Its not uncommon for families to have to “make-do” with cutting back on the grocery budget, as that is often the only place the budget has to “flex” to cover increased costs for other items or to cope with a reduction in income. While experts are claiming we haven’t had inflation in the grocery store to any great amount, my budget is telling me otherwise. It might be partially due to relocating from one town to another in my case, but no matter how I look at it, I’m still trying to make our budget cover our expenses.
Cheap eats doesn’t have to mean gruel and moldy bread though. Inexpensive meals can help keep a family within their means, an important consideration, without sacrificing nutritional value or requiring anyone to go hungry. How is this magical act achieved?
Cut back on meat. Meat is the most expensive item on most family’s menus. One way to help reduce expenses is to serve meatless meals one or two nights a week. Don’t feature meat as THE entree, but rather as an ingredient in the main dish of the meal.
Reduce or eliminate purchases of “convenience” foods. We have all known for a long time that these pre-packaged and highly processed foods aren’t exactly good for us, but they are also more expensive per serving than home cooked meals.
Cut out the deli and take out dinners. We’re all short on time, but an investment of time and/or money in recipes designed for quick preparation can be far less expensive than purchasing dinner at the deli or take out. Cooking meals on the weekends and stashing the main dish in the freezer can also help cope with the busy evening syndrome.
Turn dinner prep into quality family time. Involving the entire family in preparation tasks for the evening meal can be incredibly valuable if used properly. Use it as time to talk about the day, teach healthy eating habits, discuss future menus, and the million other things that families should talk about in the course of the day. Even single parents and their offspring can use this time–kids usually learn to enjoy helping out, no matter how young or old they are. Once upon a time, I came in to discover my two year old daughter helping by slicing mushrooms with a sharp knife under her grandma’s supervision. (She never did cut herself either, despite my fears.) Yes, we could slice mushrooms far quicker, but she started helping young and its turned into a lifetime love affair with healthy eating.
Use weekends to prepare for a busy week by preparing foods ahead of time. Many entrees are very content to be cooked and assembled, then frozen for serving later in the week. Vegetables for stir fries, salads, and side dishes can be washed, cut up appropriately, and stored in re-usable containers for fast cooking during the week.
Cutting up your own vegetables rather than buying prepared ones can save a considerable portion of your food budget. Compare prices and quality when in the store. In my own case, an 8 oz bag of shredded cabbage cost $1.99 last week. Purchasing a cabbage whole cost about $.38 per pound, which meant I could have purchased over ten pounds of raw cabbage for the same price per pound. On the other hand, sliced baby portabella mushrooms were the exact same price as whole ones, and they were ready to cook. So-called baby carrots are ready-to-eat, but usually cost 2-5 times as much as buying regular sized carrots in a one or two pound bag. Carrots peel easily, if desired, and can be shredded, sliced, diced, cut into sticks, made into curls, steamed, fried, boiled, candied, or baked too. They also hide very well in a wide variety of dishes to extend meat and fool the vegetable wary.
Commit to trying new recipes regularly, setting goals and working towards them. New dishes will keep mealtime interesting even if it is a low-budget meal. Involve the entire family in selecting these new dishes and it will also help reduce resistance to trying new foods.
Eat foods in season and try to purchase locally from farmers markets and “you pick” farms. This local food is far fresher than foods that have been shipped from some factory farm in the distance, often even from foreign countries. That blackberry cobbler, strawberry shortcake, or French onion soup will taste even better when it costs a fraction of what it would with non-local and out-of-season produce. It’s also good for the local economy and living green.
Learn to can and preserve foods. Unlike our grandmothers who were forced to can and preserve food all summer to ensure the family could eat during the long, cold winters, we don’t have that problem. In our case, we can pick and choose what we are going to preserve and the method that we prefer to preserve it. Dehydrators make drying vegetables, herbs, fruits, and even meats easier than ever before without a huge investment in our electric bill. We have home deep freezes, which cost more in terms of energy, but allow foods to retain much of their fresh flavor and nutrition. We also have canning equipment that works far more efficiently. For maximum efficiency, choose items to preserve according to your family’s preferences. Jams and jellies are an excellent initial foray into the world of food preservation with a minimal purchase of equipment and maximum returns on that investment. Premium jellies and jams usually are quite expensive per ounce, typically about $.75 per ounce, and rarely will taste as good as the ones you make at home. In addition, homemade jams and jellies are a coveted gift, adding to the potential value of your savings by avoiding the purchases of expensive gifts for holidays and special occasions. Choosing local fruits in season ensures that they are going to be tasty and the least expensive possible. Often the fruit can be obtained from a friend or neighbor for little-to-no-cost too. I’ve made persimmon, pepper, peach, apricot, chokecherry, fig, cherry, blueberry, blackberry, grape, pomegranate, mulberry, loquat, plum, apple, strawberry, raspberry, orange, lemon, lime, kumquat, green tomato, cantaloupe, watermelon…and probably some forgotten flavors too along the way with free-to-low-cost fruits. Don’t forget the wild native fruits too! In addition, often a tree or berry patch that isn’t being harvested can gain you some fruit by trading a jar or two of jam or jelly from a previous batch for the fruit, so don’t eliminate barter from your bag of tricks to keep costs down.
