Is it possible to eat for $7 or less a day? At least one New Yorker, Zack, an aspiring comedian, says he does it. Here's how, along with more strategies anyone can use:
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Buy in bulk. Zack drives to the suburbs in New Jersey to shop at bulk retailers, such as Sam's Club. He fills large duffel bags of food to bring back to the city and estimates it saves a significant chunk of change each month.
Stockpile supplies. Cans of beans and tomatoes are cheap, store easily, and make quick, filling meals.
Compare prices. For some items, such as fruit, buying from street vendors turns out to be cheaper than shopping at Manhattan grocery stores.
Cook big. Zack makes lots of soup, chili, and other big dishes that can turn into leftovers or even go into the freezer for a future meal. To spruce up the dishes and make them even bigger, he often adds pasta or rice.
Plan ahead. By loosely deciding in advance which meals to cook on which nights, Zack avoids getting home from work—starving—and eating out just because it seems easier.
Shop discount. A survey from Washington Consumers' Checkbook shows that families that would spend $150 a week if they shopped at average-priced chains, such as Safeway, could save $1,326 by shopping at the discount store Bottom Dollar Food—or spend $3,510 more by shopping at Whole Foods. While the survey focused on Washington, D.C.-area stores, the same principle applies across the country: Shops sell food, and often the exact same name brands, for very different prices. By switching from Whole Foods to Bottom Dollar Food, customers could save almost $5,000 a year. That figure might be enough to scare you off those pricey organic brands for awhile.
Build your meals around rice, noodles, or other grains, advises the Agriculture Department's recipe book. A casserole, for example, should be heavy on rice and vegetables. The feds offer a beef-noodle casserole along with stir-fried pork and vegetables with rice that demonstrate this technique. The University of Wyoming's cookbook suggests heavy use of oatmeal, and includes an oatmeal cookie recipe that incorporates applesauce. Kansas State University describes "mom's breaded tomatoes," which mixes bread and flour into cooked tomatoes to make the vegetable dish more filling.
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Make use of leftovers, and your freezer. The Agriculture Department's recipe book urges users to make a beef pot roast according to its relatively simple recipe, then freeze half of it. It recommends the same technique with baked meatballs and turkey chili. The University of Wyoming suggests using canned peaches for pancakes, then freezing the unused juice in ice cube trays for future ice teas.
Bake "fried" chicken. A variation of "baked" fried chicken occurred over and over again in university cookbooks. The basic recipe: Coat chicken pieces in breading and Parmesan cheese along with spices, then bake in the oven. That way, you avoid the grease of fried chicken takeout.
Avoid prepackaged items. Instead of buying hummus, grated cheese packages, or frozen meals, make these items yourself to save money as well as cut down on sodium.
Go meatless. The university recipe books don't say this explicitly—probably because they want to avoid alienating farmers—but avoiding meat, or even just cutting back on it, saves a lot of money. Instead of beef or chicken, substitute beans and eggs.
Stop wasting. The Agriculture Department recommends stocking up on food that keeps well, such as canned orange juice or dry goods. But be careful with fruits and vegetables, even if they're on sale, to prevent waste. Home cooks stuck with extra eggplant or flounder can avoid wasting food by using websites such as Allrecipes.com and the FoodNetwork.com to search for dishes based on the ingredients they have at home.
Do you have any tips for saving money on food? Please share them below.
Corrected on 9/27/2011: In a previous version of this story the food blog Smitten Kitchen was misidentified.