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As it becomes more and more expensive to eat, we are all trying to spread our food dollars further. There are a number of tricks I’ve learned that can help keep costs down but still allow you to enjoy quality, great tasting food. In fact, you may end up eating better when you start cutting costs than you did before!
1. Purchase in bulk whenever you can. It is amazing how much you can save when you buy whole wheat flour in 25 pound bags. I was able to do this through a health food store. Ask around and check out local health food stores as they often do bulk orders for customers. Amazon offers bulk order items as well. Oils, flours, rice, sugars, spices, juices, bottled water, snacks and more can be purchased in bulk. Buying meat in bulk, packaging it in smaller portions and freezing it in a deep freeze is an easy option as well. Some cheeses, like shredded mozzarella, can be purchased this way, too. Just buy a bulk package and freeze in one week portion sizes.
2. Make more from scratch. It takes only five minutes to mix up a week’s worth of salad dressing and it is much cheaper, tastier and healthier than purchasing condiments from the store. The same goes for marinades and sauces. If you mix these up ahead of time, meal preparation can be a cinch. Broths and stocks are fairly simple to make and are an excellent way to get use from cheaper bones. Ask for beef bones from your local butcher or check at the meat counter at the grocery store. Learning to make your own breads, muffins, pizza crusts and snacks can take a bit more time, but the tastiness, healthiness, and cost savings are worth it.
3. Make up some freezer meals ahead of time so you have a quick and easy meal option after a long day. When you’re running on empty yourself, it is so easy to stop for take-out, have a pizza delivered, or buy something ready made from the grocery store. But these can add up alarmingly fast. Keep a meal or two in the freezer (there are plenty of recipe ideas online, just Google “freezer meals”) for after long or hectic days.
You can also keep a few quick meal options available in your cupboards. When I’m tired, hamburger sauce, and pasta cooks up quickly and my family loves it. It is one of my go-to meals when I’m out of time. It’s not fancy, but it keeps them fed and happy and is cheaper and healthier than buying something ready-made.
4. Change your family’s eating habits slowly. Try to incorporate more soups and stews into your diet. Make these up on a weekend and then use them to supplement lunches throughout the weak. Soups and stews are cheaper and healthier than lunchmeat sandwiches. Use your crockpot, too. A roast or a whole chicken can cook up in a day and feed your family for several days. Roast beef can turn into beef sandwiches and then burritos. Chicken can be made into barbecued chicken (like pulled pork), chicken tacos, chicken salad sandwiches or soup. Cheaper meal options can taste great. Your family may not even realize they are having leftovers.
5. Shop produce that is in season and preserve what you don’t use. There are extensive lists online that share what is in season. Not only does this allow you to eat a varied diet, but it also gives you the chance to preserve for later. Farmers’ markets and fruit stands may give you a better bulk purchase price. Consider purchasing a larger lot with a friend and spending a day canning  together. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the days my family spent canning applesauce with some good friends. At the end of the day we were tired, but we had a counter full of applesauce and a lot of good memories. Many fruits can be canned, as well as tomato sauce, salsa, relish, pickles and more. Even deer meat is supposed to be amazing canned. Green beans, corn and some fruits (like cherries and strawberries) are better frozen. Spend the extra dollars on a deep freezer and stock up on what is in season.
6. Grow a garden. If a small herb garden is all you can manage, go for it. Fresh herbs can season cheaper cuts of meat and homemade dishes making you feel like you’re eating gourmet. If you have room for a larger garden , make use of it, but focus on planting what your family will eat. Children are often more willing to try different kinds of vegetables when they have helped plant them and watched them grow.
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7. Set a food budget. The first step to controlling food spending is to set a reasonable limit. Notice I said reasonable. There are families of four who manage to eat for $50 a week or less. Depending on where you live and your family’s preferences, this may be a reasonable expectation for you. Or it could be an amount impossible for you to manage. Set a limit that you can work within so you don’t become discouraged. When you are just starting out and need more encouragement, agree to put any money left over from the food budget towards something rewarding for yourself. This may be all the incentive you need to help you get creative in trimming off excess spending. After the first three months, reevaluate. Oftentimes the original budgeted amount isn’t quite right and will need adjusted. Another thing that I have found to be very helpful is to periodically save your receipts from a month of food purchases and then go through and categorize the items and prices. My husband did this for me this past year. We broke our receipts down into several categories (meat, fruit, vegetables, baking items, breakfast items, desserts, snacks, etc.) and tallied up the costs for each. When we were done, we were startled to realize that a considerable percentage of our budget was going toward breakfast foods. Without having taken the time to break things down, we wouldn’t have realized this and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make some money-saving changes for our family.
There is more money-saving advice out there and more tricks I could share, but these basics should get you started. Realize that cutting back on the food budget is a journey. You won’t magically find yourself cutting your food budget in half the first month. It takes time to transition to making more, stocking up on bulk items, and learning how to make quick, easy and cheap meals when you need them. Finding the best meat prices and learning to preserve produce takes time. But as you work to fine-tune your food budgeting skills, you’ll find your family eating healthier, too.