A Thrifty Food Plan for a Family : USDA Publishes Tips on Economical Meal Planning

Can a four-person family eat nutritiously on $62 a week? The U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks so and has designed literature and some experiments to prove it. It is well known that many Americans are not getting the most for their food dollars, nutritionally speaking, so the materials and results can be helpful for streamlining grocery spending.

When John R. Block, former agriculture secretary, put his family on a food budget of $58 per week in 1983, the maximum food stamp allotment for a family of four at the time, it was a major media event.

They followed the USDA's "Thrifty Food Plan" (recommended for food stamp recipients with no income), which includes guidelines for weekly food spending, shopping suggestions and sample menus. While on the plan's basic program of three meals and one snack per day, Block's family spent $56.62 of the $58 permitted. Block said that although he missed ice cream, beer and soft drinks, they ate "good food," they didn't have to choose "inferior food" and they even had some food left over. (The Block household's food purchases featured bread, ground beef, macaroni, peanut butter, corn flakes, processed cheese and bologna.)

This controversial experiment, designed to justify the food stamp allotment by proving that low-income families could afford good nutrition on a severely limited budget, was highly criticized as being insensitive to needs of the poor even though it verified the department's premise: A four-person family really can eat nutritiously on food stamps, but they will probably have to change some of their shopping and eating habits to do so.

Efforts to Educate

Since then, the agriculture department has made strides in its efforts to improve the eating habits of low-income families through volunteer programs, printed materials and shopping trips designed to educate on cost-efficient spending without insulting participants.

A mid-February shopping trip to an Anaheim supermarket (Vons Pavilion), for example, conducted by staff members of local Cooperative Extension offices, found that the Thrifty Food Plan would cost $61.85 per week, slightly less than the per-week target.

Shoppers participating in the 22 other U.S. cities had similar results, according to the department, with expenses ranging from $54.84 in San Bernardino to $61.99 in Sacramento.

"The price differential among cities was more a function of the shoppers' likes and dislikes and imagination and the availability of sales or specials on that particular day than a difference in food prices among cities," said Mavis Bucholz, project organizer and director of Nutrition and Technical Services in USDA's San Francisco regional office.

"It is possible for the average shopper to do what we did if they shop to make their food dollars count."

Literature Available

The agriculture department is placing emphasis on its food and nutrition literature, too. It is available to low-income families taking part in the food stamp program and to the general public.

Although the sample menus (for a two-week period) in the "Making Food Dollars Count" booklet offered by the agriculture department are good examples of eating on a frugal budget--with some recipes for main dishes like beef chop suey with rice, braised turkey with gravy, spinach lasagna and sweet-and-sour pork--the booklet's main thrust is to teach meal planning. It lists other sources for meal-planning advice and food buying. It is not a cookbook.

Suggested here are a few recipes that call for some inexpensive items, used in a variety of new ways to supplement the family's menu options. Some food items may already be in the pantry (such as spices, cooking wines, flour and leavening agents), while some recipes may call for spices and flavorings not in your kitchen. In this case, you might buy a few of these more costly ingredients and trade others with neighbors. It's another great way to cut down on food spending.

If there are other recipes you would like to try that call for more expensive cuts of meat or cheeses and extra items that tend to add to the cost of a meal, use the menus in weeks when less will be spent on other daily meals. This way, you can stay within the weekly allowance for food without forgoing flavor and nutrition.

Shop Carefully

Often, we are not sure of the wisest use of food dollars--a task that is quite a challenge regardless of income. And for those on a severely limited food budget this is an even greater issue. But learning how to shop correctly for groceries can help anyone spend less in the supermarket, especially if some simple guidelines are followed.

Here are a few of the agriculture department's recommendations:

--Make a complete list of foods needed based on planned menus. This may discourage impulse buying, which often sends costs soaring. Be sure to include all ingredients needed for each meal plus any additional items used in preparation, then check the prices at several different grocery stores. You may decide to build menus around the stores' weekly specials.

--Once inside the supermarket, compare prices, observing the cost of items sold in large quantities versus those packaged in small containers. The larger size is generally the better buy unless the unused food is eventually thrown out or unless you cannot store it properly and conveniently. Plus, you may find there are some foods that show little or no difference in cost per pound or per ounce from the large and small containers. In this case, personal preferences should determine selection.

--Generic products or store brands are another way to cut corners when shopping for food, so experiment. Most often, the generic brands are less costly than the name-brand items and they offer virtually the same product.

--Compare different forms of a food--fresh, canned, dried or frozen--to see which is the best buy.

--Limit purchases of perishable foods, even at bargain prices.

--Season and prepare sauces for frozen vegetables yourself instead of purchasing the sauce or butter-added boil-in-the-bag items.

By following these simple guidelines, even an inexperienced homemaker can satisfy healthy appetites on a limited food budget without sacrificing taste or nutrition.

To obtain the "Making Food Dollars Count" booklet, send 50 cents to Consumer Information Center, P.O. Box 100 Pueblo, Colo. 81002 or contact the County Office of the Agriculture Department Cooperative Extension. GINGER PORK BALLS

1 (29-ounce) can pear halves

1 pound ground pork

1 egg

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons soy sauce

1/4 cup cornstarch

2 beef bouillon cubes

1/4 cup vinegar

2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed

2 tablespoons water

1/2 cup sliced celery

1/2 cup slivered green pepper

1/2 cup diagonally cut green onions

Drain pears and reserve syrup. Cut each pear in half lengthwise. Combine ground pork, egg, ginger, salt, 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 2 tablespoons cornstarch. Mix well. Shape into balls. Slowly pan-fry until completely cooked.

Remove pork balls from skillet and drain excess fat. Add reserved pear syrup and bouillon cubes to skillet. Heat to dissolve bouillon. Add vinegar, brown sugar and remaining 3 tablespoons soy sauce. Heat to boiling.

Dissolve remaining 2 tablespoons cornstarch in water, add to pan and cook, stirring, until thickened. Add celery, green pepper and green onions and cook 2 minutes longer. Gently stir in pears and pork balls and heat through. Makes 6 servings. PIZZA PITA SANDWICHES

1 pound ground turkey

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 (2 1/4-ounce) can sliced olives, drained

3 large pita breads

1 1/2 cups shredded lettuce

1 large tomato, chopped

3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Brown turkey with onion and garlic. Drain any excess fat. Stir in Italian seasoning, salt, tomato sauce and olives. Cook 5 minutes. Cut pitas in halves, then open to form pockets. Fill with lettuce, then spoon in meat mixture and top with tomato and cheese. Makes 6 servings.

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