I’ve been asked several times to explain how a family of six can eat well for $50 a week. It is a lot of work- but it is possible. We did it for years, and I still do my best to keep our food budget low even though we have been able to increase our budget by quite a bit. Here are a few tips for planning your menu and shopping list:
1) Buy in bulk, when you can. Especially beans. Beans are your friends. I used to make up a large batch of beans (whatever was on sale/cheapest) and then put them in the fridge to use for several meals. For example, one night you could use some of them to make a pot of baked beans and then the next night add peppers/onions and chili seasoning to another portion and make chili. You could mash up the rest to add to burritos for a third meal.
2) Vegetables are magical things that stretch out a meal. Plant a garden if you can. Or, make friends that garden and bum produce off of them. Visit farmer’s markets. Find cheap produce at places like Aldi’s. I would stock up on the lower priced veggies like onions, carrots, peppers, cabbage and use them to fill up a meal. For example, when I made fajitas or curry, two chicken breasts were enough to feed the whole family- I just sliced them into thin strips and added a big pan full of grilled onions and peppers. Add refried beans or black beans to the fajitas and chickpeas to the curry and you’ve got a lovely dinner!
3) Make a habit of “Meatless Mondays” or any other day. We eat vegetarian meals at least half the week. Things like rice and beans, soup, homemade mac and cheese, black bean burgers, quiche, are all tasty and still cheap to make.
4) Soup is awesome. We love soup. A big pot of soup gives us a nice dinner and lunches for several days after. I make it at least once a week. Our favorites are carrot/potato/leek, lentil, chicken and dumplings, curried carrot, beef and barley, Portuguese kale soup, minestrone, and French onion.
5) Homemade baked goods. Make up batches of muffins, cookies and scones and freeze for quick snacks. I freeze loaves of quick breads like zucchini, pumpkin, or apple spice to take out and defrost for breakfast. Muffins are great- you can pop a frozen one in the microwave for 30 seconds and have a warm treat!
6) Bake your own bread. I make two loaves at a time, and it takes me about five minutes to mix and set to rise. Then I leave the dough covered on the counter all day, and bake the loaves after the kids are in bed. I plop them on a rack to cool overnight and in the morning we have fresh bread ready for toasting.
7)Make lunch fun. For kid lunches and snacks: I use segmented plates or even muffin tins to give them small amounts of a variety of things- that’s their favorite way to eat. I buy tons of whatever fruit is in season/cheap to snack on fresh and if there aren’t any we can afford we have some as staples for snacking (like apples, carrots or celery with yummy homemade dips!) We eat a ton of hummus with veggies or chips or homemade pita bread. We make cheese and veggie quesadillas. We bake up chick peas that have been tossed in spices for a crunchy treat. I slice up potatoes and root veggies to bake and make homemade chips. They like plain yogurt with honey and fruit or granola. They like popcorn. They like eggs- deviled, egg salad, dippy egg and toast soldiers, hard boiled, etc. They even like to have leftovers from other meals- a bit of last night’s soup and a half a quesadilla to dip in it is a favorite here.
8) One large cut of meat can become several meals. I cook a whole chicken every week. Sometimes one lonely chicken will be the only meat in my grocery cart. I only use about a third of it at a time. The rest I put away to make more meals. For example, if I boil one for soup, I’ll pick it apart and throw the smallish bits into the soup pot. Then the next day we would have chicken salad (with lots of chopped apples and celery) for lunch and chicken enchiladas (with black beans, onions, and peppers) for dinner. The leftover carcass goes back in the soup pot with vegetable scraps to make stock for my freezer. If I make pot roast, the next night I will chop up the leftover meat and veggies and make hash to have with poached eggs.
9) Embrace the casserole! It doesn’t have to be old school canned tuna noodle. I make veggie lasagna with broccoli and carrots diced and mixed into the ricotta to stretch it out (and you can make your own ricotta), homemade mac and cheese with steamed veggies mixed in, chicken divan (pictured: chicken with broccoli and a creamy mustard sauce) stuffed shells, chicken (or veggie) enchiladas, you are limited only by your creativity. And casseroles freeze well- so they are great make ahead meals.
10) We have a pizza or calzone night every week, using whatever I have in the pantry and freezer. It’s a lot more fun than ordering takeaway or delivery, and better for our budget too.
11) Teach yourself to cook from scratch. The more ingredients you can make or grow yourself, the better. Things like cheese, yogurt, bread, sauces, mixes, dips, are so much cheaper, healthier, and better tasting when you make them yourself! This year I am going to tackle canning, so I can fill my pantry up with homemade goodies.
12) Create new meals from fridge scraps. I make soups, stews, stir fry, sandwiches, and even casseroles from the leftover bits we used to throw away. I used to keep a container in my freezer and dump leftover veggies in it before they went bad in the fridge. Once the container was full, I’d make a big pot of soup- which was a free meal, made from food that would have been thrown away!
Low budget and healthy cooking requires prep work and planning but it isn’t hard once you get the hang of it! A decade ago, I didn’t know how to boil water. Necessity forced me to learn rather quickly. I was an awful cook, and if I could learn to do it, anyone can!
Addition via Mindy: Shop the ads. Keep a list of your favorite meals on the fridge to compare to the weekly ads.
And I’m adding: Bartering is great too- I would barter for garden produce, baked and canned goods and dinners at friend’s houses. And there are other ways to get food- I have friends that use hunting, couponing, foraging, even dumpster diving.