FAQ: How to Cut the Food Budget and Keep the Food

salsa-ingedients

Writing about No Spend Month, I’ve received lots of questions about how we keep our food expenses so low during that month since the $250 budget plan includes not just food, but also gas, entertainment, and personal expenses.

Let’s talk about some of the strategies for that and the questions I receive the most often:

Don’t you want to buy healthy food?

Absolutely. I’ll be 8 months pregnant in July, so I’m not going to deprive myself of good food. I haven’t eaten Ramen noodles since college, and I don’t plan to do it again.

We have to eat healthy food. Doug is on a wheat, dairy, and corn-free diet, and Lane can’t have wheat or dairy either. The diet restrictions mean no high fructose corn syrup, no cheap fillers, no chemicals,  and no MSG. It’s just not an option. Most of our food is prepared at home using whole foods, and since I’m not an amazing cook, we keep it simple. Seriously, there’s a reason this blog is about simplifying and organizing, and not cooking. (If you only knew how many times I’ve set toast on fire…)

Fortunately I can fix delicious salads and smoothies that take full advantage of the fresh produce available (and on sale) during the summer.

Do you stock up on food ahead of time?

No, I feel like buying a lot in advance would defeat the purpose. I also don’t have the space to store excess food. I’m lucky this apartment has a cabinet in the kitchen for food storage, but it’s not that big.

Do you eat out of the pantry or freezer?

Yes, for the first week. We usually have some leftovers to finish up. There is always something in the pantry that we weren’t going to eat as long as better options are available. Then we start buying more food to have enough to eat. I don’t want to end  the month with a bare cupboard, because later I would have to make a big shopping trip to refill it. I’d rather stretch our weekly budget to cover what we need.

Do you use coupons?

I don’t use coupons because there are very few coupons for foods that my family can eat. I do watch the weekly sales fliers to find sales on meat and produce at my favorite grocery stores.

Couponing can be an effective strategy for saving money, but there is definitely an art to it. It can take a while to figure out how to combine coupons and coordinate all of the different offers.  Money Saving Mom is a great resource if you want to learn how to do that.

What do you eat during No Spend Month?

peaches

This year is going to be different and far more challenging for us, because it’s the first year we’ve had to cope with a limited diet. Truly, gluten and dairy-free alternatives are not cheap. In past years we relied on homemade breads, oatmeal, and pasta. This time we’ll have to figure out more ways to cook staple foods like beans and rice, eggs, and potatoes.

I’m thinking about adding variety with stir-frys, soups, and homemade treats. I want my family to feel disciplined, not deprived. If a bag of chips is out of the budget, maybe I can make a cake or some zucchini muffins to enjoy. Popcorn is a great substitute for chips.

The month of July does have its advantages. Fruits and vegetables are abundant and on sale. I look for produce that I can buy for less than $1 per pound such as peaches, bananas, carrots, potatoes, onions, broccoli, and sometimes even grapes.

My balcony garden is small, but I am growing basil, chives, mint, and parsley so I will have fresh herbs to cook with. I also have tomato plants that I hope will produce a lot.

Summer is grilling season, and the grill makes plain food taste better. Our apartment building offers a grill that we’ll be able to use for free.

When I shop for meat, I focus on the store’s featured sale of the week to choose quality meat for $1-2 per pound. The meat becomes a side dish, and the vegetables become the main course. When making chili, there are extra beans and less hamburger meat. Taco soup has more tomatoes and less chicken. We’ll cook a whole chicken on the grill, instead of paying more for chicken breasts.

I’ve been going through recipes to find some good ones that will work during that month. If you have any favorites, please tell me in the comments, send me a link or send me an email!
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. Meat is always a side dish in our home as well, if it appears at all. Most meals we cook are vegetarian, which saves a lot of money.

    Jamie

    steadymom´s last blog post..Letting Your Child Save Face

  2. Oh, wow, my husband and I were just discussing those food prices you mentioned! We live in Japan and there is absolutely no way we’d ever get food that cheap. My sister in Wisconsin tells me the price of organic foods she buys and it’s way less than the price of regular food we buy over here. I’m looking forward to living in the States again and being able to buy really healthy food for way less than we’re now used to. Hopefully we’ll also have more space to grow food than we do here – our teeny-tiny balcony is for drying laundry and I have to do gymnastics to even hang it out (I have a few wee pots of plants but that’s it)! Anyway, enough griping, but I’m just truly amazed at how low the prices are in my home country.

