Strategies to Stay Fed and Save Money Amid Rising Food Prices

A son looks over his mom's shoulder to see what she is cooking in the kitchen.
Getty Images

The latest casualty of the new normal? Food prices.

In April, U.S. consumers paid 2.6% more for groceries than they paid in March, the largest one-month increase since February 1974, according to the Washington Post.

Costs for meats, poultry, fish and eggs alone were up 4.3%. And experts expect the meat supply to decline, because processing plants are closing as workers become infected with COVID-19.

With safer-at-home orders and practices still in place around the country, and restaurants only gradually coming back to life, our demand for food to make at home is way up. That’s making some food companies talk about halting normal discounts and promotions in the near future, according to MarketWatch.

To keep all this from busting your grocery budget, here’s some smart advice for how to deal with rising food costs.

Save Money and Stay Fed During Meat Shortages

The coronavirus pandemic has made pork and beef production and processing difficult, which has a lot of us bracing for meat shortages as warehouses and grocery store supplies dwindle.

Pro Tip

Need some tried and true tips to save at the grocery store? Check out this list of 29 ways to save money on groceries.

As of May 11, pork production was down 24% compared to the same week last year, and beef production was down 31%, according to the USDA’s weekly market report.

Count on lower supply to drive prices up — then try these alternatives.

Eat Chicken and Seafood

The chicken and seafood supply chains, which operate differently from those of pork, lamb and beef, have been less disrupted by the pandemic.

You might see prices rise and supply dip in the coming weeks as households shift some of their pork and beef consumption to chicken and seafood. But for now, swapping in these proteins could help you avoid the ballooning price tag on things like ground beef and bacon.

Practice Meatless Mondays

Choosing just one day a week to go meat-free could reduce your risk of obesity and related diseases, lessen your environmental impact and cut your costs.

Try these 10 Meatless Monday recipes to replace chicken, pork, beef and fish once a week, save money and stretch your meat supply.

Go Totally Veggie

You could save even more money by going completely vegetarian — at least until meat prices settle down.

Going veggie doesn’t have to mean giving up protein or going hungry. You can fill up without meat and enjoy tons of yummy plant-based meals!

A plate full of vegan empanadas.
Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Try some of our favorite vegetarian and vegan recipes:

Or try your hand at your own creations with these cheap sources of protein.

Save Money on Other Grocery Essentials

As prices fluctuate and any kind of normal remains uncertain, learning a few tricks to stretch your grocery budget could go a long way over the next few months.

Stretch Your Produce

It can be tough to keep veggies fresh from one cautious trip to the grocery store to the next. But you could be wasting money by throwing away your produce too soon.

Pro Tip

How long do different types of produce last? We break it down.

Here are our favorite ways to use aging produce:

And a few more creative ways to save money on fruits and vegetables:

  • Grow your own for free: Dial your produce bill down to $0 by regrowing vegetables from your scraps.
  • Store them right: Keep your produce fresh for longer by storing it properly.
  • Buy frozen: Frozen fruits and veggies have come a long way. A lot of them are just as tasty and just as nutritious as fresh, for a fraction of the cost.

Throw Away Less Food

A big sister feeds her brother noodles.
Getty Images

Minimizing food waste is a simple way to make your grocery budget work harder — and give your city’s landfill a much-needed break.

Bottom line: Americans throw away way too much food. It’s a waste of a lot of things: growers’ resources, workers’ risks, land use, fuel… too much to name. Mainly, for you, it’s a waste of money you could spend on something else.

Try these strategies to minimize food waste and stretch your money further:

  • Take inventory and make a list before you shop to avoid buying things you already have. 
  • Buy less perishable stuff, and fill in the gaps with canned, dried and frozen goods you can keep on hand.
  • Buy roots in bulk. Root veggies like beets, carrots, potatoes, onions and garlic last a lot longer than leafy greens or tomatoes, so stock up on those when the prices are right.
  • Don’t fear the sell-by date. It doesn’t tell you when food becomes unsafe to eat. Here’s what sell-by dates actually mean.
  • Use coffee grounds for everything from compost to cleaner to beauty supplies to avoid waste and save money at the same time.

Shop Your Pantry

Cook intuitively by assessing what you have on hand and committing to using it up before shopping for new ingredients. It’ll reduce your waste and cut down how much you have to buy on each grocery trip.

Here’s how one family of four saves $20 to $30 per week on groceries by shopping their pantry before heading to the store.

Make a Meal Plan

Planning your meals at the beginning of each week will help you shop smarter and avoid last-minute calls for take-out or delivery.

Here’s how to make a meal plan for your family that you’ll actually stick to.

Find New Places to Shop

Your usual grocery store might not have the best prices on your favorite foods. Try these alternatives to save money:

  • Imperfect produce: Sign up with companies that sell ugly or surplus produce at a reduced price to keep it from being wasted.
  • Ethnic stores: Asian grocery stores and Mexican groceries often sell some items for cheaper than your supermarket, in addition to stocking a variety of items you can’t find elsewhere.
  • Farmers markets: If your city usually hosts a farmers market around this time of year, find out what they’re doing in light of the pandemic. My local market, for example, is offering online ordering and a roadside-pickup location on days it would have hosted the market. Buying direct from producers can save you money over grocery-store prices.

Make Your Own Cleaning Supplies

Try these DIY alternatives to avoid chemicals and save money on household products like fabric softener, WD-40 and mouthwash.

Availability of cleaning supplies at grocery stores has been hit-or-miss for a couple of months. Try these easy DIY cleaners to save money and fill in the gaps.

Save Money on Pet Food

A cat licks his lips.
Getty Images

Your pets might not know there’s a pandemic out there — they’re just excited to have you at home all the time — but their food could be hit by supply-chain issues, too.

If supplies decline or prices rise, try these ways to stay stocked and save money on pet food:

  • Join pet store loyalty clubs. Just like at your grocery store, you can earn points for buying pet supplies and work toward discounts.
  • Feed your pets human food. Animal Planet says baked carrots, steamed asparagus or broccoli, green beans, winter squash and chopped greens are all safe for cats to eat. WebMD recommends rice, pasta, lean and cooked meats, some fruits and vegetables, peanut butter and baked breads are all fair game for dogs.
  • Store pet food properly. Seal packages well to keep food fresh, and only serve what they’ll eat at a meal to keep it from sitting out and going stale.
  • Find a pet food pantry. Ask your local animal shelters about pet food banks in your area, where you might be eligible to receive free cat and dog food.

Get Free Food If You Need It

A job loss or cut to your income could make you eligible for food assistance. Check Feeding America to find a food pantry and other help in your area.

Here’s how to qualify and apply for SNAP benefits, federal food assistance for low-income families in the U.S.

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) has been writing and editing since 2011, covering personal finance, careers and digital media.