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MM-mmm, cheap: Finding inexpensive food, recipes

By Gary Foreman
Published: January 24, 2013

New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He wrote "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear New Frugal You,
I need help finding some cheap recipes. My grocery bill is a killer. Prices keep going up and my income is going down. As a single mother of four, I need to feed them healthy meals. Since I work I use some already prepared foods to save time. Can you help me save money by finding some cheap, easy recipes? -- Kelsey

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Kelsey,
You're right. When you come home from work and have four hungry kids to feed, it's hard to think frugally. But as you've already discovered, that's a quick way to let your grocery bill get out of hand.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, food prices only went up 0.3 percent in the first 11 months of 2012. But everyone I know who has been to a grocery store wonders if their calculators are broken in Washington. It feels as if prices go up every time we visit the grocery store! 

So let's see if we can't help you find some cheap, healthy recipes for your family. Rather than a collection of recipes, we're going to suggest how to find them and other tools that can soften the blow at the grocery store.

Begin by looking at the food you're buying now. What you have in your cart will tell you a lot about where you'll find savings. Are you buying a lot of individual ingredients or prepared and prepacked foods? Is everything ready to pop into the microwave? A lot of individual serving sizes?

Once you've examined your current shopping and cooking habits, you're in a position to look for ways to save.

Our grandmothers may not have worked outside the home, but they worked very hard inside it. So they found simple recipes that were tasty, nutritious, easy and inexpensive. Ask grandma for her favorite recipes or search out copies of older recipe books such as Betty Crocker. You can find them at thrift shops or online.

Look for other recipes online, too. Include words like easy, simple and cheap in your search. Look for Depression-era recipes, too.

Make an extra effort to find easy recipes that can replace convenience foods. Despite what you see on the Food Channel, cooking doesn't need to be complicated or take hours.

Change your cooking style. Many of us think the microwave is for popcorn and heating premade dinners we've bought at the store. The surprising fact is that you can cook many things in the microwave. Both main and side dishes can be cooked in a relatively short period of time.

The crockpot cooker is another great tool for anyone looking for cheap recipes. Not only does it allow you to prepare an easy meal in the morning and have it ready when you come home from work, but the slow cooking makes even cheaper cuts of meat tender.

Change what you eat. Dieticians will tell you that Americans have a very meat-centered diet. Meat is expensive. Other sources of protein (think beans) are less expensive. You don't need to become a vegetarian. But every meal doesn't need 1/4 pound of meat per person. An occasional meatless meal won't harm your children's growth.

Transition to a simpler diet. Many cultures have a diet featuring grains and vegetables. Items such as rice are very inexpensive. In season, locally grown veggies are also cheap.

Pay attention to unit pricing. Bring a calculator with you when you shop. Often your favorite brand might not be the cheapest. Why not try the cheaper brand? Perhaps you'll find you like it.

Look for ways to keep your kitchen time to a minimum. We buy convenience foods to save time in the kitchen. But that's not the only solution. Look for ways to get two meals out of one cooking effort. For instance, you may be browning ground beef for today's sloppy joes. But you could just as easily brown twice as much and save half for another meal in a few days.

Learn to cook your own fast food at home. Most fast food is not that hard to make. The ingredients are generally simple, and often cheap.

You can premake and freeze many fast food items. Things such as burritos, pockets and personal pan pizzas can be made a dozen at a time and frozen.

Admittedly, many of these tools will require minor lifestyle changes. But those changes could benefit your family. Reducing prepared and fast foods could provide better nutrition for your growing children.

Spending a little more time in the kitchen isn't always a bad thing. It's a perfect time to talk to your kids about their day at school or to help them with their homework. It also gives you the opportunity to teach them about cooking so they're in a better position when they have their own family to feed.

See related: Feeding family frugally, Beyond couponing: How big families can cut food budgets

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