When it comes to your kitchen, time and money are like the opposite ends of a see-saw: The more of one you can invest, the less of the other you’ll need. In other words, when money is short, you can cut your grocery bill by purchasing more of your food in the form of unprocessed ingredients and taking the time to prepare them yourself at home.
Doing it yourself often means better flavor and less packaging, which is a win-win for you and for the environment. DIY food prep isn’t always a slam dunk, though. Some prepared ingredients are actually worth the added cost when you consider the preparation time and effort, so choose your battles wisely. We’ve done the math on 10 common foods.
Click through to see what food preparation is worth it to do yourself and what products are better to buy pre-made. The right healthy foods cost less than $1 a serving.
Shredding Your Own Carrots
Cost for Shredded: $1.67 for 10 ounces
Cost for Whole: 78 cents per pound
Potential Savings: $1.89 per pound
When you’ve only got a few minutes for lunch, or when you’re dog-tired after a long day and just want to eat, there’s no question it’s easier to open a bag and throw a handful of shredded carrots into your salad or wrap. Still, peeling and grating a fresh carrot takes just a minute or two, and typically it’ll be less than half the price of buying them pre-shredded. This simple life hack will add up to save you thousands.
Worth it to DIY: Yes. Not only is easy and a big cost saving, the fresh carrot will almost always be juicier and tastier.
Cutting Your Own Carrot Sticks
Cost for Baby-Cut Carrots: $1.28 per pound
Cost for Whole: 78 cents per pound
Potential Savings: 50 cents per pound
“Baby-cut” carrots aren’t really baby carrots, they’re full-sized carrots trimmed to a convenient size and shape for cooking or dipping. Hand-cut carrot sticks are the DIY equivalent, and they’re certainly cheaper, but they’re not a slam dunk. Trimming and peeling your carrots takes away 15 to 18 percent of the vegetable you’ve paid for, and unless your knives and knife skills are equally sharp, you can spend a lot of time on the cutting. Save your time for DIY projects that will save you money, like these homemade beauty products.
Worth it to DIY: No. Fresh-cut carrots might taste better, but the price difference isn’t compelling for the time you’ll spend on them.
Slicing Your Own Mushrooms
Cost for Sliced: $1.88 for 8 ounces
Cost for Whole: $1.64 for 8 ounces
Potential Savings: $0.48 per pound
Sauteed mushrooms are a unique way to liven up a boring hamburger. Buying sliced mushrooms instead of whole can certainly speed cooking time, but that convenience comes at a price. It’s not so much the difference in retail cost, which is minimal, but sliced mushrooms only last for a couple of days in the fridge, while whole mushrooms can stay usable for up to a week.
Unless you’re going to use them all on the day you buy them, you’re better off to buy whole mushrooms and invest the few minutes it’ll take to slice them yourself by hand. As a bonus, you get to decide how thickly they’re sliced: Store-sliced mushrooms are usually thick-cut, and you may prefer thinly sliced ‘shrooms in your salad or omelet.
Worth it to DIY: Yes. The cost difference alone isn’t compelling, but whole mushrooms minimize the risk of your grocery dollar ending up in the compost.
Dicing Your Own Squash
Cost for Diced: $2.98 per pound
Cost for Whole: 99 cents per pound
Potential Savings: $1.99 per pound
Bagged diced squash is ready to go into the oven for roasting, or into a pot of broth for soup, in the time it takes you to pull the bag out of the freezer and open it. Fresh squash is a fraction of the cost, but it’s not the obvious DIY candidate it appears at first glance. To begin with, peeling the squash and emptying out the pulp can take away up to one-third of your purchase. It’s also time-consuming to prepare and cut, because winter squashes are rock hard and require a sharp knife and a strong hand.
Worth it to DIY: No. Squash can be a lot of work, and in this case the convenience and time saved are well worth the price difference.
Shredding Your Own Hash Browns
Cost for Shredded Potatoes: $2.96 for 30 ounces
Cost for Whole Potatoes: $1.97 for 5 pounds
Potential Savings: $1.19 per pound
Potatoes are a favorite with frugal cooks for good reason: They’re cheap and readily available year-round, and they’re almost infinitely versatile. Of course, this means potato producers try to increase their profits by turning inexpensive potatoes into pricier “value added” convenience products, like pre-shredded hash browns. It takes just minutes to shred a couple of russets on your box grater and layer them into a hot skillet, so this is a no-brainer on the DIY front.
