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Old 12-07-2006, 08:12 PM   #1
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Monthly Food Budget

In July I established a food budget as an experiment, and have stuck to it faithfully for almost five months now. The budget wasn't 'necessary'; as I'm generally pretty careful about spending money, I can pretty much do what I want.

I had fallen into a pattern of eating out a lot - trash food mostly, and thought that setting a budget might help me to eat better, and save some money also. I had no idea what I was spending on food; keeping track of nothing.

With no idea of what a reasonable budget might be (It's just me.), and internet searches not turning out to be much help, I wound up guesstimating a number. $300.00 a month.

The first month and a half was tough - and I was having to monitor the money pretty closely. In November, it was surprisingly easy. December is off to a fine start. I'm averaging about $2.50 under budget each month. I have not (save for a couple of 'necessary exceptions' that I did not count as violations) eaten out even one time, a dramatic change from eating out (junk) 5 - 6 days a week. Sticking to the budget brought that to an immediate end.

Something of a 'sugar junkie', I have also instituted a rule against anything but 'home made' desserts (No bags of M&Ms allowed:)), wresting a little more control there as well.

Today I was given the best resource that I have seen so far for getting at what a 'reasonable' budget might really be.

Turns out that my $300.00 is almost dead on for the USDA definition of the 'Liberal Plan' for my age group. Though I am now making the budget and not feeling as though I'm suffering in the process, it still doesn't feel so 'liberal'.

Whatever I was spending on food before instituting the budget, it was a whole lot more; probably at least $200.00 a month more - and I'm not really missing anything. The amount and quality of my home cooking is way up. (Even the 'bad' stuff has got to be a whole lot better than what I would get going somewhere.)

I do likely have the luxury of having more 'controllable' time than the average person, a tremendous advantage for someone that wants to cook as much as possible.

$300.00, defined as 'Liberal' by the USDA still doesn't seem all that liberal to me when considering the time (and skill) constraints of the average person. Yet I am not unware that whole families must, and do, eat on less than what I spend on myself.

Though I have the luxury of not 'having to', I'm planning to continue my experiment of closely monitoring and allocating a food budget. The only thing that I really have to be wary of right now is budgeting 'staple' items. $15.00 for bottle of good EVOO, and $10.00 or $15.00 for some spices quickly puts a big hit on the budget without even having anything to actually eat; a good time to go with a 'cheap' recipe of something with a good yield.

So - the question is: What kind of budgets are y'all using? Do you keep track of $$ at all? Eat out much? Deliberately develop low cost, good yield recipes? What do people really spend? Does the 'average' person eat out more than they eat in? That costs $$$.

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Old 12-07-2006, 08:31 PM   #2
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Hmmm...I'm not sure what grocery prices are in the US, but my budget ends up being about 1/3 less than the moderate levels for my family. Since that also has to stretch to cover allowances for the kids and the offerings at church I guess we end up in the lower third of things. We eat pretty well so I can't imagine what it would be like to be on the Liberal plan. We'd be lardbutts in no time.

I do a few cost saving things.

1. Buy bulk. Things like cereals, chicken breasts, pasta, flour, sugars etc. Those things we use a lot of and regularly I buy at Costco.

2. Use more scratch items. I do this more for the taste than anything else, but its a great money saver too. I bake from scratch and all our desserts are scratch. I don't buy jarred sauces etc as a general rule which lowers the cost.

3. I plan the bulk of my grocery $ to go to fresh stuff. Produce, cheese, milk, eggs, that stuff. Its very pricy, but if you buy what is in season it can be cheaper.

4. Lunches. This is where the majority of your $ could go. Things like juice boxes, granola bars etc are a LOT of $. My kids don't go without, but I buy them sparingly and again, in bulk. DH will take the leftovers, but the kids won't. And I won't send them pizza pops or stuff like that. They take tortilla roll ups, or soup in a thermos, or deli meat sandwiches. Sometimes its just cheese, pepperoni and some fruit and a treat.

