How to cut your food budget and eat well!
For the Long Term
If you are looking at the possibility of job loss or financial trouble from cut hours, you may need to prepare for a time when you could cut groceries off your monthly expenses altogether for some months. I read a comment on another hub where someone said they'd stocked up on nonperishables like breakfast cereal to tide them over.
That's a good idea, stocking up on enough nonperishables that you can go for months without buying food if necessary, or without buying very much food. It's a bad idea to put breakfast cereal on that list because it's overpriced even on sale and it's empty calories. It lacks serious nutritional value compared to something much cheaper.
Oatmeal. The non-instant kind in the big cans that you cook on a stove and garnish with a bit of brown sugar or whatever. Oatmeal has protein. Some types of oatmeal are more nutritious than others -- those big cans are not the top quality, steel-cut oats in very large quantity from a health store may be more of an initial outlay but contain even more protein and nutrients than processed oatmeal.
The list of nonperishables to store in large amounts begins with whole grains.
Oatmeal, steel cut oats boil up to a better texture and don't get as gelatinous when cooked. They have a better flavor too. My daughter bought a 50lb sack of steel cut oats, another of whole wheat, another of whole barley. Get a variety of whole grains in big bags. Brown rice is good too.
Potatoes are incredibly nutritious if you also eat the skins. Store them in a cool dark place and eat them often. They can be prepared in a wide variety of ways and people can actually survive on potatoes, beans and milk.
Beans are another good bargain to stock up on in large quantity -- serious ten or twenty pound bags of your favorites. Dried beans last a long long time and are chock full of protein.
Then there are some other essential ingredients to get. Powdered milk, a couple of the giant storage boxes of powdered milk cuts costs by a lot. It's not as tasty for drinking for those who like drinking milk but it is just as good for cooking and most recipes take some milk. Most of all, you're not out of milk if you have to go a week without buying anything fresh.
Flour, salt, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, cocoa powder are all important to have big boxes or bags. Whole wheat flour has more protein and is tastier in bread and pancakes. Pancakes are one of those easy cheap foods that are downright tasty and feel special.
Ground meat and butter or margarine goes in the freezer. Break up big family packs of ground meat into smaller ones for meal-sized portions and thaw it out later. Buying it in small packs every day or two is the most expensive way to get it. Don't forget that ground pork, ground turkey, sausage and other meats are ground meat too -- vary what meats you get.
Whole chickens, cut them up at home and put the parts in freezer bags. They can be boiled or put in pot pies, roasted, prepared in many ways. Turkey is a great bargain meat, if you roast a turkey and use all the meat on the carcass in soups and stews and sandwiches you'll get a lot out of it. Freeze some of the cooked turkey after you clean off the carcass to make soup, or freeze bags of turkey soup so that you're not eating it every day for two weeks when you do it.
Canned fruits and vegetables are important, especially when you can get them on sale. Consider getting big restaurant sized cans of everything from yams to pineapple or green beans, don't forget canned fish like salmon or tuna. You can open a big can and pour it into reusable small refrigerator containers in order to have more variety by alternating which ones you eat or cook with.
Pasta is inexpensive and all right for some of it. Balance it out with the whole grains and whole potatoes though, it hasn't got as much nutrition. Don't make pasta or white rice the biggest staple, they're variety and good for just that. Same with ramen if you like it. It's cheap but it hasn't got much nutrition at all compared to the whole grains.
So treat that as variety rather than essential, but get enough of those things to suit your tastes and have them maybe once a week or so.
Think of home baked treats. Cocoa powder can be used to make everything from hot cocoa to chocolate candy to cake or flavoring your oatmeal, it's the cheapest way to get chocolate. If you love chocolate, get a lot of cocoa powder and make sure you have big bags of white sugar, powdered sugar, brown sugar and other dry ingredients for making cakes and cookies. Watch for sales on mixes though.
Getting dried egg powder is sometimes possible at army-navy surplus stores and some stores. Check the cost versus just buying eggs, especially on sale. It may or may not be cost effective but if you're stockpiling for the long run, having some of it on hand may help with preparing things that need eggs. There are also some recipes for egg substitutes for baking in The Tightwad Gazette that can work well.
Be sure to have plenty of vanilla, other flavorings and seasonings. Look for large containers of spices and seasonings, sometimes you can find the big containers cheaper than the small ones from well known brands. On vanilla, if you purchase a bottle of vodka and one actual vanilla bean, you can soak that bean to have real vanilla flavoring for everything and then grind it down for use as a garnish after it's been used to make a huge quantity of extract.
Use real things like the vanilla bean rather than the cheaper substitutes. It tastes better and means when you fall back on these reserves there are still some treats and some good things to look forward to. My daughter saves so much on things like using our bread machine that for garnishes she'll buy high quality like real maple syrup. It's healthier than the corn syrup anyway.
Look for a grocery sale on butter. Real butter is more nutritious than margarine by a lot, and the trans fats in margarine are dangerous. So we use real butter all the time and buy it on sale at its lowest prices, then store it in the freezer. If stocking up for months, get lots. If buying margarine for cost, look for the ones that say No Trans Fats.
