How to Feed Your Family When You’re Flat Broke

(Psst: The FTC wants me to remind you that this website contains affiliate links. That means if you make a purchase from a link you click on, I might receive a small commission. This does not increase the price you'll pay for that item nor does it decrease the awesomeness of the item. ~ Daisy)

Author of Be Ready for Anything and Bloom Where You’re Planted online course

Feeding your family when you’re flat broke isn’t easy but it can be done.  What would you do if you suddenly need to prepare for a lean month ahead on a tight budget? Imagine you only had $400 or so to purchase all food and essentials for your whole family for a month. How would you cover the necessities?

This is a question on a lot of people’s minds right now. Most – if not all – states are paying out February’s SNAP food benefits early to make sure that folks have something to eat during the month ahead. That means any money they get now has to be stretched to feed their families for at least 6 weeks. As well, as the government shutdown continues, 800,000 federal employees will also continue to be without a paycheck.

As usual, in an effort to deter the people who feel compelled to cheer about the misfortune of others, please remember that a lot of people receiving assistance for food are the elderly, the disabled, veterans, and children. This article explains how a lot of food stamp recipients may not be the “welfare queens” you’re envisioning.

Today’s article was written to help anyone who finds themselves in difficult circumstances. I hope it helps you make it through the rough spot.

Surviving when your budget is severely limited

Here’s an article on surviving the shutdown and here’s an article on surviving when you can’t pay your bills.

Now…about the stuff you need to buy. The lists below are specifically food, but keep in mind that there will be other needed supplies in the month too. Don’t forget about toilet paper, soap, shampoo, feminine hygiene products, toothpaste, dish soap, and any other essential that your family may require.

When choosing what to purchase (and how much) consider the appetites and preferences of your family. Yes, even when money is tight, you can purchase food your loved ones will enjoy. You aren’t being punished – it’s just a rough spot.

I just put together a PDF guide called The Flat Broke Cookbook: Thrifty Meals and Shopping Tips for Tough Times to help you through this with some tasty, inexpensive meals and shopping tips.

This cookbook is FREE to anyone who needs it and available for $6 to anyone who wishes to purchase it.

Here’s how to get it:

If you need a free copy, no questions asked, drop us an email at daisyluther2 at gmail.com with the subject line FREE COOKBOOK. It may take us a day or two to get this out to you but I promise every person who needs it will get it.

If you would like to purchase a copy for $6 go here: https://learn.theorganicprepper.com/?cartflows_flow=1612-2-3-3

The book has loads of thrifty recipes and leftover ideas to reduce waste, as well as some shopping tips for getting through a lean month or two.

Where to shop

Remember, all grocery stores aren’t created equally. In every area, there’s always a “cheap” store. I find that in my part of the world, Food Lion and Walmart are a fraction of the price of Kroger, even with the sales. Walmart has inexpensive groceries in most areas.

Also check out places like Aldis and Lydl. Some items that are name brand can be purchased at dollar stores and liquidation stores. Go to the least expensive place around for your shopping trip.

Some frugal food tips

Your menu this month may be a little different than what you’ve been used to before. Food may take more hands-on time to prepare.

  • Cook from scratch. Remember when you’re buying food, either you’re doing the work or you are paying someone else to do the work. This month, you’re going to need to do the work. Here are some tips on cooking from scratch.
  • Stretch your ingredients. Be ready to stretch your ingredients by making soups, stews, and casseroles.
  • Don’t plan on eating low-carb this month. Unless, of course, you have a health condition that requires a low carb diet, plan on adding more grains and starches to your diet during a rough spot.
  • Use your leftovers. Plan to use every single bite of food, including small amounts of leftovers.
  • You probably won’t be able to eat organic. If you normally eat nothing but fresh, organic goodness, this month is going to have to be different. If times are really really tight, you are going to need to loosen your standards to survive.

