Seven Clever Food Strategies for Stretching a Small Budget

There are a lot of strategies out there for stretching a food budget, from couponing to meal planning. I’ve laid out our six-step plan for organizing cheap meals many times on The Simple Dollar, and it’s a routine we stick to almost every week.

Still, that’s not the end of the road when it comes to stretching your food budget. You can buy lots of cheap food at the store, but if it doesn’t fill you up, you’re going to constantly find reasons to snack and buy additional foods, which undoes the benefits of buying cheap food.

The best approach is to not just focus on cheap as your sole purpose in buying food. Instead, you should focus on finding a smart middle ground between cheap, healthy, and filling.

Cheap foods make sense – you want to spend as little as possible on the “food” portion of your budget.

Healthy foods make sense, too – healthier foods reduce long-term health care costs and provide some quality of life benefits.

Filling foods fall in line with “cheap” in that they reduce your desire to snack, thus reducing your food budget.

Here are seven strategies my family uses to hit this trifecta.

Eat Balanced Meals

Our family defines a “balanced meal” as one containing a roughly equal balance between carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein. While we don’t stress out about perfectly balancing every meal, we try to balance meals across the length of a day. How do you achieve that? It’s actually pretty easy and you don’t have to stress out much about it.

The big trick is to have a diversity of foods in every meal. A meal shouldn’t be “mostly” any one thing. Instead, we try to mix it up by having some vegetables, some grains, and some proteins (milk, eggs, meats, some vegetables, etc.) in each meal. We don’t worry too much about fats, except that we try to avoid the unhealthy ones (trans fats).

Why do this? There are several reasons. For one, a mixed diet ensures you get the variety of micronutrients that you need. Plus, carbohydrates are usually cheap, but not very filling, while proteins are filling, but usually not cheap. If you balance things and have a variety of things on your plate, you can usually get a pretty filling meal without breaking the bank.

Make Each Meal Plant-Oriented

Plants are cheap and they’re healthy. If you want a healthy and inexpensive food plan for your family, you’ll base it around plants.

Our strategy is to fill more than half of our plates with fruits, vegetables, and legumes. For most meals, we’ll have a main dish along with two sides. Those sides are almost always vegetables, fruits, legumes, or rice, gently seasoned. We try to minimize what we add to those items, particularly when it comes to adding butter or cream or things like that.

In other words, we try to appreciate what the vegetables themselves taste like, not the butter or cream or salt you might add to them. Adding such things makes everything taste like everything else. If you find that you don’t like a particular vegetable, then skip it in the future. Seek out as many different vegetables as you can that you really like in their simplest form so that you don’t need to add all of that unhealthy stuff to them.

How do we do this on the cheap? We just buy what’s on sale, but buy a variety of those items. We’ll basically buy some of every raw vegetable, fruit, dried bean, plain rice, or anything similar that’s on sale that week from the flyer and we’ll plan meals around those items, using them as main dishes and sides.

If anything unusual comes on sale, we absolutely buy it. We never shy away from new things, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, and we try to make up our minds whether we like them in their simplest form or not.

Another tip: people’s tastes change, so don’t stick to preconceived notions. When I was really little, I loved tomatoes. In my later childhood years, I absolutely hated the things. Now, I love them again. I would have never discovered this change had I not been willing to at least try tomatoes again and give them a fresh chance. Don’t decide that you don’t like something just because you didn’t like it ten or twenty years ago.

One final tip: one bad meal isn’t a disaster. If you use an ingredient to make a meal that you end up not liking, it’s just one meal. It’s not a major loss. It’s still edible and you can just avoid that item next time. Don’t be afraid to try things.

Buy Fresh Vegetables and Fruits In-Season

For us, late summer is the best time of the year. All kinds of different fruits and vegetables are in season in our area and, in a good year, farmers are looking to unload lots of produce quickly. That means bargains.

In-season fruits and vegetables are cheap and fresh. It’s easy to find in-season produce by the pound for just a few dollars. You can make a variety of meals with those items and freeze anything that you can’t use.

Even better than the cheapness is the fact that they also taste incredible. The quicker the time between picking and eating, the better vegetables taste, in my opinion. For example, I’m not a big fan of tomatoes from the grocery store, but if I pick them from our garden, I usually eat a dozen cherry tomatoes before they ever make it in the house. They just taste better.

What if things aren’t in season or aren’t on sale? In those cases, I typically buy frozen fruits and vegetables. They’re surprisingly inexpensive, are often on sale, and taste quite good. I’d far, far rather eat frozen vegetables than canned ones.

