Meal planning on a tight budget
July 26, 2007 6:15 AM   Subscribe

Anyone care to share their monthly grocery budget and list? Headed into maternity leave, down to one income, living in DC...

Times are getting ready to be tight. Tight meaning I'd like to see how far I can get on @ $200/ month for groceries as a starting point. The way I buy groceries/ plan meals has been fairly haphazard so I don't have a general pattern of expenditures to plan from.

We prefer a low meat/ no meat diet. Fish okay.

Thanks for any suggestions....
posted by mistsandrain to Food & Drink (42 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I think the key is going to be learning how to use your freezer-- to cook huge stews or other dishes that you can freeze and then enjoy over time.

If you don't have a crock pot, you may want to see if you can find one at a thrift store or yard sale. They're not expensive at Target and other places, though.
posted by hermitosis at 6:20 AM on July 26, 2007

You can save a lot of money buying staples at Aldi. Their site shows several in the D.C. area. Here's an Aldi Menu Planner you may find useful. One area where we have found Aldi, at least our local one, lacking is produce. The fruit seems OK, but the veggies like tomatoes and onions...blech. Even buying produce elsewhere, you could definitely get by on $200 a month at Aldi.
posted by Otis at 6:29 AM on July 26, 2007

Response by poster: I guess I should have added in my post that I am planning for 2 adults and a 5 yr old. Baby will be nursing...

Thanx for the Aldi tip...
posted by mistsandrain at 6:38 AM on July 26, 2007

Get to know and love the rice and beans pattern. There are countless delicious variations from all over the world: chili, dal, lentil salads, vegetable stews with beans, white bean soup; brown rice, basmati rice, pilaus, tortillas, polenta. Add a vegetable dish and/or a salad, possibly a little cheese or yogurt if you're so inclined, and you've got yourself very inexpensive and very healthy meals. This takes a little bit of culinary know-how or willingness to learn, but it's worth it, and it's how a large portion of the world's population eats. Your grocery list would consist mostly of pulses, grains, fresh vegetables, and fresh fruit (and, initially, spices, if you don't already have them); once you mostly eliminate meat and processed or prepared foods, your grocery bills will plummet.
posted by agent99 at 6:42 AM on July 26, 2007

$200 isn't very much money. My household (2 vegetarian adults who eat fish once in awhile) spend around $400 a month. We don't buy any processed foods or soda. We buy some produce in season at the farmer's market and we also grow some of our own vegetables (tomatoes & peppers). We buy organic milk and free range eggs, but otherwise, nothing else we buy is organic (unless it is on sale). We are pretty frugal and go out to eat only a couple times a month.

You could live on lentil soup, pasta and cheap white bread, but I don't recommend it. Your health, especially if you are pregnant, is worth spending a bit more on groceries, if you can find a way to do so. It doesn't seem fair that a diet consisting of fresh produce, whole grains, soy, dairy, nuts and the occasional piece of fish would cost so much!
posted by pluckysparrow at 6:45 AM on July 26, 2007

I figure you could get by on $200 a month, if you're careful, with 2 adults and one baby. My family spends about $500/month on groceries but we have 2 adults and 4 kids (10yo-3yo) in Texas. I'd say our kids eat about 3/5 of the value of groceries we buy. We rarely buy beef since my dad is a rancher, but we do buy chicken and hot dogs.

Our typical shopping list includes apples, bananas, grapes, strawberries, milk (at least 2 gallons/week), bread, tortillas, & popcorn (all kid snacks/needs). The kids usually eat pizza, mac & cheese, spaghetti, chicken strips, hot dogs, etc. My wife cooks with lots of rice, salads, etc., so we usually have lettuce, celery, carrots, tomatoes, and such. Our biggest expense that we could do without is those pesky bottles of wine that keep creeping into our cart.

Be prepared for baby formula/food problems. My wife couldn't breastfeed our youngest because of a bad case of mastitis and the baby was also very sensitive to formula. We finally found she could drink the most expensive pre-mixed formula without any ill effects, but nothing else. That stuff was >$8/pint. And she went through it like it was water - when she was around 6 months old, she would drink one of those every day.
posted by CRS at 6:45 AM on July 26, 2007

Is it possible to sign up for WIC? You might be able to get a pump, or if as CRS suggests, there's an issue with formula, you'd be covered.
posted by lysdexic at 6:50 AM on July 26, 2007

I honestly don't have a regular list/budget, but I'll tell you what I do that works for me to stretch the grocery dollars. Forgive anything obvious.