Edit: We don't eat out much. We save it up and do a really nice restaurant a few times a year. Otherwise, its home cooking for us.
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Old 12-07-2006, 11:02 PM   #3
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I'm perfecting the grocery shopping technique for my area. If it can be bought in bulk and kept for a while, then it is. For example, I went our and bought 10 lbs of beef roast for just over $2.00/lb. I quartered it, and found that for the ~2.5 lb. roast that cost me around $6.00 costs around a couple bucks more pre-cut into the smaller size. If it can be frozen for an "extended" period, that's what I do.

Otherwise, of the three major grocers (Super Walmart is just starting to break into the metro area and is not included in the three), Super Target is the least expensive. Our other two key players are Cub and Rainbow.

I've found you can't beat Sam's Club pricing for a lot of stuff. Milk for around $2.00 a gallon, depending on the fat content. For sure buying the meat in bulk is less then buying at the grocer (even Super Target).
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Old 12-08-2006, 01:46 AM   #4
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I've found it helps to delve into ethnic cooking a little bit to help you save money. I spent a long time during a summer really focusing on asian cuisine, and found a few really great asian grocers in the area, and you can really get alot for very little at places like that. I think my very first trip there I came home with 15 lbs. of jasmine rice, about 10 lbs. of wide noodles, 40 oz. of soy sauce, 25 oz. of good rice wine vinegar, and some siracha (chili sauce) all for about $20. I've since started buying certain produce there as well; whenever I need napa cabbage I go there and find the most monstrous napas you've ever seen, for little over a dollar. Their root vegetables are pretty cheap, and you can also get a lot of other asian produce and ingredients that are extremely difficult to find anywhere else.

Another tip is to make your kitchen efficient. Don'y buy dry gravy packets, but make gravy using the fond at the bottom of your pans. What to do with chicken bones? Save em and make stock with them. Shrimp shells? Make shrimp stock ( btw, uncooked and unshelled shrimp are always much cheaper than ones already peeled). Buy your meats in bulk... ie. a whole chicken instead of just brests, and learn how to properly break down a chicken. Craving filet mignon? Buy yourself a whole tenderloin and butcher it yourself. Same with ribeye, and pork loin as well. Look for sales, and plan your menus around what you can get for cheap. This goes especially for meats. I save more money on meats/poultry/and fish than all other food ctegories combined. I am able to get my pork loins and beef tenderloins at 50% off about 95% of the time. I butcher into individual portions and freeze, and it keeps well.

By cooking oils in bulk as well. I buy my peanut oil about a 1/2 gallon at a time. I try to use pomace olive oil for regular pan frying, and use the EVOO for stuff that really benefits from the extra flavor.

If you're into baking, you can save tons of money by buying flour in bulk. Our grocer carries 25 lb. bags of it for about $7... to buy a pound of name brand flour costs about 1/2 of that.
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Old 12-08-2006, 06:18 AM   #5
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If you are going to keep track of what you spend, you may as well keep track of your inventory, as well.
At work I keep track of everything I spend on food...all the food, milk, produce, plastic wraps, paper products, chemicals for cleaning. I also take inventory every week to determine what my total food cost per week is. I average about 32% which is pretty good, considering my customers can eat as much as they want, I'll always make more.

If you take the inventory, you'll be able to see that even though you spent money on an expensive spice or oil, you still have that product on your shelf for some time.

There is a difference between money in the bank and money on the shelf. We always prefer to have money in the bank. However, since money on the shelf is necessary, you may as well count it. Think of it as an investment.
There are computer programs that will help you set up an accurate inventory.
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Old 12-08-2006, 06:37 AM   #6
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With the exception of her #4, I'm almost identical to Alix in the way I shop and in the fact that we eat out very, very rarely (#4's not relevant because Greek kids eat lunch at home every school day).

However, I'd add on something else -- something I've only learned to do in the last couple of years when we got very sudden and unexpected budget restraints (like both of us losing our jobs on the same black day!): try to avoid name-brand items.

