs, beef chuck, short ribs, pork or lamb shoulder. Ko makes big batches of stew and keeps containers in the freezer and in the fridge for future fast meals.

7. Fish: Nicole Donnell, creator of Black Girl Budget, a financial coaching service dedicated to teaching Black women the benefits of budgeting, buys a large piece of fish and cuts it into pieces to freeze instead of buying individual, vacuum-sealed servings. If you score a couple of pieces of fresh salmon, but you're not quite ready to eat them, you can marinate them for up to two days before cooking.

8. Rotisserie chicken: Take it from Vaughn Vreeland, a supervising producer for New York Times Cooking. "Never underestimate the power of a rotisserie chicken (especially if you live alone)." His grocery store has them on sale every Monday, so he eats some for dinner, then shreds the remaining meat and uses the bones for stock. Half of the shredded chicken gets turned into chicken salad, and the other half goes into soup.


9. Fruit: Once you've eaten your fill of fresh fruit, make muffins, cakes, quick breads or pie filling that you can freeze to enjoy later. Or slice and freeze berries, stone fruits, pineapple and mango on a sheet pan and store in a resealable plastic bag to use in smoothies or baked goods. You can also make jam or preserves. If you have a surplus of apples and pears, which don't freeze well, turn them into applesauce.

10. Hearty vegetables: "If you buy a big cabbage, it will feed you forever," Slagle said. Opt for vegetables with a long shelf life, like root vegetables, onions, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. Then, make quick pickles with past-their-prime sturdy vegetables: Submerge them in leftover pickle brine and refrigerate. In a few days, they'll make a great giardiniera-like topping for sandwiches and salads.

11. Dark leafy greens and herbs: If you spot them on sale -- or you have a big bunch that are about to turn -- Ko suggests cooking them down or turning them into sauce to keep in the fridge or freezer because they take up so much space otherwise. And if you have a bag of greens just about to turn slimy, no need to wilt if you're in a rush. Toss them into the freezer as-is and grab a handful to use in smoothies or soups.

12. Frozen foods: Look for deals on frozen fruit and vegetables, especially for out-of-season produce that your family loves. It's flash-frozen at peak freshness, so the taste is comparable, especially when used in soups, baked goods, stews and stir-fries. And most are already chopped, so you don't have to prep. Try serving your kids frozen fruit -- berries, peaches, mango or pineapple -- when they want something sweet but not sugary.

13. Lemons and limes: Buying a bag of lemons or limes is far cheaper than buying them individually. Set aside a few, but freeze the rest. According to Beth Moncel, founder of Budget Bytes, the popular budget cooking website, "Frozen citrus is easier to grate, and once they thaw, they're so easy to juice."


14. Beans: "Buy dried beans," Slagle said. They cost about the same as a can of beans but will yield four times as much. Drain most of the cooking liquid, and freeze in airtight containers to use for future soups, veggie burgers, hummus and bean salads.

15. Canned tomatoes: A can of tomatoes goes a long way, so it's never a bad idea to add more to your pantry. Make big batches of tomato sauce, minestrone or tomato curry, and freeze them.

16. Bread: Instead of leaving bread out on the counter, store it in the refrigerator or freezer. Use stale bread to make croutons, French toast, bread pudding or breadcrumbs. Chambrot revives old bread by spritzing it with water and putting it in the oven at 350 degrees for about five minutes.

17. Cereal: How can something made from mostly flour be so expensive? If you spot a good sale on your favorite, stock up! Unopened, it's good for at least a year, and opened, for about three months. You can also freeze any opened cereal in a resealable plastic bag. If you have an excess, make cereal treat bars or press-in pie crusts. You can also use crushed, unsweetened cereal like cornflakes as a stand-in for breadcrumbs.

