Stretching the Food Dollars

An eight topping pizza for less than eight dollars?  And it
saved me two dollars on the price of fuel, too!

One of the topics that comes up regularly in vandwelling / minimalist blogs is how to eat on the cheap.  Without a job and watching my bank account slowly dry up, I’ve been trying to come up with new ideas to cut the expenses, eat frugally, and at the same time, be more social.

Though this list is obviously not all inclusive, it is meant to provoke thought and stimulate some discussion.  Please comment with your feedback and ideas.  Another good resource for thrifty eating ideas is the advice found on Bob’s web site, the Cheap RV Living Forum.  Please consider purchasing his book on van dwelling.

I did not mention dried milk, potato flakes, or dried beans here since their dehydrated nature makes them dollar stretchers in most cases.  Here are a few other ways to help extend the budget and still keep a person eating healthy – or at least satisfying – meals.


First Presbyterian Church puts on a wonderful
dinner every Sunday.  All are welcome to attend.

Church Dinners.  In recent days I have been going back to the free church dinners in town.  Why?  I’m not broke but it does help cut the price of eating.  Also, it is providing valuable socialization – something that has been desperately needed lately.  Many of the foods served have pasta – not the best for diabetics – but the meals are usually balanced.  Last Saturday’s meal at the local Lutheran church included barbecued turkey sandwiches, salad, and green beans.  It was quite good… and a lot of fun!

At many such dinners, there will be a mix of personality types:  street people, elderly, and goof balls (like the author).  Most are very friendly though some occasionally some folks are asked to leave if they are disruptive.

“Doctor” Your Pizzas Cheaply.  In moderation, it is possible to enjoy this wonderful treat.  The grocery store thin crust pizza pictured above cost $5.99 and had just one topping – Italian sausage.  For about $1.50 more, I added small amounts of spinach, mushrooms, fresh tomatoes, red onions, bacon bits, green peppers, and jalapenos from the salad bar!  The best part was that this purchase had a “Fuel Saver Special.”  For buying it, I get a 10 cent / gallon (maximum 20 gallons) credit on my next gas purchase at the same store.  The pizza lasted two meals and saved $2 on the fuel for the next outing.

Who does not?

Grocery Store Samples.  This is nothing new to most vandwellers.  As a near daily customer, I know that the samples at the neighborhood store usually get set out at 10:00 or so.  The employees know me and don’t mind if I hit the samples discreetly, sometimes two or three times in one visit.  The other day I netted two full sized cookies, about eight 1/2 inch cheese cubes, and four pieces of sushi.  My advice is to take small amounts more often and go to unstaffed sample stations, if possible.  Just don’t grab a fistful of food and stand there gorging.  I got greedy one day, taking three cookies, and got some dirty looks from other customers and one manager.  Believe it or not, I read that there was actually a man arrested at one store for taking 20 cookies – food that was meant for kids!

Farmer’s Market Samples.   Similar to grocery store samples, those at a farmers market are a real blessing.  The market in Cedar Rapids is HUGE and it takes an hour or so to fully explore.  Chips and dips, salsas, veggies, melons, cookies, granola, etc. may be sampled once or twice and a meal can be made out of them.  Just like the grocery store, I try to blend in and sample more often, taking normal amounts.  Just remember, the vendors at a farmers market are usually small business operators… I don’t over do it and occasionally I will buy something from them.. but not too often.  🙂

More often than not, you can re-use the offer they send you.
Just forward the original to yourself before redeeming.

Text Specials.   My phone suddenly beeped this morning with a $2.99 offer from Long John Silvers. I couldn’t pass it up!  The special was for a $2.99 fish basket including two pieces of fish, hushpuppies, and a side dish.  Often, such specials are good for a week or so.  I plan to hit LJS again one more time on this deal (which is usually $4.89!) 

Note:  Some places will ask you to delete the text message offer when you redeem the deal.  Just forward it to yourself a few times before you go there.   Yeah… That’s sneaky, isn’t it?

Don’t Buy Drinks.   The servers at Perkins and other places will hate me for saying this.  When possible, I don’t buy beverages.  Why?  I can make my own!  First of all, don’t even try this at a sit down restaurant.  They will likely boot your butt out.  But at the grocery store deli, or even McDonalds, try ordering just a cup of ice water.  You can use a “cold brew” iced tea bag and make your own tea!    By switching from Diet Coke to homemade iced tea, I’ve been saving as much on the beverage bill per day as most people spend on cigarettes!

Run from the Bell… Try Homemade Tacos.  I used to love Taco John’s and Taco Bell, but lately, they’ve been really chintzy with the amount of greasy taco meat that is put in the tortillas.  Who wants a near empty shell?  I found some discounted 85% lean ground beef for just $2.29 a pound at the grocery store.  Mixed with 1/3 the normal amount of taco seasoning, the meat filling tasted great.  I used cheap tortillas from Aldi and, of course, a bunch of salad bar veggies.  The result was two meals worth of yummy tacos for about $5.00… and these were giant tacos stuffed with lots of healthy goodies… Diabetic?  No sweat.  Get some high fiber, low carb tortillas.  You can still save money over eating out.

Homemade Soup.  I love cooking soups (as you can see on the other blog).  They are easy to mix up and often can be made from food pantry ingredients.  My favorite is one I created and call Tomato Cheese Sandwich Soup.  I’ll post it soon.  A broth based tortellini and veggie soup is delicious,and healthy as well as being very cheap to eat.  You can make these soups in small batches or as large as you like.

