Great nutrition and tight budgets do not need to be at odds. If you struggle to feed your family well on a dime, there’s help to be had. We’ll talk today about some resources for finding food support and some shopping approaches to help stretch your food dollars. During the rest of the month, we’ll talk about cooking techniques to work with what you’ve found.
First things first: help is out there and a lot of people are fighting hard against hunger. Food pantries may have looser eligibility requirements than state or federal benefits programs. If your family is facing hunger and you expect your income difficulties to be brief, they may be able to help. Find a food pantry near you. If your income challenges are more severe or long-term, you may additionally qualify for a benefits program such as:
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
In some cases, increasing the amount of money and food families have access to is really the best way to get better nutrition on a tight budget, or even to free up a little more money for housing and utilities. If you could use these services, please know folks are there for you. If you’ve got money to spare, please consider donating money to your local food pantries.
We all know an important technique for stretching a food budget is shopping sales. Chicken breast at $3/lb. eats up a food budget faster than a sales of $2/lb. What you might not know is that, for some of our clients, you can check the Guiding Stars rating of sale foods directly in the flyer. Look for one, two, or three Guiding Stars next to sale foods to help you pick the most nutritious budget-smart items.
Shopping bulk does not help everyone on a budget, I know. It’s not always a savings, for one thing. For another, we don’t all have the financial flexibility to sit on a pallet of soup. Here’s how I, personally, approach bulk shopping.
Big Box Bulk
I don’t shop warehouse stores enough to have a membership for my household. The cost breakdown doesn’t make sense for us. I have the good fortune to have parents and plenty of siblings, so we can share a membership to get enough use out of it. I have identified specific items that my family needs all the time and which are meaningfully cheaper in bulk, and that is all I buy. We don’t deviate to buy bulk snacks or sweets or discount electronics–items I tend not to buy on the regular. Buying them in bulk would be cheaper per unit than buying a small amount once in awhile, but we’ve found that if snacks like that are in the house, we eat more of them, and therefore ultimately spend more on them too.
Price Checking Bulk
I also don’t go into a warehouse store without a way to check prices on other common necessities. Fortunately, my usual grocery store has an app with prices on the products, so it’s easy to confirm whether the bulk purchase saves enough to be worth the extra immediate expenditure. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
One other note on bulk: if your grocery store offers bulk bins, check them out. The price per unit may or may not be better than buying a package of a certain. If you only want a very small quantity of something special, like pine nuts, bulk bins can let you buy exactly what you need. Few of us need to have $10 invested in a pine nut stash in our cupboards where the non-cooks in the family might devour them thoughtlessly.
When I was little, my parents had a tight, tight budget. My mother used to walk into a grocery store with only cash so she wouldn’t accidentally overspend her budget and end up shorting something else. She’d send my sisters and I off in pairs to grab items for the list. We had to bring the price back so she could tally it all up as we went so we wouldn’t have to put anything back at the register. As a kid, it made shopping more interesting. As an adult, I’m left with respect for the fiscal value planning your food carefully. Here is the budget-smart shopping process I learned at my mother’s knee:
- Know what you can afford to spend.
- Know what food you have in the cupboards and use it.
- Research sales and shop coupons.
- Write a menu around your pantry and sales. Write a list to fill in gaps. Stick to the menu and the list.
- Eat 30 minutes before you go into a grocery store so you aren’t shopping hungry.