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.
The other expert, Cynthia Sass, a dietitian and the nutrition director of Prevention magazine, advised to consider canned products, such as salmon, tuna, chicken and clams, when the butcher department got too expensive. These are fine in pasta and rice dishes, wraps and casseroles.
A crockpot, Sass said, would be a good way to tenderize inexpensive and often-tough cuts of meat.
But, most important, Sass said, was the planning.
"People tend to buy less food than what they really need," Sass said. And that means going out again, which often leads to greater spending (and impulse buying).
Most people could reap the biggest benefits from stockpiling a few weeks' worth of items in their pantry or freezer when they see a good sale.
Smart shopping is the key:
On a Saturday morning, the mother sat down with the sales circular from my local store and started planning. She looked to see which meat, fruit and vegetables were the cheapest and put those on her list, devising a rough menu in my head. She later cracked open a few cookbooks to make sure she had everything she needed.
The mother made a list of snacks my family would eat that are healthful and dirt-cheap, such as:
-Raisins (from the big generic canister).
-Popcorn (made on our stove popper, rather than in the microwave).
"The most inexpensive snacks are also some of the healthiest," says grocery expert Stephanie Nelson, better known as The Coupon Mom.
The mother of the family of four checked Nelson's Web site for a list of unadvertised specials at her local store and found a few other items that would round out my meals for the week. It also lists advertised specials for each store and region, so shoppers can compile a grocery list from all of the discounted items.
What was left off my grocery list were things packaged for convenience, like those 100-calorie snack packs or baby carrots, a lot of brand-name items (unless they were on sale) and processed foods such as cookies, crackers or waffles.
At the store, she was surprised to find out how little fresh produce she could get for her money, even with most of her choices -- including broccoli, cabbage, nectarines, green beans, carrots, zucchini and corn -- selling for 99 cents a pound or less. So, she added some canned fruit and frozen vegetables, such as lima beans and peas, that Sass said are almost as nutritious.
Into her cart went the cheaper two-packs of milk jugs, a canister of quick-cooking oatmeal, a bag of inexpensive puffed rice cereal and some eggs, a cheap source of protein. She bought diced tomatoes, beans, corn tortillas, pasta, marinara sauce and luncheon meat.
In the butcher section, boneless pork shoulder, chicken breasts and round steak were on sale and on her menu. She also added canned salmon, rice, potatoes, bread and a few other items to fill up my pantry. She used the oil, flour, sugar and spices that were at her house but bought ketchup because they were running low.
She had brought along a calculator to keep track of what she was spending, but with a toddler in tow, her calculations quickly became estimates, so she just tried her best to stay under the total.
Ultimately, however, she walked out the door having paid $95.22. However, she did have to make another run at the end of the week for $6.62 of groceries, including more eggs, a small container of milk, another loaf of bread and a few bananas.
By midweek, they were all a little sick of rice and potatoes. By the end of the week, she never wanted to see another raisin, carrot, pretzel or piece of puffed rice again.
Here's what they ate:
-Breakfasts were fairly easy, with most of my family eating the eggs, cereal, plain yogurt, oatmeal or homemade French toast I had planned. However, her son missed his waffles sorely.
-Lunches were a bit harder to scrape together. They consisted of dinner leftovers, bean and cheese burritos, or sandwiches of luncheon meat or peanut butter and jelly.
-Dinners were tasty but required a lot more preparation than she was used to. She prepared salmon patties, rice, corn and zucchini one night; barbecue chicken, green beans and rice another; as well as family favorites like spaghetti and meatballs; sloppy Joes; and a slow-cooker pork and cabbage meal (which her 4-year-old took just two bites of).
-With such a tiny budget, if she wanted dessert she had to make it myself, so she used the butter and flour she had at home with the milk, eggs, canned pineapple and bread she bought to make a quick pineapple bread pudding and poured juice into molds to make popsicles.
Most of the dinners were relatively healthful, with plenty of protein and a vegetable, but they padded out their meals with a lot of starches, including potatoes and rice.
The family didn't eat as much fresh fruit, nuts and vegetables as they usually do. The toddler and the mother missed avocadoes a great deal, and missed having at least one dinner out as a family.
However, on the upside, they also ate smaller, more realistic portions without feeling like they were missing out too much.