What Would You Do? Small Town Grocery/ Budget Meals



On my way over to the county seat last week, I thought of what I meant to do when I arrived: banking, post mail and buy stamps (forgot that entirely!), run into Dollar General.  As I exited the bank, I noted that the Dollar General parking lot was packed to the max.  No idea why they were so very busy, but it put me off wanting to go into that store entirely.  Instead I decided to go to Piggly Wiggly.  

I wondered once again how anyone in that town, who had no other choices could manage to buy groceries on a very tight budget.  It's been my experience that some people are too proud to apply for SNAP benefits.  Suppose for reasons beyond their control they didn't qualify anyway, but rubber has met road and they must cut back hard.  Suppose they have no reliable vehicle to take them longer distances to larger towns?  There are all sorts of scenarios that one might find right in a small town.  And so there they are with three stores to choose from wondering how to stretch their grocery dollar, keep their tummy filled and get by until situations improve.

Small town groceries tend to be higher than bigger town stores. They stock less, have fewer brands both name and generic.  This particular small town is in the middle of nowhere and any competitive marketing is 30-50 miles away.  Not a long distance for most but if you haven't a car, you're at the mercy of family and friends who are willing to take you along when they do their own shopping.

Why does this concern me so?  Because for a time during my single parenting years, my car sat in a repair shop for months.  There was a grocery store one block from my home and that was it.  My neighbor happened to work at the nursing home with me.  She took me to work and very kindly returned to pick me up.  She would run me by the grocery if I desperately needed something, but I was very conscious of the kindness she was doing me and didn't want to take advantage of her.  A bigger grocery shop had to wait until Granny or Mama could visit on a weekend.

So there I sat today wondering how does anyone manage on a budget in a small town with  three stores to choose from.  In this town there is a Piggly Wiggly and Family Dollar (they share a parking lot) and across the street is Dollar General.  

I decided to do an experiment and shop at each of the stores.  I gave myself a budget of $20 for Piggly Wiggly.  I had a $10 budget for Family Dollar. I didn't shop at Dollar General today due to the heavy traffic there, but I will be doing a series of these posts and share what I bought for $10 or $20 at a variety of stores in the future, including Dollar General.

I started in the produce department at Piggly Wiggly.  I was dismayed at the prices to be frank.  High!  Cabbage was 79c/pound, bananas as much.  Potatoes were 69c a pound for a ten pound bag or for just 48c a pound I could buy 5 pounds.  Cauliflower was $6.69 a head, iceberg lettuce $3.79 a head, 4 pound bag of oranges $8 and a 3 pound bag of apples $6.99.  I did note that you could buy 2 oranges for $1 and if I had chosen to do that I'd have weighed oranges and bought the heaviest two in the lot of the loose ones!  Celery was $2.29 a bunch, and bell peppers were like $3.99 each. Baby carrots were $1 a pound but they had none.  A 3-pound bag of onions was $8 but now that I'm home with the sales paper I picked up I see that yellow onions were $2.99 for 3 pounds .  Sweet potatoes sold loose were $1.09/pound.   Can't help but mention here that at the higher end grocery sweet potatoes are just 69c a pound this week.  Just an example of how small town shopping is higher than larger town shopping. 

I picked up the very smallest cabbage I could find, a loose onion ($1.69/pound) and a large sweet potato.  Exit produce.  I looked at mayonnaise and pickle relish and decided the very best bet was to just cook the cabbage and forget about making slaw, my first instinct.

I went around to the vegetable aisle and found all canned vegetables to be $1.69/15 ounce can or higher including the generic brands.  Fruits were $2.29-$2.69 a can.  Pineapple was $1.89, an increase of 30c since I was last in the store 3 or 4 months ago.  That seemed a good choice, so I bought it.

Pasta was $1.25/pound for generic brands but spaghettis weren't included. Spaghetti was $1.79 a pound.  Elbow and spaghetti, penne, etc. were $2.29/pound for name brand.  Whole Grain spaghetti, the only whole grain option, was $2.59/pound.   Canned spaghetti sauce was $1.25.  I recalled that the ad for the discount store in the town to the east of my hometown had it listed for 84c for the same size can.  1 pound of brown rice was 79c which I thought was a good price.  Looking over the dried beans I found they had a good variety and they ranged in price, depending on the sort you wanted from $1.49 to $1.79.  Not by any means exorbitant and certainly affordable.  They had a really good variety.  I chose 1 pound of red kidney beans/$1.69.

I looked at tomatoes and tomato sauce.  At first I saw only the name brands and they were as much as any of the vegetables but after looking high and low I found a generic tomato sauce, 15 ounces/$1.19 and the same sized can of generic diced tomatoes for 99c.  Both were well hidden by a hanging display of something or other, one of those clip on sorts of things.