Slow-Cooker Beans

The key to tender, not-mushy beans is to cook them at the barest simmer, which means they're perfect candidates for the slow cooker. And the same principles for cooking beans on the stovetop apply: Skip soaking the beans; use flavorings to infuse the beans and the bean-cooking liquid; and salt before and after cooking. You can follow this formula for almost any dried bean, but know that the cook time will vary based on the age and type of bean, as well as the size and strength of your slow cooker. Start checking at the six-hour mark to see how quickly your beans are cooking. Keep flavorings in fairly large pieces, as the long cook time could turn smaller bits to mush.

Yield: About 6 cups

Total time: 10 hours

1 pound dried beans (except red kidney beans; see tips)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)

Optional flavorings (see tips)

In a 5-quart or larger slow cooker, add the beans, olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt and your selection of flavorings. Add water to cover 2 inches above the beans, then cook on low until tender, 8 to 10 hours. To test for doneness, taste more than one bean to ensure they're all cooked through; they should flatten without much effort when pressed between your fingers. (If you plan to eat your beans cold, cook them a bit past tender, as they'll firm as they cool.) Season to taste with salt.

Let cool slightly, then eat right away or store beans in their liquid in an airtight container for up to a week in the fridge or up to 3 months in the freezer.

Tips: Red kidney beans have a high level of a toxin and must be soaked and boiled before slow-cooking. For optional flavorings, fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, celery, fennel, shallots, scallions, leeks, onion, garlic or lemon peel work well. Spices and herbs, such as dried or fresh rosemary, parsley, basil, thyme, sage, oregano, bay leaves or ground or whole spices work well. For heat, add red-pepper flakes, chipotle chile in adobo, fresh jalapeño or serrano chile, dried chilies or whole peppercorns. For umami, add bacon, pancetta, ham hock, dried mushrooms, Parmesan rinds, kombu or dashi.

-- By Ali Slagle

Caramelized Cabbage and Walnut Pasta

  photo  Caramelized cabbage and walnut pasta. / Ryan Liebe/The New York Times/File

A single, modest cabbage goes a long way in this recipe. Green cabbage (though you could also use Savoy) becomes jammy and sweet when cooked with aromatic leeks and garlic for 15 minutes, a practically effortless concoction to toss with pasta. Cumin seeds add just the right amount of earthiness along with a subtle citrus tone; add more if you want a pronounced flavor, or substitute with fennel seeds or caraway. The walnuts balance out the sweetness of the cabbage and leeks, and introduce a slight bitterness and crunch. Store-bought roasted walnuts are a time saver here, but if you want them extra dark and crispy, toast them for 6 to 8 minutes in a 325-degree oven until deeply golden. If you have chives or scallions on hand, toss these in at the end for a lively finish.

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 25 minutes

1/4 cup olive oil

3 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 leeks, white and tender green parts, thinly sliced into rings

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 pounds finely sliced green cabbage

Kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)

1 pound spaghetti or other long pasta

4 ounces pecorino, grated, plus more for serving

2 to 3 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)

1 to 1 1/2 cups toasted walnuts, roughly chopped

Handful of chopped chives (optional)

Heat a large Dutch oven or pot over medium. Add the olive oil and butter. When the butter has melted, add cumin seeds, and bloom for 15 seconds, then add the leeks, garlic, cabbage and 2 teaspoons salt, and stir for 3 to 4 minutes until wilted. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 10 minutes without stirring. Check every few minutes to make sure the bottom is not burning. If needed, give it a stir.

After 10 minutes, remove the lid from the cabbage and stir. Cover and cook for another 4 to 5 minutes, until it is supersweet and tender. Taste and season with kosher salt.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti, and cook according to package instructions. When the pasta is ready, do not drain, but use tongs to drag the pasta out of its cooking water and straight into the pot with the cabbage. Add about 1 cup of pasta cooking water, along with the pecorino and the black pepper. Toss well to combine.

Add lemon juice. Taste, adjusting seasonings with more salt, pepper or lemon, if needed. To serve, scatter with walnuts and finish with more pecorino and chopped chives, if using.

-- By Hetty McKinnon