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Budget Cooking

I love quality food and love cooking with quality ingredients. However, there are times when I'm on a very strict budget (like if I want to take a week-long vacation and splurge on food). So there are some things I do to save money that some Chowhounds might frown upon.

- I will buy the cheapest pasta and use it instead of rice vermicelli or bean threads for stir fries (SO doesn't like regular rice). That 50 cents vs. $2.50 makes a difference. I will also decrease the veg and meat amounts (or eliminate all together) and increase pasta in order to stretch it.

- I will buy the cheapest by-the-pound meats, or forego meats in general. However, I rarely buy ground beef and will usually pay more for ground chicken or turkey. I won't buy chicken breasts if they are more than $4.99/lb.

- I will buy frozen veggies as opposed to fresh. It's far cheaper and I don't have to clean or worry about spoilage. Same goes for fish. I know fresh is better. We're talking about a budget.

How do you deal with very strict budgetary concerns? I'm not looking for "Food is worth more of your budget" comments. I save at the grocery store in order to indulge when travelling. At times I have managed to eat from the grocery store on $20-30 a week. Luckily I have a good stash of spices and condiments as well as an herb garden to up the taste factor in these cheaper foods. But I want to know how other foodies do it.

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  1. You are off to an excellent start. Whenever my friends ask me how I can spend only a little more on two as they they do on one, the discussion usually ends with the discovery that whereas they make a list of what they want to eat and then buy the items at the market, I go with a very loose idea of what I must have and then change the plan according to what's on sale at the market.

    I always look in the fridge and freezer before I leave, just to have fresh in my mind what's there, in case something at the market would go well.

    Before I check out I take one last look at what I have, sort of say "Monday I'll have this, Tuesday I'll have this, Wednesday there will be leftovers, etc." Usually I find that I have one or two items too many and am sure to remove them.

    Shopping at an Asian market other than 99 Ranch also helps. The other places tend to be even cheaper.

    For super saving mode, all the things you've said apply. One pot meals involving canned tomatoes, beans, rice, and/or pasta (pasta, chili, stew) last several meals and are cheap as heck.

    I don't like frozen vegetables at all, though, so I buy one or two leafy vegetables that I know we'll eat immediately and then try to get one or two that are sturdy and will last even over a week if necessary (cabbage, carrots, etc.)

    And if I make a pact with myself to eat meat once a day instead of at every meal, I can usually cut the grocery bill by a third if not a half. Yes, I eat a lot of meat and seafood when allowed. Not good for my body or the budget.

    We spent $40-50 on two this week, which is exactly where you're at. I don't see how we could cut much more without eating cabbage soup every day.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Pei

      I am so glad I am not the only Chowhound who cannot afford $200/week on groceries. I, too, go to the store with staples in mind and buy meat/veggies/specialty items according to what is on sale that week. Time has prevented me from visiting the local asian and mexican markets, but I realize I need to work that into my schedule. The deals I hear about are worth the extra hour of travel and shopping. I just need to make sure they are open when I get off work at 7pm or so.

      1. re: Pei

        About the only processed foods I use (grew up in a cooked from scratch, in the business family) are canned tomatoes. And I do shop hard, to get bargains. I cruise produce aisles for reduced items, for stews, stocks, and eat tonight things. I buy bulk and then self-process it down to store. I have bags of bulk to fine chopped veggies in my freezer, chops cut from full roasts, whole chickens into servings, etc. I shop the large Asian grocery about every 4-6 weeks, as well as a Costco. As I said I grew up in the business, so I have a huge personal store of recipes and ideas. You can read, read and read magazine and cookbooks to build same. Innovate, that works. Meat is an accent item. Try slicing your meats fro stews, soups and stirfries when frozen, you can slice them thinner and get more flavor and impact.

        Just remember the more you let someone else process your food for you, the more it costs you , money and flavor

        1. re: Quine

          That last paragraph's a great reminder.

          1. re: Quine

            I also buy a lot of bulk items and downsize them at home.
            In my area we have a lot of produce farms that open their fields to the public. You go out and pick your own veggies and pay a fraction of store prices.
            Another thing we do is several families who use the same veggies will ante up and by bulk from a local produce supplier at wholesale, not retail prices, then divvy it up at home.
            Asian markets generally sell produce and seafood at lower prices than supermarkets.

        2. I also love to eat well but need to stick to a budget as well. My advice involves the freezer and pantry. It takes a little extra to get going but pays off in the end. Whenever meat, chicken etc is on sale at a good loss leader price, I stock up. I will then prepare chilis, stews, spaghetti sauce etc and freeze. I will also take less tender cuts of meat and freeze in freezer bags in whatever marinade I like. This way it marinates as it defrosts. I do the same with the pantry. When canned goods and whatever else can be stored safely goes on sale I stock up.

          I like this approach because once you are up and running, you can easily skip a weeks shopping and prepare meals from the freezer and pantry. Having things already prepared in the freezer makes it easy on a busy day. It eliminates that what's for dinner problem and keeps you from an expensive last minute trip to the store.

          I do love fresh produce but I will only buy what is on sale and I will plan around that. If nothing seems like a good enough deal, I have frozen and canned veggies to fall back on.

          I have found that this system works quite well and that my family of 5 eats better food for less with a little planning ahead.

          6 Replies
          1. re: baseballfan

            I'm starting to figure out what keeps well over long periods, and find those are good things to buy when the price is decent - potatoes, onions, etc., and dry salami, nuts (when and *where* reasonable), 'white bacon' (pork fat) for flavoring, etc.

            On another recent thread we discussed making certain 'staples' at home, such as mustard, mayo and all that. A bunch of things are not hard to do - even crackers - and they can turn out fabulously. That is, if you like to tinker and have extra time, you can make things like crackers for what you'd spend on a store brand box - or less - but it will taste far better than the gourmet crackers you could've bought.