I looked at flour.  I felt it was higher than I wanted to pay at $3.59/5 pounds, although they had a 25 pound bag of self rising for $19.99.   I checked for corn muffin mixes and found one for 69c.  It calls for an egg and 1/3 cup of milk.  I had that at home and didn't see any point in buying those at this store even for the purpose of this challenge.   No one is going to sell a single egg.  I only have about 1 cup of milk at home.  If I were truly working from a hard budget, I'd certainly make use what I had at home!  I'm not starting from scratch here, just working with a limited budget.  I'm  counting on using my own seasonings at home.

I went to the meat aisle.  I looked high and low.  I might have bought a one-pound container of chicken livers for $2.69.  Personally, I like them, and I have cooked them in a variety of ways.  I will probably purchase them in the future, but since I was technically planning to feed two adults (my household) I felt had to account for John's taste.  He was not going to eat chicken livers!

But just for the sake of letting you know how I'd make them, I'd fry half and for a second meal I'd sauté the rest in a bit of oil with onions and then make a creamy gravy (using the last of my milk, some water and a bit of flour to make the gravy).  

Since we don't eat pork, I didn't look there at all. I went over the beef counter and most prices there were beyond my budget for today.  They had a sale on ground beef but only in huge family packs.  I ended up with a package of chicken tenderloins, a wee bit over 1 pound, $3.59.

Chicken Tenders   $3.59

Pineapple tidbits $1.89

Corn Muffin Mix .69

Tomato Sauce $1.19

Diced Tomatoes .99

Cabbage $1.60

Sweet potato $1.46

Onion $1.27

1 pound brown rice .79

1 pound red kidney beans $1.69

My total for Piggly Wiggly: $15.16

My meal plans with these things in my cart were as follows: 

#1Oven Fried Chicken Tenders, Steamed Cabbage and Sweet Potato oven Fries.    I would use half the cabbage, I'd save back some of the tenders (I'm thinking I can save back 2 tenders each.  I think I counted 8 in the package) and a small portion of the sweet potato.  I don't think we need to eat a bit over a pound in sweet potato fries!  Potatoes are nice to have because you can use every bit of them.

#2, #3 Chili (Kidney beans, onion, tomatoes and sauce, chili powder (from home), over rice with corn muffins.    I'd use half the packet of beans and to make beans for chili.  Once the beans were cooked through, I'd season with chili powder and salt.  I'd add half of the onion and  the can of tomatoes.  I'd rinse the tomato can with water and add that extra liquid into the chili. I'd probably cook half the package of rice which would net me three cups.  This would serve us at least two meals with corn muffins and possibly leave us with a bit of chili and rice over.  

#4 At this point I'd seriously consider mixing the last of the chili with some of the chopped baked sweet potato, just for a change of pace and as an extender and serve that over rice, too.

I'm not upset at the idea of four meals for $15.  That works out to about $3.75 a meal with leftovers of rice, beans, tomato sauce and pineapple.

Let's see what I might do with that after I shop at Family Dollar.

In Family Dollar, looking about took little time.  It was a much smaller food section with a lot fewer choices.  Their prices were more than competitive with the market next door.  You'd be wise to make sure to shop at BOTH stores if you were already shopping at the grocery next door!  

However, over half the freezer and fridge section at Family Dollar was out of order.  There was little in the freezer section.  I'd be curious to know how it looks when it's repair and restocked.  Milk (which I failed to note prices on), mozzarella or Swiss cheese were all I saw in the fridge section.  I did note one package of frozen beef patties but no clue how much they were.  Prices in that area were obviously also not being kept up.  Mostly bare shelves in that whole section to be honest.   I was hoping they'd have a heavier freezer and refrigerated selection, like Dollar General.  Not so.

I looked at pasta and seasoned pasta sauce with meat for $1 each, I got one of each.  Corn, Peas, Green Beans, all name brand, were 80c each.  I looked for rising agents like baking powder and yeast.  I remembered I had a 3-pack of yeast at home in the freezer. No pricing on the baking powder, and no yeast.   Flour, however, was well priced at $2.35/5 pounds.  I included one bag in this challenge but I did purchase two.  

