Are you curious how our friend Desiree’ feeds a family of 10 for $1100 a month? This is only $110 per person, per month or $3.67 per person, per day, or $1.22 per meal, per person not counting snacks. Whether your family is large like hers or small, anyone can apply these principles to cut their grocery budget. Be sure to explore our site for many more tips too! In the end, you can learn to feed your family without coupons for less!
We love what Desiree’ has shared with us and hope it helps you too, especially because she is a busy, non-couponing mom that has little time to shop and cook!
How I Feed my Family of 10 for $1100 a month
A friend of mine encouraged me a while back to write about how we feed our family of ten on a tight budget. At first, I didn’t give it much thought; I’m no master budgeter. I forget how much butter ought to cost, I don’t usually cut any coupons, and our $1100/month budget that we currently enjoy still sounds to me like an awful lot of money. So much money that I routinely do silly things like search online to see what other people are spending on their food, under the assumption that I still spend way too much.
It turns out that the USDA “thrifty food plan” would have my family spending $1436 per month on food. That sounds pretty lavish, to me, so I guess we’re doing all right.
I’m here to share with you how we do it. I have to do this thing my own way; I’m not a detailed person or a born bean-counter. So you won’t find me telling you how much I paid for this or that recipe or ingredient – how do I know what a cup of flour costs? To figure that out, I’d have to go hunt down a receipt which is probably in use as an emergency lollipop wrapper, try to see how much I paid for the flour (because I won’t remember), try to find a calculator, fail, remember I have a calculator on my phone, find my phone, note that it’s dead, plug it in, and forget what I was doing while it charges, so I wander off and start washing dishes, never to return.
Nope. Not happening. I stick to my monthly budget using some simple, timesaving strategies that I have worked out over the years and through some pretty hard times. If I keep to those strategies, my budget stays happy.
Making your List
- Shop from your pantry. You hear this tip all the time, and there’s a reason for that. Get in the habit of stocking up on some sale items that you know you will use (see below), then when it’s time to make your list, always check your freezer and pantry. Be creative and see what you can make with what you already have.
- Keep a pantry list. This is just a list of all the stuff you shop for week after week, month after month. Mine is done in two sections: a section for the things I buy when they run low, and one for the things that I like keep an extra on hand so we for sure never run out. There are probably all manner of printables to be had to help with this process, but a simple list really works just fine. You can be as detailed or general as you like – for me, simply putting down “spices” is enough to jog my memory on the ones I use all the time. I find it needs updating now and then as our food habits shift over time.
- Check your pantry list. I’ll be honest, I struggle with forgetting to do this. But, that just makes things harder on me later. Add anything that is running low or needs its spare replaced to you grocery list.
- Meal plan. I make a quick, hand-scrawled note on a quarter sheet of paper, with dinner listed for each day till my next shopping day. Now is the time to check your calendar – make sure you have any special days planned out, crock pot days thought of, that kind of thing. You don’t want to find yourself having planned a big dinner for a day when you won’t be home to fix it. Now, aside from those kinds of days, I rarely stick to making the meals on their assigned days. I make whatever planned meal I feel like making out of the available ingredients. Making this plan just assures that I have the ingredients on hand to do that.
- Finish off your list with whatever you feel you need, and then you have one more step. I hate this step, because I have to spend a couple minutes with numbers, but, c’est la vie, right? Run through your list and make a rough estimate of the cost of all this. Like I said, I’m not great at remembering prices, but I have a rough idea of what something will cost me, barring a great deal I might happen on. So I run down the list with a calculator, adding up a quick estimate for each item, and see what I come up with. If it’s within my budget, cool. If not, time to trim a bit. Maybe I got a little fancy with my cooking plans and need to calm it down, or maybe I just need to trim some pantry items that I’m sure I won’t really use this week. Or, maybe I can afford and justify the extra expense because it’s a legitimate stock-up cost that will pay off before my budget cycle is over. I just need to plan that instead of winging it.
- Note what I said about stocking up: for me, any big stock-ups need to pay off before my budget cycle is over. I just don’t have the money in my budget to buy food for beyond my current month. If you do, that’s awesome. Buy a cow and put ‘er in your freezer. That’s on my “someday” list for sure!
- Make a stock up trip. This tip is my number one money-saver. Since we get paid once a month, around that time I take a trip to Aldi (which is a hike from where I live, about 45 minutes away). I buy a month’s worth of things that are substantially cheaper there and that I can store for a month in my fridge, deep freeze, or pantry. For our family, this means that I buy a whole month of meat, eggs, butter, and 100% whole wheat bread. I also buy that week’s dairy and produce, and whatever else I urgently want before I will be at another store. Now, not everybody has an Aldi, or a deep freeze, or a monthly paycheck. But, the principle of stocking up on the lowest prices you can find for the staples your family actually uses is a foundational strategy for everyone. The trick is finding how you can make it happen for you.
