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My 3 Go-To “Grocery Budget Rescue” Foods

grocery budget rescue

Guest post from Kristie of Table-Talk

We all have those weeks: Low on cash and high on unexpected bills. We pilfer around like “Old Mother Hubbard,” searching for enough food to keep the family happy until the next pay check comes in.

As a mom of six, I know about those Mother Hubbard days. Over the years, my strategy has come to include a few “rescue foods” that help us get through the lean times when a broken-down vehicle steals from the grocery cash, or when a prescription takes precedence over food.

Although some of these ideas may not work for every family (especially those with special dietary needs or allergies) I hope my suggestions can help some of you get through bill-paying-seasons without feeling deprived.

Here are my go-to “Grocery Budget Rescue” foods:

1. Beans.

Beans are a blessing to a lean budget. You remember the food pyramids from 4th grade Health Class? Well, beans manage to fill up three of the four tiers!

As a vegetable, they are also high in protein (able to sub in as a meat in your menu), carbs, and fiber. There is probably no food more versatile on the planet!

Dry beans make the most budget-friendly purchase of anything in your grocery cart, but remember: they do have to be pre-soaked. Once they are soaked and cooked, you can make them into hummus, soup, burritos, or a main meal.

Black beans are delicious and hearty — especially with some salt and a serving of rice. If you are fortunate enough to have sour cream or vegetables on hand, go for it.

My “cheat” recipe for hummus involves lentils and seasonings, since they do not require any soaking. It’s a great way to sneak in a vegetarian lunch on unsuspecting children. Use corn chips to go gluten-free. And best of all, they really are filling!

Just one word of caution: old beans don’t cook well. The outer shell remains hard while the inner bean cooks, resulting in a very unpleasant and barely edible mess. Eat beans within a few months of purchase, and be wary of dry beans from food banks where they may have been sitting too long.

2. Soup.

Unless you live in the Sahara, you can’t go wrong with a food whose first ingredient is “water.” Right now, my monthly dinner menu includes 20 different soups (all dinner meals). And soup made with beans? It’s a win-win for the budget, and your family’s health will be the biggest winner of all.

My strategy with soup is simple: Variety!

Soup recipes abound on the web, and I’ve surveyed my friends for their favorite recipes. Not every soup recipe will be a family favorite, but eating the same recipe once a month isn’t so bad.

Again, the flexibility of soup is that you can throw in whatever you have on hand. Canned veggies you got half off because they were dented; last year’s peppers from the freezer; and those beans we’ve just been raving about.

Most soup recipes are not “set in stone” like other recipes that must be followed to the letter. It’s even possible to swap out meats — lower-priced bulk sausage in place of that $4.49/lb. hamburger, for example.

3. Oats.

Whether they are steel-cut, old-fashioned, or rolled, oats are generally less expensive (and much more filling) than cereals, instant oatmeal, and all the sugary pop tarts that our kids would love to see us tossing into the grocery cart.

If you are fortunate enough (as I am) to live within driving distance of a store that sells oats in bulk, you are twice blessed. Our Mennonite shop sells them for $0.50 a pound! That’s about as close to “free” as it comes.

Oatmeal often has a reputation for being gooey and glumpy. Ick. Baked oatmeal can be made crispier (we like it “just this side” of burned), even without nuts.

For the weeks when the cash is low and the bills are high, there’s your menu. Soup, beans, and oats to the rescue! And a cheerful attitude to wash it all down.

What are your favorite “Grocery Budget Rescue” foods?

Kristie is a pastor’s wife and homeschooling mom of 6, living in rural Carrollton, Illinois. She blogs at Table-Talk, a practical blog to encourage women.

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38 Comments

  • Jacki says:

    Our go to food is rice. It can stretch anything. We make it for fast lunches with canned chili or tamales. Our rice cooker is fantastic and gets a lot of use. 20 minutes and it’s done. It’s a cheap but delicious food.

  • Elizabeth Diaz says:

    Excellent ideas for times when money is scarce! I agree with all three. Beans can also be baked or fried into burger-like patties. I would add rice to this list. It can be sweetened and eaten as a hot cereal or cold rice pudding, and also can be used with a variety of spices to be a very versatile staple.

  • Great list Kristie! These 3 items have always been go-to foods for me, but just because I love them and they are quick foods I can make. I never really thought about how budget-friendly they are, so this post is making me feel very good about my choices right now 🙂

  • Vickie says:

    Great ideas! Beans are our favorite though, eaten with cornbread and mashed potatoes. It makes a satisfying meal and we are all happy! No one seems to notice that there isn’t any meat.