My Albertson's store has a "savings card" or whatever they call it, and it offers great deals on a variety of items. I look for those signs and plan my meals around that, rather than making a list and filling it. It does require flexibility, of course.

Now, some suggestions for items to buy:
Vegetable stock. I keep plenty on hand. It's around $2 for a quart, and I use it for soup or fondue. Some vegetable stock and spices (mustard powder, cayenne, seasoning salt, garlic, etc), plus potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, green onions, and whatever else you like makes an easy, inexpensive, excellent soup. Add some heavy cream for a creamy soup.

Pasta is a staple for me as well. I buy whatever brand is on sale. It's very inexpensive, plus it's one of my favorite foods anyway. I usually don't pay over 50 cents for a package of angel hair. I have gotten boxes of bowtie and other pasta for 3/$1. There are tons of choices for sauces, many at a very good price, or make your own. Steam some vegetables to top it with.

Rice is an obvious choice for an inexpensive food. Look for some seasoned rice recipes, and add your favorite grilled or stir-fried veggies.

For your "low meat" option... I like chicken tenderloins. They cook up pretty quickly, and they are small so you can cook 2 or 3 of them, and cut them up to add just a bit of chicken to any of the above dishes. Freeze them, or buy them frozen, and cook them with a tiny bit of oil over a medium flame. You don't need to thaw them first, they cook up fine from the frozen state. Add some Lawrey's or other seasoning salt while you cook.

Bisquick is your friend. You can make pancakes, biscuits, pie crusts, pizza crusts, dumplings, and many other staples.

I think the key to making good-tasting food on a budget is having enough seasonings and spices to work with. They can be pretty expensive when you try to buy them all at once, but they last a long time.

And of course, during my most destitute times, there was always boxed macaroni and cheese. :)
posted by The Deej at 6:57 AM on July 26, 2007

Response by poster: I don't know that I/ we would qualify for WIC- but I will certainly check with them.

I am not limited to the $200/ month grocery budget- but it would certainly be a helpful achievement if I could keep it close...

I am really hoping to nurse for a minimum of 6 months- I didn't have problems w/ my first child (nursed 18 months) ... and- I have a pump!

great posts!
posted by mistsandrain at 7:01 AM on July 26, 2007

I realized I forgot one of the most important things: shop around. We have 3 chains in our area: Krogers, HEB, and Albertson's. Buying the same food at HEB is ~10-15% cheaper than at Kroger or Albertson's. It really can make a difference if you're on a tight budget.
posted by CRS at 7:10 AM on July 26, 2007

Make good use of Trader Joe's in VA, MD, & DC. Use them for meats (fish), cereal, frozen foods, pasta, spices, sauces, oils, nuts, etc. Noticeably less than the usual Safeway/Giant in the DC area (and you don't need a bonus card or whatever), and pretty good quality.They have a lot of prepared foods in their refridgerated and frozen sections, for good prices. Do not buy cereal at the regular grocery stores! They will blow your budget - get them at TJ's or in bulk.

I second the stew & rice/beans ideas. Fulfilling, and you can decorate them up/down a lot.

Lentils are fantastic, cheap, and easy to cook.

To get your fruit/veggies in, go with those 3/pack romaine hearts, carrots, bananas, frozen veggies. Get frozen fruits (cheaper) and make yummy smoothies.
posted by raztaj at 7:13 AM on July 26, 2007

I also encourage you to check out Aldi. My household is two students, so we're used to scrounging for money. We get most of our staples from Aldi, and then supplement that with produce from the farmer's market and a local grocery store.
I think $200/month is pretty feasible, that's about what we spend and we eat pretty well.

Obviously: Make sure you pay attention to sales, only buy brand names if you absolutely HAVE to, watch out for easy, frozen convience food- the mark up is super high on frozen dinners and such and most of the time, these things aren't too difficult to make yourself.