            1. re: baseballfan

              Along these lines: if you have a stocked freezer and pantry, you just need to load up on $10 or so of fresh vegetables and fruit each week, which helps immensely. Once a month at $40 and then every week at $10 is fine for one person.

              1. re: baseballfan

                Baseballfan, I love your idea to freeze the meat with the marinade in the bag so it marinates as it thaws! Never thought of it but I will definitely do it now.

                Thanks for the great tip!

                1. re: xena

                  I did that once out of necessity - marinated something overnight and then wasn't able to cook it that night - froze it for a week with no ill effects - a v. tasty dish - boeuf a la Nicoise from this month's cookbook of the month.

                  1. re: MMRuth

                    Very good to know. I love the idea.

                  2. re: xena

                    Glad to be of help. It has worked well for me. FYI, I usually double bag the freezer bags as I have had them leak in the freezer. What a mess!

                2. I'm fortunate enough to have a kitchen aid stand mixer with a grinder attachment. So, buying whole chickens or turkeys and using the parts including grinding (usually thighs) for dishes that need ground meat is a good way to save bucks. It also expands the possibilities; stock from the carcass, the breasts to use for light dishes, the legs and thighs for braises etc etc.

                  Skipping dry cereal is another way to save some dollars. Rice or oatmeal as a base for a morning cereal is delicious and pretty cheap.

                  Produce from ethnic markets is also a money saver. Its usually more ripe and needs to be used right away in my experience but its excellent and much less expensive.

                  1. We have a 99 Cents Only 'dollar store' in L.A. that's very clean and has some great items (canned, even fresh fruits and veggies - fine ones, packaged, etc.). I tend to buy some things there and at a local produce market and am quite happy with that and a great selection of really cheap ethnic markets with great spices.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Cinnamon

                      I usually go to the 99 cents store when I want some junk food. They are the only ones that have one of my favorite candies, the Toffifay hazelnut, caramel deals. They had these extralarge family packs for 99 cents each! I only bought two because I'm on a budget and also I hve to stay healthy, but that was a great treat.

                      1. re: choctastic

                        And I think they have every test-marketed product ever. No counting the number of weirdly flavored/colored M&Ms and other name brands you never see elsewhere. Kind of a fun adventure, if you've got a clean store nearby. (Some dollar stores can be kind of gross. The 99 Cents Only store I go to is far cleaner/brighter than the local TJ's.)

                    2. Strict budgetary concerns are the rule in our house these days. We look for the good deals on good canned pantry items, and do use frozen veg, despite the naysayers out there ( it's often more nutritive than the "fresh" at the market). But do go for the fresh greens when you can get them.

                      I try to use meat for flavoring only (hard with my meat-loving Hub). Look for recipes where your meat element is almost like an herb - flavor, but not the main course.

                      Eggs are great for budget eating, and can be very elegant. My family never complains when we have omelet night. Your herb garden will be a boon if you go that route. NB fresh greens above.

                      Co-ops are great for bulk grains, legumes, pastas, etc. Make use of them.

                      Never, ever, let someone tell you that food is worth more than your budget. One can eat REALLY well on a truncated budget and a little creativity. I love CH, but get a little intimidated (as a home cook) by all those spendy meals that are lauded. Live within your means, and eat well doing so. It sounds like you're making the right decisions for your household.

                      Pei's suggestion to really look in the refrigerator and freezer before marketing is a good one. Stuff you have left over and will not use is money down the drain. Maximize what you have and don't waste.

                      If you have a farmers' market available, try to use it. You will save a lot on supermarket veg, and be very pleased with the freshness and quality you get.

                      There are a lot more of us on a shoestring out there than you may think. Even more incentive to eat well: money spent on bad food is truly wasted.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: cayjohan

                        A lot of Asian cooking uses meat almost as a flavoring. It was how mom cooked a lot--little meat, losts of vegs (o-cazu). Although she studied surgical nursing and nutrition at Berkeley before WWII, she cooked this way for us both health and budgetary reasons.

                      2. I learned from my aunt in N.M. how to buy marked down meat, I mean good quality cuts, it is a matter of finding out when your store does this, i know the Wal-mart s/c here does it (I'm in Fl) usually early on Tuesday,and Thursday morning last i checked...,also every week i cook 3-4 lbs of ground beef with onion, bell pepper,red pepper flakes,and fresh garlic, you can go many directions with this my fav, is i buy v8 juice by the case @ costco, so i get a can, portion however much meat i want,and add these two to cooked pasta...don't laugh it's awesome,it's fast,and it's cheap!. One last thing when i grill i usually have several types of meat or seafood at once, so i stick the leftovers in the fridge,and add them along with frozen or canned veggies,along with a egg to ramen noodle soup...way cheap,and way fast n tasty!...hope you don't think me gutter trash for a daily menu like this,but hey i gotta pay for that vacation in the keys in Nov.!

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: jword2001

                          I'm a huge fan of leftovers and cook ahead every week, so I definitely appreciate your input. There is no way I can cook a full meal after work, so leftovers are key. We grill once a week when the weather is good and I make ground meat/spices/beans/etc. type things a lot.

                        2. "I won't buy chicken breasts if they are more than $4.99/lb."

                          Buy a whole chicken and cut it up or if you like breast only buy it on the bone and debone. Very easy to do. The best chicken bargain is leg quarters, often at less than $0.79/lb sometimes $0.39/lb. Best bargain in fish is canned. Salmon, tuna and sardines are all very reasonable. One can of sardines is around $1.00, is low in calories, high in calcium and has around 1 gram of omega 3 fatty acids. Dried beans and lentils are dirt cheap, are easy to make and you can make some killer meals with them.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: scubadoo97

                            Yup- that's the way to go. But, I do sometimes buy chicken breasts- but there are two supermarket near my that have them on sale for as low as $1.88 per pund- wither boneless breasts or chicken tenders. When they do, I stock up.