I'm just endlessly glad I made this change because we found out we were just plain delighted with the quality of about 95% of the no-name stuff we now buy (in our part of the world, the house brand of the French supermarket Carrefour and the stuff at the German chain Lidl). We've shaved about 2/3's off our previous budget -- I kid you not -- so if and when we need to splurge, it's without guilt.

I couldn't even hazard a guess at appropriate budget, however (which I haven't forgotten was the original question). Even if I did keep track, we're in such different markets it would be irrelevant. I'd suggest you do a quick analysis of what you have spent previously and establish your own budget, fine-tuning it over the months to something that should end up being realistic for your family and your eating preferences.
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Old 12-08-2006, 09:14 AM   #7
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I guess Buck and I would have to establish a "poverty" plan. Because of distance, I shop every two weeks. On that trip I purchase ALL our consumables and non-consumables. That is, all meats, fish, poultry, produce, almost all dairy (including cheese, etc.), frozen foods, canned goods, all paper products, food wraps, pet foods, litter (we have cats only), detergents, soaps, toiletries, many baked goods (however, I bake nearly all our bread products), some pharmacy items such as multi-vitamins and contact lense supplies, birthday/anniversary/sympathy cards and gift wraps. I'm sure there's more but you get the idea.

On these same shopping trips, I also visit several favorite thrift stores and almost always purchase a few items there. Usually things that I will convert to gift items or holiday arrangements. I shop all year for birthday and Christmas gifts for my friends and family.

We eat well, as do our pets. I leave the house with a very detailed list, coupons when applicable and $185 USD for my shopping day.

As for eating out, we seldom do. Usually save it for special occasions.
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Old 12-08-2006, 10:11 AM   #8
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Notes from a former materials manager who has evolved? devolved? into a grocery buyer and cook.

I've been doing most of the cooking in our family since I retired. (Initially because it was only fair after all those years of just showing up at the table, but now because it's kind of fun.)

We have come to the opinion that restaurant food, with a few exceptions, is not as good as what is cooked at home for one tenth the cost.

Buying meat in bulk and freezing works great if you have a vacuum sealer. (Lean meat, since we got the vacuum sealer, is still good a year later. Previously, if it hadn't been eaten in six months, throw it out)

Once you get a stock of food, you can save even more, by buying only replacement inventory when it's on sale.

Having said all that, we come in under the lowest numbers for our catagory, including liquor and wine! (Hmm---have to buy more wine.) And eat TOO well.
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Old 12-08-2006, 11:55 AM   #9
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We don't track food costs. When we do a weekly shopping, we also buy non-food items such as cleaning products and wine. I would estimate we spend a lot less than the liberal amount and eat quite well.

We buy a significant portion of our standard items on sale and/or in bulk at lower prices. That's the benefit of having a freezer in the basement.

We rarely buy prepared foods, sweets or snack foods.

When we eat out, it's often at a local restaurant that has good food cheap.
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Old 12-08-2006, 02:57 PM   #10
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I think it is great if you can figure out a Monthly Food Budget. As for me I just buy what I want.

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Old 12-08-2006, 04:00 PM   #11
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We keep the normal staple items around(flour, meal, veggies-frozen or canned) We buy meat in bulk(usually from Sam's) I also watch for what's on sale and do a lot of coupon clipping. I also like to cook food that can be portioned and frozen. I have a beef stew that is great for this and cheap to make. Overall the budget doesn't change that much and I also agree that good home cooking beats eating at a diner most of the time.
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Old 12-08-2006, 04:35 PM   #12
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My favorite budget stretcher is making a meal for zero dollars. Pizza is real easy to do. Put back 1/4 cup of ground beef or sausage from your meatloaf or whatever. As well with spaghetti sauce, cheese...etc. When you make a pizza it didn't come out of the budget. It works for a lot of things.
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Old 12-08-2006, 04:39 PM   #13
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Cooking is one of my hobbies - so while some guys have green fees or porsche payments, I have grocery bills...

