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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What does this family of 5 eat for $170 a month?

In reducing our grocery budget, there has been an essetntial starting point -- menu planning.

This isn't the "open up my fav cookbooks and choose what we'd like to eat" sort of menu planning, but "what do we, and will we, have on hand? And how can I make it interesting?" sort of menu planning.

For the last month, I have sat down at the kitchen table, on Monday mornings (usually while waiting for something to bake, laundry to finish the load, or dishwasher to finish the cycle), with pad of paper and pen in hand, and brainstormed meals. It really is an exercise in brainstorming. I want our meals to be interesting just as much as my family does.

So, I begin with what is both plentiful and inexpensive (or free) at the moment. I don't want to use up all of the more valuable, often-purchased, ingredients. I would like to spread them out over the course of the next several months.

For the mid-late summer weeks here, zucchini, foraged blackberries, and garden greens are found in abundance in my moderate-sized garden and surrounding areas. In the pantry, I have several types of dried beans, purchased from the restaurant supply (Cash and Carry, like Smart and Final, if you have that chain in your area), a lot of barley and oats, and some flours.

So, here's where I get creative. For dinners, I have a basic approach -- choose a cuisine (Italian, Mexican, Asian, Indian, American), and season my ingredients to reflect that cuisine.

(A note: I can't eat barley, and have just a small amount of brown rice left. When my family is served barley, I sub rice for myself, cooked and kept in small portions in the freezer.)

A sampling of menus from this past month:


  • Homemade granola (on baking day, I make a large batch of granola)
  • Homemade yogurt (I make about 1 gallon at a time, and it keeps up to a month, if unopened)
  • Homemade bread, toasted (I bake 5 loaves at a time, to keep frozen until needed)
  • Quick breads, such as corn bread, zucchini bread, biscuits, scones, blueberry muffins, and rhubarb muffins (on baking day I choose one or two quick breads to make and freeze to have later in the week)
  • Sweet and spicy yeast buns, for special weekend breakfasts (done on baking day with a portion of the sandwich bread)
  • Microwave oatmeal with blackberries (I microwave oatmeal in a medium casserole dish. Any leftovers get put in the fridge to reheat later that week)
  • Blueberry pancakes (special treat on a Saturday morning. We'll move on to blackberry and apple pancakes next.)
  • microwave scrambled eggs, topped with garden veggies/herbs
  • fresh fruit from foraging or the garden
  • milk for kids (they're adults, but still "kids" to me), coffee/tea for parents



  • My daughters take sandwiches (peanut butter, egg salad, bean spread), fresh or cooked fruit or veggies, cookie or quick bread M-TH. On Friday, their work puts on a BBQ for the employees.
  • My son's office brings in lunch for their employees daily
  • My husband keeps some basics at his office (oatmeal, peanut butter, etc), and takes in various leftovers, boiled eggs, sandwiches
  • For myself, I find what looks good and needs eating in the garden (salads, fruit, smoothies), combined with bread, peanut butter and leftover soup
  • water, iced/hot tea to drink


  • Soups, breads, pasta salads, bean salads, bean spreads, homemade pizza, peanut butter sandwiches, frittatas -- never planned much in advance, but a "use up what's in the fridge" sort of lunch.
  • water, iced/hot tea, cocoa to drink

Dinners (beverages are always milk or water)


Pinto beans and turkey Italian sausage, in a medley with zucchini, Swiss chard, garlic, veggie stock, tomato paste and Italian herbs. Served with a 1-egg strata of leftover bread cubes from the freezer, leftover Pad Thai (my son's friends brought some Pad Thai in over the weekend, and way over-ordered), garden green salad, and blackberry pie.


Marinated lentils in an Asian-style dressing (based on my chive blossom vinegar, garlic, soy sauce, oil and ginger), on lettuce bowls. Served with leftover strata, garden green beans, and leftover blackberry pie.


Refried beans on barley with home-canned salsa (made from canned tomatoes, in large batches). Served with grated summer squash sauteed in butter, garden salad with lettuce and tomatoes, peanut butter cookies for dessert.


Small beef roast, simmered in liquid seasoned with chili powder, cumin, tomato paste, garlic and onion, over beds of barley. Served with Swiss chard sauteed with garlic, and a plum tart (plums from freezer of last summer's harvest).


