When I first became a stay-at-home mom, my children were younger and fairly easy to please. At the time, I had an infant, a two-year-old, and two in elementary school. Family meal planning was virtually stress-free because my girls would pretty much eat whatever was in front of them.
My kids were great at giving me a false sense of what homemaker life would be like.
Eventually, they went and did what every child in the history of children has done: they got older. And with that, my days of making small, simple meals every night went right out the window. I didn’t realize an eight-year-old girl could eat like a teenage boy! Not only was my growing family draining my pantry, but my bank account, as well!
I quickly discovered that cooking for a large family was a lot more difficult than it appeared on the surface, and if I wanted to continue staying at home with my girls, I needed to get a lot more serious about budgeting and planning.
I researched meal planning online, bought a few books, and even attended a couple of workshops. Armed with a plethora of new knowledge, I began trying several options with my family. After a few months, I came up with a system that has worked for us for five years now.
Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way (Disclaimer: while many of these ideas work for most families, they certainly don’t apply to every situation. Please experiment and do what works best for your specific needs).
Family Meal Planning and Prep
- Whether it is planning the menu or shopping for the food, involve your children whenever possible. When you ask them to help plan, it gives them a sense of responsibility and ownership. They want to be a part of family decisions, and this is a great area in which to start. The more your kids are involved, the more likely they will be to eat what is prepared and not waste as much.
- When planning meals, make menus that incorporate the same ingredients into multiple recipes. For example, spaghetti noodles can be used for spaghetti and tuna or chicken tetrazzini. Ground beef can be used for tacos, spaghetti sauce, sloppy joes, and chili. Chicken breasts can be used for salads, fajitas, and casseroles. By creating a menu that utilizes the same ingredients multiple times, you can usually buy the items in bulk and save money. I usually plan my family’s meals a week at a time, but some people plan for two weeks or longer—it’s whatever works best for your family.
- Once all the groceries are purchased, plan a specific time each week to prep the food. The kids can help with this, too. Chop veggies and fruits, cook meats to freeze, make any dressings or sauces. Busy moms don’t want to do a lot of cooking each night, so by getting most of the legwork out of the way ahead of time, it makes nightly assembly much easier.
Budgeting and Shopping
- To get the best deals on groceries, you will have to shop at multiple stores. This can sometimes be tricky, especially if store locations are not very convenient. To help alleviate some stress, plan your grocery trips in one day. Map your routes to each store (so you aren’t driving around unnecessarily and wasting gas), and know ahead of time which items you are buying at each store.
- Shop discount. Stores like Aldi and Save-a-Lot provide quality foods at prices less than major grocery chains or superstores. I utilize Aldi frequently for its deals on meat and produce—two of the most expensive grocery items. If you really want to make your dollar stretch while also eating healthy, these types of stores will help you accomplish that.
- Stores like Costco and Sam’s Club are great resources, especially for large families. Items like diapers, toilet paper, bread, meat, and pasta are usually much cheaper when purchased in bulk. But, not everything should be purchased in bulk. You should avoid any perishable items that cannot freeze or should be consumed within a certain time period. Unless you know for certain that you will be able to consume everything without some or most of it going to waste, be selective about your bulk purchases.
- Coupons are also handy if you are trying to save money on groceries. Most stores will let you combine store and national discounts for greater deals. However, do not buy items just because you have coupons for them. This can lead to purchasing things you don’t need or will not use, and it will end up costing you more money. It is usually better to get the item in an off-brand (if you can) or wait for a sale and combine it with coupons. I recommend taking a local coupon class to learn more about dos and don’ts.
- Shop the outer aisles of the store where the fresh food is. Try and avoid boxed and convenience foods, if you can. They can be a budget trap.
- Buy in-season produce. Apples are the cheapest in the fall and early winter months. Watermelon and cantaloupe are less expensive in the late spring and summer months. Know when items are in season to get the best deals. You can buy more for less, and it’s great for canning, too.
- Instead of foods like baby carrots and bagged salad, opt for the items that require some prep work—heads of greens and bunches of vegetables are a lot cheaper than pre-packaged items.
- Use other types of protein besides chicken or beef. Eggs, beans, lentils, and tuna are excellent sources of protein and are almost always cheaper.
- Purchase milk when it is on sale and freeze the extra (just be sure to take a small amount out to allow for expansion).
- Make your own items when you can (dressings, sauces, baked goods). You will almost always end up with a larger batch than what you can buy at the store, so you can freeze the extra to have on hand for other meals.
- If you like to garden, you can grow your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs for a fraction of the cost of buying them in a store, and they will be a lot fresher and healthier, too.
This is not an exhaustive list of how to save, but I hope it helps get you started. You can do this, mom!
Need a laugh? Listen to our recent podcast episode, Stop the Mommy Wars: Every Mom Is Doing Something Right – 045!