Free Groceries from Our Food Pantry Stretch Your Budget

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With labor shortages, food rationing and literally tons of food waste in the world it’s no wonder why more people are searching for a local food pantry. Now, more than ever, people are looking for cheap easy meals. Where to find cheap meal ideas is the question. The first step is to reduce food waste.

Why a Zero-Waste Kitchen Makes Sense

No one likes food waste and all those food scraps, leftovers and forgotten containers from excess food add up. If you find yourself with too much month and too little food, you’ll be surprised how a few little changes help prevent food loss and make your food last.

Make Your Food Last Longer

A little planning can greatly increase the amount of food in your pantry, freezer and refrigerator. When combined with a little online research, you can make even your fresh produce last for several months.

Cut Your Grocery Bill

If a penny saved is a penny earned then reducing food loss and waste stretches your food budget for cheap family meals. Combine this with canning, dehydrating and freezing for easy cheap dinner ideas all year.

No waste food is good but, as the concept of zero waste becomes more popular, it marginalizes the more than 133 billion pounds of global food waste each year. By trying each of these simple suggestions you’ll have enough food for cheap meal ideas throughout the month.

Progress, not perfection, is the key. Every meal offers new ways to reduce food waste.

Yeah, I’ve heard it all before you say? I don’t have many ingredients in my home. I don’t have money to stock my pantry. I don’t have time to plan my meals. If I had more ingredients I wouldn’t know what to make. If I had more money I wouldn’t know which ingredients to buy. If I had more time I wouldn’t know which recipes to make. So where does that leave me? Nowhere that’s where. Sound familiar?

In brief, simply select one of these recipe sites and add the ingredients you already have. If an easy recipe calls for something you don’t have then add it to your grocery list as your budget allows. Try to buy the least expensive and most versatile ingredients before moving on to those more expensive and less common. This way you’ll be able to stop food waste and well on your way to a waste free pantry.

Aw S.N.A.P.! This All Sounds Great but How Do I Do It on $4/Day?

Here’s a brief overview of what you’ll discover as you explore the rest of our resources:

  • Buy Foods That Can Be Used in Multiple Meals
    Certain foods offer more options. For example, flour (tortillas, roti, scones and pancakes) or tomatoes (soup, sauce and chili).
    Imagine all the possibilities for fresh garlic and lemons.
  • Buy in Bulk
    Most people already know buying in bulk often saves money but only if you’re able to properly store and eat it before it goes bad. This is especially true for diverse items as mentioned above.
  • Start Building a Pantry
    If the secret is diverse items and you can save by buying bulk, the next step is to build your pantry by buying 1-2 semi-expensive ingredients on a regular basis. For example, olive oil, soy sauce and spices can seem expensive at first but you only use a little in each recipe. Slowly begin to add other diverse ingredients like turmeric, coriander, cumin, and chili powder and you’ll soon have a world of flavor.
  • Think Weekly
    Mix things up a bit by buying different staple foods each week. If possible, buy only enough fresh produce for the week to use before it goes bad. If not, consider canned or frozen.
  • Think Seasonally
    Local seasonal food is generally cheaper and fresher. If you buy in bulk and invest a little time to properly preserve your surplus then you’ll be able to enjoy it all year long. If you run short, you should be able to find many deals on canned or frozen produce.
  • More Vegetables, More Flavor
    From earthy, bright and tart to sweet, bitter and savory; vegetables make the best sauces. Be creative and have fun featuring them at every healthy meal.
  • Always Buy Eggs
    A quick and easy addition for a satisfying meal. Great with leftovers or on top of salads and stir-fry.
  • Buy Expensive Eggs If You Can
    Free-range or organic eggs are more expensive. However, even at $4/doz, $.33/egg is a small price to pay for better flavor and health.
  • Be Careful with Undercooked Eggs
    It’s rare, but possible, for raw eggs to be infected with salmonella so be careful when making mayonnaise, eggnog, Caesar dressing et all. They are also not recommended for infants, the elderly, pregnant women, or other weakened immune systems.
    immune system.
  • Buy Fresh Bread
    Always keep a variety of fresh bread on hand. If it becomes too dry to eat, you can make Panzanell, Croutons, Breadcrumbs and more. If you run out, many stores offer deep discounts on bread later in the afternoon and evening.
  • Don’t Buy Drinks
    All you need is water; and milk as your budget allows. Most packaged drinks are overpriced with too much processed sugar. For a healthy, and cheap, alternative try Water or milk Kefir and fruit or green smoothies.
  • Get Creative with Wilted Vegetables
    Can you grow beyond salads and snack? Wilted vegetables are great for anything sautéed, grated, or baked. You can use them up in healthy vegetable smoothies or make your own broth to use later.
    vegetables.
  • Make Your Own Broth
    Most savory recipes are better with broth, in both taste and health, than water. Simply discard any rot and save in the freezer the cleaned portions you would normally throw away (e.g. onion tops, pepper seeds and carrot stems). After you’ve saved a few cups worth of scraps, all you need to do is simmer them in water for a few hours to make broth. For hearty stock, simply add leftover bones from beef, chicken or any other meat.
  • Treat Your Freezer with Respect
    Do you know freezers can be great time savers that also help with portion control? For instance, you could cook a large batch of dried beans, use what you need, then freeze the rest to save that same amount of time on each additional meal. You can even cook that bulk package of your favorite meat then freeze it in single portion containers.
  • Buy a Pepper Grinder
    Have you ever noticed how much better fresh ground pepper tastes? It makes even the most bland meals appealing. So much so, one of the most popular dishes in Rome is simply pasta with butter and fresh ground pepper.
  • Buy Yogurt in Bulk
    There are so many types of yogurt at the grocery it’s hard to find your favorite. Why not make it fresher and cheaper at home? Large buckets of plain yogurt are the best deal, you can invent your own favorite flavor and control what goes into it. Have kids? Get creative and help them find their favorite flavors. Want a thicker? Simply strain the excess water out with cheese cloth
    to make Greek, Tzatziki or Raita.

