Georgia has worked as a nutrition counselor for a women, infants, and children program in St Louis clinics. She taught FACS for 24 years.
Government programs are a real blessing for people who are struggling with income issues, however, sadly there are times when people have real financial need but do not meet the financial guidelines for one reason or another. These are the people who "fall between the cracks" as we used to say when I worked in a federal program known as W.I.C. (Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Food Program). This article is for that family. I hope to show you how to plan meals and buy foods that will be affordable, and will meet the nutritional needs of the family.
This article is based on current food prices and on the prices in my particular rural area of the United States. Thus it is "time stamped" so to speak. I will try to give enough basic principles that it will be applicable to other areas as well.
The Basic Food Groups
It is important to remember that even when the budget is very tight a variety of food types is essential for good health. The recommendation is to eat from these food groups: dairy, protein, fruits and vegetables, and grain.
- Dairy refers to milk products: liquid milk, dried milk, evaporated milk, condensed milk, yogurts, puddings, cheeses and so forth. Even though eggs are often in or near the dairy case at grocery stores for refrigeration purposes, they are not dairy.
- Protein includes both animal and vegetable proteins. Animal proteins are more expensive. When you are on a very tight budget, you will need to eat primarily vegetable proteins. Animal proteins can be included on special occasions, or for flavoring other dishes to make them more desirable. For example: putting a chunk of ham into a pot of white beans adds flavor, or adding bacon crumbles to a pan of baked beans adds texture and flavor. Animal proteins are meats of various kinds, and eggs. Vegetable proteins are beans, peas, and nuts. Vegetable proteins are incomplete proteins. To complete them you need to pair them with a grain. When you make brown beans and pair them with a pan of cornbread you have made them as complete a protein as if you had eaten meat!
- Fruits and vegetables add color, vitamins, and minerals to your meals. Don't ignore them. They are best served fresh. If they are not in season, then move to frozen, canned or dehydrated. The less a food is handled in the processing, the more nutrients remain in it. However, when you are operating on a tight budget, you will notice that canned and dehydrated foods are often the cheapest.
- Grains are the seeds of grasses. The most common of them are wheat, corn, oats and rice. There are also some interesting ones you might want to try from time to time, like barley or quinoa. You will find them sliced (oats) or ground into flour. The grains you will be shopping for are the flours themselves or the products made from them, like breads and cereals. Grains are called the staff of life because they are the base of most of our diet.
Back in the day we used the Food Guide Pyramid, then more recently My Plate. These are visuals that people use to help them understand portions and servings in each of the food groups.
How many servings of these food groups do you need each day?
- Dairy: 2 to 5 servings a day depending on whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Proteins: 2 servings a day
- Fruits: 2 to 4 servings a day
- Vegetables: 3 to 5 servings a day
- Grains: 6 - 11 servings a day
On the plan that I will give you, I will refer to the nutrition information on the side of the product. I will see how many servings that label says it will make. It may be that the man in the family eats larger servings, or that you have a 3 year old picky eater that consumes small servings. Since I do not know your situation, I will go by the averages given on the box or can.
I imagine that I am planning for a family of four: Mom, Dad, and two children. I am not planning for the special needs of an infant. I recommend that if you have an infant, you breastfeed. That is free! However, if you might be eligible for W.I.C., it will help with buying formula.
A Month of Inexpensive Breakfasts
Break the list up into five food groups. Add a sixth group for things like condiments and spices. If I am buying for a month, I want to buy enough food for 30 breakfasts, 30 lunches, and 30 suppers. At each meal I need 4 servings. This means I need to plan for 120 servings of breakfast foods, 120 servings of lunch foods, and 120 servings of supper foods.
- 21 servings of pancakes $1.26
- Pancake syrup(x 2) 24 servings $2.24
- Butter (4 sticks) 32 servings $.95
Approximately 5 breakfasts for less than $5.00.
Eggs and Toast
- 2 1/2 dozen eggs (30 eggs) would be enough for 7 breakfasts. $2.56
- Each loaf of bread has about 10 servings (2 slices a serving).
- Approximately 3 loaves of bread would be used as toast with the eggs. 3 x $ 1.37 = $4.11.
7 egg-and-toast breakfasts = $6.67.
- A large container of oats that provides 30 servings costs $2.10.
