Building a grocery budget can be extremely confusing if you do not cook. Building a food budget for one can be confusing if you learned to cook in a household that included many people. To start, you may need to pick a number out of the air and begin, adjusting when needed as you go.
Readers, please note that this post is about how to eat healthily on little money. The goal is to both manage your budget and make financial space for emergencies as well as treats.
How much should I budget?
For the sake of simplicity, start with $50 a week. Most of us buy our groceries on the weekend and try to use them up before the next weekend. If you find that you wind up throwing away food at the end of the week, some meal planning is in order.
How to meal plan
First of all, you will need a few recipes and tools that you can turn to regularly. If you do not cook at all, start with recipes that do not require many ingredients. If you can cook a little but have a hard time getting excited about cooking, check out some more old fashioned church cookbook recipes for special foods made from ordinary ingredients you can get from any store.
The first step to meal planning is to check out sale flyers. See what is on sale at your local grocery store and plan your food for the week around those discounted items, particularly produce. Only buy what you like, and do not get anything from the discounted rack unless you are ready to use it up within the next 24 hours.
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For many staples, check out your local dollar store. If your goal is to avoid highly processed foods, take just $5 to your dollar store and get dried black beans, canned tuna, and rice. If available, a dozen eggs and a loaf of wheat bread will be an efficient use of your cash.
To start, you will need
- a cutting board
- a good knife, preferably serrated
- a non stick skillet
- a 2 quart cooking pot
- a crockpot
- a large mixing bowl
- a measuring cup and spoons
- a colander
Again, for the sake of simplicity, say you find mushrooms, green beans, onions, celery, carrots, and sweet potatoes on sale. You also pick up a jar of spaghetti sauce, some pasta, and cabbage for a salad. You add these to your refrigerator and cupboards with the items you got from the dollar store.
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The first step in effective meal planning is to have time to do it, so try to shop on Thursday or Friday evening. If you know what is on sale and have a list, your shopping will be quick, and you can still get out and enjoy yourself.
Suppose you work evenings and nights and have to shop early in the day, good for you! Discounted items go on the bargain rack early in the morning. Shop on Friday before everyone is out of bed, and you can prep on Saturday and save a bundle.
How to cook ahead efficiently
For the best prices, especially if you are using dried beans, your meal preparation needs to start the day before. On Friday evening, measure out 1 cup of black beans and put them in the colander. Rinse them thoroughly and put them in the crockpot. Cover with water to three times the depth of the beans, or until the water is 2 inches below the top of the crock if your pot is a little smaller.
Turn them on low and let them cook overnight. In the morning, do a quick taste test of one bean to make sure it has softened, then unplug and drain the beans. If possible, let them cool down.
You can freeze raw beans in 1 cup baggies or refrigerate them for use during your Saturday meal prep.
On Saturday, get out your cutting board. Chop up onions, celery, carrots, and cabbage for a few servings of raw salad. You can put this in a large Ziploc bag and stash it in the refrigerator. Add dressing at the table.
Chop up more onion and celery and sauté in a bit of olive oil. Add sliced mushrooms on top and let them steam over the onions while you rinse and remove the ends from your green beans. Stir in the cleaned green beans and heat until they have softened, then add six beaten eggs, whipped with a little milk, to the veggies. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes with the lid on your sauté pan.
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At 35 minutes, remove the lid, add shredded cheese, and bake for 10 to 15 more minutes or until the cheese is bubbly. You just made your first frittata, which can be made with just about any veggie and a terrific protein source. Black beans, onions, mushrooms, and pasta sauce are a delicious base for baked ziti and an ideal way to use your skillet to cook ahead.
While you have your cutting board out, chunk up another onion, celery, carrots, and peeled sweet potatoes. Large chunks will work as you are going to blend this if possible. Combine all the veggies in the crockpot, cover with water, add three bouillon cubes, or to taste, and add a teaspoon of curry and some red pepper flakes. When the veggies have softened, blend until creamy. This creamy sweet potato soup is a treat on cold days and can be spiced up as you like and calmed down with sour cream or half and half.
The key to meal planning is to choose recipes that use up foods that are on sale this week. The key to cooking ahead is to fix multiple dishes in just one cooking session.
Not leftovers, but planned-overs
Because you bought at a good price, you can get more nutritional bang for your buck. Freeze leftovers in single-serving containers and invest in a lunch bucket. You have eggs and bread, so boil up some eggs, add mayo, mustard, and relish, and you have egg salad. By stacking your lunch bucket carefully, you can include:
- an apple for a snack
- nuts for something crunchy
- your frozen container, which will be the base for your supper
- the egg salad sandwich, for lunch
- yogurt for a treat
When you freeze as much as possible of what you cooked on the weekend, you can create a rotation to keep things interesting.
Change up your shopping location
To find the best deals on staples, make sure you check out Asian markets and discount warehouses. Asian markets offer a wide variety of staples that are expensive at your closest market. For example, your dollar store may only offer black beans, kidney beans, and lentils.
However, at your Asian market, you may be able to find Anasazi, Adzuki, and a wide variety of other beans in small bags that you can use to try out new recipes. Beans and rice may sound like bargain basement or poverty food, but Southwestern Anasazi Beans with fresh tomato and cilantro is an exotic treat!
|Discount Store||Satisfaction Score|
|BJ’s Wholesale Club||80|
|Fred Meyer (Kroger)||80|
|Sam’s Club (Walmart)||80|
Consider going in with a friend on items from the discount warehouses. For example, you and a friend can split a bag of potatoes, a big container of brown rice, and even consumables like dish soap and toilet paper.
How to spend less on groceries
Many experts recommend not shopping when you are starving. If you go to the store in the mood for junk food, you will probably bring home more junk food than you really want to eat daily.
In addition to eating before you go to the grocery store, try to eat something you are proud of. That egg salad sandwich on wheat is not fancy, but it is helping you to stick to your budget and meet your financial goals while nourishing your body. If you focus on being very satisfied, both physically and financially, you will make better choices before you get to the grocery store.
Get a little radical
Going vegetarian, even a few days a week, is perfect for your budget and can be good for your body. While beans are high in fiber, they should not be a shock to your gut. If they are, it could indicate that you are not getting enough fiber, so keep going and drink plenty of water.
Finally, know just how low you can go. If one egg salad sandwich a week is all you can do, so be it. Everyone has foods that make life worth living. If you cannot face the day without really good coffee and half and half, find other ways to cut back on spending and celebrate your favorite beverage!