My #1 way to stretch my food dollar is to....
I have a confession to make. During the first decade of my marriage, I was pretty lazy in the area of cooking. I did cook regularly, but because we lived in town less than 2 minutes away from a plethora of yummy restaurants, it was very tempting to get lazy about cooking. Often, I would find myself at dinnertime with no meal planned, nothing thawed, and no ambition to cook. And, I sheepishly admit, I knew that if I just told my husband that I could whip up some creamed tuna over toast, he would run to grab some take out. That being said, my husband and I look back on those years, remembering how good our income was and how low our expenses were and wonder where all the money went. Our income isn't really any higher now than it was back then when we were living on two good paychecks. However our mortgage payment is about five times higher and our number of mouths to feed has quadrupled. So what did we do with that cash? I think much of it went to frivolous eating out.
Cooking is a skill that will reward you financially for the rest of your life. Do what it takes to acquire that skill. Find a good cook who will mentor you, read books, watch cooking shows, take classes, and practice. Do whatever it takes to learn how to cook decently. It will be worth every penny you spend and every minute you invest. You will have to eat for the rest of your life. You can pay someone else to prepare your food by eating out or purchasing convenience heat-and-eat foods at the store or you can cook for yourself from scratch and learn the creative joy of making a meal and save yourself a ton of money, too.
There are lots of good resources available to learn to cook from scratch. A couple of books that I would recommend are How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart and Miserly Meals: Healthy, Tasty Recipes Under 75¢ per Serving. Both are good because they are not so much about the specific recipes and ingredients, but the techniques. If you know how to make a basic white sauce, you can do a multitude of things with it. Knowing the techniques is important for freeing yourself from recipes. That is key in utilizing what you have in your pantry, saving trips to the grocery store and ultimately saving money. Also, a search on the subject of "Low Budget Cookery" on my local library's website yielded 91 titles. There are a lot of free resources out there!
Make cooking fun. Think of a meal that you love and crave. Maybe it is something from your favorite restaurant or a memorable dish your grandma used to make. Do a little research and figure out how to make it yourself. Search the internet. AllRecipes is my personal favorite, but there are many great recipe sites.
This past weekend, we got fresh cabbage in our Angel Food box (We'll talk more about that later). My husband saw it and instantly got a craving for cabbage rolls. Although I have eaten them and loved them, I had never made them before. I found a well reviewed recipe and decided to go for it. When I had a bit of trouble forming the rolls, I called my mother-in-law for tips because I knew she had made them before. I also found a step by step video on You Tube that showed me the technique. It did take a bit of time, but they were absolutely delicious. When I do them again, they will be much easier and faster to make.
Something we love is sushi. There is a local place that makes wonderful sushi, but we just can't afford to go out to eat there. So, we found a recipe for the sushi rice, watched some videos online to learn the rolling technique and now we make our own. It has become a fun family project and we can make it just the way we like it and in abundant quantities. Simple maki rolls are actually quite inexpensive to make. If you would have told me that I would be making sushi 5 years ago, I would have laughed at you, but now that we have done it on several occasions, it doesn't intimidate me at all.
So my point is practice. Just get in your kitchen and do it. You will never regret learning to cook the foods you and your family love. It can become a joy to you and it is a tremendous way to stretch your food dollar.