That process was revelatory. "I was shocked by how much we'd been spending on food," Hank says. Between grocery stores and restaurants, their family of four had easily been dropping $1,500 a month. "That's not supportable now." Cutting back, though, is wrenching. "It's not that I mind giving up things," Jilann says. Imported chocolate bars? Gone. Wine? Rarely. "But as a parent," she says, "I cannot cut down on the quality of what we feed our kids. Or ourselves." You shouldn't, agree our advisers, many of them professional chefs. Interestingly, their tips for how to maintain high food standards on a frugal budget focus on thinking like a professional chef, for whom every meal is an attempt to do exactly that:
1. Eat less meat. "No one needs a 20-ounce rib eye," says Ted Allen, host of Food Network's Chopped. Current nutritional guidelines suggest, in fact, that about five to six ounces of meat or any another kind of protein per day is sufficient for most adults. Since meat is one of the costliest food items, "making meat part of the meal, not the centerpiece of the meal, can save you lots of money," says Cora. "It's also more interesting, tastewise." Make at least one meal a week vegetarian, she adds, to save even more.
2. Eat different cuts. "Ask chefs what their favorite cut of meat is and they never say 'beef tenderloin,'" Allen says. "They say pork shoulder or flank steak or brisket"—cheaper, more flavorful cuts. "Flank steak needs only a quick sear, whereas meats like pork shoulder require longer cooking time," Allen says. When they are braised, the result is tender and ample. "You can get a lot of meals out of one pork shoulder," says Culinary Institute of America's Felder.
3. Eat different proteins. "Beans are sorely underrated," at least by home cooks, Allen says. "Chefs love them. Black beans are a restaurant staple. And you see adzuki beans even in desserts now." Whatever your bean preference, try to buy the dried variety, not pricier cans. "A bag of dried beans and some rice will feed a family of four for at least two meals," says Rubin of the bustling Second Harvest Food Bank. Soak the beans for several hours or in a pressure cooker for a few minutes. Cook them with spices and "maybe a few slices of bacon or a ham hock," Allen says, add some rice, and you have dinner, for a few cents per person.
4. Game the farmers' markets. Farmers' markets are an unparalleled source of fresh, local, organic produce and meats. They can be pricey, though. So time your shopping. "Go near the end of the day," Cora says, in the last hour or so of the market's schedule, when some farmers drop their prices. The selection of goods may be scantier, "but you can get some bargains," Cora points out. "The farmers will be glad to sell their goods before they close up."