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Feb 16, 2012

How to Survive on One Dollar a Meal

Sometimes expenses or saving goals force you to survive on one dollar per meal. If you invest some time into it, you can easily reduce your expenses on food to one dollar per meal. By following these tips, you will not only survive, but even enjoy a healthy and varied diet.


    • 1
      Choose foods that are cheap relative to their ability to fill your stomach. Focus on foods that keep you full longer, like foods high in complex carbohydrates or protein.
    • 2
      Keep in mind foods that are budget favorites. Yogurt is an excellent breakfast or snack. Generic dry cereal is much less than a dollar per portion, leaving some room in the budget for milk. Pasta and infamously cheap ramen noodles make for affordable lunches or dinners. Baked beans are a one dollar a day essential item.
    • 3
      Shop smart. Watch grocery store flyers for drastically reduced prices. Frozen meals, including ones for diets, often go on sale for less than one dollar. You can prepare a frozen meal quickly and someone else has already made sure that it is nutritionally balanced.
    • 4
      Cook in quantities. Increase the variety of your diet with stir fry and other cheap ways of combining several food types. If you are cooking for one person, you may have to eat leftovers for multiple meals. Experiment with ways that you can adjust favorite recipes to make them fit into your budget.
    • 5
      Portion your food according to your budget. If you cook enough pasta or stir fry for leftovers, calculate how much you can eat for one dollar before eating. Set aside the appropriate amount and put the rest away.
    • 6
      Drink water. People often feel hungry when they are only thirsty. Water is also cheaper than other drinks, especially if you drink from your tap.
    • 7
      Join a wholesale club and shop at discount stores. If you look in the right place, sometimes you can afford meals that normally break the budget.

You can save money and still enjoy healthy, delicious food

Making smart choices saves money. Evaluate how you spend your money on food. What unnecessary items do you purchase? Do you eat out often? The first way to save money on food is to limit or cut out unnecessary food spending. Some specific ways to do this:
  • Cut the junk. Evaluate how much money you are spending on items such as soda (regular or diet), cookies, crackers, prepackaged meals, processed foods, etc. Limit or completely cut out these unhealthy foods. Your wallet and your body will thank you.
  • Eat out less. Even just reducing your meals out by 1 or 2 times per week can save you about $15 - $25 per week. This is an easy way to save money and even have some extra to spend on higher quality foods.
  • Stick to your grocery list. The more prepared you are when you get to the store the less impulse purchases you will make. So write out a grocery list and stick to it!
  • Shop the perimeter of the store first. This way you will fill your cart with healthy whole foods like fresh produce and meat, leaving less room for the "junk food fillers" and thus saving money.
  • Cook large portions. It saves time to cook once and eat multiple times. One idea is to make a big pot of soup at the beginning of the week or whenever you go food shopping. When you don't feel like cooking, help yourself to a hearty bowlful along with a green salad. This makes a nutritious but inexpensive lunch or dinner anytime.
  • Beware of hidden sugars. Many packaged or processed foods contain high levels of hidden sugar. They may be easy to prepare and fill your family up for cheap, but too much sugar causes rapid swings in energy and blood sugar, and can contribute to many serious health problems. Hidden sugar may be listed as corn syrup, molasses, brown rice syrup, cane juice, fructose, dextrose, or maltose. Avoid foods such as instant mashed potatoes, white bread, canned soups and vegetables, refined pasta, and sugary cereals. Satisfy your sweet tooth with naturally sweet food such as fruit, peppers, and sweet potatoes.

Trimming the Average Budget: Food at Home

This is part of an ongoing series about how to trim the budget of the average American. As this series focuses on such broad-based tips, some will work for you and some will not. You’re invited to mention in the comments the tips that you found to be the most useful for inclusion in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of this series.

Food – food at home – $3,465

Another $300 a month component of the average family budget comes from merely eating at home. This does not include food eaten outside the home, nor does it include household cleaning supplies, toiletries, and other items that typically are bunched together in a family’s budget (since they’re often purchased together).

I like cooking at home – in fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m passionate about it. As a result, I often talk about cooking and food on The Simple Dollar, so for you regular readers, many of the tips below will seem old hat.

Five years ago, though, I rarely cooked at home at all. I could barely fry an egg and most meals just seemed ridiculously hard. Instead of putting out all that effort, I’d just go out to eat – and that became an enormous money leak in my life.

Here are twelve big things you can do to reduce your food spending at home, regardless of whether you eat out a lot or if you eat primarily at home.

