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Selecting high quality food on a low quality budget - PART I

Many mouths, few dollars?

Layoff? Medical emergency? Food stamps? When you find yourself buying food on a very limited budget, you need additional information. You have to buy carefully and prepare thoughtfully in order to make a litle money be enough. The guidelines below will help you to select what is necessary to keep those you feed healthy on a day to day basis.

  • Buy for proteins
  • Buy for calcium
  • Buy for iron and vitamins
  • Buy for flavor
  • Buy what you need
  • Buy supplementary foods to balance protein and nutritional needs
  • Never buy anything to throw away! Plan, you can't afford impulse. Store carefully. Use up all edibles.
  • Find free or alternate sources. What else can you get? Where?

The information following may help you to make some comparisons and adapt your own favorite recipes to a lower cost/higher nutrition style of cooking and eating.

Planning balanced meals

You have to start by planning meals.

When you begin planning menus, start learning to visualize the whole day as the nutritional package and the meal as a working unit. Sometimes you will find you will change a whole meal from one day to another because it would complement that days' food or work need or time limitation better, or that by changing one or two items in a meal you can improve the food quality of the whole meal.

No matter what the budget, try at every meal to provide your table guests with the food they need in a form that is palatable to them.

Protein on a budget?

Because meat is the most expensive item on many food budgets, lowering the food budget usually means reducing or eliminating animal protein. When the amount of meat is limited, it is particularly important to use recipes for baking and grain combinations that will supply complete, high quality combined vegetable protein. Don't cut corners on the supplementary foods: spend the money for nutritional yeast, wheat germ, milk powder, sesame/sunflower seeds and soy products willingly, so that vegetarian meals can be complete.

Take the time to learn what the foods must be eaten to balance each other until you can do it almost automatically. When no meat and no eggs are used, careful protein combining or supplementation can increase the usefulness of your food to your body by about 30 grams protein per day at no cost. That's about 4 eggs worth, cholesterol and cost free. That amount of roast beef would cost you about $4.40 (2012) at our local store. That is per person, per day, free with good planning!

When you do plan some sort of serious meat eating, do it in the most economical way possible; if time, rather than money, is what you have to spend, prepare some of the foods where time and attention to preparation really count. Try classic recipes such as sauerbraten, teriyaki, shish kebob where marinades turn meat or fish into something remarkable; dishes like cassoulet, coq au vin, paella, curries and tanduri dishes where long cooking or unique combinations show their effect; meat-sparing eastern foods of all types from Arabic to Japanese. Organ meats from organically fed animals are other concentrated sources of nutrients.

Ethnic or regional foods, when eaten as part of the meal they came from originally, usually represent balanced or nearly balanced meals, with the meat used in small amounts to supplement the diet. Some examples of instinctive ethnic combinations: hummus (beans and seeds); rice and soy from the orient; corn and beans from all over the Americas. Boston Baked Beans with brown bread (beans and grains), hopping john and black-eyed Susan (rice and beans), many more.

There is even one vegetarian combination that is a part of the modern American diet, a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk. Eaten apart, these would provide about 20 grams of protein to your body. Eaten together, on whole wheat/soy bread, they balance one another and provide about 30 grams.

Look for seasonal and regional variations that change prices of protein foods. Sales drastically effect the costs. For example, salmon, usually $8.98 a pound, was on sale here last week for $2.98, making it an excellent protein buy for a moderate budget--it would still have been too much for a poverty-stricken one. Here in Texas, boneless chuck roast still goes on sale occasionally for $1.29 a pound, sitting right next to the $1.79 a pound regular hamburger. Medium eggs are a much better buy than large in the spring, but this can reverse later in the year. Dairy proteins and eggs are the cheapest animal protein sources, and a number of recipes using them are included on site.

Finally, meat substitutes made with wheat or soy, such as my Unchuck Roast or any of the other gluten dishes, provide meaty chew and flavor with a protein punch for about $2.00 a pound.

Calcium sources on a budget

Study the nondairy sources of calcium and include at least one in every meal.

If you are really broke, you will probably be getting most of your calcium from dried milk, and drinking it, too. Do make yogurt; even if nobody eats it plain, it can be made from dried milk and used to make cheese spreads, all kinds of sauces, etc. and to provide a base for sauces and salad dressings. If you are really broke, you won't even be buying mayonnaise very often (8.50 + per gallon as opposed to about 3.60 for a gallon of homemade yogurt), and thick yogurt mixed with a little oil can be used as a mayonnaise substitute.

When we were on our $4 a week per person budget (1975) in the mountains, breakfast every morning included a half gallon of milk for drinking or cereal and a full gallon of double strength yogurt--the equivalent of more than two cups of milk per person.

No milk was served at other meals, but cheese, yogurt, and dried milk were used in the preparation so that the equivalent of a quart of fluid milk was used for each person every day. More than 40 grams of usable protein were available for each body at breakfast alone, much of it from high-calcium sources, and this meal acted as "insurance" during many stressful days.

