Budget Menus: Short Term Strategies

Heather says:

How about something a little different for Menu Monday. Sometimes things happen and some of us run out of paycheck a week or two before we run out of month. It happened to me a lot in my single days, but there were always ways and means to make a few dollars stretch and yes, I ate a LOT of rice.  Things are a little different when there are several people living off the maxed out paycheck. These tips are not written for perfectly balanced nutrition, they intended to be for budget emergencies / short term situations. If you are not yet in a bind, but seeking to get your food costs under control, you may find this post on reducing the grocery budget useful.

Inventory the pantry, freezer, and refrigerator.

Of course there are exceptions, but most American families have far more food than they realize on hand. It is easy to overlook foods that are not our favorite. Now is the time to pull out the lurking cans of peas or tuna, the frozen bag of mixed vegetables we intended to use, but just haven’t gotten around to. If food is bad, go ahead and get rid of it, but write everything down, even that last handful of chips.

Play Iron Chef

Look at your master list and create as many meals as possible. Throw out your preconceived ideas about when foods should be eaten. Spaghetti for breakfast never hurt anyone and neither has pancakes or french toast for dinner. Soups and casseroles are your friend.  Now that handful of potato chips can become a topping for tuna noodle casserole.

Please don’t whine that Little Johnny will only eat chicken nuggets and french fries. One of the biggest lessons life teaches us is that the world does not cater to our whims and fancies. It’s better for him to receive this lesson with gentle encouragement and praise for trying new things than as an adult with potentially crushing consequences.

Gap fillers.

When planning your list keep these ingredients in mind for stretching your limited budget as far as possible.

  • Bouillon
    Healthy? Not so much, but used wisely these cubes can make the difference between barely edible and delicious.
  • Rice (brown if possible)
    Use as a side dish or use cooked rice in place of half the ground or shredded meat in a recipe with few flavor consequences. This works better if the rice is cooked with bouillon
  • Beans / Lentils
    When served with rice these create a complete and filling protein for a fraction of the cost of meat. Like rice, cooked beans can be added to many recipes in place of half or more of the meat. Try using lentils in place of ground beef in highly flavored dishes. Don’t just think beans and rice, think of chili, refried beans, burritos, enchiladas, etc
  • Eggs
    Scrambled eggs, omelets, french toast, and crustless quiches are all filling  and economical.
  • Rolled oats
    In addition to oatmeal, rolled oats can also be used to stretch recipes calling for ground beef in casseroles, skillets, and meatloaves. You may need to increase the liquid used in the recipe, so experiment carefully, now is not the time to waste food.
  • Potatoes
    These starchy tubers can make easy, cheap meals if necessary or they can fill in the edges of a skimpy plate, just ask the Irish.
  • Pasta
    Think chili mac instead of just chili, spaghetti with marinara, or even buttered noodles tossed with frozen peas.

These tips are for temporary budget problems. If your problem is long term and you are in a bind, it is time to contact a food pantry or a local church for help and advice.

Tell me Home Eccers, what do you do when grocery money runs tight?



17 Comments

  1. Liz on March 16, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    I should really make an inventory of my food like you suggest.  I am already good at stretching my budget and don’t mind cooking at all, but one thing that gets me is the thought “we don’t have anything to eat.”  This one thought puts me on a roller coaster of eating out, junk food munching, etc., all of which lead up to my skimp wallet to begin with.  
    By taking inventory of my goods on a weekly basis and meal planning, I may be able to avoid the crunch altogether and finally get some unpaid bills paid, credit cards settled, and savings in my bank!  Maybe with the added bonus of having my boyfriend cook every once in a while if the planned meal is already written out for him!

  2. hotmama2u79@gmail.com on October 28, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    We’ve been in a bind for a few months now and I’m so uninspired to cook because I haven’t had the money to buy my typical groceries…thanks for sharing the tips, I think NOW is the time more than ever to test my creativity. 🙂 I’m off to start my freezer inventory. Thanks!

  3. deneicer1 on September 10, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    Don’t throw away leftovers! Leftover mashed potatoes = easy potato soup. (Just add in a few boiled red potatoes, a few seasonings, a little cheese and voila!) Or make easy potato bake = leftover mashed potatoes, cheese, some kind of meat scraps like ham or bacon, a little onion spread into a baking dish…yum! Mashed potato cakes are good, too. Add a little egg, cheese, a bit of onion and bacon pat out patties and grill in a frying pan. Yum!

    The other really good idea I have is the soup bins. Keep a soup bin in the freezer. (One for chicken and one for beef if you have room!) Toss in all leftover veggies, all leftover scraps of meat and of course pour in the leftover gravies and broth from your crock-pot, roasting dish or gravty boat. When the soup bin is full transfer ingredients to your crock-pot or soup pot and warm up some yummy bread. Yummy stuff there…and its what I call “freesoup” because it was made from the scraps that would have been trashed!

    If nothing else save your leftovers in a storage bag [LABEL IT, trust me on this one!] You will think of something to do with it when you are desperate enough, I promise.

  4. Kika on April 16, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    Just want to say that most bouillon cubes at a traditional grocery store have HFCS and MSG in them. A specialty isle or market will have cubes that are similar in price but far healthier.

    • HeatherSolos on April 17, 2011 at 7:26 am

      Kika, if they are available and for the same price, I am all for that suggestion. I don't think they are in my local stores and driving to the specialty store would override the savings.
      As I mentioned these are short term strategies.