Worth it to DIY: Yes. Potatoes are dirt cheap and hash browns don’t require a lot of prep time, so this is an easy place to save some money.
Preparing Your Own Lettuce
Cost for Bagged, Pre-washed Romaine: $2.98 for 10 ounces
Cost for Whole Romaine: $1.48 per head
Potential Savings: $3.50 per pound
A Caesar salad is a classic, a side dish that’s robust enough to be a light lunch all on its own. Making one takes no time at all when you add prepared croutons and dressing to a bag of torn, pre-washed lettuce, but it makes a heavy impact on your wallet. That 10-ounce bag of lettuce is just about equivalent to half a big head of romaine, and it costs a lot more.
Worth it to DIY: Yes. Tearing the leaves yourself and giving them a quick ride in a salad spinner takes just a few minutes, and represents pretty big savings.
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Cook Your Own Beans
Cost of Canned Beans: $1.62 for 29 ounces
Cost of Dry Beans: $1.48 per pound
Potential Savings: 14 cents per portion
It takes just over an ounce of dry beans to equal a half-cup portion of canned beans, so although their prices are very similar, the canned beans here work out to about 25 cents per portion, while the dry beans work out to about 11 cents per portion. Beans cooked from dry have better texture and flavor and much lower sodium as well, but they require hours to soak and cook. Unless you soak them overnight and let them simmer in your slow cooker while you’re at work, they’re not well suited to quick weekday meals. Beans are still a great staple to have on hand, though — they’re inexpensive and healthy for your heart.
Worth it to DIY: No. The few cents’ difference aren’t worth the hours you’ll invest, unless you’re a serious bean aficionado.
Mince Your Own Garlic
Cost of Minced Garlic: $2.94 for 9.5 ounces
Cost of Fresh Garlic: $1.48 for 3 bulbs
Potential Savings: 2 cents per portion
Fresh garlic is pretty variable, with anywhere from 4 or 5 to 25 or 30 cloves per bulb. The kind you usually see in the supermarket has 10 to 15 cloves per bulb, averaging about 3 grams each or roughly a teaspoon when minced. That means you’ll get roughly 40 portions from a 3-pack of fresh garlic, for a little over 3.5 cents per portion, while minced garlic weighs in at about 5.5 cents per portion. The money argument isn’t compelling either way, but — for the few moments it takes — fresh garlic has a much brighter, fresher flavor.
Worth it to DIY: Yes. The cost is minimal either way, but the superior flavor of fresh garlic makes it worth the modest effort of mincing your own.
Shred Your Own Cabbage
Cost of Shredded Cabbage: $1.28 for 8 ounces
Cost of Whole Cabbage: 38 cents per pound
Potential Savings: $2.28 per pound
Shredded cabbage isn’t just for coleslaw; it’s also perfect for stir-fries or filled dumplings. Buying your cabbage already shredded speeds preparation, but you’ll pay a hefty premium for it. Whole cabbages are among the cheapest of vegetables, and shredding your own takes just a few minutes with a box grater or mandoline slicer — and it’s even faster if you use the shredding disc on your food processor. Freshly shredded cabbage tastes sweeter, too, because the longer it sits after shredding, the more its natural sulfur compounds come to the fore and affect the flavor.
Leave your leftover cabbage in wedges, and throw them on the grill as “steaks.”
Worth it to DIY: Yes. Shredding your own is reasonably fast and substantially cheaper, and tastes better as well.
Cook Your Own Rice
Cost of Cooked Rice: $1.84 for 8.8 ounces
Cost of Uncooked Rice: $1.38 for 2 pounds
Potential Savings: 85 cents per portion
If you’re fearful of cooking your own rice, microwaving pre-cooked rice in a pouch is pretty appealing. The problem is that you’re only getting two portions for that price, at 92 cents per portion, which is high for one of the cheapest ingredients around. Plain long grain rice checks in at under 7 cents per portion — cheaper if you buy it in a larger quantity — and it takes just 20 to 25 minutes to cook, while you do other things. If you’re really paranoid about the rice turning out properly, invest in an inexpensive rice cooker which will take away the guesswork.
Worth it to DIY: Yes. Plain rice is one of the cheapest ingredients there is, and cooking it successfully isn’t as hard as some would have you believe.
Click through to see how cooking at home can help you lose weight and money at the same time.