Creating great meals on a tight budget

It would seem these days it’s nearly impossible to buy good food, create meals and feed your family and still pay the rent or mortgage, keep the lights on and pay the car insurance.   At a time when many people are struggling to make ends meet, those looking to provide their family with decent, healthy meals can find themselves at a crossroads in the grocery store.

“Well I can buy this one roast at $4.99 a pound which will feed my family of four once with no leftovers or I can buy this pre-made, pre-packaged, boxed meal which has a list of chemicals, additives and preservatives longer than the Gettysburg Address for $1.98 and it will make three meals as the main dish.”

As you recount the cash in your wallet or mentally review your budget for the week, it’s hard to argue that logic.  Especially when you’re also deciding if you could buy more food if you yourself skip some meals, thereby providing larger portions or more meals throughout the course of the week for the rest of the family.   Don’t scoff – it happens. And in more families than you may think in your own neighborhood.

First of all ask yourself if you’re shopping in the right store.  Just because a grocery store is located nearest to your house doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the smartest choice for your household budget.  Case in point, where I live the most popular grocery store is one whose headquartered in my city, but you can find chains of them across the southeastern US.  It’s a great store, terrific employees, customer service is their main priority.  They have the freshest produce, outstanding cuts of meat, an amazing organic, all-natural section in some of the stores, their own generic line that rivals the quality and taste of many name brands and it’s the store that most people would prefer to say they shop in.  It’s great and personally – I never shop there.  Why?  It’s not cost effective, because it’s also the most expensive store and even their “sale” prices are still above those of competitor’s regular prices.

I have done my fair share of price comparison shopping over the last 18 years of marriage and it broke down like this; During the first year of marriage it never occurred to me to shop anywhere than where I always had, which was that particular chain, because that’s where you were supposed to shop, it was the closest to my home and I wasn’t buying for a family.  It was just me.  I could afford the luxury of popping in, buying a few items, decadent or not, enjoy them for a few days and go back again in a few days for whatever I was in the mood for next or struck my fancy as I perused the aisles.

The first week I went shopping after we married I did so in the same way I always had.  I went to that store, walked around till I saw things that I thought he and I would like, bought those items, came home and made them.  I wasn’t terribly concerned about budget or reducing trips to the store and buying in bulk was a foreign concept to me.  That first week the food ran out quickly and I was back at the store again within days.   That was pretty much the status quo for the first several months.  I felt like I lived at the grocery store.  My husband was also a picky eater.  He would never see it that way, but the truth is he gets in moods for foods.  Sometimes its beef, then chicken, other times he wants oatmeal and hummus.  However if I made/make something he’s not in the mood for, he’ll eat it, but when asking what we’re having I get, “Oh,” and then a shrug of his shoulder.  Translation: “I wasn’t in the mood for that.”

I always felt pressured (because I wanted him to enjoy his meal) to buy a wide variety of foods to make sure and cover my bases.  It got expensive quickly.  After our son was born in a difficult situation requiring extensive medical care, even with great insurance the medical bills leveled us.  I stopped shopping at the great store and opted for one that was closer to our home and less expensive.  I began learning that I could still create variety in our meals without having to buy numerous different cuts and types of meats by using different herbs and seasonings and cooking methods.  This was a huge find, because it meant buying less expensive cuts of meat in larger quantities.  We actually had better more full meals even though I wasn’t buying as much.

Over the years I would visit different stores to price check our standard household items and dry goods.  I even learned that the same store would have different prices on the same product depending on the store’s location.  Even a store as common as Walmart has price differences based on location.  Factors such as demand for an item in a particular area of town, distance the trucks must drive off of the main highways to deliver products all play in the price you pay in a store.

For example: my husband loves Celestial Seasonings Decaf Green Mint tea.  I started the obsession years ago when I mixed a pitcher for myself, he tasted it and that was it.  He was hooked.  There are four Walmart Supercenters in my area within reasonable driving distance from our home.  Two of them are the primary Walmarts we shop in, and understand, Walmart is to me like death and taxes – Something I don’t enjoy, but find unavoidable.   In one Walmart the same box of Celestial Seasonings tea is $3.29 for a box of 20 tea bags.  In the other store they’re $1.98.  Not a difficult argument as to which Walmart location gets the bulk of our monthly household budget.  Those same tea bags are $3.99 a box at the grocery store which is nearest to our house.

