How To Stretch A Meal

A pint of example is worth a gallon of advice.

One of my sisters once asked me for advice on how I save money on groceries. We compared notes, and she knocked down every one of my ideas. She wasn't being mean or belligerent. It was more about coloring inside the lines. There was comfort in what she knew her family (and dog) would eat. She prized convenience more than affordability.

For example she paid an exorbitant amount of money on 'special' dog food. The prices she quoted me were obscene. I countered with my own recipe for homemade dog food, but she felt it was too much work.

At the prices she paid, I'd make the time to make dog food. The prices they charge are highway robbery.

The same goes for organic products. If you're struggling to make ends meet, something has to give.  No one is going to die if you switch to less expensive commercial foods. It doesn't have to be forever. You can always add one organic product back on the menu when times are less lean.

I have the advantage that I grow some of my food, so I know that not only is it organic, but safe. (That's not always the same thing.)

A regular rib eye steak can serve two meals, dinner and breakfast (or lunch). Chicken can last at least three meals or more. Greg gets tired of it the second time around so I'll freeze a part of it to make a quick chicken salad with the leftovers.

Legumes, quinoa, and rice are excellent fillers for lean wallets. Beans and quinoa are also a great source of protein.

Have you ever tried quinoa or barley? How about steel cut oats? They are surprisingly good and filling. And these are ancient grains which means big agricultural companies haven't tampered with them yet.

Do you need more cheap protein sources? Try eggs, peanut butter, tuna, salmon, and Greek yogurt.

Here are my top ways to stretch a meal.
  • Add water. Take last night's chicken dinner and boil the bones to make a broth. You now have a soup base for lunch or dinner.Add rice, quinoa, or barley to any skillet dish. Toss in some veggies and a little meat (if available) then simmer until the flavors meld.
  • Add beans. Make a near instant soup with the broth from above then add beans and a chunk of pork or bacon. Any beans will do. I make a white bean soup with broth, canned cannellini beans, and any greens I have in the garden (usually kale, chard, or bok choy). Season, cook and serve.
  • Add pasta. Use any style noodles with cheese, meat, vegetable, or seafood. Pasta is very versatile.
  • Go vegetarian. If you garden, nothing is easier than making dinner from whatever is ready to be harvested. In the summer, the bounty is endless with fresh greens, beans, radishes, and corn. In the winter, use your root vegetables, and cold tolerant greens.
  • Canned and frozen food. Purists sometimes turn their noses on commercially preserved food, but in a pinch you can make a meal from canned food. Frozen vegetables are at their peak when they're frozen, while canned beans, tomatoes, and sauces are cheap and easy to store. I've made chili with nothing but canned goods.
  • Bread. Yes. Bread. Make French Toast,  Bread Pudding, Bread Stuffing, Sandwiches (of course), Meatloaf, and all manner of Stratas.

Whether money is tight or you're trying to keep to a budget, stretch your meals. It saves money and adds variety.

This post was updated on 2-20-20


B.E. Sanderson said…
I have an idea of how much I spend on foodstuffs and a better idea on how much I spend each month overall when I shop (food plus paper products, office supplies, etc.) But I haven't done a breakdown yet this year. As long as I stay within the budget, I'm good. My goal is always to come in under budget. As always, sales are my friends.

My favorite way to stretch a meal is Ramen noodles. Throw in some sauteed onions and maybe some frozen stir-fry veggies. Serve with meat. Dinner for both of us and lunch for me the next day. Oh, and sauteed onions are awesome. One onion, sauteed and then portioned, can go a long way. Last week, one onion got added to three different meals.
Once we started planning the menu for the week, I found we wasted a lot less food and so wasted less money. Cleaning out and organizing our fridge and freezer helped, too - as silly as that sounds. It's so much easier to see what we have, what we need, etc.
betty said…
I do know what we spend the money on at the grocery store. We did so much better when hubby was not working for a 4 year stretch and we had to really budget what we spent. Now we have reverted back to old habits. Right now we are buying a lot of convenience foods because we're trying to adjust to a new area, his commute, the heat, etc. Once things cool down a bit in the fall/winter, I plan to go back to those meals that stretch and I'm sure we'll see a drop in our grocery bills. Like last night I was planning one thing for dinner, but after realizing how late hubby was slated to get home, I knew we wouldn't want to eat "heavy" at 8 p.m. so we went with TV dinners and a salad.

When I get back into the groove of cooking again, we'll get back to the schedule of only cooking 3 times a week and having leftovers for the other days (and we usually go out to eat Fridays).

