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What To Eat When You’re Barely Scraping By


It’s tough. Money’s tight, you’re barely you scraping by, and frustration of frustrations, your grocery bill is astronomical.

You literally can’t afford to eat.

Maybe not all of your problems would be solved by eliminating food from your diet, but they sure would be reduced.

So what do you eat when you’re barely scraping by? Well, as luck would have it, there’s a core group of foods that are almost always the cheapest things you can find.

Image shows a cutting board with onion, tomato, cherry tomatoes on a counter. Text reads "What to eat when you're barely scraping by"

What To Eat When You’re Barely Scraping By

Dry beans. Did I just hear you groan? You did, didn’t you? I know it’s been said a million times, and it’s not what you want to hear, but the fact is beans – dried beans, not canned, are one of the cheapest, most nutrition-packed foods you can buy. You can eat them every day without getting bored. You can even make dessert with them! And your kids won’t know they’re not supposed to like them if you don’t tell them so.

Brown rice. Just plain, long-grain brown rice. White rice is a tiny bit cheaper, but for nutrition’s sake, brown rice is where to put your money. If you look at the varieties of rice in your grocery store aisle, you’ll probably see many choices for flavored rice, minute rice, and various types of boxed rice that have a wide range of prices, but what you’re looking for is probably in a bag, and not a very flashy one. Despite the humble packaging, there are infinite ways to dress up your rice, from cooking it in chicken broth (my favorite!) to making rice pudding.

Frozen vegetables. While you’ve probably seen beans and rice on every other “cheap eats” list, you may not have expected to see frozen veggies. But the fact is, while vegetables may not be high in calorie value, they pack a real punch in nutrition density, and they’re essential to bringing variety into your diet. Frozen veggies are cheaper than fresh, and often higher in nutritional value, because they’re harvested and flash Frozen at their peak ripeness rather than shipped to wither in a “fresh” produce aisle. The best deal I’ve found at non-membership grocers is 5lb bags of broccoli at $0.05 per ounce at HEB (a Texas chain). Failing that, Aldi has the best prices I’ve found on smaller bags. (read why I get my produce in the freezer aisle)

Chicken leg quarters. You probably won’t find any fantastic deals at large chain stores, but smaller ones, like Lowes Food Store or CB’s Food Store, often have great sales down to $.59/lb, and even once all the way down to $.29/lb on ten pound bags. That’s about as cheap as you can find protein. To stretch it on a tight budget, I’d suggest covering your chicken with water, and boiling it to make full use of the nutritious broth. It’s especially good to cook rice or pasta in, or make soup with, and a fantastic way to feel like you’re eating like a king, while spending like a pauper. (find chicken leg recipes here)

These are four items – dry beans, rice, frozen veggies, and chicken – are what I call the core grocery list of the frugal family, and they’re almost always the cheapest whole food groceries no matter where you shop.

But what if I don’t like beans, or can’t find cheap chicken?

Image shows a wood cutting board on a table, with fresh veggies on it, including onion, mushroom, tomato and carrots.

I get it. Nothing works for everybody. We’ve had to change our diet significantly over the last year because of my husband’s food allergies. He can’t eat chicken, for instance. So here are some alternative (or secondary) inexpensive food choices:

  • Turkey. Nope, it’s not just for Thanksgiving! I bought one this morning, and it was $.89/lb. SO much cheaper than beef. Also, ground turkey seems to hover around $1.50/pound, and it’s great for making sausage.
  • Tortillas. Packaged tortillas are not my favorite, but they’re easy and cheap. Homemade tortillas aren’t as easy, but they’re cheaper and tastier.
  • Peanut Butter. Store brands tend to be around $2 for a 16oz. jar. That’s a lot of calories per penny, and the fat + protein content help fill you up.
  • Cabbage. Can run $1-$1.50 per head. It’s not terribly calorie dense, but it’s very nutritious, and very reasonably prices as far as fresh veggies go.
  • Pasta — If you’re not gluten-free that is. It can be pretty cheap. For this of us staring clear of wheat however, we’re better off sticking to rice, or making homemade gluten-free egg noodles.
  • Pasta sauce can be incredibly cheap if you’re willing to buy cans with high fructose corn syrup on the ingredient label. Even being a little more picky, it’s still an inexpensive way to add some flavor to your food.

Sad to say, food prices only go up from here, though it clearly depends on the area you live in – I joke that I really go to Tennessee to visit family so I can stock up on tuna fish. For some reason, it’s so much more affordable there than here in Texas. But on the other side of the spectrum, fresh produce is usually a lot cheaper here than in Tennessee, so it’s a trade off.

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  1. To make an inexpensive pasta or pizza sauce, I buy a No Name 796mL/28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes and cook it with some garlic and seasonings. Simple and no corn syrup!

  2. Flour is an essential for me, as I make all our breads and baked goods, use it as thickener for gravies and sauces, and as a coating for baked/fried items.

  3. I’d like to see where you can find ground turkey for $1.50/pound. The cheapest around here is $3.99, the same as some of the ground beef. For spaghetti I use spaghetti squash. It’s healthier and not too expensive. I’m one who can’t eat beans, rice, or pasta. The chicken can be had for $.99 on sale, so that one fits in.

  4. I am especially interested in gluten free bread recipes. Foccaccia bread? Loaf bread? GF bread is ridiculously expensive!! And it is too hot here to use my bread machine (takes 3 hours) BUT the loaf is TWICE the size of the one I can get in the store, and store bought is up to $6.99 a loaf! And the “loaf” is miniscule! Help! Biscuits too….

    1. I have a lot of my electric kitchen appliances outside for the summer. I can cook lots of things outside in my crockpot, rice cooker, crock plate, electric frying pan, convection oven or my toaster oven. I have a table on my back porch I use for my cooking. That’s how I keep the heat out of my kitchen. Your bread machine could cook outside too.

      Now that’s it’s cooling down, I have started cooking more inside. I can use my gas oven now.

  5. Love this article, but what would make it better would be if you linked to relevant recipes for each food item 🙂 Especially to recipes on your own blog.

    I am going to link this article on my own site because it’s very helpful 🙂

  6. My mom was the master of creativity on a budget. We always delicious homemade meals and could make meat and chicken stretch like no other. Your recipes and ideas remind me of her.

  7. I’m already doing all of this including dry beans. What we aren’t doing – and need to get back to – is an all-cash grocery budget. Swiping a debit card always makes food more expensive.

  8. Apples. Apples. Apples. Especially an hour or 2 before a meal so you’re less hungry but still full. The pectin, enzymes and fiber all help digestion, and immunity lives in the gut, so you’ll be healthier.
    Any supermarket worth it’s salt has a dented produce rack just like the dented can rack. There are always apples on it; and yes, it’s still a bargain after cutting off (just a few) bruises.
    Yes, apples are a healthy snack (if you eat the peel, which can be de-waxed with all sorts of things like baking soda, lemon oil, etc) and you can cut them up into hot cereal. But they are savory, too. Sauté them with breakfast sausage, roast them with sweet potatoes, add to pork stew or roast them with the above suggested chicken legs and some carrots or winter squash and then drizzle thyme-infused honey-mustard over the whole deal. My usual picnic contribution is coleslaw (shredded, not minced) with a bunch of matchstick carrots and a bunch of diced sweet apples. Mmmmm….

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