  • Ashley P says:

    Peanut butter. When I need protein and can’t afford meat (and I HATE beans!) I’ll go through peanut butter sandwiches like they were going out of style. In fact, my last pregnancy, my favorite snack was a half peanut butter sandwich dunked in a glass of milk. (Something about that soggy bread with squishy peanut butter in the middle reminds me of childhood.)

    My toddler son loves them, too. It’s hard to think of a surface in my house that hasn’t had sticky peanut butter on it at one point.

  • Ann says:

    I would have to say pasta. A little can go a long way and even the more healthful kinds (Dreamfields) aren’t that expensive. You can make sauce very easily with canned tomatoes or even improve on ready-made jarred/canned sauce by adding your own spices, onions, peppers, etc. You can throw in a little bit of browned ground beef, or just leave it out if you don’t have any. You can also just serve the pasta with butter and parmesan cheese. Very simple and probably things you already have on hand. Simple meals like this go over better in my house with a loaf of homemade bread.

    • I agree, Wednesday is always pasta night at our house. It’s not only super cheap, it’s also one of the quickest meals to make. I just have to make sure we have parmesan cheese for our oldest daughter since she will only eat past with cheese, not even butter. I also love the fact that I can cut up the pieces super small to let the baby go at it too! She is always jealous of whatever we eat, and is only 10 months old so we are just starting her on some table food.
      Of course rice and beans are good too, but the big kid won’t eat the beans, yet.

    • Matt says:

      Fantastic suggestion. And if you’re lucky enough to having a living situation where you can grow your own tomatoes and jar homemade sauce, even better.

      And if you make your own pasta it’s only pennies per pound. Definitely a life skill worth learning.

  • Sara K. says:

    What about eggs? They don’t have the shelf life of the foods mentioned, but they are relatively cheap and a good source of protein. Several mornings a week I eat an egg (fried or scrambled) with a piece of toast and fruit. I’ve been known to cook an egg for dinner too when I just want something quick and easy 🙂

  • I like to make meals which can be rolled over into lunches and dinner the next day, with re-vamping; taking chicken and dumplings from one day, and turning it into lunch the next day and using leftovers to make a pot pie with the next day, for example. Often, I can cook three times a week, and use that to expand those options into seven full lunches and dinners.

  • We eat a lot of soup! Actually a lot of oatmeal, too. 🙂 I was just thinking about how frugal soup was for our family. When we often need two pounds of hamburger for a meal, with soup, we only need one. Add some beans and pasta shells and we are good to go!

  • Silica says:

    One trick I’ve learned for beans is to cook them in the crock pot and then freeze in 2 cup containers. Once they are thawed they are just like a can of beans in recipes. Rinse and put them in the slow cooker with 6 cups water for every pound of beans, on high for 4-6 hours.

  • Suzanne H says:

    I was going to say eggs as well. Also, homemade breads of all kinds. You can get flour, even whole wheat flour, pretty cheap for how far it stretches especially if you stock up during sale times (Thanksgiving). Very versatile and there are a lot of simple recipes out there. Filling and cheap.

  • Sonja says:

    Awesome post! Simple and succinct!

    Just recently bought, soaked and cooked 5 pounds of various dry beans!

  • Lana says:

    I am confused by the ‘old beans’ part. I have never had this problem in 36 1/2 years of cooking beans and some were quite old.

    • Kristie says:

      I’m not sure what happens to cause the hardening, but some beans develop a hardness to their outer shell if they are allowed to sit too long. I’m glad you haven’t had any bad experiences though! It’s not pretty when it happens. 🙂

  • AmazonsRock says:

    In addition to beans, rice, peanut butter, and eggs, we keep cheese, potatoes, salsa, and tortillas stocked. If there isn’t room in our grocery budget for anything else, we know these items will work for a few meal options. Roll-ups are always a fun way of eating one more sandwich. Quesadillas seem to jazz up the traditional grilled cheese. Loaded baked potatoes can be a fun way to sneak in any leftover veggies.

  • In vegetables, potatoes, cabbage, sweet potatoes, onion, tomato, coriander, lettuce, and carrots are inexpensive.

    Being a vegetarian, meal most of the meals using inexpensive ingredients help us save some money.

    You can also make yogurt at home. It’s fairly easy.

  • Courtney says:

    Oats can also be used in recipes that are savory, rather than sweet. The Prudent Homemaker site has a recipe for chicken-fried “steak” that is made with oats instead of meat. It’s delicious and one of my family’s favorites.

