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Store brands, meal-planning key to family grocery budget
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 I was intrigued when I first heard about the Food Stamp Challenge.

 Created to raise awareness about hunger issues facing our country today, challenge participants volunteer to eat at the average food stamp allotment: $4 per person, per day. Increasing numbers of people - including some members of Congress - have signed on for the challenge since its inception last summer.

 Some do it for a week, while braver souls commit to a full month. However long they last, the general consensus is the same: it's not an easy task.

 I don't mean to diminish the plight of those who must use food stamps to feed their families. But when I ran the numbers to see what my family would have to give up to participate, I realized that we would lose nothing.

 I'm already feeding my family on the same allowance we'd have if the four of us received food stamps. I spend approximately $100 per week on groceries, and that includes cleaning products and pet food. At the above rate, food stamps would give us $112 for food alone.

 So I was surprised to hear people say that it's impossible to eat well for so little money. Admittedly, it takes a good a bit of planning to do it. And it also means that convenience foods and restaurants become rare treats instead of necessities. But a good diet is absolutely possible on a modest food budget.

 Our economy is declining, and grocery prices inch up by the week. People are looking for ways to cut corners, and food is an easy place to start. It doesn't mean subsisting on Ramen Noodles, either. It does mean returning to a simpler diet, and living frugally as most of our parents and grandparents did in years past.

 Food Stamp Challenge participants bemoaned a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. The secret to working them into a frugal menu is to plan ahead before shopping. I look for sales on inexpensive, seasonal produce, then purchase only what we will eat over a few days to reduce waste through spoilage. Frozen and canned produce easily fill the gaps.

 Speaking of spoilage, most families would be surprised if they took a serious look at the amount of food they waste each week. We Americans are always talking about conserving this and recycling that, but few of us apply this spirit of resourcefulness to our diets.

 Huge American portions coupled with our often picky palates equals a lot of wasted food. I've realized I can stretch our food budget painlessly by simply reinventing leftovers instead of letting them become fuzzy science experiments in the fridge. Leftover meats and vegetables can be turned into soup that is frozen then microwaved on a busy night later. This is where meal planning becomes the key to getting the most from the groceries we buy.

 Brand-consciousness also has to go. Consumer expert Clark Howard maintains that store brands and national brands usually come off the same assembly line, only landing in different packages. I believe him after years of enjoying quality store brand goods.

 Another complaint of food stamp challenge participants was having limited protein choices. I'm not sure why this was such an issue. Some of the cheapest items I buy are canned tuna, eggs, peanut butter and beans. These are also some of most versatile items on our menu, as I turn them into curried tuna salad, spinach quiche, Thai peanut noodles, and black bean quesadillas.

 It's also easy to drink away the food budget - and I'm not talking about alcohol. Most kids consume too much juice and soda, and after age two, there's no need for large amounts of milk. Our family usually drinks filtered tap water or iced tea, and the hubby and I indulge in a daily mug of good-quality coffee brewed at home.

 Last week, my sons and I made homemade pizza for the first time. They actually declared it the best pizza ever. It was much healthier than carryout, and a fraction of the cost at just $2 per large pie.

 I laughed at my "bargain queen" within when I realized that my family is already eating at the food stamp rate. Are you up for the challenge of eating for a full day on what you'd normally plunk down for one venti mocha latte?

 I'm proof that it can be done, and it doesn't have to be as painful as you might think.

 Kari Apted may be reached at


Kari Apted may be reached at Cheryl Novak may be reached at