Learn how to cook at home. The actual ability to cook real food makes it much easier to simply make the choice to eat at home instead of eating out. If you have difficulty boiling an egg, eating out seems like a vastly easier and less time-consuming choice. It’s not. I recommend checking a copy of How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman and just start at the beginning, trying everything suggested in there. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to a “teach yourself to cook at home” book that doesn’t overwhelm you in details right off the bat.

Make grocery lists. Keep a list on your refrigerator with a pen dangling from it. The simple way to do it is to take two cheap fridge magnets, a notepad, a pen, and a piece of string, and homebrew it. Just glue a magnet to the back of the pad and hang it up. Then, glue one end of the string to the other magnet, tape the other end of the string to the pen, and hang up that magnet. Whenever you notice something you need, write it down immediately. Then, when you go to the grocery store, trust your list. Buy only what’s listed. Don’t wander aimlessly and buy a bunch of impulsive things.

Make a simple price book to determine which store near you has the best prices. The easiest way to do this is to identify the fifteen to twenty-five most common things you buy at the grocery store, then shop at a bunch of different stores and compare the prices on these items. The store with the lowest average price on the things you buy should be the store you shop at regularly. I was surprised when I did this test myself, because I discovered that the store I thought was low priced was far from the least expensive option on the stuff I actually bought routinely.

Make a meal plan. Plan out what you’ll eat a week in advance before you leave for the grocery store. Know the next seven breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you’ll have, then make sure you have all of the ingredients for them. If you don’t, add that ingredient to the shopping list (it’s right on your fridge, right?).

Use your grocery store flyer. The grocery store flyer can be a great extension of the meal plan. You can use the flyer to see what items are on sale that week – particularly the fresh produce. Plan your meals for the upcoming week around these items. This will reduce the average cost of each meal because the meals are centered around an ingredient or two you got at a deep discount.

Buy fewer convenience foods. I don’t just mean frozen meals (I’ll get to those in a minute). I’m talking about things like pre-bagged lettuce and pre-cut apples. If you actually sit down and compare the prices on such prepared foods, you’re essentially paying $5 or so for about three minutes’ worth of work. Get some reusable containers, go home with the raw lettuce or apples, and do such things yourself.

Make more convenience foods. Instead of stopping each morning for breakfast, make your own breakfast burritos in advance and freeze them. Instead of just buying a premade mediocre overpriced casserole, make your own casserole in advance and freeze it. You can make your own convenience foods – and you’ll find that they’re both tastier and less expensive than the convenience foods you’ll buy elsewhere.

Drink filtered tap water as your primary beverage. Water from the tap is the least expensive beverage available to you – take advantage of it. Make it into your primary beverage throughout the day. You don’t have to give up whatever your favorite beverage might be – mine is vegetable juice, actually – but if you replace the majority of your intake with water, you’ll reduce your spending, reduce your calorie intake, and view that drink you like so much as a treat rather than a mundane requirement.

Eat (and enjoy) leftovers. When you have food left over, don’t just push it to the back of the fridge and forget about it. Have leftovers for dinner once in a while – and make it more flavorful by amping up the spices in it. Use leftovers as the basis for future meals, like transforming pot roast leftovers into a pie. Even better….

Brown bag your lunch. Take leftovers when you can. Even if you can’t, a simple meal made at home and taken to work is far, far cheaper than going out with the gang. Try doing it one or two days more a week than you do now and you’ll be surprised to see how much money you can save.

Have potluck dinners with friends. Many people socialize by going out to dinner. Why not do the same thing at home with home-cooked food and a much, much smaller bill? Start a series of potluck dinners with your friends by hosting the first one – make the main course and ask your friends to bring side dishes. It can be a fun social engagement, plus it’s a big money saver when it comes to food.

Appreciate (and utilize) the low-cost staples. I love beans. They’re incredibly inexpensive, very filling, and provide essential protein in your diet. I use beans as often as I can in recipes. Rice is another low-cost staple (though not as low-cost as it once was) that can provide an essential element to your meals. Look in the produce section of your local store over time and note the ingredients that are very low-cost. Seek to grow intimately familiar with how to make these items – and you’ll find yourself saving a lot of money.

Thirteen Easy Ways to Reduce your Food Budget

By Monica Resinger

[Editor's Note: This article focuses primarily on shopping. For more tips on lowering food cost, my e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, offers 10 pages of advice on dining out, and 30 pages on frugal gourmet cooking at home (as part of 280 pages, total, on all aspects of having fun cheaply). A huge bargain at $8.50.]