  3. I have this weird thing about meat that’s on sale. I always think there must be something wrong with it or it’s just not as fresh. I’m I wrong? Why does meat go on sale?

    Elle´s last blog post..teething

    • I used to work in a grocery store. Basically, anything you see on the front page of the weekly ad is a “loss leader”. The meat is the same, but at a price that the store will lose money on just to get you inside so you will splurge on other things. If the meat is not on sale, but is about to “expire” sometimes there will be coupons or mark-downs on the package. They have to mark a sell-by date and throw it out if it is still in the store. Inspect the meat, 9 times out of 10 it is still great, so buy it. If it looks a little “off” to you, I would skip it. (marked down or not, you just know when meat doesn’t look fresh.)

      • Thanks for explaining Beth! This week the loss leader at the store was a huge piece of beef briskit for 99 cents a pound. We brought it home and cut it up into four crock-pot size portions before freezing it.

        Doug used to work in a meat-processing plant when he was a teenager in a small town, so he’s really particular about the meat we buy.

  4. I also do not use coupons. I shop at two different stores, and one doesn’t even accept coupons. I buy a lot of fresh produce and things like that, so there aren’t coupons available. I do the same thing as you; look at grocery store fliers for good deals.

  5. I like to buy from a local butcher, not sure if there is a cost saving but I know there is a savings as far as I get cuts I normally would not buy at the store because they are to expensive, and I save money by not having to go to the store. It does take some planning to make sure dinner is on though, you have to take food out of the freezer to thaw. The down fall is it can be a lot of money up front but it can last 6 months.

    Anything that keeps me out of a store adds up to savings, I always seem to find some kind of deal that I can not pass up every time I walk in a grocery store.

  6. I’m wondering – is that grass-fed or organic meat for $1-$2/pound? If so, where do you get it? :)

    Also, I have a few recipes on my site that we use when we are stretching the budget – bean bowls, a southwestern egg scramble (leave out the cheese), and crock pot asian shortribs (lots of veg, less meat).

    Also – grilled peaches are so yum.

    Shannon´s last blog post..Food Roots – May 21

    • No, some of the fruits and vegetables might be organic, but not the meat for that price.

      Grilling peaches? Nice idea!

  7. I’m really glad to be reminded of how cost effective it is to have an herb garden — I feel like I spend so much on those big bunches of herbs when I just need 1 Tablespoon of something!!

    Allegra´s last blog post..Awesome Item of the Day

  8. We’re eating a main dish salad every day. You can find lots of ideas in our A Slew of Summer Salads Carnival.

    Allyson´s last blog post..Recipe & Coupon Savings Newsletters

  9. I would love to hear you share some of your favorite simple recipes that are wheat and corn free. Our youngest son is severly allergic to: wheat, eggs, corn, milk, soy, and peanuts. I have 3 older children and my husband too. So trying to learn to cook differently for my youngest and make it simple and tasty for my others has been difficult. Sounds like you got this limiting diet down.

    Dona´s last blog post..Is it a tool box?

    • Dona, Doug’s only been corn-free for a couple of weeks so I don’t have a lot of recipes yet. Most of my gluten-free baked goods included corn starch. I hope to try some new recipes.

      Roasting vegetables with olive oil and salt and pepper is always good.

      I’m using Karina’s Kitchen as a resource, and a few other blogs.

      • Dona–I would suggest that you get inspired for ideas one of two ways—either choose the starch that’s going to be in your meal (as that’s a mental block point for a lot of us who have to avoid wheat or gluten) or choose a theme (Mexican food, crockpot, etc.) for your meal, and build from there. Or combine the two–like saying you want rice and Mexican food, in which case you can create a simple Tex-Mex kind of soup with rice in it or with brown rice tortillas. Making those choices gears your mind up to think about what you can have rather than what you can’t, in my experience. (I can’t eat gluten, soy, dairy, or eggs.) This method is also great if you need to use up stuff you have (you start with “chicken and rice,” and your mind or your Googling give you ideas, at least if you’re willing to be adventurous.

