My Best Budget Stretchers and Savers
1. A pot of soup each week made from homemade broth - I know I have probably beat this one like a dead horse on my blog, but I am convinced that our weekly pot of soup gets us some of the most bang for our buck with our grocery budget. We usually get 3 to 5 meals(a few dinners and a few lunches) from our large pot of soup each week and I dare say we ever spend more than $10 on ingredients for the soup. I most recognize how crucial our weekly soup is to our grocery budget in the hottest days of summer when it is just not feasible to make or eat hot soup in our non-air conditioned home. In the dog days of summer, our grocery bill seems to suffer from the lack of soup. Some people might complain that they couldn't eat the same soup that many times in a week. If that's the case, eat it only twice and freeze the rest for a few weeks later. The kids do sometimes say, "we are having soup again" but this is just a reality for our family financially and the same soup won't kill them. I try and remind myself in many cultures people eat the exact same food for all their meals their entire lives. Its just us spoiled Americans that don't want to repeat meals more than once a month. Another way I make soup more appealing to the family is to pair it with some homemade muffins, biscuits or bread, which we usually don't serve with our other meals.
2. The incredible edible egg - Even with our tight food budget, I really aim to serve meat at least at every dinner, except for about once a week when we substitute eggs instead. When money is really tight, we may have eggs for several dinners because you just can't beat the price for the amount of protein you get. Some people eat eggs on most mornings, so this may not be a way that you want to stretch your food budget. Or, you could consider a different breakfast option on a day that you want to serve eggs for dinner.
3. Homemade yogurt - Store bought yogurt is convenient, but it is also expensive. Our whole entire family LOVES yogurt, and in years past I used to spend a significant amount each grocery trip on yogurt. But now every week I just make yogurt from a gallon of milk. I can usually get the gallon for under $3 and I get a whole gallon of yogurt. I used to spend $3 for just one container that my family polished off in one breakfast. This has really helped save us money on breakfast. I'll be the first to admit I was majorly intimidated by the idea of making yogurt, but after a few batches I realized it wasn't a big deal and now it is just part of my weekly kitchen routine.
4. Whole Roaster Chickens - While in no way, shape or form am I going to endorse the health benefits of such chickens, I am going to endorse their cheapness. We buy a whole chicken every two weeks for around $4. That chicken usually gets stretched into 3 meals. We roast it for the first meal. Nate cleans off all the left-over meat for the second meal. Then I make a pot of broth from the carcass. Nate and I were not used to handling a whole chicken at first, but over time it has become habit and it saves us a ton of money.
5. Dried Beans - Beans, beans the magical fruit...ah...you know the rest. Nate and I rarely ate beans until a few years ago. Then we started using canned beans, but I just couldn't ignore the cost difference of the bags of dried bean. We now eat quite a variety of dried beans, including navy, black, kidney, pinto, lima beans, lentils, and black-eyed peas. Dried beans require a bit of forethought, but you will start to notice a trend that you pay more for convenience. Dried beans are much healthier for you because almost all canned foods are lined with BPA plastic coating and certain types of beans contain artificial preservatives to retain their color. As far as the magical fruit thing, there are a few things you can do to make them more digestible. First, soak your beans overnight. This reduces the phytic acid in the beans and activates natural enzymes in the bean to make it more digestible. Second, eat more beans. The more beans are part of your diet, the more your body will be used to them. Lastly, if you really struggle with beans but want to make them part of your diet, consider supplementing enzymes that will aid your body in the digestion process. If you think you don't like beans, consider looking up recipes to prepare them differently. I find that plenty of good fats (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and seasonings can make any bean quite tasty. If you can't stomach them plain, then sneak them into recipes like soup, tacos, salads, etc.
6. Become good friends with cheap produce and cheap cuts of meat - If you've never had the chance to do this, take a trip to the store some evening with a pen and a notepad. Stroll through your produce and meat sections and take note of the most inexpensive options. Chances are you will come across produce or meat that is unfamiliar to you or you may not know how to cook or prepare it. Take some time to find a few tasty recipes to incorporate these ingredients into your weekly meals. Your pocketbook will thank you! Also, don't forget to check the discounted produce sections to see if anything is worth the price (don't always be fooled by things that are discounted, though).
7. Eliminate or Reduce Prepared and Processed Foods - this kind of overlaps the dried bean section, but your grocery budget will always be higher if these foods are a "staple" of your groceries. We certainly buy some process/prepared foods, but for most of our regular meals we try and avoid them. Instead of buying Bisquick like we used to, we just make pancakes and biscuits from scratch. It really doesn't take much longer. I used to buy muffin mixes, cookie mixes, rice mixes, frozen foods and all sorts of soup and meal starters. But over time I figured out how to make those things from scratch and it has made a considerable difference in our food budget.
8. Plan on some affordable "splurges" - It's not always fun to stick to a food budget or cook every single things at home from scratch. There are some nights that you may not feel like eating leftover soup or whatever is planned for that meal. To help through these tough spots, its a good idea to build into your budget some fun things or splurges that may give you an emotional boost to stick to your budget the rest of the time. For our family that means we get pizza once a week. Sure, I could make a meal much cheaper, but I find that I look forward to our pizza night. It gives me a break from cooking and the whole family really likes pizza. There are also times that we just scrap our meal plans and get take-out. And with our budget that is OK once and a while. It only hurts us if we do it too much. And after seeing the take-out bill for our family, I'm usually pretty motivated to cook a few cheaper meals to make up for the cost difference!
What are your budget stretcher and savers? Please share your ideas so we can all benefit from them!