Could you feed your family for $2 per person per day?
How to Reduce Your Grocery Bill
by Nancy Steinkoenig
6 Things You Need to Know about Grocery Store Aisles
Creative Grocery Budget Stretching
Meal Planning Around Leftovers
To begin, let me tell you that I had a bet going with one of my coworkers that I could spend $35.00 per week (for three of us) on food. Not paper, not cleaning supplies, not sodas -- real food -- and still have tasty meals. By the end of the month, I had so much food stockpiled that I knocked it back to $25.00 per week, and still did fine. Anyone who can cook should be able to do the same. A rule of thumb would be a dollar per day per person. In our case, that would be $27.00 per week. For a family of five, it would be $35.00 per week.
Editor's Note: The author's challenge to spend no more than $35 per week on groceries was back in 1996. However, the tools she used to keep her grocery bill that low are still applicable today. Even if you double her suggestion for allowing a dollar per day for person to calculate your food budget (use $2 per person per day), you are still only looking at $75 per week. Can you get your food budget down that low?
Always buy enough of the basics to last the amount of time (week, two weeks, month) for which you are shopping. By basics, I mean things like rice, beans, pasta, oatmeal, milk, flour, eggs, vegetable oil, potatoes, peanut butter, canned tuna, frozen orange juice. Select the most basic of those basics -- buy the lowest cost available, with the least amount of packaging.
Once you have those items in your cart, then you add food that will complement the basics. Buy fresh produce when you can. Cabbage, carrots, and potatoes store well, and have very little waste. Apples, oranges, and bananas are available year round. Use the calculator on your phone and enter the budgeted amount first. Then subtract each item from the total you plan to spend as you put it in the cart. If you get down to zero and find that you forgot something basic, you must remove something from the cart. Put it back and get that basic item instead.
If you clip/print coupons, use them wisely. Buy the smallest package the coupon allows. Don't buy groceries that come under the heading of convenience foods unless you get them practically for free! As with all rules, however, I have a few exceptions. Complete pancake mix allows you to make pancakes and waffles without any added ingredients but water. Spaghetti sauce in a jar can be used over pasta, as pizza sauce, or even as soup flavoring, and there are always coupons for spaghetti sauce. For some reason, kids like macaroni & cheese from the box better than homemade, so I do buy it occasionally. Buy only items that are on sale, unless it is a basic item that you are completely out of. If I don't have a coupon, and it is not marked down, I usually wait until it is on sale, and then buy it.
You may have noticed that I did not list meat as one of my basics. I am not a vegetarian, but I use meat more as a condiment than as a main course. It makes meals seem more substantial, but I don't use very much. We have learned to eat spaghetti without meat in the sauce, but when I do use ground meat in the sauce, I usually use 1/2 pound or less. It is almost a contest with myself to figure out all the things I can do with 1/2 pound of ground beef, or one chicken breast.
Of all the cookbooks I have read, including the ones purporting to be "budget" cookbooks, I have never seen any information about what is the cheapest food to prepare and eat. If you think about the most common ethnic foods, whatever the nationality, you will find foods that are inexpensive but contain the most vital nutrients. For instance, Mexican food usually is a combination of beans, tortillas, peppers (protein, carbohydrate, and vitamins). Italian food brings to mind pasta, tomato sauce, cheese (carbohydrate, vitamins, protein). Oriental food can be rice, vegetables, small bits of meat (carbohydrate, vitamins, protein). You can visit a different country every night at the dinner table without blowing your budget!
What's for Breakfast?
The cheapest main food for breakfast is hot cereal. Plain old-fashioned oatmeal (not the instant single serving kind) is the cheapest. To jazz it up, you can peel and chop an apple, divide among the number of bowls of oatmeal you are serving, and microwave it for a minute while the oatmeal is cooking. Add milk, cinnamon and a little sugar along with the oatmeal. Do you ever eat rice for breakfast? Either brown or converted white rice can be eaten like oatmeal. I like it with nutmeg instead of cinnamon, because it reminds me of rice pudding! Muffins are also very inexpensive if you make them from scratch.
What's for Lunch?
Leftovers from dinner! Most job sites have microwaves for reheating leftovers. If you need to pack a sack lunch, don't fall for the individually packaged items. That's what ziploc bags are for! Don't buy lunch meat in 6 oz. packages either. It is cheaper per pound to buy at the deli counter, or make sandwich fixings at home (like tuna salad, egg salad, peanut butter, chicken salad, etc.). Stay away from packaged snack foods. They are usually high in calories and fat, and low in nutrition. If you want something crunchy in your lunch, take carrot sticks or an apple. If you want something sweet, take a couple of homemade cookies or a brownie.
What's for Dinner?
Occasionally, have a big breakfast for supper! Since we rarely have time for cooking in the morning, it is a real treat to have breakfast with all the trimmings for dinner. Breakfast is one of the most economical meals to prepare, even when you do it in a "big" way. Pancakes, sausage, applesauce and orange juice is one combination my family likes. Omelets, toast & jam, and grapefruit is another. French toast uses up dry bread that would probably be thrown away. Use your imagination. Get a basic cookbook and see what other goodies you can come up with.
Make a big pot of soup on the weekend, and you can eat soup for several meals. If you save leftover vegetables in a container in the freezer, you can make soup from what you would have thrown away. If you don't have any leftovers to turn into soup, one of the cheapest and fastest ways to make soup is to prepare Ramen noodles (I've found them on sale for as little as 5 or 6 packages for $1.00), but add dried chopped onion, a grated carrot, a little bit of frozen broccoli (from the large bag in your freezer) or other vegetables. If you saved bits of chicken, you can cut into 1/2" cubes and add that, or use canned tuna.
Learn to cook beans. I used to think that this was something everybody knew, but one of my girlfriends asked me how to cook beans. It seems that her mother never cooked beans, because beans were "poor folks" food! The only beans she had as a child were canned pork & beans. She didn't have a clue as to how to cook beans! My way to cook beans is as follows: Measure out 2 cups of dried beans (we like pintos) right on the counter. Pick through them to remove small bits of dirt and/or rocks. Put them in a colander and rinse with cold water. Put into a large pot and add enough cold water to cover, plus 2 inches over the beans. Bring to a boil, and cook 10 minutes. Cover the pot, and let it set for 30 minutes. At the end of 30 minutes, drain the beans. Add cold water to cover, plus 2 inches. Bring to a boil, then simmer until tender, usually an hour or less. Don't add any seasonings or flavoring meat until the beans are tender. Salt and pepper to taste, and/or chili powder and other spices to taste. This quick-soaking method also takes away about half of the gas beans usually cause. Beans are a good source of protein and fiber, as well as iron. If you don't have time to cook beans, use your crock pot. Beans and cornbread are a historic combination, but I like homemade whole wheat bread with my beans. You can also mash the leftover beans and use them for refried beans in making burritos with flour tortillas.
Reviewed July 2017
Nancy Steinkoenig is a computer software trainer for a law firm, but a closet home economics teacher. She loves to cook, and to challenge herself to come up with nutritious meals for little money.
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