In a struggling economy, people are constantly on the lookout for ways to save. And since groceries are the second highest monthly expense in most households, finding ways to reduce spending in this area is key. For example, you can shop at multiple stores to get the best deals, and you should never shop when you're hungry.

TUTORIAL: Budgeting Basics

Surprisingly, however, one often overlooked way to save is to make the most of what you already have on hand. There are a variety of delicious ways to use this strategy, plus a few other tips to save on groceries:

Substitute Ingredients
Instead of making an extra trip to the grocery store for a certain ingredient, consider a cheaper option or one you already have. Here are several examples:

  • Cottage Cheese for Ricotta. If a recipe calls for ricotta cheese, consider substituting it with cottage cheese. Few will know the difference, and when it comes to lasagna, some people claim the overall taste is actually improved.

  • Dried Spices for Fresh. Many pantries are stocked with a full complement of dried spices. Though most chefs will tell you that using fresh is a must, in most cases, this is simply not true. Rather than waste time and money to buy fresh spices, use what you already have on hand - the taste difference is often negligible. Rosemary and oregano are prime examples of this, though basil is one notable exception.

  • Store Brands. Choosing a generic over a name brand is sure to save you money at the grocery store. If the ingredient in question is a staple like pasta, rice or beans, pick up the store brand instead. Sometimes the generic and the name brand are both made by the same company.

  • Tomato Paste for Tomato Sauce. If you're preparing a large recipe that calls for tomato sauce, pick up a few cans of tomato paste instead. Add water and the appropriate spices, and you'll have a cheaper alternative to bottled tomato sauce from the store.

  • Cranberry Juice for Red Wine. Cranberry juice is definitely cheaper and will give an equal flavor profile to red wine in most recipes. (For related reading, see Eating Healthy On A Budget.)

Reduce Pantry Inventory
If you find a great deal on a non-perishable item, by all means, stock up. But if you're constantly moving cans around in your cabinet to see what's behind them, then it's time to use them. In fact, even non-perishables have a use-by date and most go bad after a few years. Though a canned food diet can be an economical way to go, it's not necessarily healthy. If you're cooking with pantry inventory, don't forget to supplement meals with fresh foods and vegetables as well.

Get Creative
Creating a tasty dish with items you already have isn't very difficult. For example, cut up and sauté whatever vegetables you have on hand. Throw in some chicken or beans and cooked rice or pasta. Then, add water or broth and spices to taste, and a delicious soup is only minutes away.

Another great recipe idea is to use mashed potatoes as a base. This is quite a versatile ingredient. You can add beef, chicken, or cooked vegetables, top with melted cheese, and serve a hearty dish that is sure to be loved by all. It just comes down to creativity. Don't limit yourself to existing recipes, as you can easily come up with your own.

De-Clutter the Freezer
If your freezer is anything like mine, there is usually a goldmine of food at your disposal there. Foods have a tendency of getting lost in the freezer, and they can pile up quickly. Consider this: if you have $200 worth of food in your freezer, that's $200 in groceries you don't have to buy. Defrost that leftover soup from a while back, or take out meat, seafood or chicken and put it to good use.

Go Fresh
Purchasing fresh foods and vegetables over pre-processed ones will save you loads of money in the long run and help you avoid a host of potential health issues. You may spend a little more time in the kitchen, but the dishes you prepare will be tastier and healthier. Try your local farmer's market to pay less for fresher fruits and veggies than the grocery store variety.

The Bottom Line
Sure, you can save a lot of money by stocking up on grocery store deals, but you need to actually eat that food to realize the savings. From time to time, review what you have in stock, and work on using all of the items. Also, supplement your diet with fresh foods, which are often more economical and healthier than buying pre-packaged and processed meals. (For related reading, see 5 Easy Ways To Save On Groceries.)

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