This article talks about making healthy choices when you’re broke but if you are rock bottom broke, you may have to go even cheaper. So when I recommend canned fruits and veggies here in a minute, I don’t want to hear “But you’re supposed to be the organic prepper.” Sure. I am. I care about BPA in canned goods. But I’m also a sensible and realistic prepper and I care about people having something to eat. Just make the best choices you can while still staying fed, okay?

Protein

When you’re broke, protein is going to be the most costly part of your menu.

  • Meat: When your budget is super tight, don’t expect meat to be the main dish. I’m not saying you have to go vegetarian, but calorie for calorie, meat is very expensive. Use less meat than you normally would and make it an ingredient instead of the star of the meal. Go with less expensive cuts and cook them for a long time: stew beef, ground beef, chicken quarters, etc., are much less costly.
  • Eggs: Eggs are a very inexpensive and healthy source of protein. Walmart has huge flats with 30 eggs for a very reasonable price. I suggest you grab a few of those and think about breakfast for dinner.
  • Beans, beans, good for your heart. I absolutely love beans and strongly recommend them. Proper soaking and rinsing can reduce the resulting flatulence. Go with dried beans instead of canned for greater savings. If your family members don’t like beans, they might prefer refried beans or bean dip. Worst case scenario, you can puree cooked beans and add them to a soup.
  • Peanut butter. Peanut butter is a tasty protein source and most kids love it. (Assuming there are no allergies, of course. ) Grab a huge jar and if possible, go for one that is more natural. Skippy and Jif both have a line of natural peanut butter without a whole lot of additives.
  • Canned tuna: Beware of eating this stuff non-stop because of high levels of mercury, but some canned tuna will add much-needed protein to your menu.
  • Lentils and split peas: Both of these are high in protein, dirt cheap, and easy to turn into delicious soups.

Fruits and Vegetables

Produce is a very important part of a healthy diet. Without it, you’re at risk for all sorts of deficiency diseases. When shopping once a month, plan to eat your fresh stuff early in the month and then move on to your frozen or canned goods.

  • Apples: If the price is reasonable, grab a large bag of apples. This will provide you with some fresh fruit.
  • Applesauce: This is a great addition for later in the month when the fresh stuff is gone. To save money, look for large jars of applesauce instead of the little individual packets for lunch boxes. Go with unsweetened applesauce.
  • Canned fruit: Get fruit canned in the lightest syrup possible, or fruit canned in juice. Just because you’re broke doesn’t mean you need to eat 10 pounds of sugar per day, right?  Canned fruit is a nice addition to pancakes, waffles, or oatmeal. Reserve the juice for baking.
  • Overripe bananas: If your store has a last-day-of-sale bin for produce, you may be able to grab some overripe bananas. Get these and take them home for banana bread.
  • Carrots: I’m not talking about baby carrots here. I’m talking about those huge bags of grown-up carrots you’ll need to peel and slice yourself. Remember earlier when I told you that you’re either spending time or money? Carrots are a perfect example of that. Peel them, slice them, and keep them in a bowl of water in your fridge for yummy snacking.
  • Onions: A big bag of onions will help you flavor up your home cooking this month.
  • Garlic: Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy garlic already chopped up in a jar. Grab enough garlic to spice up your food over the course of the month.
  • Cabbage: Depending on the time of year, a few heads of cabbage will get you far for very little money. You can use cabbage in coleslaw, salads, soup, or casseroles. You don’t need to get fancy – just go with the plain, ordinary green heads of cabbage if they’re the cheapest.
  • Canned tomatoes: My favorite canned good is canned tomatoes. I like to get a variety of crushed and diced ones. These can be used for soups, chili, casseroles, and sauces. Canned tomatoes are a nutritional powerhouse.
  • Frozen vegetables: At my local grocery store, I can get bags of frozen vegetables for a dollar each, and sometimes less. If you have the freezer space, this is the way to go. I suggest you grab at least 30 bags of veggies that you know your family will enjoy. Our favorites are peas and carrots, green peas, corn, cauliflower, broccoli, chopped spinach, Brussels sprouts, mixed vegetables, and green beans. With an assortment of frozen vegetables, you can make all sorts of great stuff.
  • Whatever is in-season: Every season, there are fruits and veggies that are at their ripest and least expensive. What is in season depends on when your personal financial catastrophe occurs. Here’s an article on in-season winter veggies.

