Plan healthy family meals on a budget

groceryBy Christine Van Bloem

In today's tough economy, it's more important than ever to keep to a budget. But with family demands that everything taste great and parents' goal that it all be healthy, it's a tall order to fill.

Grocery budgets are blown every day, but with a couple of quick tips, you'll be shopping like a pro, managing your bill, and keeping the family well-fed and healthy in no time. Just follow these simple tips to keep things in check.

Budget grocery shopping tips

Shop smart with your smart phone. The capabilities of your smart phone go beyond just making calls. With numerous grocery-centric apps available for both Apple and Android products, your shopping list has entered the 21st century. Typical grocery apps include such features as voice recognition to add items to your list, the ability to share your grocery list with multiple users (think family), barcode scanners to easily add items and check them off your list, and integrated coupons that link to coupons for items you've added to your shopping list. You'll need to do advance work though, as most coupons need to be printed at home. Visit your app store and give Grocery IQ a try. It's free!

Shop the outside edges of the store and avoid the aisles whenever possible. You'll find your meat, fish, veggies, bakery, and deli all typically on the perimeter of the store. By avoiding the aisles, you'll avoid all manner of packed and processed foods.

Don't be sucked in by a two-for-one offer when you only need one. Most grocery stores will automatically give you the discounted price, even if you purchase just one item. The only exception to this is typically in the meat department, where items are all different weights. Just ask the meat-cutter in the store if the discount applies before you load your cart.

Don't be a brand snob. Store brands are awesome. Remember those black-and-white generic boxes from the 70's and early 80's? In today's market, stores want you to give their brands a try and have upped the quality and packed their products well. You may even find that the same factory produces both the brand name and the store brand item, just in different packaging.

Avoid grocery store salad bars and ready-to-eat foods whenever possible. Those gorgeous strawberries sitting on the salad bar are going to run you $8.49/pound, when buying them in a package will cost more in the neighborhood of $3.50/pound. Salad bars are a major moneymaker for the store. Cheap ingredients are priced for convenience. You're better off buying a pound, and then trimming them and eating them at home.

Buy your sandwich meats freshly sliced at the deli rather than already packaged in the meat section. The cost per pound is almost always lower for freshly cut meats and cheeses than for those sliced in the factory. And don't be afraid to ask for only what you need. Don't bother with a full pound if you only need a third. If the deli worker seems to be measuring heavy, don't be afraid to ask him to put a little back in the case. You're the one paying, so you make the call.

Be careful when you hit the warehouse clubs. When you're shopping your local warehouse store, it's easy to fall prey to the five-pound bag of edamame, only to have it go bad or sit in your freezer for months. Buy only those products you use on a daily basis and be sure you have plenty of storage space. A 25-pound bag of flour is a great buy, if you do a lot of baking and have a place to store it. Otherwise, it will likely go to waste, resulting in wasted money.

Shop the bulk section of your local health food store or co-op. The trick to shopping the local food co-op on a budget? Hit the bulk section! Here you'll find dried beans, grains, pastas, rices, and even dried herbs that you can buy in tiny portions. This is great when you only need a teaspoon or two of some strange ingredient.

Organic is good for your family, but tough on your budget. You want to be sure you're feeding your family the very best, and for many, that includes organic foods. But becoming Certified Organic entails some pretty steep costs, which are passed on to the consumer. Organic foods may cost ten cents to a dollar or more per pound, which can add up. Don't be afraid to shop your local farmer's market and talk to the farmers to get their very best, often at more reasonable prices than the grocery store.

Shop your local ethnic food markets. Asian markets, Latin markets, and everything in between are fantastic resources for bargain prices on produce, spices, specialty canned and bottled goods, and more. My local Asian market sells limes four for a dollar, when my grocery store sells the exact same thing for 79 cents each! You'll find lower prices across the board, and fun new ingredients too.

Also, keep in mind that having a few great, cost-effective recipes in your file is never a bad idea, and using pantry ingredients whenever possible will keep your budget in check.

