In my first post of this series, I focused on the heart in the matter – I pray that you found it encouraging, friend.
Now, let’s get to the second practical step to eating well when you can’t afford to:
I think the common misconception is that to make a food budget, the first thing that you need to make is a menu.
Let me explain: To make a menu, you need to find something to base it on. Shall we base it all on the kids’ ideal menu? (Let’s all laugh at that for a moment.) The mama’s pregnancy cravings? Probably not.
I am often asked, what about focusing on the weekly sale ads? Here’s the problem with that: you might a good deal on that big, juicy steak and jarred alfredo sauce pictured on the front but they’re not the best buys when you’re stretching your budget. Really, except for a few well-priced whole food items, there are only a few things in store flyers to help those of us scraping the bottom of the barrel.
I’m just going to say it: Coupons are cute and all… but I am already buying the cheapest ingredients possible and those are not name brand. This is not to say I don’t ever use coupons, but rarely.
If you are new to food budgets and menu planning, you are probably concerned that I am going to tell you steal food because there is, like, nothing left, right?
My solution has been to find the cheapest foods and let that be what we form our menu around.
Over the years, I filled a journal with regular food prices from the different stores that we frequented.
Why the emphasis on regular prices? Because if you missed that sale a few weeks ago, you would have to buy that item at regular price. Gotta be prepared. If you see a jackpot sale in an ad, do yourself a little celebratory seat dance and either budget to buy more of that food at the sale price or put that saved money toward the next shopping trip.
When it comes down to it – you pay for convenience, so I put very little premade foods on my list. This is not to say that I don’t buy a boxed something ever, but rarely because it isn’t cost effective. Except for that name brand hot cocoa mix marked $.77/ box! I think a coupon at that moment would have taken me to a place of savings from which I would not have returned. I am thankful for that.
Two different states and three cities later – the cheapest attainable foods were all the same, with the exception of country pork ribs. Those suckers used to be $.39/lb! Oh, those were the days…
I encourage you to take on the challenge of a price list; it does take time, but you can do it. Though I did intentionally leave the kids with Kevin to focus on tackling my own price lists, there were times we all went together or I was solo in toting four young kids to the store. Because of this, my children are enthralled by savings and are not bad at unit pricing items. I super love that even if they do look like a pack of starving beasts running towards the reduced bins and coolers.
To get you started and because my menu is already based on the cheapest foods I have found, I encourage you to follow my list of foods and let those start off your price list and menu.
Here’s my list of basic foods I buy for our 6 person family:
Beans/Lentils – The majority of our beans we get dried. Occasionally, I get wild and splurge on a few cans for a quick dish.
Cornmeal – Cheap but if you live in the south, this and many of the other grain or starchy foods you may consider putting in the freezer. Texas weevils are little monsters and infiltrated our cornmeal first. If you’re truly broke enough, you sift and pray and use it anyway… That’s right. Hashtag that, baby.
Oatmeal – I buy steel, old-fashioned and quick oats and use each of them in our various oat recipes. Steel is definitely the most filling, but unless you can buy it in bulk, it’s pricey.
White flour – I know this is obvious, but sometimes homemade baked goods seem ridiculously hard. When you have a lot on your plate (figuratively speaking, of course) they are hard to make! Save yourself some time, take an afternoon to make mixes. Be sure to label the containers with the directions to save more time. (Seems obvi, right? Some of us *raises hand* don’t think that far ahead in life sometimes…)
Rice – I just get plain parboiled because it is cost effective and faster than regular long grain rice. Why can’t I make regular rice correctly? My own phenomenon.
Spaghetti, thin – Had to come back to add this, because I forgot which is cray because Mondays are meatless (sometimes vegan) and we have a veggie-loaded spaghetti. Every Monday. We don’t go crazy with pasta, and usually, we buy gluten-free pasta, spaghetti squash or enough zucchini to spiralize but when you broke… We can get the bulk box of thin spaghetti for the same amount as regular, and that’s what we prefer.
Bread – I have made all of our bread in the past, but sometimes making your own bread is just as difficult as affording to buy it at the store. I do not buy the cheap white bread because my kids will fly through an entire loaf and still be hungry. Instead, I go to the store when they are putting out the reduced baked goods to put into the freezer. The flavor and density is much more appealing to us as is the ability to stretch out one loaf.