                            1. re: macca

                              I go to Sams Club or to my supermarket where they often have chicken thighs for .79 and boneless breasts for 1.69. I stock up and freeze them in portion sized packages with my vacuum sealer. Most supermarkets have family-size packages of pork chops and so on. When salmon is on sale I do the same, provided it passes the freshness test.

                              1. re: sheiladeedee

                                Yup, that's what I do, too. I usually buy me chicken at the supermarkets on sale. For some reason, we do not eat hamburg that ofter- and we love the hamburg thery sell at my produce market. And I like to buy my sausages at a Sausage store in a neighboring city- and I LOVE the pork chops from another local butcher shop. I usually don't buy all of these items at the same time- stocking up when they are either on sale, or when that particular store is on my errand list for shopping. These trips are also split with my trips to Trader Joes and BJ;s. I think I may need a 12 step program for shopping. I love to visit different shops and then go home and cook up a storm!

                          2. Have you tried the bulk section in the health food store for staples? Generally cheaper than supermarkets, and they tend to be organic as well. I also agree with those who say to cut down on meat consumption. Meat can be incredibly expensive. A couple of days ago, I made some lamb shanks. At the butcher, each shank was over $10!

                            1. I'm trying to do much better with sticking to a budget, but I pretty much only shop at whole foods and trader joes. However, the farmers markets (what DC has of them) are opening soon.
                              I tend to stick with the following inexpensive ingredients:
                              -canned beans
                              -cans of Muir Glen fire roasted tomatoes. the big ones are a better value
                              -whole foods extra firm tofu...99cents a block
                              - frozen edamame..1.99 a bag
                              - bags of rice (brown and white) from TJs
                              - i stock up on whatever veggies and fruits are on sale, and if nothing looks good i just buy a bag of frozen
                              -boxed chicken stock. good for making a quick soup with leftover veggies or rice. When I get chinese take out, I save the rice and the next night put it in broth with some carrots and it's a very nice, very cheap soup.

                              I tend to make a pot of veggie chili which can last for three meals or so, and turn it into enchilladas or serve it over brown rice one night. it's filling and healthy...and cheap.

                              stir fries are cheap and can be made with any veggies (the sale ones!) fresh or frozen. serve over rice or noodles.

                              that's usually what i do every night. I've stopped buying meat and have pretty much cut it out alltogether (except chicken stock).

                              1. It is just me and my bf, and we cook on a budget. I do a lot of the things already mentioned here, like checking the fridge and freezer before heading to the store. I also check out the weekly specials online from a couple of different stores, from there I decide when I am going to shop, where and for what. I go with a general idea of what we are going to have for the week, and adjust at the store if necessary. I also set a limit for each meal for the both of us, and if one meal is way under, like pasta, then I might borrow the difference for the next meal, like fish.

                                I also shop for fresh fruits and vegetables at a roadside farmer's market. I don't know where you live, but if you have access to one I usually spend $10-15 for almost two weeks worth of produce.

                                I do the same thing with stir fries, but instead of using regular pasta I use ramen noodles without the seasoning packet. I toss them in at the end with a little extra broth and they cook in just a minute.

                                I also buy frozen veggies and frozen fish, I have no problem with either and I think veggie blends are great for things like stir fries and other quick dinners.

                                We also typically eat vegetarian at home and save the seafood and meat for dinners out at a restaurant. I also will make a "chef's" salad, which is really what ever is left over in the fridge. I also try to keep a couple of pantry dinners or a frozen pizza on hand because that is cheaper than making a run to the store for one meal or ordering out.

                                14 Replies
                                1. re: lizzy

                                  as far as shopping goes, I cut my budget down by figuring out where the cheapest of any certain thing is, and shop around. I found out that on the whole Albertsons, Vons, etc are WAY expensive, especially in produce, and one-stop shopping usually ends up being a lot more expensive than finding the deals. I don't tend to buy a lot of meat (when I do, its for something specific), although frozen chicken breasts are a staple on hand.

                                  Farmers market for fresh produce
                                  TJ's for frozen stuff , dairy and pasta (and specialty items)
                                  Frazier Farms/Henry's (or other health food type store) for bulk items and produce that looked either too expensive or not available at the FM (bananas, etc).
                                  Albertsons/Vons/Ralphs, or costco etc for specialty goods you can't get in other the places--bottled water, cleaning supplies, ziploc bags, etc.

                                  Look for mexican markets or discount grocery stores as well, as these are often a good bit cheaper. many of them kinda sketch me out though.

                                  1. re: Jeters

                                    It seems that some of you guys have been able to find bargains at farmers markets. I buy my stuff there as well but for other reasons than to save money. Perhaps it's just in New York where I find that farmers markets can be pricey?

                                    1. re: Miss Needle

                                      It's not just you.
                                      I live in DC and farmers markets aren't cheap here, either. However, it's usually better quality (than even the whole foods near me, b/c they're building a new one and i think they've just given up on the one that currently exists), I feel better about spending $2 on something at the farmers market vs. $2 at the store, and there is sometimes a greater variety of seasonal things.

                                      And sometimes if you go at the end of the day, things are cheaper so the vendors can get rid of their stock.

                                      1. re: Jeserf

                                        Jeserf is right. Here in LA, I feel like the choices are:

                                        farmers market: expensive, but always good quality. I don't go every week, but when I do go I'm careful to set a budget before I start, and to walk around once before deciding what I really want.

                                        big chain market (Safeway, etc.): just as expensive as a farmers market, worst quality of the bunch, hardly ever step food in one except to get dried staples I can't get elsewhere (pasta, cereal, the occassional soda, beer)

                                        gourmet market (Whole Foods, etc.): as or more expensive as farmers market, quality usually good but not not always great, I only go for specialty items once in awhile (ice cream, cheese)

                                        ethnic market (Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, etc.): cheapest, quality varies but there's usually plenty of prouce and vegetables to be had if you're flexible. This is where we do the bulk of our shopping.