        Lately, as our farmer’s market is gearing up again, I’ve been on a roasting kick. Once a week, I roast a whole chicken (I use up leftover chicken in stuff like enchiladas), and on other pans in the oven, I roast vegetables to go with the meal. The chicken is stuffed with a lemon or two and herbs. The vegetables are tossed with fresh or dried herbs (chives, rosemary, garlic, etc.–whatever makes sense) and oil. I can use up nearly whatever vegetables I get from the market this way—from radishes to carrots to onions to squash to tomatoes (okay, I think you get the idea ;)). Because the roasting caramelizes the vegetables’ outsides, they get sweeter and mellower. It’s a delicious and easy meal to throw those together; if I want an extra green vegetable, I just make a salad.

        Grilling is another easy idea, as Rachel said. Besides the obvious things, one of our favorite things to grill is a side dish of sliced yellow squash and zucchini (which, by mid-sumemr, any farmer will be nearly giving away for the abundance of them then). We dust the squash with seasoning salt, brush on olive oil to keep it from sticking, and roast it alongside whatever else we’ve stuck on the grill. Makes for a fabulous, reasonable-calorie side dish that’s inexpensive.

        I can think of a bunch of other suggestions but don’t want to hijack the post. I should probably just write a blog post about it! :)

        Sally Parrott Ashbrook´s last blog post..The Moments

  10. A herb garden really helps and a couple of tomato and green pepper plants can really extend a meal into something yummy! Cheese is a lot cheaper than meat and can be spread further! It also depends on what meat you use… we eat lots of rice with vegi’s chopped into it… if I slice up a packet of bacon the meat eaters feel complete! Also, we have found that you have to look at the unit price because often bulk packaging has a “Huge Saving” stamped on it – only to discover that it is cheaper to buy multiple smaller units… You really have to just check the prices as you go!

    se7en´s last blog post..Birdhouses, Potpourri and Little Birds… All in Se7en Steps.

  11. These are such great reminders. Now if I can just put them to use! We don’t eat a lot of carbs or processed foods, either, so I find that couponing isn’t much of a help to me. Besides, it’s so stinking complicated to track down the good deals, it’s just not worth it (unless you enjoy it). Thank you!

    songbirdtiff´s last blog post..Good Stuff

  12. I take the weekly grocery ads and go shopping at Walmart. They will match any price in the ad. I too (like Elle) am a little curious about meat on sale, so by taking the ad to Walmart I get the best of both worlds. I’m not getting meat from a “sale shipment” but I’m still getting the low price. I haven’t spent more than $2 a lb on meat in over a year.

    I’m also not going all around town trying to catch the sales, I just get it all at one store.

    I will say, Walmart doesn’t always have the variety in produce and sometimes doesn’t have the best quality. But in a small town we have to take what we can get.

    This has significantly cut our grocery budget, and has helped us to stock up on some meat for the freezer.

  13. Try this Veggie Chili recipe- http://smalltimecooks.blogspot.com/2008/01/false-alarm.html

    Probably the most expensive ingredient in the recipe is the red bell pepper, and you could easily use 2 green instead of one of each. Also this makes a BIG pot, so you could definitely make it at the beginning of the month and stick some in the freezer for the end of the month, in case the cash monies gets a little tighter than you anticipated.

    Jessica´s last blog post..Planning a Trip (When You’re a Nutjob)

  14. I’d be really interested in hearing what your actual menus are once the No Spend Month rolls around in July. We’d love to just eat more vegetables, but sometimes I can’t wrap my mind around how to do that in exciting and frugal ways.

    Life from the Roof´s last blog post..Housing crisis

  15. Hello,
    I’ve never commented before but I read your blog everyday…I just love it! Could you share how you buy clothes detergent, softner, dish detergent and other cleaning supplies? Do you always buy things that are good for the environment…which of course costs more? I was just wondering how you fit purchasing these things into your food budget.
    Thanks so much, Janel in NJ

    • Hi Janel, I buy a mix — some products are environmentally friendly, and some are the brands my husband prefers. I don’t buy a lot. It seems like a bottle of laundry detergent lasts a few months. I make my glass and surface cleaner with vinegar, water, and a little soap. I skip fabric softener. I’m cleaning the bathtubs with shampoo since I bought the wrong kind and I’m trying to use it up (works great and smells even better). This way cleaning products really aren’t a big part of our budget.

  16. First of all, I am seriously considering undertaking the No-Spend Month, but I am plenty nervous about it! Thanks for sharing these insights on food.

    Have you guys ever done grilled bananas? SO YUMMY. Just grill them right in the skins and leave them on a few minutes each side, then take them off and scoop the fruit into a bowl. We mix in some brown sugar and vanilla sometimes, but they are plenty sweet as is.

