5 Ways to Stretch Your Food Budget

Right now, many Americans are diving into cooking at home, due to business shutdowns and, for many, financial necessity, too. For almost all of us, the need to stretch every dollar has quickly become very important. How do we keep food on the table with so much uncertainty? How do I prepare things I and my family like to eat while keeping costs as low as possible?

There are many great strategies out there for cutting food costs. Here are five essential ways to make your food dollars stretch as much as possible.

Have a sensible grocery shopping strategy.

This is the most important element of all, so I’ll start with this one. Your trips to the grocery store should have a strategy that results in you going through the checkout while spending as little as possible on food and household supplies. I recently covered our strategies for optimizing meal planning and grocery shopping for time and money, and those strategies hold true. Here are the key ones.

1. Make a clear meal plan for the next week (or two) before you go to the grocery store. Ideally, that meal plan utilizes inexpensive staple foods (see below) and items on sale at the store, which you can find in the grocery store flyer. Figure out what you’re going to have for each meal for the coming week, then from that prepare a grocery list that includes only what you need (along with what you already have on hand) to make those meals a reality.

2. Use a discount grocer. Shop at the grocery store in your area that’s known for being a discount grocer. That way, you know the prices will be pretty good, which means money stays in your pocket.

3. Focus solely on that grocery list when you’re in the store. All that matters is finding what’s on that grocery list, so make that your focus. You don’t need anything that isn’t on that list.

4. Buy the generic store brands whenever available, unless there are specific reasons not to. Store brands are almost always significantly less expensive than name brands, but usually have identical or nearly-identical items inside the package. Plus, focusing on store brands narrows down the decision of which one to buy, making it easier to just pick a good value and move on.

Just following those four tips will make a huge difference in your grocery bill.

Make low-cost staple foods, prepared at home, the backbone of your diet.

In the past, I’ve written repeatedly about what the best “bang for the buck” foods are in the grocery store, both in terms of cost per calorie and in terms of flexibility and healthiness.

In general, there are six key staples that you’ll find in virtually every grocery store that are the best at balancing low cost, culinary flexibility, and nutrition: rice, beans, eggs, pasta, fresh produce and oatmeal. (I even wrote a guide to cooking with these six staples.)

The more recipes you can confidently prepare that use those six items as a major ingredient, the lower your household food costs will be.

Find cheap ways to make stuff you actually like rather than just aiming for the cheapest possibility.

So, you know rice, beans, eggs, pasta, fresh produce and oatmeal are cheap. Great. The thing is, when most people look at inexpensive foods, they often think of pretty boring ways to prepare them. Plain oatmeal. Plain rice. Is that what it means to really stretch your food dollars?

No, it doesn’t. In fact, if that’s your approach to food preparation, you’re going to end up hating it and that backlash will lead to a lot more food spending.

Rather, you should be looking for recipes and dishes that include those ingredients that you love, even if it means a little extra cost. You are far, far better off preparing a meal that costs $1 per person that everyone likes than preparing a meal that costs $0.60 per person that everyone hates. Why? It’s simple: people will start to reject that super-cheap diet and will end up making food choices that are a lot more expensive.

I don’t like plain oatmeal. However, if we cook our family’s “overnight oats,” where we use a slow cooker and flavor it up with some chopped apples, cinnamon and a little bit of maple syrup, I would happily eat that multiple times a week. I also like it with bananas cooked in there until they’re mushed almost to oblivion … Yes! That’s what I’m talking about with oatmeal, not plain boring unflavored oatmeal.

I don’t like plain rice. I do like rice with a lot of seasoning. Give me some rice that’s been cooked with tomato sauce, a little garlic, some cumin, salt and (even better) cooked with some vegetable stock, I’ll eat it like crazy. Alternately, dice up some green peppers and onions and a bit of garlic, just barely brown them in a skillet with some oil, and then add in some rice and a bit of salt… amazing!

The point isn’t to think about those staple ingredients on their own, but to think about recipes and meals that use a lot of those staple ingredients with other elements adding flavor and variety. Don’t think of plain oatmeal, think of sweetened oatmeal with some peaches, a bit of sugar and a splash of cream in it. These additions are pretty small and inexpensive, but make a giant difference when it comes to actually enjoying the food, and that makes all the difference when it comes to sticking with inexpensive staples.

