Frugal fare

Eat well without breaking the bank

September 22, 2011

Food prices keep going up, but you don’t have to sacrifice your family’s healthy diet. A few positive changes can actually make a big impact. Try these suggestions to satisfy your taste buds and sustain your budget.

Snack wisely. On average, children in the U.S. snack three times a day, with junk food making up more than 27 percent of their calorie intake.

So emphasize fruits and vegetables as snacks. Keep cut-up portions easily accessible in the refrigerator along with healthy homemade dips. And offer them at the start of a meal, not just in between meals.

A happy snack.

Need suggestions? Try cubes of cheese and melon, homemade hummus with cucumber slices, nuts and dried fruit, homemade smoothies, celery stuffed with cheese, homemade muffins, and apple slices spread with peanut butter.

Many dieticians also suggest drinking a glass of water before snacking. That’s because it’s common to confuse the sensation of thirst for hunger.

Take it with you. Pack your lunch. Yes, you’ll save money by doing so, but you’ll boost your nutrition too, because packed lunches generally have fewer calories and smaller portions than purchased meals.

Try to keep a supply of healthy snacks available when you’re away from home. Avoid single-serving packages and convenience snack foods, since even the healthiest versions are expensive. Instead, pack your own in reusable bags and containers. Keep a bag of almonds in your backpack, a jar of pumpkin seeds in your car, some granola in your briefcase. This helps avoid impulse buys when you, your children, or your companions are hungry.

Don’t leave the house without something to drink in a reusable container. It takes just a few moments to fill a bottle or thermos with water, a quickly blended smoothie, or iced coffee.

Make it from scratch. Prepared or processed foods are not only less healthy than fresh whole foods, they’re more expensive. A 16-ounce bag of potato chips costs about the same as a five-pound bag of potatoes. A package of pre-seasoned boil-in-the-bag rice is 10 times the cost of rice bought in bulk. Even bagged salads cost about five times more than the same fresh greens bought whole, then washed and shredded at home.

Making your own food lets you to be more innovative in food selection than in any restaurant. You can choose burritos for breakfast or omelets for dinner, filling them with any ingredients you please.

Emphasize frugal food choices and preparation techniques. Pricey ingredients like raspberries or shrimp can be used as garnishes. Make protein-packed main dishes with dried beans instead of meat. Use sharper cheeses for greater flavor impact rather than a larger amount of mild cheese.

Need more ideas? Check out these meal suggestions as well as frugal-eating blogs.

Plan ahead. The best intentions to save money and eat healthily are easily foiled when we’re hungry. If we shop on an empty stomach, we’re more likely to make unwise purchases and spend more overall. And when we plan to make a nice homemade dinner but are ravenous after skipping lunch, we’re more likely to pick up convenience food on the way home or eat unhealthy snacks while preparing that meal.

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Post an ongoing grocery list in an accessible spot. Encourage all family members to note when staple foods start to run low. This list can be used to take advantage of weekly grocery specials and seasonal offerings at farmers’ markets.

Whenever possible, plan meals in advance to avoid the desperate dinner-hour rush. Make double recipes and freeze half to use another day. Start supper in the morning and let it simmer in a crockpot. Creatively incorporate leftovers into the next day’s meals. And expect family members to help in planning (as well as meal preparation and clean-up).

Be aware of sales, but beware of coupons. Pay attention to regular prices so you can gauge the validity of “sale” prices. Stock up when items are on sale. If a product must be used soon, make double batches of recipes to freeze or share.

Use your slow cooker on a regular basis.

Use coupons cautiously. The majority of coupons are issued for processed foods and non-food items. Their purpose is to get consumers to buy name-brand items they normally wouldn’t try. Only use coupons for items you already plan to buy and, if possible, wait until the item is already on sale to maximize your savings.

Get food close to the source. Patronize farmers’ markets, pick-your-own farms, and community-supported agriculture programs. Fresh local foods give you a healthier return on your food spending.

If you can, grow some of your own food. Even a small yard can generate a substantial yield. Apartment dwellers can use community gardens and container plantings plus grow sprouts and herbs indoors.

A recent study found that children served homegrown fruits and vegetables were more than twice as likely to eat the recommended five servings a day. Better yet, children who grow up eating homegrown produce continue to prefer the taste of fruits and vegetables to other foods.

Reduce waste. A third to a half of our food is wasted in the U.K., Canada, and the U.S., according to Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. Not all of this happens at the consumer level, but it’s easy to reduce food waste.

Maintain a close watch to determine which foods need to be used next to avert spoilage and use them in upcoming meals. Check for such foods in your refrigerator daily, your freezer weekly, and your cupboards monthly.

Use leftovers to create different soups, stews, salads, and casseroles. Freeze leftover vegetables to make soup or stock. Save leftover coffee or tea in the pot for iced versions. Freeze ripe fruits to use in baking or smoothies.

Buy in bulk for savings, splitting items with friends and family if necessary. Store food safely by marking the date and contents on each container.

Learn to can, dehydrate, and ferment foods. This is much more fun when done as a group. Start food-preserving traditions. Try picking apples together, then spending the day cooking and canning applesauce.

Share the cooking. If boredom or time considerations make packing a daily lunch difficult, try creating a lunch club with co-workers. Two, three, or more colleagues take turns bringing homemade lunches for the others, saving time several days a week for everyone while allowing each club member to save.

Set up a potluck group with friends or neighbors. Get together on a regular basis. This is a great way to try new foods, exchange leftovers, and enjoy companionable dining without the expense of a restaurant meal.

