Feeding a family on a looooowww budget - What are the secrets?

I was crusing the food aisles in SAM’s Club, (a warehouse club type store mainly on the east coast), the other day, alternately dodging the lady giving out Pizza Bite (microwaves in minutes!) samples and marveling at the giant 25 lb bags of rice available for just a few bucks. In addition there were lots of other mass quantities of spices, veggies and various carbos at what were seemingly very reasonable prices (for the quantity). This huge mass of food for the money impressed me, especially when I’m used to paying 2.50 for 6 ozs of Uncle Ben's Original Recipe or 2.45 for a little 7oz brick of Birdseye frozen creamed spinach.

As a hypothetical question, if you were on a very limited fixed income and had a family of 4 to 6 people to feed and just wanted to make sure they were fed properly and nutritionally, what are some tips and tricks you can use to feed a family of 6 (lets say 2 adults + 4 kids ages 3-8-12-16) . Since the bulk rice and pasta is pretty cheap I assume the expensive stuff will be low cost sources of protein and fresh fruits and veggies.

How would a family or single mother with a lot of kids cope? Does couponing really make a difference? Will a summer garden pay for itself? What are some doper tips and tricks for feeding a lot of people on a budget. Where’s the beef (and other protein) coming from? I want all your down and dirty secrets for cheap (but reasonably healthy) feeds. Don’t hold back!

Psst, astro Sam’s Club is all over the US. My brother’s company builds a lot of them and well sweetie, I have one about 2 miles from me. They’ve built them all over the western U.S.

This IS GQ and had to clear that up. :wink:

A summer garden can more than pay for itself if you know what you’re doing (and it helps to know how to put food up as well, but that’s a skill that fewer and fewer people have these days).

As for protein - you can get quite a bit from plant sources (such as beans), although you have to know which plant foods to combine to get complete protein. And casseroles, etc, can be used to stretch meat so that it goes further.You can feed more people with a pound of hamburger if you use it in a casserole or chili than if you make individual hamburger patties from it.

Bean. Beans are an execellent source of protein, and bulk dried beans are practically free. If you invest in a pressure cooker, they cook up very quickly and don’t need to be soaked. If you have one meal of beans every day (beans and rice, bean soup, bean burritos) you’ll be pretty much set.

Fresh fruits and veggies are actually pretty cheap, but if you have an erratic schedule (which single moms and the like often have) they tend to go bad on you. Milk and orange juice are really really expensive. All you can do is drink powdered milk and concentrate orange juice (blech). Unfortunatly, a lot of very poor people can’t even swing that, and end up subsisting on Kool-Aid.

Bulk stores arn’t actually as good of a deal as they look like a lot of the time. They tend to temp you into a lot of stuff that is relatively cheap, but unnessecary (flats of soda, hundred packs of ice-cream bars, big bags of candy). It’s pretty easy to drop two hundred dollars at a bulk store and still not have enough food to make reasonably varied dinners for the week. It’s hard to store bulk stuff if you live in a small place, and half the time the food isn’t even cheaper. You are better off just buying grocery store brand food in reasonable quanities, and looking out for store sales and coupons.

I’m not quite sure this will answer much, but I feed a family on a tight budget all the time.

You’re correct that pasta and rice are inexpensive and we use a lot of them. There are some weeks that my family never wants to see macaroni and cheese again.

For the veggies, I try to buy what ever is in season at the time and if we want frozen veggies, we stick with the store brand.

As far as meat goes, chicken legs are VERY cheap. I can buy a package of 5-8 legs for under three dollars usually. We also use ground beef a lot. Tuna and beans are a good source of protien too and very affordable.

Coupons sometime work and sometimes don’t. A lot of times, I’ll have a coupon and even when it’s doubled, the store brand is cheaper. So, I pay very close attention to the prices and amounts of things.

For snacks and junk food, I bake. I love to bake, so it’s not really a chore for me. I bake bread, muffins and cookies and separate them into ziplock bags so the kids can just grab them to bring to school for snack time.

I know a lot of single mothers and low income families qualify for WIC and foodstamps. WIC is a program which allows low income families with children under 5 and pregnant women to get free milk, tuna, peanut butter, cheese and cereal. We used it when the kids were babies.