  • tuxgirl says:

    From what I’ve read, if you add some baking soda to the soaking water, its supposed to help with the old beans, although I’ve never done that and have never had problems. Also, if you change the soaking water 2-3 times through the soak, its supposed to help reduce…. Ummm… Digestive discomfort…

    We do beans because we like them, and we have made our own bread, although I’m usually lazy for that. If you grind your own wheat, it is even more cost effective — I’ve gotten 25 lb of wheat berries for around $5 and ungrounded grain lasts forever.

    I do recommend that if you run into this type of situation, you should take a close look at your budget… I recommend the webinars at youneedabudget.com. I use their software, but you can get the same benefits without paying for their software if you just work on living by the philosophy they teach. Car repairs can be something you plan ahead for, so that it isn’t an emergency when you need them. You can get a full month ahead on your budget. And these grocery tricks may be a good way to jump start that process!

    • Kim says:

      Good thought to use these tips as a way to get ahead in the budget, not just when the budget runs short. Great for adding to your savings or being ready for bulk items that go on sale! I didn’t love the YNAB software personally but I know others who do, and you are right that their tips are still helpful and can be used without buying the product. A free site I use for my budget (really envelope tracking) is Mvelopes – it’s free and there are mobile apps that sync automatically between your phone and computer so you can check what you have available from the store. That was the one feature that I found too cumbersome with YNAB.

  • Andrea K. says:

    Nice article and great advice, Kristie! Very well written about a much-needed topic for all us moms. And I personally loved the last line because attitude is everything, isn’t it?! lol Beans are SO good for your health, but I used to feel so poor when they had to make a menu appearance. A change of attitude and now there are no grumbles from anyone on bean days 🙂

  • Valerie says:

    Spaghetti is quick and cheap . We also keep taco kits on hand . I have learned to stock up on sale items so we never run out of mayo ,ketchup ,mustard ,syrup etc. – stuff that would take forever to spoil.

  • Spencer says:

    I would definitely add cornmeal. Besides making cornbread, you can use it to make corn mush, like a corn oatmeal, which is made only with water. Put that mush in a bread pan if you don’t like it like that and put it in the fridge. Then you can slice it and fry it, eat it with beans, ham, honey, or whatever you can think of. Look at the back of the cornmeal bag for instructions.

  • Ann says:

    Do you have a link to or a Pinterest board of the soup recipes? We could use some new ones!

    • Cory says:

      I use allrecipes.com for soup recipes! I make 25+ different kinds of soups. I make large batches to freeze for future meals! I also make chicken stock & vegetable broth from the cut off from my fresh veggies I freeze & simmer in a stock pot. A roaster chicken will also make 4+ meals so its a great budget saver!

    • Kristie says:

      I should but don’t. That’s a great idea! I may have to blog that. 🙂

  • Erica says:

    Our go-to meal is pancakes/waffles. Every year I buy the large Krusteaz pancake mix for around $6. Sometimes I’ll make pancakes with it, other times biscuits or pizza crust. Basically I look to see what condiments we have left and I let that help me decide what to make with the pancake mix.

  • Paula says:

    Is there a link to the “cheat” hummus (lentils and seasonings) recipe??

    • Kristie says:

      We eat lentil hummus 2 – 3 times a week. I cook my lentils for about 30 minutes. Drain them and blend them in a blender. I add some lemon juice to thin it a bit. And from there I add garlic powder, salt, minced onions, and/or whatever is in my cabinet. Online recipes always call for other “binders,” but I don’t bother. 🙂 That’s why I call it my “cheat” recipe. My kids love it in tortilla wraps.

      • Paula says:

        THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!! 😀 😀 😀

        • Kristie says:

          I should add: This also goes very well with crackers (as we did for lunch today) or even tortilla chips. The key is the salt. If you give it salt, it has a very pleasant flavor. Our five-year-old son eats it along with the rest of us.

  • Bethany E says:

    There’s always pasta e fagiole…beans + pasta into soup (and canned tomatoes are easy to stock up on when there’s a sale). My family’s version was always meat free anyways, and it was a favorite meal for everyone when I was growing up. If I have some zucchini that needs to be used up (my grocery store frequently marks it down) I grate it in for some extra color and greens.

  • I cooked some black beans last week in my slow cooker. All day on low and NO PRESOAKING. It was amazing.

    • Sarah T. says:

      I do beans in my crock pot as well. I’ll do a mix of beans for chili’s and other soups and pintos with garlic, onions, and spices for refried beans. So easy! They freeze well too, so I’ll do multiple pounds and then put bags of 2-3 cups each in the freezer for next time.

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