Friday, September 11, 2020

10 Tips For Feeding Your Family On A Shoestring Budget

I won’t insult your intelligence by going into great detail about the obvious changes you can make to save money on your food bill each month. Clearly, eating food from restaurants is generally more expensive than cooking your own meals. If you’re reading this article, you’re likely on the right path and have already taken basic steps to reduce your food expenditures.

The simple principles that I’m going to share with you have helped me immensely in keeping my family’s food cost low. Do I always follow these guidelines? No. There are times when I fail miserably. However, when needed, I use these “rules” to get myself back on track.

1. Plan Menus -

I find that it’s easy to get off track and give into that fast food drive-through whenever I’m pressed for time and exhausted. We’ve all been there, right? Your day was long; the kids are starving; and you feel like your battery is in low power mode. Even worse, the roast that you’d bought last weekend is still in the freezer.

Set yourself up for success by taking a half hour or so each weekend to plan five simple meals for the week. I like to keep a list of easy go-to meals that my family will eat.

When planning your menus, think about the week ahead and plan accordingly. For example, if you work late on Monday and Wednesday, make those days slow-cooker meals that can be prepared the evening before or morning of. Nothing feels better than coming home to the smell of dinner cooking. The same concept applies if you work from home. Why not get the cooking frenzy out of the way early?

Plan meals that can be used for several days. I’m not talking about leftovers. I’ll address this in another section. 

One of my favorite, “multi-use”, meals is chili. We cook a double batch of chili to be eaten traditionally, with all the fixings. The remaining chili can be refrigerated and served two or three days later as chili-cheese dogs, chili-cheese fries, or smothered over easy burritos.

Some other “multi-use” meal ideas - 

Roast Beef / Beef Stew

Ham and beans/ Bean Burritos

Baked Chicken/ Chicken Noodle Soup

Beef Stew/Beef “Pot Pie” (thicken stew with cornstarch and bake with biscuits on top)

Spaghetti Sauce and noodles/French Bread Pizza

There are a ton of websites that focus on large batch cooking. You can take it one step further and plan meals with similar ingredients. It’s easy to mass produce most of your dinners for one week with a little planning and some freezer space. Not only is it a budget saver, it’s a time saver. Get your family involved in the prep, and you might find a new fun activity for everyone.

Be flexible in your menus. I find that I do much better if I leave myself a little wiggle room for those days that I didn’t have time to throw something in the slow cooker. Try to have at least one or two “back-up” meals that are easy to prepare in a flash. There’s no shame in having breakfast for dinner.

2. Shop in Your Pantry First -

Have you ever noticed all the odds and ends accumulated in your refrigerator and pantry? Whether it’s a can of some unusual vegetable that you thought would be fun to try, or a jar of fruit pie filling that you bought on sale last year, chances are good that you have unused food items sitting around. 

When menu planning, take a few minutes to sort through your refrigerator and cupboards to see what is left. Plan a vegetable stew with the variety of carrots, celery, and other veggies that didn’t get used up. Throw in that small amount of rice, pearled barley, or pasta. 

You’ll save money and feel good about not letting food go to waste. I usually find that I can concoct at least one or two meals a week by shopping my pantry first.

3. Pick Inexpensive Foods That Are in Season -

It’s easy to get lost in the excitement of trying new recipes. Unfortunately, a lot of tantalizing dishes call for ingredients that are either hard to find or out of season. Make it a point to know what is readily available in your area.

By choosing foods that rely heavily on easy-to-find and inexpensive ingredients, you will save. You don’t have to feel deprived so long as you use a light touch on the exotic components.

4. Buy Generic When Possible -

I know a lot of people are fans of clipping coupons. I always felt it was too time-consuming, and I was tempted to buy brands or items that we didn’t normally use. Buying generic or store brands has tremendously cut costs for my family. I find that the quality is just as good, especially for whole food type items such as vegetables and staples.

I would caution that it still pays to comparison shop as brand-names do periodically offer a lower price than the store brand. Which leads me to my next tip…

5. Learn to Compare Prices -

Comparison shopping doesn’t have to be confusing if you know what to look for. Below each item in the grocery store aisle, you can find the tag showing the price per unit. Seems simple enough, right? Well…not always.

In a perfect world, all similar products would display a uniform price per unit tag. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. A row of green beans can show the price per unit in ounces, pounds, etc. The same applies to almost all other goods. It can be very confusing.