Vitamin C

One of the things we spent our money on during our economy month was vitamin C tablets. This vitamin is almost guaranteed to be short in a diet which includes only small amounts of the lowest priced fresh vegetables and fruits, especially in winter when few cheap fresh things are available. What vitamin C is available in sprouts, etc., should be carefully preserved by refrigerating fresh foods immediately in airtight or closed containers, washing vegetables without soaking, and cooking them minimum time, or not at all.

In addition, select vegetables that are higher in vitamins to start with; buy carrots, cabbage, winter squash, broccoli, chili and peppers, spinach instead of iceberg for salads, yams instead of white potatoes if they are the same or near the same price. Use the outside leaves, end pieces, anything that is edible but too scroungy to go to the table as stock base. Use celery and carrot tops in soups or chopped fine in salads (and if the carrots with the tops are only a penny or two more, get them, the tops are worth it in the soup pot!). Buy parsley for eating and put the stems in the stock. It is an outstanding source of vitamin A.

The only canned vegetables which are usually affordable under an austere regime are tomatoes and tomato paste and corn; sometimes peas or green beans. Others may go on sale at crop harvest time. Frozen foods sometimes go on sale in January.

Buying for flavor

Three vegetables with almost no nutritional value are good examples of the buying for flavor principle. Onions and garlic, and bunch celery, remarkable only for their antiseptic qualities, are included in the budget because of the kind things they do to much of the other food you will be using.

This can be illustrated in other ways: Parmesan at 6.89 a pound looks more expensive than jack or cheddar at 4.59 (and you may not even "see" it at the store because you will be thinking of slabs rather than cans or jars of grated cheese) but the flavor is so rich and cheesy that it uses less and lasts a long time; hot "salsa ranchera" is 1.09 cents for a small jar, but that bright flavor is enough to turn a #10 can of tomatoes into a flavorful enchilada sauce for a large group and a teaspoon will add considerable spice to cornbread or a casserole; tortillas at 5 cents each seem expensive, but two enchiladas cost about the same as and are a lot more interesting than a cheese and tomato sandwich; fresh mushrooms or chopped olives may seem like an extravagance, but both provide satisfying flavor as meat substitutes on pizza, in casseroles, in sandwiches and salads, with the mushrooms contributing useful sulphur compounds and the black olives iron. Spices and herbs, bought from bulk sales and used in moderation, are also not in the extravagance class, especially if you can get them in other forms than small expensive bottles; most supermarkets carry plastic bags full of the most common spices on a rack half-hidden somewhere in the store at lower prices, natural foods groceries have bulk herbs and teas at about 1/4 or less the standard price and ethnic markets of all sorts carry loose and packaged varieties of even the most exotic spices, also for less. The clerks can often even suggest new uses for them.

For many cooks, the keeping of a moderate amount of potable alcohol for cooking falls into the buying for flavor category. A jug of red wine and a bottle of sherry from which to season, sauce and flavor a month's food for 20 people needn't cost more than $10 and add a rich dimension to the preparation of the food.

Buying what you need

How do you know what to buy? Always shop from a list! Or to be less doctrinaire, if you can go into a store knowing that you want high-vitamin vegetables for 20 people for three days and come out with the right stuff, great. Otherwise, make a list and use it.

Some of the specific needs of the bodies you are nourishing are predictable; the people you are feeding may also have some other needs around food that you will be working with. Buying what you need means knowing what is necessary and providing it to the full extent of your ability. It includes learning to re-think your own habits and prejudices about food and changing them to allow you to deal with this group now; learning not to trick yourself into too rigid categories (for example, in the Parmesan cheese example above, it means realizing that what you need is strong cheese flavor, not a block of cheese). Sometimes, you will be buying things that you personally would rather not buy or don't enjoy eating, sometimes a chunk of food money will have to be spent for a non-food emergency. That's life! Learn to buy and prepare food without resentment.

One a more mundane level, buying what you need means buying the appropriate sizes of things and storing them so that they are still usable when it is time to use them. Buy bulk sizes cautiously, and with an eye toward storage. A good quality number 10 can of tomato sauce costs around $4.00, and holds over 3 quarts. Compare this to 2.29 for a 24 ounce container that holds 3 cups, over $9.00 for the same amount. But if the large can is used once and carelessly stored so it is wasted, it will actually cost more than the extravagant jar.

Leftovers or planned overs?

While being thrifty and planning wisely, don't fall into the habit of using each meal as the garbage can of the previous one. Sometimes you will deliberately prepare more than is needed for one meal, sometimes a leftover will inspire a new combination. Safe storage and alert monitoring of saved foods is the key here. Otherwise, the leftover gets thrown away, or often it will just be put into the next similar meal--and every meal will begin to taste the same. Freezing small amounts of foods before they become leftovers or waste, then using them for freshly made soups or casseroles, is a part of the thrifty plan.

There is another aspect to buying what you need. People need different forms of food at for different kinds of work or even at different seasons, so be aware that changes in seasons and weather should bring about corresponding changes in the food you serve.