Leftover shredded beef in homemade BBQ sauce (tomato paste, sweet pickle juice, garlic, soy sauce and ginger), on homemade buns. Served with cooked garden carrots, garden rhubarb sauce, and garden green salad.


Lentil-vegetable soup (lentils, onions and assorted veggies from the garden, seasoned with savory, oregano, parsley, chives and garlic). Served with homemade bread and butter pickle sandwiches (bread, zucchini bread & butter pickles, and butter), a garden green salad with lettuce and carrot slices, fresh blackberries for dessert.

Sunday (cookout)

Hot dogs, in homemade buns, served with baked pinto beans, baked zucchini, lettuce and blackberry salad in raspberry vinaigrette (raspberry vinegar, pinch sugar, salt and oil), garden saute of kale, broccoli and garlic. S'mores for dessert with homemade graham crackers, dollar store marshmallows and clearance purchased chocolate candies (after Valentine's Day).


Leftover beans, garden salad with carrot slices and lettuce, zucchini frittata and beds of barley.


Mexican black bean soup (black beans, veggie broth, chicken stock, zucchini, tomato paste, carrots, Swiss chard, garlic, chives -- now out of onions here, chili powder and cumin), microwave cornbread, garden salad, rhubarb-cherry sauce (frozen cherries from our trees)


Marinated lentils in mustard-vinaigrette, with fresh veggies and herbs from garden (shallots, carrots, summer squash, thyme, and chive blossom vinegar). Served with Swiss chard saute and garden potatoes in parsley and butter.


Bean burgers (made with an assortment of leftover cooked beans, bread crumbs, egg, chives, chili powder, tomato paste, garlic, shallots), fried zucchini, garden green salad, foraged blackberries, microwave brownies.


Lasagna made with a faux cheese filling (mashed tofu, garlic, lemon juice, salt, blended with grated carrots, broccoli and chopped kale all from garden), last of lasagna noodles, sauce of tomato paste, garlic, veggie stock, savory and oregano, topped with a bit of Parmesan cheese. Served with grated zucchini and summer squash saute, rhubarb sauce, and leftover brownies.


Microwave baked pinto beans and turkey dog slices in homemade BBQ sauce, microwave cornbread, garden green and wax beans in a tomato and Italian herb sauce, cooked carrots, foraged blackberries.

Sunday (our annual dinner at the beach, fish and chips from a stand on the pier, eaten in front of the lapping waves -- I used a gift card given to me as a thank you for watching some children in May).


"Interesting Soup" I have to tell you about Interesting Soup. Once every couple of weeks, I go through the fridge and use up all the leftover bits, salad dressings, sauces, pickle juice, olive brine, etc, in a pot of soup. The response I have sometimes received is along these lines, "the flavor of the soup, tonight, is, um, interesting, Mom", hence the name Interesting Soup. It's always edible, and often tasty, but no one can quite put their finger on what the flavor is supposed to be.

Interesting Soup tonight had some sort of Asian salad dressing, leftover from a catered lunch at my husband's office, olive brine, chive blossom vinegar, a green pumpkin from the garden which was shriveling (I cut it off and brought it in to cook, the other pumpkins look fine, so far), grated zucchini and all it's liquid (leftover from the morning batch of zucchini bread), soup stock, liquids from cooking vegetables over the week, basil vinaigrette from bruschetta, chili powder, cumin, black beans and a large handful of chives. Served with bruschetta (garden tomatoes and basil in chive blossom vinegar , garlic and olive oil, on toasted slices of homemade French bread, topped with a it of cheese, Parm and mozza), salad of lettuce and blackberries in a raspberry vinaigrette (homemade raspberry vinegar, pinch sugar, salt and oil), and zucchini bread for dessert.


Microwave baked pinto beans with turkey dog pieces, microwave cornbread (a favorite of one of my daughters, so we have it often), kale and garlic saute, rhubarb-blackberry sauce.


Bean and rice burritos (homemade refried pinto beans, rice, seasonings in homemade flour tortillas), fried zucchini (no batter, just a dip in cornmeal, flour, salt, red pepper and garlic powder), garden salad and apple slices (from garden).


Small beef roast, pot roasted (leftover meat frozen for sandwiches on Sunday). Served with barley, cooked carrots, Swiss chard saute, garden salad (with lettuce, tomatoes, minced rosemary in rosemary vinaigrette of last summer's rosemary-thyme vinegar), blackberry crisp.


