Last Wednesday I shared 10 ways to help stretch your food dollar. I think the tips are good for folks living on the road or in a sticks-n-bricks. I’m not out of ideas, so here are 10 more tips for making the most of your food budget.
#1 Steer clear of fast food. If you’re eating from the regular menu at most restaurants, a meal is usually not inexpensive. Also, we all know fast food is not typically good for our health.
If you do eat fast food (and sometimes on the road it seems unavoidable) try to do so infrequently and stick to the value menu. Of course, McDonald’s has a famous value menu, but so do Taco Bell (their Fiesta Potato Grilled Breakfast Burrito with potato, egg, and cheese and a price of only $1 is my favorite fast food breakfast), Denny’s, Wendy’s and Del Taco. Also, it’s admittedly difficult to resist a $5 large pizza from Little Caesar’s.
If you join a fast food restaurant’s loyalty program via the internet, you can sometimes get email notifications of coupons, discounts, and freebies.
#2 Buy distressed produce after the price has been marked down. In many food stores, bruised, nicked, wilted, or otherwise distressed produce is sold at a deep discount. When you find discounted produce that’s no longer at its peak, think about what you might be able to use it for. Could you make apple sauce or apple butter or pancake topping from mushy apples? Could you cut bruises off vegetables and use the good parts to make soup or stock? Would mashed strawberries still taste delicious in a strawberry shortcake or smoothie? Sometimes reduced produce is on the brink of spoiling and still perfectly fine if you use it TODAY.
#3 Buy marked down bakery items. Bakery items are often marked down before they pass their freshness date. Many large supermarkets with in-house bakeries have a special area for bakery items being sold at a reduced price. Some towns also have bakery outlets where name brand baked goods are sold off cheaply right before or right after they reach their freshness date.
Don’t go overboard with cheap cookies, cakes, and white bread. These items are usually not super healthy, and you probably don’t really need them. You get the biggest savings by not spending money on things you don’t need. You also save money by maintaining your health. However, for a treat, reduced price bakery items can’t be beat.
#4 Buy scratched and dented cans and items past their “best by” date. There are entire grocery stores dedicated to these types of items. You can also look for the clearance section of individual food stores.
The “sell by,” “best by,” or “expiration” date on packaged food is usually only a suggestion. I have eaten plenty of canned beans, energy bars, and corn chips after the date on the package, and I’ve never been sick. Occasionally items with no preservatives or heavy with nuts or oils might taste rancid, but I don’t usually notice that unless an item is more than three months past the date on the package. If I’m skeptical, I’ll buy just one of the item in question, taste it, then make my decision.
I also get good deals on canned goods that have been banged up. Often items in dented cans are not even “expired.” I avoid cans that are leaking or bulging or open, and I’ve never had a problem and have saved a fortune.
#5 Utilize food pantries. Most towns have at least one food pantry. Some require photo ID, proof of income, and proof of address. Some don’t require anything at all. If the food pantry guidelines say you qualify, you qualify, so you don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed. Food pantries are there to help people in need. If you are in need, utilize what’s there to help you.
#6 Qualify for SNAP benefits. Qualifying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka EBT, aka food stamps) requires jumping through some hoops and sharing lots of personal information but can really help low-income folks buy healthy food. You can probably apply online.
I feel the same way about SNAP as I do about food pantries: don’t feel guilty or ashamed for using something you qualify for.
#7 Dumpster Dive I once lived in a town with an unlocked dumpster behind a grocery store. My friends and I got so much food out of the trash there. We got enough slightly distressed, but still salvagable produce there to feed ourselves and each other and sometimes strangers many gallons of delicious and nutritious soup. We also got enough junk food to satisfy all our sweet teeth. You probably can’t count on finding food in the trash in every town you roll through, but when you find a good source, you can eat like royalty.
#8 Trade your labor for food. If you see fruit or nut trees growing in a yard and ready for harvest, ask the person who owns the trees if you can harvest what’s ripe and keep half of what you pick in exchange for your labor. Maybe the owner will say no or look at you like you’re weird. So what? Maybe they’ll agree to share their fresh and healthy food with you if you’re willing to do a little work.
Foraging is related to this idea of eating produce quite literally growing on trees in urban areas. If you’re interested in foraging, check out the Falling Fruit website. The project calls itself
a celebration of the overlooked culinary bounty of our city streets,
and says that while
[o]ur edible map is not the first of its kind…it aspires to be the world’s most comprehensive. While our users contribute locations of their own, we comb the internet for pre-existing knowledge, seeking to unite the efforts of foragers, foresters, and freegans everywhere.
#9 Eat the food people offer you. Say yes if a friend invites you over for a home-cooked meal. Take the box of crackers you family member offers you after trying one and deciding s/he didn’t like it. Again, there’s no shame in taking what is offered to you.
#10 Don’t get tricked into thinking you’re getting a bargain just because everything in the store costs a dollar. Often items I see at Dollar Tree can be had for a cheaper per ounce price at Wal-Mart or a supermarket. Sometimes even the same size item is less expensive elsewhere. Don’t get caught up in an it’s only a dollar frenzy. (I have been caught up in that frenzy many times.) Occasionally I do find a real bargain at the Dollar Tree, like packages of multigrain rice cakes, but typically the food there is over-priced or junk food or over-priced junk food.
What are you tips for eating healthy food while on a tight budget? Please share your best ideas in the comments.