Skip Convenience Foods – Or Make Your Own

One of the big draws of the modern diet is convenience. Our time is gobbled up by other things – work, commuting, parenting responsibilities, and so on. It is often really tempting to eat meals as conveniently as possible.

Convenience foods mean you’re paying a premium for the convenience, not just the food. I look at pizza as an example of this. I can make a large pizza very similar to what can be purchased at the pizza shop nearest our house for about $5 in ingredients and energy. Alternately, I can spend $10 to $15 there to buy a large pizza. The difference? Convenience. It’s not even really the “time” issue, since I can pull dough from the freezer and get a pizza in the oven in about fifteen minutes and it’ll be done in fifteen minutes, but it takes 30 minutes to get that ordered pizza. It’s just more convenient to order it – but it really does cost us when we do that.

The same is true for things like hamburgers. You might be able to match the price of a homemade burger on a dollar menu somewhere, but the homemade version tastes better and is far healthier. If you keep some patties frozen in the freezer so that you can pull them out at your convenience and take them straight to the grill, it’s pretty easy to put together some hamburgers at home at your convenience. They’ll be cheap and substantially healthier than fast food fare.

If you really need the convenience, plan ahead and make your own. Our biggest tool in the war against convenience foods is to prep as much in advance as possible.

For example, I’ll make a bunch of pizza dough, wrap the balls of dough in wax paper and a freezer Ziploc, and toss them in the freezer to use in the next month. That way, when we want pizza, I can just pull out that dough and defrost it, roll it out, toss on a few ingredients, and toss it in the oven. Sometimes, I’ll even make full pizzas a day or two in advance, storing them in the refrigerator or freezer.

I’ll often make large batches of beans early in the week in the slow cooker, then use them in two or three meals throughout the week. The beans are already cooked – I just pull out the container, get a few scoops, and add them to whatever I’m making. We do a similar thing with rice, too.

You can also make pure convenience foods in advance. For example, making individually-wrapped “Hot Pockets” doesn’t take too long at all (especially if you’re making a ton at once) and they’re far cheaper than buying them (even on sale), are quite a bit healthier, and (in my opinion) tastier, too.

Have Plenty of Fiber In Your Diet

Fiber isn’t a magic bullet for maintaining a healthy body, but it is very good at making you feel full without adding calories to your diet. There is basically no downside to eating more fiber.

Get fiber by eating whole fruits and vegetables. Get some apples and bananas and eat them as snacks when you’re hungry. They’re more filling than you would expect because of the fiber. Another great strategy in this department – high fiber, relatively low calorie, thus filling you up easily – is to eat some oatmeal for breakfast.

Minimize sources of fiber outside of foods. Due to the benefits to digestive health that fiber provides, many people supplement additional fiber into their diet. There’s no reason to do this. Just choose inexpensive foods that provide plenty of fiber, like apples and oatmeal, and eat them regularly. It’s cheaper and better for you.

Stop Looking at Food as Entertainment

With all the food-related cultural material out there, it’s easy to see food as a source of entertainment, which then encourages you to spend more on it by buying exotic ingredients and eating out at expensive restaurants. Let go of that.

Focus on untying your emotions from what you eat. Food shouldn’t bring you joy. If you feel a strong sense of joy prior to eating a meal, then you need to spend some time thinking about your emotional connection to food. While it’s fine to feel joy about a special occasion – a romantic dinner at a nice restaurant or a great meal with good friends – eating around the house shouldn’t be a source of significant pleasure in your life. If it does, then your emotions are clouding your ability to make good food judgments.

If you go out to eat to “spoil yourself,” make it worthwhile. Instead of eating out regularly at lower-quality restaurants, eat at home more often, skip those restaurants, and eat out on occasion at an exceptional place. If you’re going to eat unhealthy foods, in other words, you should do it less often and be more discerning about the unhealthy foods you consume.

Use a Smarter Plate Strategy

One big challenge with adopting more filling foods (like fiber-rich foods) is that you don’t mentally adjust the amount of food you should put on your plate. It can be really tempting to just eat as much as you used to, but doing so leaves you feeling stuffed and miserable. You can fight that, though.

You don’t have to clean your plate. I was raised on the idea that a person should clean their plate of all food or else. If you didn’t do that, you were being wasteful. In reality, though, leaving behind several bites of food when your body tells you that you are full is a really good move. You might waste a quarter’s worth of food, but you’re also listening to your body. This leads directly to another valuable point.