                                        1. re: Pei

                                          Very similar situation here.
                                          In DC, the farmers markets are all cash only.
                                          thus, it's pretty hard to spend more than you bring.

                                          As for Safeway: try to hit Target for things like that. I get alot of things like soda (when I drink it) and paper products at target. it's much cheaper.

                                          1. re: Jeserf

                                            Ah, yes, Target. It is much cheaper, you're absolutely right.

                                            1. re: Jeserf

                                              We tend to stock up for a month on things like paper towels, canned dog foods, sodas, all that, with home delivery from one of the major chains. Often they have a coupon so it winds up being maybe $4 for the delivery charge but the upshot is I don't have to carry in gargantuan quantities of heavy things. The online interface the stores that deliver have also make it easier than when you're shopping in person to see the sales, unit prices, etc. Then I fill in the blanks with regular shopping at TJ's, the 99 Cents Only store (so good for basics like paper towels etc. too), and Marina Farms for produce. Only once in awhile now do I pick up something at Gelson's (certain fresh produce), and I rarely go to Whole Foods anymore.

                                              My price consciousness kind of evolved this way:

                                              1. Generally aware of which supermarket chains were cheaper than others (often, the ones I don't enjoy going in as much)

                                              2. Really noticed that when started ordering online from some of the cheaper/midrange supermarkets

                                              3. Talked with retail analyst who mentioned how much cheaper TJ's is and their pricing model. Started shopping there more and really noticed the difference and on some things way better quality.

                                              4. Hit a couple ethnic markets, as if there was a fire sale. Many things were good and seemed nearly free in comparison to certain supermarkets.

                                              5. Discovered 99 Cents Only store. Made apple pie from fresh apples for about $1.50. Realized can go completely bonkers in that store and spend nearly nothing. Started really feeling awful about places that charged 2-5 times as much for same very basic thing (canned name brands, paper towels etc.). Noticed there seems to be less corn syrup and other additives in some of their things (Mexico-marketed stuff?) and that's a plus.. but you've got to label read.

                                              6. Discovered Marina Farms (veggie market) - their basil and apples were so very much better than supermarket versions that looked the same, stopped buying pretty much at all at supermarkets' veggie sections.

                                              7. Went to Whole Foods' Wilshire Santa Monica location, looked at prices, considered parking garage, recalled that I don't really favor how their prepared foods taste on the whole, and relegated them to special-purchase-only status.

                                              1. re: Cinnamon

                                                HFC is much cheaper in the US than sugar because of the farm bill. Sugar is much cheaper in Mexico than HFC because of their trade policies. This is why HFC is dominant here and sugar is dominant there. Lucky them.. Hence the desirability of "Mexican Coke" etc.

                                                1. re: JudiAU

                                                  This is along the lines of why I now specifically look for products aimed at the Mexican market! :D

                                                  (This is OT, but there is a wonderful chapter on corn and how kind of everything in American supermarkets is made from it, in Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals." The chapter starts on p. 13 of this PDF and the key riff about corn is two or three paragraphs on p. 18.)

                                        2. re: Miss Needle

                                          Actually the farmer's market here in Charleston, SC can be pricey depending on the item. What I'm actually talking about is more like a produce stand.

                                          1. re: lizzy

                                            I still dream about the huge farmers market in boston, where EVERYTHING seemed so cheap and so good...its harder out here to find good farmers market deals which is wierd, because in Vista I'm not too far from the farms themselves...

                                            that said, I feel better about spending money at the farmers market, the quality is better, and if I won't buy anything that I KNOW I can get a better deal on without sacrificing quality at my fav. grocery store. (three baskets of beautiful strawberries at 2.99 FTW)

                                            and I keep forgetting about target for all the other stuff! I'll have to compare.

                                            1. re: Jeters

                                              Um, what cheap huge farmers market would that be? The regular farmers markets are high quality but expensive -- our food budget definitely goes up a bit in the summer, though it is a conscious choice.

                                              I just realized that you must mean Haymarket, which is dirt cheap, but not a farmers market and the quality is pretty bad, although it's useful if you want to make a gigantic pot of spaghetti sauce or something similar.

                                              1. re: Dizzied

                                                I might be looking through the rose-colored glasses of my dirt-poor college years...at the time the cheap factor probably outweighed the quality factor. However, Haymarket never really struck me as being THAT bad.

                                                I remember getting the best apples from haymarket for nothing, carrots, potatoes and roma tomatoes, too. It didn't help that the closest grocery store to me at the time was a Star market that had HORRIBLE quality.

                                                1. re: Jeters

                                                  Haymarket specializes in waste. That is, for every unit of produce you get, 25-40% is well past its prime or rotten already. So, it's only truly cheap when you have a compost heap you need fixins for, as it were and you live within walking or T distance. Otherwise, it's not a good deal.

                                    2. i've lived for a month on hummus, the last week 1/2 with no bread. i wouldn't rec. that unless you're still in your 20's, though. it was a while ago, and i like hummus again!

                                      budget eating tips: tell SO to learn to like rice-- there are a zillion ways to prepare rice-- risotto, sticky, pilaf, plain basmati with sea salt and sesame seeds. . . you can get 50 lb bags of rice at your local asian market and have the basis for meal upon meal. . . your local asian market is your friend for produce, rice & rice noodles, miso, tofu, condiments, and stewing meats.

                                      look at last month's grocery reciepts-- what is the most expensive item on each bill? where could you cut back?

                                      when seriously budgeting, don't buy/consume any coffee, tea, bottled water, soda, or alcohol. it is okay to use up existing household stocks, but use willpower when it's gone-- many people have no idea how much they spend daily on these unnecessary items or the potential for savings. pretty much all processed foods are out as well.