It’s important to get enough produce for 2-3 servings per day at the minimum. I know all the health experts tell you 5-8 servings but you may not be able to swing that. Also, potatoes would really be considered a carb but since you find them in the produce department, I added them to this list.

Dairy

If you consume dairy products on a daily basis, you’re going to still want to consume dairy products when times are tough. (Cream for your coffee, milk for cereal, a beverage for the kiddos).

Generic milk by the gallon is your least expensive way to go for this. You can make all sorts of things from your gallons of milk, like homemade yogurt and cottage cheese. (Instructions are included in the book.) I suggest you put aside enough cash to be able to pick up a gallon of milk weekly. If you don’t already have powdered milk, this isn’t the time to buy it. It tends to be a lot more expensive than fresh milk.

Milk with lower fat can be frozen. Be sure to remove at least one cup of milk from your gallon jug to allow room for expansion. This works best with skim milk. Any milk with fat will need to be shaken each time you use it.

Grab cheese by the block for the least expensive option. Because we really enjoy cheese, I pick up 2 large blocks for a month. I cut each one in half and package them up separately. I freeze 3 and keep one in the fridge. Remember, cheese is a condiment during difficult times, not the main course. You simply cannot afford cheese and crackers for dinner.

Carbs and Grains

I know this is a wildly unpopular ingredient these days, with all the low-carb and keto diets out there, but grains are the great stretchers of your pantry. You can take one serving of leftover chili and feed your entire family with it when you mix it with rice and perhaps a little bit of cheese.

Buy your grains in the biggest packages possible for the most savings. Forget about “instant” anything – these items are often totally stripped of nutrition, and again – you are spending time, or you are spending money. Here are some of the grains to look for:

  • Brown rice
  • Pasta
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Barley
  • Flour
  • Cornmeal

There are lots of other grains, but these are inexpensive, versatile, and easy to work with.

And don’t forget the humble potato. A couple of bags of potatoes can get you through a rough time. Potatoes are filling, can be cooked in a lot of different ways, and most folks love them. Leave the peel on for added fiber. Store them in a cool, dark place away from onions for the longest life. Even when they’re sprouting eyes, you can eat them though – just cut out the sprouting parts.

Basics

To turn your raw ingredients into meals, you’ll need a few basics, too.

  • Baking soda
  • Baking powder
  • Yeast (if you are going to bake bread)
  • Spices
  • Sugar, Syrup, Honey
  • Fats (Cooking oil, shortening, butter, lard, etc.)
  • Vinegar
  • Salt and pepper

How much should you buy?

This is the tricky part. How much to buy has a lot of variables and only you can identify them.

  • What do you have on hand?
  • How big is your family?
  • How hungry is your family?
  • How picky is your family?
  • How long do you expect the budget to be tight?

The best option is to do some meal planning before you go shopping. This should help you identify how much you need for the main meals. Don’t forget to add extra for lunches and snacks!

Getting through a rough spot

I know it’s scary to face financial problems, but you will get through this. I know it feels like the rug has been yanked out from under you. But the way you handle these difficult times is the way you will handle a disaster that is even more serious and long-term. Your determination to get through it means everything and I hope that my book can provide you with some of the tools you need to make it happen. Please don’t be shy – I really want to help. I’ve had tough times myself and I know how awful it can be. If I can make it easier for you, I’d be honored.

I know you can do this.

In the comments, does anyone have suggestions for other cheap and thrifty ingredients that folks on a limited budget should pick up?

How to Feed Your Family When You\'re Flat Broke
Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3) PreppersDailyNews.com, an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • You forgot to mention condiments – ketchup, mustard, mayo, BBQ sauce, dressing – these things can really make everything better no different than spices.

