Food Inflation: Ten Tips to Help A Tightening Budget

Last Wednesday, I looked over the USDA food cost chart and compared prices of February 2021 and February 2022.  I noted that while there was an increase in all levels of food cost (thrifty, low, moderate and luxury plans are available), the thrifty food plan had seen the highest increase, coming in at around 27% based on figures for a male and female in the 50-70 age group.   

In 2021, a family of four might have expected to pay about $604 a month on the thrifty food plan.  In 2022 it's estimated they paid $889.  If I'm figuring this right, that's a 27% increase. (If I'm wrong someone who does math better than I do, let me know.)

First let's look at what the government suggests for each individual.  I found the chart below by doing a search on the home page of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Some sources have links for free printables. You can also find My Plate and Food Pyramid posters for sale on Amazon. <>   The images I'm sharing are not the best quality.  I couldn't do a screen shot from the USDA site, so I took a photo of my computer screen.  Please forgive the poor quality.

The USDA site has a lot of written information, some of it extremely confusing, and a whole lot of stuff to be sifted through.  Essentially, they replace the food triangle with a circle that allots percentages of the budget to each category of food and what one might expect to pay to eat a balanced diet.  

Those who qualify for SNAP benefits routinely get increases based upon the published government costs.  I know this because someone I know is on SNAP and they spoke of the increases they received monthly as prices fluctuated.  At one point, they were overwhelmed with the dollar amount of benefits they had received and asked my advice on what to do with it (it's a use or lose it thing each month).  I suggested stocking heavily on long lasting pantry items they knew they'd buy repeatedly and packing the freezer with meats.   

But what do you do if you have a fixed income, don't qualify for SNAP benefits and/or simply can't afford the increased food costs due to other obligations that must be met?  I don't know many young families who have the sort of wiggle room in their budget that allows for a huge food cost increase.

I say, "Keep calm and learn to use what you do have very well."   As you know, I've been working this past year to eliminate all food waste.  I've been successful enough to feel encouraged.  But one thing's for sure, you must be prepared to work at meal preparation all of the time.   If you're following a thrifty meal plan already, you're probably preparing all meals at home, but there's always room for improvement.  With increased costs, if your budget is hard and fast where food is concerned then you're going to find yourself working a bit harder in the kitchen.   Less money means less food.  It means you are going to have to make different choices in some areas than you've been making.

#1. Make Your Own.  One thing I've been doing more of this year is asking myself, "Can I make that myself?"  Salad dressing, tortillas, bread, bagels, cookies, chicken tenders, seasoning mixes, pizza, frozen entrees...It's amazing the number of times I've said, "Yes, I can do that myself."  All require items I'd normally keep in my pantry anyway, just plain basic ingredients combined in a variety of ways.  Most of the things I make taste 100% better than anything I could buy at the store.  Nearly all the things I make myself, using basic pantry ingredients come in at a whole lot less than the store charges me to buy them ready prepared.  Is it intensive work?   Yes, but the money I save will allow me to buy MORE pantry basics and make MORE items than I have been making from scratch already.  There's the bonus! 

Another point here is to ask if you can skip the convenience of buying chopped, peeled fruits and vegetables and do it yourself.  You're paying a premium price per pound for letting someone at the store prep those for you.  There is an exception.  Occasionally frozen chopped peppers and onions, broccoli florets, riced cauliflower, diced fruits are far better priced per pound than the fresh whole ones.  This past week Aldi had broccoli florets for 95c a bag.  A head of broccoli cost $2.99.  For that price, I could buy three bags of florets and have them on hand.  That's convenience and good purchasing power. By all means, check all your prices and know that you're not only getting convenience in an item, but you are also making the best of your budget.

Marinades can be very pricey when purchased.  They are a boon to adding flavor and tenderizing tougher cuts of meat, however, which are cheaper.  You might be tempted to buy them, but you can probably make marinades at home that taste as good.  Read ingredient lists on a bottle.  Look up copycat recipes online.  I'll bet you find you can easily make them at home using items already in your pantry or on your spice shelf for a lot less.  Ditto for meat rubs and seasoned salts.  Essentially, they almost all use some sort of acid (vinegar, lemon juice) and seasonings like salt, garlic, etc.

#2.  Build your own recipe binder.  Every time you make a new recipe that is budget friendly, for every item you learn to make at home rather than buy a commercial product, save those recipes and keep them in a binder!   There is nothing more frustrating than knowing you've found a great recipe and lose the site address or forgetting which cookbook it came from, etc.  If in future you find a better recipe, one that is cheaper to make and tastier, be sure to replace the recipe in your binder with the better recipe.

