Tag Archive | grocery

Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays

A typical PTBP dinner (salad not pictured).

Happy meatless Monday! Today I have some good news for the carnivores: meat can be one of the cheapest protein sources, if you do it right. Protein is an expensive grocery category, it’s an important part of our diet that we’re not willing to cut back on, yet we eat like kings on about $75/week for a family of four. We are hungry, skinny people, and hummus simply doesn’t cut it for dinner in the Pretend to Be Poor household. But before you quit rice & beans, you’d better learn how to do meat frugally.

Of course, people choose meatless for dietary, environmental, or animal-rights reasons. Whatever your protein persuasion, I hope this comparison chart gives you something to chew on. It’s by no means all-inclusive, but I’ve included a variety of popular and relatively thrifty stand-bys. But if you’re trying to rein in the grocery bill and have already started shopping at discount stores, meal planning, shopping with a list, cooking from scratch, and trying my 20 Frugal Food Hacks, your proteins are a great next area to tackle.

My calculations reflect the everyday prices at my local ALDI and highlight some of the most cost-effective and popular options. I’ve chosen the least expensive versions of each for comparison. Below I’ll share how we purchase discounted meat & raise our own, plus easy, inexpensive recipes and tips for working with bone-in chicken. And my recipes for homemade beans, and yogurt.

20 g Protein Source Price per 20g Protein Serving in dollars
Salmon, 3 oz $0.80
Pork chops, 3 oz 0.75
Ground beef (85% lean) or ground turkey (93% lean), 2.5 oz 0.47
Chicken, whole, 3.5 oz 0.26
Chicken, bone-in pieces, 3.5 oz 0.35
Chicken, boneless, skinless breast, 3.5 oz 0.51
Beans/lentils, dry, 1.5 cup 0.42
Beans, canned, 1.5 c. 0.59
Peanuts, 3 oz, or Peanut Butter, 6 TB 0.30
Almonds, 3 oz. 1.01
Eggs, 3 whole 0.66
Pasta or rice, 3 oz 0.38
Cheese, 2.5 oz 0.63
Greek yogurt, 1 c. 1.00
Yogurt, 2 c. 1.00
Yogurt, homemade, or milk, 2.5 c 0.39

Qualifiers and assumptions

I’ve assumed a whole cooked chicken will yield about 75% of weight as meat. I haven’t accounted for the fact that we also put the skin & bones to good use, too, as our grandparents most likely did. I make homemade chicken broth and we consider chicken skin cooked to crispness a delicacy. Neil calls it “chicken bacon.” Good thing fat is in.

Dark meat only yield from a whole cooked chicken.

Yes, it costs money to cook and season meat. So the price per serving goes up—but not much if you have go-to thrifty, easy recipes. It costs only about 10 to 15 cents to cook a whole chicken in a slow cooker, and around 40 cents to roast in the oven. Considering a 5-lb chicken will yield about fifteen 20-gram servings of protein, cooking itself only adds 1 to 3 cents per serving. Adding inexpensive or homemade seasonings will raise the cost, but not necessarily enough to even compete with canned beans, for example. If you eat only organic meat, many meatless options are indeed cheaper. Buying organic only makes it all the more economical to work with whole birds instead of pricey pieces.

It also takes more work to cook raw meat, especially whole chickens, compared with easier options like cheese, yogurt, nuts, or eggs. That’s part of the reasons we mix it up and why I almost always eat peanut butter for lunch. I strive to balance an economy of effort with cost. We also eat meatless dinners several nights a week, for variety, health benefits, and ease of preparation.

Why the 20-g protein serving? Obviously protein doesn’t have to be consumed in these portions. We don’t eat peanut butter in 6-TB servings or beans by the whole can. Different items can be paired to form larger servings of protein, such as rice & beans with cheese. Too often we look at the price per item or unit without considering the price per nutrient, such as grams of protein. But isn’t the nutritional value the main reason we need food? Shopping with the lens of price per nutrient can really optimize your grocery budget.

A whole chicken for $1.88.

A whole chicken for $1.88.