    Speaking of spices, a lot of money can be wasted on these. Cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean less quality. Most important IMO – garlic powder, onion powder, cinnamon, sage, celery seeds, chilli powder, rosemary and thyme. Bullion is also very useful to have on hand.

    I can’t remember if you listed corn starch or a thickening agent but they’re helpful too. Gravy is always a good addition to almost any main dish.

    Condiments are to children what spices & gravy are for most adults ????

  • I do not like being forced at gunpoint to be charitable. Money is removed from me, in the form of taxes, and given to other people, in the form of food. Which means I have less money to buy my own food. Yes, I understand that many people receiving taxpayer-provided food are the elderly, the disabled, veterans, and children. I still don’t like being forced at gunpoint to be charitable.

      • Actually – her whole point was, she’s being forced to help. I don’t think the problem was in helping, the problem was in being forced at gunpoint to pay taxes. Don’t believe her? Stop paying your taxes for a while. First it’s letters and such but eventually they do threaten non taxpayers at gunpoint.

    • What a sad and petty human being you are. I can only hope that some day you are in dire need of help.and that other people look at you in the same way that you look at others in need.

  • Been there and done that!
    I have also lived off bagels and beans and rice.
    I have even done dumpster diving with a homeless friend(dead?) and learned lambs quarters are wild spinach.weeds and carrot tops can be used too.
    Soup kitchens and food pantries can help too.

  • We Americans are so wasteful , we are governed by an artificial date that tells us up to 12:00 am on a certain date the food is good but eat it one second after it expires and you’ll die. I feed my family of 6 for less than 5 dollars a meal most of the time. These are not non-palatable meals but are delicious as any. That’s not B/S it’s a fact , the bread companies have outlet store you could buy yours there or do what I did make friends with the driver of a bread company. Bread must be pulled from the shelve at a certain time but while it is still in date. I’ve filled my pickup with bread, freezing what I want and passing it to people who want and need it. We have places in the Mid West where discount groceries are sold at a greatly reduced price Some cans are dented, some short dated, some out of date but most all are good an edible.There are store that sell produce for a lot less than other grocery store
    I took a picture recently to send to my family on the East coast to show them what is possible. My kitchen cabinet loaded down with ham, bacon bread all free and with a retail value of around $1000.00 This country is awash in food

  • Hi!

    Might I just make a comment about meat. Beef heart sounds terrible but it is really quite good, albeit slightly tough, but with a smooth texture. It also requires a bit more preparation in that one must cut away gristly bits; but all in all it is a very tasty, very low fat and much cheaper substitute for stew meat. Our local butcher/locker plant sells it for 1.50/lb. And a plus is that my cats like it also. I usually make it into stew with home grown veggies but cutting it into small pieces and adding potatoes makes a great hash.

  • Many farmers are struggling in this country, and in my area I know for certain. There are often special winters farmer’s markets where you can get fresh produce, meat, dairy, etc. that is healthier and more reasonably priced than the grocery store. They often have “ugly produce” that looks funny but is perfectly good otherwise. And your purchase helps support your neighbors, too.

  • One thing that I learned a long time ago was to Always eat BEFORE you go shopping for food. Whenever you go grocery shopping when hungry you’re more likely to fall prey to “impulse” items. Things to “treat” yourself, or items that are not on your list. When money is tight, every penny counts.

  • I love your site. Thank you for the wealth of knowledge you provide. I respect that you voice the concept that one can be both self reliant in many areas of their life while still maintaining empathy for others. If we survive it all but loose our humanity on the way what good are we?

  • Oatmeal is the large containers is a low cost option for cereal. It also stores well.
    If not baking bread, many towns have a discount bread store. Our local discount store sells bread, bagels, snacks, etc. are sold at less than half the regular price. Many of the items are still under the stamped “sell by date”, so check dates on all items. Many stores get weekly deliveries. Inquire what day new supplies are due to arrive to get the best selection.

  • Daisy

    You always give such great tips and information, I so enjoy what you write and this would be such a good learning challenge if or when you decide to do another challenge like “Make It From Scratch”.

