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Monday, September 8, 2008

Can a family eat on $100 a week?

As a test, MSN Money puts a household's food budget on a strict diet. The experiment has its downsides (no more rice, please!) but shows how to take a bite out of grocery bills.

By Melinda Fulmer

Feed a family of four for $100 a week -- no coupons, no backyard garden or mystery meat.

That was the challenge MSN Money gave me (and, indirectly, my husband and two children).

I knew it wouldn't be easy. Even a food stamp allowance for a family of four is $117. With gas and corn prices surging, the retail costs of basic items such as milk, apples, pork chops and potatoes have gone up 8.5% in the past year, according to the most recent American Farm Bureau Federation's Marketbasket Survey.

But with a little planning and the help of a couple of nutritionists, I figured out what to buy and what to leave on the shelf. And no, we didn't eat beans or pasta every night. The rules:

  • All of the food had to come from a major national grocery chain. No low-priced ethnic markets or bag-your-own-groceries warehouse stores. I could have saved even more, but this had to be something everyone could do.

  • No coupons. I'm not a big coupon user anyway, and besides, many of these are for things that are too fattening or just too expensive to begin with.

MelindaFulmer @ Maya Myers

Melinda Fulmer

  • No cleaning products or paper goods. There wasn't enough room in the budget.

  • The meals I served had to be relatively healthful. Otherwise, what's the point?

Did we make it?

First, let's say that any reduction in my grocery bill was welcome, as most weeks we spend nearly $250 at a grocery store. That's well above the $182 budget the U.S. government considers "moderate" for a family of our size and ages.

Spending less than half what we normally do was tough. A $100 budget gave us $1.19 a meal per person, obviously not enough for dinners or coffees out and barely enough to put decent meat on our plates.

Did we spend $100 or less? No.

I cheated twice, and both were on items I wasn't proud of.

The first time, I bought a sodium-packed $1.07 bean burrito at a fast-food place as I rushed off starving to an appointment for my son. The second time was at the end of the week, when I caved to several minutes of back-seat whining for soft-serve ice cream.

Those purchases brought my total expenditures for the week to $105.03, meaning I overspent by about 6 cents a meal per person.

The experts weigh in

With a $100 budget, there's no room for error. Every meal and snack has to be meticulously planned, and the whole family has to eat it. In my case, with two adults, a toddler and a 4-year-old, that's a pretty wide swing.

"That's a real challenge," says Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian and the author of "10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman's Diet." She told me to use meat sparingly. Instead of a steak, I should buy extra-lean beef stew meat and cook it in a soup or stew.

"Americans are obsessed with protein, but it's the one nutrient we actually get too much of," Somer said.

Continued: Add beans

To shave off more money, I should also consider adding at least three bean-based meals to my week, whether it's a burrito, bean soup or rice and beans for dinner, she said.

My other expert, Cynthia Sass, a dietitian and the nutrition director of Prevention magazine, advised me to consider canned products, such as salmon, tuna, chicken and clams, when the butcher department got too expensive. These are fine in pasta and rice dishes, wraps and casseroles.

A crockpot, Sass said, would be a good way to tenderize inexpensive and often-tough cuts of meat.

But, most important, she said, was the planning.

"People tend to buy less food than what they really need," Sass said. And that means going out again, which often leads to greater spending (and impulse buying).

Most people could reap the biggest benefits from stockpiling a few weeks' worth of items in their pantry or freezer when they see a good sale. (MSN Money columnist Liz Pulliam Weston outlines this strategy in "The emergency fund you can eat.")

Smart shopping is the key

On a Saturday morning, I sat down with the sales circular from my local store (something I had just tossed in the past) and started planning my attack. I looked to see which meat, fruit and vegetables were the cheapest and put those on my list, devising a rough menu in my head. I later cracked open a few cookbooks to make sure I had everything I needed.

I made a list of snacks my family would eat that are healthful and dirt-cheap, such as:

  • Raisins (from the big generic canister).