- A box of dry milk that can be reconstituted for 8 quarts = $7.41
7 oatmeal and milk breakfasts for $9.51
Grits and Bacon
- Bacon (x 2) 12 servings $6.00
- Grits, 16 servings $1.35
4 breakfasts for $7.35
- Family-sized box of Honey Nut Cheerios, 22 servings, $4.49
- Gallon of fresh milk, 16 servings $3.38
Cereal breakfast for 5 meals $ 7.87
Sausage and Biscuits
- One pound of sausage, 6 servings $3.19
- (First breakfast make patties, second make gravy)
- Biscuit mix package, 4 servings $ .40
2 breakfasts for $3.59
The total cost of one month of these breakfasts, before taxes, is $39.44
A Month of Inexpensive Lunches
If it is during the school year, and you are financially pressed, your children will probably qualify for free and reduced lunches at school. This will free up a little more money for the food basket. However, in summer time you will need to plan for lunches including the children.
- Ramen noodles @ .21 a packet are hard to beat for cheap.
- For 4 people your lunch comes under a dollar.
16 lunches for $16.
Peanut Butter Sandwiches
- 64 oz. jar peanut butter = 56 servings, or 14 lunches. $ 5.88
- 6 loaves of bread @ $1.35 60 servings $8.10
14 lunches for $ 13.98
Total cost for these lunches per month = $29.98, before taxes.
A Month of Inexpensive Dinners
Typically suppers are organized around the protein dish. The cheapest protein foods are beans, peas, nuts, eggs, canned fish, hot dogs, chicken. If you have been careful with your money, you will be able to add in the more expensive meats occasionally...like beef and pork.
Beans and Cornbread
- Four pounds of pinto beans provide 50 servings at $2.69
- Corn bread mix packets @ .40 each x 12 4.80
- one egg per mix = one dozen eggs 1.28
- 2/3 C milk per mix = 8 reconstituted dry milk cups 1.82
- Canned Greens, store brand, 12 cans @ .50 6.00
- 12 store brand diced tomatoes and chilies @ .58 6.96
Total cost of 12 beans, greens, and cornbread dinners = $ 23.82
- 2 lbs. spaghetti noodles is 16 servings, 4 meals $1.74
- Pasta Sauce, 24 oz. x 4 @.74 each 2.96
- Cheddar Cheese, 24 oz., 16 servings, 4 meals 6.29
- Ground beef, 16 oz., x 2 (brown 1/2 pound per meal) 8.00
- Lettuce, (4) @ 1.00 each 4.00
- Tomatoes, large, 4 @ $1.17 4.68
Four spaghetti suppers total = $27.67
Rotini and Chicken Dinner
- 16 oz. bag rotini noodles, 8 servings, two meals 1.01
- Alfredo sauce, 8 servings 1.35 1.35
- Canned Chicken 13 oz. 2.38
- Green beans, (2) @ .48 .96
These two meals come to a total of $5.70
Mac 'n Cheese With Franks
- 10 Mac 'n Cheese boxes at 5 for $1.00,( 30 servings) $2.00
- 4 packs of Frankfurters, 8 to a pack (32 servings) x .88 3.52
- 5 cans sweet peas at .65 3.25
Five meals at a total of $8.77
Mackerel and Rice Dinners
- 5 pounds of rice, 50 servings $3.32
- 10 cans of mackerel @ 45 servings ($1.55 each) 15.50
- 10 eggs (buy a dozen) 1.28
- Sweet Potatoes (10 lbs.) @ .98 a lb. 9.80
Ten meals at a total of $29.90
33 of these suppers cost a total of $95.86 for the month.
Plan Meals to Save Money
It is time to add the breakfasts, lunches, and suppers together. You will see a grand total of $165.28, before taxes. Our budget for a family of four was $360. We have used less than half of our budget. There is still $195.72!
There is the allowance for things like: salt, pepper, sugar, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salsa, and other seasonings. Keep in mind basics like flour, baking soda, baking powder. There is in every month some sort of special occasion: birthday cake, valentine's cookies, turkey and dressing.
I hope that someone will find this guide helpful, and that there will be no need for you to fall between the cracks and go hungry!
Diana Majors from Arkansas, USA on July 05, 2017:
Thank you, Georgia! It is so helpful to be reminded of things like this! And to see a full month's worth of meals and their costs is helpful, too! I've always been too intimidated by what I consider my lack of meal-planning knowledge to try and plan for a month at a time. You make it seem so much easier! I'm going to pin this article to my Pinterest board "Saving Some Dough" so I can use it later as reference!