How To Feed Your Family on a Budget

With inflation, food shortages, and rising grocery bills, families are struggling to stretch their budget. Here are expert tips on how get more bang for your buck.

Mother and daughter shop at the supermarket

d3sign / Getty Images

For years, eating at home was one of the best ways to save money on food. But food inflation has become a very real issue for families in the United States. In fact, the cost of food at home increased by 13.5% in 2022—the largest 12-month increase since 1979.

To further complicate matters, a new study shows that dollar stores are now the fastest-growing food retailers in the U.S. limiting families’ access to fresh food—especially when these retailers are their only options for groceries. In fact, as many as 54 million Americans live in areas with low access to food, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“With inflation leading to tightened wallets, parents are seeking out smarter ways to spend and save across retailers and brands,” says Jean Ryan, a retail analyst and vice president of strategic advisory for Daymon. “While the need to save is a key purchasing driver, parents are not looking to compromise on the health, lifestyle, and dietary needs of their families.”

If this scenario resonates with you—wanting to save money on groceries without compromising on nutrition—keep reading. Below, we not only take a closer look at the study on dollar stores but also provide tips on how to shop for groceries on a budget.

Dollar Store Grocery Shopping On The Rise

Dollar store grocery shopping is not new, but it is on the rise. According to the study, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health, dollar stores nationwide were responsible for about a 2.1% share of household food purchases as of 2020. What’s more, in rural and low-income areas, people tend to spend more than 5% of their food budget at such retailers.

While dollar stores are certainly filling an important need, researchers indicate that this trend to get groceries at dollar stores could impact a family’s nutrition goals—especially since the food and beverages stocked by dollar stores tend to be lower in nutrients and higher in calories. These stores also often lack fresh produce and meats.

The researchers also found that as a family’s income decreased, the share of food they purchased at dollar stores increased. For this reason, learning to shop on a budget—and stick to a budget—is increasingly important when trying to meet your family’s nutritional needs. 

How to Shop for Groceries on a Budget

When it comes to shopping on a budget, it's important to note this is not going to look the same for every family, says Kristi Ruth, RD, CNSC, LDN, a registered dietitian with Carrots & Cookies. Not only does each family have different nutritional needs and goals, but they also may have different options for where they can shop for food. Some may be limited to dollar stores in their area, while others might have access to a number of different retail options. 

“[Plus] high grocery costs can put a lot of pressure on families,” adds Ali Bandier, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and founder at Senta Health. “Parents want the best for their children, but it is important for them to remember that healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive. There are plenty of budget-friendly options…if they know where to look and how to plan their trip.”

Here are some general tips on how to stretch your dollar when shopping for your family.

Reduce or eliminate beverages

One way to cut the fat from your grocery bill is to reduce or eliminate the amount of beverages you buy, especially ones that provide little to no nutritional value, Ruth says. "Coffee, tea, flavored water, sodas, and sugary juices are all tempting items to buy, especially when they're on sale, but the cost adds up quickly."

Choose frozen or canned fruits and vegetables

Not only do frozen and canned vegetables typically cost less, but there is less food waste because you don't have to worry about them going bad before you eat them, Ruth says. “If you are worried about the sodium content in canned vegetables, just soak the canned vegetables in water, drain the water, and the sodium content will be reduced,” she adds.

Reduce or eliminate snack foods

Try to reduce the number of snack foods, like chips and crackers, you purchase—especially those that have little to no nutritional value. Sometimes you may feel like you are getting your money's worth, but you're not, Ruth says. “If you are craving something crunchy and salty, try popping your own popcorn using a microwave, brown paper bag, popcorn kernels, and a touch of salt,” she says. “You can have homemade popcorn ready in no time.”

Buy less fresh meat

There are so many other foods that are excellent protein sources that are less expensive than meat, Ruth says. “For instance, you can add chopped walnuts, mushrooms, or beans to ground meat as 'meat extenders.’ This way you are not only cutting back on the cost of meat, but you are also adding nutritional value to your meal.” 

