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MAIN Arrow to Cooking GuideCooking Arrow to Budget Recipes & TipsBudget Meals & Recipes

woman walking down the supermarket aisleIt may seem that most time saving recipes and tips use expensive ingredients and most cheap meals take a lot of time to prepare.

With inflation hitting everything including the grocery shelves and money getting tighter, even if you are still working, making healthy meals that your family will eat is a bigger challenge than ever.

If you need to put supper on the table after you get home from work, you probably don't have enough time to start baking bread or soaking beans - even if it might save some money.

The good news is that there are plenty of good ideas for quick, easy and affordable foods that will not have your kids making faces when you serve it.

Single moms and dads are in the same boat with married couples with kids, seniors and singles. Everyone is struggling to pay heating bills, keep up with the rent or the mortgage, pay doctor bills, find cheap gas -- and still have some change left over for food and clothes.

The tighter the budget, the more creative you need to be... and the more tired you are of being told how simple it should be. Living on a tight budget has never been easy, except for people who have never tried it. You have to believe that it can be done — you can do it!

So pick a time when everyone is home, gather your family, your local store sales flyers and give out the pens and paper - it's time for some family budget menu planning...

Working together makes it easier in so many ways. When kids (and spouses) help to choose the meals you eat, you're less likely to get grief at what is served. You'll also find that it's easier to be creative and lots more fun when a few people are brain storming together instead of suffering through another solitary chore. You'll also give your children a good lesson in living on a budget that will come in handy when they are planning meals for their own families.

Step One - Set the budget

Be real, but be positive.

If you live in the USA and have $20 to feed the family dinner for a week, you need to plan 7 meals that average $2.85 each.

That means 47 cents a serving for a family of 6. That's tough... but not impossible.

If you want to eat steak every night... or even every other night — realize that meat is the most expensive part of your diet. Opt for chicken or other good, healthy proteins from plenty of other budget friendly food sources. Kids and adults love chili and other bean based meals that fit the budget.

  • Powdered milk may not be a favorite in your family, but mixing half a quart of powdered milk with half a quart of your regular milk may not even get noticed!

  • Orange juice can be outrageously expensive, but if you mix it with less expensive apple juice or clear grape juice and just a bit of extra water you still get the benefits and good taste without the killer cost.

  • Premixed, packaged pancake mix is much more expensive than flour and baking powder... check the ingredients. Mix up your own batch of homemade pancake mix from scratch!

Look for other substitutions that can reduce the grocery bill.

Unless you have your own garden or orchard, fresh vegetables and fruits are almost impossible to include in this kind of budget. With oranges, apples and tomatoes running at least $1 each in many places, your budget will dictate the kinds of foods your family will eat. An apple that costs $1 cut into six slices costs costs almost 17 cents a slice. That leaves only 30 cent a portion for the rest of the meal.

Look for bargains in dried fruits like raisins and apricots. If you want to use produce immediately, the shops normally reduce the price of very ripe fruits and veggies that have to be used that day. Over ripe fruits may not look pretty, but usually they are much sweeter and make for great sauces when they're cooked up with a bit of water. Homemade fruit purees are an easy and cheap substitute for more expensive fruits and desserts. Frozen milk and fruit puree mixes are a great stand in for much more expensive ice cream. Living on a budget doesn't have to be bland or boring!

Step Two - Check the sales

Before you get started planning the menus, see what's on sale in your area. Get the supermarket sale flyers out and let the kids compare prices. If pasta is on sale at three one pound packages for a dollar... you'll want to stock up and plan some pasta based dishes. Are any grocery stores having canned goods sales? Is chicken or another meat priced for your budget?

Mac & cheese or ramen noodle soups are constantly offered at sale prices. Get a bunch when you find them to avoid having to pay higher prices later. Store brands are often cheaper than better known brand names - even with coupons. Check to see which bargains are really money savers. Don't get tempted by high priced items that are beyond your budget just because you see a sale.

Step Three - Plan the menus

Now that you know how much you can spend and what sales will help to keep you within your budget it's time to plan meals around your budget. Try to stay away from hamburgers even if chopped meat is on sale. Salisbury steak, where you get to add bread crumbs or oatmeal to stretch out the meat, or Sloppy Joe's are much better choices for budget conscious cooks. Meatless meals are the option for the shopper on a budget. Variations on pizza and chili are usually well received.

Choosing what to cook makes even the pickiest eaters more willing to participate in a family meal that meets your budget. Take some time to surf around some of the cooking and recipe sites online so you can be prepared with suggestions for meals if the family is not in the mood for creative meal planning.

Step Four - Make a list

You've heard it before, but it really is true. If you make a list and stick to it, you will cut your grocery bill. Check what you have in the house and shop only for items that you'll need for the menu AND the sales you're using to stock up for later. Include everything you'll need on the list. The family can help double check to make sure that the list is complete.

Step Five - Be a savvy shopper

Decide which store gets your business. Shopping at more than one store usually means buying extra. It may be cheaper to skip a sale than spend the gas and extra shopping dollars you'll be sure to spend by visiting more than one store.

When you get to the store, don't add anything that's not on the list to the shopping cart. Use tips like buying larger sizes (after you check the per unit price - sometimes a bigger package is not a money saver!), look at the items on the higher and lower shelves. Eye level items tend to be more expensive. Don't shop when you're hungry or when the stores are most crowded.

Hanging out at the cash register line means swimming in impulse buying territory. The candy, gum and small, inexpensive eye grabbers in the checkout area have been carefully placed there to tempt you. The quicker you can pass by these teasers, the less money will get spent on things you don't need.

Good luck and good eating!

More about budget meals around the Web:

Top 10 Meals on a Budget

USDA Resource Library - Meal Planning, Shopping & Budgeting

Cheap eats - Planning meals around a pot of beans


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