Learn to use internet resources for recipes, cooking ideas, and sometimes even ingredients. Most recipes, even from magazines currently on the shelf at the grocery store, are also available via the internet at no cost. Learn how to use a search engine to find coveted recipes, new ingredients, and meatless meals. Podcasts can teach new techniques visually, and most of these are also free. By maximizing the money saved on your budget for food, you can easily pay for internet access. Obscure ingredients, tools, etc. can often be found via the internet at very competitive prices with reasonable or free shipping, a great savings for those who live in small towns with small groceries and limited choices. The internet also provides reviews of recipes, techniques, cookbooks, appliances, tools, and even ingredients that help us make informed choices that ultimately can help us save money.
Use coupons wisely. Coupons are designed to be attractive and encourage you to purchase a particular product or use a particular store. Will it really save you money? Only if it is a product you will use and a brand you like. It can also provide an opportunity to try a new product at a reduced cost. Do your homework before you rush off to the store. Coupons are typically available in Sunday and the “food” edition of your local newspapers, but are also available via the internet. Make sure that your preferred grocery store will accept internet coupons (not all do.)
Shop sales wisely. Stocking up on sale items is great, and can really save money. Running around to hit all of the sales at the local stores may not be so great, in terms of time or money. It’s one thing if they are all in a single loop and you have all day for shopping, it’s another when you drive a total of 20 miles when your preferred store is only 4 miles from home. Buying expensive items because they are on sale may not be wise, unless it is an item that is favored by your household and usually avoided because of the cost. Stocking up on staples for your pantry when items are on sale is a fantastic idea, but remember shelf life. Typically, canned foods need used within 12 months, and dry goods have a variety of shelf lives indicated by the “use by” date. Make sure to rotate your pantry goods, using the older items first, and to not purchase more than what you can reasonably use within the “use by” date. Fruits, vegetables, tomato products, spices, and dry goods are all often excellent buys when purchased on sale. Beverages are another place to save, especially teas. Tea lasts a LONG time on the shelf as long as it is kept in a cool, dry area. (I have actually drank tea that was decades old, and while it isn’t something I’d recommend, I’ll confess…I didn’t TASTE that it was old, until I was told the story of how it was shipped by person x during the Korean Conflict…)
Don’t skimp and avoid using spices, herbs, and seasonings. These are some of your most expensive purchases per ounce, so comparison shopping is often a good idea. These ingredients don’t add much in terms of nutritional value, but they add immensely in terms of taste value. Something that is bland and tasteless isn’t going to go over nearly as well as something that is bursting with flavor either. These items will make up for their cost with the immense amount of flavor they contribute per ounce.
Learn to cook from scratch. Especially for those who are finding themselves at home due to the economy, cooking from scratch is a great way to save money and increase nutritional value. Beans, one of the least expensive and most nutritional of foods, are easily cooked from scratch at a fraction of the cost of canned bean products. Drag out that slow cooker–it will come in handy for days when you are busy running errands or beating the pavement in search of that elusive new job. There are a number of resources available online to help the novice cook become proficient in the kitchen, and a friend or family member that is a good cook is often more than willing to help a novice develop his or her skills in the kitchen.
Make your own desserts. Face it, dessert is everyone’s favorite part of the meal, and can often make up for a less-than-wonderful dinner with a star appearing at the end of it. A typical purchased cake from a grocery store bakery is going to run $8-10 and offer about 12 servings. Cakes, cookies, crisps, cobblers, duffs, pies, pastries, muffins, cupcakes, puddings, steamed puddings, donuts, cookies, and more are all easy to make and can easily create the illusion that you are a master cook even if you have limited skills. (Suggestion for novices: try searching for a “Crazy Cake”. This recipe uses no eggs or milk, makes a chocolate cake, and I was about 8 the first time I made one. It also mixes right in the pan. It’s actually easier than a mix!)
Eat more soup. Face it, cold weather begs for a bowl of soup. Soup is economical, easy to prepare, is best when made ahead, reheats beautifully, and is very healthy when served as a broth-based soup. It’s great for weight loss too. Cornbread, biscuits, crackers or bread all make excellent accompaniments to this vegetable-rich offering, which can use minimal amounts of meat for flavor. There is a nearly infinite variety of recipes available too, and most skilled cooks sort of fly by the seat of their pants when making soup, using whatever ingredients are available. Keep salt and pepper in the pot of soup minimal, and use the ingredients, herbs, and spices for the flavor.
Most of all, have fun with your menus and budget. It can be regarded as a game of strategy to keep costs minimal and still have fantastic meals. Involving the entire family in the “game” also means that they complain less, pay attention more, and maybe, just maybe, they will learn something valuable about budgets, money management, values, being a consumer, and being a wise diner. Don’t regard being involved in this “game” as being deprived or being forced to cut corners–it’s much more of a fun challenge to see how well you manage to “play the game” within the rules of your weekly budget.