When trying to cut expenses, food is a great place to start because there are so many opportunities to save. One way to watch your savings pile up and be able to use it for a goal, such as a vacation, down payment on a home or paying off debt, is to put the cash you saved from any purchase into an envelope or a jar until you get enough to make a bank savings deposit. Make a strict rule to not use the money for anything else but your goal. Here are thirteeen easy ways to reduce your food budget that will help you achieve this:

1. If you don't want to stop going out to eat, check your local newspaper, the back of grocery receipts and junk mail flyers for restaurant coupons. A lot of restaurants offer "buy 1 meal get 1 free" on certain days of the week. If you want to cut back even more, cut back on the number of times you go out in a month or week.

2. Shop grocery outlets. Every major city has them. Ours is called *The Canned Food Warehouse*. Not every item in the store is a deal; you have to know normal food prices to compare, but when you do find a deal, it is usually a great one. You will find enough of these deals to make your trip worth it.

3. Be sure to comparison shop. Look at the sale tag on the item's shelf and see how much per pound, ounce or whatever the item is sold as. Compare that to the other products to determine which is the best deal.

4. Always check the weekly grocery ads for the good sales. If there is a really good deal on something, be sure to buy it in multiples. This will save you from paying full price later.

5. Use coupons for food products. I have found the best way to use them is combined with a sale. Most of the time, if you use a coupon without combining it with a sale, you will still be paying more than other brands, so be sure to watch for this.

6. Always use your leftovers. This saves a tremendous amount of money and time by extending your shopping trips. If you need ideas for using leftovers, check out *The Leftover Recipe E-book* that includes over 100 ideas and recipes for leftovers here:

7. Grow as much produce as you can to eat fresh and/or preserve for later. To save as much money as possible, start plants from seed. This can really add up quick and you will know how your food was grown rather than wondering what chemicals may have been applied to the plants of the produce you purchase. If you purchase organic produce to relieve this worry, it can be quite expensive.

8. Stop buying junk food, sodas and prepared food. These are not only expensive, but unhealthy, therefore a waste of your hard-earned dollars.

9. Always shop with a grocery list and stick to it so you don't buy unnecessary or expensive items.

10. Never shop hungry! Have you ever gone grocery shopping hungry? I have and I wanted to buy everything in sight because everything looked delicious! I didn't buy everything in sight, but, I did increase our grocery bill that day! Also, because I was hungry, I didn't feel like shopping or making decisions so this added to the problem.

11. About Kids. It is good training for kids, if they are old enough, to comparison shop; I usually ask mine to go get the cheapest ketchup, or whatever is nearby so I can still see them, so they get hands-on experience (you'll need to supervise this in the beginning, then later you'll be able to trust they are making the right decisions). Kids have a tendency to ask for things in the store; the best way to handle this is to let them get something within a set price limit and keep this limit each time you go shopping. If your kids are younger, you may want to consider leaving them at home with a friend or relative; younger kids can tire and get difficult in the store spoiling your frugal efforts.

12. Shop at the store's off-peak hours when you will be less rushed and can make better decisions.

13. Check out the *Fantastic Frugal Grocery Tips* E-book to learn even more ways of reducing your food budget. Among the many frugal grocery tips, you'll learn about freeze and stock foods, saving in rural areas, how to make a price book and more! Click here for more information:

Apply these tips to your life and I guarantee you'll see results!

Eating Well on a Downsized Food Budget

Published: March 2, 2009

Now may be a good time to bring back the basics — the nutritious and affordable foods that have been all but forgotten by many affluent families since the Great Depression.
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Yarek Waszul

I’m not going to suggest a nightly diet of stone soup or the cheap fat- and sugar-rich menus of the urban poor. But many people who once gave little thought to dining on steak, lobster, asparagus, baby spinach or crème brûlée are now having to spend less on just about everything, including food.

Those who have lost jobs may be able to turn some of their unwanted spare time toward the grocery and kitchen. Others, like families with two working parents or working single parents, have to carve out time to provide economical, nourishing meals.

Not only is it possible, but it can improve the health and reduce the girth of Americans, regardless of socioeconomic status.

A Little Effort Goes a Long Way

“We need to look at real foods for real people, the foods that got us through the last depression,” said Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington’s Center for Public Health Nutrition. “We must avoid the temptation to turn to cheap, empty calories — the refined grains, added sugars and added fats that give you the most calories you can get for your food dollar.”

Instead, Dr. Drewnowski said, “there are many foods that are affordable and nutrient-rich and not loaded with empty calories.”

And eating for good health does not have to mean eating less. “If you have equal portions of foods that are nutrient-dense, you will end up eating fewer calories,” he said.

