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What to eat when money is tight
Grocery shopping can be a real challenge, especially if you are on a limited budget. Because food is a controllable expense, it can be a target for reduced spending when money is tight. You can still serve meals that are appetizing, easy to prepare and nutritious by planning ahead and managing your money.
If you and your family need to prepare for two weeks or more of food, pay attention to nutrition needs. Plan food supplies so you all can eat at least one well-balanced meal each day.
Add to the number of basic foods you normally keep on your shelves. You may find that you have a two-week supply of most staples if you go through your cupboards. So, before you shop, take an inventory of what you already have. For a sample two-week menu planning, shopping list, and recipe videos visit the Preparing a 2-week emergency food supply webpage. Also visit Real Life, Good Food for great recipe and meal ideas.
Before dashing out to the grocery store, it's important to shop your cupboards and take the time to plan meals and make a shopping list. By doing so, you are more likely to find the best buys, avoid impulse purchases, and eliminate extra trips for forgotten items. That extra gas creates more expense as well.
Meal planning refers to deciding in advance what meals your family will eat. You could plan meals for a few days or a week. Consider the advantages of doing this kind of advanced planning for eating at home.
- You will eat at restaurants or have take-out food less often. Eating out usually is more expensive than eating home-prepared meals.
- Eating home-prepared foods is often healthier than eating restaurant foods and take-out foods. When you prepare meals at home, you can control portion size and the amount of fat, sugar and salt in the foods you eat. You can include more fruits and veggies, too.
- Most importantly, planning meals can mean less stress. When you make a meal plan and follow it, there will be no more staring at the refrigerator and cupboards wondering what to make for kids lunches or tonight’s dinner.
So, how do you start?
- Check online and local newspaper ads for special sales and coupons. The key to couponing is to use them to purchase only the items you are certain you’ll use. Check that the coupon price for a name brand is cheaper than the store brand.
- Learn to plan nutritious meals and snacks using MyPlate. Healthy foods give you more value for your dollar.
- Take advantage of seasonal specials. Foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, are generally less expensive when in great supply. Check out what's in season in Minnesota.
- Consider food preferences. When you serve popular foods that family members enjoy, you increase eating pleasure and avoid waste. Make a collection of economical, nutritious recipes that your family likes and serve them often.
- Plan the use of leftovers. They can be used in casseroles, soups, for snacks, and in lunch boxes.
If there is food waste in your household, ask yourself why. Are you buying food in the right quantities? Is food refused or left on the plate? Are servings too large? Is the food tasty? Cooperative meal planning and preparation increases the eating pleasure of the entire family, and increases a sense of togetherness and cooperation.
Stretching your food dollar is about more than comparing prices in the grocery store. It’s about eating healthy amounts of different foods each day. The MyPlate website identifies the recommended daily intakes based on your gender and your age of various categories of food. Those recommended amounts are measured in cups, ounces and grams.
One way to control spending and avoid impulse buying is to make a list of the items needed. Some helpful hints for making a shopping list follow:
- Keep an ongoing list and jot down items as your supply gets low.
- Look over the recipes you plan to use. Be sure you have the necessary ingredients.
- Check the cupboards, the refrigerator, and the freezer for foods on hand. Are there staple items — flour, sugar, coffee, salt, rice — that should be added to the list?
- If storage space permits, stock up on sale items used regularly.
- Organize your list according to the store layout. This will save you time and reduce the temptation to buy foods that are not on your list.
For a list of foods to keep on hand for emergencies, see the Extension resource Preparing a 2-week emergency food supply.
With the planning done, you are now ready to shop. But where will you do your grocery shopping? There are several alternatives in most populated areas from which to choose — supermarkets, warehouse stores, lower-cost/no frills grocery stores, convenience stores, farmers markets and co-ops.
Food prices, of course, are one of the major factors in determining where you will shop. No-frills and warehouse stores can be less expensive because the cost of doing business is lower. Many shoppers who live in rural communities find a once-a-month trip to a warehouse store saves on foods that store well and on non-food household supplies. Convenience stores almost always charge higher prices on food, with the possible exception of dairy products and soft drinks. Farmers markets and co-ops have helped many families reduce their food costs. The selection of products may be more limited than in most supermarkets, but the prices are usually lower for a fresher product.
Keep in mind the following shopping pointers so you can become a skillful shopper and get more for your money:
- Eat before you shop. Everything “looks good” when you are hungry.
- Shop alone when possible. You tend to buy more if family members are with you.
- Know the regular prices of items you generally buy. This way you will recognize when an advertised special is really a bargain. If you shop in stores where individual items do not have price tags attached to them, you may want to write the price on each package after you get home or on the shopping list to help you remember a good price.
- Be alert for unadvertised specials in the store. These can save you money. Be aware that not all items displayed at the end of aisles are necessarily on sale.
- Compare national brand and store brand products. Store brand products can best be identified by their plain, simple packaging. These products are usually less expensive. Read the labels carefully to be sure nutritional content is comparable. You may find a difference in quality and appearance.
- Take advantage of unit pricing. The unit price is the per-unit measure (the number of cents per ounce or per gram), and is usually posted on the shelf below the product. If a store provides this information, you can use it to find out whether the 12-ounce can of creamed corn is a better buy than the 7-ounce can. To figure unit prices on your own, divide the price of the container by the number of ounces it contains.
- Read labels. Food labels list the ingredients and valuable nutritional information, which is helpful in judging the nutritional quality of a food item.
- Buy only amounts you can store and use. The large packages may be less expensive, but they are not a bargain if you can’t use them before they become stale or spoiled.
- Pay attention at the checkout. Be sure the cashier or the scanner rings the correct price.
To prevent food spoilage, go home after grocery shopping so perishable foods can be refrigerated or kept frozen. Warm temperatures are the leading cause of food spoilage, so refrigerate or freeze all perishable foods immediately after shopping. On hot days, you may want to have a large picnic cooler in your trunk in which to place frozen and cold foods until you get home. Extension has more information on food storage times.
Managing food dollars wisely involves planning before and during your grocery shopping. Some knowledge of nutrition, plus careful meal planning, skillful shopping, proper food storage, handling and preparation will help you to serve satisfying meals while remaining within your food budget.
Helpful Extension educational opportunities
Healthy Cents is an educational program designed to help adults save money while purchasing healthy food. Lessons focus on five themes:
- Making healthy and affordable food choices.
- Reducing food expenses.
- Developing a food spending plan.
- Planning a meal.
- Saving money on healthy food shopping.
To find out more about this program or explore the possibilities of this program being offered at your agency, contact the Extension SNAP-Ed team closest to you.
Start Strong: Cooking, Feeding, and More
Start Strong is a hands-on culinary nutrition education curriculum designed to help family child care providers increase their knowledge and skills in providing healthy foods for children. Start Strong is made up of four 2-hour lessons. The lessons can be taught individually or in a series.
- Lesson One - Ready, Set, Cook
- Lesson Two - Savor the Flavor
- Lesson Three - Exploring New Choices
- Lesson Four - New Meal Ideas
If you are a home daycare provider or childcare provider, visit the Start Strong curriculum page.
Healthy Eating on a Budget — U.S. Department of Agriculture — Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive. Use these tips and materials to make healthy choices while staying within your budget.
Eat Right When Money’s Tight — SNAP-Ed Connection — Handouts, tip sheet, and website dedicated to making the most of your food dollar.
Reviewed in 2022