The government shutdown continues, with no end in sight. While congress argues about how and where to spend its money, families in the Washington area and across the country are pinching their own precious pennies, concerned about how furloughs might affect their bank accounts.
One area that is likely getting a long, hard look in many households is the food budget. Even if you’re not in the habit of feeding your children tenderloin steaks or seafood every night, there’s probably room to save some money here and there at the grocery store.
I spoke with Melissa d’Arabian, host of the Food Network show “Ten Dollar Dinners,” by phone about how parents can trim their food budgets without sacrificing in quality and quantity. Here are her suggestions.
* Choose the smallest cart available. Studies have shown that when you have a larger cart, you tend to buy more, d’Arabian said. So if there is more than one size available, always go small. That forces you to think about what you really need and you will have less room for impulse buys in the cart. If the store only has one size cart, d’Arabian suggests making the cart seem smaller by stopping first in the produce aisle and loading up on sale items.
“There’s a myth that fresh vegetables and fruit cost more,” d’Arabian said. “Nothing is further from the truth. The whole trick is to follow what’s on sale. It’s the cheapest and it’s also what is best because it means that it’s in season.”
* Let sales drive your menu. Don’t go to the store thinking that you’re going to buy boneless skinless chicken breasts, no matter the cost, for dinner that night. Instead, shop for what is on sale, particularly in the protein department, and plan your meals around the best deals. Grab a flyer on the way into the store, d’Arabian said, and take advantage of the “loss leaders” in the front of the circular, where certain meat products may be discounted 50 percent or more. Buy extra when they are on sale and freeze them to use in the future.
Those savings can add up over time, given that protein is usually the most expensive part of your meals, d’Arabian said.
* Have a “cheap protein” night. Kid-friendly beans and eggs are much less expensive than meat, poultry and seafood. So d’Arabian likes to plan one meal a week with those as the main protein.
She also suggests stretching your protein by not making it the main attraction on your plate. Mix your chicken with lots of vegetables to make fajitas or add meat to a whole-grain pasta dish. The meat is still there, d’Arabian said, but instead of using a package of four chicken breasts for one dinner for a family of four, you can make it last for two or three meals.
“Slice up some meat or shrimp and put it on white beans,” d’Arabian said. White beans are a great way to stretch more expensive proteins. Your family will still be full but they will eat way less meat, which is going to save you money.”
* Cut back on the waste. The most expensive ingredient in your house is the one you throw out, d’Arabian said, no matter how cheap it was when you bought it. It’s important to manage the food you’ve bought and use it before it spoils.
Before she goes to the store, d’Arabian takes three minutes to do a quick check of her pantry, refrigerator and freezer. She moves anything that is on the verge of spoiling to the front so she can see it and remember to use it.
Then she plans her menu to make use of those ingredients, often in soup or pasta.
“Nothing makes me feel more financially irresponsible than throwing away food,” she said.
Check out our budget-friendly recipes to help you get through the shutdown.