  • Popcorn (made on our stove popper, rather than in the microwave).

  • Carrot sticks.

  • Pretzels.

  • Cheese.

  • Bananas.

"The most inexpensive snacks are also some of the healthiest," says grocery expert Stephanie Nelson, better known as The Coupon Mom.

I checked Nelson's Web site for a list of unadvertised specials at my local store and found a few other items that would round out my meals for the week. It also lists advertised specials for each store and region, so shoppers can compile a grocery list from all of the discounted items.

What was left off my grocery list were things packaged for convenience, like those 100-calorie snack packs or baby carrots, a lot of brand-name items (unless they were on sale) and processed foods such as cookies, crackers or waffles.

At the store, I was surprised to find out how little fresh produce I could get for my money, even with most of my choices -- including broccoli, cabbage, nectarines, green beans, carrots, zucchini and corn -- selling for 99 cents a pound or less. So, I added some canned fruit and frozen vegetables, such as lima beans and peas, that Sass said are almost as nutritious.

Into my cart went the cheaper two-packs of milk jugs, a canister of quick-cooking oatmeal, a bag of inexpensive puffed rice cereal and some eggs, a cheap source of protein. I bought diced tomatoes, beans, corn tortillas, pasta, marinara sauce and luncheon meat.

Continued: Meat

In the butcher section, boneless pork shoulder, chicken breasts and round steak were on sale and on my menu. And I added canned salmon, rice, potatoes, bread and a few other items to fill up my pantry. I used the oil, flour, sugar and spices that were at my house but bought ketchup because we were running low.

I had brought along a calculator to keep track of what I was spending, but with a toddler in tow, my calculations quickly became estimates, so I just tried my best to stay under the total.

Ultimately, however, I walked out the door having paid $95.22. However, I did have to make another run at the end of the week for $6.62 of groceries, including more eggs, a small container of milk, another loaf of bread and a few bananas.

And now the hard part

By midweek, we were all a little sick of rice and potatoes. By the end of the week, I never wanted to see another raisin, carrot, pretzel or piece of puffed rice again.

Here's what we ate:

  • Breakfasts were fairly easy, with most of my family eating the eggs, cereal, plain yogurt, oatmeal or homemade French toast I had planned. However, my son missed his waffles sorely.

  • Lunches were a bit harder to scrape together. They consisted of dinner leftovers, bean and cheese burritos, or sandwiches of luncheon meat or peanut butter and jelly.

  • Dinners were tasty but required a lot more preparation than I was used to. I prepared salmon patties, rice, corn and zucchini one night; barbecue chicken, green beans and rice another; as well as family favorites like spaghetti and meatballs; sloppy Joes; and a slow-cooker pork and cabbage meal (which my 4-year-old took just two bites of).

  • With such a tiny budget, if I wanted dessert I had to make it myself, so I used the butter and flour I had at home with the milk, eggs, canned pineapple and bread I bought to make a quick pineapple bread pudding and poured juice into molds to make popsicles.

No family members were harmed in the writing of this story, but was it a healthful diet? Yes and no.

Most of the dinners were relatively healthful, with plenty of protein and a vegetable. But we padded out our meals with a lot of starches, including potatoes and rice. And I don't think grilled cheese night was a nutritional home run.

My family didn't eat as much fresh fruit, nuts and vegetables as we usually do. My toddler and I missed avocadoes a great deal. And we missed having at least one dinner out as a family.

However, on the upside, we also ate smaller, more realistic portions without feeling like we were missing out too much.

Could we do this again? Probably. But I don't think we would. Saving money is like dieting: You can't cut back too much at once or you'll blow the plan completely. The next week I spent more than ever, to make up for feeling deprived.

But the week did teach me a lot about being more strategic with my shopping and my planning of meals around what was in season or on sale. With a little more wiggle room in the $100 weekly budget -- OK, at least $75 -- I could save as much as $300 a month, still get one dinner out and actually be satisfied with what I was eating.