If you have a large freezer, consider talking to a local farmer and purchasing meats in bulk. My daughter invested in a giant freezer last fall and we now have plenty of pork, beef, poultry including lots of turkey to eat well regularly even if she's pulling a month's budget tight for some particular reason.
All that took some initial investment. The results of that investment are that she makes those major purchases once or twice a year and does not need to shop that often for groceries or spend that much when she does.
In the short term
From the time we moved into our house till now, my family has been stockpiling nonperishables and freezer food. We already have the big freezer and the rancher's deal for pork, beef, turkey and chicken. We have fifty pound bags of whole grains and even luxuries like big bags of freeze-dried raspberries, strawberries and blueberries add flavor and nutrition to our pancakes and boiled grain meals to make them a treat rather than a drag.
Large quantities of powdered milk and other ingredients mean we could get by without any shopping at all. But over the long run, we still do some shopping for perishables after the great year's worth of food goal was achieved. She just doesn't spend very much on it. Even adding in the investment in nonperishables in restaurant cans and big bags, averaging it per month my daughter spends less to feed three adults and two children well than I would get in Food Stamps for one single man.
I never bothered to apply for Food Stamps because my food's covered in my monthly expenses. I pitch in my share and she feeds me better than I could eat on my Food Stamps allotment -- especially since I'm disabled and would on my own have to eat less nutritious, more expensive packaged and convenience foods. I'm not physically capable of cooking.
So once the big bargains are established, set aside some cash budgeted for nonperishables. It doesn't have to be a lot. Then look for two or three categories of super bargains even when things are very tight.
Eggs are cheap protein. They are used in making pancakes and making pie crusts or cakes or various types of food. You can make all sorts of things with eggs and stretch them, they are healthful and if you're physically active they won't kill you -- especially if you cut back on refined white flour and refined sugars and corn syrups.
Honey is expensive compared to sugar, but she invested in fifty gallons of it and my son in law makes mead. So we are now stocked on honey for a year too and use that in place of sugar in a lot of healthful foods. That's a luxury and we know it, but one that helps counterbalance having all that real butter and eggs in our diet.
When the cost of all the empty calorie convenience foods including packaged bread most of the time dropped out of our budget, we had room for butter and honey without winding up wrecking the budget. These treats mean a lot when you have to actually spend time cooking and storing homemade convenience food. For reasons of time, they usually spend Sunday doing a big cook-off and then put several different dishes in the fridge so there's a choice of foods to rewarm any given day.
In regular shopping for perishables, Kitten always looks through the discount produce. Fruits and vegetables get chosen for what got marked down -- and everything gets marked down when it's in season. We had pomegranates and pears as well as bag apples and oranges. Fruit is essential for children, fruit gets them into treats that are healthy rather than cheap candy in large quantity. Candy is rare in our house and apples an essential -- but watch for those packages of bruised ones or just off date ones.
Bananas are a good source of potassium. Get them when they're cheap and if you get too many to eat, then make banana bread or something with the brown ones. If you live in New Orleans or other Southern climates where banana trees grow, look around for the stems of bananas that grow on what peolpe think of as weeds. They are free good food, fried or eaten raw or used as an ingredient. Let the green ones ripen till they're tasty.
If you live down there, think of keeping a couple of banana trees in your yard for that reason instead of pulling them out.
Kitten also looks through the day-old baked goods trays and picks up various baked things at random for treats. We don't ever pay full price for those things but sometimes the fanciest ones get marked so low it's irresistible. She got in that habit. These treats are very good for being able to live on a low food budget for a long time without the frustration of never having any of our favorite coffee cake or whatever. She's even found baklava in that tray sometimes.
The other thing to watch for in the short term at supermarkets is the Loss Leaders. Supermarkets will mark down some foods, often fancy ones, way below even their own cost. Go in and buy the loss leaders whatever they are. This is part of how for years and years I was keeping up a good stash of canned fruits and vegetables because I'd buy the maximum amount whenever I saw a loss leader sale on black olives or pineapple or other favorites.
She still buys loss leaders and in nonperishables, to the maximum amount. Butter is often a loss leader -- so that's when to buy as much as you can and stash it in the freezer for when it's full price later.
This process maintains that "keep a year's food around all the time against emergencies" habit both my daughter and I thrived on when we lived down in New Orleans on things like selling art or tarot reading or crafts or odd jobs. We were so far under the poverty line we had to crick our necks to look up at it -- and lived high on the proverbial hog by not wasting money.
The supermarkets use those loss leaders to get people who shop in normal weekly fashion to come in, get those and buy expensive packaged foods like breakfast cereal since they're there. It evens out for the store in the long run. Focus on those and you start trimming your food bill to minimal.
And really, even if you are in a good financial position, your job isn't at risk and life is picking up for you against the tide of what most people are going through -- doesn't it make sense to spend less on food in general and be able to afford that new widget, tool or HDTV without having to use a credit card?
