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Meal Planning Guidelines for a Low-Income Family

author image Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders is an Iowa-based writer. She earned her B.A. in journalism and mass communication from the University of Iowa in 2003.
Meal Planning Guidelines for a Low-Income Family
A bowl of oatmeal with bananas. Photo Credit minadezhda/iStock/Getty Images

As of June 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's thrifty food plan for a couple ages 19 to 50 with two children ages 2 to 5 allowed for $117.10 per week or $507.60 per month to spend on food. This is the guideline that is used to determine food stamp allotments, but it's also useful as a base for anyone who is looking to cut their grocery budget.


A balanced meal should include protein, whole grains and fruits or vegetables. Brown rice and whole-grain pasta are relatively cheap, so large amounts of these foods can form the foundation of your thrifty meals. Protein tends to be the most expensive part of a meal, but low-income families can stretch their grocery dollars by planning meals that include affordable protein sources such as eggs and dried beans. To save money on fruits and vegetables, it's helpful to shop for cheap produce at local farmer's markets or to purchase frozen items whenever possible.

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When you're working with a very low food budget, it's important to make sure every purchase is giving you the best possible value. Water is the ideal beverage choice for low-income families as it is free and plays a vital role in keeping the body properly hydrated. Low-fat milk and 100 percent fruit juices are also good beverage choices. Avoid soda or sugar-sweetened drinks except as a special treat; these items are expensive and offer no real nutritional benefit.

Sales and Coupons

Stretch your dollars by planning meals around the sales and coupons that are available at your grocery store during a particular week. If you have Internet access at home, there are several websites for frugal moms that feature coupon and sale matchups for stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, Albertsons and Safeway.

Store Brands

Store brands were once thought of as inferior products, but these items are now often just as tasty and nutritious as their name-brand counterparts. You can find store brands for everything from peanut butter to breakfast cereal. Since they don't have national advertising campaigns, these products can be sold at a savings of up to 50 percent.

Convenience Foods

It's important to avoid convenience foods as much as possible. Although items such as baking mixes and pre-washed vegetables can save time in the kitchen, the hefty price tag takes too much out of a limited grocery budget. If you're not comfortable in the kitchen, pick up a few basic cookbooks from your local library to learn how to expertly chop produce for a salad and how to make your own dinner rolls from scratch.

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