Is it possible to eat for $7 or less a day? At least one New Yorker, Zack, an aspiring comedian who asked that U.S. News use only his first name, says he does it. Here's how, along with strategies anyone can use:
Buy in bulk. Zack, who is in his mid-30s, drives to the suburbs in New Jersey to shop at bulk retailers like Sam's Club. He fills large duffel bags with 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.
[ See: 10 Ways to Live on a Green Budget.]
Compare prices. For some items, like fruit, buying from street vendors turns out to be cheaper than shopping in city 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 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 2009 survey from Washington Consumers' Checkbook, a nonprofit that ranks local companies, shows families that spend $150 a week if they shop at average-priced chains like Safeway, could save $1,326 annually by shopping at the discount store Bottom Dollar Food – or spend $3,510 more by shopping at Whole Foods Market. 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.
Bulk up your meals. Build your meals around rice, noodles or other grains, advises the Department of Agriculture's recipe book, which is available on its website. 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. A cookbook from the University of Wyoming suggests heavy use of oatmeal and includes an oatmeal cookie recipe that incorporates applesauce. Kansas State University has a recipe for "mom's breaded tomatoes," which mixes bread and flour into cooked tomatoes to make the vegetable dish more filling. (Bread and flour are very cheap and can make dishes feel heartier.)
Make use of leftovers and your freezer. The Department of Agriculture'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 as a pancake topping, then freezing the unused juice in ice cube trays for future ice teas.
Bake "fried" chicken. A variation of "baked" fried chicken appears 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 (and cost) 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 buying a lot of fruits and vegetables, even if they're on sale, to prevent waste. 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.