- Shop staples. You won’t find a lot of fluff in my cart (well, we all have our little weaknesses, so you will definitely find SOME fluff. What good is it, otherwise?) For the most part, I shop meat, dairy, produce, bread, baking staples, canned tomatoes, beans, rice, pasta, peanut butter, jelly, breakfast cereal (there’s the fluff), ice cream (more fluff), frozen fruit, and veggies. I typically avoid most convenience items. I like to pick up one convenience dinner each month to have on hand if I get sick or just too crazy busy – something like fish sticks, chicken patties, or frozen pizza. I also buy things like hot dogs, which are a little bit in between being a staple and being a convenience item in my book, and they make people happy.
- My favorite cheap-enough proteins are: whole chickens, chicken thighs or drums, ground beef (in moderation ), eggs, tuna, and pork picnic roast. I’ve recently discovered that tofu isn’t always evil, so toss that in there too.
- I almost always buy the store brand, except in just a few cases where I do have brand loyalty. I don’t normally use coupons; I know people find great success with them, but somehow they don’t work with my brain and my monthly bill ends up higher if I put in a concentrated effort on coupons. I can’t explain it, but I have come to accept it.
- Put stuff back. This tip saves me a respectable amount of money. I’m pretty disciplined about what I put in my cart, but I always re-evaluate things as I unload the cart at checkout. Most things I don’t have to think about – I know I need milk, fruit, eggs, etc. But there’s always a few non-essentials, and I am always a little more budget conscious when it’s time to pay up than I am in the aisles. I will often hand the cashier a few items that I thought better of. Now, I don’t bury the poor guy or gal – not more than three is my usual rule. But, they never seem to mind, they just toss it in their bin and move on. (This does NOT mean that I put any “maybe” items in my cart to hand back later. I think that would be kind of rude and probably courting budget problems. I really intend to buy everything I put in my cart – I just think about it one more time before money changes hands.)
- The principle of strategic compromise. Most of us walk a line between the food we can afford and the food we really want, whether our concern is health, convenience, quality, or some balance of those. It’s important to consider those factors in your food choices, and know where you want to compromise and where you don’t. For example, whole grains are very important to me. I buy 100% whole wheat bread (which I get for $1.40/loaf at Aldi, so not bad). I do not buy white bread, or “wheat” bread that is mostly white flour. We eat a ton of bread – I want that staple to be super healthy even if it costs a little more. But, I do usually buy cheap white hamburger buns, because the whole grain ones are obnoxiously expensive where I live and buns form a very tiny part of our overall diet. This keeps my bill down without substantial compromise on the things that matter most to me.
Once you get the food home, what you do with it matters. All my advice boils down to this: “Don’t waste anything.” Revolutionary, right? 🙂 Here are some small tricks. None of these are going to slash your spending – but these kinds of small habits will add up, and more importantly, they keep your mind in the waste-not zone. You will find yourself thinking up new ways to not throw your food away!
- One simple way to do this is to top, not coat. Whether we are talking about breading for oven-baked meats and fish, or if a recipe calls for rolling something in butter or cinnamon sugar – you can save ingredients by using them as a topping instead of a coating. The flavor and texture is still there, but you used far less ingredients to do it, and you don’t have to throw away the contaminated extra coating ingredients.
- Learn to fillet your meat. Chicken breasts and pork chops are often bigger and thicker than they need to be for a serving, especially for children, but once they are on the table people naturally help themselves to one piece. If you slice them into two thinner pieces, they cook up more quickly and nicely, and they are a more appropriate serving size. People are welcome to seconds, but there’s no reason for them to take more than they want just because that’s how chickens are made!
- Use bone-in meat and make broth from the bones. There are lots of tutorials out there, but this is not hard and it’s oh-so-homey. Not to mention delicious, frugal and healthy. You can easily get at least one more meal out of a chicken carcass this way. (Note from Cassie: See my frugal bone broth recipe and how I make 5 meals from one chicken)
- Use your butter wrappers to grease pans. Tiny, but why throw out butter and then buy cooking spray?
- Eat your leftovers. This is such a foundation to our diet that I’m going to give it a whole section of its own.