    Also, have you ever checked out funky food allergies? http://funkyfoodallergies.blogspot.com/ I met her at the Tulsa Mom’s Night Out and it looks like she has lots of great allergy-modified recipes.

    Megan @ Simple Kids´s last blog post..SK Showcase and Survey

  17. Rachel,
    Thanks for this information. I’m going to attempt to do a No Spend July as well, but I’ve upped my budget a bit. The food in my neck of the woods is VERY expensive. Still, there will be tons of savings to be had in all of the other categories. My only concern is that it is summer time and the kids will want to do some stuff that may be budget busters. Any ideas?

    Also, what would a typical weekly menu look like? Including breakfast, lunch and dinner?
    Thanks,
    Sharon

    Sharon´s last blog post..Honey, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up….

  18. I’m also gluten free, and I just read (on one of those great GF blogs) about cooking a big pot of rice at the beginning of the week, and then using it up by the end of the week — rice in everything! Have you tried that?

  19. Thanks for this information! Your blog is so helpful to me!!

    Tricia´s last blog post..Misc. updates

  20. I have a lot of good bean ideas – very frugal and healthy – at my site. Kudos to you, I don’t know if I could do this…and I do have room to stock up on food!

    Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship´s last blog post..Kitchen Stewardship: Why do it?

  21. Williams Sonoma has a great Beef Stew Recipe. It is hearty and you will have leftovers. And you use fresh veggies. A favorite of my family.

    Chili is also a great budget recipe.

    SoBella Creations´s last blog post..Smilebox ~ Scrapbooking, Ecards and More

  22. We are moving towards eating a whole foods and not processed stuff. I am glad to hear about another frugal person who doesn’t live on “coupon food.” We tried eating whatever I could get cheap with coupons and I gained 30 pounds and my husband gained 45. It didn’t help that we stopped exercising but that is for another post altogher. Thanks for the great tips!

    Elizabeth Sue´s last blog post..Spend Free Summer

  23. We’re also on a special diet (no corn, soy, or tomatoes) and a very strict budget, so I understand the challenge. I’m looking forward to referring back here often!

    Heather@WoolandFlax´s last blog post..Raising Boys

  24. We don’t use coupons either. I like to purchase fruit, vegetables and meats that are on sale. We usually spend around $350 bi-weekly. I like to shop at “Fresh & Easy”, “Sam’s Club” and “Vons’s”.
    My husband is a diabetic and I’m a pain sufferer. I don’t like alot of prepared foodsin the house.

  25. Christine says:

    So glad I found your blog!I enjoy reading it and find it very helpful. Thanks

  26. I love the idea to just take all the local ads with to Walmart!!!! I know sometimes people are against spending money there, but I cannot keep my family eating healthy and spend 2x as much and get any debt paid off. Sometimes when you have two little ones (or three or four or five!) close in age like mine that are 17 months apart, you have to do a mass shopping spree and only one in-and-out of the carseats. I buy at farmer’s markets and our local farmers even sometimes just put tables out at the ends of their driveways with honor boxes on them for you to pay in.

  27. Great tips! It really helps me to shop at discount grocers (Aldis/Save-A-Lot), shop alone, and plan my meals for the week.

  28. Hi! I am so tickled to have found your blog! I too can’t tolerate gluten, dairy, or corn. I still have to test myself on different nuts. Peanuts give me a migraine. Quinoa is totally off limits as well as flax and cider vinegar. What would you recommend though for a soy alternative?

    • We don’t eat a lot of soy. Instead of soy milk we sometimes drink almond milk. Instead of soy yogurt, the coconut milk yogurt tastes better.

  29. Indeed this is living life at its best, having fresh herbs and eating healthy is a privilege everyone should enjoy and its great to know that you can do it within a budget. My family is on a wheat and dairy free diet and I know how the substitutes are more expensive than normal food, but still in the long run, its much better for all of us.

  30. Pamela Shepherd says:

    I love your information here…I just wanted to share that as far as popcorn goes yes it is healthy no calories, but for nutrition and appeal for chips depending on your family size get some KALE and cut into bite size pieces and coat in a large bowl with some olive oil, add salt to taste and place on a baking sheet in an oven at 350 for about 30 minutes…crispy healthy chips with no preservatives…I add a little garlic powder to mine…