Cheap Easy Meals System – Tried-and-True Since WWII

Since we’re talking systems, not simply recipes, we also discuss batching for enormous meals and leftovers. We’re building a pantry section full of everyday ingredients and the sauces that make them burst with flavor. Recommendations for nutritious drinks and deserts focus on flexible ingredients, like oatmeal and popcorn, for less waste. All with a simple system you can use repeatedly.

As you embrace cooking from home, you’ll realize there’s no such thing as the best meal, simply your best meal. Since we use many ingredients in similar ways, you can easily substitute them. If your local grocery has a sale or your neighbor offers you some extra produce, we want you to know all of your options without the shackles of a strict recipe. With this information, you’ll be able to grow beyond recipes and cook for your own pleasure.

(Can, Dry, Freeze, Pickle, Store = Eat Well)

Plan Your Cheap Easy Meals in Advance

Want to know one of the best ways to save money and time while eating healthy? Plan your meals before you shop and you’ll only buy what you need. Shop by price and be open to new recipe ideas. Plan main dishes with seasonal sides and large quantities that can be repurposed or frozen for another meal.

Benefits of Home Meals

Do you feel a preference for eating at restaurants? Many adults have felt the same preference for convenience. However, they eventually found many benefits to preparing and eating meals at home.

  • saves time, money & stress
  • fewer trips to the grocery
  • less time than delivery or pickup
  • more family time
  • children learn food prep and service
  • saves more food money than any other skill
  • only spend what you need
  • generally cheaper than eating out
  • no more wasted money on bad leftovers
  • gives the opportunity to buy other things
  • no frantically searching for food
  • no limitations or rush to speed thaw food
  • healthier and better tasting
  • more control over portion size
  • more exciting food choices
  • more opportunity to find new favorites

Meal planning may be easier than you think. Is it worth a little time to save more time, money and stress in the long run?

Simple Meal Planning Steps:

  • How much can you safely spend on food and what day of the week is most convenient to shop?
  • Based on your family schedule, how many meals will be eaten at home or away and by how many people?
  • What foods does each member of your family like? Do you experiment to find new favorites and add to this list?
  • If you make a two week menu (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and snacks with ingredients for each) then you won’t stress about the next shopping day.
  • Keep track of what you have and plan these items into your menu whenever possible to save money.
  • If you keep a grocery list in the kitchen you won’t have to remember items later.
  • Are any of your favorite menu items on sale this week in the grocery ads?
  • A weekly meal plan (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and snacks) for each family member will help save time, reduce stress and help family members stick to their own food selections.