Make sure you eat what you have. At first we tended to buy too much, which lead to us not eating everything, and stuff going bad. It is worth having to take more trips to the store than to waste money by buying food you can't eat all in one trip.

One thing that has saved us money: We generally don't even buy things for lunch. We typically have leftovers or salad. As a back up we have two huge 25 packs of Ramen, and, while not being the most healthy lunch of all time, it isn't bad if you throw in some veggies you have laying around, or toss some soy sauce or something on top.

Finally, use the internet. A search for cheap recipes yields a lot of promising results.
posted by nuclear_soup at 7:15 AM on July 26, 2007

If you're going to want to stick to a $200 a month meal budget, you are going to want to give up all prepared food. It's not cost-effective unless it's absolutely only for the baby.

But I would suggest that you could always turn to a food bank to supplement your budget. You will never be turned away.

Bread for the City

So Others Might Eat

Capital Area Food Bank Partner look-up

posted by parmanparman at 7:23 AM on July 26, 2007

Beans, rice and frozen vegetables will fit this bill, but man, $200 per month is very tight.
posted by caddis at 7:27 AM on July 26, 2007

I think you might want to reconsider your budget and go for $300 - $400 a month. That's about what I spend feeding three people and two dogs. However. The Hillbilly Housewife has great tips and I recommend her (discovered her here actually.)

What you want to do is plan your weekly menu and then build your shopping list around that. Back when I was really organized I would start with the weekly supermarket flyers and plan menus and lists from their sales. Put enough flexibility into it so that you can substitute without freaking - i.e., they don't have broccoli, use cauliflower or green beans. Cut out all the processed foods - they're expensive and bad for you. Also, it's actually cheaper, usually, to make big meals and freeze half than to make smaller meals.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:29 AM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I started planning our weekly meals and grocery list a few months ago to save money. We (two vegans living in a small city) spend about $80-$100 Canadian per week on groceries, including non-food items that you'd find in a grocery store (cleaning products, shampoo/toiletries, etc).

My observations with regard to saving money:

- Plan your meals ahead of time, make a list for only what you need, and stick to that list. It will take a couple of weeks to get used to, but after that I found it became an easy habit.

- If you get the newspaper and/or coupons, plan your grocery list with the weekly ads in hand so you can take advantage of any sales and comparison shop between stores.

- Buy store brands when you can. We used to buy a lot of name brand items, and for most of them I can't tell the difference.

- If you drink pop, cut down. That's one thing that consistently drives our grocery bill up (and if my husband didn't insist on it, I wouldn't buy it at all).

- If you don't eat meat, get creative with tofu rather than buying a lot of expensive fake meats. My #1 tip for using tofu: as soon as you get it home, drain it, cut it up however you plan to use it, rinse it in a bowl until the water runs clear, then store it in water in a container in the fridge, changing the water every day (or every half-hour or so if you plan on using it that day) when the water gets cloudy. This will get rid of that icky plasticky taste tofu picks up from whatever the heck that whey-looking liquid it's stored in is. Anything you do to the tofu after that point - marinate, grill, fry - will taste way, way better.

- Beans are another inexpensive, healthy source of non-meat protein, especially if you have a slow cooker to re-hydrate the dry kind (which are like $1 per bag).

- Finally, be realistic: if you plan for months of bland or repetitive meals, you're setting yourself up to splurge on junk food or takeout. Spend a little extra where it counts: for example, I buy mostly fresh vegetables as opposed to frozen because I found that made a big difference in the quality of the meals I make. You don't want to be miserable for the next few months (especially with a baby on the way), so it's worth it to budget for a couple reasonable "luxuries" every week.

Hope that helps!
posted by AV at 7:29 AM on July 26, 2007

Also, if you need to stick to a $200 a month grocery budget, then there is no doubt you qualify for WIC. Their guidelines are a lot looser than food stamps, AFDC, etc. The only problem with WIC is they give you waaaaaaaaay too much milk. Sometimes you can trade it with other people or you can do what I did and end up just using part of your WIC check and not getting any more milk.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:31 AM on July 26, 2007

It will be difficult but it is definitely possible.

Definitely do a lot of rice and bean combinations like mentioned agent99. Also beans can taste great with pasta or in soups, and are very cheap if you buy them dry. Beans with rice/pasta make a complete protein with healthy carbs as well. It would get boring but you could live on just that and fresh veggies and fruit and be just fine.