The easiest way for me to compare is to divide the total price by the number of ounces, grams, pounds, or whatever total volume is shown on the product itself. This way you will know the price per unit and be able to compare to a similar product. 

I find that bulk items are often not cheaper per unit than the smaller version. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite! I’m guessing that retailers have figured out that consumers assume that bulk equates to more economical.

If all of this comparison talk is making your head spin, don’t be intimidated. In no way do you need to become militant about it. Just be aware of the differences in pricing, and if you’re unsure, take a few minutes to pull out a calculator to do the math.

Shop the reduced-price bins in your local supermarket. Whenever a product’s “sell by” date is about to expire, most grocery stores will drastically mark down the price. Many foods are perfectly edible well beyond the “sell by” date. I regularly find produce, dairy, meat, baked goods, and cereals at a huge savings by checking these sections first. It pays to be flexible on your menu plan as you can take advantage of great deals in this manner. 

Once home, I freeze the items that I won’t be using right away to prolong the freshness.

6. Don’t Be Afraid to Substitute -

There may be times that you have a recipe planned, only to discover that you’re missing an ingredient. It’s tempting to run to the store, but you risk the possibility of buying more than you’d planned.

It pays to be willing to experiment with a substitution. Over time, you’ll get really good at interchanging ingredients.

First, understand the ingredients function in the recipe. Is it for the purpose of thickening a sauce? Is the item intended to leaven, or help raise, a bread of some type? Or is the ingredient meant to add flavor? All these issues can be resolved with a little research and understanding of basic cooking techniques.

There are many online resources for substitutions, but here are some of the basics.

Flour used to thicken can be substituted with cornstarch, arrowroot flour, tapioca starch, or potato starch.

Eggs may be substituted in bread recipes with mashed banana, pureed zucchini, or even applesauce. There are many other substitutions that work. You can find some great ideas on dairy-free recipe sites.

Baking powder (1 tsp) can be substituted with baking soda (1/4 tsp) and vinegar (1/2 tsp).

Root vegetables may be substituted with other root vegetables.

Fats are also interchangeable. Just be sure to understand the smoke point of each type of oil if you are using it to fry.

Rice can be replaced with other grains, such as barley, quinoa, amaranth, or even pasta. Again, notice the cooking directions and adjust accordingly.

Honey, sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, and corn syrup can all be used interchangeably with some adjustment. It’s easy to find directions online. 

Spices in similar families replace each other nicely in a pinch. Cinnamon works well in recipes that call for cloves or nutmeg, and vice versa. 

Ground beef or chicken can be replaced with beans or another form of protein. The price of meat is skyrocketing right now, and beans make a great alternative in casseroles, soups, chilis, and tacos. We transitioned to a mostly plant-based diet several years ago. One of the profound benefits was a reduction in our grocery bill.  

7. Recycle/Reincarnate Leftovers -

Leftovers are controversial. Some people are happy to eat the same dish for several days in a row, especially if it’s one that gets better over time. Potato soup, lasagna, and chili are a few of the meals that come to mind.

Other people are repulsed at the thought of eating the same thing twice in week.

No matter your stance on leftover food, there is no denying this is a possible source of food waste. It’s easy to overestimate the amount of food each person will want to eat.

You can reduce your food waste with some of the following handy tips.

Freeze individual portions for a “leftover night” later in the month. It’s easy to reheat most dishes in the microwave. A week’s worth of just one leftover serving a day can be more than enough food for a “leftover” night each week.

Alternatively, individual servings can be packed in the following week’s lunchboxes. It’s a great way to avoid eating out while at work. 

Save uneaten portions of veggies in a freezer bag. After a few weeks, you will have enough to make a tasty vegetable soup or to add to a chicken pot pie.

Debone roast chicken and dice the leftover meat to add to soups, salads, and casseroles. You can do the same with roast or any other meat. The amount of meat salvaged by doing this can be impressive!

Get creative in combining leftover soups and stews with additional ingredients. It’s easy to turn a small amount of beef stew into a casserole by adding noodles and cheese. If the stew is too thin for your liking, simply thicken it up with a bit of cornstarch or flour.

Another favorite is to bake the thickened leftover stew with biscuits for an easy pot pie.

Make egg omelets for dinner with leftover bits of broccoli, onions, mushrooms, and cheese. If you are really feeling fancy, pour the mixture into an unbaked pie shell and you have quiche! Serve with a simple salad, and no one will ever suspect they are eating reincarnated leftovers. 