Meal Planning Tips:

  • For speed and convenience, you may want to place equipment and utensils where they will be most often used.
  • To save time and make your food last longer, consider investing in the more expensive appliances like a microwave oven, toaster oven, pressure saucepan, and food processor as you budget allows.
  • For a less stressful meal, consider the prep and cook time for each dish then start with the longest, preparing the other dishes while it cooks. If all times are similar then start with one that will hold up the best.
  • To save clean up time, have you considered using cookware to cook, serve and store your meal.
  • Do you make meal plans flexible based on ingredient availability and sale prices?
  • Meals can be fun for the whole family. Include as many family members as possible and encourage children to help plan and prepare new foods to find their favorites.
  • To avoid scheduling conflicts, post your family schedule on the refrigerator next to your meal plan and shopping list.
  • Do you plan meals with a well balanced variety of nutritious ingredients?
  • Are you adventurous enough to balance family favorites with new recipes.
  • Keep things interesting by Balancing your cooking methods between grill, bake, broil and stir fry.
  • Since leftovers can be boring, especially the same day, what can you add to make them more appealing?
  • Have you considered cooking with friends and trading recipes?


Edible Art

If we eat with our eyes then the best way to prevent boredom at meal time is a variety of foods from each food group. Wouldn’t a dinner full of red, orange, deep yellow, purple and dark green be more appealing than varying shades of white or gray? In general, brighter color fruits and vegetables means more antioxidants. Try to use at least two colorful foods in every meal.

For more variety, try combining crisp, soft, crunchy, chewy, and smooth textures.

Hot, sour, salty and sweet. Combine dishes that bring out the best in each and don’t be afraid to add herbs, spices and other flavorings. Don’t overdo it though, often less is more and you can always add later.

Zero Waste Shopping

Buy Whole Fruit & Vegetables

Why buy prepackaged fruit & vegetables when you can buy fresh produce and have it your way? Yes, it may be faster and easier to buy them ready to serve but how much more do they cost and will your kids fall into the same trap if they don’t learn how to clean and prepare vegetables on their own?

Buy Whole Meats

Did you know you can do the same with meat? Why buy prepackaged meat with all those unhealthy preservatives when you can buy fresh meat and have it your way? Challenge yourself to use every part and not waste any money. Discover how to buy meat for less, fix it in less time and serve it with ease.

Keep Track of What You Have

If you want to make your food last longer and cut your grocery bill, what could you make with the food you already have? Perhaps a list would help use your fresh produce and canned goods before they expire? If your fresh produce is getting a little too mushy, you may want to try it in your smoothies, jams or broths. Discover sites that help you sort recipes with ingredients you already have

Keep Track of What You Waste

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” – Peter Drucker

Trying something new is like driving a car, a thousand little course corrections. By keeping track of the food you waste you’ll be able to see where you can save money, or what to keep in the front of the refrigerator, the next time you shop.

Use Stems and Stalks

Many greens, packed with nutrients, are often discarded, rather disturbing when so many people don’t have enough to eat. Carrot, turnip, radish and even beet greens can be used for pesto, salad and soup base. If you have leftover bones from chicken, beef, pork or other meat you can freeze them until you have enough for bone broth then freeze it.

Switch to a Plant Based Diet

There’s no need to go Vegan, or even Vegetarian, but the less meat you eat the fewer resources you consume, waste you produce and better your health.

Shop in Season/Local

Would you rather eat fresh food or something preserved several days ago in another state or country? Shopping for food in season means less damage to the environment and fresher food for your family. See what’s in season in your area then plug the ingredients into one of the recipe sites above for the healthiest, and cheapest, meals available.

Seasonal Chart

Seasonal Food Guide

SNAP-Ed Seasonal Produce Chart

Versatile Pantry Ingredients for Easy Affordable Meals

These common pantry items can provide a large variety of meals within minutes. The secret to easy, fast cooking at home is a well stocked pantry. Start with a few versatile items and slowly add more as your budget allows.

Protein Aside from meat, beans, nuts and eggs are cheap, easy to store, and have many uses. Also, most fish has been previously frozen and safe to thaw at home.

  • eggs
  • dried beans
  • lentils
  • tofu
  • nuts
  • peanut butter

Dairy Who would have guessed cooking with butter is an easy way to add more dairy? Add a little cheese and you have doubled your source of healthy dairy.