How I regularly pay around 50 cents/lb for chicken

I should add that, though I’ve assumed $1/per pound for bone-in chicken, I rarely pay that much for our chicken or even pork chops. While grocery shopping I’ve always got my eyes peeled for meat marked down for quick sale. This happens surprisingly often at our local ALDI, and when it does, I buy it ALL. Over the summer I purchased over 80 pounds of chicken thighs at just 33 cents per pound, making a 20g protein serving less than 10 cents! You simply cannot beat that price per nutrient.

That's a lot of protein for about $10!

That’s a lot of protein for about $10!

Pretending to Love Chicken

So bone-in chicken is actually competitive with ultra-frugal options like pasta and peanut butter, and more efficient (and healthy) as it takes only one small serving versus a triple portion that can run up your fat or carbs too much. We are hungry, naturally on the slim side, and don’t have the time to cook all the wonderful protein-rich dishes that comprise many international vegetarian diets (Indian!). We eat chicken because it’s efficient. Oh yeah, and we raise some of our own which is super thrifty, all-natural, and humane.

Si & chickens

The kids love helping feed the chickens.

We don’t eat chicken because it’s our favorite. Frugality accepts that life is not about our preferences, and everything doesn’t have to be our favorite. We have learned to prefer dark meat, even though when we first got married I’d hardly ever eaten bone-in meat and didn’t like it. Frugality also updates its approaches with seasonal costs or market fluctuations. Before beef prices went up, we purchased a quarter cow that our friend raised. We also eat marked-down pork chops when I get them for $1 or less per pound.


Pork chops for 24 cents a piece.

Pretending to know how to cook whole chickens

Now for my tips & tricks on working with whole or bone-in chicken. You can learn & get good at it! Within a few tries, I could cut up a whole chicken in less than 10 minutes. Give yourself about 2 days for it to thaw in the fridge or 1 day in cold water in the sink and use a good, sharp knife. Our digital meat thermometer also comes in handy when working with bone-in chicken.

My favorite whole chicken recipes: Juicy Roast Chicken or Garam Masala Roast Chicken (get your GM at an Indian grocery).

How to cut up a whole chicken: http://allrecipes.com/video/2/how-to-cut-up-a-whole-chicken/

A good whole chicken soup recipe: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/220416/chef-johns-homemade-chicken-noodle-soup/ (I add 1-2 TB cumin near the end)


How to make chicken broth from the bones: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/13075/chicken-stock/

Good uses for chicken cooked in a crockpot: Lime Chicken Soft Tacos, BBQ chicken sandwiches, White Chicken Chili (we use garden peppers, not canned), or any recipe calling for cooked chicken.

Good chicken pieces recipes: Thai Grilled Chicken Drumsticks, Fall-of-the-bone Roast Chicken Thighs (use whatever fresh or dried herbs you have on hand), or your favorite honey-mustard, BBQ, teriyaki or other sauce.

Homemade dry beans:

  • I cook 2 lbs with 10-12 cups of water for 6-8 hours on high.
  • Cheaper and healthier than canned beans.
  • Make your own hummus, refried beans, or baked beans. Add to soup, chili, salads, etc.

Homemade yogurt:

  • Heat a gallon of milk (anything but skim) to scald it (not quite boiling).
  • Transfer to a large bowl (I use my crockpot stoneware) & cool to 110 degrees, or when you can stand to put both pinkie fingers in for 10 seconds.
  • Stir in 1 Tablespoon of plain yogurt (the starter), from the store or your last batch.
  • Cover & place in the oven with the light on, or in a cooler with hot water bottles for 8-16 hours, until set. Strain if you want it thicker (I don’t). Then refrigerate.

I have lots of good, low-cost meatless main dish recipes but I’ll have to save those for another day. Enjoy your Double Meat Monday!

How do you save on proteins? What is your favorite thrifty recipe?

20 Frugal Food Hacks


$65 ALDI run.