                                      go veg if possible-- meat is usually the biggest $$$ on your grocery bill. if you eat meat infrequently you will appreciate it more and find that you are satisfied with less-- or a meat accent rather than centerpiece. stay away from fake meats too, they are overpriced. you can get good value from tofu though, i don't regard that as a fake meat although some do. if you do eat meat buy whole chickens etc and cut them up yourself, using all parts, & making your own stock from the carcass. buy miso and make miso soup for yourself with leftovers from the fridge and teeny amounts of fresh veggies. see how many meals you can get out of the miso package and be amazed!

                                      work at a restaurant: they will feed you a big meal for 1/2 price or free each shift. you can frequently take home day old bread or food that is technically expired but still edible. if you work even one shift/week at a co-op you can get veggie discards. the co-op by the way is where you should buy your bulk beans, spices, and starches, as others have suggested.

                                      as others have said, eat breakfast for dinner-- big fluffy pancakes or omelettes are delicious, fun & satisfying and will stretch your budget.

                                      stay away from the club stores unless you are feeding a fam of 10. it is not economical for 1 or 2 people once you figure in the membership cost.

                                      frozen veggies-- well, things like corn, peas, edamame, baby limas are good to get frozen, but you'll get jacked on things like broccoli florets-- mostly stems.

                                      buy veggies at the farmer's market when possible.

                                      go to the library and get some cookbooks that highlight traditional so-called "peasant" cuisines-- the basic beans, rice, pasta, broths and stews etc. you don't have to feel "poor" eating on a budget-- you are working on mastering your recipe for risi e bisi, or black bean soup, or miso soup, or, erm, hummus. . . make a batch once a week. eat well and healthily-- enjoy it.

                                      i haven't had to eat hard-core, punk-rock, $10/week plus food shelf in a very long time, but following these rules is how it gets done. you know how much you really have to spend-- if i had to go back to eating on a severe budget i would probably still eat organic foods, good quality rice, pasta and olive oil, sea salt and fresh veggies, cutting way way back on luxuries and meats as a way to still eat well.

                                      13 Replies
                                      1. re: soupkitten

                                        re: grocery bills....be sure you actually WATCH what is being rung up. I used to never do it, but this week the check out woman was charging me for organic something, which wasn't organic (I told her it was 99cents/lb and she said "yes, and you have 2.09 worth, but I said that's not possible if I have 7oz...yes, very good math there) and also for the wrong type of beans.
                                        Be sure both you and the check out person know what you're buying (organic or not, type of product, etc).

                                        1. re: soupkitten

                                          Lots of good points- but I don't agree with avoiding the club stores. I have a water dispenser ( bought, not rented), and the water at my local BJ's is $4.99 for the large 8 gallon size. Home Depot sells the same size for $11.99. And there are not a lot of places where you can but the water - so far I have only found Home Depot or BJ's. I figure the savings on the water in two months times pays for my membership. I also like to buy my rice, pasta, crackers, etc in bulki. There are only three of us, but my membership is well used- not to mention the non food items we stock up on.

                                          1. re: macca

                                            ...perhaps a good way to stretch it is to share the cost of membership with another family/a few friends...and all go together.

                                            My major issue with BJs/Costco is that for a lot things they aren't really that much cheaper, or can even be more expensive than a regular store. You just need to check the per-unit price.

                                            1. re: Jeserf

                                              Definitely have to check the prices. I find the paper towels, TP are no bargain there. I think I may check out the sirlion on my next trip I can buy it in bulk, and cut to portion sizes. But, as you say, I am nor sure of the pricing. One of my neices LOVES the Tyson frozen chicken breast tenders, so I usually get them there ( I Make no comment on her eating habits!)
                                              I do buy juice boxes there, too. The aforementioned neice has begun to love vitamin water. It is outrageously expensive ( can nbe up to $1.00 per bottle). Will have to see if it is a bargain there.

                                            2. re: macca

                                              Right you are!, i use Costco for meat, spices(i cant live without Redpepper flakes) ,V8 juice by the case,(that is like $.75 -1.00 a can in grocery stores,i get it at costco for about $.45 a can) some produce,frozen Strawberry's and if i want sweets i buu a box of their danish,and stick them in bags in the freezer,all of this is dirt cheep compared to grocery stores.

                                              1. re: macca

                                                but water is $0.40/gallon at the co-op the op is already going to to get bulk beans, pasta and super-fresh, cheaper & higher quality spices; and the asian market will beat the club store's price on rice hands down, with no membership costs necessary! imo most of the savings the club stores offer are on humungous bulk sizes of heavily processed convenience foods-- even if the op wants to eat these nasty processed foods, the sizes these foods are sold in are perhaps more than a single person or couple could eat quickly or store successfully. using a co-op or even a regular grocery store for bulk purchases of starches and getting only the amount 1 or 2 people can consume makes sense when on a tight weekly budget. i agree with jeserf that the club stores don't really shake out to being cheaper, and to me it's not worth giving up decent produce & meat selection to buy into them.

                                                1. re: soupkitten

                                                  I agree with a couple of your points, alot of the items at say a Costco are the processed junk that people eat. However for baby formula, spices, whole chickens, and some other items they cannot be beat. I shop at a couple of stores every weekend to pick up groceries for the week ahead, so the club stores lack of great produce, and some meats does not impact me. However Costco gets some of the best avacados I can find in Illinois.

                                                  Regarding the mebership "cost" I payed for my membership basically with the money I saved on the set of Michelin tires I purchased at Costco compared to what they cost elsewhere.

