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Why Grocery Costs Don’t Drop for Empty Nesters

7 suggestions from two experts in frugality and food

While raising our two children, now 25 and 30, my husband and I used to fantasize about all the money we’d save when we only had to cook for two adults. For some reason, I thought that not having to cater to two extra finicky palates would just naturally give us several hundred extra dollars a month. It didn’t happen.

When all four of us were at home, we were spending about $100 to $110 a week on groceries with careful planning. But by 2013, when we joined the empty nest club, my husband and I were consistently averaging $120 to $130 a week and still eating out a couple of times a week. This year, it’s closer to $150 a week.

I wanted to figure out why and how I — and you, if you’re an empty nester, too — could slash the grocery tab without starving.

Habits of Empty Nesters

Karen Strauss, a partner, chief strategy and creativity officer at Ketchum Public Relations (which published the 50+ ReMovement study on the changing habits of 50+ consumers) says habits change when people become empty nesters. “They develop profound interests in new products and adventures, including food,” Strauss says.

Once the kids are out of the home, hunting the food deal may no longer be the biggest factor in putting grub on the table.

Once the kids are out of the home (and not eating you out of it), hunting the food deal may no longer be the biggest factor in putting grub on the table.

Strauss is on to something. When I look at how my husband and I shop now, I find that although we buy less food than before, we have upped the ante on great seafood, better cuts of meat, fresh baked breads, gourmet cheeses and fine wines. And our menu planning is no longer anchored in what’s on sale that week.

If your food bill hasn’t gone down without the kids around, here’s what you need to know: Food savings don’t happen for empty nesters without being intentional.

Even if you don’t want to give up your new-found gourmet independence, however, experts say you can still make little tweaks to save big money on groceries over the year.

7 Money-Saving Tips From the Experts

I asked Leah Ingram (author of Suddenly Frugal and a Next Avenue contributor) and Charla Draper (blogger and food consultant at Chowchowandsoul.com) to share some tips:

1. Teach an old recipe scaled-down tricks. Most of us have a few standby favorite recipes that can serve a family army. Leah Ingram advises: “Empty nesters can save big money by learning to remake those dishes in smaller quantities.”

2. Shop supermarket sales, but only buy what you will use. “Buying things that you don’t use not only costs you money, but it leads to food waste,” says Ingram.

3. Plan a few meatless meals weekly. You’ve probably noticed that the cost of meat and chicken is on the rise. A pound of dried beans that can anchor a meal costs approximately $1.35, but a pound of ground beef could run nearly $4.00 and a pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast can run $6.00. “By having meatless meals, you can effortlessly save $20 per week,” says Ingram. This one tweak can yield $1,000 or more in a year.

4. Think small. If you want to splurge on a lobster tail with filet mignon dinner for two, go ahead, but buy smaller portions and pair them with inexpensive side dishes, says Ingram.

5. Make your own convenience foods. Says Draper: “If you find a good sale on whole chicken, bring several home, season and roast them yourself. Then serve one, but cut the meat off the bone off the others and package for freezing.”

Draper also recommends giving up bagged lettuce and pre-prepped veggies. “Buy lettuce, and other vegetables, take them home and prep and bag them yourself at the beginning of the week,” she says. A head of lettuce might cost $1.00, about a third of the $3.50 for the pre-prepped, bagged version.

6. Skip the gourmet cheese shop. Love a good specialty cheese? Draper says you can find one at the specialty counter of your grocery store for a lot less that what a cheese store charges.

7. Multitask your meals. Draper says making plans to create several meals out of one purchase is an excellent way to save on food. “Buy a roast and make it one night as a main dish. Then take the leftovers and make sandwiches or add the meat to a salad,” she says. “To top it off, save the bones for a base for soup.”

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