Everyone is feeling the pain of higher food costs, especially families with multiple mouths to feed. Grocery bills have soared as food costs rose more than 20 per cent over the past three years.

And parents whose kids are little, brace yourself: you will soon be digging even deeper. According to Dalhousie University’s 2024 Food Price Report, it costs much more to feed teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 than a child under the age of 9 – in 2023 it was 32 per cent more for girls and 50 per cent more for boys.

A family of four – two parents and two teenagers – spent on average $15,600 at the grocery store in 2023. Reducing your total food cost using coupons and buying things on sale is one way to lower your costs, but saving 50 cents or a dollar here and there isn’t going to make much of a difference.

The real savings happen when you make a structural change to your grocery shopping habits by altering both how much and what kinds of food you buy.

Heather Williams is a teacher in Port Perry, Ont., and the parent of two teenagers. She and her husband have some specific financial goals and she’s dedicated to finding ways to reduce their expenses in a realistic and practical way.

She said that trimming the grocery budget isn’t easy when you have teenagers in the house, but it can be done. After years of monitoring her grocery spending and watching countless YouTube videos, she’s discovered that mindset is the key.

“The people who save the most money on groceries learn to enjoy the process. They make it a very regular habit to observe their shopping habits and adapt them as they go along,” she said.

There are two things that Ms. Williams does regularly that has worked: keeping meals simple and getting her kids on board. Despite what TikTok tells us, food doesn’t have to be fancy, novel and expensive. Most of the time food is just food – we eat it to be nourished.

An effective way to reduce your costs is to have a list of simple meals that are prepared repeatedly. Do a little meal planning on the weekend, decide what you will eat the following week, and make a grocery list.

The list will look more or less the same for every grocery shop. In addition to being easier and requiring less brain power at the supermarket, this helps to reduce food waste. That makes a significant difference to your grocery bill as Canadians spend on average about $1,700 a year on food that ends up being wasted.

If you are using an item for several meals, there’s a very good chance you will use it all. In my house most of the food waste happens when I buy something that I don’t use often, such as olives, for example.

Bulk shopping can be a money-saver – but it only works if you actually finish all of what you bought. Using certain ingredients on a regular basis means you can buy them in bulk and feel confident the food won’t be wasted.

This Dalhousie study showed that 47 per cent of Canadians shoppers believe that bulk buying leads to more food waste. Ditto for buying things on sale – it only makes sense for things you use regularly. My favourite sale items are coffee, cereal and pasta, because I know I will always use them up.

Of course, there’s a time for splurging on more expensive food. The key is to keep it special. Meat is a great example. Numbers from Statistics Canada in 2021 show that meat makes up about 20 per cent of a household’s grocery budget.

By making meat a treat rather than a daily habit, your family will appreciate it more and you’ll save plenty of money. Looking at prices for groceries in my area, I estimate that substituting two vegetarian meals a week for one meal of ground beef and one meal of chicken breasts can save a family of four about $1,200 on an annual basis.

Getting the kids on board will help make it easier, Ms. Williams said. They can help by suggesting a list of meals to put in the rotation and what snacks to buy. Teaching your kids to cook will also help – if they can make a few basic things, they can feed themselves when you’re not around, instead of ordering Uber Eats.

Involving kids in the process will make them feel part of the plan instead of being subjected to it. And there will likely be less complaining when there isn’t Coke in the fridge this week.

Most importantly, even if you are aiming to reduce your grocery bill, you can still maintain an attitude of enjoyment and abundance around food. Saving money does not mean deprivation. “I truly believe this is the cornerstone to having a positive family attitude towards groceries and eating in general,” Ms. Williams said.

The Globe and Mail, February 4, 2024