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Budget Friendly Tips for Family Meals

Monday, March 12, 2018

Family eating meal together

Wasting food is one my pet peeves. In the best of all worlds, I would never throw out food because it is literally like flushing money down the drain. Alas, my world is not perfect and I am guilty of waste. The leftover pasta hides behind a myriad of bottles and upon discovery is a green, fuzzy science experiment. Plans change and food intended for Monday sits there until Friday and spoils in the meantime. Between work, school, and activity schedules, meal planning, food purchasing, and consumption do not always intersect flawlessly.

The truth is life gets in the way and our refrigerators often become huge holding containers for food we don’t prepare or finish. Everything from condiments to cabbage goes to waste. Considering the average household spends 10-15% of its income on food, it is worth making every dollar count. The USDA calculates food costs on a regular basis. As of January 2018, the costs per week for a family of four (two children ages 6-11) were as follows: Thrifty budget - $148.70, Low-cost - $195.60, Moderate - $243.80, and Liberal - $296.60. Multiply those numbers for the year and the costs range from $7,732.40 to $15,423.20. That’s a good chunk of change!

Reaching a 100%, waste free world may not be practical for all. There are, however, strategies to reduce waste significantly. It starts with meal planning, buying smart, and organizing your kitchen. Eatright.org, the website for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, offers the following suggestions to help save money, improve your nutrition, and eliminate waste.

Method to the Madness

Being intentional about saving money on food means being organized and going in with a plan. Plan your meals for the week, make a list and stick to it to minimize impulse buying. Unit price is an overlooked savings strategy. Buying a larger size of the food you want because it has a lower unit price helps save money in the long run. For instance, a large container of yogurt that you have to dish out is usually cheaper per ounce than purchasing individual cups of yogurt.

Meal Planning Tips

Food waste adds up quickly, so plan to eliminate it as much as possible. Take stock before heading out to the store. Before heading to the store, take a quick inventory. Plan to use the foods that are closest to their expiration dates first and buy just what you need at the store to make that a reality. When you unpack your groceries, put the new items behind the existing items. Try freezing half your loaf of bread. Buy half your produce now and make a quick mid-week stop at the store just to fill up on produce.

Big Ticket Items

Meat and fish can be expensive sources of protein. Consider substituting plant-based protein choices for costly cuts of meat. Dried beans, peas and lentils are inexpensive and can be made in big batches and frozen for later use, so you always have them on hand. Watch out for convenience foods, such as pre-cut vegetables and single-serving packaged foods — they're time savers, but not so budget-friendly.

Buy in Bulk When Items Go on Sale

Browse your grocery aisles for sale items and stock up on foods you can store in the pantry and freezer. Load your cart with non-perishables such as canned and bottled goods; dried beans and peas; whole-grain pastas, crackers and cereals; brown rice; tomato sauces and nut butters. Plan to fill your freezer with frozen fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and poultry. Caution, if you purchase bulk perishables such as fresh meat/fish, dairy products, or fresh produce, have a meal plan. Don’t buy it, if you can’t consume or freeze it quickly.

Think Canned and Frozen

Canned and frozen foods can be less expensive than fresh and they're great to have on hand when you run out of food in your refrigerator. Don't worry about compromising on nutrition, because fruits and vegetables are canned or frozen at their peak of nutrition and quality. Look for no salt added or reduced sodium canned goods to cut down on the sodium.

Use a Slow Cooker

This handy piece of kitchen equipment uses a moist heat method of cooking which helps tenderize less expensive but tougher cuts of meat. You can stretch that meat dollar further by adding frozen vegetables or beans to your slow cooker recipes.

Cook Meals in Large Batches, Then Freeze for Later

Batch cook and freeze meals over the weekend when you have more time. On weekdays, all you have to do is take a meal out of the freezer and simply reheat. You also can use leftovers from a roast or chicken to make a stir-fry, tacos or soup other days of the week. The more meals you make at home instead of going out, the more money you save.

For more information on meal planning and budget-friendly recipes, go to Eatright.org.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator with UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville, NY. To discuss this topic or suggest an article idea, contact Lorraine at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or (585) 335-4327.

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Mary Sue Dehn

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