It really depends on what I'm experimenting with too, and how busy I am at work. A week where I'm playing with dishes made from rice/potatoes/pasta and working normal hours, I may only spend $75-$100/wk (includes my weekly payday sushi binge which is usually $25).

If I'm playing with seafood or expensive meats I can easily go $200/wk. Or if I'm working a zillion hours and living off from take out salads & sushi I can easily approach $200/wk.

But I save money in other areas. I don't have any cable/satellite service, I live in a small apartment, and I could probably fit all my personal belongings in my vehicle. I drive a new vehicle, but it's not a BMW/Audi/Mercedes. A couple of my hobbies are expensive (food/flying), but I hike a lot which is basically free, and listening to music (another favorite) only taps my checking account when I purchase new material... which is usually at the used CD shops.

You have to look at your entire budget!
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Old 12-08-2006, 06:37 PM   #14
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There have been some interesting responses. I established the budget to:

1) Find out what I was spending on food.
--The savings (though I don't know just what they are) have been significant; though I may still choose to increase my budget at some point.

2) A tool to change a couple of the patterns that I'd recognized and not liked.
--Didn't realize how far I'd gotten from the kind cooking and eating and lifestyle that I prefer.

Along the way I've become very interested cost averages; and am especially curious as to what the average must be for the significant percentage of people who eat out frequently.

As far as deliberately saving money goes: Bulk buying, for many items, applies less for my situation than some others, because it's just me - though I do buy favorite flours, rices, and such, in larger quantities when reasonable.

For freezing: I'm not a big fan of freezing and don't freeze a whole lot. I put up my scratch made stocks in pint portions, and things like that, but just don't have much intersest in freezing otherwise.

Though this isn't really my goal, I am familiar with manipulating a budget by ingredient selection. Eggs, chicken, potatoes, rices; low cost, high yield main ingredients and fillers.... I was a professional cook for over twenty years, so am well familiar with food cost controls. This same life experience has led to my choosing to at least temporarily banish myself from restaurants entirely. It is so often money poorly, even foolishly spent. (Yes - lots of exceptions. There are places serving great flavors for modest money, and there are high end establishments that are worth every penny. My dinner at Trotter's, in Chicago, a couple of years ago would have been worth twice the price.)

Good point Vera Blue about inventory. It is budget that is already spent, yet also in the pantry ready to go and may last for weeks or even months. I keep plenty of staples on hand, but they can put a big hit on the budget, so their purchase needs to be prepared for and metered out.

Great point Nicholas Mosher about cooking as 'hobby' and also 'looking at the entire budget'. My situation feels similar to yours. I am in the process of getting a better awareness of what I choose to do, and why. My 'entertainment' expenses are extremely low, as many of the things that I like to do don't cost much at all. I can spend $$ on something for the kitchen if I want to. I'm in some sort of 'transition' period now - and am seeing some questions that I'm curious to know how others are handling, or not handling.
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Old 12-08-2006, 07:20 PM   #15
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I've been unemployed for over 2-1/2 years (not for lack of looking, applying for jobs, etc.) and basically living off my savings. Anyway, I've always kept to a food budget but needless to say it's even more critical now. One thing I make myself do is make a shopping list (yes, take inventory, make the list). I don't vary from what's on the list unless it's absolutely the best deal of the new millenium and I'd kick myself all the way home if I hadn't bought it! The shopping list consists of things I need, not things I want. (A list of things I want would take up a small room!)

I have a small kitchen and limited storage space so while it's nice to say "buy in bulk" not everyone can. Having said that, however, I do buy things like ground beef in "family packs" then divvy it up into smaller portions and freeze it. Same thing with chicken thighs. Having only the freezer above my fridge limits how much I can do this, of course. Since I just went to the grocery store yesterday, at the moment my freezer is looking a bit like Fibber McGee's closet!

