How much do you spend on food? According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the “thrifty” cost for a family of four is $558 month and $639 if you have older children. However, if you cook at home and fix meals from scratch using cheap ingredients like dried rice and dried beans you should be able to drive that number even lower. You could cut it even more if you have a well-tended garden that provides vegetables for your family and where you could use preservation (drying, canning etc.) to save what you don’t use for consumption during winter months.
However, if yours is a two-income family you probably rely a lot on convenience-based short cuts like take-out foods, dining out, delivery and prepackaged foods, which would drive your food costs much higher than that “thrifty” number.
The $1 per meal strategy
Could you actually feed your family for $360 a month or basically one dollar per meal? Believe it or not, it is possible. But what strategies would you need to use to hit this magic number? Here are seven tips designed to help you get there.
1. Planning ahead
Experts agree that the best and most effective strategy for cutting food costs is to make a meal plan, write out a grocery list from it and then stick to your plan. When you do this it becomes far easier to manage your food costs.
The way this works is to sit down one day a week and download the latest sale flyer from your favorite grocery store. Review it carefully for on-sale items and base some meals on them. Next, create a list of the meals you intend to fix each day of the week and then create your grocery shopping list from that menu. The simple rule here is that no matter how tempting something might look if it’s not on your shopping list don’t buy it.
2. Create meals based on meats and produce that are on sale
This is one of the biggest of the money savers. All that’s required is to start your week’s meal planning by reviewing grocery store flyers for on-sale ingredients so that every one of your meals centers around at least one – and hopefully several – very cheap staples. This ensures that when you’re in the store you’ll be filling your cart mostly with items that on sale. This is an area where you will need to be flexible. You may not be able to buy specific brands but store brands instead. You also may have to be flexible in terms of the ingredients that goes in your casseroles, stews and soups.
There are numerous low-cost stables such as dried rice, peanut butter, dried beans, pasta, chicken and eggs. You can usually find them either on sale or at very reasonable prices per pound. If you can learn how to prepare dry beans that’s a wonderful skill. So is knowing how to use a can of chopped tomatoes, a box of pasta and whatever herbs you have available to make a meal. The way you get there is by buying and using these staples. When you learn to base meals around inexpensive things such as beans, frozen veggies, beans and pasta and then pair them with whatever produce and meats that are on sale, your meals are will be very cheap.
4. Fix meals at times when you’re less busy
If you’re typical you live a very busy life and end up spending too much on food because you’re buying convenience items and take out as there’s just not enough time to prepare a meal in the evening.
An easy solution to this is to do most of the prep work for a meal in advance or even make a complete meal and then stick it in your refrigerator for use later in the week. You can do this with just about any stew, soup or casserole.
For example, you might make several pans of lasagna, enchiladas and other such things a few days in advance then put a complete meal in your refrigerator and more versions of the same one in your freezer. This makes dinner preparation super easy during the week. All you will need to do is turn on your oven or a burner, put the food in the oven or on the burner, relax for a few minutes and voila! Supper will not only be ready very quickly but will be a very cheap meal.
Do you wonder what can and can’t be freezed? Here’s a video that reveals 31 things that can be frozen. Several of them may really surprise you.
5. Cut food costs with a slow cooker
Another way to make at-home food preparation much easier is to get a slow cooker. Just toss in the stuff for your meal before you leave in the morning, set it on slow cooking and presto! When you come home in the evening you’ll have a good, hot meal that’s ready to eat. It’s possible to fix almost any soup in a slow cooker just by dumping in its ingredients and some liquid. It’s also possible to use the slow cooker for almost any casserole and even for a mean pot roast and vegetables.
6. Get the most value from your leftovers
If you have anything left over after a meal you need to save it for use in the future. Just store them separately in plastic containers and put them in the refrigerator. Then once or twice a week go through those leftovers, stick those containers into the microwave and you’ll have a quick, easy buffet. You could put everything out on the table and let your family just choose what it is they want to eat. This not only does away with the leftovers but makes for one or two very inexpensive meals. Plus, you’ll be reducing waste because you won’t be throwing away as much food.
7. Get value out of scraps, too
So what would you do with scraps such as the bones from a steak or chicken? Or how about the remnants of a bag of microwave steamed green beans? While you might be tempted to jettison those things, just don’t. They still have value and the value is to use them in making stock. If you’re not familiar with stock it’s essentially a liquid that can be used as a component in future stews, casseroles and soups. For example, you could take a number of leftover items such as bones and a bunch of vegetables to make a meat-specific stock by putting them in your slow cooker and cooking them slowly all day. Then just string it and save the liquid in your freezer until the next time you want to make a casserole or soup.