How does our family of four stick to a $300 a month food budget while eating healthy? I’ve already shared the important principles of grocery savings: shopping at discount stores, menu planning, shopping with a list, and cooking from scratch. Remembering that not everything has to be your favorite also goes a long way. And here I share my nitty-gritty little tricks, including recipes and pantry list, that help us keep costs down. So feast your eyes on my frugal food hacks.

  1. Buy full fat coconut milk and cut with 1 can of water to make 2 cans of light coconut milk.
  2. Stir a little flavored yogurt into homemade plain yogurt (recipe below) for a healthier, cheaper snack.
  3. Zest lemons before juicing them to extract more lemon flavor.
  4. Cottage cheese is the old-fashioned, less expensive Greek yogurt (26g protein/cup).
  5. Grow lettuce. $1 of seeds fed us salad most days for 3 months. “Salad bowl” variety is our favorite.

    Unlimited salad.

    Unlimited salad.

  6. Popcorn (stove-top) is the cheapest snack food. We like butter & salt or kettle corn.
  7. Keep a well-stocked pantry. Sign up for our email updates on the right sidebar and I’ll send you my pantry list.
  8. Cook dry beans in the slow cooker; freeze in jars (saved from spaghetti, salsa, etc.)
    • I cook 2 lbs with 10-12 cups of water for 6-8 hours on high.
    • Cheaper and healthier than canned beans.
    • Make your own hummus, refried beans, or baked beans. Add to soup, chili, salads, etc.
  9. Whole chickens or thighs instead of boneless, skinless chicken breast. Less than half the price per pound.
  10. Make chicken stock from the bones.
  11. Make bread (in 5 minutes a day). Great fresh from the oven; toast the leftovers, or use for grilled cheese, garlic bread, crostini, French toast, or French bread pizzas.
  12. Make yogurt for basically the cost of milk. It’s so easy! I can’t find a site that doesn’t over-complicate it, so here’s the process:
    • Heat a gallon of milk (anything but skim) to scald it (not quite boiling).
    • Transfer to a large bowl (I use my crockpot stoneware) & cool to 110 degrees, or when you can stand to put both pinkie fingers in for 10 seconds.
    • Stir in 1 Tablespoon of plain yogurt (the starter), from the store or your last batch.
    • Cover & place in the oven with the light on, or in a cooler with hot water bottles for 8-16 hours, until set. Strain if you want it thicker (I don’t). Then refrigerate.
  13. Homemade granola bars—cheaper, and more filling and nutritious. (I use half the sugar in the linked recipe.)
  14. Buy one: one snack food, or juice, or whatever treat that isn’t necessary but is fun to have in moderation. When it’s gone, it’s gone, till next week.
  15. Stock up on marked down meat. I recently purchased 100 pounds of chicken for 33-50 cents per pound, and 20 pounds of pork chops for $1 per pound.


    48 cent pork chops!

  16. Buy soda in 2-liters.
  17. Drink (homemade) iced tea instead of soda.
  18. Candy instead of fruit snacks. I’d rather give my kids 1 or 2 gummy bears than a whole, over-priced bag of fruit snacks. The piece of candy has less sugar than a pouch of “fruit snacks.”
  19. Peanuts are the cheapest nut.
  20. Cut kids’ juice with half water (or more). Or serve kids iced herbal tea with a little honey or just a splash of juice for a flavorful, healthier, and thriftier alterative to juice.

Chew on this principle: try to find the cheapest way you can live with to meet your nutritional needs. Think twice about all the marketing ploys to buy “super-foods” or specialty items when there are cheaper, healthier alternatives right under your nose.

What are you frugal food hacks? And what splurges are worth it to you?

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half, Part 2

grocery list

My real life menu & list from this week.

In college, I could walk through ALDI and fill a cardboard box with the same $10 worth of food each week. How I ate on this I can’t remember; I must’ve been deficient in several vitamins. Since then food prices have roughly doubled and my number of mouths to feed has quadrupled. And it turns out not everyone can eat oatmeal, peanut butter, and potatoes every day (if they don’t have to). This group very much includes my husband and son.

In Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half we made a case for shopping at discount grocery stores. But the temptation with these stores is to impulse purchase lots of goodies you don’t really need. Turns out buying twice as much at half price equals no savings. Whether you’re new to discount shopping or just want to slim down your already-discount grocery budget, here are some helpful principles for taking grocery savings to the next level.

  1. Make a menu. Especially if you have a family, creating a weekly menu can streamline grocery shopping. You’re less likely to purchase items you don’t need or make multiple trips, which can easily increase spending. If you have no idea where to start, there are services like e-meals that charge a small fee and provide meal plans and shopping lists based on different dietary needs or grocery stores’ weekly sales. I’ve never used a service but it would save money compared to shopping without a plan.

If you’re new to menu planning, here are some tips:

  • Bookmark recipes and refer to them when you make a list.
  • Add one new recipe per week. It often costs extra to add a new dish to your repertoire so take it one at a time.
  • Use “pantry list” type recipes that mainly use staples you keep on hand.
  • Follow a pattern. We have a Thursday taco night tradition. You might also follow a general pattern like meatless Monday or leftovers on Friday.
  • Plan 3-5 dinners and eat leftovers or pantry meals.
  • Start with a simple menu. Planning ahead will get easier and you can save old shopping lists and menu plans to reuse next month.
  1. Make a list. Based on your menu, make a comprehensive list. Look at each meal and write down the ingredients you don’t already have. Then check your pantry list and see what staples you need to replenish. This may include breakfast and lunch foods, baking supplies, spices, or condiments.
  1. Establish a pantry. What’s this pantry list I keep talking about? It’s the staples you need to make your favorite meals, and for the thrifty shopper this will include ingredients that allow you to buy less processed food. I’ll share mine soon.
  1. Buy real food. While you don’t need to adopt a totally different diet, buying less processed foods is a great way to save. You may have heard that all the real foods are around the perimeter of the store, while all the aisles in the middle are processed foods you don’t really need. There’s some truth to this. Real food is more filling and nutritious, and therefore a better value than cheap junk.
  1. Buy in-season. As much as possible, I try to buy in-season fruits and vegetables as these tend to be tastier, less expensive, and sometimes local. In the summer we have also have a garden, raise chickens, and do some canning. We’ll share more on this when the weather warms up.
  1. Stock up. When there is a good sale, if the budget allows, stock up! Just don’t burn through it faster because you have more.
  1. Shop at ethnic markets. Love dishes from other cuisines? One way to save on dining or take-out from ethnic restaurants is to invest in the basic ingredients and make your own. These ingredients are less expensive and often more authentic (and delicious) when purchased at a local ethnic market. Ideally, go with a friend from the country of choice for insider info. Since running around to the Indian, Asian, and Middle Eastern markets each week isn’t feasible, apply principle #6.

A note on my list & menu above: this week I’m trying some Indian food from a cookbook I received for Christmas. All I needed were a few spices and the best way to get these at the local Big Store is in the bulk section. There you can buy a small amount so it doesn’t get stale, and is much cheaper (per pound and also because you can buy less) than the  pre-packaged options in the spice aisle.

  1. Put food in perspective. This is perhaps the most important grocery shopping principle of all. Americans seem to have evolved from the SPAM generation into a bunch of foodies. While we love good food and the social milieu of breaking bread with others, it’s helpful to remember food is primarily about survival. Accepting that not every meal needs to be gourmet goes a long way in cutting food costs.

That being said, I’m off to start dinner. What are your meal planning tips and tricks?


Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half


$65 ALDI run, including about 10 lbs of meat.

People have been asking for a “practical” post so here is a topic with instant application–grocery shopping.

You can’t change your mortgage or car payments immediately, but if you don’t already shop at discount stores, you can cut your costs by 40-50% with almost no additional sacrifice. For a family of four these savings can easily equal $100 or more per week. That’s over $5000 a year!