You have to price comparison shop first and foremost.  If you’re near a store for another reason and have the time, just walk around and jot down the prices of your most common purchases.  You may be surprised.  I know I was when I found out that a Dollar General Marketplace – a rare creature and beyond me as to why all Dollar Generals are not converted over to one – allowed me to purchase more than double the groceries for the same price as shopping at Walmart.  Surprisingly Dollar General Marketplace also carries major name brands for far lower prices.

Some standard Dollar Generals also have food sections that while not as large as a Marketplace, still carry the same great deals, but again it’s about location.  There is a Dollar General near my home, but I drive past it another two miles down the road, because the next one down has better prices and a larger selection on the same products as the DG near my home.  As a bonus, that other Dollar General I prefer to shop in when I don’t have time to drive to the DG Marketplace which is across town, is also located next to a Big Lots and a Save-A-Lot grocery store.  Did you know Big Lots carries groceries?  They do and you’d be stunned by the variety, prices and selection.  I have found amazing Japanese foods that my husband and I adore which I have to drive to specialty stores to  purchase, yet occasionally Big Lots will have these great finds in their International Foods aisle.

Price comparing items from Dollar General and a Save-A-Lot, I still find Dollar General to be for less, but Save-A-Lot has a meat department with some amazing cuts and phenomenal prices.  If you do not have a local butcher shop near you, but do have a Save-A-Lot it’s definitely worth the visit.

Be careful of grocery store chains which tout, “Buy One Get One Free,” deals or 10 for $10.  Check their regular prices in comparison to their sale prices.  Quite often that BOGO deal isn’t so much of a deal.  Off sale, they’re half the price.  When they put them on sale suddenly it’s “Buy one steak and get one free,” but they double the price so you’re still essentially paying the same price as if you’d bought at their regular price.  The 10 for 10 deal – in many stores you must buy 10 to get them for $1 each.  Sometimes this is a little absurd for a shopper.  They don’t need or want 10 of something, however go to Dollar General for the same product and you’ll find it’s always two for $1 and if you just want one it’s only $.50 cents.

Look for price to quantity comparisons as well.  Sometimes if you read the labels you’ll find out that buying four of a smaller package size is the same price as buying the larger one, but you get more ounces/pounds or count for the price.  This is often true of cheese and dry goods.

Do I have to shop at  chain store?

Another great find – check local, independently owned grocery stores.  They many not have as much selection, however they quite often have sales that the bigger chains cannot compare to.  In my area a local store has a sale the first weekend of every month.   Superchoice Foods.  While I’ve never gone for the regular household items because DG and Walmart were still better priced, I have gone for the meat department.  On those weekends they will sell ground chuck for $.69 cents a pound, roasts for $1.29 per pound, Delmonico, T-Bone, and Rib-Eye steaks for $1.49 a pound.  You can buy a 40lb box of leg quarters for $19.  The savings is enormous and the lines granted are unbelievable in the butcher’s department, but the cuts are fresh, they keep it well stocked on those days and people show up to shop!

Women appear from neighborhood associations and street co-ops.  They all put their money together and send two delegates in their minivans ready for the haul.  It’s quite a sight.  The first month I learned about it and went I was stunned by the turnout and wait time, however I purchased over 100lbs of different types of meats and fish for $52.  It lasted us one month and we entertain frequently so we weren’t just feeding ourselves.

Learn about stores such as Sams and Costco.  While you may not need or want to buy a 100 pack of toilet paper, they will have offers on something else with a price that can’t be beat.  Case in point – in any store I shop in cheese on the average is $2.25 to $2.99 for an 8oz block.  At Sam’s Club I can buy a large 4lb block of Land O Lakes brand cheese for $4.98.  For those of you not seeing it – that’s four blocks of the $2.25+ cheese at the grocery store and that’s buying the generic brand which never seems to have the flavor or consistency of Cabot’s or Land O Lakes.  Why would I pay $9 for low-quality cheese if I can pay nearly half for a good brand in the same quantity?