Be sure to add in recipes that are family favorites, as well as recipes you use in each season of the year.  You can use those recipes to track sales prices on ingredients.  Just because you are on a tight budget doesn't mean you have to forgo all the family favorites and special holiday dishes.  Stock up on those items while they are on sale.

Here's how a recipe binder can help you save money.  My dear daughter-in-law loves a certain congealed salad at Thanksgiving.  Cranberry sauce is on sale in the autumn.  Canned pineapple usually goes on sale in spring or early summer.  The flavored gelatin will go on sale around most holidays of the year including summer holidays.  I buy each ingredient required when they are on sale.  Come Thanksgiving, I am happy to produce the salad Bess loves, knowing that I've kept it economical.

Don't just add in recipes.  Add in a handy list of substitutions you can make for ingredients you might be missing in your pantry.  I wrote a post here stating what you can substitute for many ingredients.  

Also, write down and keep meal plans that have earned raves from the family.  Why do I so often serve chili with a pineapple salad and cornbread?  Because my family raved over it every time it came to the table. I do serve chili in other ways but that menu that earns me the accolades without fail every time I serve it.

Add the food pyramid nutrition guide to your binder.  It's a good to remember how to balance your daily meals over a week's menu plan.

Keep a list of what herbs and spices work well with which foods.  You know basil works well with tomatoes, but did you know it does wonderful things to yellow squash?  Just try it and see!  Nutmeg is so good in banana bread but it's also good in a cheese sauce or with creamed spinach.  I have such a chart on the inside of the book cover of a cookbook and two more that came as free charts in magazines.

#3.  Use it all.  Are you really making the most of all the food you have?   Have you learned to create Leftover Makeovers?   Are you saving liquids from canned vegetables or slow cooked meats?  Do you save leftovers of vegetables in a soup canister in the freezer?  

Do you throw away a portion of the vegetable as you eat?  Potatoes don't need to be peeled.  Carrots and potatoes both can be given a good hard scrub with warm water and a vegetable brush (I prefer a clean stainless-steel pad, not soapy type).  Do you save the root end of celery and the stem end of carrots, the root and stem ends, the first outer layer of the onion?  These are great to use to make broths.  You can even tie them in a net bag and use them to season any other soup or stew.  You can also dry the celery leaves in a low oven and grind them to use to season meats, vegetables, and other dishes.
Broccoli stems are tough compared to the florets, but they can be really tasty.  Pare and shred as slaw (or use as filler in hamburger meat).  Slice and use in a stir fry.  Dice and steam until tender then make broccoli rice with the stems.  You're using ALL of what you bought if you're buying.

When you prep vegetables are you careful to remove only what is necessary?  I watched a video recently in which the couple cooked yellow squash.  They cut off a whole two inches at the stem and blossom end and tossed them into the trash.  That was food going into the garbage!  Are they naturally wasteful people?  Not from what I've seen, but sometimes, I think we are wasteful because we simply aren't paying attention to what we're doing.  And I can't help but recall that as a young wife, an aunt gave me the task of peeling potatoes.  She peered into the bowl after I was done and said "Well there were potatoes there..."  Truth told she was being rather fussy because I knew well and truly by then how to pare a potato very nicely without waste but here I am 40 years later recalling the sting of her criticism and I take care to pare as thinly as I can!

Have you tried making croutons from bread ends?  Or your own breadcrumbs?  Do you save bones from chicken or turkey or other meats and make meaty broths?  Have you saved apple cores and peels to make jelly or vinegar at home?  You can and there are videos online to help you learn how.

#4. Make it Stretch.  You can stretch most casseroles by adding in more vegetables or increasing the starch component in a dish.  In the days when I cooked for a family of 7 and any number of guests each night, I often added in extra onion, grated zucchini or carrots, a bag of spinach, chopped eggplant, even chopped up pumpkin (very good in a beef stew and chili).  My children ate lasagna, spaghetti, chili, meatloaf and soups with all sorts of 'Eww' eliciting vegetables in them and never once complained.  If the guests outnumbered the servings, I would also add in more rice, potatoes or pasta.  I'd add extra beans and liquid to chili and then serve over rice to extend that dish and add heartiness.  And if the meal had already been well stretched with those items, I just added a pan of cornbread or biscuits or toast to help fill up the hollows as I served smaller portions of the main dish.

#5.  Decrease meat serving sizes.  I might add ' and don't let the family know'.   I made it my habit to cook a whole chicken, turkey, half a ham, a large chuck or butt roast, or even a huge meatloaf for a Sunday dinner.  I didn't let the family have a free for all at that meal. I sliced meat and portioned it.  If you want a spectacular Sunday dinner you don't need to eat heavily of the meat.  Add in extra side dishes.  Serve three or four vegetables, a salad, bread and just a slice or two (about 2-3 ounces) of meat per person.   Add a dessert.  Make that Sunday dinner look like a spread of food! 