Five kids here. And two dogs and some cats. All hungry.

coupons: yes
garden: yes, if you’ll eat what you grow. But you better also enjoy the gardening itself or it ain’t worth it.

When we cook a bird, turkey or chicken, we boil down the carcass and make soup stock. Meat, veggies, broth. Then we freeze it in seal-a-meal bags. To use it we thaw it, bring it to a boil, add noodles. It’s easy, fast, cheap, and uses ALL the poultry over several meals over a long time period so no one is tired of it.

A lot of things can be cooked in bulk for less than store bought then frozen. Chili is good. And much cheaper and better than commercial canned. Spaghetti sauce too. Freeze it in individual servings.

Make enough dinner so the parents can take leftovers to work for lunch. Five bucks plus gas to get a burger and fries seems foolish to me.

Also, pick fruits in season then process them. A day of picking strawberries and making jam supplies two years here, and it tastes great. The kids enjoy the whole process as well.

Buy whatever on sale. Buy extra then. Don’t pay ‘normal’ price for anything non-perishable or slowly perishable.

Buy less expensive cuts of meat and marinate them. Tender and flavorful. Lotsa recipe sites out there these days to learn from.

Cook from scratch. It’s a lot less expensive than instant or packaged goods and tastes better. Plus you can adjust the taste or ingredients to suit your own tastes.

On the other hand, buying a cheaper brand isn’t always worth it. Saving 6 cents a can for food that’s not nearly as good isn’t worth it unless you’re truly on the edge of financial ruin.

A little bit of fresh veggie thrown into rice or pasta will go a long way to making it more palatable. Excellent staple veggies for this are carrots, celery, mushrooms, and onions. I also keep a bag of frozen peas for this purpose.
Chuck steak is usually a fairly cheap cut of beef. It’s strong flavor lends itself well to stews, stroganoffs and caseroles. Chicken legs are usually about .79 a pound, though I have seen them as cheap as .29 a pound (I bought 30 pounds of them). These can be baked or cut off the bone and used for stir-frys, soups and casseroles. The bones should always be cracked and used to make stock for stews or for flavoring rice.
The buscuit is your friend. Depending on the prep method, the same home-made buscuit dough (flour, salt, fat and milk) can be made into buscuits, dumplings or pancakes. Add egg, and you can have crepes, popovers or yorkshire pudding. Add sugar and some fruit and you have simple muffins.
Leftovers and made-overs can be yummy. An example: Baked chicken, then chicken stew, then either chicken with rice or buscuit-topped chicken pie.

Making things yourself with fresh ingredients is usually better for you and cheaper. Chilli is an excellent low-cost dish for company.

That used to be the common belief, but it was debunked a while ago. There is no need to worry about coming up with “complete protein” in a single meal as long as you eat some semblence of a varied diet. It’s really hard- even on a poor man’s vegetarian diet- not to get enough protein in America.

You are right about ground beef, though. In my poor non-vegetarian days, I remember lots and lots of low grade ground beef. Sometimes we’d get chicken drumsticks, or pork chops. Things like steaks or boneless chicken breasts are pretty much out of the question.

But yeah. Cereal and powdered milk for breakfast (always buy generic cereal- boxed cereal is outrageous), peanut butter and jelly for lunch (sadly, white bread, sugary jelly and sugary peanut butter is cheapest), and beans and rice with veggies on the side for dinner is they way to eat cheap. It sucks, and it gets really repetative, but it’s do able.

Sams Club is good for one thing- go there on Sunday mornings and eat enough samples to count as lunch.

Don’t know about feeding a lot of people on a low budget, but two I can do. Bulk is as you mentioned the way to go. Awareness is key. Be aware of what is on “special” at the stores you shop at. Shop once every second week (or whatever) and shop so that you can eat until the next week. Plan your meals somewhat. Do not buy anything in the local store or smaller supermarkets except milk. When you go in to buy milk, do not be distracted or tempted by other products.

On some products, brand VS generic does not make a significant difference, or at least not enough of a difference to motivate the price difference. I can buy canned tuna for 30 cents or for a buck fifty depending on what tin I pick up.

Way back when, “belly-filler” was the main part of your meal. This may be potatoes, rice, pasta etc. It is the bit that gets you full, the other stuff is for nutrition and taste.