Local Produce

Know your area.  Purchase fruits and vegetables from local growers at stands or at a farmer’s market.  The savings cannot be beat and the freshness is far superior.  Learn how to cook vegetarian even if you’re not vegetarian.  People who aren’t vegans often don’t realize the versatility and meal options you can have in vegetables, legumes and beans.

Eggplant for example is often disregarded for the most common dish as Eggplant Parmigiana.  However if you “Degorge,” eggplant by slicing it vertically and left to set on paper towels or paper bags beneath and above, with a heavier plate on top of them – changes the flavor of the vegetable.  They can then be cooked in a skillet, grilled or baked in a pan with a myriad of different seasoning options and are amazing as a meal by themselves.  One eggplant can usually feed two average eaters in this manner.  Spaghetti squash also can be cooked and served just like spaghetti with far more nutritional value than standard pasta – and this is coming from an Italian – I love my pasta.

Frugality does not equal poor food choices

Don’t assume eating cheap means eating badly with little variety and limited options.  It doesn’t.

Here’s a quick variation on something you can buy in extensive bulk for a low price – potatoes.

Variation my son made by baking with a little cheese

Cottage Mashed Potatoes:


Average approximately two to three medium potatoes per person as a yield


Wash the potatoes, but do not peel them. Keeping the skin on not only significantly increases the nutritional value of the dish, but increases the quantity of the finished amount.  The substance of the skin will also decrease the amount eaten as you will feel fuller, faster.

Quarter the potatoes and cover with hot water to reach the boil faster.  I usually prefer to cover the cut wedges till the water is about five inches above them.  This allows room for the potatoes to shift during boiling allowing a more uniform cooking.  Bring to a boil, cover lightly allowing steam to escape and slightly reduce the roll of the boil as this allows the potatoes to cook without bottom potatoes scorching.  Stir occasionally and cook for 15-20 minutes.  Test a wedge by mashing it with a back of a fork.  The potato should easily mash and break apart but not be mealy.  

Drain the potatoes and mash with either a large fork, potato masher or beat with a mixer or electric beater.  Personally I prefer to use a masher/ricer or fork as I can control the consistency of the mash better than with a mixer.  I find a mixer allows the potatoes to be more lumpy and mixing too long or too fast will activate the starch in the potato causing a gooey, gummy consistency.  

We use real butter, because that is our personal preference and believe the science of what’s in margarine and butter-substitutes will cause far greater health damage than actual butter ever will.  Consumption of butter should also be based on your activity level, but it’s fundamental in bone development and maintaining the health of them.  It’s important to understand that people who are sedentary (couch potatoes), or who have jobs which only require them to sit and work on a computer or do general office work should be watching the amounts of fats they are consuming and the types of fats as well. If your body’s highest activity level is digestion you’re better off being a vegetarian for the rest of your life only consuming fish for protein and only drinking water or unsweet decaf teas.

That being said – Melt 1 TBLS of butter for each potato you used.  When making mashed potatoes do not add any cold ingredients.  This is the crucial mistake most home-cooks make when making mashed potatoes, baking, or making caramel sauce. Warm or bring to room temperature anything you will be using whether it’s butter, substitute, olive oil or milk.  

Warm approximately 1 cup of milk.  If you feel you are lactose intolerant or have chosen to eliminate dairy from your diet for one reason or another you can substitute almond milk, rice milk, or coconut milk (make sure this is actual coconut milk and not a version which contains added sugars).  I personally would never advise soy milk to anyone except to a menopausal woman.

Gently stir butter and 1/3 the milk into the potatoes.  Add another 1/3 of the milk and mix.  Add the remaining milk and stir.  Depending on your preference of stiff or creamy potatoes some people find 2/3 of milk to be adequate.  Others prefer more than the full cup, this also depends upon the number of potatoes you have used.  As an average this 1 cup is good for approximately 6-8 potatoes.  Sea salt and pepper to taste.  

Variation on this recipe – use an herbal mixture of 1/4 tsp garlic powder, 1/2 tsp onion powder, 1 TBLS dried parsley, 1 tsp dried basil, 1 1/2 tsp chopped chives in 1 cup sour cream.  Use this in place of the butter or substitute used.  This gives a “ranch” flavor to the potatoes.