Here are some of the huge advantages of shopping at discount stores:

  1. Almost everything is cheaper. As long as you are buying the same items you usually would, you will save 40-50% off regular grocery store prices. If you’re awesome at shopping sales & cutting coupons your savings may be somewhat less, but still substantial.
  2. The store is smaller. Bigger is better if you want 10 choices for everything, but when you have small children or are just short on time, smaller stores make shopping more expedient. Plus, you’re less likely to spend extra when there are fewer items to entice you.
  3. Shopping is simpler. You don’t need to follow weekly sales or cut coupons. It’s easier and less time-consuming before and during shopping. Also, you don’t have to memorize the prices. Some people have a knack for this and thus can spot deals, but if these details don’t stick with you, discount stores will save you precious memory space.
  4. Better guarantees. For example, ALDI has a “double money back guarantee” which allows the shopper to return an unwanted item for a refund AND replace it with a new product. Most big chain grocery stores don’t allow returns on perishables, even if you unwittingly bought something moldy, rotten, or expired.
  5. Increasing options. Some discount stores, including ALDI, now offer organic, all natural, lower calorie, and gluten free options, plus seasonal items. Many also carry inexpensive basic toiletries, paper products, and household items.

And did I mention everything is cheaper?


48 cents for 2 pork chops? Yes, please.

(I don’t work for ALDI, I just shop there.)

But I know what you’re thinking. So let’s handle some common objections to shopping discount stores:

The food is low quality or unsafe. I’ve been shopping at ALDI, Save-a-lot (less frequently), and a local discount chain for 12 years and never had something seriously wrong with the food, including meat. It’s almost always comparable, and sometimes preferable, to brand name products. In the few instances I tried a product and didn’t like it, or even just bought produce that wasn’t good, I took it back & got a refund AND a replacement (only at ALDI). I’ve found way more expired items at the Big Store—probably because it’s too big.

It doesn’t have everything I need. There are certain brand name items we really prefer or the discount store doesn’t carry. So we stop by the Big Store periodically to stock up (if possible). But is it really worth spending TWICE AS MUCH! just so you can get everything in one stop? I have a baby and a toddler, and some weeks we’ve just bought sale items at the big store because we couldn’t go two places. I get it. That’s fine. But EVERY WEEK for the rest of your life spending TWICE AS MUCH! That’s nuts.

There isn’t one close to me. If there is a discount store within reasonable driving distance, take larger, less frequent trips such as every 2-4 weeks. Stock up on staples, frozen goods, anything that will last 2-4 weeks, and stop for milk and produce at the big expensive store in between.

I’ve heard Costco can be very economical if you do it right. We have great stores much closer so I’m not an expert on this, but look into it if you live near one. Walmart’s price-matching app is another way to get good grocery deals. Unfortunately this requires going to Walmart regularly.

The savings come from exploitation. There’s no way I can speak for every store or employee, but my research has led me to believe that rather than mistreating or underpaying employees, discount stores save money through a more efficient model. For example, ALDI maintains smaller stores, stocks with pallets, hires fewer employees, advertises less, doesn’t bag groceries, and “rents” carts. The Big Store is a big game—changing weekly sales, doubling certain coupons, and offering “free” fuel perks, babysitting, and food samples. There is no such thing as a free lunch and that’s why your lunch costs twice as much there.

For all the Trader Joe’s fans out there: did you know ALDI owns Trader Joe’s? I just wish we had one closer.

My spouse (or kids, or whomever) is skeptical. Just try it for one week! Or even one meal. If everything sucks, return or donate it, and go back to the Big Store. But I doubt you will.

So are you ready to take the discount store challenge? Here’s what you need to shop at ALDI:

  1. A quarter. Put it in the cart. Go shopping. Get it back out of the cart. See, it’s not so bad.
  2. Bring some bags. Better for the environment. If you forget, they sell ‘em cheap at the store, or grab some free boxes (leftover from stocking) and consider your daily workout done.
  3. Shop your usual list. Then compare receipts and start deciding what you’ll do with $5,000 more a year.

If you already shop at discount stores, good for you! I’ll offer more detailed grocery savings tips in the future. Stay tuned for pantry & shopping lists, meal planning ideas, and other principles.

I’d love to hear how the discount store challenge goes for you. Or from previous converts, what convinced you to change grocery stores?