I know of few families who are not struggling with the steady rise in the cost of feeding a family. You can read opposing viewpoints all over the internet, but if you are out there buying groceries, you know that the containers are smaller and the prices are higher.
It is difficult to find a balance between convenience, feeding your family healthy food and maintaining a reasonable budget.
For my family – me, my husband and our four sons – it’s been tricky to hit on the right combination. In the following, I will explain how we try to keep our food costs in check while still eating well.
Before I start, you should read this knowing that I am making some assumptions about you. I am writing as if you have no food allergies or stringent dietary requirements. I am writing to people who truly need to find ways to save money. If you are adamant about buying only organic foods, this may not be of much help. Finally, I am writing to share what has worked for us. You may need to tweak suggestions to work for your family.
Spending Money To Save Money
If you do not have a freezer, start putting aside a bit of money each week and get one. Hands-down, this has been the biggest means of saving money for us. Whether you are a couple or a family of 12, you will see savings if you keep a chest or upright freezer in your basement or garage. Check garage sales and Craigslist. People will often sell fairly new freezers rather than move them long distances.
With a freezer, you can reap the benefits of buying in bulk, shopping sales and planning ahead for meals. Take advantage of your warehouse membership and start buying cheese, butter, pasta and other things in large quantities. Break the giant packages into smaller flat zip-lock bags that can be used as you need them. You can also do the same thing with bulk packages of meat from the warehouse store. The night or the day after you shop, set aside time to cook ground meat, make a meatloaf to freeze. Buy several whole chickens and butcher them yourself (check YouTube for how-to videos). You can then freeze meal-sized portions. Use the carcass of the chickens you butcher to make amazing stock which… wait for it… you can freeze in ice cube trays or small plastic bags.
If you see a sale on meat or other perishable item at a local store you can take advantage of it if you have a freezer. Break the meat down into meal-sized portions before you freeze.
Items that freeze well:
- Milk (just empty 1-2“ from top of container)
- Berries (flash freeze on a cookie sheet, then transfer to bags)
- Leftovers/Double Cooked meals
- Beans, snap peas, peppers
- Bananas (freeze the ones on the verge of going bad and use for smoothies or baking)
Items that do not freeze well:
- American cheese, cream cheese – they are fine to cook with if you freeze them but they aren’t pretty!
- Raw potatoes
- Whole or raw sliced tomatoes
Start A Price Book
Everyone has their own favorite place to shop. Starting and using a “price book” will open your eyes to the value of checking all the stores in your area. Additionally, if you use your price book regularly, you will begin to see patterns in what goes on sale at what store and you can plan to stock up when you know a sale is coming.
In a three ring binder list your basic grocery items, one per page, alphabetically. Each week, pick up the newspaper and go through the flyers. Mark the price for your items at each store. Also mark the unit (ounce/pound) price. After you have done this for a week or two, you will be able to tell where you should be shopping for certain items and you will be able to spot a good deal.
Be sure to include locally owned produce stores in your search for affordable fruit and vegetables.
Make A Plan
I try to shop in a way that replenishes our pantry/freezer. (Don’t panic, it takes 6-12 months to get to this point.) If I have to run to the store and find something to make for dinner, I am likely to spend an extra $20 or more simply because I’m hungry, rushed or tempted. If impulse buying were a sport, I would be a gold-medalist.
To combat my own tendency to impulsiveness, I began sitting down once a month and writing out a menu for the whole month – breakfast, lunch and dinner. I just jot down something like oatmeal or meatloaf, I don’t list sides or details. While my plan is not set in stone, it keeps me on track both with shopping and with actually getting food to the table.
Cereal is expensive and not terribly nutritious. I don’t buy it. Breakfast options here include:
- Muffins or bagels – make a big batch of muffins and freeze them (in your freezer!)
- Oatmeal – the real kind, not the insanely expensive packages. Make your oatmeal in your crockpot overnight and breakfast is ready the minute you get up.
- Crockpot breakfast casseroles.
- Pancakes/Waffles – cook double or triple and FREEZE the leftovers!
- Eggs – the perfect protein – teach your kids to cook eggs early in their lives.
- Leftovers – there is no rule that says your child cannot have leftover spaghetti and meatballs for breakfast!
- Leftovers – if you and the kids are home.
- Sandwiches – give your family a choice of 2-3 sandwiches and make them all Sunday night and, do I have to say it? Freeze them. Pull them out as needed for lunches.
- I pack lunches for those headed out for the day. Usually a sandwich, a plastic container of yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit or nuts added, a piece of fruit, a couple of cookies or a granola bar. Skip the prepackaged snacks and fill up small baggies as you need them.
- Use your crockpot! If dinner is started early in the day, you’ll avoid those last minute shopping trips.
- Work on stocking up your freezer. In no time you’ll have a pantry that can get you through lean times. If I had to, I am confident I could feed my family for 6-8 weeks needing only milk and produce.
- Avoid packaged, frozen, pre-made meals. Take the time to learn how to make them yourself. Few meals are hard to prepare, they simply take time to find out how. Make the time. You’ll save money and you will actually know what is in the food you’re eating!
- Read up on “freezer cooking.” The investment of one afternoon/evening per month can save you hours/money during your busy weeks.
Don’t be overwhelmed! Try one idea at a time. Adjust it until it works for you. Initially, it can all seem overwhelming. Stick with it and you will see benefits after a month or two. After a year, you’ll be a pro who is able to advise friends and neighbors on how to take charge of their groceries.