                                                  1. re: swsidejim

                                                    I have to say i love the ribeyes at costco,also the frozen shrimp,cant be beat for the price,as for the produce the stuff here is pretty good,i do drive 17 miles one way to get my 'melons and 'maters though(roadside stand in Zelwood Fl) as for the membership price between my Pick up,and my Charger i get that back in gas every month.

                                                    1. re: swsidejim

                                                      hey i hear you. i was a club member for one year basically for the savings on one large bbq system. when i attempted to actually shop there i was just appalled at the junk-- i really have to say i didn't buy any groceries from the club store because it isn't stuff my family eats-- no baby formula over here, our spices come from the co-op for pennies & they are fresher and organic-non-irradiated, and my organic free-range chickens come from larry. me carping on this will not help the op solve food budget issues though-- some people love their club store, some love their co-op, some love their vegetable garden. apparently for a lot of folks budget eating includes rib eyes and vitamin water, when that's sure not what i eat, and i eat dang well for living below the poverty line for 15 years! to each his own.

                                                      1. re: soupkitten

                                                        My friend gets her mom to buy her gift certificates, which allow her to shop at Costco without being a member. So, with slightly more inconvenience, they're getting two memberships for the price of one. Sounds like a favor to ask a close friend or relative if you just go to Costco once or twice a year.

                                                    2. re: soupkitten

                                                      I know water can be cheaper- but I got the water dispenser as a christmas gift from my neice- and she was so proud to have bought it for me. So now I have to keep it filled:}

                                                      1. re: macca

                                                        oh maybe i'm misunderstanding-- is it a refillable container, or do you have to buy a special, branded insert each time?

                                                        for anything refillable the co-ops have a refill station that i've found really economical when there shopping for other stuff.

                                                  2. re: soupkitten

                                                    soupkitten I really think your post is a good primer on how to eat cheap.

                                                    I totally agree with you about costco and the other box stores, at least for small households of 1-2 people. I also agree with you about the junk. I can't believe some of the crap my mom buys there. I probabloy wouldn't even go there even with that nifty gift certificate idea that Pei mentioned.

                                                  3. Another tip I just thought of...use up everything you possibly can in your fridge before you go shopping.

                                                    If you're at all like me, you have 1/2 an onion and a pepper left in your fridge, or some bagged spinach. Use it up before you go shopping again or you'll end up throwing it away. I just caught myself thinking "i should go to trader joes, I'm out of tortillas" but I don't NEED them today and if I go, I'll buy more than that. So I know I have tofu. And spinach. And rice. Ding - dinner.

                                                    If you know what you have and make a pact to eat it before you replace it, you'll save money and avoid throwing away food.

                                                    5 Replies
                                                    1. re: Jeserf

                                                      Using up is a good idea. I have lots and lots and lots of cabinets in my kitchen- and it was getting to the point where I still not find anything. LAst weekend, i started to organize them. I found three jars of hellmans- This weekend, i vow to finish the task. And I am NOT going to Trader Joes or BJ's until I do!

                                                      1. re: macca

                                                        that's a lot of mayo.
                                                        my mom used to make mayo chicken...coat it in some hellmans, and some flavored bread crumbs and bake.

                                                        we were kids, and it was tasty.

                                                        1. re: Jeserf

                                                          the mayo will get used i am sure. Potato salad for a cookout will always be an option. But once I saw how much was there, I realized I needed to check things out before I shopped. This thread has helped me bring the message home. I am not on a tight budget, but am always looking for deals, or how to save some cash.

                                                          1. re: macca

                                                            Also good policy just for keeping your cupboards under control.

                                                            1. re: Cinnamon

                                                              Exactly. Seems like I went thru the cupboarbs recently- but now that I think of it, it was probably right before Thanksgiving. I am embarrassed!!!

                                                    2. I usually buy and cook everything from scratch which helps a great deal to cut out costs. Therefore, even if I buy organic ingredients, it's still cheap. I rely on fresh produce - not frozen although i love dried stuff - like mushrooms which make a good stock. I don't eat a ton of meat and when i do, it's organic/free range chicken - which i buy whole - and then chop into the recognizable pieces - thighs, breast, etc. I use the carcass for stock which I make a vat of and then freeze later. I rely on tofu a lot - which is much cheaper than meat. I use cheeses sparingly - usually on salads or pastas. I always purchase dry beans instead of cans which also go a long way. Finally, I tend to make a ton of salad/soup items - which are also healthier and in my opinion, a lot cheaper. Also, when I make soup, I make a ton of it to freeze for later and it works out to be about $3 or so for a quart of it. I figure I should eat lighter at home anyway, since I love to eat the most decadent stuff when I dine out - pork bellies, foie gras, shellfish.

                                                      1. One last tip...yes, I promise
                                                        if you're cooking for yourself (or one more person), try to grocery shop with a friend who is also cooking for themselves. A bunch of parsley is huge and I can't use it up in a week (or even 2). Share the bunch and the price - less cost, less waste. Same for other perishable goods.

                                                        1. I'm not one to compromise much. Love fresh and good stuff, like shrimp and plugra butter. So what I do is start with an inexpensive base and minimize with the expensive stuff like shrimp. Example: SO and I will make fried rice as a meal. Or, in my case I love the harvest mix from T'J's. Make that, then add to it with pieces of shrimp - not the whole thing, boneless chicken thigh and not breast (which I'll save when that's the main part of a meal), lots of cut of veges and egg, LA YU. That and some salad greens or spinach -done. TOP RAMEN is great that way too-use as a base then add to it w/ bits o'shrimp, fish or chicken, veges, egg, a dash of LA YU done.

                                                          USE COUPONS, vary your shopping places. I love the ethnic markets. Fruits and veges are ALWAYS cheaper. And, it's more fun for shopping too.

                                                          1. Chicken breasts $4.99 a lb.???? Where on earth do you live? I'm in Maine and I only buy them when they're (the boneless/skinless ones) $1.99 a lb., which is often. The whole breasts I can often buy for $.99-$1.49 a lb.