What happened to the remainder of those big pieces of meat?  They were carefully divided into portions and meals planned ahead from them.  I'd wrap up each portion of cooked meat and write the name of the dish on the label, so I knew just what that meat was intended to make.  Here's where that 'leftover makeover" idea came to life in my household.  I purposely looked for recipes that included cooked meat in the ingredient list.  Chicken and Wild Rice casserole, Strata, Hash, Goulash, etc. were favorites and used often.

In casseroles, I often used half a pound of ground beef instead of a full pound.   If a recipe called for two cups-cooked chicken, I'd try making the recipe with one and a half cups and the next time decrease it to one cup.  One of my favorite thrifty recipes calls for just 1/2 cup of chicken to serve 8 people.  Two of the casseroles frequently on our menu plan these days both originally called for 2 pounds of ground beef...I've yet to make either one with a full pound!  No one has ever complained.  Meat doesn't have to be the main star.  It can be a flavoring.  Think of Bolognese sauce and chili.  Cut down on the meat portions, increase the vegetables/beans.  

I also made ground meat stretch with fillers like oatmeal, bread or cracker crumbs, even mashed beans.  Meatloaf made with one pound of meat, 1 cup of breadcrumbs, a half cup each of grated carrots, zucchini, onions and peppers still made meatloaf.  It just happened it made a very nice moist meatloaf.  

#6.  Not exactly butcher your own, but...Do you know how to cut up a whole chicken?  A whole chicken can easily be cut into ten pieces.  2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 wings, 2 breast halves, 1 pulley bone, and one back.  If I stop and think about it, I could also get two chicken tenderloins aka tenders from the two breast halves.  Two tenderloins can easily serve one person.  If the breasts are HUGE as they can be on some birds these days, then I cut them in half. That makes 2 more pieces of chicken.   A whole chicken costs about $1.41/pound at the discount grocery nearest me.  I've seen them on sale for as little as $1/pound in some stores at various points.  It's rarely advertised by larger chain stores but a whole chicken is the best priced for chicken pieces overall.  

I personally like white meat.  I've spent countless dollars on boneless skinless chicken breasts, but I can easily cut, bone, and remove the skin from breasts myself.  Do I eat dark meat?  I eat it in ways I like it.  I like to curry the thighs and BBQ the legs.   My oldest cookbook has a recipe for Deviled Chicken Legs, Back and Wings.  The chicken is seasoned with spicy rub and then baked with bread crumbs on top so that it became crispy as it cooked.  Goodness that was delicious!   And for the record eating a chicken back shouldn't be frowned upon.  If nothing else save it to make broth.  

Have you checked the price of wings lately?  I cut up a chicken, freeze those wings and when I've got enough saved, I make us a big batch of honey BBQ'd wings. At $1-1.50 a pound, it's a big savings.

If you can cut up a chicken, you can cut up a turkey as well.  When fresh turkey is on sale (often around the winter holidays) you can cut whole birds which are priced low into pieces, freeze and use those parts to make various dishes and have a breast or breast half for a Sunday dinner.

If you simply must have breasts consider purchasing bone-in breasts and bone, remove skin and cut yourself.  Again, you can 'harvest' the tenderloins from the back of the breasts once you have removed the bone.  You can also take those fat breasts and cut them into halves or third through the width of the breast netting you three thin flat pieces from each half that will cook quickly and likely be more tender than the whole beast half.

Have you ever cut up a Sirloin tip roast into sirloin steaks and cubes to use for shish kebab or stew?  The roast is often cheaper than steak or stew beef.   If you buy a bone in cut of meat, the butcher will often cut it up for you.  Whole ribeye roasts are pricey.  Rib Roasts often go on sale around Christmas and Easter.  Have the butcher cut the meat into steaks and you'll have Rib eye steaks (bone-in) for about half the price you'll pay come summer when steaks are in high demand.

#7.  Learn to like what is well priced.  I noted today that one store advertised ten pounds of chicken leg quarters (thigh, leg, and a portion of the back which is a proper quarter of a chicken) for 49c a pound.  I often see these advertised.  Again, I'm not that crazy about dark meat...Can I eat it?  Yes, I can!  Remember I said I love chicken thighs cooked in a curry dish?  I used a Mongolian Beef recipe a few months ago and subbed in chicken thighs for the chuck roast...Oh My Word!  That was delicious.  I love BBQ'd legs, fried Chicken legs and Teriyaki chicken legs.  And if all those fail to use up all that dark meat, then I'll boil it and sub it as cooked chicken meat in any number of dishes.

