University of Illinois Extension

Stretching Your Food Dollar

Grocery shopping can be a real challenge, especially if you are on a limited budget. But because food is a controllable expense, it can be a target for reduced spending when money is tight. By planning ahead and managing your money wisely, you can still serve meals that are appetizing, easily prepared, and nutritious.

Food Shopping Starts at Home

Most of us can change our food spending habits in ways that make each food dollar go further and still improve nutrition. Before dashing out to the supermarket, it’s important to “do your home-work.” Take the time to review newspaper ads, plan meals and make a shopping list. By doing so, you are more likely to find the best buys, avoid impulse purchases and eliminate extra trips for forgotten items.

Be a smart shopper and get more for your money by deciding in advance what foods to serve for meals and snacks. As you plan your menus, follow these important steps:

  • Start with a plan. Make a chart for every day of the week filling in main dish items and other foods you will serve at a meal. Since the main dish is usually the most expensive part of the meal, make your plan around that food.
  • Check newspaper ads for special sales. Planning your meals around specials and seasonal foods can help save money. Compare advertised prices among stores to find where you can save the most on your entire shopping list. Buy only what you can use and compare prices with those found in other ads. Be aware that specials and coupon offers invite you to buy impulsively. And impulsive buying can blow your budget. Even at special prices and with refunds or coupons, some foods may not be within your budget.
  • Clip coupons. You can save money if the item is one you would normally buy and if the item is less expensive than similar brands. Most cents-off coupons offered by stores or manufacturers are for the more expensive, highly processed foods or for foods in abundant supply. But using coupons for coffee, prepared foods, cereals, flour and flour mix products can save about 10 percent in most food budgets. Don’t use a coupon to justify buying a food that your family doesn’t need or that costs more than a store brand, even with the coupon savings.
  • Take advantage of seasonal specials. Foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, are generally less expensive when in great sup-ply.
  • Consider food preferences. When you serve popular foods, you increase eating pleasure. Make a collection of economical, nutritious recipes that your family likes and serve them often.
  • Think appetite appeal. Since we eat with our eyes, plan meals using foods of contrasting colors, textures, flavors, sizes and shapes.
  • Plan the use of leftovers. They can be used in casseroles, soups, for snacks and in lunch boxes.
  • If there is food waste in your household, ask yourself why. Are you buying food in the right quantities? Is food refused or left on the plate? Are servings too large? Is the food cooked properly? Encourage family members to help in menu planning and meal preparation so you will have help in making decisions that affect the eating pleasure of the entire family.

Remember, your food and physical activity choices each day affect your health—how you feel today, tomorrow, and in the future. Healthy foods ultimately give you “more value for the dollar” because you may spend less on medical costs due to heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses.

MyPlate and the Nutrition Facts Label found on food containers can be used together to help you plan your food intake. Keep in mind that information on the Nutrition Facts Label is based on an individual consuming 2,000 calories a day. Some people need more, others need less. When you go to on the web, you can type in your personal information to find the amounts of calories and food that are right for you. You can do this for each family member to get an idea of how much food you need for a meal.

The MyPlate graphic can help you visualize how the different food groups should be represented in a balanced diet. Generally, Americans should focus on eating more fruits and vegetables and smaller portions of grains and protein foods. MyPlate can also be used as a guide to balance your meals. Half of your plate should have fruits and vegetables, with lean protein and whole grains each taking up ¼ of the plate. A serving of dairy should also be included.

Mixed dishes and combination foods also work with MyPlate.

Example: 3-4 ounces of grilled chicken breast on whole grain bun, topped with a slice of cheddar cheese, mustard, lettuce, and tomato. Serve with a salad of mixed greens on the side. Fruit can be eaten as dessert or saved to be eaten later as a snack.

Example: Bowl of stir-fry made with lean beef, brown rice, and vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and mushrooms with a glass of low-fat milk to drink. Fruit like pineapple or mandarin oranges may be included in the stir-fry or eaten as a side dish.

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