Making Food Dollars Stretch: A Family Affair!

Last week I went grocery shopping at my favorite “big box” market, and once again I winced as I watched the total click higher and the printed receipt get longer. The printed tape makes it even more difficult to deny that the cost of food has skyrocketed over the past few years. My family of four, including two athletic teenage (hence HUNGRY!) boys, started to notice the price creep higher first on the foods that we regularly bought in the stores that we shopped at the most frequently, and it became a game to try to guess the final total price while we waited in line to pay. We certainly took notice of an increase of fifty cents per pound of meat, one pound of strawberries that used to cost two dollars now costing three dollars, and one pounds of grapes all of a sudden costing almost four dollars, even in the summer time! Feeding two growing adolescent boys was getting more expensive by the week. Now, we can’t get out of a grocery store for less than $300 for one week’s worth of groceries, and it seems the shopping basket is a little lighter each time.

Hard economic times can force families to consider their grocery budget a little more carefully, cutting out “extras” and skipping restaurants; the good thing is, this can often lead us to eating a healthier diet with smaller portions. Shopping with less food dollars requires more planning, including budgeting and deciding on a menu for the week, but this usually keeps the “extras” such as chips, cookies, candies, sodas, and other sweetened beverages from finding their way into the cart. As family members start to eat healthier, portion sizes may decrease, saving money on the grocery or dining out bill, and maybe even leading to weight loss.

If you need to make your food dollars stretch, involve your whole family in the process.

  • Take the cookbRed Dress Day 2014 008ooks off the kitchen shelf, look through smartphone apps such as Food.com or the Food Network app, or browse through magazines and TV shows to get recipes and meal ideas. Invite your children to pick a new recipe to help avoid the monotony that can happen at dinnertime.
  • Create a monthly calendar that is printed and pinned to the refrigerator or kitchen bulletin board. Plan breakfast, lunch, and dinner for each family member a week at a time. Knowing what foods you will need for the week minimizes the number of trips to the grocery store (where it’s always tempting to buy more than you need!) and prevents after-work trips through the fast food drive through because “there’s nothing to eat at home.”
  • “Eat down the pantry and the refrigerator.” We often have several different ingredients already in stock at home; have your spouse help you create a meal using only the ingredients that you have already. Be sure to check the expiration dates on the foods; use the First-in First-out method when putting your groceries away in the pantry (foods already in the pantry move to the front of the shelf and the newer foods are placed behind.)
  • Have your school age children make a shopping list from recipes they want to try or meals they know they will like, double-checking the pantry and refrigerator for items already on-hand. Wasted food is decreased when everyone likes what’s served!
  • Avoid being a “short order cook.” Cooking the same meals for the whole family generates less leftovers, encourages each family member to possibly try new foods, and saves time and energy in the kitchen by the “chef.”
  • Choose healthy, low-cost foods that can be used in more than one dish in the same week.
  • “Base” ingredients include foods like whole grain bread, skim or 1% milk, chicken breasts, romaine lettuce or spinach, and frozen vegetables. These foods can be used in a variety of recipes, are generally cheaper than other foods, and don’t spoil as quickly.
  • At the grocery store, shop the perimeter of the store first, stocking up on fresh produce and meats while avoiding the more expensive processed items that are most often found on the interior shelves of the store. Invite the kids or your spouse to go grocery shopping with you; it might at first seem like a difficult distraction, but family members who are more engaged with the selection of groceries will likely be more willing and adventurous eaters.
  • Making food dollars stretch can be a learning opportunity for the kids. Kids can use their math skills to determine the price per serving of various food items to determine which package is the best value. Remember, buying in bulk is not always the best investment if some of the package goes to waste.
  • Copy the children when taking your lunch to work: buy yourself a cute reusable lunch box or container that makes you want to take your foods to the office refrigerator.
  • Have the center of focus during meals be family time, not the quantity of food. Pleasant conversation can help you eat slowly and let your body be satisfied naturally by smaller portions.
  • Start a conversation at work about healthy shopping or food budgets, or even just eating smaller portions. You might be able to glean a tip or two from your co-workers on how they make their own food dollars stretch!

Other tips:

  • Shop the supermarket weekly ads for special sales or coupon items, and build your week’s meals around what’s on sale. If you are unsure of how to cook these foods or incorporate them into your meal plan, check the Internet or cookbooks for recipes or ask the grocery store manager for hints.
  • Look in the “markdown” bin of your grocery store; each section of the store seems to have foods on sale that are nearing the expiration date or are on overstock clearance. Ask the store manager what day of the week these “markdowns” are usually taken. Just be sure that you will use it quickly before it expires!
  • Buy frozen foods on sale, as these usually keep longer and still retain their nutritional value.
    When making large meals, freeze the leftovers to enjoy later in the week. Prioritize using the leftovers within a few days.
  • Try re-purposing leftovers: use extra meat and rice from dinner in breakfast burritos the next morning or send left over salad in your family’s lunch the next afternoon.

Remember, these are YOUR healthier habits, so make them work for you!

Janelle and Wendy

Janelle Walker, MBA, CLE is a lifestyle educator for Kaiser Permanente, with a special interest in helping families learn to live healthy together through nutrition, exercise, and other healthy habits.

Wendy Phillips, MS, RD, CNSC, CLE, FAND is a Division Director of Clinical Nutrition for Morrison Healthcare, with a background in pediatric nutrition and desire to help kids grow up healthy!