Even when I was working and earned a good living, I still brought my lunch to work. Co-workers were going out and picking up fast food, which easily cost them over $6 a meal for mediocre (if even that!) food. I was dining on, for example, leftover roast with potatoes and gravy and peas or chicken with rice for pennies on the dollar. It got to where people were coming over to my desk to see what I'd brought for lunch that day!

Cooking from scratch, making and freezing leftovers, it all figures in to both healthier food and a healthier food budget.

Now that it's winter it's much more economical to buy frozen vegetables than it is fresh, at least for the types of veggies I like. The price of broccoli is through the roof because it's not in season; frozen florets (in bags, not the frozen solid block of stuff that is mostly stems) are just as good IMHO. Same thing with cauliflower, green peas, etc. I did buy some acorn squash and a butternut squash yesterday. Tis the season!

I buy a lot of things like lentils and dried beans where most would consider an unlikely place - the dollar store. I got three 1 lb. bags of brown lentils just last week, 3 for a dollar! At the grocery store they want a dollar or more for just one bag. Surprisingly, things like bacon, sausage, milk and eggs are also available at the dollar store, also less expensive than at the grocery store. (I guess it depends on the dollar store; maybe not all of them have refrigerated foods.)

Clip coupons and don't be afraid to use them! Also don't be afraid to try the store brands. I'm often more happy with store brands than name brands.

I don't eat out often at all. Never was much of a go to a restaurant person, having worked in a few. Even when John and I are on the road for his art shows, we try to find motels with small kitchens (Extended Stay Suites, usually). Then we go to the grocery store and cook in our kitchenette. He also brings a small grill so we sometimes grill burgers or fish outside of the room. NOTE: I live alone; John lives 7 hours away from me. It's a sweet but long story, and no, we didn't meet online.

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Old 12-08-2006, 08:33 PM   #16
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I've enjoyed this thread from the start. I haven't posted because I don't really have a budget but I do know for sure that the stuff I buy has changed a whole lot as I've learned from the folks in this forum.

Instead of pushing the cart up and down every aisle I pretty much make a quick lap around the perimeter which includes produce, meats, and dairy and only go directly to the very few things I might need from the middle.

For example, instead of filling up the cart with:
  • Bread
  • Crackers
  • Cookies
  • Bisquick
  • Pancake mix
  • Cookie dough
  • Frozen waffles
  • Lots more that doesn't come immediately to mind,
I only have to make sure not to run out of flour, baking powder, sugar, and yeast. And instant yeast lasts virtually forever in the freezer and costs about $1.25 lb. in the warehouse stores instead of something like $20. lb for active dry in the grocery store.

college_cooks ethnic market suggestion was an excellent one. I also benefited from seeking out and learning my way around the mega-mart that specifically caters to lower income and immigrant households. That's where I find the best selection of dried chiles, Latin American produce, and meats like shanks, feet, necks, tails, etc. Don't get me wrong, I shop at the middle and upper end stores also, but if one of them had to go, I'd prefer not to lose the source of chiles and pig feet.

D_Blackwell, thanks for the thread.
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Old 12-08-2006, 10:00 PM   #17
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My basic budget to people is this: assess what your needs are. If you eat out frequently and most of the time to include breakfast, lunch and dinner, keep some basics in your kitchen. Basics for this person would be frozen juice, frozen waffles or dry pancake mix, syrup, small tub of margarine and a dozen eggs. Milk and bread in the refrigerator and stock up on a couple cans soup and canned tuna or meat spread. Don't let anyone embrassass you because your cupboards are not overstocked. The rest of your food budget will be budgeted as to where you choose to eat. If you choose to dine in, just buy for that meal and buy staples in small quainty so they don't go stale. Your beverage stock is your preference. This is flexible so you have the cash to make the choice.
This may seem singleminded but when you have several members of the family being elsewhere, it's budget that you will be able to feed them be it a concession stand, choir outting, pizza delivery, date, anniversary, etc. We expand our budget every year; it's called "cost of living."
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Old 12-08-2006, 10:26 PM   #18
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So - the question is: What kind of budgets are y'all using? Do you keep track of $$ at all? Eat out much? Deliberately develop low cost, good yield recipes? What do people really spend? Does the 'average' person eat out more than they eat in? That costs $$$.[/quote]

I think your estimate of $300 per month is a fair average for a single person.

