It was 5 short years ago that Charlie and I were writing our budget. Line by line we’d list our bills, our income, and our goals. Our weekly grocery trip was budgeted and squirreled away in a little envelope with $35 cash, and an EBT card. Between the two we shook out at $55 a week, +WIC cheese and cereal.
At night we’d lay awake and talk about what we would do with just a little more money. What would change? Over and over the same words, more food. . . better food.
We ate some version of Baked Pasta, Burritos, or Cereal most every evening. It didn’t feel bad, it didn’t feel restricted. But, it felt hard. I knew I wanted to feed us a bit differently, I knew I wanted to eat more greens. I knew I wanted to try a fun juice, to be able to make something on a whim sometimes. So whenever we dreamed, it was of fancy cheeses, higher quality meat, and a basket full of produce. Feeding your family well on that amount of money is incredibly hard, and my hats off to anyone doing it. I accounted for every penny then, and it was exhausting. But doable, with a lot of effort.
I share that not to reveal too much, but instead to give some weight to why we spend a bit more on Groceries now. It’s where our priorities are at this point. We haven’t ever been big travelers (in fact, we will be flying for the first time with our kiddos next year! First flight in nearly 10 years!), we don’t own many electronics, we are bike commuters who share one car, and we do the majority of our shopping at Goodwill and Value Village or living off the (AMAZING!) hand-me-over’s from friends and family. But food? We have always, always, wanted to spend a bit more there and now finally feel responsible doing so.
As the years have gone by and our income has changed, our eating habits, kiddos ages, and food priories have shifted too. However, the same tips and tricks I used 5 years ago are the ones I use now. I’ve just shifted the numbers as we’ve morphed through food sensitivities/allergies/ethics.
BASIC TIPS FOR ALL FOOD BUDGETS:
- Set a number budget and either use cash or (if you have a perk laden credit card you’re capable of using without carrying debt, use that! Cash in on that 2% back/miles/whatever!) If there is money left over at the end of the week, decide where it goes. Do you have a long term saving goal? Or do you want to use that little left over as a “treat yo’self!” moment. 5 Years ago I ALWAYS kept our food budget $5 under so I could get one fancy coffee a week. And seriously, that coffee GOT ME THROUGH.
- Shop ONCE a week. Bring that cash, or know your number, and get it all done in one fell swoop. This can mean several stores in one day, but it’ll save you so much if you aren’t ending up at the store every other day (this is the hardest one for me to stick with! Especially in the summer!)
- Budget for the weird stuff. For example; Are you hosting a lot of playdates that week, a few hikes or beach adventures? If you have the wiggle room then make sure to double up on those apples, popcorn, and PB. If not? KNOW NOW and ask your friends to all bring a sharable snack. Those random “run to haggen! kids are coming!” trips are killer. Planning ahead can save you $$$.
- Eat a bit boring. This one is tough for a lot of people. But a lot can be saved by just sticking with a few semi-repetitive meals in a week. I always try and make meals that double up on each other. Like a roasted chicken, chicken enchiladas, and a brothy soup. Three birds one stone. . .or rather, one bird three meals!
- Know your staples! For us: Nut butter, coconut oil, eggs, tortillas, hummus, chips, and fruit! If we have all of those, I can almost always feed us all a hodgepodge to get us through!
MEAL PLANNING TIPS
- Start by making a list of what food your family actually likes. Be honest instead of aspirational here. If your kiddos won’t eat cashew crusted cauliflower with pork belly. . . don’t meal plan that! I start without any recipe books or pintrest boards, just a straight up list of loved foods in my home. Here is a list of our TJ’s faves.
- See where your meals can double up. For example, my meal prep chili (can be vegan if made with veggie broth!) gets thicker the second/third day, and makes a stellar burrito filling. If you pop it underneath some scrambled eggs it’s a super hearty and protein rich breakfast, and it also freezes well. I always have at least one or two meals like this, where I can double it for not much extra $$ but stretch the meal out with some inexpensive staples (eggs and tortillas!).
- Make freeze meals during weeks with a little extra $$. I often prep an enchilada, lasagna, or soup on weeks where we have a little extra money. It saves us on the lean weeks!
- Don’t plan for specific day’s. Lives are busy, days are evolving, and a recipe for eating out is planning a labor intensive meal on a day where you end up at the beach till 6. Instead plan 6 solid dinners. But don’t worry about moving them around to whatever night of the week they work!
- Plan your lunch and breakfasts as basically the same meal every day. For example; Breakfast; Chia pudding, overnight oats, oatmeal with egg (whisking an egg into your hot oatmeal adds ++ protein but doesn’t change the flavor!). Lunch: Snack platters; protein + dip + fruit + veggie. You can find lots of variation within those meals to cover you for the whole week, but your base ingredients stay basically the same and it makes it far easer for you to shop, cook, and enjoy. Bonus; All kid friendly!
- If you like smoothies, always meal plan smoothies into your week. The ingredients are relatively inexpensive, it’s quick in the summer and keeps you cool. We have smoothie dinners at least once a week just for fun!
