Finances & Money Frugality

How to S-T-R-E-T-C-H a Food Budget

By Pamela Grundy

This is a guest post by Pamela Grundy, writer for Personal FInance Analyst. Personal Finance Analyst is an online community of bloggers dedicated to taking the mystery out of money and helping you to live a happier, more successful life with the money you have.

When I was young, my mother and grandmother talked a lot about stretching food. It’s an odd visual, for sure. Imagine each member of a family of four grabbing onto one raw boneless pork chop and pulling until it resembles a pink pup tent that all of them can fit into.

Well, that’s not what Mom and Grandma meant. Let’s be serious (and frugal) for a minute here.

What my mother and grandmother were talking about was how to take that one boneless pork chop and feed a family of four once or twice or even three times off of it, something even Jesus never attempted to do, (although yes, he was really good with fish). Taking a page from that famous parable, we know that, even today, there’s really only one way to accomplish such a seemingly impossible feat, and that way is:


With all due respect to Dr. Atkins and his best-selling books, carbohydrates are not poison. (In fact, environmental poisons in food tend to accumulate in their most concentrated form in animal fat and tissue, especially organ meats.)

During the Great Depression, people used to eat lots of starch because meat was not always plentiful or affordable, but grain and potatoes could be stored and eaten year round. People living in third world countries still eat lots of starch for the same reason, and they do not grow obese from doing so.

In recent years Americans have become accustomed to a diet very high in protein and fat, and also very high in processed foods, fast foods, and prepackaged and frozen foods. These kinds of foods often contain high fructose corn syrup, a super-sweet additive not found in nature that has been proven to impair the human body’s natural biological signals that tell us when we’ve had enough to eat. Activists are attempting to ban the use of this ubiquitous additive as we speak, just as some places have already banned trans-fats, another dangerous and common additive to fast and processed foods.

So it’s not starch that’s making us fat; it’s crappy expensive food that’s making us fat. The good news is that by returning to a diet closer to that of our parents and grandparents, we can not only lose weight and feel healthier; we can save money on groceries too.

To stretch a family food budget all you really need to do is make friends with four magical starches: noodles, mashed potatoes, rice, and homemade quick breads. Happily, kids and men can seemingly live almost entirely on these substances alone. Exercise proper portion control and you will be amazed at how much weight you don’t gain. Another benefit: A vegetable floating in a sea of noodles or mashed potatoes is far more likely to get inside a veggie-phobic child than one occupying a corner of its own.

Cheap and Easy Meal Ideas

These meals can stretch one meal into two or even three using starch magic:

Noodles: Stretch leftover chicken by combining de-boned chicken chunks with green peas, chopped green onion, broth and kluski or udon noodles. Chop fresh tomatoes from the garden with fresh basil, a clove of garlic, a quarter cup olive oil and toss with hot spaghetti and parmesan cheese. Chopped leftover cooked pork and stir fry it with chopped green onion, matchstick carrots, fresh ginger, a little peanut butter and soy sauce, then mix with udon or soba noodles and serve in bowls.

Mashed Potatoes: Crumble leftover meatloaf into a casserole dish with chopped sautéed onion, sliced carrots, mixed vegetables and a can of cream of mushroom soup, then top with leftover mashed potatoes and bake for about 30 minutes. Make a white sauce with two tablespoons flour, four tablespoons butter, two cups of milk and add a package of chipped beef when thickened to serve over mashed potatoes. Slice leftover roast beef, heat in its own gravy, make sandwiches out of it with a mound of mashed potatoes between the sandwich halves and pour gravy over the whole thing.

Rice: Rice and beans make a complete protein when combined. Serve white rice with a side of refried beans topped with melted cheese with corn chips on the side. Roll up hot rice and black or pinto beans topped with cheese, salsa, and sour cream in flour tortillas and serve with corn chips & salsa. Add any chopped leftover meat last to stir fried fresh or frozen vegetables and serve over rice.

Homemade Quick Breads: In the bottom of a casserole place leftover chili, shredded Colby-jack cheese, and cornbread batter then bake at 350 for about twenty five minutes. Add any leftover shredded meat to any can of cream soup then add some frozen peas and serve over baking powder biscuits when hot.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. At the very least, try serving mashed potatoes, cornbread, or noodles with dinner with smaller portions of meat. Another way to save money is to have one or two completely meatless meals each week that employ the starch-is-our-friend philosophy.

Many of the skills our grandmothers developed to feed their families well during the Depression have been lost as everyone went to work, and lately, as everyone went to work two or three jobs. We can revive these culinary arts. We’ll eat better, we’ll save money, and with gas sailing past $4.00 per gallon with no end in sight, we’ll need to the energy because we’ll be walking a lot more than we have since we were children. Bon appétit!

About the author

Clever Dude


  • Yes, serving carbs with some “healthy” foods we should eat more of (like lean proteins and vegetables) can keep you feeling like you’ve eaten enough will smaller portions of expensive foods. I think frozen vegetables are really underappreciated. Frozen spinach is less than $1 a pach and two packages added to a regular lasagna can up its nutrition value significantly.

  • Don’t forget about beans–they can go far beyond a complement to rice! Beans are cheap and they are enough types to complement lots of different cuisine styles. Of course, I could probably live on mashed potatoes, but does it count if they’re drowned in butter? 😉

  • I recommend the book “The China Study” which documents 30 years of research about the associations between a plant-based diet with reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and various cancers. (It similarly slams the Atkins diet.)

  • I tried the atkins diet and while I lost weight I felt like crap after 3 or 4 weeks of bacon and steak. I also just felt, well, greasy. Now, we go for much more moderation in our meat budget and still eat quite well. my wife is a wonderful cook and a great shopper with her coupons. We do usually have one leftover night a week and always have hot dogs and hot dog buns on tap for the teenager and peanut butter and jelly for the toddler. Some of my more favorite frugal meals that she cooks include her chicken and rice soup (made from the rest of a chicken we’ve had earlier in the week), spaghetti noodles tossed with fresh tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. These days it’s not easy to feed a family of 4 for less than $100 a week but we try to stay as close to that as possible.

  • Unfortunately, these suggestions could be unhealthy depending on the type of sauces used (cream of mushroom soup is high in sodium; butter is high in saturated fat; use of regular sour cream, whole milk, etc).

    The USDA put out a great recipe book that lists ALL food items and recipes that you would need to feed a family of 4 (all meals) for 2 WEEKS! It tells you how to shop thrifty and eat healthfully. You should check it out! (And check out my article on the recipe book in the process!)

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