This month, the Center for Nutrition Policy issued a new pdf: "Low Cost, Medium Cost and Liberal Food Plans - 2007," revising a previous version of alternative food budgets. (The low cost plan is designed to work with someone feeding a family on food stamps.)
It's too hard to read, and I'm not sure what to think about all its data, anyway. So, I've compiled this list of 15 tips for maximizing your food budget:
1. Buy store brands - they're cheaper.
2. Use coupons - take an hour a week to track them down in the newspaper, mailbox, and online. Organize them according to area of the store (dairy, meat, etc.) and within that category, by expiration date. (If you're lucky, your store has its own promotional coupons, too - here in San Antonio, HEB has lots of promos plus a coupon kiosk near the customer service area). It doesn't take that long, and you can use the rest of the time to plan meals.
3. Shop on double coupon day. (Here in SA, that means Sun Harvest; HEB doesn't offer double coupon days.)
4. Plan your weekly menu to maximize the coupons.
5. Shop with a grocery list and stick to that list.
6. Do not buy junk just because you have a coupon. If the kids hate powdered donuts, don't buy them just because they're on sale. If you are into eating organic, then don't compromise just because Cocoa Puffs are 3 for a dollar. Rule the coupons, don't let them rule you!
7. Compare the unit price. Something on sale with a coupon may still cost more than the store brand.
8. Cook from scratch as much as possible: the more preparation in the item, the higher the price.
9. Organize your kitchen (freezer, fridge, pantry) as well as a little storage area elsewhere. A big sale on toilet paper may be worth stocking up - but you will need the extra space. Similarly, cooking a big batch of chili or stew may mean you freeze half for later: it's better to have an organzed freezer (not only to have a place for the item, but to remember it's there and not have it hidden for archeologists in the back right corner ...).
10. Eat your leftovers. Rework them if your family is picky about this - Food Network's Robin Miller (contributing editor for Health and Cooking Light ) has an entire show dedicated on revamping a food item in 3-4 ways for use during the week. Chicken breasts one night become shredded bbq chicken sammies the next, etc.
11. Keep a Food Journal. Yes, this sounds hokey -- but it can be a simple spiral notebook and it's purpose is to keep track of what's working and what's not. It doesn't have to be pretty. If the family loved your Organic Mac and Cheese Bake, then make a note of this. If they hated the 12 grain bread, note it. Slowly, you'll build a list of recipes that the family likes and this will make menu planning a lot easier. The Journal should also keep track of big sales -- stores tend to put things on sale on a schedule and as you gain control of this info, you'll be able to plan ahead for the sale items. I also take my journal with me to Sam's, HEB, etc. and write down prices for things that I buy a lot. It's helped me discover that the paper towels at Walmart are a better deal than Sam's, and I was just assuming that Sam's had the best deal.
12. Cook in batches. Buying in bulk (like at Sam's or CostCo) can get you a better unit price. You can break these apart and freeze parts. You can also stretch these buys through cooking a big batch and then freezing part of the entree for later. Examples: a big pot of chili, freeze half; a huge meatloaf, freeze half; broccoli-rice casserole, freeze half. You get the idea.
13. Learn to cook great vegetables that are cheap. Cabbage, greens, turnips, beets, yams, these are great foods, they are cheap foods, and you need to take advantage of them. A big pot of greens on a cold winter day, with cornbread and sweet butter? There's nothing better. Like Chinese food or Thai? Lots of cabbage potential there. Explore.
14. Find alternatives to meat. Beans and rice together make a complete protein. Cajun recipes and TexMex recipes combine them both. A favorite in my house are bean cakes - they can be crispy and spicy and very delicious as an entree and again as a sammie. Lots of variety here, lots of nutrition, and soooo cheap.
15. Reward yourself for a job well done. This whole thing should be fun, not a chore. Find the joy in all this ... it's there. Great food, great nutrition, and great savings.