One of my favorite cheap meals borrowed from the south is Pinto beans with cornbread served on the side. Ideally you mix it all up when you eat it and top it with whatever spices/salsas suit you.

One of the most expensive items we tend to buy is cereal. If you can get a large cheap container of oatmeal and eat that instead. It will go really far, is very cheap, very good for you and can be livened up with something as simple as some cinnamon. Also you can make a large batch of pancakes (preferably from scratch as that is the cheapest), and if you make them small enough you can freeze them and stick them in the toaster when you are ready to eat.

A good hardy meal that is really easy and cheap is homeade vegetable pot pie. You should be able to find a recipe online easily enough. Mine is probably from .

There are a lot of great options out there. Really the biggest secret to staying within a tight budget is taking the time to cook from scratch whenever possible, avoiding name brand products and definitely overly processed frozen items which tend to be way overpriced, drinking a lot of tap water or if you prefer home brewed iced tea is pretty cheap. Juices, milk/soymilk and soda are not cheap at all.

Avoid stuff like Ramen noodles, that may be dirt cheap but are not at all healthy.

The best thing you can do is plan a months worth of meals that you can make cheaply and most likely have leftovers from for lunches, in a daily calendar (a lot of people plan for 1 week and repeat). Then make a grocery list for only the things that go into these meals, and be strict on yourself when you do the shopping.

Good Luck!
posted by trishthedish at 7:32 AM on July 26, 2007

I used to work in a hostel where our goal was to feed 80+ people well, for three courses, every night at less than £1.50 ($3) cost to us. I managed it easily, and it was good. But that was after years of living frugally and being a pretty dab hand in the kitchen.

If you buy canned beans, buy dry instead. I know a can of beans doesn't cost much but this makes significant savings if, like me, you eat a lot of beans.

A bag of rice goes a long, long way. To be found cheaply in bulk at Asian groceries. Asian grocers in general will have things like soy sauce and hot chili sauce cheaper than anywhere else, if you can't bear to cut those out of your meals.

Eggs are your friend.

Save the ends of vegetables that you would throw away, tops of carrots, onion skins and so on in the freezer for making stock.

Exploit anything that grows wild where you live, pick as much as you can carry, and preserve it in jars/freezer. For me, it's crab apples, rhubarb, gooseberries and blackberries. When I lived in Florida it was pecans, palm dates and pears. In NM apricots... and so on. Dandelion leaves are not only edible, but good. So are shepherd's purse leaves and shoots which taste like arugula.

Bottled lemon juice is always cheaper than lemons, but if you buy lemons, be sure to use the skins (I make mine into candy).

Look at local box schemes, they can be (but aren't always) a cheap source of vegetables.

There are dry versions of vegetarian meat replacement products that are cheaper than the overpackaged 'wet' versions. TVP and so on.

Plan on devoting more time to shopping. I don't get all of my things in one go, because I know where will have flour for cheaper, but somewhere else will have a special on butter.

Bulk can be a false economy if it goes off. Know how you're going to store the rest, especially if you end up buying restaurant-sized cans of things.

Vine-ripened... bah humbug. Buy less expensive tomatoes and ripen them in a paper bag.

If you don't have a crock pot, beg borrow or steal one! Slow cooking makes the cheapest ingredients taste good.

Unless you're making pasta from scratch, the only difference between name brand and bottom-shelf flour is the sifting. You can sift at home :)

Oh, and because you're pregnant... try not to go overboard on the canned tuna.
posted by methylsalicylate at 7:34 AM on July 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think the key is to plan it out - see what is on sale at Giant and Safeway, and work out what you are going to eat for the week, then make a list and stick to it. I do not ever do this, and I know that it costs me a bunch of money every week. I resort to whatever is quick, and usually that isn't inexpensive.

To save the most, you're going to need to do a lot of making from scratch. Will you have time and energy to do that?

Farmers Markets and Asian Markets (for lack of a better, official term - like Asian grocery stores) have the best produce, and less expensive. Isn't there a big market in Dupont every weekend?