I examined the protein contents of the pasta sauce (1/2 cup serving, 1 gram of protein) and decided that wasn't enough protein to suit me, especially since I would have to eat white pasta, but 2 ounces of pasta would add 7 gm of protein as well (Same protein count as whole grain by the way).  I looked for protein and my options were tuna (overpriced in my opinion at $1), chicken bologna, 11 ounces for $1.85, and ham.  I nixed those and picked up a jar of dry Parm/Romano for $3.20 for the store brand. Romano has a lot of flavor compared to Parm.  2 teaspoons per serving, 1 gram of protein there as well. I have flavor but I wouldn't increase servings too much as this tends to be higher in sodium.  Back to the fridge case to look at the price of the Mozzarella.  There was only packets of shredded.  The store brand, which closely resembled the name brand next to it, weighed 8 ounces and cost $2.65.  1/2 cup per serving nets  7 gm protein.

I bought:

5 pounds flour $2.35

Mozzarella, 8 ounces $2.65

Parm/Romano cheese $3.20

Hunt's Meat Spag Sc. $1.00

16 oz. Spaghetti $1.00

16 ounces DelMonte Green Beans 80c

 total: $11

#5, #6  The only meal I'd make with this as it stands is Spaghetti with Sauce and some of the cheeses (recommended serving of Parm/Romano and 1/4 cup for each of the Mozzarella), Green Beans and probably a loaf of bread or breadsticks, made using the flour and water and yeast I have on hand.  I have a 3 pack in the freezer that's been there for the longest time now.   I'd be sure to save the liquid from the green beans.  That's goodness and it's full of vitamins and minerals same as the beans that were in the liquid.

There would be enough spaghetti sauce to serve us twice, even if I double the serving of pasta (about 1 cup cooked).  Note the protein count on this is now at about 20gms per serving.  That's a good amount of protein from a non-meat meal.

 I'd have half a box of spaghetti leftover.  I'd still have 12 cups of flour left. I'd have about 1 1/2 cups mozzarella left.  

My total for meals from this store thus far are looking rather high.  This is coming in at $5.50 and the second spaghetti dinner is not going to have green beans, though there should be bread to go with it.

Now I'd start mixing the leftovers from the two different stores...

#7, #8 With what I have on hand, (1 packet of yeast from the three I have here at home, water and 3 cups of flour), 8 ounces of the can of tomato sauce and the cheeses (likely all the Mozzarella, and perhaps 1/2 cup of the Parmesan/Romano) I could make 2 cheese pizzas.  That would be one to eat fresh and one to freeze and bake later in the week.  So, let's say two meals more with leftovers for lunch.

I could also make an extra loaf of bread or a dozen rolls with 3 more cups flour, water and the last yeast packet. This could go with the final meal very nicely.

#9 If the saved tenders looks particularly skimpy, I'd chop the chicken and mix everything together with more cooked spaghetti (probably 4 ounces).  I'd add in the last  8 ounces of tomato sauce and some of the Parm/Romano, to make a Parm Chicken Casserole.  I'd probably do a Salad of raw cabbage sliced up very finely and tossed with some of the pineapple juice and serve Pineapple on the side.  Add a little salt, pepper, maybe a smidge of mustard and some oil or a spoon of mayo and you've got a sort of dressing for your salad.

Now my totals, combining stuff from both stores looks a bit different.  We're coming in at $2.88 to serve two, or $1.44 per person.

At this point, I'd have half a bag of beans, half a bag of rice, some bread, probably 6 cups of flour, 4 ounces of pasta, well over half a jar of Parm/Romano cheese, half an onion, the juice from the green beans (freeze it!  It's good to add to soup), and quite possibly some cabbage if it looks like it's going to make too much salad. 

There is a lot of repetition here and I realize that.  Not much fun but if you're on a tight budget you're not going to get a load of variety in a small town for your funds.  I didn't even attempt to make breakfast foods, but with what I had left to spend, I might easily have added in two $1 box of grits (the grocery had these in a weird place tucked away from other foods and I happened to stumble on them), and we certainly could have toast from our loaf bread.  Again, I didn't price cheese or eggs or milk at the grocery because they are so very high there in that store, even without shortages, etc.  And they had no eggs at Family Dollar. 

I feel I did as well as I might have on an almost $30 budget.  I figured higher on paper in Piggly Wiggly than it actually came up to and frankly I might have bought more.  Maybe the grits, perhaps a couple of can of evaporated milk at the dollar store, another can or two of vegetables.  That would push me ever so slightly over the $30 mark but not by more than $1.   If that were the case, I could make biscuits or muffins, since I have baking powder on hand,  as well as grits for breakfasts.  

I'd love to go to Dollar General and see how it compares with these two stores on the same items.  In my own small town our DG has fresh produce and a lengthy wall of fridge and freezer items that is fairly well stocked.  And maybe I'll do the same at other stores I normally might visit and see what $20 would purchase there and what I might make with those items.

(C) Terri Cheney

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