  • Some of the most frugal meals I make involve chicken thighs or legs – (bone in) from Aldi for about $5 for a 10 pack ($0.79/lb). This makes at least 3 meals for my family of 8. You could also use a roaster chicken. My goal is to find some type of bone in chicken that is under $6 (<$0.99 per pound). I prefer the thighs for this because the darker meat has a higher fat content which makes everyone more satiated.

    Meal #1: Roasted in the oven – enjoy with potatoes or rice and veggies – save the bones and any leftover meat. Don't pick the bones completely clean but save any of the bigger pieces.

    Meal #2: Take the bones and make a 4 hour bone broth on the stovetop in a stockpot (I add my saved onion skins and celery tops to the bone with water). This usually makes 3-4 quarts. From this I might make any number of soups often using leftover meat from meal #1.

    Meal #3: Take those same bones and throw them in the crockpot (with another batch of leftover onionskins/celery tops and water) and do a 24-36 hour bone broth cooked on low. Near the end of cooking time I take a potato masher and mash up the bones to extract the marrow into the broth. This again yields 2-3 quarts that I make into different soups or stews.

    One package of meat – many options. Of course if you have a more average sized family of 4 people you might even get 6 or more meals out of it. If you have enough leftover meat after meal #1 you could also make a pot pie with that and get 4 meals instead of 3. Frugal, very nourishing, and delicious.

    The soups often make use of the leftover veggies from other meals.

  • Your encouragement is much appreciated. I have deep sympathy for those federal workers-especially those required to work because they are still incurring work related expenses with no paycheck. The shopping you describe is the way I’ve been ‘making’ it for the last several years. I hope those affected by all this craziness don’t hesitate to go to a food pantry or subsidised store. We have a warehouse like store run by a local Baptist church. They don’t care what religion you are, just that you are fed. You can’t always find everything you need or want, but it pays to go there first because the cost is about 75% less than the grocery store. Then you go next door to their fresh food and free bread section. Farmers drop off surplus or “ugly” fruit and veggies, and stores bring in bread that’s a day from expiry. Sometimes there is even bonus baked goods like croissants, cakes, donuts. If you can control your ‘picky’ side, it’s wonderful.

  • Such a great article full of wonderful information. I have been there and know you can do this. Generic foods save even more money. Sure you may want the fancy brands but basically it is just a name. Try one or two to see if the family can tell much difference without telling them. Usually they can’t. I still check sales out every shopping trip and plan what I am going to cook for the next week or month. Thank you for giving away that great book for those who need ideas.

  • My MIL taught me to stretch a can of chili by adding a can of condensed tomato soup. She added almost no water. Once it was mixed in, we could not tell the difference. You can also add rice to your taco meat to make it go farther.

  • Canned chicken is a great protein- my family loves it.

    Also, we don’t drain our tuna or canned chicken, and add oatmeal along with the mayo to stretch it. Add 1/2 the ounces of oatmeal to the canned protein. 5 ounces of tuna – 2.5 ounces of oatmeal.

  • I cook for me alone, but anything that freezes or refrigerates well after preparation is also useful for leftovers. That way I don’t waste anything and only have to “do the work” once.

  • My local WalMart is still having a great deal on whole turkeys. And don’t forget, after you get all the meat off of the bones, put those bones back into a big pot of water for soup broth! People need to make themselves well-acquainted with the old fashioned cheap cuts like: these three steaks—the flank, skirt, and hanger: pork shoulder—generally divided between the picnic roast and the Boston butt—are among the least expensive cuts of pig: pork belly- longer cooking but delicious: untrimmed beef brisket is still one of the least expensive cuts of beef you can buy: beef cheeks, oxtail, & shin are old-fashioned cuts of meat you braise slowly. Some of these may need to come from a butcher, but they are still CHEAP!! If you go through Julia Childs’ recipes, she covers how to cook many of these meats. Libraries carry cook books too, so no expense. We all love crab & lobster, but skate, porgy filet, catfish, red mulle, and mackerel or sardines are super cheap.