Budget friendly recipes

Here are a few recipes that won't expand your waistline or blow your budget.

For Breakfast: Erica's Strata

Serves 4

Approximate cost: $7.25

I love a hearty breakfast, and a strata fits the bill every time. Plus, you make it ahead of time. A strata is like a type of bread pudding cooked with eggs, bread, and often a bit of cheese. Don't be afraid to make this dish your own by using the veggies and cheeses you have available in your fridge. It's completely adaptable. I like to amp mine up with just a little bit of cheese to keep the fat in check and load it with any veggies I've got on hand. I named this dish after incorporating a few of the ingredients my friend Erica likes, and truthfully, just couldn't resist the name.

4 bread slices, cut or torn into cubes (leftover, slightly stale bread is great for this)

½ cup cheddar cheese, shredded

½ cup ham, diced

½ cup asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces, bottom ends trimmed

1 cup sliced mushrooms (Optional: Cook briefly in a sauté pan until just browned and liquid has been released for more flavor)

1 cup milk

6 large eggs

½ teaspoon mustard, dry (or 1 teaspoon prepared mustard)

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

¼ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded

Spray an 8-inch square pan with non-stick cooking spray. Place the bread cubes, cheddar cheese, ham, asparagus, and mushrooms into the pan and toss well to combine.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, mustard, salt, and pepper until well combined. Pour the egg mixture over the bread mixture and cover with foil. Place covered pan in the fridge, and allow the milk mixture to soak in at least one hour or up to overnight.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Remove foil from strata and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake, uncovered, for 35-40 minutes. Allow to stand for 10 minutes (it will deflate a bit coming out of the oven), then serve.

For Lunch: Potato-Leek Soup

Serves 4

Approximate cost: $6.50

This is a recipe I've been making since I finished culinary school in 1995. It's my teenage son's absolute favorite, and he'll slurp down the whole pot if I let him. Add in a salad or rolls to round it out a bit.

1 tablespoon butter

2 medium leeks (they look like green onions on steroids), white part only, washed & sliced

4 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

4 to 6 cups low-sodium chicken broth (bonus points if you make it yourself)

salt to taste

pepper to taste

Optional: ½ cup whole milk

Melt butter in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks to pan and sauté gently, stirring occasionally, until wilted but not browned, 6-8 minutes. Add 4 cups chicken broth to the pan, and then add potatoes. Bring to a boil, and then immediately reduce to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Puree the mixture in a blender or food processor until smooth. Return soup to the pan and, if necessary, add more chicken broth to achieve the consistency you like. Add the milk, being careful NOT to bring to a boil (this will cause the milk to separate). Season to taste with salt and pepper. (If calories aren't a major concern, substitute half-and-half or heavy cream for the milk for extra creaminess.)

For Dinner: Turkey Chili

Serves 6

Approximate cost: $12

Forget ground turkey, we're using turkey thighs in this recipe, which will make our chili richer and tastier while keeping the price down. Turkey thighs are readily available in the meat section at your grocery store.

1 cup onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 4-ounce can green chilies

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano

1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1-15 oz can yellow hominy, drained and rinsed

1-15 ounce can black beans, drained & rinsed

1-28 ounce can crushed tomatoes

2-3 turkey thighs, bone-in, skin removed, and discarded

4 cups prepared rice, preferably brown

Using a 4- or 5-quart slow cooker, add all ingredients except for the turkey thighs into the cooker and stir to combine. Place the skinned turkey thighs into the mixture and submerge. Place the lid on the slow cooker and set on low for 6-7 hours, or high for 3-4 hours, or until the meat pulls easily from the bone. Do not remove the lid during the cooking process, no matter how delicious it smells (each time the lid is removed during cooking, it adds 20-30 minutes to the cooking cycle).

Remove the thighs to a cutting board and remove the bones. Using two forks, shred the meat and return to the cooker, along with any accumulated juices, stirring well to combine. Serve chili over rice.