(Inspired by conversation with a friend who wants to learn to eat cheaply and by the fact that I'm hungry and need to go buy groceries. Also brought to you by the letter C and the number 4.)
I usually spend less than $200/mo on groceries for myself and three kids. The month's total food expenditure is closer to $400, but if I were to cut out all restaurant and coffee shop foods, our grocery bill would probably only go up another $80 at most. Many months, I spend $150 on groceries. In the summer I spend $300/mo (the kids aren't eating lunch at school then).
Most of what I know about eating cheaply, without risking malnutrition, is just what I learned from my mother, aka "What, there's another way to do it?" As a general rule, buy your food in the least-prepared state feasible for your time limitations. Ready to serve soup costs more than condensed soup, which costs more than dry soup mix, which costs more than the individual ingredients. Most people don't have enough time in the day to buy all raw ingredients and make everything from scratch. Dry soup mix vs. condensed or ready to serve soup is about a 20 to 40 minute difference. For me, that's worth the difference in cost. For others, it's not. Avoid meals-in-boxes. They're way too expensive, they're not good for you, and they taste nasty.
Shop from the top and bottom shelves at the store: that's where the less expensive brands are. The healthier food is around the perimeter of the store. Be careful about carbs. They're cheap, they're easy to prepare, and they have very little nutritive value. There's a reason obesity is associated with poverty, and this would be it.
Vegetables are fairly inexpensive, and they've good for you. Canned vegetables are easier to store, but frozen veggies aren't much more expensive and are more appetizing and nutritious. If you use canned veggies, don't throw away the water from the can. Use it for soup stock or if nothing else, drink it. Especially if you happen to be the sort of parent who serves the kids dinner and makes herself busy in the kitchen until the kids are done, then eats any food that's left over because she's trying to make the groceries last until payday. Not that I know any parents like that... except just about every parent I know who's ever not had enough money.
Meat is expensive. Beans are cheap. Dried beans are cheaper than canned beans. Black beans actually have flavor. Get a Crock-pot
. You can put cheap food into the crock-pot in the morning, let it cook while you're at work, and come home to something that actually tastes good. You can probably find a perfectly usable crock-pot at a secondhand store, on craigslist, or on freecycle.Use EFNEP recipes
. You've probably got an EFNEP office near you, most likely located in the County Extension Office, where they also have all sorts of information about canning and other methods of preserving food. EFNEP exists to teach people how to make appetizing, inexpensive, nutritious meals, with the main goal being to prevent malnutrition in poor families. They don't assume that you know how to or have time to cook. The recipes tend to be very simple.
Perishable foods go on clearance. Look closely at the sell-by date and think about whether you'll be able to use the food in the next two days. If you buy it and don't use it before it spoils, you've wasted money. Don't buy perishable foods unless you know you're going to use them, and very soon. Your freezer is your friend. If you've got a freezer you can buy perishable foods when they're on sale, and freeze them until you want to use them. (Don't do this with perishables which are on sale because of the sell-by date.)
Consider community gardens, farmer's markets, and bartering. All these work better in a semi-rural location, but I imagine you could find some form of them in urban locations as well. Gardening takes a lot of time. The food is great, but planting seeds and then not tending the garden until harvest means wasting money on seeds. (Thankfully, they're cheap.) In Missoula, you can buy 'shares' at Garden City Harvest, which means that once a week you drive up to the big farm and pick up your harvested and sorted produce. It's much less expensive than buying it at the store, the food tastes better and is better for you, and the only trade-off is that you have to show up once a week at a specific time, instead of wandering Safeway at 3:00 am. If you live in a rural enough location that you know people who raise animals for food, and happen to eat meat, ask about bartering. If you eat meat and know someone who hunts, ask about bartering. Find lots of recipes for zucchini. It can be shredded and frozen and used/disguised in all sorts of baked goods through the year.