Commonsense nutrition: Feeding your family on a budget

Budgets are tight in today’s tough times. Earnings have taken a hit in the recession, yet prices continue to increase, and family finances have become a balancing act. As a result, families are slashing their entertainment budgets and gutting their clothing budgets in an effort to make ends meet, but hesitate to reduce their food budgets. However, it is possible to feed a family well on a small budget by taking a commonsense approach to shopping and meal planning.

For the average family, the food budget is what is left after paying the rent or mortgage, utilities, transportation and other necessities, and there is no way to increase the number of dollars available. Therefore, what is required are smart and creative ways to increase the amount and nutritional value of the food bought with every precious dollar available.

Smart shoppers stock up on items when they are on sale, and buy generic instead of name brands. While it is often possible to save by buying non-perishable items in bulk, this is not always the case, so it is always wise to compare the price by weight and volume for small versus large packages, or for case lots versus individual items. The price of perishable items, especially fruit and vegetables, can fluctuate greatly over the course of the year. Fresh, local produce in season, when it is at its cheapest, freshest and most nutritious, is always the best buy, and it is always a good idea to purchase extra and freeze some to have on hand when prices increase at other times of the year.

Before planning meals, it is a good idea to calculate a per-meal budget. Estimate the monthly budget and divide it by the number of days in the month to give an estimated daily budget. Then allocate 15 percent of this daily budget to breakfast, 20 percent to lunch, 50 percent to dinner, and the remaining 15 percent to drinks and snacks. Break meal costs down further by dividing the amounts for each meal by the number of family members to obtain a per serving amount, and keep these cost-per-serving amounts in mind when choosing purchases. 

Essentially, shoppers who are knowledgeable about the nutritional value of the food they are buying can avoid wasting money on empty calories. For example, a pound of healthy potatoes costs around 50 cents, but 16 oz. bag of salty, fatty potato chips costs about $3, so the same weight of a much less healthy and actually less satisfying product costs five times as much. It is easy to replace these salty snacks with healthier savory munching options such as high protein peanuts, nutritious sunflower or pumpkin seeds, home made popcorn, or raw vegetables.

Another expensive source of empty calories is soda. Water is much healthier, and is totally free.

Other ways to improve the nutritional value per dollar are to replace white bread with brown, cold cereal with hot cereal, and commercially-made with home made. Red meat is an expensive protein source which can be replaced with cheaper, healthier) substitutes such as chicken, turkey, eggs, soy and beans.

Also, convenience is expensive, and many families donate a large portion of their precious budget  to manufacturers to produce, package and advertise food that can be easily prepared at home. The simple act of replacing fast food or deli sandwiches with a home packed lunch, for example, can save up to $5 per person per day, or as much as $400 per month for a family of four.

It is easy to save money by preparing other food at home as well. It is a good idea to invest in a basic cook book such as “The Good Housekeeping Cookbook,” or “The Betty Crocker Cookbook”, either online at reduced rates, or at a used book dealer or garage sale. While not everyone has the time or inclination to make  fresh-baked bread, and meat or fruit pies, a small investment of time can still help to save money.

For instance, families can enjoy home made hamburgers instead of hamburger patties, and plain pasta or rice with simple flavorings such as tomato sauce or mushroom soup instead of that expensive store-bought hamburger helper. Muffins, cookies, desserts and pancakes are almost as easy to make from scratch as from a box, and comforting homemade soups are much more nutritious and tasty than canned soups. 

Finally, avoid waste. Many people throw money into the garbage by tossing out leftovers. The cold meat and salad from dinner are perfect sandwich ingredients for packed lunch the next day, or perhaps there is a tasty dinner recipe for those leftovers on line or in the new family cookbook. Bones and left over vegetables, vegetable peelings, and even cooking water can be used for soup stock which, with the addition of leftover meat, vegetables, gravy, sauces, and the last tablespoon of that casserole that everybody was too full to eat can be used to make a creative end of the week “kitchen sink soup” surprise.

By taking an intelligent approach to the family grocery budget, by spending wisely and investing time instead of money, it is indeed possible for families to stay within their food budgets and eat as well, perhaps even better, than before.