Stock up on spices. These are most expensive at stores like Giant - I like to get mine at the Amish Market in Annapolis. there is also a guy called, I believe, the Spice Guy who sells good size packages for $1 at the MD State Fair every year.

I love crockpot cooking. There are tons of recipes on the internet - don't buy those meals they have in the freezer section to put in the crockpot.

I would search some of the frugal living blogs (Simple Dollar, Frugal For Life) and the Hillbilly Housewife for recipe and economizing ideas. See where they link, follow the links around, search for your own, and figure out what is workable for you.
posted by KAS at 7:40 AM on July 26, 2007

Definitely plan your meals. Plan exactly what you need for a week (taking into account leftovers for lunches) and buy that. Do not stray from that list, don't buy extra snacks and drinks, etc. If you want those things, plan ahead and put them on your list.

When I went from unplanned shopping trips to exact menus, our average grocery store visit dropped from $70 to $40.

I know it's not always the best quality-wise, but frozen meats are easier to keep until you need them (especially chicken).

Also watch out for eating out. If you even cut it down to $50-$75 a week, one night out at a restaurant suddenly tacks $30+ onto that amount. Lunches out will also quickly eat away at a budget, easily $7 a person. Pack lunches for people going to work.

You can also search for OAMC (Once a Month Cooking), which is a great way to get it all done in advance and freeze meals for later.
posted by shinynewnick at 7:44 AM on July 26, 2007

And if you get a craving for your favorite restaurant food, check out Top Secret Recipes for how to make it at home. Some recipes on the site are free, and some will cost you, plus there are books available.

Todd Wilbur does a lot of spying, investigating, and testing to come up with copycat recipes.
posted by The Deej at 7:45 AM on July 26, 2007

Just a note that if WIC gives you way too much milk, you could use it to make yogurt and cheese at home.

To make yogurt, you just need some old yogurt with live culture in it. Stir it into boiled and cooled milk (to kill any existing cultures in the milk), and let it sit at room temperature overnight. I am sure you can find other recipes online.

I don't a lot about cheeses but making paneer is easy. Boil milk and add some white vinegar to it at the peak of boiling. Strain the cheese out after 5 minutes, and press it down under something heavy. The remaining liquid is a good substitute for stock if you don't add too much vinegar.

Also, learn to cook indian food -- lentils and rice, frozen peas with paneer. Making chapatis and tortillas are easy. Look on youtube for Robert Rodriguez's (Sin City) video tutorials on cooking.

$200 a month is hard. Good Luck, and as they say in Greece and Cyprus to expecting moms "Good Freedom".
posted by hariya at 7:49 AM on July 26, 2007

Rebecca Blood just did a project where she fed her 2-adult family mostly organic for $320/month. You might find some inspiration there.
posted by jumble at 8:14 AM on July 26, 2007

In DC.. Take a drive out to Super H Mart (I have only been to the Fairfax one - it's on 10780 Fairfax Blvd. just past the.. what is it.. a Petco, I believe.) It's a Korean chain of grocery stores. Tons of seafood and Asian products of all kinds, many of which - I don't know what they are! - but they have an amazing selection of fresh produce at fantastic prices. I don't know how the prices are for meat (I am vegetarian) but you can get very cheap tofu, beans, and every kind of rice you could imagine too, as well as lots of spices.
posted by citron at 8:22 AM on July 26, 2007

Have you heard of Project Share? It's a coop open to everyone where $16/month and two hours of service gets you about $40 in groceries each month. There are a lot of locations in DC and MD.
posted by OmieWise at 8:26 AM on July 26, 2007

If you have the time and even a little bit of year space, you should consider growing your own veggies and herbs. Carrots, onions, lettuce, basil, peppers, etc. all take very little offort to grow on a small scale.

Plus, there's nothing like the feeling of satisfaction from chomping down on something pulled fresh from your garden. You just don't get that bringing veggies home from the store.
posted by JohnYaYa at 8:54 AM on July 26, 2007

And there's this.
posted by lysdexic at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2007

Oh for the love of pete, don't feed your pregnant self and your small child crap like ramen noodles, hot dogs and boxes of macaroni and cheese. Yes, these foods are cheap, but you might as well make a big white bread/hot dog/jell-o foodball and roll it across the dinner table.