We dont eat out much at all, so I figure our food budget based on one week for two people, and one dog. Also in that budget, I have to include non-food items as we all do. I guess our food budget is about $580-600 per month. I buy alot of fresh vegetables and fruit in season, canned vegetables and fruit when they are not, healthy snacks, very little red meat, plenty of chicken, sometimes pork, pasta, rice, and staples for the cubboard (flour, sugar, etc). So basically yes I do keep track of my $ each week, and have an average of what my groceries will cost me each time.
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Old 12-09-2006, 09:41 AM   #19
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I definetly cook with whats on sale as far as meat and seafood is concerned. I rarely make a list for the grocery store except for staples like flours, oils, and grains. Instead, I cook whatever sale items I find that look good. I pass my local grocery store on the way home from work everymorning (I work nights), so I usually grocery shop daily. This offsets the other "experimental" part of my shopping. Through drinking and cooking, I usually consume around a case of wine a month. But I'm not one to buy a $50 bottle - most of mine are in the $10-$15 range with a 10-15% discount for buying by the case. I'll usually experiment with one bottle a week as well.

I do keep a budget that projects six months into the future which I update once a week. Normally I withdraw $250/wk pocket cash for food, wine, restaurants, and other week-to-week expenses like gasoline, magazines/newspapers/CD's/Books/movie rentals, non-food staples (eg. TP, Ziplock Bags, Washing Deterg.), etc.

I'm going back to school full-time Jan 25th during the day while working full-time at night, so I'm going to be cooking a lot less during regular semesters. Except for my usual first meal of yogurt or a smoothie, I'll be living at the local sushi bars and sandwich shops. Probably won't be having a big plate of Nigiri every day, more like a bowl of good chirashi with some soup. I am very fortunate to be going to school in a town with good restaurants without city prices so I can eat-out 10+ meals a week. I may move there next year if I find an apartment I like. Right now it's a 20min drive.
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Old 12-09-2006, 10:21 AM   #20
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Ok, I've got to chip in.

No, I don't keep an accurate track of expenses for food week-to-week, nor do I keep an monetary inventory of what's in my stores.

We just moved into a duplex a month ago. Food-wise, all that we had were non-perishables that had been in storage for a month, that was in the house when we moved from Michigan to Oklahoma. I have been trying to stock up on items as I can. I've been getting some food, namely meats, from various family members. One of my relatives is an avid hunter, and has been giving us some venison he has. My grandmother has not only given me frozen meats, but some canned goods as well.

I like to buy large quantities of frozen veggies, so I'm not worried about the veggies right now.

I recently found that I can get 10 lb bags of chicken leg-and-thigh quarters for $2.90 + tax at the local Super-Wally-World. 29 cents / lb! I have literally hundreds of recipes that I can this for.

I usually buy the store-brand family-pack of hamburger, which usually weighs about 5 1/2 - 6 lbs. I'll pack that into 2 lb packets in a gallon-ziplock and freeze those.

I will save chicken, beef, and seafood scraps to make stock with. I made a couple gallons of stock from the turkey carcass on Thanksgiving. That is currently frozen in ice cubes, in the deep-freezer.

Now, many of you know that I work for a country club here in Oklahoma. Just last night, I asked my Sous Chef what they are paying for bulk pork loins. It's about $1/lb! I think I'm going to buy one or two, cut them down to managable size (these are full-length, almost 36" long), then wrap and freeze them.

I do have a small chest-style deep-freezer in my garage. It's not the biggest thing, but it does hold quite a bit of meat.
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