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Budget Meals: How to Cook with Less

Budget Meals: Bread, pasta and pastries on a wooden surface

You might be surprised to learn that the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion has determined this year’s “moderate” food cost plan for a family of 4 is just a little more than $1000 per month. Their “thrifty” family plan puts that monthly expenditure at less than $650.

If you’re like most of us, though, much more of your income goes to feeding your family.

While the USDA’s numbers assume families prepare all their meals at home, the truth is, Americans are increasingly eating out. That adds thousands of dollars to our food budgets each year.

Arguably, food is one of the  best investments you can make in your family. But too often the money you spend feeding yourself is motivated more by convenience than nutrition—or even, sometimes, pleasure.

No, you don’t have to go back to the days of churning your own butter and assembling salads from seed. But when you commit to buying more of your own ingredients and making meals from scratch, you’ll quickly learn that instant foods don’t translate into instant savings.

Adopt just one or two of these tips, below, and you’ll see improvement in your budget and your health.

Shop Smart

  • The first step to budgeting is to understand what things actually cost. Consult a food pricing resource like this website from Iowa State University to begin your budget and identify your biggest offenders.
  • Learn about “loss leaders.” There are some things you should make an effort to purchase exclusively on sale. The mark up on meat is so high, for example, that its sale price is often half the regular price or less. And that’s not because the product is about to expire. Just as often, meat and other pricey items are on sale because grocery stores recognize that drawing you in with a sale will lead you to purchase more of your other groceries while there. If you don’t need that particular cut of meat when you buy it, you can freeze it for another day.
  • Go generic. Remember too that, while searching for sales and cutting costs with coupons are a great way to save, the most basic tip of all is to buy store-brand items of most everything. If it’s an item unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), you are not likely to notice the difference.

Cheap Meats for Cheap Eats

Whether you are carnivore, vegetarian, pescetarian, or vegan, protein is an essential—and often pricey—building block of your diet. Consider these protein-rich tips.

  • When you purchase a whole chicken, you have protein for at least three meals. Roast the bird on day one and enjoy the breast, legs and wings. The next day, cube the remaining meat for enchiladas or easy chicken salad. Then toss the carcass into a plastic bag and store it in the freezer to boil for stock on a weekend afternoon. Homemade soups are a simple, savory way of grappling with all sorts of random leftovers.
  • At $2 to $3 per dozen, eggs are a winner. Good for breakfast, lunch or dinner, they’re as versatile as they are economical. Keep a handful of hard-boiled eggs in the fridge for quick snacks and bag lunches. Add scrambled eggs to burritos and fried rice.
  • The basis of chili, hummus, and black beans and rice, beans are a stick-to-your ribs protein option. When possible, buy them dried and set them out to rehydrate. When purchasing beans in cans, buy the store brand or take a trip to a Mexican or Mediterranean grocer for less expensive options.
  • If yogurt is your go-to for breakfast and lunch (or even dessert!) you can save serious cents by making your own. This cook did the math, and found that your homemade yogurt will cost you half of what you’re paying in the store. Add jelly, jam, or honey to the bowl and you’re set. If making your own sounds too tricky, opt for the larger container of yogurt instead of the single servings to save.

Count on Complex Carbs

  • Carbohydrates like rice, bread and pasta are a staple of most diets—and for good reason. They are easy to store and versatile to cook with. Most important, they fill you up fast. When looking for the best bang for your buck, remember to look for the least processed version. Unlike highly-processed, simple carbohydrates which have a greater percentage of sugar, complex carbohydrates like whole grain rice, pasta and breads are higher in fiber and digest more slowly. That makes them more filling.
  • Oatmeal makes a great start to the day, as does whole-grain toast with peanut butter or a hardboiled egg.
  • Baking bread, while easy and inexpensive, might not be the best use of your time per cost. But this no-kneed bread recipe makes it hard to resist! For less than a dollar’s worth of flour, salt, and yeast you’ve suddenly gone gourmand.

Budget Meals: Fresh Can Be Affordable

  • When it comes to cost-per-pound, bananas ($.50/lb.), oranges ($1/lb.), and apples ($1.50/lb.) should be the staple fruits in your kitchen. Easy to store and easy to transport, they make bag lunches and between-meal snacks a cinch.
  • If you’ve got lemons or limes in the fridge getting older (and harder) by the day, consider storing their juice in a small container (or even a sandwich bag) to use in recipes down the line.
  • During the summer months, farmer’s market produce and prices make fruits and vegetables an especially affordable solution. Check to see if your health insurance provider will reimburse you for purchasing Community Supported Agriculture If so, your costs may be almost covered.
  • Keep in mind that gardeners are often deluged all at once with tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers in August and into September. Ask around the office or post requests on social media and you’ll likely receive armfuls from overwhelmed gardeners.
  • Consider growing your favorite herbs in pot or backdoor garden. Basil, parsley, and even onions are cents by the seed and simple to grow.

Save on Snacks

  • If it’s been years since you’ve made stovetop popcorn, you’re in for a major treat. Easy, cheap and delicious, real popcorn puts the microwaved bags to shame. And with endless possibilities for salty, sweet and sour toppings, it’s a tireless treat.
  • If you’re looking for ready-made snacks, choose big sourdough hard pretzels that will fill you up fast or tortilla chips, which can accompany chili and be crumpled up into soups, too.