                                                            And re: frozen veggies: I read recently that unless you pick them yourself the frozen usually have more nutrients than the "fresh" that have probably been in cold storage for days/weeks. The major companies flash-freeze them right out of the field.

                                                            A decent-size freezer is the cook-on-a-budget's best friend. Rice, I guess, is the next- best friend. A good braised dish that would make just two meals eaten by itself will make 6-8 meals served over rice. I always freeze the de-greased deglazings or juices from good beef/pork/chicken. You're never w/o a good rich meat flavoring for gravies and sauces and the water you cook rice or noodles in.

                                                            I've posted before the suggestion to save every scrap of the carcass/roasted skin/jellied juices from the plain (unseasoned) rotisserie chickens most supermarkets sell at a real bargain price at least one day a week. If you simmer those leavings w/some salt/onion/peppercorns for a couple of hours you have about 1 1/2 qts. of the finest, most flavorful golden-brown chicken broth ever. Cuts the real cost of the chicken almost in half and has a million uses.

                                                            (And if you will freeze everything FLAT on a cookie sheet-- contents pressed evenly to the top so you can squeeze all the air out, amazing how little freezer space they take up and how much faster things thaw. If you don't want the full contents you can just bang the bag against the counter-edge and break off what you need. )

                                                            Jeserf's suggestion that you shop with a friend is an excellent one. That way you can take advantage of the "Buy One, Get One Free" specials as well as the bunches of parsley/cilantro/etc. he mentions.

                                                            (But you can also chop up and freeze extra parsley/cilantro/shallots/bell peppers, etc. For certain uses the thawed ones won't work, of course, but for most purposes they're as good as the fresh.)

                                                            I've recommended Miriam Ungerer's "Good Cheap Food" before. It's out of print, I think, but you can get it on Amazon for ~$6. Witty, well-written, great ideas and recipes.

                                                            6 Replies
                                                            1. re: PhoebeB

                                                              Can't speak for Mojoeater, but in San Diego, I've seen chicken breasts run as high as $6-8/lb at some supermarkets. If it were up to me, I'd only buy dark meat, as I don't even like chicken breasts, but BF has a huge aversion to dark meat. Thighs here can cost about 1/4 less than breasts. We go the bulk route and pick up a huge package from Costco for freezing.

                                                              1. re: geekyfoodie

                                                                Wow! I'm feeling very lucky indeed. As another poster has said, leg quarters (w/thigh) are often on sale for $.39 a lb. here.

                                                                I don't know how people get by when they're paying $6-8 for chicken breasts. No wonder Mojoeater is looking for ways to cut food costs.

                                                                When I was a kid in the early 40s we raised our own chickens. Mama would wring the necks of two of them on Sat. afternoon, pluck them, singe off the pinfeathers, cut them up and put in her beloved Frigidaire to fry for Sunday "dinner". She saved the wings & backs for Tuesday supper of chicken & rice. I loved that almost as much as the fried chicken.

                                                                Now THAT was cheap chicken and eggs (if I don't put a price on my weekly chore of raking out the roost and carrying the droppings to the compost pile.).

                                                                1. re: PhoebeB

                                                                  That sounds awesome! Fresh chickens always taste amazing.

                                                                  Not being able to raise chickens, my mother goes to a slaughterhouse in the middle of LA. She insisted on getting fresh chickens for her famous Hainanese chicken and rice. Fresh chickens poached whole, then the chicken is carved. The stock moves on to flavor the rice. It sounds simple, but tastes insanely good.

                                                                  1. re: geekyfoodie

                                                                    Geeky, would you by any chance have a recipe for that Hainanese chicken & rice? Sounds right up my alley.

                                                                    1. re: PhoebeB

                                                                      This sounds like huge travesty, as it's one of my Mom's best dishes, but I don't have the exact recipe. I'm lazy and she still makes it often enough for me to not need to do it myself. ;) However, I have a pretty good idea of how it's made, but I'm not certain of the amounts. So, with Google's help, I found this recipe:


                                                                      It uses almost all the same ingredients that Mom does, although the amounts might be different. A couple of things: be careful how much chicken fat you add to the rice... some restaurants literally have greasy rice because they're not careful (ick). Mom would saute the rice with the garlic and a little ginger (the recipe doesn't include ginger for the rice) before throwing it all into the rice cooker. The pandan leaves are important... it's why I chose this recipe. If you're near an Asian market, they can be found in the freezer section. If they're too hard to find, they can be left out, but Mom adds the pandan leaves with some scallions (cut in half or quarters, not chopped, and include the white part) to the rice cooker.

                                                                      Don't overcook the chicken and keep in mind that the chicken will always be kind of bland, so keeping it moist is key. Bland chicken goes will with the punchy sauce. One change to the sauce: my mother tosses the garlic and ginger into a food processor, minces it finely, then heats up the oil (or chicken fat) and toasts the ginger/garlic. Don't let it burn, but definitely cook it enough to bring out the flavors. Then add everything else and serve it warm.

                                                                      If it turns out too bland overall, more garlic and ginger will help. It's served best with a few slices of pickling cucumber (the regular big ones tend to be too dry) and some scallions sliced lengthwise.

                                                                      Let me know how it turns out! :) Wikipedia actually has an article on Hainan Chicken and Rice... little blurb on the background and all.

                                                                      1. re: geekyfoodie

                                                                        Geeky, thank you. That took a lot of time and I appreciate it. Stay tuned and I promise I'll report after I've made it.

                                                            2. One word: Eggs.

                                                              Souffles are among the cheapest glamour foods possible, and far easier to make than most people imagine. Guests invariably think they've gone to heaven if served them, since savoury souffles are rare on restaurant menus.

                                                              And that's just one of the myriad things you can do with eggs.