Create a cooking-night cooperative. This enables friends to swap chef duties in exchange for upcoming “catered” meals. For example, four couples set up a Tuesday-night cooking cooperative. Each couple takes a turn one Tuesday each month to cook and deliver a meal to the other three couples. On the other three Tuesdays, a homemade meal is delivered to them.

Get together with friends or family for cooking projects. You might devote one afternoon a month to such events. Each time, the group makes a large quantity of food to preserve for use in the weeks or months ahead. One session might be devoted making homemade egg rolls to store in the freezer, the next to cooking and canning spaghetti sauce.

Start or join a food-buying club. Form or join a co-op to split food bought in bulk at discount stores, farmers’ auctions, and food terminals. Many operate using simple guidelines to share the work of sending in orders, unloading the truck at delivery time, and splitting bulk food without any need for a central location or regular meetings. Lower prices on such items as fair-trade coffee, vitamins, and whole foods make the effort worthwhile. (See sidebar for suggestions.)

The effort to eat well despite a difficult economy can spur us to greater ingenuity and thrift. It can also foster a companionable interdependence with our family, friends, and neighbors. What a tasty way to pay attention to what really matters in our lives.

Laura Grace Weldon lives with her family on Bit of Earth Farm in Ohio. She is the author of Free Range Learning. A version of this article appeared in 2009 on Natural News.

There are 6 comments on this item
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1. by vintagejenta on Sep 23, 2011 at 8:07 AM PDT

I am currently unemployed, though the boyfriend works, and am in graduate school full-time (and paying my own way). So money’s a little tight in our household. Last night I really didn’t feel like cooking and we didn’t have much in the way of leftovers to scarf, but we didn’t have the money to go out, so I made dinner anyway. And y’know what? It was fantastic. And cheap. I roasted two heads of broccoli (and the stems!) with a little olive oil, a small sliced onion, salt and pepper, and a little granulated garlic. Then I boiled a couple of red potatoes (they boil faster if you cut them in chunks). Once the broccoli was done, I mixed in some shredded cheese and let it melt. I drained the potatoes, mashed them, and topped with the broccoli. It was like a broccoli-topped baked potato, only way faster and more delicious. The broccoli was local and organic and the potatoes were also local. Proof that you can make a good, relatively healthy, from-scratch meal that doesn’t cost a lot in about 20 minutes flat.

2. by healthfoodcoach on Sep 27, 2011 at 4:08 PM PDT

I’d like to recommend a website called The author has made a living by debunking the myth that it is too expensive to eat healthfully, or sustainably. She presents a clear, concise and do-able method to preparing family meals on a budget complete with recipes, monthly meal plans, shopping lists and real cost comparison charts.

3. by G. Carl on Oct 5, 2011 at 4:01 PM PDT

We learned some of these lessons the hard way when we started out and found ourselves short on bills. But I never thought of such ideas like club with co-workers packing lunches on different days, a meal cooperative to take one night a week (something my friends will love), and monthly cooking projects. AWESOME! I’m going to look into a food buying co-op too. Printing this one out.

4. by anonymous on Dec 9, 2011 at 9:11 AM PST

Crock pots are great. You can cook much better meals in them today without throwing in a can of condensed soup. Fresh ingredients or frozen ones will work well. They also help you to economize, not waste food, & make great foods from scratch. I’ve made my own pasta sauce, pumpkin butter, jams, cranberry sauce, and even ketchup. These are useful items to have the ability to slow cook, besides main dishes & soups.

5. by anonymous on Dec 2, 2012 at 5:35 PM PST is vegan looking, I saw no meat anywhere. The very first recipe I clicked on had a product I can’t get in town just to start with. How can I take this seriously? I already know the price of organic flour plus shipping and certainly the bread I was to make wouldn’t be a whole meal. I feed my family meat and vegetables. I am poor, I eat whole foods. I buy fresh, I buy frozen, even canned. This recommended site is lovely for vegans.
1. Own a freezer so you can stock up on sale meats.
Forget grass-fed if you are poor, you can’t buy $6.00 a pound hamburger can you??? No You Can’t!
2. Buy whole foods in their natural state. Don’t bother trying to buy convenience foods. Frozen is cheaper than fresh. Canned is cheaper than fresh.
3. Go vegan or forget organic, you really can’t afford it if you are truly poor. If you order bulk beans and grains the added cost of organic is affordable because you’ll spend more driving to get it or for shipping it than added cost of organic. Of course a nice grain mill will set you back about $250 bucks.

Whole, unprocessed foods you can afford of any kind. Leave the white flour and white sugar behind. Forget fast food. Learn to cook. Your family will eat much better for less. You will have the energy to cook whole foods because you feel so much better eating them, organic or not. Add organic when you can afford it or find it, fine. When you can’t, you can’t. No more Debby Cakes, Pizza Hut pizza’s, Whoppers. Just cook. You’ll look at recipes and say, Wow that’s a lot of sugar, should I cook THAT? Do not learn to make your own junk food, don’t, just don’t. If you are poor you options are cook, cook, cook what you can afford. I understand there is nothing cheaper than a $1.00 menu cheese burger but cook something better for yourself anyway!

6. by John Peterson on Dec 29, 2012 at 3:52 PM PST

An extremely simple diet that meets all nutritional needs and only costs $40 a month:

5 lb bag of potatoes
1 multivitamin pill

I’ve heard of a study where a man and woman lived on nothing but potatoes for 2 months solid. It was reported that neither had any big inclination to get off the diet.

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