Do not buy pre-fabricated anything. It costs about a million and half times more than making it yourself. There is no such thing as a free lunch, so what you aren’t spending in cash, you will be spending in time. Budget for the time. Friday evening works for me. I put in about 3 hours making and freezing portion meals. Minced beef is the “cheap” alternative here, there is almost always special price on it, so I usually buy about 2 kilos at a time. Some of it I freeze separatly to use in tacos or burgers or something, but most of it I make into chili or spaghetti sauce.
Mince, couple cans of beans, couple cans of tomatoes goes a long way. Bacon is also really versatile, and tasty. Couple of bags of frozen chicken-thighs is also something that is a standing purchase when I go to the store. You can make a huge vat of thai-chicken-curry with potatoes and lemongrass from that. The days we eat one of the frozen dinners we eat for about 50 cents.

It’s not so much about the grocery shopping as it is about the big picture. You can save all the money you like on your food shopping, but it doesn’t help if you then go and buy 5 dollar shampoo. Decide what you just can’t scrimp on (for me loo-roll for example), you have to have some luxuries. Some stuff just costs money, and that has to be accepted, saving in other areas allows you the wiggle room for the stuff that you just can’t do “on the cheap”.

Woah, the worlds biggest simulpost :slight_smile:

Just wanted to add a question of my own. Do stores in the states have “comparitive price tags”? All the stores here do, and it’s a lifesaver. In other words, as well as every package having it’s own price it also gives the “price per kilo, price each, price per liter” or whatever for the item, so that I can easily compare different sizes and brands in terms of price, I don’t have to work out if a big box of brand A is cheaper or more expensive than a smaller box of brand B. You guys got those pricetags?

To expand on what techchick68 said, Sam’s Club is the wholesale arm of the Wal-Mart corporation. Not only is it not an east-coast phenomenon, it’s based in Bentonville AR. Any moderately sized city in the United States most likely has at least two of them.

Now, on to the OP: I have trouble imagining a situation in which a backyard garden couldn’t pay for itself. Presumably, two of the most expensive costs in growing vegetables, land and labor, are effectively free. If you grow vegetables such as potatoes and onions, you don’t really need to worry about canning or anything like that either.

Protein will certainly be one of the pricier nutrients, but there are plenty of ways to get it without breaking the bank. Look for the cheapest cuts of meat (i.e. rump roast). Buy in bulk, and freeze the surplus. Meat from actual butchers may be significantly cheaper than those pre-packaged “family pack” things in the grocer’s freezer aisle. Although it probably shouldn’t be your only source or protein, another VERY inexpensive source is beans. Giant bags of dry beans are dirt cheap, and loaded with protein and other nutrients.

Fresh vegetables can also be pricey, but once again, look for the less desirable stuff like turnip greens. Wherever possible, steam them so as to preserve as much of the vitamins and minerals as possible. Tubors are also high in nutrients, and also as cheap as it gets, as well as a decent source of vitamin C.

I guess the most important trick is avoiding pre-packaged, processed stuff as much as possible.

[Richard Jenni voice] Kraft Macaroni and cheese, still 39 cents a metric ton[/RJV]
Buy in bulk, don’t buy mixes of anything. A good cookbook will save you many many $. Buy large cuts of meat and either cook it whole, cut up and freeze, or cut up before cooking. Beef brisket is one example of this. A crock pot can cook a tough as a boot piece of meat into yummyness in about 10 hours.
When things go on sale stock up. Turkey usually gets real cheap around Thanksgiving, I usually buy three or four and put them in the freezer. Same for Ham at Christmas.
If you have space for a garden, go for it. Cheaper and fresher veggies. In additon, are there any farmer’s markets by where you live? Fresher produce for less than the store.

Debunked? Cite? I’d really like to know this because I have a 10 year old daughter that will not eat meat. She’s skinny as a rail and I worry about lack of protein in her diet.

And Burger Beer! :smiley:

Now that most workplaces have microwave ovens, go to work with leftovers frozen in a microwaveable plastic container. Much cheaper than making fresh sandwiches every morning.

Take a calculator to the grocery store. This is very handy for math you’re not sure you can do in your head, like comparing prices when one is marked “$x.xx per ounce” and the other’s “$x.xx per pound” or whatever.

