Feeding a family of four should cost no more than $100 a week and allow meat as part of the diet. Without meat it becomes even cheaper to feed a family. Living in a rural community as I do builds grocery reducing skills fast as a survival tactic. I have an advantage because I grow much of my own food. Even buying all your food can be done at a significantly lower cost.
Most meals should cost under a dollar per person with the occasional splurge. A healthy diet is cheaper than the prepackaged over-processed food in most people’s pantry. You can have a nutritious and delicious diet for a fraction of the cost of what you are paying now.
Fresh fruits and vegetables need to be a part of a family’s meal plan. Healthy eating invigorates the mind and body for maximum performance. Junk food leads to a junk body. As Zig Ziglar said, “You wouldn’t allow a race horse to sit up all night watching TV, eating junk food, drinking beer, and smoking cigarettes, would you? Then why would you do it to a million dollar body?” Of course we knew what Zig was talking about. Our body, mind and soul are worth well more than a million dollars so we need to take care of it.
Before I take you shopping we need to know what we are going to buy. The best way to start is with a meal plan. Waiting until the last minute and eating whatever is convenient at the time is sure to lead to eating junk food and cost more than you should be paying.
I am going to assume you eat meat. For my vegan readers you will need to replace meat with a good protein replacement. Even meat-eaters need to limit the amount of meat they eat. Junk food, soda, and processed sugars are not on the menu.
Breakfast is the cheapest meal of the day. A typical breakfast will include either eggs or oatmeal. Eggs are a low-cost source of protein and can be prepared in multiple ways so they never get boring. Oatmeal is filling and keeps hunger away until lunch. Oatmeal has been adulterated over the years and turned into a sugar filled pre-packaged product. When I say oatmeal here I mean just the rolled oats like the Quaker oatmeal in the round containers. You can add your own sweetener. I recommend either honey or brown sugar.
Lunch is also a low-cost meal. Leftovers from last night’s dinner, a PBJ sandwich or soup do the trick. Peanut butter has loads of protein and satisfies hunger. Soup is warm and feeds a large family for pennies. Some of my favorite soups are: beef barley, vegetable, and lentil. The vegetable soup is really the beef barley without the beef. Lentil soup is probably one of the healthiest things you can eat.
Dinner is your main meal and meat can be a part of the menu. A limited amount of red meat (beef) is allowed, while chicken and pork are more common. Avoid the processed deli meats; they are unhealthy and expensive. Adding steamed vegetables or a potato to the main dish rounds out the dinner plate.
Fresh fruit makes a perfect snack and provides the natural sugars the body needs along with fiber.
I left a lot open in the meal plan for you to fill in your favorite foods grown locally. Where you live will determine many of the foods you eat. I don’t want you married to my diet. Soup is a good meal. Your culture or geographic location will determine what goes in your kettle.
Meat: Now that you have an idea of what you need to feed your family it is time to go shopping. We will start with meat because it is the most expensive item on the grocery bill. First off, I never buy meat at the grocery store. I find a butcher shop that sells what I need and order either a quarter (beef), whole chickens, or a whole pig. I rotate what we buy to keep variety in the freezer. Which brings up a good point; you need a freezer. Don’t worry; it will pay for itself in less than a year.
A quarter of beef will be 200-250 pounds or more of meat. You will pay less per pound (kilo and gram for everyone outside the United States) for the entire quarter than you will pay for cheap cuts in the grocery store. I will avoid talking price because each community has different prices, especially on meat. What I will say is where I live good ground beef runs close to $3 a pound. I can get a whole quarter of beef (quarter of the whole animal) for under $3 a pound, including the steaks. I prefer grass fed beef.
Ten to twelve whole chickens run about 100 pounds and a whole pig will be close to 200 pounds. Buying meat in bulk by purchasing whole animals at a butcher shop will cut meat expense in half or more. No more $10 a pound steaks for you. Remember, you paid less than $3 a pound for the whole carcass.
Fruits and vegetables: Your local market will determine the greatest values in plant-based foods. Apples and oranges seem to be shipped everywhere and are reasonably priced. Climate determines what grows locally and is cheapest to eat.