Beans, rice, and meat from a Mexican food night can be recycled into a layered casserole. Alternate tortillas (or tortilla chips) with layers of refried beans, meat, rice, guacamole, cheese, and anything else that looks good. Bake covered for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. Top with salsa and sour cream. Voila! A new family favorite!

As you can see, recycling leftovers and reducing food waste merely requires a little creativity and care. It can be fun to develop new ways to eat the same old food. I’ll bet some of the best dishes of all time were created in just this way. 

8. Learn Basic “From Scratch” Cooking -

One of the biggest expenses in our food budget can be convenience foods. I’m sure you can think of a handful that you rely on, even in your home-cooked meals.

There is no shame in taking shortcuts to save time. I rarely make a cake from scratch, and although I know how to bake bread, my pantry always has store-bought sliced sandwich bread.

If you find that you rely heavily on convenience mixes, learning these few basics will expand your confidence to create dishes on the fly and save your family some money in the process.

Gravy – 

When you hear the term ‘gravy’ you may think of country style sausage gravy. Or perhaps, a brown, clear gravy comes to mind. 

Cream gravy is essentially a simple white sauce using equal parts flour and fat (usually butter) and a liquid. The trick to a creamy, smooth gravy is to melt the fat and whisk flour into the fat, stirring until smooth. At this point, you would add your liquid (usually milk), and continue whisking over medium heat until thickened. A good measurement to start with is 5 tablespoons each of butter and flour with one cup of liquid. Slowly add more liquid if you desire a thinner gravy.

Cream gravy can be used to bring together noodles, meat, and vegetables in a tasty casserole, as the base for a chicken pot pie, or as a cheesy sauce for any dish (by adding grated cheese), and many other recipes. The uses are only limited by your imagination.

Brown Gravy is made by taking a small amount of meat drippings (or other flavorings, such as soy sauce), an additional amount of liquid – broth, water, or entirely meat drippings – and mixing with a few tablespoons of cornstarch which has been dissolved by mixing into ¼ cup of cold water. Bring the mixture to a boil and continue to stir until thickened. Brown gravy is somewhat translucent and often used with roast beef. It is also versatile, and once you have the technique down, you will have fun experimenting. The most important thing to remember when making a cornstarch-based gravy is to dissolve the cornstarch first in cold water. Skipping this step will cause lumpy gravy.

Quick breads –

My grandmother used to say that bread helps any meal. In my family, yeast bread is an absolute favorite. But I often don’t find time to bake yeast bread.

Two basic quick bread recipes that can be made in pinch are biscuits and quick bread (think banana bread, pumpkin bread, etc.).

Biscuits are simple to make, and there are plenty of recipes online or in cookbooks. Baking powder (a key ingredient) containers often have a basic recipe printed on the label. Biscuit dough can be used to make dumplings by dropping spoonfuls into simmering soups, layered on top of meat, vegetable, and gravy and baked (easy pot pie), or to make tuna pinwheels. For a quick treat, you can poke a hole in each biscuit, fry in a pan of oil, and roll in cinnamon sugar to make homemade doughnuts.

Although banana bread, pumpkin bread, and other sweet quick breads aren’t super-fast to make (baking time is around an hour), they serve as an inexpensive and delicious breakfast treat. With a little adjusting, quick breads can be made savory (think cheesy dill bread). Once you master the basics, you can create endless variations that your family will love. 

Pie crust – 

While it takes a little practice and patience to perfect pie crust, once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll be surprised how many dishes can be transformed into a delicious pie. Bierocks have been a family tradition for us for generations, but they are time consuming to make. Except for special occasions, I make Bierock pies instead. It’s much faster, and my kids think anything in a pie crust is awesome.

Soup base –

Leftover vegetables and bones can be simmered in your slow cooker to make a nutritious and mouth-watering broth. Simply strain the solids from the liquid when finished. It’s a great way to use up the odds and ends of meals to create a completely new dish. You won’t feel like you are eating leftovers, and it feels great to know that you’ve reduced food waste.

As you become more confident in these base recipes/techniques, you will find that saving money doesn’t have to feel like a sacrifice. If you are a beginner cook, use online resources or check out some basic cookbooks from your local library.

9. Consider bartering and foraging 

Bartering was routinely done less than a hundred years ago. It can be a great way to exchange something that you have excess of in return for something that you need.

