The following is a post from Georganne Schuch of Mom To Many Girls.
Feeding a family, especially a large family, requires the financial savvy of an accountant, the gourmet finesse of a chef crossed with the flexibility of a short-order cook, and the organizational skills of a project manager. And that’s just for starters. Once you stray into the territory of healthy eating or real food foraging or whatever the vogue phrase-of–the-day is, you need to mix all of the above with the tenacity of an inventor. Thomas Edison just thinks he had it hard when it took him 2,000 tries to invent the light bulb. He obviously wasn’t in the same ballpark as today’s field of allergy-free bakers.
So, how does a larger than average size family keep their grocery budget below the GDP while trying to eat as healthily as possible? First, you do the best you can. Let’s get real. Barring a life-threatening allergy, no one can be expected to get it right all the time. We moms are juggling a lot of balls. Meal planning and prep are just two of many things we do to serve our families on a daily basis. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you pick up a package of pre-sliced cheese or throw in a bag of frozen stir-fry veggies. Sometimes, just a few minutes saved keeps your sanity intact.
The way I see it, cost efficient meal planning can best be achieved with a three-pronged approach:
- Ingredient Control
- Portion Control
- Waste Control
I am always tempted to cut corners with ingredients, but I have learned that better input produces better output. Fresh ingredients almost always cook better than frozen or canned ones. Canned asparagus, anyone? Shredded fresh carrots or zucchini meld into many a meal, even a baked item, almost seamlessly. Fresh salads loaded with a little of this and a little of that stretch a meal and fill in those empty places in the kids’ legs that require near-constant feeding.
The best part? Feed a family of four for under $350 in monthly groceries. Plus – save more! Tiffany has graciously offered an exclusive coupon for Kitchen Stewardship readers. Just enter the coupon code KS15 before checking out for 15% off the 3-month or annual packages. If you aren’t yet ready to commit you can download a 2-week sample menu OR purchase a single month to give it a go. You have nothing to lose!
In fact, fresh vegetables are far less expensive than meat, especially if you adhere to the grass-fed, free-range forms of meat. If you break out of the common vegetable cycle and get adventurous, you might find a few veggies that nearly make your meat-eater forget he’s eating half his normal serving. If you like a crunch in your salad, try jicama, a natural source of potassium and Vitamin C without cholesterol, sodium, or saturated fat. Stir-fried cabbage with a pound of ground pork comes in a few dollars under the normal stir-fry budget. Or, if you want to have a little fun, we shred it with carrots and pork to make Chinese dumplings. Serve it with fried rice, and you have a simple, yummy meal. Cabbage is an excellent source of vitamins K, C, B6, and folate. I usually adjust the vegetable to meat ratio in recipes, increasing vegetables by approximately half and reducing meat by at least a third. Cutting the meat, like chicken, into smaller pieces makes it stretch a little more.
Maybe your local grocery store doesn’t carry much beyond the average broccoli, carrots, onion, and iceberg lettuce selection. Check for local farmers markets or direct-sell farms which sell their produce directly to consumers. You will likely find more selection, better quality, and a friendly face to go with your transaction.
Of course, it goes without saying that a garden can’t be beat for controlling vegetable costs. But I won’t judge you if it’s more work than you want to invest or if you just don’t have the room for one. My husband is the gardener in our family, but I pitch in to help harvest and preserve. I limit my gardening foray to herbs and cherry tomato plants on our deck. We are a long way from self-sufficient, but our grocery budget plummets for a few months during the harvest season.
Besides ramping up the vegetable input, consider how much the little things cost, like seasonings and spices. Rather than buy that dollar packet of taco seasoning, it costs just a few cents to make your own. The individual seasonings are not usually cheap, but combined into various mixes, they pay for themselves quickly. I keep maybe a dozen “normal” herbs and spices on hand to use in various mixes, including taco seasoning, ranch dressing mix, herb rubs, and most recently wild rice seasoning. It takes about five minutes to throw together all the ingredients for taco seasoning that lasts for four or five meals. Besides saving cents, you save sodium and MSG, common additives in many store-bought mixes.
For ingredients that do not need to be fresh, investigate bulk buying. You don’t have to be prepping for the zombie apocalypse to stockpile food. Items like beans, rice, and grains can be purchased in 20, 30, even 50 pound buckets at a fraction of the cost of single-serving sizes in the grocery store. Track prices of in-season fruits and vegetable and buy large quantities to preserve when they are on special. I’ve been known to spend a weekend elbow deep in peaches, apples, and strawberries. It is a lot of work, but come winter, are we ever happy to pull a bag out of the freezer or a jar off the shelf.
In a home with a lot of little people, portion control requires dictator-like oversight. Kids are like a swarm of locusts straight from the Bible when it comes to a full refrigerator. I won’t look twice if you padlock your fridge and freezer. I approach portion-control the same way I approach meal planning, divide and conquer.
Rather than let snack time be a free-for-all, I limit the choices each day. If it’s fruit (we like grapes), I wash them in the morning and set a bowl on the counter for the day. They are allowed to add things like yogurt, when appropriate. My teen daughter is an accomplished baker, and she would supply us with a steady stream of snacks if I let her. However, I limit her baking to Thursdays, unless there is a special event. This helps control the amount of sweets in our house, as well as the never-ending need for chocolate chips. Grazing is also highly discouraged.
When we serve a meal, I purposely plate the food for my children. That may sound a little control-freakish, but it pays to make sure there is enough for everyone when we are having a zero-leftover meal. Or if the sides are less than desirable in my children’s eye, I make sure they get a little of everything and require an empty plate to get seconds. To accommodate the more veggies/less meat policy, I borrow the cut-up meat trick from above and cut the meat in small bite-size pieces. It makes them think they’re getting more than they are. All’s fair in love and feeding children.
I am not anti-easy, especially when it comes to lunches. But because I want to control our grocery budget while feeding our hungry horde every.single.day., I plan a sandwich lunch at least once a week. We like fresh baked whole wheat bread (a LOT), and my kids can gnaw through four loaves faster than you think possible. So, after a batch is cooled, I cut it and freeze it. If they have to wait for a slice to thaw, even though it only takes about 20 minutes, they usually move on to something else. We also often eat open-faced sandwiches. More toppings, less bread.
Waste not, want not. It’s an old saying that contains a lot of wisdom. The generations before us knew how to repurpose a lot of things. I’m not advocating hoarding, of course, but think about what food you throw away and how you could have saved it. Food waste is probably my biggest challenge. I might never completely conquer it, but I have a few tricks I use religiously to cut down on waste.
We buy raw milk from a nearby dairy. I often separate the cream to make butter. The leftover liquid from the butter makes a great substitute for milk in pancakes, biscuits, etc. Remember, it doesn’t have the same fat content, so it might not work in gravies or sauces.
Surely I’m not the only person who finds two bites of green beans and a hodgepodge of other unidentifiable vegetables in the back of the fridge. Those green beans can be reheated in an omelet and many vegetables will slip anonymously into a soup or casserole. Puree if you really need to hide them. A mom has to do what a mom has to do. And if all else fails, and that squash colonizes a bacteria city, compost the remains. The latter vegetables will thank the former vegetables for their sacrifice.
No one ever said being a mom was easy. It’s not! Especially when it comes to feeding all those picky palates, but hang in there. Preparing healthy meals can be done consistently without breaking the bank.
What are your favorite budget-saving tips? Do you feed a large (or hungry!) family?