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Donna Freedman

Living With Less

The dollar food pantry

Make a game of it: Put aside weeks and weeks of meals, but don't spend more than a buck on any single item. (And no, this doesn't mean living on just beans and rice.)

By Donna Freedman
MSN Money

Living with less means thinking outside your comfort zone. It means watching not just for loss leaders but for dented cans and the "used meat" bin. It means peeking into places you may never have shopped before, such as bread outlet stores, ethnic markets and dollar stores.

And it means, if you're laid off, you can eat for months from a pantry you've stocked mostly with spare change and coupons.

Full cupboards just make sense. Having a few basic items means you can make dinner instead of a pizza run. You can also pack a brown-bag lunch, which saves you a bundle.

Worst-case scenario: If you lost your job, your full pantry would become "The emergency fund you can eat."

Food for a dollar

Lately I've seen a lot of 10-items-for-$10 sales at supermarkets. I'm giving that idea a frugal tweak to create the $1 pantry. The only rule? Everything in it is a buck or less.

Or even much less. Smart Spending blog readers get spices for a quarter at ethnic-food shops, organic garbanzo beans for 25 cents in store clearance bins and cereal for 88 cents at a drugstore.

"You just have to look for the deals, and they are in the most unexpected places," writes Smart Spending reader "Geri A."

Not that supermarkets don't offer good deals (and dented cans). If you're lucky, your grocery may even double your coupons. That's how I recently bought organic spaghetti sauce for 50 cents a jar and 12-ounce packages of fancy pasta for 9 cents apiece.

In other words, my main course would cost 59 cents -- and there'd be leftovers. Who wouldn't want that kind of pantry backup?

Some of it's even healthful

Cheap food does not always mean trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup. Among the things I found for less (sometimes considerably less) than a buck: albacore tuna, split peas, tortillas, raisins, lentils, pearled barley, organic butternut squash, no-salt canned tomatoes, oatmeal, soy milk, dried cranberries, pickles, organic tomato paste, pasta, roasted red peppers in olive oil, sardines, mushrooms, dried beans, canned beans, organic sweet corn soup and sea salt (29 cents a pound, which is cheaper than generic table salt).

To say nothing of sun-dried tomatoes, dried figs, olives, artichoke hearts, pistachios, marinated vegetables and other fancy items. "There are a lot of uncommon discount items that you can use to your advantage," says Billy Vasquez, who writes a blog called The 99 Cent Chef.

Recipes such as stuffed poblanos, seviche with black beans, salmon patties with ginger-lime aioli, and avocado, baby clams and spaghetti are based largely on items from a 99¢ Only store near his Los Angeles home.

"Wherever you (shop), you have to be smart enough to buy good food," Vasquez says.

Vintage foods?

I once bought a certified Angus steak for exactly $1 from the "manager's special" section, aka the "used-meat bin." I've also gotten chicken, ground beef and pork for $1 or less a pound this way.

I also go to a "used bread" store. Some of the products are just a day or two ahead of their sell-by dates, but some are fresher. At an outlet store near my home, sandwich rolls, flour and corn tortillas, and loaves of wheat, rye and white can be had for 79 to 99 cents.

Your $1 pantry, of course, will consist largely of foods with longer shelf lives.

At estate sales I've paid pennies on the dollar for pasta, canned goods and cake mixes. Shopping carefully is important; I wouldn't want to buy 5-year-old tea bags, for example.

Could "old" bread, meat or canned goods hurt you? Not if you're careful. In fact, there isn't any universally accepted food-dating system in this country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The link above provides specific advice, but to me it's a question of common sense. I've used canned goods that are a few months past their sell-by dates, after inspecting the cans for bulges or rust spots. Close-dated breads or meats go into the freezer.

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Saving with damaged groceries © MoneyTalks
Saving with damaged groceries
Think of it as a scratch-and-dent sale for food. Shoppers say it can make a big difference in their grocery bills.

The clearance aisle and more

Chicago reader "Beezuss" keeps her eyes peeled for clearance and "bent and dent" bins, and those shopping carts "full of random stuff all the way in the back of the store." Recently, supermarket remodeling resulted in markdowns of up to 90%, and she scored loads of organic products that she couldn't normally afford: spices, sauces, gravy mixes, canned beans and pasta.

Check the "ethnic foods" aisle, too. Reader "Great Arm" has found bouillon cubes, rice and beans cheaper there than in the rest of the store -- sometimes for the same brands.

Look for markdown bins and clearance items at drug and discount stores. Recently I found name-brand peanut butter remaindered for 99 cents at Walgreens. Its sell-by date was November 2009.

Wander off the beaten path a bit more and you'll find some adventurous bargains. Great Arm shops a small fruit/grocery store that offers tortillas for as little as 50 cents a package. "Fuzzy Lumpkins" buys cinnamon and ground red chilies for 25 cents a bottle at ethnic shops.

Continued: Supermarket secret

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