  • I coupon and watch sales for non food items like shampoo, toilet paper, and toothpaste. I haven’t paid for toothpaste for years.
    I also always check the markdown sections in my store. There is one for dry groceries, one in produce, one in frozen and one in meat. Ask if you don’t know. I once got 18 perfect avocados in the markdown section for $1.97 with a $1 off coupon. I always freeze extra items like these.
    The best way to get through a lean time is to prepare ahead. I’m always well stocked, and I didn’t overspend to get there. We all need to live within our means and stop wasting food and our resources.

  • Before shopping look at your local grocery stores ads. Sometimes their lost leaders area at great prices. Chicken leg quarters can be a great bargain. I often see them for .39/lb. You can have them with bbq sauce, make soups,etc Homemade soup is a great way to stretch a budget. Some stores do routinely put out produce that is still good but a maybe a little past it’s prime. One store I went to didn’t have any marked down veggies. I asked, and the produce manager grabbed some from the organic section and marked down for me. Oatmeal is good for breakfast but can also stretch meals as well.

    • That’s a really good way to go because you can make a menu then and there sitting down with the store ads. Menus and sticking to a menu got us through times when income was unpredictable. And with four hungry growing boys they could look at the ads and help me plan for their favorites. {{sigh}} Everybody happy and full.

  • In Canada during the winter vegetables like squash, beets, parsnips, turnips tend to remain fairly cheep and are a great addition to beans and rice dishes, at least to my taste.

  • I lived with my grandmother who was an only child. My family is Hispanic and comes from a small village, located in the Manzano, Mountains the State of New Mexico. This village is part of what is known as a Spanish Land Grant, The Chilli Land Grant. My grandmother married and had twenty children. Sadly four died as babies. As time unfolded grandma was left single mother raising all those children and eventually her grandchildren of which included me. We were so darn poor and I can tell you what our meals were three times a day every day 365 days of the year. We eat pinto beans fried potatoes and green or red chilli made without meat and flour tortillas. Never varied from that. Why? grandma had little to no money to feed her large family. When I was old enough to go to school I would not eat school lunch as it looked strange to me. Took some coaxing but I finally ate school food. I was born in the year 1953. My grandmother also made all meals with Morell Lard. She lived to age 99 years and died from natual causes. I miss her everyday . Just wanted to share my story of how we ate and survived being so poor. oh yeah no indoor bathroom . either. until the later 1960’s.

  • Wow Maggie what kind of a person would begrudge a child or elderly of food during hard times?? A selfish Cold hearted loser…that’s who…God help u if u ever need anything!!! absolutely sickening that comment is… God Bless those who are helping those who are disadvantaged..especially kids No kid should go hungry in america.

  • I agree. The average person pays $28 a YEAR in taxes for food stamps and over $4000 a year for coorprate subsidies!! You’re angry at the wrong people. NO American should go hungry while a select few have yachts and jets. Shame on you, Maggie!

  • When you buy that big bag of carrots, dry the tops and use in soups, casseroles and eggs for some added nutrients. Cabbage is also good shredded and added to tacos. A thrift store dehydrator can be your best friend for dehydrating things that are starting to be past their prime or you know you can’t get eaten in time. Bananas, apples and tomatoes are favorites at my house for snacking on when dried. An over abundance of tomatoes from the damaged fruit bin or garden can be dried and ground into powder to add to soups and casseroles. (You can also oven dry but I’m not familiar enough to suggest how!) Do some comparisons at the store…sometimes buying your fruit and veggies by the pound is more economical, sometimes pre-bagged is.

  • To help with nutritional needs, include some sprouting seeds both to provide “fresh” foods and for the extra nutrients. There are several online places that sell them. LOTS of nutrients for the $! When you figure out how much seeds are needed to make a much larger batch of sprouts, they are very inexpensive. Also good for those of us who live in areas where year around gardens are really not an option.

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