It is worth it, for your health, to try and arrange a slightly higher food budget. Perhaps there are some other household expenses that could be reduced?
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2007

Have you tried calling WIC to see if you qualify?

My wife and I (and our nursing daughter) make it pretty well on a $300/mo grocery budget in DC. We are meat-eterians so we could probably save a great deal by living on more beans and less meat.

There are plenty of ways to save. Buy dried beans, lentils, rice, oatmeal, bulgar and pasta in bulk. Avoid cereal. Garden to supplement veggies, tomatoes and herbs practically grow themselves. Though Whole Foods is a total rip-off, there is one good thing there, bulk staples and spices. Get in, get your little baggie of cayenne and get the hell out, avoiding the pretty organic cheeses! Head on down to Giant or Safeway for big bundles of what's on sale.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:56 AM on July 26, 2007

Saving Dinner
You do have to pay for their menus but you can try them for free first.
There is also a book called Saving Dinner the Vegetarian Way. You might see if your library has it.
posted by nimsey lou at 10:54 AM on July 26, 2007

Buy what's on sale, and freeze. You can freeze milk (we put whole gallons in the freezer, no problem,) you can freeze most fruits, you can freeze many vegetables. Buy in bulk, when you can get corn 12 ears for 2 dollars, cut it off the ears, and freeze it. Then you'll have fresh corn later in the year when cob corn can't be had, for example.

I've got 10 pints of blueberries in my freezer waiting for muffins or pancakes- when I bought them, they were 3 for 5 dollars. Now they're $3.50 a pint because the season is almost over.

Here's a guide to things you can freeze (things you can't, too) along with any special instructions to make sure nothing is ruined.
posted by headspace at 10:58 AM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

You say you don't have a general pattern of expenditures to plan from - is this based on your impressions of your shopping or documenting grocery-related purchases? Something which I picked up from my mom was to have a "household ledger" documenting household-related expenses. The way she did it was to get a spiral-bound notebook and assign a page for each day, to which she would tape receipts for the day's purchases and write down other expenses she remembered (such as bus fare, a soft drink from a vending machine). Over the course of a month it gives one a pretty good idea of one's regular expenses. Such a record would be a great complement to the wonderful suggestions people have provided so far. For one thing, you would be able to tell how far $200 is getting you currently.
posted by needled at 12:13 PM on July 26, 2007

You might try this: A couple of years ago, I wrote up a spreadsheet of all the food I regularly buy, and took an afternoon going to all the grocery stores near me and logging how much each item would cost at each store. Safeway was 30% higher than the local uber-discounter, even with its discounts, and the natural foods-type stores were higher still.

The exercise didn't just help me figure out which stores were best to shop at for savings, it also gave me a good idea of how much I should spend on food. If something was lower than the lowest price I found that afternoon, I knew I should stock up on it right away. If it was more than the average total price, I knew I should postpone purchase.

Some guidelines I use for my staples:
* Butter at under $2.50/pound is a good deal. $2 a pound: stock up.
* Cereal under $2 per regular box: stock up. Never pay more than $3 per box.
* Canned foods (beans, corn, tomatoes, etc.): Watch for sales and stock up when they go to 33-cents per can. (Dry beans are cheaper, but I don't plan well enough for these.)
* Produce: never pay more than $1/pound for fresh produce. Don't buy fresh produce in the winter, buy canned and frozen stuff.
* Pasta: never pay more than $1/pound. Occasionally, there will be sales for 33-cents/pound. Stock up.
* Pasta sauce: the $1 cans of spaghetti sauce can be made just as good as the fancy $5 glass jars, if you cook the sauce on the stove for a while with parmesan, oregano, basil, etc., stirred in.
* Tofu and rice are _much_ cheaper at Asian grocery stores.
* Lots of produce is _much_ cheaper at Asian and Latino groceries.

This can probably be done for two people with even a little splurging. My husband and I live on a grocery budget about $150-$170 per month in the summer, a little more in the winter. And I buy $5.25 cent loafs of bread at a fancy baker, and get bagged spinach and baby carrots, free range eggs, and hormone-free milk, which all cost more than I need to spend.

