Planning several meatless meals every week can also make a big difference in your food budget. Beans are a great source of protein and cost only pennies per person to serve. You can use beans to make a vegetarian chili - most people don't even miss the meat. Many kids say they don't like beans, but often they will eat a bean burrito and love it.
It is important to try to decrease the amount of food waste in your household. Millions of dollars worth of food are wasted each year. This doesn't mean you have to eat everything in sight so you don't have to throw it away. Rather, it is a suggestion to make plans for all of the food you purchase and follow through with those plans. How many bananas sit on the counter until they turn black and get tossed in the trash? That banana can be mashed and frozen and used for banana bread or perhaps added to a fruit smoothie.
When you prepare a meal and have leftovers plan to use them for lunch the next day or plan a night when you finish all of the leftovers from the week. You can also use leftovers as ingredients to create a new meal on the following day.
Purchasing snacks at vending machines or convenience stores is also very costly and you will have a hard time finding many healthful snack options. Make your own snack mix and carry a reusable water bottle with you. If you buy soda or coffee at convenience stores or coffee shops, instead try to purchase these items at the grocery store or brew your coffee at home. Initially it may seem expensive to buy these items in larger quantities, but what you buy at the grocery store will cost a fraction of what you will pay for the small and pricey items at the convenience store.
Food is our third highest household expense after housing and transportation. However, it is possible to decrease this expense with careful planning and shopping. We can't control food prices, but we can control how we spend our money.
For ideas on menu planning and eating on a budget go to www.eatsmart.umd.edu and www.mypyramid.gov ; for other savings tips and ways to stretch your food dollar go to http://snap.nal.usda.gov/ and search for "meal planning, shopping and budgeting."
Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.