Eggs – I buy at least 5 dozen eggs a week from Aldi and we use all of them in addition to what our chickens here at the Compound give us.
Milk – Not for drinking. We get whole milk, because when cooker it tends to make flavor richer without the addition of butter which is definitely more expensive and something we go without when pinching the pennies. Because it has a higher fat content, I am able to water it down quite a bit when using it in baking recipes without sacrificing flavor. Also, see below.
Yogurt – Buy some plain yogurt to use use with a gallon of milk and make your own. It is not too hard and you CAN do this. It is one of the cheapest foods you can make for your family and it can be used in so many different ways.
Bananas – Bananas are cheap and if you can get them reduced, even better! If they start getting too dark for fresh eating, put them in the fridge or freezer to use as ingredients.
Canned peaches, 100% juice – This may seem like an odd addition to a budgeted list; they are cost effective for us in the way we use them, not as a side but a stretched add in to meals.
Raisins – I don’t like them, but most of the kids do and they sweeten oatmeal or baked goods naturally.
Cabbage, Green – Green is the cheapest and is a great filler whether raw shredded, fermented or cooked. We do love red cabbage for the beautiful color it brings to dishes but reserve it for times that we have extra money.
Carrots – Whole carrots in the largest bag that you can get them in. Raw, marintated or cooked, carrots can be used in so many ways. Even if you have a notorious carrot-hater (that maybe hides carrots in her pockets until you find them all shriveled up in the dryer) you are bound to find a few recipes that they prefer.
Celery – Another cheap veggie. We usually only eat this as a raw snack. None of us seem to prefer cooked celery, but would if needed!
Lettuce – I will admit that I have been a salad snob in the past. I scoffed at iceburg, but then I was broke… Now I embrace it.
Onions – Usually the bagged yellow cooking onions are the cheapest and we use them in almost everything.
Peppers, Green – Not red, yellow or orange. Green are the cheapest. Some in my house do not like raw peppers, so that’s where celery seems to come in.
Potatoes – Russets are cheap, versatile and plenty nutritious when you leave the skins on. Baked potatoes with whatever leftover toppings we can scrounge are easy and fun!
Spinach – Because I can use it in everything. EVERYTHING.
Sweet potatoes – Maybe it’s because I was raised in the north, but sweet potatoes to me were no better than the holiday casserole with marshmallows on it. I tried them whole roasted with a bit of oil and salt and my world was rocked. I am still exploring all the delicious ways to make these cheerful vegetables, but roasted is our favorite. Skins and all.
Tomatoes, canned – I buy sauce, diced, crushed, and a couple cans of tomato paste. I do not buy seasoned marinara sauces because we have a rosemary allergy (I know – strange), I prefer oregano to basil and because straight sauce in larger cans is cheaper.
Zucchini – From pasta to grilled sides, or even breads, you can use zucchini for almost everything.
Whole chicken – Even with a family of 6, we can stretch one chicken into at least two meals. You don’t even want to know what I can do with two chickens!!! (Okay, four meals. I can make four.) This is also where you will get chicken stock. When you are broke, don’t just toss the carcass or bones. Cover it with water and simmer.
Chicken quarters – Throughout the summer, chicken quarters are on sale every few weeks. I take advantage of those sales, but even if I don’t, it’s still one of the cheapest meats that can be found.
Smoked Ham/Picnics – We don’t get crazy with these because they do have a lot of salt (amongst other things) but when we do get smoked meats, we use it as steaks, in casseroles, soups, flavoring and then cook the bone down to broth to stretch it as long as possible. (Note: if you find uncured for the same price – buy them up! While a cured meat is fantastic for the flavor, the salt gets to you after a bit.)
NOTE: You may have noticed that I have a severe lack of fruit on this list. I tend to buy our staple fruits and those in season for sake of flavor and price. As I have said before, we have a fruit ration in our home. But we’ll talk about that next post…
I know that there are many other foods to eat that are affordable, but this is our family’s base list. After I have budgeted these foods, I add in extras like fruits on sale, baking necessities, spices and seasonings. Or toilet paper, which we are currently running low on…
What are your cheapest go-to foods?