  • butter
  • milk
  • yogurt
  • queso fresco
  • cheese

Vegetables An endless variety throughout the year as each comes into season. Use the greens first and store the remainder of your bulk seasonal buys throughout the year.

  • garlic
  • onions
  • carrots
  • celery
  • peppers
  • broccoli
  • tomatoes
  • hot peppers
  • hardy greens
  • salad greens
  • potatoes
  • sweet potatoes
  • cauliflower
  • winter squash

Fruits Citrus fruits are cooking essentials that keep well and liven up any dish. Many make great healthy snacks. Try others within your budget to find new favorites.

  • apples
  • melons
  • oranges
  • limes
  • lemons
  • bananas

Grains Flour is inexpensive and baked goods are easy to make. A variety of Whole grains can be substituted for rice, tossed in a salad or even added to soups.

  • bread
  • tortillas
  • pasta
  • flour
  • oats
  • popcorn
  • rice
  • cornmeal

Canned Vegetables While fresh are normally more nutritious, there’s always a price trade. Most canned vegetables have added sodium so wash them to reduce the salt in your recipe.

  • whole tomatoes
  • tomato paste
  • corn

Frozen Fruits & Vegetables If fresh fruit and vegetables are too expensive, frozen options are good in smoothies or vegetable soups and rice or whole grain dishes.

  • berries
  • peas
  • green beans
  • corn

Flavors Flavors help you branch out to other cuisines. They can add excitement to even the simplest of dishes and make every meal more enjoyable.

  • olive oil
  • vegetable oil
  • wine vinegar
  • anchovies
  • sardines
  • olives
  • fish sauce
  • coconut milk
  • miso paste
  • mustard
  • soy sauce
  • chili sauce
  • brown sugar
  • fresh herbs

Treats That Go a Long Way Most specialty items appear to be expensive but you only use a little. Have a number of complimentary recipes handy to use the specialty item before it goes bad.

  • dried fruits
  • dried mushrooms
  • frozen shrimp
  • maple syrup
  • bacon
  • vanilla extract
  • cocoa powder

Spices Spices begin to lose their flavor after a couple months, start small and buy more of your favorites. Experiment with bland basics to find your favorite combinations.

  • chile flakes
  • cinnamon
  • cumin
  • paprika
  • curry powder
  • oregano
  • thyme

(Meal Planner & Pantry List [Google/Libre/PDF] coming soon)

Do More with Fewer Ingredients

Do you buy ingredients for new recipes or make new recipes based on your ingredients? Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest; millions of new recipes at our fingertips for your next meal, potluck or other social event. But when will you ever use the rest of those special ingredients? How much did they cost. How long will they take up room in your pantry or refrigerator?

Many ingredients can easily be substituted (e.g. 4 parts Cream of Tarter + 1 part Baking Soda = Baking Powder) and other substitutions may even improve your recipe.Non-Alcoholic Substitutions

Basic Versatile Kitchen Equipment

Stock your kitchen like your pantry, basic equipment as your budget allows.

Good Knives

  • Most important, make sure it’s big and sharp.
  • Paring knife for smaller tasks, like peeling and coring apples.
  • Serrated knife for cutting bread and tomatoes easily.

Box Grater

  • Grate cheese
  • Shred potatoes
  • Make quick work of tough vegetables

Measuring Cups and Spoons

  • Plastic – Lightweight and dishwasher safe but stain and absorb odors
  • Metal – Resist stains, odors and scratching but may react with some ingredients
  • Glass – Resist stains, odors and scratching – breakable and measurements may fade

Essential Pots and Pans

  • Large cast-iron or nonstick pan
  • Medium-size saucepan
  • Large soup pot

Stirring Utinsils

  • Long-handled wooden spoon.
  • Ladle is essential for soups, stews, and sauces.
  • Whisk for sauces or desserts.

Roasting

  • Use oven-safe baking pans—glass, ceramic, etc.—for broiling, baking, and roasting.
  • Use oven-safe dishes—glass, ceramic, etc.—for broiling, baking, and roasting.
  • Casserole dishes are handy for storing leftovers.