Use recipes you like as your inspiration.

Most people who are just getting started in the kitchen follow recipes to the letter, including all of the ingredients listed on the recipe and simply enjoying the end result. However, the real magic of having tasty foods at a low cost is knowing how to season basic ingredients yourself.

Most of us know the flavor implications of a little salt and a little black pepper on foods, and many of us appreciate the addition of hot sauce, but what about things like oregano and cumin and a bay leaf? Those things are key elements of making many ordinary foods that you eat quite tasty.

The trick is figuring out how to season the inexpensive foods listed above in a way that you enjoy. So, how do you figure that out without just buying a bunch of random spices?

For me, the solution was to simply look up recipes that I love that happen to use those basic foods and see how those recipes were seasoned.

For example, I always loved bean soups. I can eat bean soup all the time. What herbs and spices consistently go into the bean soups that I love? I quickly learned that a bay leaf is pretty much a guaranteed way to make a big pot of soup quite yummy for me. So, now, in most soups I make, I include a bay leaf. It costs very little and makes an enormous difference in how much I enjoy the soup.

Here’s the really valuable part: when you know the seasonings you like and what kind of effect they have on foods, recipes seem a lot less important. I can make a pretty good bean soup without even looking at a recipe. In fact, most of our meals are made without recipes. I look at recipes just for new ideas, usually when fresh produce is on sale that I’m unfamiliar with.

Learn how to cook dry rice and dry beans.

While I mentioned rice and beans in the earlier section about keeping food costs low, what I didn’t mention is that you can make rice and beans even cheaper by simply buying dry beans and dry rice in bulk. Dry rice and dry beans in bulk is just about the best deal there is in your grocery store in terms of nutrition and flexibility for your dollar. They can be prepared many, many ways and are incredibly inexpensive per pound, especially considering that their weight multiplies when you cook them with water. A pound of dry beans easily cooks into three pounds of cooked beans, for example, and that’s a lot of food.

It’s incredibly easy to cook both dry rice and dry beans, but it does require some planning in advance, because these items take a while to cook (you cook them both low and slow). Thankfully, both can be easily cooked in a slow cooker on your countertop, so you can basically just add dry rice or dry beans and water, set the timer, and walk away. (You can cook them in a pot on the stovetop if you don’t have a slow cooker, but you can’t just completely walk away from them while cooking as you can with a slow cooker.) When they’re done, pop the cooked rice or cooked beans in a container in the fridge and use them within the next few days. That’s really all there is to it.

For example, you can cook really good jasmine rice in a slow cooker by putting 1 cup dry jasmine rice, 1 1/2 cups of water, a teaspoon of butter, and a pinch of salt into a slow cooker, turning it on low, and waiting two and a half hours. That produces about two cups of cooked rice, ready to be used for whatever your heart desires. You can also just pop it in a container in the fridge. The recipe can be doubled or tripled or whatever, too, though you may have to bump up the cooking time just a bit (it’s closer to three hours, in my experience).

You can cook dry pinto beans in the slow cooker, too, in almost the exact same way, except the cooking time is longer. Just put a cup of dry pinto beans in the slow cooker along with 2 1/2 cups of water, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (if you have them and want a bit of spice), 1 teaspoon of salt, and a dash of ground black pepper. Put it on low for about 6 hours. You can double or triple this one, too, but it ratchets the cooking time up to about 7 hours for a double batch and about 8 hours for a triple batch. When they’re done, put the beans in a container in the fridge with a bit of the extra “sauce” that’s made while cooking.

The nice thing about both rice and beans is that it’s really easy to season them and create all kinds of different flavors and recipes. They can be seasoned while cooking or you can season them afterward, depending on what you intend to do with them. I’ll often make batches of beans and rice for multiple meals at once, storing them all in the fridge, which means I don’t season much while cooking.

You can do this!

Right now, with so many changes going on in the world and in our own lives, things can feel overwhelming. The key to getting through this and staying on a successful path are to focus on the things you can control, and these are simple steps you can take to make sure that your food spending is as low as can be.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.