I recently read about buying foie gras here in France now that its on sale after the holidays. That's good advice because it really is much cheaper than normal. Still foie gras is expensive even at half price. That got me to thinking about frugal shopping for food here. Eat well, but save money. Its possible if one sticks to seasonal items, has a freezer and learns the ropes. In other words learn to food shop the way the French housewives do. They are in a word - frugal.
Now, when it comes to the big holiday meals the French don't count the cost. They buy whatever they want at whatever the cost. Foie gras at full price, oysters, expensive cuts of meat, cheeses, pâtisserie desserts, chocolate, the lot. But in everyday cooking they tend to be frugal. They follow the seasons, they use the markets and they prepare slow cooked meals with inexpensive ingredients.
Here are few of the things I've learned from them:
A freezer is necessary so the one can take full advantage of the sales. Especially the meat sales.
Meats: Follow the sales for sure. Beef & veal is always pretty expensive; even when on sale. Lamb is normally expensive, but does go on sale. For example I'm going to buy a couple of half lambs today at 5.30 euro per KG. (a little under $4.00/lb.). Pork is of very high quality here and is inexpensive. When on sale its really cheap. Belly pork for $1.50/lb for example. The pork sausage (de Toulouse) is both wonderful and moderately priced.
Birds range in price. There is cheap battery chicken, but a proper free range bird is relatively expensive ($7-8.00/lb) When available fresh duck leg/thighs are very cheap. Breasts are normally not cheap at $8-9.00/lb. Turkey breasts & leg/thighs are cheap. Recently our local supermarket has been selling quail from Spain at a very low price.
Vegetables: The first rule is to buy from the market whenever possible. The produce will be cheaper in most cases and fresher. Winter is difficult as the imported stuff is relatively expensive & the quality not that great. Leeks are a real staple here being local. Cauliflower and broccoli are also good. Onions, shallots and potatoes stay inexpensive. Most other veggies start to get expensive.
Given what's available we have adopted the French custom of having lots of soups. A staple here are the various kinds of squash & pumpkin which make for great soups as, of course, do the leeks.
Fruit: Apples are the best bet here as there a lots of local varieties (my favorite stand at Villfranche market always has at least ten types available + great cider!) Oranges & Clementine's come in from Spain with good quality & price. Pears are good. Pretty much everything else suffers.
Cheese: There's not too much seasonal price variation, but there is a lot of 'quality' variation. For example; plain old brie vs. brie de meux vs. raw milk brie. The price difference is about 3X per pound. Or take the range from Cantal to Salers. Here price about doubles from $6.00/lb to about $14.00/lb as you go from Cantal-jeaune to cantal- entre doux to cantal- vieux to Laguiole to Salers. All the same cheese family, but a huge difference in price. There's also a large variation in price amongst the range of blue cheeses. Then there is in addition a huge range of 'manufactured' or 'commercial' cheeses. (sort of the French equivalent of Velveeta) These are cheap & some are actually edible.
Charcuterie: The range is so large that its hard to make comparisons. Certainly the pre-prepared dishes are expensive in general although things like celeris rave & carrot salad are cheap & good. Pates range from very expensive to pretty cheap depending upon ingredients. Rillets tend to be a great buy as are fritons. One could totally eat from the charcuterie, but it would be expensive.
General food stuff: Basics are reasonable and there's not a lot of variation. We find most ready meal type packaged goods in the freezer or on the shelves to be pretty awful. See my comments about the Uk equivalents. Jams, jellies, chocolate, snacks and so forth are abundant & cheap.
We've been out of the states too long to make comparisons, but we do find things cheaper here than in England.
Overall though we find it fun to be frugal. Shopping & eating like the French is no hardship; we enjoy it. We still revert to & enjoy eating occasional American or English meals, but by & large we're becoming more & more 'French"