Smoothies.  Many people believe that smoothies are expensive.  They are if you buy them somewhere… but try making your own!  Using frozen fruit and adding some spinach or kale leaves from the local salad bar, just toss in a tub of no sugar blueberry yogurt, and some juice (I like carrot juice).  I’ve even made delightful smoothies using Gatorade G2 as the liquid!  Be creative and add in some half ‘n’ half for a tasty treat.  For a buck or two, you can make something larger and healthier than the McDonald’s carb laced smoothies.  I freeze these healthy shakes in used water bottles and take them along on camping trips.  Don’t have an immersion blender?  I’d buy one.  It’s worth it in terms of what you can make and what you can save.

Pork ‘n’ Beans.  I bought a bunch of these recently for 50 cents a can.  You can add in hot dogs, bratwursts, just about any kind of meat.  How about adding some bacons bits, reconstituted onions and barbecue sauce (a condiment which I frequently snitch) for a baked bean dish?  When done fishing, I’ll just eat them right out of the can… Pork and beans are one of the most often used foods in my own van…and one of the most satisfying “no cook” snacks.

Fresh Sausages.  You have to think outside the casings…  I love brats, Polish sausages, Italian Sausages, you name it.  Recently, I bought a bunch of Cheddar Jalapeno brats as part of a meat bundle.  It’s been fun using them.  In addition to just grilling them, you can squeeze the filling out of the casings and include the meat in a hashbrown / egg / bell pepper skillet.  Talk about easy!

The local locker plants usually have the leanest bratwursts, but often they pre-cook them.  The grocery store variety are often less expensive but more fatty.  I found a package of five brats the other day for just $2 on clearance.  Such a deal!

Eggs.  I can’t think of a food that has had more “it’s healthy, no it’s not, yes it is, no it’s not” type discussions than the egg.  I eat one or two a day… and they are good!  I like to fry them hard in a sandwich, stir them into “egg drop soup”, or  add them into just about any kind of stir fried breakfast dish.  Even if you discard the fatty (and tasty) yolks, it’s hard to find a cheaper source of protein.

Portable Protein Packed Peanut Butter – A fisherman’s friend!

Peanut Butter in Single Servings.  I love peanut butter.  (who doesn’t?)  Recently Jif has begun marketing individual servings of peanut butter.  God bless them for that!  Try putting peanut butter with a cheap packet of oatmeal for a tasty breakfast.  It just dawned on me to throw some “snitched” grape jellies in the oatmeal, too!  I also eat P.B. and jelly on a scrap of bread or cracker for a late night snack. 

Do you like Thai peanut pasta?  Make some ramen the noodles, add in the peanut butter, a little soy sauce and perhaps some leftover chicken and/or ground nuts (I use the ground nut topping packet from a McDonalds sundae). 

The single servings of peanut butter are also individually sealed and pretty stable.  They hold up pretty well in the heat.  I even carry them in my tacklebox, too, as a source of protein and calories should the sugar drop.  It’s great stuff!


I hope some of these ideas are of benefit to others looking to shrink their food budgets.  There are many other ways, of course, such as visiting food pantries or using food stamps.  In a country such as this, it’s hard to believe so many are food insecure but it does happen.  With a little hard work, it is still possible to eat very well on a shoestring budget if one is flexible and creative.


Thanks for stopping by.  After posting this info. I’ll be working on making and freezing smoothies and ice tea bottles for an upcoming trip later in the week.  It will be fun little trip and, if I am lucky, it will be using $1.50 / gallon gasoline.  (I’ll back up that claim with a picture.)

Take care.  Enjoy the rest of the week!

Brad aka the Van Trekker

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About VanTrekker

I am a former vandweller in Eastern Iowa who, for several years (off and on), lived in a 2007 Chevy cargo van. I still travel around Iowa with my tortoise shell cat, Jennifer Stefanie. Our favorite place to explore is the Country Heritage Community, the four far northeastern counties of Iowa (Clayton, Winneshiek, Allamakee, and Fayette). Ride along as we fish in pristine trout streams, enjoy fine home cooked camping meals, and meet new people. It's all possible on a shoestring budget. Happy travels always! --- Brad, the "Van Trekker"

2 Responses to Stretching the Food Dollars

  1. tinycamper says:

    Really enjoyed your tips.

    Another thing that makes a fantastic grilled cheese sandwich is add a light sprinkling of dehydrated tomato, dehydrated onion, dehydrated bell pepper, packaged bacon bits and a sprinkle of hot pepper flakes to the cheese. Don’t overdo it because less really is more in this case. Cook the sandwich in a pan with a little bit of butter until the cheese is well melted. A ton of taste for little effort!

    I dry my own veggies so they are super cheap. But then, I do have a home and room for a dehydrator there. Would be tougher drying them in a van, I would imagine.

    I agree with you about the immersion blender. Mine also has the whisk and a couple of other attachments, so it can do anything the big models can. If I were fulltiming, I would probably just take the blender and whisk attachments.

  2. Mick says:

    I don’t live in a van, but I’m a cheap bastard, so I hate expensive meals. I too don’t often buy a beverage…but to save money on food, I often buy groceries at Aldi’s.
    I’ve found that a chinese take out meal will be way too much to eat at one sitting, so I eat the “meat” and save the rice for the next day. To make it attractive, I take a can of beans, some mushrooms, onion/pepper/whatever, some sort of meat(ground turkey is always cheap), can of diced tomatoes, some frozen vegs(peas, corn, the mix of cauliflower/broc/carrots, etc), heat it all up, and enjoy. It’s like a very thick soup, which I enjoy. The next day, it’s even better, add some different spices/garlic etc to change it a little, maybe some milk or coffee for some more sauce/thin it for better heating. Next day, add more meat or another can of beans or whatever else was left over, some shrimp/scallops, chicken, you can add nearly anything, including a scoop of PB.