Every community is different, so you may have to search for barter companions. I’ve found people willing to barter with me on Craigslist and Facebook. Some communities even have bartering groups.

We’ve traded homemade bread in exchange for fresh eggs, garden vegetables for milk, and much more. It’s an excellent way to unload what you have too much of.

One summer, we placed an ad for unused fruit in exchange for homemade jam. The owner, an elderly man, was thrilled that his yard wouldn’t be covered with rotting plums and apples, and he hadn’t eaten homemade jam since his wife’s death.

I would caution you to check out your local ordinances, but bartering is still acceptable in many areas.

Foraging is another way to obtain the food that you need for your family. It’s imperative to learn which plants are edible. You don’t want to mistakenly consume something poisonous just to save a dollar. Also, make sure that you are gathering from areas that haven’t been treated with pesticides or other toxic chemicals.

Some commonly available edible plants in our area are sand plums, mulberries, walnuts, dandelions, morel mushrooms, and watercress.

Lastly, make sure that you have permission from the owner of the land if you are foraging on private property.

10. Supplement your food supply with gardening –

Obviously, gardening isn’t an instant way to supplement your food supply. Full blown gardening takes time, physical space, and a bit of knowledge. You can adjust your garden to fit within your abilities and home by using a little creative thinking.

Gardens come in all shapes and sizes. It’s surprising how much food can be grown in a small space. A sunny patio can be a perfect spot for a container garden.

We currently have tomato plants, zucchini, butternut squash, cucumbers, green beans, and even watermelon (yes, watermelon) growing in our container garden. Many vining plants, such as cucumber, melons, and winter squash, do quite well in containers so long as they have something to climb up.

We also sectioned off a 6’ x 10’ plot to grow more green beans, loads of swiss chard, carrots, and okra. I save space by planting in grids rather than rows. (Click here to see more about this technique.) In this manner, the plants are spaced closely together in squares or rectangles, and I’m not wasting valuable soil with walking paths. Because the plants are close together, we get the added benefit of less weeds and better water retention.

In our front flower bed, we grow basil, thyme, oregano, mint, dill, and swiss chard. The plants are beautiful, smell lovely, and do double duty as decoration. The cost of seed was negligible, but the value added to economical cooking is almost priceless. The last time I purchased fresh basil in the supermarket, I was a little shocked by the price of two or three small cuttings.

If you don’t have any sunny spots to speak of, or you live in an enclosed apartment building, you can still grow sprouts. Sprouts (mung bean, radish, broccoli, alfalfa – just to name a few) are highly nutritious and can help your family stay healthy during hard times. Sprinkle them on salads, sandwiches, and stir fry or toss them into a smoothie.

When buying supplies for your garden, you don’t need to spend a fortune. It’s possible to reduce your seed cost even more by using dried beans from the supermarket to grow green beans. Did you know that Pinto beans, Great Northern, and even Navy beans will produce green beans? (Check out my experience with planting dried beans here) By picking them prior to the maturation of the dried bean pod, you can eat them as you would any other green bean. Great Northern beans have the best taste at the green stage, in my opinion, but if you are desperate for a cheap seed supply, almost any dried bean that you can buy in the supermarket will work, as long as they were allowed to dry naturally and not heat treated. I’ve had wonderful luck doing this.

There are other vegetables that can be grown from produce purchased at the supermarket. Potatoes can be planted from the sections of the peel that hold the emerging roots. You’ve probably had potatoes that began to sprout in your pantry. Instead of throwing them out, try planting them instead.

Long-term, gardening becomes a nearly free source of food if you save some seeds back every season. I usually allow some of the vegetables to completely mature on the vine at the end of every season, then separate the seeds and allow them to air dry for a week or so. Once the seeds have dried, I wrap them in paper towels, newspaper, or coffee filters and secure them in jars or ziplock bags. This works best when using heirloom (not hybrid) plants. Hybrid plants will not reproduce true – meaning the offspring from the seed won’t be like the parent plant. Yes, a tomato seed will produce a tomato plant, not a carrot, but it could be weak or a little wonky.

When possible, grow plants that are nutritionally dense. In hard times, the majority of your diet may be starchy, filler foods. Pasta, rice, potatoes, and flour are all cheap but lacking in certain vital nutrients. Serving dark leafy greens, such as spinach or kale, will help to keep you and your family healthy.

Hopefully, some of these tips that I've shared will help you to feed your family well with less money. Let me know which ideas you already use in your home and what you currently do to cut your grocery budget. 

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