      I'm not a fan of MSG or HFCS and we certainly go out of our way to avoid them in our daily diet.

  5. The Obligatory Best Of 2009 | Home Ec 101 on December 31, 2009 at 10:21 am

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  6. ThatBobbieGirl on July 22, 2009 at 10:41 am

    meat & macaroni salad:

    can of tuna, or chicken, or ham (or leftovers)
    cooked macaroni (whatever shape you have)
    chopped onion & celery if you have them
    frozen peas, thawed (or leftover — not canned, too mushy)
    shredded carrots, if you have some

    toss together with just enough mayo or miracle whip to moisten, or another salad dressing that sounds good to you.

    When I was little and my parents were in weight watchers, mayo was a huge no-no, so they mixed their tuna with yellow mustard which was a “free” food. Sounds weird, but actually not bad. And it’s cheaper than mayo.

    for longer term – try to find a “salvage” grocery store. I go to one called BB’s Grocery Outlet, for amazing deals on stuff that grocery stores have rejected because it’s slightly damaged, or a little past the sell-by date. I’ve gotten gourmet soups there at 3 cans for a dollar, rather than the $3 each that they sell for elsewhere. (That’s how I know that Wolfgang Puck’s tomato soup is amazing!) Cans of refried beans are almost always 3/$1. I’ve also gotten 5 pound blocks of cheese for way less per pound than grocery stores sell it for. I cut it up and freeze it – crumbles when you thaw it, but I use it for cooking so it doesn’t matter. easy, cheap protein!

  7. twadlund on July 22, 2009 at 12:23 am

    These are some really great suggestions. My wife is a teacher and I just started a business so I can safely say we fall into the category of needing to cut our food budget…I can guarantee you that we cook at one or two of these ideas this week. Good stuff!

  8. Lucy on July 21, 2009 at 7:27 am

    We suffered from the more month than money problem for years. We also live in the sticks and have to drive quite a ways to shop. I finally solved the problem by building up a pantry by buying loss leaders.Also, a little bacon can salvage many otherwise meatless meals for my “carnivores”.

    • Stacy on July 21, 2009 at 3:42 pm

      Our empty-cupboard meals are usually spaghetti, eggs and toast, pancakes or tuna sandwiches. It seems like we always have most of the ingredients for these things even when most of the rest is gone. Usually I don’t let the freezer get too empty, so a common meal for us when groceries are kind of low, but not completely absent, is some kind of meat, usually baked chicken, with rice and canned corn. It’s not exciting, but it works.

      • Stacy on July 21, 2009 at 3:46 pm

        I should add that before I realized how unhealthy it was, my low-budget meal of choice was Top Ramen with lots of toppings–scrambled eggs, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sesame oil (my old college roommate from Singapore gave me that combo). If you like hot stuff, chili oil is good on it. You can do the same thing with other Asian noodles that are healthier than Top Ramen, like rice noodles, thin Japanese noodles, or chow mein noodles–found in the Asian/foreign food section of the grocery store. It’s pretty tasty and very cheap. If you have a little extra money, chopped up green onions are good in it too.

  9. emily on July 20, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    I feel like this is my life lately- trying to figure this out- and healthfully at that! Lentils, rice, homemade refried beans and tortillas are favorites around here. We stick mostly with apples, bananas, carrots and peas as our cheap fruits and veggies.

    • Heather on July 20, 2009 at 9:39 pm

      This short solution is not a good way to solve a long term problem. Sooner or later the consequences of not eating healthfully will catch up or the family will run out of the “extra” food and be in a real bind.
      Longterm solutions involve buying and preserving food in season, coming up with creative solutions for storing bulk food when possible, and learning how to shop loss leaders for a majority of supermarket purchases. Some people have success forming a buying co-op to take advantage of bulk pricing with a reduced storage problem, but that takes planning, too. I wish there was an easy, healthy answer. You may want to check into Angel Food Ministries.

  10. Becca on July 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    You didn’t mention pasta. When our family is in a bind financially we end up eating lots more pasta. Pasta is loved anyway in our house, but you know if we have had spaghetti for dinner 3 times this week, we are eating out of our pantry.

    I also try and keep a few meals in a can on hand like canned chili, soups, etc. These are easy meals and a lifesaver when you have run errands all day and still need to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes. Its easy to grab a can or two when they go on sale, and its much less expensive than grabbing fast food.
    And, as a random note, baked potatoes with chili on top are a great meal.

    • Heather on July 20, 2009 at 2:37 pm

      I absolutely meant to include pasta, thanks for the reminder. I’ve edited the post. I mentioned spaghetti, but forgot to put it under gap fillers. Thank you!

  11. Heather on July 20, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    When things get tight at the end of the pay period, I always take inventory first. I went grocery shopping last week and figured out that I has enough stuff still at home from 6 more days of food! It’s really shocking what we put off and don’t think of as meal food.

    And, I have a few go-to meals for when times are tough. Potato soup, red beans and rice, pinto beans with cornbread, and pretty much any of the 5 ingredient or less Kraft recipes. 🙂

  12. Angie @ Many Little Blessings on July 20, 2009 at 10:31 am

    Just yesterday, I was doing an inventory before heading to the grocery store, and we had 13 meals worth of food in the freezer! Crazy!

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