Now, I'm not a nutritionist or dietician. I'm a diabetic that HAS to eat healthy meals in order to feel well. Carbohydrate-heavy meals like rice and beans or Ramen noodles would have me in a coma very quickly. I NEED to have well-planned, well-rounded meals. Since I have a large family and often have friends over, I also need meals that please everyone, but ones that don't break my tight food budget of $200 or less each month. MY KEY TO THIS IS EFFICIENT MEAL PLANNING, and, yes, it CAN BE DONE. I've spent several years figuring out how to cut back our grocery budget.
Meal planning before shopping is a must, and I know it saves me money. I often plan meals for 3 to 4 weeks at a time.
Sit down and make a list on paper of everything your family likes to eat. I came up with at least 50 different meals that my family enjoys. Then go through your fridge, freezer and pantry and make a list of everything that is edible. Sit down and try to put together meals from that list. If you need one or two ingredients to finish out a meal, try to find it on sale in your store ads. Example: You have lasagna noodles and cottage cheese and ground meat, but you need tomato sauce (inexpensive) and mozzarella cheese to finish out the lasagna. You look in your local store ad, and it's on sale! Lasagna goes on your meal plan and list for shopping that week. If the cheese isn't on sale, then you may want to wait until it does to make the lasagna. (keep your list of meals for reference so that you remember what you planned! Mine is posted on the fridge door. Doesn't do any good to plan meals if you can't remember what you planned!)
Meat doesn't have to be the centerpiece of each meal. Casseroles or skillet meals are money savers! Round out the meal with biscuits, bread or rolls and a tossed salad if you want. Please, be sure to get a good variety of vegetables in your meal plan.
Fresh fruit and veggies are something that I buy only when they are in season or if I have a surplus of grocery money, with the exception of celery, carrots and onions. Canned or frozen work just as well. You can meet nutritional needs if you choose wisely. I've also found that most recipes requiring cheese can get by with 1/2 of what it calls for.
I make EVERYTHING from scratch except for pasta. Breads, buns, spaghetti sauces, salad dressings, seasoning mixes, etc. (I do cheat sometimes if I find bread or buns on sale.) I have recipes that are proven tasty; they have to please 7 people with different tastes. Part of the reason I started this blog was to pass along my recipes.
I also grow a huge garden every summer and freeze or can as much as possible. Tomatoes, tomato sauce, salsa, tomato juice, pickles, carrots, beans, corn, peas, squash, pumpkin, applesauce, apple butter, jams, grape juice, potatoes. That saves us hundreds of dollars on our grocery bill each year. If you can't garden, you could always try buying produce from local farmers or at a farmers market. You don't have to can all the produce, most things will freeze nicely and you'll have a good nutritional and money-saving start.
I rarely buy name brand items unless I've got a coupon that will get an item for less than store brand price. Store brand works great for us. I shop for pantry supplies at an Amish bulk food store, a salvage grocery store, and a dollar store. I will take advantage of loss leaders in store ads IF it is a good price, but I'm not into buying convenience or prepackaged foods because most of the time I can make them for less. I buy paper products, dishsoap and personal care items at the dollar store, milk from a gas station/convenience store (up to $1 less than at the grocery), and eggs from a tiny local dept. store for $1.25/doz. I shop our local butcher shop and have found that ground beef and other cuts are usually less expensive than the grocery and are trimmed better for less fat. I don't know what is available in your area, but it paid me to just stop and check around at the little stores to find the best deals. One week I spotted big 40 oz. jars of Jif peanut butter on CLEARANCE for $3.70 per jar! You bet I picked them up! I also make our own laundry soap (4 gallons for under $4, no need for fabric softener) and use vinegar and baking soda for a lot of spot cleaning.
During July/August of 2009 I participated in a Grocery Challenge by All You magazine. By following the way I usually do things (meal planning around what I have, buying only what I need) and really concentrating on couponing, I spent only $26.59 during the 4 weeks. We ate GREAT meals like wet burritos, chicken a la king, pork and beef roasts, baked ham, oven fried chicken, homemade pot pie and Swiss steak, to name a few.
Eating well on a tiny budget? IT CAN BE DONE.