Plan Budget-Friendly Meals from the Bottom Up

Tips and strategies for planning nutritious, affordable meals at home

by Dot Nevarez, RD

When you’re trying to cut back on your food budget, it may seem like the only budget-friendly foods are ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese. But the fact is, you can enjoy healthy, delicious meals without spending a fortune.

The first step is to set reasonable expectations for your food budget. Often, people don’t have a good understanding of how much they need to spend on food in order to meet the daily dietary recommendations.

USDA food cost guidelines

To help determine this, the USDA has developed food cost guidelines for four levels of spending, ranging from thrifty to liberal. These guidelines tell you approximately how much you can expect to spend per person depending on the age of each family member and your spending level.

The USDA guidelines are based on the assumption that all meals and snacks are prepared at home — a major factor in how much you spend on food. In any given restaurant, the cost of the food represents approximately 35 percent of what you’re paying for the meal.

The remainder covers the costs of preparation, service, and so on. In other words, you can make the same meal at home for less than half the cost.

Planning healthy, affordable meals at home

Use the USDA calculations to help create your own family’s monthly food budget. Save all your grocery receipts for a month and compare how much you spend with the guidelines; this gives you a starting point and helps you set realistic spending goals.

Once you have your budget, the easiest place to start saving is on meals you eat away from home. Where do you go most often? What are your favorite restaurant meals?

Let’s say you have a submarine sandwich twice a week, and each sandwich costs five dollars. If you make those sandwiches at home instead of buying them, you can probably save $5 to $7 a week.

Saving costs for meat products

Next, identify the most expensive foods you eat at home. Meat is usually one of the main culprits. How can you manage this part of your budget more effectively?

Start by thinking about the meals you prepare, and how you might be able to cut costs. For example, I often make beef stir-fry. I can buy flap meat for four or five dollars per pound, or I can purchase a less expensive cut of meat such as top sirloin and prepare it so that it works equally well.

If I wait until the sirloin goes on sale, I can often buy it at half the price of flap meat, so I try to stock up.

Look for versatile cuts of meat that you like and can use across the board in your meals. Top sirloin can be cut into strips or chunks, or marinated and broiled or grilled. Ground beef or turkey is another excellent choice: buy it on sale, cook it and drain off the fat, and freeze it for tacos, burgers, chili, spaghetti sauce and more.

Create a file of fast, simple recipes that you can prepare using those particular meat cuts. Since lack of time for meal preparation is a main reason for eating out for, this provides quick, easy ideas at a moment’s notice.

Simple carbs, fruits and vegetables

Most recipes include rice, potatoes or pasta. These keep a long time in the pantry — so buy them on sale and store a pre-cooked batch in the fridge for fast meal preparation.

Fresh fruits and vegetables may also be near the top of your “expensive foods” list. Buy them in season, and check farmer’s markets, especially near the end of the day when the vendors are getting ready to go home.

They don’t want to take produce back home and may reduce their prices to sell what’s left. Also, ask vendors if they have products that aren’t perfect. You may be able to buy slightly bruised or misshapen apples or smaller strawberries for less than full price.

Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are another cost-saving option and may be even more nutritious than fresh, which may spend several days in transport and are picked before their peak.

Developing good habits takes time

Much of learning to eat well on a budget involves simply planning ahead and learning new shopping habits. Once they become ingrained, you may be surprised by how much you save — in both time and money.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Dot Nevarez, RD, registered dietitian with Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.