                                                              7 Replies
                                                              1. re: Karl S

                                                                or even fritatas. fantastic way to get rid of on-the-vergeof-spoiling produce, or stretch a "luxury" like salmon or quality cheese.

                                                                1. re: Jeserf

                                                                  We use fritatta to get rid of the bits and bobs of leftovers that seem to accumulate - what else can you do with half an onion, 1/4 cup of broccoli, and 1/3 cup of leftover roast potatoes? It keeps us from throwing that stuff away.

                                                                  Rice noodles here are $0.29 for 14 oz, so we eat a lot of those. Polenta in bulk and rice are both quite cheap too.

                                                                  Buy everything generic; they are usually exactly the same as the name brand but cheaper. The only thing we've found that isn't the same is Cheezits, and we continue to buy them because my husband loooooooooves them.

                                                                  1. re: jnstarla

                                                                    what else can you do? you can make homemade soup! about 2 servings of potato soup with broccoli! frittatas are yummy though

                                                                    1. re: soupkitten

                                                                      Soupkitten,please excuse my ignorance ,but you mentioned co-op's??? what are they, i am from an area (Roswell N.M., originally) and the only co-op's out there were for farmers & ranchers to deal with getting cheaper farm supplies,please explain,thank you.

                                                                      1. re: jword2001

                                                                        oh gosh, i don't mind!

                                                                        i'm talking about co-op grocery stores-- they pretty generally fall into the "natural and health food store" category. they are cooperatively owned by their members, who pay a nominal yearly (often sliding) membership fee. the co-op acts as a buying club for its members, who in return get discounts on some food items, and can often order favorite foods by the case, etc. co-op markets usually support local sustainable farms and small local companies, and stock their shelves with products their members request rather than bringing in lots of mainstream, heavily marketed products. at the end of the year, if the co-op profits, the members get a dividend back, based on their total year's purchases.

                                                                        UNLIKE club stores, you don't need to be a member of a co-op to shop there-- they encourage non-members to shop so that the co-op can profit for its members. co-ops (depending on type, location) will have lots of organic produce, cheeses and meats--some co-ops are vegetarian--local farm products, and products for people with dietary restrictions like gluten intolerence.

                                                                        most importantly for the op's shopping budget, co-ops always have a great selection of bulk items such as pastas, flours, beans, rice, etc. and bulk spices (often as good as penzey's quality, but for pennies). you simply bag your rice or dried thyme or whatever and pay by the weight.

                                                                        co-ops are great for natural foods cooks like me, or for anyone who wants to get bulk foods on a budget. i can't rec. the spices and dried beans, especially, more highly, because they are SUPER fresh and you can get exactly the quantity you want.

                                                                        here is a directory that may help to find a co-op near you. :)


                                                                        1. re: soupkitten

                                                                          Thank you, this is a whole new world of possibilities for me,i see we have some in the area,i will check them out,and thanks again!.

                                                                          1. re: jword2001

                                                                            Shop your local co-op for the spices if nothing else. You get just what you need and don't end up throwing away dead spices you paid ~$3-4 for and only used a total of 3 teaspoonfuls.

                                                                            Lobster & ribeye steak can stand on their own, but eating well on a budget calls for artful seasoning.

                                                              2. I do some shopping at a local co-op, or roadside produce stands when possible

                                                                learn to take advance of what is in season. If you have access, you might get together with friends and buy a 1/2 or 1/4 of a whole animal.

                                                                Buy from farmers(on the farm) when possible.

                                                                Don't be afraid of buying larger cuts of meat and learn to do your own cutting. I don't expect anyone to start buying beef primals, but there is a definite cost saying if you are willing to do a bit of knife work. You can see a significantly saving if you are willing to try different cuts of meat. Braising/roasting can tenderize a tough cut of meat and add a lot of flavor.

                                                                Making your own stock is a great cost saving if you can get bones reasonably, plus the product is a 95% improvement.

                                                                I have a small pantry and a chest freezer that allow me to stock up on specials.

                                                                I use a lot of store brands and even buy in bulk at ethnic markets for rice, beans pasta and other staples.

                                                                You will notice a saving if you do your shopping at the first or middle of the week. Don't be afraid of using coupons or in-store specials.

                                                                Buying day-old bread and buns can cut 50%,besides who eats a loaf of bread or a doz buns daily?

                                                                1. I'm lucky to live near a Trader Joe's and a Henry's (Wild Oats in some parts of the country), so I do almost all of my shopping there. 99 Ranch (Chinese market) is #3 on the list, but the parking is insane there, so I generally go only for Asian stuff. I don't particularly like frozen veggies, so we pick up whatever we can eat and eat it right away.

                                                                  Anything I can't find at those three, I go to a regular supermarket. BF and I have become ruthless about coupons and we try to find whatever market's having double coupons or sales on the items we want. I've literally picked up items for free between the discounted price and the coupon doubling.

                                                                  We hit Costco every three months or so to stock up on freezing staples like chicken. Drug stores can have pantry items at amazing prices. I've seen things like cake mix for $0.75 and 12 packs of sodas for $2. I love Giada DeLaurentiis' recipes and she always uses amaretti cookies. I couldn't find the cookies for the life of me (not at TJ's, Henry's, or even Whole Foods) and lo and behold, they were at Longs Drugs. Who knew?

                                                                  1. okay, so not for consisten budgetary restraint but for a full-corp-press sprint we do two things:
                                                                    1/ eat out of the pantry: this is usually when we make room for other stuff, and end up eating strange meal combos but often with truffles and exotic mushrooms that are being 'saved' for a special occasion

                                                                    2/ lentils & brown rice and some kind of tomato based stew-thing: $3 of lentils and brown rice will feed you for a week and a tomato/carrot/veggie stew thing with spices will add another $10. You'll be well fed and nourished. And it's not bad as a cleansing fast type regimen also.