There is a way to get lots of fruits and vegetables for free or nearly so. I learned this trick at an energy fair where a guy asked grocery stores if he could have all their fresh produce as it was ready to expire. It works like this. Your grocer brings in fresh produce on a regular basis. The thing about fresh produce is that it does not stay fresh long. Any produce that does not look pretty will not sell either. Therefore, ask you local grocer if you can have a discount on less than pretty produce or older produce. (More on how to handle older produce in a bit.) The grocer has to pay to send all this stuff not sold to the landfill. Farmers buy this stuff up to feed to their animals so the supply might be small or already spoken for. Grocer’s discount produce to move as it ages. Bananas are a perfect example. Even gas stations selling bananas need to move the product fast once it is ripe.
Legumes: Americans do not eat enough legumes. Beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts should be a significant part of your diet. Legumes are cheap, easy to prepare, and some of the healthiest food to put in your body. Most legumes can be purchased for under a dollar a pound.
Preserving Your Cache
Okay, you found some great deals and now you need to keep it fresh for your family. You don’t want to end up running to the store several times a week buying food. If you do your grocery bill will be astronomical. Buying meat in bulk or finding crates of peaches for sale at a discount as they are ripe and the grocer needs to move them fast puts the burden of preserving the value on you.
Freezing: I’ll repeat myself; you need a freezer. Buying 10 chickens or a quarter of beef requires a chest freezer. Buying fresh vegetables in season at a low price does you no good if it ends up in the garbage. Freezing is my favorite way to preserve food. A dash of Fruit Fresh on cut fruit will last a long time in the freezer. You will have fresh fruit all winter for pennies a serving.
Not everything works well in the freezer. I never cared for pole/sugar/snap/bush beans in the freezer. We grow a lot of bush beans every year and tried freezing them in different ways. They always seem to come out of the freezer spongy and limp.
Canning: Canning solves the problems with home-grown beans. Mrs. Accountant cans a lot of food over the year. There isn’t much that can’t be canned. Vegetables are the best canning candidates; I prefer fruit frozen. Canning is also more expensive than freezing. Therefore, my recommendation is to either commit to canning a reasonable amount of food to offset the cost or just buy the stuff at the store already canned.
Mrs. A is the resident canning expert. She knows when to can with a water bath or a pressure cooker. There are plenty of sites around the web to help you can if that is something you want to do.
Dehydrating: Dehydrators are the best invention ever. You can make home-made beef jerky for 80% less than store bought jerky. A cheap roast makes the best jerky. The best part is when Mrs. A loads the dehydrator with jerky it is done in less than a day. I mean the beef jerky is all gone, consumed, in less than a day. And before you have a wise-ass remark, it was not all my fault. Mostly my fault, but not completely my fault. Let’s settle for 98% my fault.
My favorite candy is banana chips. When bananas go on sale because they are ripe and will go bad in a few days the stores and gas stations give them away or sell them really cheap. I buy them all. Mrs. A slices them thin and dehydrates them. No added sugar needed; they are sweet enough as is. Be warned: homemade banana chips are addicting. Crack cocaine has nothing on banana chips.
Any fruit can be dehydrated. Pears and apples are always good dried. Once dried, the fruit can be stored in any sealed container and lasts a long time. I’d give a timeline for how long dried fruit lasts, but it never has gone bad in our house. Sometimes dear ‘ol dad needs to fight them off with a stick. Just think if I had boys! I’d need a shotgun to hold’em back. Damn scavengers.
Final Food Discount
I don’t know of any community that does not have some kind of food tree that grows locally. Many of your neighbors have such trees. One or two trees can produce more food than one family can eat. Most people are too lazy to pick their own food even when it is next to the driveway. Me, I put on my million dollar smile and ask neighbors if they don’t mind if I pick their apples for them. It is rare for someone to say no. I always offer to pick some for the owner, too.
Nuts, apples, pears, peaches (yes, a certain breed of peach grows in Wisconsin), apricots, cherries, plums, and a variety of nuts grow locally and I get most of them for free. (I’m not one of the nuts!) An hour of time picking usually fills the coffers enough to last a year. If the owner of the tree would like some of the produce I leave some with them. Most don’t care. The neighbors like me because I clean stuff up for them. The food is exactly the same as at the store with the exception of no chemicals or fertilizers applied.
I am unconcerned about the attractiveness of my fruits and vegetables. Soon they are sliced and diced and packed away. We can’t all be as pretty as me so I treat ugly fruit with the same respect as pretty fruit. It all tastes the same.