Per person planning guide

Daily Proteins

At least 6 servings of protein foods such as:

(1 serving)
*2 oz. serving of meat, fish, or poultry
about 1/3 C cooked soybeans (that's about 120, if you eat the roasted nut-type ones)
*about 1/2 C grated cheese (2 ounces)
1/2 C instant dry milk OR 1/3 C non-instant type
1 1/2 C (12 oz.) fluid mlk
*2 oz. (1.2"x1.2"x3.2" cube) regular cheese
2 vegetarian or regular hot dogs
about 1/2 C wheat germ
3 T food yeast (Kal or Red Star VSF are the tastiest, in my opinion)
7 oz. soy cheese (tofu)
*1/3 C cottage cheese
1/3 C soy flour
*2 whole eggs
5 T miso (fermented soy paste)
1 C plain, solid type yogurt
1/2 C nuts or seeds OR 1/3 C nut or seed butter
*1/3 - 1/2 cup gluten-base or soy base vegetarian meat substitutes
3 tablespoons vital wheat gluten

* low carb protein choices- may be used without limit by people restricting their intake of carbohydrates

Vegetable proteins except soybeans tend to be less useful to the body than animal proteins because their amino acid balance is not as favorable. The amounts given here are for unsupplemented foods. If you learn to combine foods, you will need to eat less of these foods to get the same amount of usable protein by eating them in complementary combinations.

Green vegetables and salads

Bulky green and yellow vegetables are the key to improved nutrition at a low calorie cost, providing vitamins, fibers and pectins. Use 4 or more servings including 1 at breakfast!

Seasonal prices and sales are the key to lower fresh vegetable cost. Because fresh vegetables are fragile and relatively expensive, plan purchases thoughtfully and store/chill carefully. In cities, produce wholesalers will often sell single cases to individual buyers, reducing costs about half.

Sales on freezer vegetables are big in January. Canned vegetables are somewhat more cyclic, tending to fall at harvest time for the particular crop.

Home grown sprouts are a cheap salad. Middle eastern tabouli and pasta salads are examples of stretching salad ingrdients with less costly grains.

Substitute less expensive for more expensive. Cabbage stores well, is a good lettuce replacement when finely shredded, and bulks out any stir-fried dish if finely shredded as a bean sprout replacement.

Waste nothing! "Hearts of cabbage", one of the most popular vegetable dishes at the Luby's cafeterias, was created to use up the cores of all the cabbages made into coleslaw. All cooked leftover vegetables can be marinated and chilled for salads, or pureed into the soup pot.

Economy limits purchasing expensive tomatoes, peppers and summer squashes, but think outside the box; all of these grow like weeds, even in a bucket or box on the porch. Line a box with a garbage bag, punch a few holes for drainage, add some potting soil and a plant or two and in less than two months you have free food.

Fruits; look for fresh or frozen without syrup:

Fruits provide principally vitamins, fibers and pectins, and carbohydrates in the diet. They may be used in reasonable amounts by people not limiting their carbohydrate intake, but should be considered a garnish, rather than a staple, to the diet. 2 to 4 servings including 1 high vitamin C per day is usually enough of fruits or juices. Commercial juices are sugary and have no fiber; eat the whole fruits.

Breads, grains, and starchy vegetables:

Sedentary adults aim for not more than 6 servings per day of whole grain or Cornell formula bread and whole grain cereal products. 1 serving is 1 slice of bread or 1/2 C cooked grains or cereals. Kids, teens and those doing heavy physical work, use carbohydrate foods for extra calories, but for health, ABSOLUTELY NO JUNK FOOD, CHIPS, CRACKLES, DOUGHNUTS or other "BAKERY PRODUCTS".

Sugar and sweets:

These are concentrated calorie sources, second only to fats and eaten in larger quantities.

For sedentary people, preferably none, but in no case more than 2 T sugar (or its equivalent in honey, syrups or dried fruits) a day. A craving for sweets is often one of the first signs of a protein deficiency and is intensified and aggravated by feeding sugar or other carbohydrates in any form. Eat these with or right after proteins to slow their bad effects on your blood sugar.

About the Food Stamp program

The budget for food stamps is based on the thrifty plan (see below), which the USDA states plainly is an emergency plan, not nutritionally adequate for use for over three months. Millions are trying to live on it. Shop smart. If you can, donate time, food or money to your local food bank, which donates food for hundreds of meals to needy eaters.

Estimated Monthly Food Costs
at Home at Four Levels U.S. Average, April 2001 Official USDA Food Plans

    20-50 years

    51 years and over

    Couple, 20-50 years
       and children--
    2 and 3-5 years

    6-8 and 9-11 years

Thrifty Plan





Low-Cost Plan





Moderate Plan





Liberal Plan





The complete current USDA file includes weekly and monthly cost data for individuals and groups. 
It may be accessed on CNPP's home page at

Bean and grain dishes cost less. Meat and dairy dishes are more expensive.