Feeding a Family on a Budget

After much reflection, I have concluded that feeding the four of us on a tight budget is the source of 90% of my stress.

It feels like a never ending battle. Appetites change, preferences change, budgets change.

I used to think I would “master” feeding the four of us and never have to think about it again. But like many things in life, the only constant is change.

So now I try to view it as a fun challenge.

When I am successful I feel a sense of pride. When I fall short, I reflect and learn from my mistakes.

We typically eat all our meals at home. We might eat out 2-3 times per month. When we do eat out, it is usually at a fast casual restaurant. The kids will eat at the restaurant and Kevin and I will eat at home later.

Here are some guiding principles that help me stay in our budget…most of the time.

1. Eat whole foods

Meat, veggies, nuts, fruit. When our menu consists of mainly whole food, we notice. Packaged foods seem cheaper, but they are not filling and leave us hungry and wanting more food. Whole foods are satisfying, healthy, and overall cheaper.

2. Meal Plan

We have all heard this, and some of you may have groaned at these two words. Hear me out.

I am not talking about planning a month of meals at a time or prepping everything at once.

These strategies do work for some and can be very advantageous.

But the suggestion to “plan it all” used to bring me a lot of stress. I would meticulously plan each meal and snack, spend all our money, and then plans would change and we would waste food.

I have learned the best meal plan strategy for our family is planning 3-4 meals per week. For the remaining meals, I plan around what is on sale.

For example, one time our grocery store had ground lamb for 99 cents a pound on clearance. I also found a head of cauliflower on clearance for 99 cents and a salad kit for $1.50. So that night, we had lamb meatballs with salad and cauliflower mash. The whole meal costs less than $5 and it felt like a feast.

Now, this strategy works well for us because we can walk/bike to three different grocery stores. This makes shopping often easy. If you do not live close to stores, planning more meals at a time might make more sense.

3. Rotate Snacks

Kevin and I LOVE macadamia nuts. Unfortunately, they are pretty much the most expensive nut. So we rotate between pecans, petitas, sunflower seeds, macadamias, and other nuts.

We also love beef sticks and protein/date bars, but we understand we can’t have them every day.

I try to plan snacks like I do meals. I buy 3-4 snacks to have on hand and then fill in with others as needed.

Here are some of our favorite healthy and filling snacks:

  • Nuts
  • Beef sticks
  • Olives
  • Cheese
  • Protein or date bars
  • Guacamole with veggies or plantain chips
  • Ants on a log (celery, almond butter, raisins)
  • Sliced fruit
  • Sliced veggies
  • Hard boiled eggs (only me)

4. Eat leftovers

We love leftovers. You can be really creative with them and even add eggs to many leftovers for a hearty breakfast.

Eating leftovers prevents food waste and saves time and energy planning a whole new dish everyday.

5. Themed meal days

Every pay day we have Taco Stuff for dinner. It is essentially taco salads.

It is filling, affordable, and everyone loves it. I don’t have to think about what we eat on that day.

Other ideas we have tried: meatless Mondays, stir fry Saturdays, crockpot days.

Do a little planning and see what meals work for your schedule on certain nights.

It saves mental energy knowing exactly what you will eat on certain days.

6. Calculate your cost per meal

I enjoy doing this. Not only because I love numbers, but also it reminds me how much I save eating at home.

  • Here is an example using our favorite “Taco Stuff” meal:
  • 2lbs ground beef $10
  • Green and red bell peppers $3
  • Salsa $1
  • Spinach $1
  • Shredded cheese $1
  • Chips $3
  • Avocados $2
  • Total= $21
  • Since we usually get 6 servings out of this meal, $21/6 servings= $3.5 per serving.
  • Calculating the cost per meal helps me find a balance of cheaper meals and more expensive meals.
  • It also makes it clear what ingredients raise the cost the most (like meat), and then I can seek sales on these ingredients.
  • One of my favorite recipe websites breaks down all her recipes by cost. I highly recommend Budget Bytes!
  • 7. Empty the refrigerator and pantry

    Towards the end of a pay period, we create what we call “survival meals.” They are meals constructed from random ingredients left in the house.

    Sometimes these meals become our favorite creations…and sometimes we just choke it down to fill our stomachs.

    We have learned that using up what we have feels good. We have already paid for the items, so we should use them up before we bring new items in.

    It also makes us tougher and shows us how much food we do have, instead thinking about what we don’t have.

    8. Hunger is the best recipe (AKA eating what is served)

    In the past I tried to have my kids favorite foods on hand at all times. If something ran out, BAM! I replaced it right away.

    But I noticed my kids didn’t eat meals well when they knew they could have an endless stream of snacks.

    While searching for advice from other parents, I stumbled upon a wise quote that said,”Hunger is the best recipe.”

    Translation: “The children will eat whatever you make if you let them get a bit hungry between meals.”

    So I started offering less food between meals and stopped bringing snacks everywhere we went. They suddenly ate more of my recipes!!

    If the choices are eat the meal or be hungry…they will typically eat the meal.

    Eating on a budget doesn’t have to feel restrictive.

    Yes, you have to plan more. But once you are in control of the budget you will actually feel more freedom.

    The freedom of knowing what you can and cannot do.

    You will feel proud serving healthy and affordable meals. You will enjoy treats and meals out more because you have left space in the budget for them.

    And maybe, like me, you will finally feel less stress about feeding all the people.