Frugal living is not just to get through this crisis. It's a way to live well without ever really running out of anything important except perishables that can be done without if you don't feel like bothering to shop.
One of the biggest risks in this recession is that people forced to budget food for the first time in their lives will wind up obese and sick. Poverty fat is on the rise and going to rise farther - because many of the cheapest foods are the least nutritious. If you live on pasta, ramen and breakfast cereal, you will start having vitamin deficiencies and your metabolism will adjust to that partial starvation by storing every empty calorie that comes in -- nutrients necessary to turn food into energy come up short and the pounds stick without ever coming off without major deprivation.
I should mention here that my daughter the cook with the fancy tastes is actually thin, has had two children and still wears the first evening gown she ever bought for a high school dance. It's a classic style that made her look older at fifteen and she's grown into the look in her thirties. My son in law was chunky when they got married, and I have noticed his bulk migrating up from his middle into muscular shoulders and arms from good diet and the amount of physical activity he does.
So don't lay on the flab with sugar sodas, pasta, ramen and empty calories. Look seriously at your nutritional needs and just find ways to get healthy foods cheap in bulk or at a discount.
One of the best things any homeowner can do for fruit and vegetables of course is to actually grow them. Gardening gives you good food and free exercise while you're making it happen.
Berry bushes are a long term investment, perennials that won't bear much the first year but start paying off in the second year and thereafter bring all these luxury berries that you'd pay $5 a tiny pint in for free, just for occupying part of your yard. Tomato plants when well cared for at all wind up inevitably fruiting so much that people who grow them have to give bags of them away at the office. Same with squash, cucumbers, peas, beans, oh all sorts of things grow well depending on where you live. Choose local varieties and don't waste money on pesticides and you'll have that expensive health-store organic produce to fill out your diet.
Staple beverages for the long term start with coffee, tea and herbal teas. If you want to be very healthful, sweeten with honey rather than refined sugar -- it'll metabolize better and help metabolize other foods instead of interacting badly with animal fats and meat protein.
Peppermint is the big freebie. Plant it in a pot if you live in an apartment. Mint grows like a weed because it is one, it will become a giant bush in practically no time in any growing zone. Pick some branches, dry them and put them in a jar. Presto. Free peppermint tea, high on any health food list of good beverages.
If you're not good at growing plants from seed, actually pay for the little seedling and it'll pay for itself when it grows up. My daughter's a good gardener, I'm not. Peppermint survives even my brown thumb though.
Tea and coffee are a lot cheaper than sodas. Plain tea, like Lipton in those boxes of 100 teabags, is my absolute-bottom-of-broke beverage of store-for-brokeness. Sometimes you can get those boxes for a dollar on sale. Stash a couple of those for the hard times and drink tea as often or little as you like.
Coffee is more costly but I like it better and our whole household does. They have a coffee grinder and sometimes for treats get the whole bean good coffees on sale. Regular coffee in big cans is cheap on sale and that gets stored unopened till used. These are both things to stock up on for "year without having to buy groceries."
Fruit juices are cheapest on sale in those frozen little paper cans with metal ends. Watch for the loss leader sales, they may sometimes be going for a lot less than retail to hook people in. They are good. They take a little more effort to fix in a pitcher than buying the milk-carton fruit juice but it's still fruit juice.
A fruit juice cooler is very easy to fix if you get tired of full strength fruit juice. Just mix half and half with water and serve in a large glass.
Unless the water quality in your area is terrible, bottled water is a luxury. Even if it is, getting big industrial-size bottles of it is better than the fancy brand little bottles.
I used to be very fond of diet sodas and have drifted away from them over the years as I got used to the healthy eating habits of our household. I wind up drinking more coffee, fruit juice and tea and get a soda maybe a couple of times a year for a treat. Many people regard it as a necessity.
It's one of the big contributors to Poverty Fat if it's not diet, because you're basically drinking a lot of refined sugar without counting it as part of nutrition and it hasn't got other nutrition to recommend it. Ah, but it is cheap compared to fruit juice if you look at the fruit juices that come in those faux milk cartons from big brand names.
It's not if you get the juices in those big or little cardboard cans and stock the freezer well with them.
Choose canned fruit packed in real juice over packed in corn syrup. The reason being that you don't throw out that pineapple juice. You put that into a pitcher and mix it with some water or a different flavor of frozen fruit juice and got added value in the same can.
Coupon clipping is something that I've known of people who took it to the extreme and wound up by paying attention to every sale and sorting all of them, buying hundreds of dollars in groceries for a few dollars. The catch with that for me was that many of the coupons just mark down foods that aren't nutritious or are overpriced in the first place -- you have to be careful about whether the bargain is really a bargain.
So check the coupons and use the ones for loss leaders more than anything -- they rotate through every item sometimes and if you buy strategically it can bring the cost of anything and everything down. In general, homemade food is a lot cheaper than eating out and good ingredients can be had cheap if you use strategy and buy low.
I hope this Hub helps you manage your budget easier. Stockpile now and if you do lose your job, at least you won't have to worry about food while budgeting to make the mortgage and utilities.