For the buying-in-bulk strategy, a big freezer is a good thing. That way you can buy freezable perishables in large quantities when they’re on sale and not have to throw half out because you didn’t eat it fast enough.

Also, stir-fry is your friend. Rice is cheap, veggies can be cheap, and a little meat, finely cut, can be stretched to incredible amounts. Plus, you can get a really good wok at Cost Plus for $10 (assuming you have the patience to take proper care of an iron wok).

Saaay, that’s MY family. Actually, we’re down to one adult and 4 kids ages 2-4-12-16, but you’re very close.

Most of my suggestions have already been mentioned, but I have two more:

Shop loss leaders only, if you can manage it. These are the items that the store sells at cost or at a loss in order to get you in the door, in hopes that you’ll buy lots of higher priced stuff as well. I have a big pantry, and keep it STUFFED with items that I buy at low prices…$1/jar peanut butter, $1/jar Prego, .35/can tuna, whatever I can buy cheaply and in large amounts.

I love Kroger, but I do a lot of my shopping at Aldi. They carry mostly Aldi brand products, which are generally quite good and much cheaper than even the store brands that I usually stick with when I shop at Kroger, etc. For instance: mac & cheese boxes are either .29 or .39, chips are .89 a bag, frozen breaded chicken breasts (one of my few luxuries) $2.50/#.
Otherwise, you probably have the gist of it by now: lots of potatoes, rice, and pasta. Inexpensive meats such as chicken legs and hamburger. Forgoing the sodas, prepared mega-packaged foods, etc.

I also do a lot of bulk cooking. For example: Every couple of months, whole chickens will go on sale for under .60/#. When that happens, I buy 8 or 10 chickens, then spend a good part of a day cutting up and packaging. I divide like so: legs & thighs, wings (for Mom’s Wing Night, which only occurs when I’ve accumulated a lot of wings), breasts, and miscellaneous pieces used to make broth and soup. Boil ALL the extraneous parts, pick off ALL the meat, make soup. Cook bones in the crock for a couple of days and add it to the cat food. Heh…you get the idea.

I used to feed my family of 6 for under $70/week. Recently, I’ve increased that, maybe up to $100/week on a really “big” grocery week. Chips and sodas are a definite luxury here, which is kind of cool, because my kids get really really excited when I come home with a 12 pack of Coke.


Shop off the bottom shelf.

All the low-cost items (store brands, bagged cereals, etc.) are down below eye level. All the expensive stuff is at eye level. Companies pay extra for grocery stores to put their stuff at eye level.

Decide what you are going to eat at every meal for a week. Make a list of the ingredients for all of those meals, and write them on a piece of paper. Go to the store, and buy only those items, in bulk. Do not buy anything that is not on the list.

Processed food is always more expensive than anything else.

Use meats as a flavoring to bulk food like rice or potatoes or pasta. Non-fat powdered milk is practically the cheapest protein source available - buy it and use it.

Never buy anything you see advertised on TV, under any circumstances.

I spent several years as a dirt-poor student who had to live on the money reserves I built up during the summers. I found out several years after the fact that I would have qualified for food stamps, which (perhaps unfortunately) it never occurred to me to apply for.

Planning is your friend.

Good luck. You and your family can live perfectly well on very little if you give up the notion that people are entitled to buy the things they see on TV.


A home garden.

This has been mentioned before but I think it deserves more attention. Assuming you have a bit of land to use of course.

Not only will it pay for itself but the food will be (if you have even a little gardening knowledge) better tasting than anything you’ll find in a common grocery store. The same thing applies to growing your own herbs. Little space is required and can be done inside. (Fresh mint in iced tea or making your own pasta sauce are rewards in their own right.)

It can be a real chore if only one person is responsible for it but can be a great shared family activity. So is the cooking itself. Cooking from scratch is, as already mentioned, not only something that will save you money but also bring the family together in a way that doesn’t feel like a chore. My family basepoint was always centered around the kitchen, not the living room.

Even though its not healthy, store brand 2 liters of soda (root beer, cola, strawberry) are a good source of cheap calories.

Aside from that, grains are usually your best bet for most calories per $. Pasta, crackers, Ramen Noodles, mac & cheese, rice.

If i ever had to eat on that type of budget, i’d be sure to take a multivitamin daily, just in case.