After graduating from Louisiana State University with a bachelor's of science in nutritional studies in 2007, Beth Moncel was saddled with student loan debt. Despite cutting out all discretionary spending, she still struggled to make ends meet.
To cut costs, she started tracking her food spending and figuring out ways to cut corners. Still, she believed that cooking on a budget shouldn't mean a diet of canned beans and ramen noodles.
In 2009, she started Budget Bytes, a food blog dedicated to delicious recipes designed for people who don't want to overspend. Blogging was a fun way to track her progress. Her tips and recipes struck a chord with others who also wanted to cut back on food spending without sacrificing taste.
Her blog has grown into a brand with a cookbook and a mobile app. Her brand has a combined 415,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram, and over 10 million monthly viewers on Pinterest. Budget Bytes resonates with followers because learning how to cook means "You'll be spending less, eating better quality food, and treating your body better," says Moncel.
And the savings are substantial. "If done smartly, I think cooking at home can save you at least 60% on food costs. It may take a little practice and learning a couple new skills, but I can easily make a meal for less than $5. Eating out can easily cost $15 per meal or more," Moncel says.
Video by Jason Armesto and Neha Dharkar
Many of her budget-friendly dishes take less than 30 minutes to make, too, like a one-pot creamy pesto chicken pasta for $2.60 per serving.
In addition to low-cost recipes, Moncel shares tips for saving money on groceries, advice for avoiding recipe disasters, and tricks for cooking in a tiny kitchen.
Here is some of Moncel's best advice for saving money on food without sacrificing taste, and a recipe for a delicious cold peanut noodle salad that costs only $1.33 per serving.
Overspending on produce is a common trap at the grocery store. One way Moncel saves on produce is by sticking to sturdy fruits and vegetables like cabbage, sweet potatoes, onions, kale, apples, and oranges instead of delicate produce like berries or baby greens. "Not only do they cost less at the store, but they'll last longer once you get home, so you're less likely to find them wilted in your crisper a day later," she says.
When it comes to grocery store pricing, pay close attention to these two terms, Moncel says: per pound or per item. "A bag of grapes may have a big sign that says $2.99, which sounds great, until you realize that's actually per pound and that bag of grapes weighs three pounds! That's a $9 bag of grapes," she says.
Try to focus on this pricing method when you're buying bagged versus loose produce, too, she suggests. "You may see a bag of carrots for $1 each and loose carrots for $1.49 per pound. Check the weight of the bag of carrots so you can compare the per pound price for both."
Buying fresh produce is also healthier, she says: "I don't often buy packaged foods because not only are you paying a high price for the convenience, but they often have a bunch of extra ingredients to make them more shelf stable."
To save money on food when shopping, take stock of your inventory before you buy anything, Moncel says: "Shop your pantry before the store." Especially if you have a small kitchen, since that'll help you avoid clutter.
And to avoid impulse purchases at the grocery store, shop online. Online grocery stores "do cost more than grocery shopping yourself, but if spending a few dollars up front prevents you from spending huge amounts on eating out on a daily basis, or making a bunch of impulse purchases while you're at the store, it is so worth it," she says.
If you're a disciplined shopper who sticks to a list, though, paying extra to shop online may be unnecessary.
Your freezer also can be a huge time and money saver, she says. "Batch cook. Make a big batch of soup, chili, or a casserole, and eat the leftovers over the next few days, or freeze the leftovers for later when you don't have time to cook, or enough money to buy groceries."
If you're new to cooking and you're searching for a recipe online, read the reviews and stick with something simple, because there's nothing worse than ruining a recipe and wasting all that money on groceries. "Look for trends like 'this turned out too dry,' or 'I had to bake for an extra 15 minutes' so you can know which parts of the recipe to approach with caution, or decide if a recipe is too risky all together," Moncel says.
It can also help to prep and cut all of the ingredients before you start cooking, especially if you're working in a small space, she says. That way, "all of your attention can stay on the hot food in the skillet/pot/oven as you cook so you can avoid burning, boiling over, or any other hiccup."
Before you start experimenting with a recipe, try to make it as written, she suggests. "Make sure you're familiar with a recipe or cooking technique before you attempt to substitute ingredients. Read through those reviews to see if anyone else has already attempted the same substitution."
Overall, she says, cooking for yourself is efficient as well as cost-effective: "There are a lot of really simple and delicious recipes you can make that will take you less than 30 minutes, which is less time than it often takes to order or go pick up food. ... Plus, cooking skills can be really impressive to dates. Everyone loves food!"