First I would have to say is the whole concept of keeping a good pantry (with the freezer and refrigerator part of the pantry). If one shops the stores for the pantry and then shops the pantry when preparing a meal first, you can save a lot of money.
For instance, I know some of the essentials items I cook with go on sale regularly. So whenever possible, I stock up when the items are on sale even if I don't immediately need them. The more you can shop this way, especially for basic ingredients, the less you spend on groceries.
Of course, it does mean spending time thinking of your menus and your recipes and some amount of time keeping the pantry organized. But the time vs. money investment is huge. It is said that most of us make the same fifteen or so recipes over and over again (seasonally).
I find that to be true in my kitchen so the food in those recipes become my core group of pantry items for meal preparations. I also look for good "pantry recipes" when perusing cookbooks and food blogs.
I have a lot of grocery stores within a close distance and I am aware of what stores are best for various sales. For instance, Aldi's is the cheapest overall, Kroger has the best sales, Meijer is great at putting things on Manager's Clearance and one of the local chains has the best prices for putting meat on clearance close to the "Sell By" date.
Those of us who use our pantries in such a way also know when to purchase seasonally on sale. For instance, I buy Philadelphia cream cheese whenever it is on a 10 for $10 sale at Krogers and that is normally before a big Holiday. If I can't purchase it at that price, I then look for the store brand sales. We love the cheesecake I make in the 9 x 13 dish but it takes five packages of cream cheese, made affordable only when I can buy it on sale.
Turkey goes on sale before Thanksgiving, items to bake with go on sale before Christmas, ham goes on sale before Easter, barbecue foods and everything that goes along with them go on sale before the 4th of July, etc.
When we learn to pay attention to where we shop, when we shop, and how we shop... we can eat better for much less. I'm always learning and I've been doing this for a long time. Just this past year I realized I can purchase spices in bulk from my health food store at a fraction of the price they are sold elsewhere (since I no longer belong to a food co-op).
Depression and WWII Era Food
I'm not sure that is the best title for these ponderings but it fits... kind of. I'm always interested in the way past generations of women (and men) fed their families. Yes, I know... many of the books actually written about recipes from the Great Depression contain those I don't think my family would eat... unless they really are starving... and even then I'm not certain.
But those tend to be the more bizarre and outrageous recipes. My family members who went through the Depression had stories much more in the way of growing their own food, learning to make recipes without hard to find ingredients, and learning to stretch what they did have.
I always think of the food eaten in Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter when they were down to eating old potatoes and thought pancakes everyday would have been wonderful. Not that most of us would deal with that kind of food stretching but the point is, people have been stretching their meals with pantry basics for a very long time.
I have learned to stock my pantry with basics that stretch the meals at low cost. For instance, when I purchase meat it needs to stretch as far as possible. I will brown a pound of meat for chili and before adding the spices, I take half of it out and let it cool. Then that half either goes in the freezer or the refrigerator for another meal. The meat is in the chili for seasoning and it now contains a lot more beans than the original recipe (which is good for us, too!).
I purchase whole chickens that get baked and then made into soup, chicken thighs on sale to be braised and used instead of more expensive beef, a small ham is used for a few meals and then the real treasure is used in bean soup... the ham bone!
It is very interesting, at least to me, to read novels from the periods in history where people had to cook the best they could from what they had, it stays with a person all their life. I think of chefs like Jacques Pepin and Lydia Bastianich, both of whom lived through WWII Europe. If you have watched either of them on TV, they use everything and both comment from time to time about never wasting food.
Ethnic and Seasonal Recipes
Another great resource I have found helpful for stretching food dollars is by looking at how other cultures eat. I mean, really... can it get much cheaper and healthier than a bean burrito? How about a simple Italian pasta dish of spaghetti, garlic, and olive oil? There are the root veggies of Eastern Europe, and the hummus of the Middle East, and the French love of good bread.
I own a few ethnic cookbooks but this is one area where my library excels. There are rows of interesting ethnic cookbooks, most of which are about inexpensive and seasonal cooking. Part of the enjoyment of the Pantry Lifestyle is to find new ways to save money but eat delicious food.
I will say here that experimenting with new-to-me spices has helped a lot. Sumac. Garam Masala. Chinese Five Spice. Even spice mixes such as Toni Chachere's yummy Creole seasoning (one of the first non-Midwestern food spices I tried) will perk up simple food.
Another area the ethnic cookbooks excel in... reminding us that when we eat seasonally and what is available in abundance is not only healthy, it saves us money.
Yes, DIY in the kitchen! Perhaps the best way I have stretched my food budget is to simply... do it myself. And if I can do it... so can just about anyone.
Now, there are some things I will pay to have premade. For instance, it is always frozen puff pastry for this cook. I don't even want to attempt making my own puff pastry. I also purchase items like good quality Amish style dried noodles. Wanton wraps or taco shells? I know people make their own all the time but I do have an issue with fatigue so sometimes it is wise to purchase already made. But these are all items that tend to be inexpensive.
For the most part, I have learned to make many of the items my family enjoys that are expensive purchased already made. The photo above is from Christmas, when I made shortbread for gifts.
Have you priced shortbread at a bakery? At the supermarket? My goodness! It is the easiest thing in the world to make and it cost a fortune at the store. It is not expensive to make at home, especially if you stock up on butter and freeze it when it is on sale.
I am always amazed (and by now I shouldn't be) when I walk down certain aisles of the grocery store and see what they are charging for items. Now, like I said, there are some things I don't make and I can see paying extra for them. Like a really good croissant (I have no desire to make a real French croissant). I will pay for someone else's time and skills. But most cooking and baking is quite easy to learn and far less expensive to do yourself.
The price of potato salad is ridiculous at the grocery store (although Meijer's discounts it close to the Sell By date and I will buy it, then). Potato salad, macaroni salad (one of my mom's go-to frugal recipes), tuna salad, etc... all easy to make at home. I can make enough potato salad to feed a 4th of July party crowd for what the store is asking for one medium size container. Not to mention mine taste better. No really, it does. You can find the Heloise potato salad recipe... here.
Even with such a tight budget, there are times when I do pay the price of having someone else do the baking or the cooking... but that is when such a treat is an inexpensive mental vacation that I need to keep sane (although my children may think it is too late for that).
That latte at Starbucks, the coffee and scone at Panera, breakfast at Cracker Barrel... yes, I could have coffee at home and I make a darn good scone and as far as breakfast... I can scramble eggs. But even if you are on a tight budget... no, especially if you are on a tight budget... you need a little spoiling here and there.
Whether it is paid for by a gift card from your friends and family or because you saved enough by being a frugal shopper... when you do pay for others to make it for you, thoroughly enjoy the mini vacation without guilt whatsoever. It makes your heart sing and helps you go on in the every day living... or at least it helps me.
So to bring this to a completion because honestly, we could chat about this subject until the cows come home (did I hear a moo outside the window?), I do the best I can with what I have to work with. I do make stocking the pantry a priority when I can work it in the budget.
I have learned a lot of recipes and techniques from others who have cooked on a tight budget before me. I am using far less meat than I once did in my meals. I continue to learn all I can about cooking and baking using good quality, seasonal, inexpensive foods that come together to make a delicious meal.
And as always... attitude is everything. If you no longer have a big food budget, then look at it as an opportunity to cook the way those who came before us did for centuries. And don't forget to ask the Blessing over all He has provided.