I work for an adult group home, which means I have to feed eight adults nutritious, well-balanced meals on slightly less than six-hundred and fifty dollars a month. In addition, as I am on the clock myself and also have to watch the gasoline budget, I need to do so without driving up those costs by spending hours coupon cutting or driving around town to multiple stores. There’s really no point in saving fifty cents on a gallon of milk if you have to spend twenty minutes of time and two dollars of gas to do so. And as anyone who has ever had to feed a family on a budget — and lets face it, that’s most of us — knows, those are exactly the challenges facing everyone when it comes to eating healthy without breaking the bank.
First, and possibly most importantly, you need to have storage space at home for groceries. Some are lucky enough to have large freezers in their basements and dedicated pantries in their kitchens, but for the rest of us, a few shelves and a small freezer tucked into a closet or any other out-of-the-way place is good enough.
The next important thing — regardless of whether you insist on name brands or are satisfied with generics — is to shop the sales. And not every sale at every store. Find a grocery store you prefer to shop at, either because you like the layout or the customer service or because it’s conveniently located along a route you take all the time anyway, which also offers weekly ads, and shop those ads every week. This means you probably want to avoid the ‘big box stores’ which, while they generally have decent prices all the time, usually don’t have sale prices as low as other stores and which, with their huge layouts and parking lots and lines at the registers, have a habit of sucking up hours of your life even if all you meant to purchase was a loaf of bread. But don’t purchase everything in the ads. Know which items or ingredients your family eats regularly and purchase only those items, in bulk, when they are on sale. And don’t buy more than you know you’ll be able to use before they go bad.
Some other simple pieces of advice. Buy generic whenever you can… but only when you know you and your family like and will eat the generic. Everyone has some name brand items which they prefer over the generic — for us it tends to be pasta, barbecue sauce, and sausages. And don’t assume the generic will always be less expensive. Often name brands on sale will be cheaper than generics, so watch for that. Also, for meat, call around and check out local butchers. Their prices, even on smaller quantities than a whole or a half of an animal, almost always beat grocery stores on sale and the meat is a much better quality as well. And try to avoid ‘convenience’ foods like ‘meals in a box’, meal helpers, or frozen dinners. They’re generally more expensive and less nutrient rich than fresher, less processed products.
The two exceptions to this general policy are on items which you use a lot of and are only rarely on sale so you can’t stock up on enough of them or items which expire quickly. Items like eggs, milk, bread, and cottage cheese probably fall into the first category and most fresh fruit and vegetables fall into the second. For these items, know which local store — and this is the one time a big box store might be useful — offers them at the best price and, when necessary, buy them there. Also, plan meals around which fresh fruits and vegetables are in season and, if necessary, substitute a recipe item for an item you already have on hand.
You might have noticed I said very little about coupons here. I’ve found that, unless you enjoy coupon clipping and searching through newspapers and the thrill of the “hunt” for the lowest possible price, the cost in time to coupon searching generally outweighs the cost savings. The only exception is for the store you shop at anyway — often stores have coupons in their fliers and, if you’re going to the store anyway, you might as well grab the coupons and bring them.
This might all sound very complicated, but really it’s not. It almost all comes down to buying a lot of what you know you’ll use when it’s on sale and shopping primarily at one store to avoid having to drive all over town. And while it might take a bit more time and effort at the beginning to try to figure out and remember what items your family regularly uses and how much of each item to buy, I’ve found that, now, I can fill an entire grocery cart full of groceries in half an hour and — more importantly — serve healthy and nutritious meals to eight people for under six-hundred and fifty dollars a month.