Put less on your plate to begin with. If you listen to your body and realize that you don’t actually need to eat as much as you usually put on your plate (leaving behind several bites), you’ll start naturally putting less on your plate to begin with. I find it a much smarter strategy to just put a small amount of food on your plate and then go back for more if you assess things later and decide that you’re full.

Nine Foods That Are Healthy, Filling, and Cheap

Want some suggestions on how to fill your grocery cart? Here are nine healthy foods you’ll find all the time in our house, along with some tips on purchasing them inexpensively.

Rice isn’t as cheap as it once was, but in terms of an inexpensive way to spice up meals in many different ways, rice is a powerhouse. Colored rices – brown, black, red, or wild – are better for you, but tend to be a little more expensive. If you can find a discounted deal on bulk brown, black, red, or wild rice, that’s something you should jump for.

Rice can be used in countless ways, from the backbone of a stir fry to the key ingredient in a casserole to a flexible side dish that can be accompanied by almost any spice. We consume rice at least twice a week at our house and consider it a spectacular “bang for the buck” food option.

Beans are absolutely loaded with fiber – which means they do a good job of filling you up – and if you buy dry beans, they’re incredibly inexpensive. A cup of cooked black beans, for instance, provides 30 grams of dietary fiber while only providing 2.8 grams (4% of the daily USDA recommended value) of fat.

In terms of filling you up without breaking the bank and without putting a bunch of junk in your system, it’s pretty hard to beat beans. Plus, they fit well into so many different meals, from a side dish at a barbecue to the core of a delicious burrito.

Oatmeal provides the backbone of many breakfasts at our house. We will often put steel cut oats in a slow cooker just before bed, let them slowly cook overnight, and enjoy a great breakfast in the morning (usually with some fruits added to the oatmeal for a touch of sweetness and nutritional variety).

Oatmeal is an incredible source of fiber and fills you up wonderfully with a surprisingly low calorie count. If you can find steel cut oats at a discount price, it will be one of the best food bargains you’ll find on your grocer’s shelves.

Frozen vegetables are an item that’s on sale all the time at our local grocer. Considering you can often get a pound of vegetables for far less than a dollar, it’s an incredible deal.

Frozen vegetables are generally flash-frozen shortly after picking, so they’re reasonably fresh-tasting and preserve a lot of their nutritional value. They’re usually unseasoned, too, so they can provide a very easy basis for many, many main dishes and work very well for a quick side dish, too.

On-sale fruits and vegetables are a great counterbalance to frozen vegetables, particularly when they’re in season. They’re easier to store (as they don’t require a freezer) and often provide a variety that isn’t available in frozen form.

This is where your local store’s grocery flyer really comes in handy. Check the store’s website and see what kinds of fruits and vegetables they have on sale this week, then use those items as the backbone for a meal plan for the week. This is exactly how Sarah and I plan a week’s worth of meals.

Whole grain pasta is substantially healthier than white pasta as it retains all three parts of the grain (white pasta loses the nutrient-rich bran). It usually sells for the same price and, in my experience, tends to be more filling than white pasta due to the increased amount of fiber.

There is a bit of a texture change from white pasta, but it’s one that you quickly get used to. For me, I find that I can eat about 30% less whole grain pasta and feel just as full.

Eggs are a food that, in moderation, provides tons of wonderful protein at a very low cost. A single egg costs less than a quarter – even if you’re buying cage-free eggs – and it provides a bunch of protein for your diet.

I find that starting a day with a small bowl of oatmeal and a single poached egg is an incredibly easy way to start the day with a lot of energy and leave me feeling content with a very small lunch.

Potatoes sometimes have a poor reputation for healthiness, but that’s mostly because of the incredibly unhealthy things people do to them – frying them, converting them into chips, or slathering them with butter and cream and bacon.

Try eating a baked potato as simply as possible, with just a bit of herbs to season it with. Minimize the salt, cream, and butter and focus on enjoying the potato itself, peel and all. It’s actually quite healthy and very filling.

Tuna is another item that is incredibly cheap and quite healthy and filling when eaten in moderation. I often see sales on multi-packs of canned tuna that brings the price per ounce incredibly low.

Tuna brings some omega-3 fatty acids into your diet and can be eaten in a number of ways. As with any fish, a little is very good for you, but moderation is the key.

If You Take Away One Lesson…

… it’s that the best way to eat cheap and healthy while keeping your stomach full is to eat a variety of things, focusing on fruits, vegetables, beans, and rice, and using your grocery store’s weekly flyer as a guide.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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