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Family Meals on a Budget

Make delicious and nutritious foods for you and the kids – on the cheap – with this advice from the author of the '7-Day Menu Planner for Dummies'

From planning to prep, making food the whole family will enjoy is no easy task. But curbing mealtime stress – while still making that grub yummy and healthy – isn't impossible, says dietician Susan Nicholson, author of 7-Day Menu Planner For Dummies.

Here, the food expert – she's a member of the American Dietetic Association and International Association of Culinary Professionals – shares 11 tips to help you whip up kitchen delights without breaking the bank. Don't forget to get the kids involved!

1. Monitor your portions

Cut portions to meet the nutritional needs – not wants – of each individual. Maybe Dad can handle two pork chops; most likely it's one apiece for Mom and the kids (or split one for two smaller tykes). It's time to put down those huge portions. The extra calories run up your weight and food bill. Whether you're eating at home or in a restaurant, pay attention to portions.

2. Watch for sales

Buy-one-get-one-free (BOGO) is an easy way to half costs. If you're buying something in the $4-$5 range, it's worth it, if you use it. Some tuna is usually $7.25 per four-pack – good BOGO. Ditto for low-fat mayo. Circulars can determine where you do your major grocery shopping for the week. Look at the cost of protein (meat, poultry and fish) and fresh produce. Check online ads, too. Avoid going store to store to save a small amount. For $3 or $4, you could be tempted; for $5, give it a go if it's close. Your call.

3. Clip coupons

The amount you can save depends on your interest level. Some wise shoppers use online sites to ferret out valuable coupons. You've read about amazing folks who get $5,000 in groceries for 50 cents? Gross exaggeration, sure. But some folks know how to use coupons to their fullest.

4. Buy generic

Store brands seem to have improved greatly, and you should rarely hesitate to buy them. You can sometimes save half! If you're devoted to a brand or flavor, by all means, stick to it. But one-pot meals and skillet dishes are an excellent home court for generics. The canned veggies are great for soups and stews. Canola oil, jellies, jams, brown and white sugar, flour and other staples often also pass a taste-test. Read the ingredients, too, to compare.

5. Buy in quantity

Buy more non-perishables if you have the space to store the extras. You'll save money and time: When you run out in the kitchen, "shop" in your basement or garage. But be smart and check the price-per-ounce (or pound) of "bargains." Sometimes, larger sizes of items are pricier than the smaller size. Having a place to store it and knowing it won't spoil are good tests.

6. Don't pay for waste

Lean meats and fish have little waste because their fat and moisture content is low. Ground beef that's 20-percent fat is cheaper, but 95-percent-lean has less waste. You pay for more good-for-you protein and less-unhealthy fat. Poultry that's been "plumped" with water and salt loses a lot of moisture when cooking. Remember to do the math and compare cost per pound.

7. Clean out the freezer and cabinets

Decrease your inventory! Keep a list of what's in the freezer so food doesn't get buried and become an artifact. Grub in your freezer or pantry is found money – because you've already paid for it. Defrost something and turn it into another meal without spending a dollar.

8. Cut down on convenience foods

They're OK occasionally (if you add a big serving of vegetables). Pre-packaged deli items are worth consideration; a pint of chicken salad at $4 is enough to feed four. Again, what you toss-in is key. Include a side and green salad. Or make your own "convenience food." For that chicken salad, simply cut-up some rotisserie-chicken meat and add halved grapes, toasted walnuts or slivered almonds, a little low-fat mayo and sliced celery. Done.

9. Pack a lunch (or dinner)

It's a good way to use leftovers. Get inventive. Meatloaf, pulled pork and taco fillings for sandwiches or wraps are favorites. Why not portion a carry-to-work microwavable plate with dinner overage? Just assemble it after supper and reheat the day. It's healthier – and less expensive. If you eat-in just half the time, saving $8-$10 per day, that's $1,040-$1,300 a year!

10. Think doggie bags

When you bring home restaurant leftovers, you save money – and calories you might eat in one sitting (especially if the original meal is enough to feed 16).

11. Plant a garden

Do it if you have the space – and energy. You'll save long-term when you buy seeds and plants, invest a little effort and harvest the produce. And the flavor and quality of homegrown fruits and vegetables typically best the canned and frozen stuff. Time crunched? Check out one of southeast Michigan's farmers markets or community-supported agriculture spots.

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