- Prep only what you will actually eat. I keep my prep super basic; chia pudding, granola/nut’ola, roasted veggies, quinoa/rice, steamed sweet potatoes, marinated chicken thighs or drumsticks, salad dressing X2, pesto/a sauce/homemade mayo (usually just one), and chopped fresh veggies for snacking.
- Pay attention to what gets eaten, and follow those trends. They ebb and flow, and kiddos are weird. Some weeks my daughters eat 5 red peppers just chopped raw, other weeks they won’t even look at them. I try to pay attention!
- Prep for about three days worth. I prep twice a week, typically on Sunday and Wednesday. It’s not the most convenient but I’ve found that none of us want to eat 5/6 day old roasted veggies. So it’s worth it for saving the produce and money! And prep takes about 1.5 hours, so it’s really just one kid movie’s worth of time. . .
Q: What do you prioritize to keep high quality/spend more on?
A: Meat and Dairy! These are the two things I prioritize the most, and buy the least of. My family LOVES meat (I don’t!) but we try to only buy organic, certified humane, whenever we can. And for dairy I always buy full fat, and try to find organic whenever possible. We eat meat 1-2 times a week (when I do the grocery shopping/ cooking, it’s a bit different when my husband does it!). I wish we could also prioritize higher quality spices and all organic produce, but at this point it’s not in our budget. So for me, my ethics point to keeping our animal products higher quality.
Q: If you have very little time to prep, what do you prep?
A: I keep it super simple! Chia or Overnight oats (takes moments to toss almond milk and chia seeds in a jar, in the fridge!). I buy pre-cut cauliflower and baby carrots and roast them with chicken thighs I marinate in just balsamic and olive oil! This gives me breakfast, dinner, and usually lots of left overs for another dinner, stretched with rice/caulirice or quinoa. All of that takes maybe 15min to get into the oven and fridge and covers dinner that night, breakfast the next morning, and often lunch too!
Q: What does a typical low-budget week look like?
A: Ah, I love this. Here is a typical meal plan for a tight week!
- Breakfast: Chia puddings/Overnight Oats with apple sauce or frozen fruit
- Lunches: Smoothies or snack plates with PB/hummus, apple, carrots or celery, and bowls of granola and almond milk. Or? Gluten Free Mac n’ Cheese from Trader Joe’s, oops?
- Dinners; Meal Prep Chili, Loaded Nachos (using some of chili as topping!), Salads with homemade dressing and nuts/seeds or chicken, Crustless Sweet Potato Quiche (veggie), Smoothie (usually greens + fruit + almond milk + collagen + flax), Black Bean Burgers with potato wedges.
Q: What do your kiddos eat for breakfast?
A: Not much, ugh. My girlies aren’t big morning eaters. But they’ll almost always eat oatmeal with apple sauce, Gluten Free bagels with nut butter and honey, chia pudding and granola, cheerios and milk (hah).
Q: How do you set your food budget for the week? And say no to impulse buys in the store?
A: We set our budget by starting with our income, and then working our way through all bills, our savings goal, and then seeing what is left. That needs to cover food, toiletries/sundries, and fun. What we prioritize ebbs and flows within that and the season, but we work that out each month. And set the budget from there. I avoid impulse purchases two ways; First, I try to always keep about $10 set aside for them, haha. I LOVE trying out new kombucha’s, weird new smoothie mix-in’s, and random new chocolate bar’s from Trader Joe’s. So that $10 keeps me honest! Secondly, if we are really lean that week, I just avoid those spots in the store completely. I know where the trigger places are (the new items stand, and the chocolate stations) and just don’t pay attention to them. This works approximately 80% of the time 😉
Q: You don’t eat much meat! What do you like to have as protein instead?
A: I’m a huge fan of the gluten/dairy free black bean burgers from Costco. They’re great as a burger, or on a salad. I also really like sprouting and cooking my own pintos, making homemade hummus (SUPER protein dense!), I also make my own nut butter with lots of added protein (collagen/flax/chia/whatever I have around that sounds good!), I often make quinoa and/or lentils to go along with a meal where my family is having meat, and I adore making quinoa fritters as a meal too. Basically; Nuts, beans, lentils, and quinoa!
Q: If you couldn’t shop at Trader Joe’s or equivalent healthy store how would you make nutritious and affordable meals?
A: This is hard! I would likely buy bulk items online (Azure Standard, or something equivalent like Thrive Market) ; lentils, dry beans, quinoa, coconut oil, nut butter, ect. And then buy my produce from whatever local store I could (even Target and Albertsons have some pretty good produce options!), it would mean more planning ahead, but still be doable.
Q: Does your budget include sundries/animal foods?
A: No! We do that kind of shopping monthly and I keep it separate. However, it’s not super pricey. We buy our pet stuff at Costco, and I homemake nearly all of our cleaners/sundries from vinegar, baking soda, coconut oil, and apple cider vin!
If you have any other questions pop them in the comments or on IG/FB! I’m happy to keep answering! I’d say we stick to these guidelines about 90% of the time, and the other ten percent is accidentally blowing way too much on fancy burgers downtown. We’re not perfect at this at all, but aspiring towards all of this keeps our budget pretty intact, and our bellies full!