The portions of back I removed are nice meaty pieces that I will use to cook for broth, then strip meat pieces from to make another dish or three.  I have many recipes that call for one or two cups of cooked chicken.

A little over a year ago, we killed two deer for our freezer.  I chose to have the majority of the meat ground.  Do we love venison?  I like it well enough.   At an average of about $1.59 per pound after processing for an all-natural, fully organic lean meat though?  I can eat it and be grateful for it.  For the few pieces that we didn't have ground, I looked online at trusted sites and found some good recipes.   I found ways to prepare it that we liked well enough.  In future, we'll just have it all ground and be done with it.  We discovered we liked it best that way.

#8. Keep it seasonal.  Every fruit and vegetable have a season in which they grow, ripen, are harvested and best priced.  In the South, strawberries are in season.  They run anywhere from $1.50-$2 for a pound.  John doesn't care for strawberries.  He likes apples.   Apples are going to be about $6 for a 3lb bag in this season.  I might buy one or two single apples, but I'll remind him that they aren't in season and then point out that grapes are, bananas are usually well priced and ask if he'd like a fresh pineapple (also on sale right now).  Usually, one of those options suits him just fine.  But in autumn, when apples are fresh and cheap?  We eat apples.  

And if John still wants apples come late spring and early summer?  I'll suggest he open a jar of applesauce.  That's made while the fruit is in season and is well priced.  Canned fruit is always a good option to save the budget. 

Learn what's seasonal, learn the price points and then make sure you buy at the best price point.  Navel oranges this week at a grocery where I shopped were 68c a pound.  I bought navel oranges.  

Pay attention to sales sheets.  Turkeys are generally best priced right around Thanksgiving.  Hams are well priced at Christmas and Easter.  Chuck Roasts are most likely going to be sold at best price in summer months when the demand for slow cooking meats are at their lowest.  Steaks are usually best priced in winter when no one is grilling but ground beef is generally well priced for all major warm holidays (Memorial, July, September).    That's a good time to stock up each year.  You can find guidelines for how long meats can be frozen, but as a general rule, if properly packaged, most meats are good for 6-12 months in a deep freezer.

#9 Consider meatless meals two or three times a week.  I've spent the past two years watching a YouTube chef, Nikki Vegan.  She makes the most delicious looking food.  I've attempted some of her recipes and found them every bit as tasty as they looked.   I never try recipes that require me to buy special ingredients, but I do try those that use items I typically have on hand.  I still use her Oil Free Bagel recipe to make my homemade bagels.  More importantly, she often gives nutritional and protein values for her recipes so you know you are getting what you need from each dish.  

There are many guidelines online that help you to figure out how to increase proteins by combining certain vegetables to create a complex protein that will leave you satiated and full.  I have a post here that shares some information on that very thing.  

Beans and legumes are good sources of protein and have many of the amino acids required by the body.  Lentil tacos, lentil meatloaf, lentil bolognese, lentil sloppy joes...Good ideas! Bean burgers and casseroles or soups made with beans are delicious.   3-Bean Chili is a favorite in our home.  Brandy's Black Bean Burgers are so good if you don't even remember you aren't eating meat.

Portabella mushrooms are a wonderful substitute for meat.  One vlogger makes a very delicious Mushroom Stroganoff dish that I'm planning to try soon! 

#10.  Treat Yourself.  Every family has certain treats that they like.  When our budget was tightest, we had to forgo many of our favorite treats.  We had two choices, complain or figure out what we could have that we liked as well.  John was accustomed to drinking sodas all day long.  We had to severely limit that.  Now he seldom drinks a soda, but he loves a glass of Kool-Aid made with less sugar than the packet calls for.

  Potato chips were a favorite with the children, but we couldn't buy the name brands we preferred.  Instead, I'd buy family sized bags on occasion and carefully divide them into portions and doled them out.  Pretzels, however, are cheap and satisfy that craving for a salted snack.  Popcorn is a wonderful treat that the grandchildren never complain about.

Fortunately, I could make many treats at home without spending wildly.  Cookies, cakes and Pies were made at home.   Vanilla wafers and Graham crackers (store brands) were always inexpensive treats if we wanted something that wasn't homemade.   Marshmallows were often cheap and satisfied a sweet tooth with only two or three per person.  I served lots of applesauce and canned peaches to my children during those days and they loved it as a dessert with Graham crackers.   I bought saltines, which were usually very inexpensive and peanut butter and they made their own peanut butter crackers.  

There are many more ways that one might save on groceries and stretch meals but these are a few of my favorite ways to manage a tight budget.  I hope that you found helpful reminders of how you might fight food inflation.
(C) Terri Cheney

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