Another strategy to cut back on the amount of fresh meat you purchase is to opt for less expensive canned proteins like tuna packed in water, she says. As for plant-based protein, nuts and nut butters (including peanut butter) are excellent choices because they contain protein and fiber, and are shelf stable.  “Lentils and chickpeas are more examples of less-expensive non-meat proteins that are easy to prepare,” Ruth adds.

Make your dollar count

When planning out your week’s meals, try to take a look at the store’s sale flyers and plan accordingly, suggests Bandier. “For example, if kale is on sale this week instead of spinach, try to plan for a recipe that includes it instead.”

Another option is to utilize the retailer’s private brands instead of national brands, adds Ryan. “According to our research, 86% of consumers think the quality of private brands is as good as, if not better than, national brands.”

How to Stick to Your Budget

Developing a monthly budget is a crucial part of grocery shopping. Not only can a budget help you understand where your money is going but it also makes it easier to make sure you are meeting your goals. That said, it is not always easy to stick to a budget once you get to the store, especially if you are in a hurry or have little ones in tow. Here's how to stay on track.

Avoid shopping hungry

When you go to the grocery store hungry, it is easy to stray from your list and pick up a few extra goodies, says Bandier. “In fact, hunger makes you buy more stuff, even if it is not food. Try keeping a few healthy snacks…in your bag for a quick pick-me-up to curb your hunger and extra spending.”

Plan your meals 

Instead of making a trip to the grocery store every few days, try planning out what recipes you will make for the week in advance, and pick up everything you need in one trip, suggests Bandier. By doing some advance planning, you will save time and money. 

You also can try engaging kids in the meal planning process by allowing them to help decide what meals and snacks are being organized for the week. This also can prevent waste and give you confidence that what you’re spending money on will be consumed, Bandier says. 

Stick to your list

Once inside the store, it is important you stick to your list, Bandier says. “Grocery stores are notorious for influencing you to buy more than you planned, so do your best to stick to your list and make your preparation worth it.” 

Minimize food waste 

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that you have to serve something different every day, says Ruth. Instead, get creative with the food that you already have in the refrigerator. 

“Some nights that might mean everyone is eating something different if there are small portions left from various meals, and that's OK,” Ruth says. “If you have leftovers but would rather not eat them in the next two to three days, stick them in the freezer to be enjoyed within the next month or two.”

Shop online

If you have the option in your community, you may want to consider shopping online. Not only will you avoid tempting food displays, but you will also reduce impulse grocery purchases, says Andrea Woroch, a consumer and money saving expert.

“Even if some of the food items cost a few cents more or you have to pay a delivery fee, you could still save a lot of money and avoid food waste,” Woroch says.

Use self-checkout

Another way to stick to your budget is to use self checkout. Not only can it help you combat impulse purchases, but you also may pay closer attention to how much things cost.

“A study by IHL Consulting Group says people who used self-checkout spent less on impulse, likely because [they were] paying attention to what they were buying and how much things cost…rather than getting distracted by being on their phone when the cashier does it for them,” says Woroch. 

Utilize retailer tools

You also can maximize your savings by utilizing your local retailer’s digital tools, says Ryan. “For example, downloading a retailer’s app can provide access to exclusive online deals, digital coupons, and price comparison tools to help shoppers save, even when shopping in-store. A retailer’s loyalty or rewards program can provide personalized coupons, weekly promotions, and [sometimes even] cash back based on the program terms.”

“It is an unfortunate reality of the modern economy that grocery prices are significantly higher than they were just a couple years ago,” says Pallini Winnifred RD, RDN with the Commission on Dietetic Registration. “However, since groceries are basic necessities, it makes sense to follow all the necessary steps to ensure you have everything you need.”

Was this page helpful?
Parents uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1.  U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Prices for food at home up 13.5 percent for year ended August 2022.

  2. Ruder K. Study finds us households, especially in rural areas, increasingly shop at dollar stores for food. JAMA.

  3. USDA Economic Research Service. Food access research atlas.

  4. Retail Wire. Study: Self-checkout curtails impulse buys.

Related Articles