I’m a mom of six kids, ranging in age from 10 to 21. My college sons live at home, so that means I’m cooking for a small army every night — and shopping for the groceries to go with.
Being a mom doesn’t necessarily mean you know everything — despite what your own mother might have you believe! And being a mom of six doesn’t mean that I have cosmic levels of knowledge — or patience, for that matter. Rather, parenting a large family has given me plenty of opportunity for growth!
One way that I’ve grown over the last decade or two has been in how I handle the grocery money.
Currently, I feed our family of eight on what might be referred to as a “food stamp budget.” Our monthly budget is set at or below what the federal government might dish out in aid to a family of our similar makeup. Setting our budget according to federal data for average food costs is a practice I started doing when we were paying down debt. It gave me a realistic number to shoot for.
Stretching our grocery budget has allowed me to reallocate money for other things, such as taking our family to Europe for a month at a time. We eat budget meals without sacrificing taste, quality, or the occasional splurge. While this may take some creativity for a large family, I believe enjoying great food on a budget is possible for anyone, whether they’re cooking for one or many more.
Here are some rules of thumb that work for me.
1. Spend a little bit of time to save a lot money.
Preparing food at home and baking from scratch can help you offset your expenses, meaning that the time you spend in the kitchen can give you a great return on your investment. You save money, andthe food is bound to taste better than soggy takeout.
Also, carve out time in your schedule to menu plan and/or meal prep each week, so that you aren’t up against it at 6 p.m., when you’re exhausted from work and cooking isn’t on the Fun List.
While you’re in the kitchen, develop a system of getting it cleaned up quickly and easily. Believe it or not, many people choose to spend extra money eating out just because they don’t want to do dishes!
2. Learn to cut out the things you don’t actually need.
One of the hardest things about adulting is delaying gratification. It’s human nature that we want what we want — when we want it.
Take a seat, Veruca Salt. It’s time to be an adult.
If you’ve got your food budget determined, then you need to stick to it. That means opting out of things that don’t fit the budget, foregoing pleasures now so that you can be a wise steward of your resources, and saving up for things that matter.
That all translates into being choosy at the grocery store. Do you really need that? Can you make a homemade substitute with things you have on hand at home? Will it really make or break that dish if you don’t have two tablespoons of capers?
Whenever you can, omit an unneeded item from your list — then you get to divert those funds to something more fun.
3. Use what you already have.
Make it a point to eat down the cupboards on a regular basis. Each January I do a pantry challenge, where I spend focused time using up all the things I’ve already bought. Over the years, these challenges have helped me make the most of our food budget and given me opportunity to try new things in the kitchen. (Last year I mastered the art of making artisan sourdough bread, thanks to a healthy stock of flour in the cupboards.) Even beyond January, this has become a weekly habit that allows us to eat like kings for pennies.
4. Join a warehouse club like Costco or Sam’s Club.
Our family obviously goes through several gallons of milk each week, making a warehouse club membership a prime resource. Their unit pricing is hard to beat.
I know from experience that bulk buying can benefit any food budget — as long as you’re buying things that you know you will use in a reasonable amount of time.
Fact: Costco, and other stores like it, no longer limit their wares to 50-pound bags of ingredients. Many items are packaged smaller, making sense for smaller households, too. You can always split packages with friends and family if need be.
5. Know that your freezer is your friend.
Anytime you can cook a large batch and divide it into smaller containers to freeze, you’ve bought yourself some time and saved some money in the process. Even before we had children, freezer cooking was a regular habit of mine. One batch of lasagna would make four dinners for my husband and me, making it easy to fill the freezer with very little work. And basically for just pennies!
Most freezer meals can be scaled to suit any household size, so start making homemade convenience items for yourself.
6. Always have ingredients for a backup meal in the house.
Having six kids has taught me many things, including this: If something can go wrong, it probably will. That’s why I pack extra socks, leave early for events, and plan for emergencies at mealtimes. If a meal plan goes sideways, it can cost you a big chunk of change if you have to resort to pricey restaurant fare. Instead, I always have a Plan B. Having a backup meal plan helps me save time and money and a lot of frustration.
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