When I was single, I spent $25 a week on groceries. Mostly vegetables, my diet included steel cut oats and beans supplemented by locally grown seasonal fruit. Growing up, I'm sure my mom spent less than that to feed four of us, before celiac-friendly products became widely available. I didn't eat a lot of carbs and stuck to things that were inherently gluten-free, which left plenty of money over for secondhand designer clothes and solo travel.
Paris is expensive, though, and it took me a while to get past my shock at local food prices- the average couple in our neighborhood spends €220 a week on groceries. I needed a way to feed our family of two- and my own personal appetite of four- without coupons. Here's my situation: I don't have kids. Most days, I leave home before 9, walk to St. Germain-des-Près or Iéna, and come back at 6:00. Since this is France, I get an hour-long lunch. French people eat later than regular people, eliminating the pressure to put dinner on the table right away. Everybody's situation is different, and this coupon-free plan is location-specific. If we lived somewhere else- even within Paris- we'd probably spend less, but I'd be lost without all the fresh spices and purple vegetables I find in the environs. People who can't cook every day can prepare meals one day a week and pre-package them in portable containers, like my beautiful, busy, and capable friend Melanie does.
10 Ways to Save Money on Groceries
1. Hit the marchés.
Cash-only limits unnecessary purchases, and eating in season yields immediate savings. Look for stalls that let you fill your own paniers; otherwise, you pay extra for packaging weight. I like Serge Baudry at Bastille for rainbow root vegetables and golden raspberries. Don't bother with Marché Belleville- it isn't worth the long and arduous trip nor the pushing, shoving, and screaming that follows. If I wanted to be yelled at by Asian people, I'd gain weight and visit my family.
2. Skip the bulk bin.
Bulk bins in Paris carry "trendy" grains and foodstuffs like quinoa and pre-made granola. But paying a hefty premium for eating bird seed makes no sense when you can eat whole foods like a human being. Instead of having carb-heavy bulk cereal for breakfast, enjoy the micronutrients in baked sweet potato or roasted beets (they taste so good here, neither need salt, oil, or butter). The money I save by skipping inexplicably popular, expensive fads- e.g., kale- is better spent on nutrient-dense, satisfying foods that fill me up and actually grow here.
3. Lay off the meat.
The single biggest change you can make to lower your grocery bill is lower your meat consumption (giving up meat altogether reduces your carbon footprint 25%). Whole chickens are cheaper and more versatile than chicken breasts, and you save more money buying salmon with skin than without. Buy meat on sale and use vegetables to stretch it out, adding steak haché to ratatouille or poaching fish with squash and fennel. Buying fresh tuna at the market, then boiling and shredding it saves money and spares you the additives and preservatives of BPA-laden canned tuna.
4. Avoid canned/packaged foods.
Why buy canned beans when all you have to do is soak dried beans overnight? Why buy dried when you can buy fresh beans and fry the pods? Here are things you can make at home to save money: Tomato sauce, mustard, jams, harissa, ketchup, mayonnaise, salad dressing, yogurt, nut milks, pickles, chips, pesto, vegetable broth, creme de marron, hot sauce, bread, cakes and cookies, even fresh gluten-free pasta. For mayonnaise, mix mustard with egg yolks until combined. Whisk in oil and water, a few drops at a time, incorporating fully before moving on. For vinaigrette, combine herbs, mustard, and pepper; use a fork to mix in oil and balsamic vinegar. Try greek yogurt, anchovies, lemon juice, parmesan, and pepper instead of salad dressing. Remember: Filling your own container at Mariage Frères is more economical than buying less prestigious packaged brands at the grocery store.
5. Shop a few times a week, carrying reusable bags for spontaneous purchases.
This flies in the face of everything you've ever heard about saving money, but in Paris, you need to be flexible, ready to stock up on deals wherever they're found. Trying to buy everything in one place raises your grocery bill because different neighborhoods offer better prices on certain items, while inflating prices for others. For instance, pineapples at Bastille are €1, but the same vendor at Raspail charges €4.80. I shop twice a week for produce and meat and once a month or less for spices, staples, and household goods (which amount only to baking soda, vinegar, unpackaged soap, cat stuff, and toilet paper).
6. Grow your own herbs / tea and mix your own spice blends.
Rue Keller, Sur les Quais, L'Epicerie Fine, and countless other spots in Paris offer spices en vrac. Instead of paying per botte, grow your own mint, basil, thyme, and ginger at home (I confess, I don't do this anymore, because my cats are the only ones who get to eat it!). Finishing salt lasts a long time and elevates the humblest meals, making inexpensive ingredients taste fancier than they are. Invest in a good grinder (peppercorns are cheaper than ground pepper) and make your own chili powder, tandoori spice, garam masala, even green and red curry pastes.
7. Eat internationally.
Kimchi, curries, miyeokguk, plantains, Bo Bun, and Chinese eggplant in garlic and bean paste are cheap to make, nutritious, and somehow very impressive to serve. One of my all-time favorite snacks- that only costs $0.88 per kilo- are bitter gourd chips. Blanch, slice thinly, roll in flour, tandoori spice, salt, chili flakes, minced garlic and ginger; drizzle with olive oil, and bake 30 minutes at 220 ° C. While living in Paris, take advantage of French bread and chèvre- for tartines and to accompany beans, salad, or pasta. Try toasted bread with goat cheese and blackberries or figs, thyme, and homemade pesto and olive oil.
8. Use every part of the food.
Fennel pollen and carrot, radish, and beet greens are some of my favorite ingredients, along with various valuable peels and skins. These oft-untapped sources of nutrients and insoluble fibers lend themselves nicely to sauces, pesto, hummus, and soups; candy fruit peels and skins or use them for tea (leaves and stems work too). I love raw or roasted root vegetable greens- I never buy lettuce. For tips on using and re-growing food scraps to save money, click here and here.
9. Know what you have before going shopping.
Communicate what's at home to other family members, so nobody wastes money on surplus ingredients. With organic food, it's especially important not to overbuy, because everything spoils quicker. Shop your pantry first: Try using cookie crumbs for pie crusts, or pour in milk like cereal. Turn old chips into nachos, and scraps of bread into croutons or meatloaf / meatballs. Make new meals from leftovers, e.g. mashed potatoes into gratins, soups or gnocchi; pot roast into shepherd's pie, pasta into casserole, etc. My mom adds leftover vegetables to pancake batter for easy pajeon.
10. Forget meal planning.
You never know what's going to be at the market from one week to the next, so making a menu in advance is a big waste of time. It helps to familiarize yourself with the growing season and how ingredients you already have work with what you might find shopping. Take stock of what's available, and plan recipes accordingly.
These photos represent €20 organic produce, enough to last a week or more.
I don't have a pantry- I have a cabinet. A cabinet in which I stock flour (paper wrapper), sugar, honey, olive oil, balsamic vinegar (glass bottle, no plastic topper), white vinegar (recyclable plastic), black pepper, Persian blue or Himalayan salt, whole ginger, my own tandoori blend, mustard seeds, fresh herbs, whole garlic, onions, and fresh chili peppers. Purchased every two months, staples total €20.
I buy dairy occasionally, using my own container and consigned milk bottle. I don't buy all of the following at once: butter, faisselle de chèvre, yogurt, fromage blanc (delicious with berries and fennel), or milk, around €2 each.