Sieve

  • Drain pasta or boiled veggies
  • Sift flour
  • Strain extra whey from yogurt

Microplane

  • Zest lemons and limes
  • Grate hard cheeses and garlic
  • Shred soft vegetables into a sauce

Specialty Baking

  • Muffin tins can be used for baking in small portions.
  • It’s hard to make a cake without a cake pan.
  • Rimmed baking sheets can also be used to roast veggies or broil fish.

Immersion Blender

  • Use it to puree soups and smoothies.
  • It’s more versatile and quicker to clean than traditional blenders.
  • If you need power, consider investing in a food processor or full-size blender.

Flipping and Shuffling Utensils

  • Flat spatulas are for flipping pancakes.
  • Rounded spatulas are good to scrape bowls.
  • Use tongs for salads, or moving hot foods without hurting yourself.

Cutting Board

  • Wood is longest lasting and the most sanitary surface for preparing raw meat.
  • Cheap plastic boards are fine and easy to wash.
  • Don’t get glass. Just don’t.

Preserve Foods (Short Term)

Not sure when you’ll be using the fresh food you have or when you’ll be able to get more?

There are many ways to preserve your food until needed:

  • Cure & Smoke
  • Dry
  • Ferment
  • Freeze
  • Jams & Jellies
  • Pickle
  • Storage
Organize Your Food Items

How frustrating is it when you can’t find what you need in the fridge/freezer or pantry, especially when you’re in the middle of making a recipe, or find the ingredient you need has expired? A simple system of at least placing the freshest behind older ingredients may help prevent unnecessary frustration and expense.

Get Creative with Leftovers

If you don’t like to have the same dish several days in a row, why not cook strategically? For example, a large batch of beans can easily be upgraded to bean tacos or nachos, then bean burgers, and finally bean soup or stew; good for busy, low-energy, evenings. If all else fails, freeze them to use later.

Explore these websites to discover thousands of new favorites!

Compost Your Kitchen Waste

More than excellent natural fertilizer, other benefits to composting:

  • becomes valuable resource
  • builds stronger food systems
  • controls erosion
  • creates more jobs
  • creates regenerative outlook
  • filters local water sources
  • grows healthier food
  • lowers farm production cost
  • lowers food costs
  • provides cleaner oceans
  • puts carbon back into the ground
  • reduces Green House Gasses
  • reduces landfills
  • saves disposal cost

Canned Goods Are Your Friend

Consider these 8 dangers of food storage:

  • Air
  • Chemical contamination
  • Insects
  • Light
  • Moisture
  • Rodents
  • Temperature
  • Time

Consider storing these basic foods:

  • Baking Soda
  • Beans and Other Legumes
  • Dehydrated and Freeze-Dried Vegetables
  • Grains
  • Honey
  • Potato Flakes
  • Salt
  • Vinegar
  • Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) Powder
  • White Sugar

Properly Store Your Food for Zero Waste Cooking

Have you ever had to throw away flour infested with Weevils or limp celery? The secret to making food last longer is proper storage:Food Storage Chart – Shelf Life of Food – Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Chart

Not sure if something is still good to eat? Find it on StillTasty and learn how to make it last even looooonger next time.

Store Food in Multiple Locations

Consider storing food in the following cool, dry, areas of your home:

  • Below the Stairs
  • Bookshelves
  • Empty Suitcases
  • Floor Spaces
  • Inside Cardboard Boxed
  • Inside Hidden Crawl Spaces
  • Inside the Wall
  • Inside Your Box Spring
  • Kitchen Cabinets
  • Under the Bed

Grow Your Own Food

No land, no problem. Do you know many herbs and vegetables only need water and sunlight? Yes, even those super nutritious, super expensive, microgreens. Read how this Biotech engineer grows enough food in his back yard to help 150,000 children fight malnutrition and how to do it yourself in the videos below.

  • Begin Building Your Food Storage Supply the Right Way
  • Focus on the Longest Shelf Stable and Most Versatile Foods
  • Store What You Eat and Eat What You Store
  • Label Food Storage Containers
  • Store Food in a Cool, Dark Place
  • Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe
  • Money Saved on Food Can Be Used for Other Things
  • Keep a 72-Hour Kit
  • Stock Up On Other Essentials
  • Invest in Items to Barter
  • Be Prepared to Go Without
  • The Best Way to Learn Food Storage – Make It Part of Your Everyday Life
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