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It is possible to make good family meals without breaking the budget

It is possible to make good family meals without breaking the budget

May 24, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

Ask any mom and she'll tell you a trip to the grocery store can cause a serious dent in the wallet.

Cooking for a family and buying all necessary ingredients for a week's worth of meals can be an expensive endeavor. But so is buying ready-made food from the deli or freezer section, and it can be even more expensive to eat out or pick up takeout.

With a little management, it is entirely possible for families to prepare homemade, yummy meals with plenty of variety on a fixed budget, says Mary Webber, author of "The Frugal Family Kitchen Book."

"I think the single biggest way to save money is planning," she says. She encourages families to take a half-hour once a week and plan out family meals.


Planning before going grocery shopping helps focus purchases and ensures that you have everything you need for a week of meals. It's important to minimize time spent in the grocery store, because buying unneeded extras can zap a budget, Webber says.

Here are some additional tips to keep cooking costs under control:

· Look for seasonal savings.

"Take advantage of foods in season," says Gary Dodds, supervisor for food and nutrition services for Washington County Public Schools.

"Sometimes we shy away from these types of items because in the winter they are so expensive," he says. But in the spring and summer, many fresh fruits and vegetables are at their prime and the market is flooded with seasonal, cheap, produce. Bulking up on the foods in season "will give you even more of a variety to serve the family," Dodds says.

· Minimize the meat.

"The meat is your most expensive thing on the plate 99 percent of the time," Webber says. "Everyone thinks the meal has to be built around the meat. It doesn't."

To save money and keep to a budget, Webber suggests cutting the meat out of a few meals during the week, or minimizing the meat portion. Meat can be stretched in casseroles or by serving filling side dishes.

Webber's family loves her Russian vegetable pie with pie crusts, hard-boiled eggs, vegetables, herbs and cream cheese. They also really like the Thai-style pasta dishes she makes.

"Nobody even notices that there's not meat," she says. "It's not as if they feel deprived that there was no meat on the table."

· One chicken, four meals.

Believe it or not, one roaster chicken or a turkey can be stretched to make four different meals, says Ellen Ferlazzo, author of

Meal No. 1: Roast a whole chicken or turkey and serve with lots of side dishes to ensure plenty of leftover meat.

Meal Nos. 2 and 3: Plan leftover chicken or turkey meals such as a chicken casserole, turkey salad sandwiches, chicken burritos or turkey shepherd's pie.

Meal No. 4: Use the chicken carcass to make broth. If you still have some leftover meat, make a soup that calls for meat, such as chicken and corn chowder. If there is no meat remaining, bulk up the broth with vegetables, pasta or rice.

· Go for the greens.

Give salads a try as a main course or as side dishes, suggests Webber.

"The possibilities with salads are so unlimited," she says. Using salad greens as a base, add cooked meat or fish, other vegetables, fruits or beans to make a complete meal, Webber suggests. Since salads are full of fiber, they are filling and can be served as side dishes to help stretch the main course.

Salads come in many varieties that don't include greens, Webber adds. Coleslaw made with lots of raw veggies and a limited amount of light mayonnaise or a mayonnaise-and-yogurt mix, makes for a filling side dish. Four-bean salad also is an easy-to-make, inexpensive side.

·Focus on breakfast.

To feed her growing children while keeping to a food budget, Webber concentrated on serving a hearty breakfast. "If I fed them a good breakfast, then supper wasn't as important," she says. Breakfast doesn't have to be traditional breakfast foods, Webber adds. The morning meal can be dinner leftovers, a casserole, bread pudding, quiche or potato pancakes. Webber found that when her children ate hearty meals for breakfast and lunch, they didn't need to eat as much at dinner.

· Know when a deal is really a deal.

Canned foods usually cost more than their fresh counterparts, but cans of beans, vegetables or meat offer much convenience. Watching for sales before stocking up on canned goods is a must for budget-conscious cooks, Ferlazzo says. It's important that shoppers know when an item is truly on sale, she adds.

Shoppers should keep a record of how much standard items cost. Knowing the average price of things will help avoid paying too much or being lured into a two-for-one deal that's not really a cost savings.

"What throws me is when I see the big sale ads, and I know that's not a good price," Ferlazzo says. By keeping track of how much food costs, "I pretty much know in my head peanut butter is a good buy when the jar is X amount of money," she says. "Look at the difference in the prices, and alter your menu plan if your main item is too much money."

· Watch price per serving.

Make purchase decisions based on price per serving, rather than the overall price for a single meal, Ferlazzo suggests.

"It is an eye opener when you look at what things cost and when you think about the cost per serving versus the cost per pound," she says. For example, a 1-pound package of chicken breasts might cost less than the 6-pound roaster chicken, but the chicken breasts might only make one meal, versus three or four for the whole chicken.

Ferlazzo encourages cost-conscious cooks to think about how many meals can come out of a food purchase rather than the basic unit price.

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