Feed a family of four for $100 a week by knowing what to buy and what to leave on the shelf.
Even a food stamp allowance for a family of four is $117. With gas and corn prices surging, the retail costs of basic items such as milk, apples, pork chops and potatoes have gone up 8.5% in the past year, according to the most recent American Farm Bureau Federation's Marketbasket Survey.
With a little planning and the help of a couple of nutritionists, one family figured out what to buy and what to leave on the shelf, and no, they didn't eat beans or pasta every night. The rules:
-All of the food had to come from a major national grocery chain. No low-priced ethnic markets or bag-your-own-groceries warehouse stores. They could have saved even more, but this had to be something everyone could do.
-No coupons. Many of these are for things that are too fattening or just too expensive to begin with.
-No cleaning products or paper goods. There wasn't enough room in the budget.
-The meals served had to be relatively healthful. Otherwise, what's the point?
Did the family of four make it?
Most weeks the family spent nearly $250 at a grocery store. That's well above the $182 budget the U.S. government considers "moderate" for a family of our size and ages.
A $100 budget gave the family $1.19 a meal per person, obviously not enough for dinners or coffees out and barely enough to put decent meat on our plates.
Did the family spend $100 or less? No.
They cheated twice, and both were on items they wasn't proud of.
The first time, they bought a sodium-packed $1.07 bean burrito at a fast-food place as the mother rushed off starving to an appointment for the son. The second time was at the end of the week, when the mother caved to several minutes of back-seat whining for soft-serve ice cream.
Those purchases brought the total expenditures for the week to $105.03, meaning they overspent by about 6 cents a meal per person.
The experts weigh in:
With a $100 budget, there's no room for error. Every meal and snack has to be meticulously planned, and the whole family has to eat it. In this case, with two adults, a toddler and a 4-year-old, that's a pretty wide swing.
"That's a real challenge," says Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian and the author of "10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman's Diet."
Somer said to use meat sparingly. Instead of a steak, buy extra-lean beef stew meat and cook it in a soup or stew.
"Americans are obsessed with protein, but it's the one nutrient we actually get too much of," Somer said.
To shave off more money, also consider adding at least three bean-based meals to my week, whether it's a burrito, bean soup or rice and beans for dinner, she said.