Using leftovers wisely is pretty much how I keep to our budget. I used to be terrible about this; over time, with increasing financial pressure, I had no choice but to improve, and it saves us a bundle. We now throw away very little food. Here are my best tips:
- Cook extra. I’m a really busy person, despite my best efforts not to be. So lately, I don’t cook every day like I used to. I will cook three or four times a week, usually, and make extra so that there is something to work with on other nights. Leftover nights are built right into my weekly menu.
- But, DON’T cook extra if it’s a new recipe or something people hate. Leftovers have to be yummy or they are doomed.
- There are loads of ways to use your leftovers. Sometimes, I serve them straight up, either the next day or a couple days later. This works if it’s a dish we all adore.
- Some leftovers work well as a side dish next time. So, make a new main dish, but serve the leftovers as a side. This works particularly well if your leftovers are meatless.
- If they are more of a main dish, fix new sides to go with. So, if I have leftover roast chicken that we had with mashed potatoes and broccoli, I might serve the leftovers with fresh hot rice and a salad. Quite a different meal.
- Add new ingredients. For example, we eat meatless on Fridays in our home. I might make spaghetti with marinara. It’s a simple matter, then, to cook fresh pasta and add in some ground beef or even meatballs on another day for a similar, but not identical, meal.
- Or, use the leftovers as an ingredient in a new recipe. If you have a falling-apart pork picnic roast, or leftover roast chicken, shred the meat and toss with some barbecue sauce. Serve it on a bun, and nobody will even realize it’s the same thing.
To wrap up, let me give you the rundown of what an average month’s menu looks like for us. When I tracked all of our meals for a month, I discovered that we had leftovers for dinner no less than nine times! I knew we ate them a lot, but I really had no idea it was that much. We also had leftovers for lunch ten times.
So for the rest of the time, when we aren’t eating leftovers, here’s some of our favorites:
- Eggs. Over easy, scrambled, in a sandwich with a slice of lunch meat and a sprinkle of cheese, omelets, you name it.
- Cold cereal. Yup – I used to think that you couldn’t eat the stuff on a budget, but we do. I’m cranky about sugar, though, so we mostly only buy the off brand of the super basics, which tend to come pretty cheap. There’s one name brand kind that we do regularly buy, but that is all.
- Oatmeal. Most of my kids love it, it’s super healthy, quick, easy, and cheap. I used to buy it in bulk, but lately I haven’t been able to due to moving to an area where bulk foods are hard to find. It’s still cheap in the canister. (Note from Cassie: Check out the 88 Oatmeal Mix-in ideas to make this unique every time).
- Homemade pancakes, waffles, muffins, breakfast cookies. Everyone’s favorite. I like to make a large batch when I can and have them in the freezer on hand. (Note from Cassie: Make your own pancake/waffle mix & homemade bulk muffin mix to save even more.)
All of these ideas are served with fresh or canned fruit, or possibly smoothies.
- Sandwiches. All that bread I buy from Aldi (like 25 loaves a month)? Here’s where we eat most of it. We eat more sandwiches than Bob the Builder, friends. PB&J, lunch meat sometimes, tuna salad, tuna melts, grilled cheese with tomato soup, chicken salad…whatever can be tossed together and put in some bread. My older kids are super creative with adding veggies, hummus, you name it.
- Pasta. A big pot of pasta with butter and parmesan is crazy cheap and makes my kids ridiculously happy. Or, macaroni and cheese (box or homemade), or ramen.
- Leftovers. Of course. Either straight up or recycled into something new.
- Eggs. Just like at breakfast. If I didn’t have eggs for breakfast, sometimes I have them for lunch instead.
- Pancakes or waffles. Sometimes I have more time at lunch than breakfast, and I might make pancakes or waffles if I haven’t in awhile.
I’m not going to list a whole month of dinners; I like a lot of variety, so aside from the 9 leftover nights you won’t see a lot of repetition in a month. Here’s a sampling of what we had in the month I recorded:
- Homemade spaghetti, salad
- Grilled chicken sandwiches with avocado, bacon, and chipotle caramelized onions
- Homemade bread, boiled eggs, applesauce
- Baked barbeque chicken thighs with baked potatoes and salad
- Brazilian fish stew
- Chicken patty sandwiches and baby carrots
- Beefy rice
- Chili and cornbread
- Roast chicken
- Homemade pizza
- Parmesan tilapia
- Crockpot lemon-herb chicken drums
So, that’s how I do this budgeting thing for feeding my big crew. I’m no budgeting expert, but I do have to keep these kids fed in the middle of some substantial financial challenges, and these are the tips and systems that get us through.
Desiree is a homeschooling mom of eight, blogging to help busy moms (and others) simplify their days and pursue deeper faith at The Green Catholic Burrow.