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Eating healthy on a budget: You can make it work!

March 26, 2013

With a family of five, two of which are high school boys, our food dollars need to stretch as much as possible. We literally go through 4-5 gallons of milk in a week – and the reason it stops at that amount is because my limited ability to keep up with the demand. It can be difficult to meet budget restraints with a growing family, but there are ways to make it work. It takes some time and planning, but given the right tools, you can make it work for your family.

I have enlisted advice from some great websites, in addition to a few of my own tricks to meet our food budget on a weekly basis.

Start with knowing where to start

Have everyone in the family track their expenses for a month. Place all of your food receipts into a jar. Include everything, restaurant, school lunches, snacks and grocery trips. Don’t forget the stops at the coffee shop or 7-eleven. At the end of the month put the receipts into stacks to find out where the money is being spent. Identify the places you can make a change (dine out less often, less coffee stops, etc.). Scrutinize your grocery receipts. Go through and highlight all the “junk” foods or unnecessary purchases. Are there chips, soda, candy or gum that can be eliminated from the bill? Add them up to see if you can find some savings.

Set your budget

Plan a set budget for weekly shopping excursions (that’s right weekly). Shopping daily can really add up. If you are stopping on the way home for your dinner that means two things: you have not pre-planned your menu and it makes it easier to “opt out” of cooking and go for the quick food pick up, it's more difficult to make a good decision when you're in a hurry (and/or hungry!). Shopping daily leads to impulse buying and to a higher grocery bill in the end. Starting with a budget forces you to keep food purchases within a planned amount. I found a great website that helps you spend smart and eat smart and has helped to guide my food purchasing budget.

Based on the ages and gender of the people in my family, I am to spend $222/week. Now that the budget is set, it is time to decide what to buy.

Start a grocery list

You know where to make some changes already from scrutinizing your receipts. Check what you already have on hand and try to use that up or include it in your menu for the next week. Plan the menu to make sure your family will eat it. I cannot tell you how many times I have tried a recipe that I thought looked good to be the only one eating it at the end of the day. Get input from the family to be sure they are invested in the menu.

I have found a great site, Food on the Table, that helps me to plan my menus for the week. I have had great success because I have selected the “quick & easy” and “heart healthy” recipes, which ensures my recipe selections are the type that meets my needs. The program provides print outs for the recipes and shopping lists, which makes it simple to do the shopping after I’ve picked out 2 or 3 new recipes. And so far, there have been rave reviews at the Cooper house for the new menu! So it serves a double purpose—I’ve saved on grocery bills because I am only buying the ingredients listed and I’ve diversified our home menu. Once the menu is down, I round out the list with fruits, vegetables and non-fat dairy. I try to include nonfat milk, yogurts, low fat cottage cheese, and cheese sticks. Shopping for the fruits/vegetables at the local farmers market can be economical, especially when selecting produce in-season.

A key to the money saving is the grocery list. Sticking to the list helps to save at the store. I have found that the spontaneous purchases are the ones that add up quickly. I don’t pick up a BOGO unless it is a product we use regularly. Using coupons also helps to save some pennies, just make sure you are picking products you use on a regular basis and not falling into the trap of adding more to your grocery list.

Price shop

Some people shop bargains between stores and shop based on store sales. Others pick a store and price compare at the store. Always check prices between brands – many times the store brand is the best bargain and is an acceptable product. I shop based on quality and price. I buy my produce and milk from my local grocery store, while the packaged items I buy at a discount store.

A few last helpful tips…make shopping easier by organizing your list according to store layout. Avoid shopping when you’re hungry; shop when the store isn’t crowded and leave the kids at home –my grocery bill is always higher when they come along to "help."

It takes some practice to meet your budget on a weekly basis, but don’t give up! Practice and soon you will have your own method for saving money at the grocery store.

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