A Potluck Cookout? Plus 11 More Ways to Save Money on Food This Summer

Three women exchange food at a table during a pot luck.
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Looking for tips for summer cooking on a budget? We’ve got some good news for summertime home chefs everywhere.

As we move into the heart of summer, Americans can expect to see the rising cost of food slow down slightly. After a record high in 2022, the food-at-home Consumer Price Index is only expected to rise 2.2% by this summer (2024), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Last year, a group of 10 could expect to pay $67.73 for a summer cookout. The cost included hamburger buns, cheese, ground beef, cookies, ice cream, strawberries, chips, chicken breasts, pork chops, pork and beans, lemonade and potato salad. With this year’s projected increase, that cost could be around $70.

“The slight downward direction in the cost of a cookout doesn’t counter the dramatic increases we’ve seen over the past few years. Families are still feeling the pinch of high inflation along with other factors keeping prices high,” said AFBF Chief Economist Roger Cryan.

With the cost of a cookout still relatively high, how can you pull off summer cooking on a budget?

11 Tips for Summer Cooking on a Budget

These cheap summer cooking ideas can wow your guests and your wallet. You might even save some time and skip some stress too.

1.Break Out the Slow Cooker

Slow cookers and one-pot meals have been all the rage for the last few years.

They’re super easy. You just drop in your food, adjust your time and temperature and be on your way. There’s very little clean-up.

Even better, slow cookers are perfect for cheaper cuts of meat that might need longer cook times to tenderize. Using the slow cooker also allows you to spend more time with your guests and keep the oven off so as not to overwork your air conditioning.

2. Grow Your Own Herbs and Vegetables

Planting a small garden takes a little work on the front end, but there’s no doubt you’ll save dollars in the long run — especially if you regrow veggies from kitchen scraps. If you don’t have the space for a garden, you can always start small by taking advantage of a window and natural sunlight.

3. Go All in on Freezer Meals

Want a juicy summer cooking on a budget tip? Only use food that you’ve stored in the freezer. That’s an incredibly easy way to prepare meals. You’ll save money by not having to buy anything extra, plus you’ll clean out your freezer in the process.

Pizza. Lasagna. Chicken fingers. Make it a fun summer evening dinner and get the kids involved, too.

On the flip side, stock your freezer with meals for those long summer days when you’d rather not cook.

4. Host a Potluck Cookout

You provide the grill and the grilled chicken or burgers, and let your friends bring the rest.

Assign your friends the sides, desserts and drinks. This will take the pressure off you and your budget to provide and pay for everything. You’ll likely be less stressed and better able to enjoy a beautiful summer evening with your friends.

5. Make Your Own Salad Dressings and Marinades

Most salad dressings and marinades are really easy to make — and going DIY will keep you from buying the expensive bottled stuff at the grocery store.

Whether it’s ranch, a classic vinaigrette or honey mustard, Bless This Mess has nine easy recipes to make your own dressing. For grilling, these marinade recipes from The Pioneer Woman rely on cheap pantry staples.

6. Buy Veggies That Stay Fresh Longer

Vegetables like cabbage, carrots, sweet potatoes and onions will keep for at least a month — and even longer if you store them correctly.

Items like peppers, mushrooms, leafy greens and asparagus will spoil a lot quicker, so you’ll want to use them first.

7. Take Advantage of Free Grocery Pickup

Some major grocery chains offer free store pickup, while others offer the service for orders over a set price.

Shopping for groceries online can help you save money on groceries because you’re more intentional about your shopping — and less likely to make impulse purchases. Plus, time is money and you’ll save on that, too. You may need to download the store’s app to schedule the pickup.

8. Join Your Store’s Loyalty Program

It’s not 1988 anymore. You don’t have to load up a 5-pound album full of coupons to save money on groceries.

Almost every major store has some type of loyalty program you can access on its app. The store can offer discounts based on your spending habits, and those discounts are right there in the app. Save money and a tree while you’re at it!

9. Go Vegetarian (for One Night a Week)

Being an omnivore is expensive. Those proteins aren’t cheap.

A 2021 study by Oxford University found that eating vegetarian or vegan will cut your food budget by up to 33%. That doesn’t mean you have to go full-blown vegetarian, but you could save money by giving it a try every once in a while.

10. Pick Cheaper Cuts of Meat

Once vegetarian night is over and it’s back to some hearty chicken or beef, skip the pricey filets and rib-eyes and go with cheaper cuts for grilling, like pork chops or chicken thighs.

Some of these meats might be a little tougher, so you might have to cook them for longer in a slow cooker (see #1) or low and slow on the grill.

11. Know Your Dates

Not the dry fruit. We’re saying that “best by” or “sell by” date might not mean what you think it means. According to the USDA, “best if used by” dates indicate when the product is at peak quality. Excluding baby formula, they are not an indication of safety.

Yes, the product might slowly deteriorate after said date, but it’s on you to check for spoilage, mold, nasty smells and all the other signs of food gone bad. If everything checks out, you might just save a buck.

Robert Bruce is a senior staff writer at The Penny Hoarder covering earning, saving and managing money. He has written about personal finance for more than a decade.