I don't know how DC food prices compare to ours, though.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:25 PM on July 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

CheapskateMonthly might have some good ideas. You'll have to search or browse for grocery-related stuff, but I have gotten some good ideas in the past.
posted by The Deej at 12:30 PM on July 26, 2007

Look at the website for Angel Food Ministries. It's "a non-profit, non-denominational organization dedicated to providing grocery relief to communities throughout the United States." For $25 a month, you can get a big box of food (usually worth at least twice as much), and you don't have to be poor to qualify.

Caveat: The menus are pretty meat heavy, but it might be possible to request a vegetarian alternative when you place your order.

I've ordered boxes off-and-on for several years. The foods are occasionally brands from other regions (exotic on the cheap!) or institutional packs, but the quality is as high as I'd expect to pick out myself at the supermarket.
posted by ejvalentine at 1:36 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Buy the frozen meats and fish at Trader Joe's.
Markedly cheaper than fresh - and most of the fish you buy at the Whole Foods in DC for $12/lb. is previously frozen anyway
posted by chickaboo at 1:49 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Although my food journal is probably the dataset you're looking for, I'm hesitant to post it online. However, my vegetarian family of two adults eats and drinks* on $240/mo. The * includes juices, milk, and a non-trivial amount of beer, but not wine or liquor (which we mostly buy at separate stores from the food).

If you have a basic pressure cooker, the time it takes to turn dried beans into food is cut remarkably; I use mine 2/3 times a week.

Beans/lentils supply most of my protein, and can be cooked about 3000 ways. I especially like Caribbean spices with fried bananas, bean chili, stir-fried with thai style, three-sisters casserole, jerk spices with sqush, baked black bean and sweet potato cakes, sweet and sour bean pot, cheesy mustard bean pot, many vegetable/bean curries, many bean soups, channa masala, sweet potato and chili burritos, many hummous variants, cottage pie, and plain refried tex-mex style. I have a smaller list that involves other basic staples, like potatos and cabbage.

To staying sane on < $100/person, i think that the key is to keep up the variety, toss in plenty of vegetable sides/mains, and produce as much as possible from bulk scratch. dried beans, rice, lentils, corn flour, etc cost approximately nothing in the grand scheme of things and are incredibly flexible. shopping aggressively price and making something out of whatever is cheap/in season helps a lot. acquiring spices cheap is tricky, but can be done. any dcers know where to get bulk spices? some supermarkets will sell spices in a bag at good prices. stores can serve as a good baseline what you should pay for>
Eggs make a relatively inexpensive protein boost in fritadas, soups, farmers-breakfast for dinner, and deviled eggs, which I could eat by the pound. You have to watch, because they can fluctuate in price by as much as 75% week-to-week.

Making pizza yourself is easy, yummy once or twice a week, makes great lunches, and dirt cheap. Flour, cheap cheese, cheap pasta sauce, and cheap toppings (garlic, onions, vegetables from freezer, basil leaves from our plant, whatever) make for penny food.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:53 PM on July 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Huh, my comment got mangled a bit. Main functional loss: online spice stores to estimate a real bulk price.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:56 PM on July 26, 2007

I buy granola or grape nuts when it's on sale and mix it with yogurt and a cut banana for breakfast every morning. This costs me about $2.50 for the yogurt (for seven days), $2.50 for the granola (for seven or eight days).

I live from this this cookbook.
posted by vkxmai at 5:26 PM on July 26, 2007

Also, thinking about it some more on what really helps.

You have no business buying dry breakfast cereal. Make your own musli(x), much cheaper and more nutritious. Eat hot cereals like grits and quick oats with fruit and sugar or butter/salt/pepper.

You won't have much trouble getting the calories that you need, so instead think of the nutrition that you need. Potatoes are cheap calories, but get you nowhere nutritionally. Similarly iceberg. Sadly, beer is both empty calories and horribly expensive.

Also, I just ate (cooked from dry) chickpeas in cheap pasta sauce with roasted garlic on toast and maple baked beans. Whole thing probably cost $2.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:41 PM on July 26, 2007

Also, things that we normally eat for breakfast are cheap, easy, and nutritious all day. I heart french toast, omlets, roasted red potatoes, eggs any way, and pancakes for dinner.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:48 PM on July 26, 2007

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