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How to stretch your food budget

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Learn how to stretch your food budget by eliminating costly processed foods
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Learn how to stretch your food budget without resorting to ramens

You know the drill.  Your daughter has after school soccer practice until 4, and then theatre rehearsal at 7. Your son has band until 4:40, then a baseball game at 6.  You get off work at 5. And everyone needs to eat dinner.  So what do you do?

Grab a quick dinner at the drive through?  Heat up some frozen dinners in the microwave?  Or opt for a delivery pizza, eaten on the run while everyone’s changing and grabbing their gear for the evening?  It works...kind of. Or at least it did.

But a shrinking economy has handed us yet another challenge in the form of higher prices and lower incomes.  That means cutting back on expenses. Learning how to stretch your grocery budget is an important part of that.  Fortunately, there are lots ways to reduce food expenses without feeling deprived.  Here are a few tips from a busy mom who’s had to learn how to stretch each grocery dollar and still give my family healthy and tasty meals.

Stay out of the drive-through lane – Yes, this is a tough one.  A drive-through meal is fast and easy, and seems to be a good deal.  After all, they advertise their dollar menus and what can you really cook for a dollar?  But when you add it up, fast food comes with a hefty price tag. 

Leaving aside the health risks, fast food just isn’t a good budget choice.  That dollar menu burger needs a $1.50 bag of fries.  And with most large drinks topping $2.oo each, that cheap fast food meal for four will leave you with only loose change from your twenty dollar bill! 

A better at home choice?  Boca Burgers, oven cooked steak fries and juice, milk or ice water.  The meal takes about 15 minutes to prepare, and costs about $7 for four servings. Fast, kid-friendly, healthy and cheap!

Pass by the prepared foods – Time and budget savings promised by prepared foods exist only in an advertiser’s imagination. In reality, those time-saving foods take as long to prepare as the same meal from scratch, but at a much higher per serving cost.  And if you add in the cost of future health issues from eating fat and chemically-laden, overly salty foods, any savings promised vanish in the wind.

An example.  A just-add-tuna casserole meal makes 4 small servings for about $3.00 per serving. A homemade tuna casserole including egg noodles, cream sauce, tuna and peas will cost about $1.50 per serving for a more generous amount and about 1/3 as much sodium. 

Prep time is almost identical for both the instant and homemade versions, too.  Compare homemade to prepackaged for other foods, and you’ll find new ideas for how to stretch your budget without spending hours at the stove.

Frequent the local farmers’ markets – Almost every city has a farmers’ market in it or nearby.  Before you head to the grocery store’s produce department, see what the market has to offer. In most locations, you’ll find fruits and veggies for 1/3 to ˝ the price of supermarket offerings.  Plus you’ll be buying fresher, healthier food and skipping the environmentally unfriendly packaging to boot.

Make more, save more – No matter how well we plan, there will be days when any meal preparation is too much.  That’s when your freezer comes in handy.  No, I don’t mean those pricy frozen dinners.  I mean the extra meals you made and froze yourself.

You can save time and money by making a freezing an extra batch of whatever you cook.  Making chili?  Double the pot and freeze half in 2-4 serving portions.  The same goes for lasagna, stews, burritos, pizza dough, and many kinds of soups.  Just be sure to use quality freezer bags and squeeze out all the air before putting the food into the freezer to prevent freezer burn.

Learning how to stretch your grocery budget doesn’t mean substituting ramen for real meals.  It just mean making some smart choices -- and getting to know your kitchen a little bit better.

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