Meat doesn't have to be the centerpiece the rest of the time, either. Serve a playing-card-sized amount along with a couple of sides (e.g., potatoes, quinoa, beans, vegetables, salad). Make chili with half a pound (or less) of meat. Rather than put a chicken breast on every plate, use just one in a stir-fry with rice and your favorite vegetables.
Speaking of vegetables: I promise you will not suffer serious malnutrition if you choose frozen corn over the "fresh" green beans (which may have been picked 10 days ago). Look, I love fresh produce. But when it's more expensive than meat, my fallback positions are frozen vegetables and dried or canned fruit.
Two more produce tips:
- Pre-bagging is an inexact science, so weigh a few bags if you have time. I wound up with 2.25 pounds of carrots that way, i.e., 12.5% more for free.
- Look for "manager's specials." Slightly overripe bananas are great for smoothies or banana bread. I turned a 99-cent bag of apples into almost five cups of applesauce.
I mention rice a lot because I eat it a lot. At a nearby Asian market it's $2.50 for a 5-pound sack; easier for me to store, and still only 5 cents per serving. The dollar store might sell it in smaller bags but at similar discounts.
What about snacks and desserts?
I didn't end every meal with a sweet, but I could have. My frugal dessert hacks:
Candy. Thanks to drugstore sales and stacked coupons I got 14-ounce bags of M&Ms for a dollar. Post-holiday clearance tables are another place to find cheap sweets. Chocolate freezes well.
Coupon cookies. Nabisco introduced a new variety of Oreo with a dollar-off coupon. A nearby supermarket doubled the Q, so I paid 69 cents, or about 2.5 cents per cookie.
Old-fashioned puddings. Rice pudding cost me about 5 cents per serving. I also did a coconut bread pudding with part of a 50-cent baguette from a Jimmy John's sandwich shop, for less than 10 cents per serving.
Homemade yogurt with fruit or a little jam (see below).
You can have snacks, too. Among my between-meal nibbles during these two weeks:
- Hard-boiled eggs (10.75 cents apiece).
- Crackers with peanut butter (on-sale-with-coupon Wheat Thins, about 6 cents per serving; scraping of peanut butter from a 99-cent jar, practically nothing).
- Dried plums or apricots (16 cents per serving).
- Pretzel sticks, with or without mustard (8.5 cents or less, depending on how many I ate; the mustard was free with coupons).
- Yogurt with fruit or jam (27 cents or less per serving).
These treats were much healthier than chips or cookies -- and much cheaper, too.
The yogurt, made in a slow cooker, was hands-down my favorite treat. Remember that milk may be cheaper at the drugstore or mini-mart than the supermarket. For breakfast cereals, consider buying whole milk and diluting it with water.
Note: When you see a super deal on milk, buy it and freeze it. Watch for close-dated milk -- I've paid as little as 99 cents per gallon -- and either stick it in the freezer or make pudding or yogurt.
Look for the day-old breads in supermarket bakeries, too, and see if sandwich shops in your area sell the previous day's rolls. After making bread pudding, I used the rest of that 50-cent Jimmy John's baguette as toast with jam for a snack, and as pizza bread (lightly toasted and then topped with a spoon of homemade spaghetti sauce plus a sprinkling of "reduced for quick sale" cheese.)
These are not fancy meals. But they were tasty and filling and allowed me to eat for just over $4 a day. I still have leftovers in my freezer and unused ingredients in the cupboard. I could have spent considerably less if I'd eaten the same few dishes over and over, but I wanted to feature a variety of meals.
It took a little work, but not that much. If you're willing to put in a few hours a week reading ads, maybe collecting coupons, making menus and doing some basic cooking, you can weather a rough financial patch or tighten your food budget and send those extra dollars elsewhere.
VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
Quotes are real-time for NASDAQ, NYSE and AMEX. See delay times for other exchanges.
Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Thomson Reuters; click for restrictions. Real-time quotes provided by BATS Exchange. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Interactive Data Real-Time Services. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by SIX Telekurs.
Japanese stock price data provided by Nomura Research Institute Ltd.; quotes delayed 20 minutes. Canadian fund data provided by CANNEX Financial Exchanges Ltd.