Maria Zannini said…
BE: You're ahead of the game if you even have a budget. Most people don't.

re: ramen
People poke fun at ramen noodles but they're surprisingly versatile. Thanks for reminding me about them.
Maria Zannini said…
Madeline: Bingo! We are slowly emptying our freezers so I can have a better look at what I have. After a year, stuff gets buried. I'm hoping to do a post this winter on how I organize my freezer.
Susan Gourley said…
I plan menus too though I allow some flexibility since I'm never sure how many children will be present. It does save money.
Maria Zannini said…
Betty: I hear you on convenience foods when you're adjusting to a new schedule or community.

When we first moved here we were eating out constantly because we were just too tired from moving, fixing, and organizing the new house. I was glad when things settled down and we could return to some normalcy.
Maria Zannini said…
Susan: Flexibility is important to menu planning. If something comes up at the last minute or friends come over unexpectedly, we improvise to fit necessity.
Gwen Gardner said…
Our Koko is diabetic so I made diabetic cookies for her and Tuffy once (liver). They loved them! But it was very messy working with bloody liver. They're both senior dogs and each on special food. And yeah, it's expensive, but they're worth it!
LD Masterson said…
We don't have to watch our pennies they way we once did so I don't stick to a tight budget, and I confess we bring in carry out more often that we should but I found a way to help our budgets and our waistlines - I no longer use dinner plates. We eat our meals on salad plates. On a smaller plate, portions look bigger. We tend to eat less at a meal which means LEFTOVERS! So food that would have been one dinner now covers dinner and tomorrow's lunch (or whenever), too.
Maria Zannini said…
Gwen: That's how I started cooking for the dogs. Our first rottie came down with cancer. We did an enormous amount of research and we kept noticing how the idea of cancer eating carbs kept coming up. We immediately switched her to a high protein, high fat diet. Not only did she slim down, but she beat cancer.

We feed a little kibble now, but only to be sure they're getting a complete diet. The rest is homemade food.
Maria Zannini said…
Linda: That's a great idea of using salad plates. I think Greg would revolt if I used our salad plates. They're really small.

re: leftovers
That's my plan when I cook too. I want just enough to make a lunch the next day.
Jenny Schwartz said…
I just had barley soup last night :) So good in winter. Very warming. I find quinoa annoying to cook, so I cook a big batch and portion it out to freeze. Voila, ready to go into soups and curries.
Maria Zannini said…
Jenny: Me too! I've been using the pressure cooker to make quinoa so it makes quick work of it, but I almost always make extra so I don't have to make a new batch every day.

I've made barley soup for myself but I don't think I ever made it for Greg. I'm going to have to remember that come the fall.
Even when I was single, I would cook multiple servings so I wouldn't have to cook so often during the week.

I don't make meatloaf much anymore, but I would always add breadcrumbs to stretch it out.
Maria Zannini said…
Sandra: I have to admit the biggest reason I cook in batches is because I'm a lazy cook. I really don't like cooking--especially for myself.

When I lived alone I'd eat on the same chicken, steak or fish all week. Salads everyday. Toast every morning. I'm a pretty boring eater. It's only when others require me to cook do I bother getting inventive. Sad but true.
Lynn said…
I have a strict grocery budget that I stick to every month, but I also save a little extra on the side every month for holidays, splurge meals and family visits. That way I don't feel guilty if I go over budget for a special occasion.

I always cook enough to have leftovers for another meal, even if it's just lunch for me. Another trick of mine is to take a little ground beef from every recipe I make with it, and mold it into a patty, which I then freeze. No one misses the little bit I remove, and after a couple of weeks I have enough to make burgers for everyone. Using pretty much any leftover chicken, beef or turkey to make tacos, sloppy joes, or hot open-faced sandwiches also helps stretch our meals.
Maria Zannini said…
Lynn: I should keep a stricter grocery budget, but it's just the two of us.

Whereas I used to always deliberately cook extra to give myself leftovers, I have to be more conscious of what's left over since Mr. Picky lives with me now. :)
Michael Keyton said…
Ref food economy, I cook large batches and freeze. A staple is 'lentil dhal,' which in reality is much more than that, packed with courgettes, onions, mushrooms, peppers, ginger, garlic cloves, home grown chillies and curry powder. Lamb stock and some coconut cream to cool it down. (Actually, the hotter you make it the smaller the portion with cheaper rice :)
I cook it in batches of between 8 and 10 portions and freeze in two portion bags. Rock n Roll :)
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: I'm doing more freezer batches now, especially in the winter when it's too cold to do anything outside. When spring rolls around and I'm too tired to cook it's nice to put a freezer pack in the oven or pressure cooker. Nearly instant dinner.