For families accustomed to eating out and ordering in, shopping for and preparing meals can take more time. According to the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, low-income women who work full time spend just over 40 minutes a day on meal preparation. With a little planning, another 20 or 30 minutes can provide healthy, economical fare.

Households not accustomed to home cooking may have to make small investments in kitchen equipment and ingredients that can speed food preparation and will remain useful long after the economy improves. Even families using food stamps can afford the foods discussed below to make recipes like those posted with this column at And no one need go hungry.

Value-Added Foods

To assess which foods provide the best value of balanced nutrients for less money, Dr. Drewnowski said, “we need to calculate nutrients per calorie and nutrients per dollar and make those foods part of the mainstream diet.”

Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo who studied families in a program for overweight children found that basing the family diet on low-calorie, high-nutrient foods not only improved the health of the entire family but also reduced the amount spent on food.

One myth to dispel is that fruits and vegetables must be fresh to be nutritious. Not only do canned and frozen versions usually cost less and require less preparation, but nutrient value is as good or better and less food is wasted. Fresh produce is often harvested before it is fully ripe and so comes to the consumer with fewer than optimal nutrients. But fruits and vegetables that are canned or frozen are picked at the peak of ripeness. There is more vitamin C in a glass of orange juice made from frozen concentrate than in freshly squeezed juice.

So let’s welcome back to the American table meals made from potatoes, eggs, beans, low-fat or nonfat yogurt and milk (including reconstituted powdered milk), carrots, kale or collards, onions, bananas, apples, peanut butter, almonds, lean ground beef, chicken and turkey, along with canned or frozen corn, peas, tomatoes, broccoli and fish. For nutrient-dense beverages, Dr. Drewnowski suggests 100 percent fruit juice blends and fruit-and-vegetable juice blends.

To his suggestions I would add pasta and rice (the whole-wheat kinds cost just pennies more), which can be a base for many quick, nutritious meals. Combining leftover vegetables and meat or poultry with a pot of pasta or rice takes just minutes, and has the added benefit of reducing potential waste.

For dessert, try frozen yogurt or low-fat ice cream topped with seasonal fruit for the best nutrient-to-calorie ratio and value.

Potatoes: One of the Good Guys

Some perfectly good foods have been unfairly smeared by a broad brush. Potatoes are an example, deplored by nutrition advocates for how they are most often consumed — fried and heavily salted — and by the low-carb set for their high glycemic index.

In fact, potatoes are highly versatile, they are easily prepared in many delicious ways with little or no added fat, and they are nearly always consumed with other foods, which greatly reduces their effect on blood sugar. And they are nutritious. A five-ounce potato provides just 100 calories, for which you get 35 percent of a day’s recommended vitamin C, 20 percent of the vitamin B6, 15 percent of the iodine, 10 percent each of niacin, iron and copper, and 6 percent of the protein.

Try potatoes baked, boiled or steamed and topped with low-fat yogurt or sour cream seasoned with your favorite herbs or spices.

Beans, whether prepared from scratch (soaked overnight and then cooked) or taken from a can, are a low-cost nutritional powerhouse. They are low in fat, rich sources of B vitamins and iron, and richer in protein than any other plant food. When combined in a meal with a grain like rice (preferably brown), bulgur or whole-wheat bread, the protein quality is as good as that of meat.

Cabbage, too, gives you more than your money’s worth of nutrients, including vitamin C and potassium, at only 17 calories a cup eaten shredded and raw, 29 calories a cup when cooked. Collards are high in vitamins A and C, potassium, calcium (cup for cup, on a par with milk), iron, niacin and protein, and yet low in sodium and calories. Kale has only 43 calories a cup when cooked.

In the fruit category, it’s hard to beat apples for year-round, economical, nutritious and versatile fare that can be a part of any meal or served as a snack or dessert (as in baked apples). Bananas are also handy; even when overripe, they can be mashed and used to make banana bread or a smoothie.

Here are some other tips for busy cooks concerned about nutrition and cost:

¶Buy family-size packages of meat or poultry; divide them up and freeze meal-size portions, labeled and dated.

¶Choose the less expensive store brands of canned and frozen produce.

¶Use powdered reconstituted milk for cooking.

¶Cook in batches, enough for two or more meals, and freeze single portions for lunch.

¶Use meat, poultry and fish as a condiment, in small amounts added to main-dish salads, soups and sauces.

¶Try main-dish soups and salad for filling yet low-calorie meals. Soups can also be made in large amounts and frozen.
¶Consider buying a slow cooker for efficient, one-dish meals.