A strain many Americans are now facing is how to keep food on the table, especially for those who have a family.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping two weeks’ worth of food on hand if possible, but nearly 17 million people in the US have filed for unemployment in the past few weeks. Others might have had their work hours cut, or found that once plentiful freelance assignments are few and far between.
Being food insecure isn’t just stressful – it could also put your immune system at risk, which is needed to help stave off the possibility of a coronavirus infection.
If you’re challenged with determining how to eat sufficiently and tastefully with minimal funds, there are grocery tips and hacks you can put into practice to keep you and your family well.
Incrementally, or all at once
In its guidelines for shopping for essentials, the CDC recommends only visiting the grocery store in person when you absolutely need to. That definition may vary from household to household – for those without the space to store bulk food, going more than once a week may be necessary. Or maybe it seems too expensive to do a large grocery haul all at once rather than little by little as funds allow.
Whenever you need to go to the store, sticking to a list that’s “intentional and purposeful with the money you have and planning ahead as much as possible” can help cut down on any extra spending, said Caroline Passerrello, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
To take advantage of the best deals and receive more savings, you could also join a store’s bonus or reward card program. When you’re heading into the store, check out the sales flier or any coupon booklets.
Low-cost, highly nutritious foods
If you have little money to work with and you’re questioning what you should buy, “really look at what is key,” Passerrello said.
This includes following dietary guidelines and recommendations for nutrient dense protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Though it can be hard to avoid junk food during stressful times – that stress make us naturally gravitate toward processed carbs – there’s no monetary room for discretion, Passerrello said.
“There’s no discretionary money for discretionary calories, so make sure that everything you purchase and eat is as nutrient dense as possible,” she added.
Options for foods that offer high nutrition value for the least amount of money include eggs, dry beans, wheat bread, tortillas and peanut butter.
“Those types of items are really nutrient dense,” Passerrello said. “They have a good shelf life. If you’re able to plan ahead, they’re pretty versatile and you can use them in different ways. Almost at every meal you could incorporate those items.”
To really get more bang for your buck, look closely at a price tag’s unit price to find out how much you’re paying per ounce.
“A can of beans is usually about three and a half servings, somewhere between 50 cents and a dollar depending on what brand,” Passerrello said, adding that “low-sodium canned beans are a good option if you don’t have the ability to buy the dry beans and soak them ahead of time.”
But if you compared the unit price of dry beans versus canned beans, you’ll see which option has the best value. “The bag of beans I have is 25 servings and it was 75 cents,” Passerrello said. “And you just use them in the same way.”
Non-instant oatmeal is another inexpensive option that’s packed with iron, calcium, fiber and B-vitamins. It’s great for breakfast with butter, nuts and syrup or honey, and it can also be a treat for dinner if you’d enjoy a savory take.
Pack in protein, fruits and vegetables
If you’re opting to keep meat in your diet, higher fat options such as ground beef and chicken thighs or legs are often less expensive, Passerrello said.
“If you have a grill pan and you’re able to kind of drain the fat off, you’re able to cook it out,” she added. Doing so would help cut back on any excess saturated fat. You could also try frozen or canned fish.
As an alternative source of protein, beans aren’t only economical but fibrous, which means they’re filling, too. Other legumes, such as lentils, can be mixed with ground beef in chili or soups to stretch out the number of servings they make.
Peanut butter and eggs are two other budget friendly sources of high quality protein, Passerrello added.
Fruits and vegetables that are in season are going to be a little less expensive than their perennial counterparts.
Nutrition-wise, single ingredient canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious and typically have a lower price point, Passerrello said. It could also be less wasteful, especially if you keep it in the freezer until you’re ready to use it.
Planning ahead and portioning can help with stretching out meals so you have enough for leftovers.
“When you’re eating, eat the portion and you still have enough for leftovers. Going into that mindset is important.”
Repurpose the excess
Being purposeful with everything you buy is key to saving money on groceries, Passerrello said.
If you’ve bought canned fruit for breakfast, don’t drain the juice – keep it for drinking or adding more flavor to smoothies.
Maybe you bought fish, olives or sundried tomatoes packed in oil – use that oil to make a salad dressing with dried herbs and spices you may already have sitting in your cupboard.
Cans of beans contain a liquid called aquafaba, the water in which chickpeas or other pulses have been cooked. Typically you’d rinse out this excess, but save it, because in some forms it’s liquid gold: It can be used as a substitute for egg whites and other binders in baking.
Keep the knobby ends and cores of vegetables such as onions, carrots, celery and bell peppers in the freezer, then once you have at least four cups, simmer them in water on the stove to make your own vegetable stock.
For casseroles, mac and cheese and different soups, adding in a little dry milk powder can give it a flavor boost.
More than 800 recipes under the United States Department of Agriculture’s SNAP program are based off a $40 weekly grocery budget, which the aforementioned foods can fit within, Passerrello said.
$5 Dinners offers a recipe index, cooking tutorials and meal plans for dinners that cost $5 or less.
Large Family Table, created by a wife and mother of eight children, has more than 100 inexpensive recipes for large family meals.
ChooseMyPlate is the USDA’s interactive tool for healthy meal planning, cooking and grocery shopping. It has a searchable database for recipes and options to create a shopping list and view nutrition goals.
If you can’t go shopping
If you can’t get to your local supermarket or corner store for any reason, try checking what resources your school or county might have available for food distribution.
Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks and resources for public assistance programs, has a tool through which you can find your local food bank. You could also see whether your local YMCA or other community center is holding a food drive. Calling 311 in your city could lead you to information about currently operating food services.
If you have the money for fees and tips, grocery delivery from Instacart, Doordash or Walmart might work.
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You might feel bothered by the stigma surrounding taking help from food pantries, banks and drives, but it’s something anyone can experience, Passerrello said.
“We’re one paycheck, one job, one sickness away from having to do that. To stay healthy, to keep your immune system up, you need to eat healthy and try to let go of the stigma that you might feel surrounds taking some help,” she advised.
Sticking to a list and what’s important for your body, making inexpensive swaps and repurposing the excess of some foods can help you stay well and keep food on the table through a pandemic.