Split pea soup (with Swiss chard, carrots, potatoes, parsley, chives, savory from garden), tossed salad with garden veggies in creamy vinaigrette (just a vinaigrette with mayo subbed for part of oil), garlic bread (homemade French bread from freezer, spread with home-grown garlic and parsley, in butter), leftover blackberry crisp.


Split pea "neat balls", with garden veggies (zucchini, carrots, green and wax beans) in a tomato paste and Italian herb sauce. Served with roasted rosemary-garlic potatoes, and a garden salad. Cookies and blackberries for dessert.


Leftover shredded beef in BBQ sauce sandwiches, on homemade buns (baked with Saturday's baking),  medley of sauteed kale, broccoli and carrots from garden, raw zucchini sticks with dip (mayo, chives, parsley, garlic, salt), apple slices.


These are humble, family meals. They take minimal time (that is for cooking and baking from scratch), and satisfy hunger and tastes in our family. I do blow-out, fantastic meals for birthdays, get-togethers with friends, holidays and celebrations.

These meals feature a lot of beans, about 4 to 5 nights per week. I have a whole turkey, a few chicken pieces, some turkey Italian sausage, and a small amount of beef left in the freezer. I use the meat sparingly throughout the week.

My garden is producing well, and I haven't needed to buy fruit or vegetables in a few months (with the exception of a watermelon or two, back in early July).  I add fresh herbs to my cooking daily, often adding minced parsley (for vitamin C), minced rosemary and basil leaves to garden green salads.

So far, for August, I have bought eggs and milk, and nothing else, and spent about $11. In September, I will need vegetable oil, whole wheat flour, brown rice and another 25 lb sack of dried beans, for variety. I will also buy what I need for canning, seasonal items that find themselves at lowest price of the year, and more eggs and milk. We'll also make a visit to local farms some Saturday in early September, an annual trek for us.

My focus is always on whole foods cooking, using a lot of vegetables, and getting in a balance of nutrients every week. I look for adequate protein (in the form of meat, beans, eggs, milk, nuts/seeds), orange fruits/vegetables, red fruits/vegetables, leafy green veggies, cruciferous veggies, alliums (garlic, onions, chives, shallots), blue/purple fruits (plums, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries), a source of vitamin C (strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, fresh broccoli/cabbage, kale, mustard greens, parsley, leaf lettuce, and citrus in fall/winter and early spring), and iron (dried beans, meat, leafy greens).

We are all on the lean to average side. I have one daughter who is trying to gain weight, so she eats a lot of peanut butter and cream cheese (bought on sale around Easter), and many snacks each day. I would say that our focus is very healthy eating. In my family, there is a history of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. My intention is to NOT invite these diseases into our bodies, by poor nutritional choices, and stave any eventualities off, as long as possible.

We don't buy packaged snack foods, like chips, but snack on fresh veggies, fruit, peanut butter and bread, homemade quick breads, and popped corn. (When I'm working outside, I often snack on green beans plucked off the plants, or baby zucchini snapped right off, or a fresh tomato or two).

I don't buy soda pop, except for special occasions/parties. I have never bought enhanced or plain water. We drink coffee at breakfast, iced tea (made from bags and garden tea herbs), filtered water from the tap, milk, homemade cocoa, and occasionally lemonade or rhubarb lemonade (bottled lemon juice in 1 gallon jugs). I have a few Koolaid packets in the pantry, but frankly, no one seems interested. I'll take them with us on vacation to flavor the tap water (So. California tap water can be off-tasting).

Many of our desserts feature fruit. I bake with whole grains. I buy very few canned or packaged convenience foods, not just because of cost, but due to food sensitivities/intolerances, and a desire to eat fresher foods. I bake all of our breads, cakes, cookies, pies from scratch.

We really don't eat much fish, and I'll keep trying on that front. I have digestive reactions to canned tuna and salmon, and am not sure why. But I'll keep trying, as the rest of my family really enjoys fish. I've been told to stick with fresh fish. So, I'll just have to work that into the budget, somehow. (BTW, none of us fish, and while clam digging is allowed during clamming season, I am desperately allergic to bivalves. My son is not allergic, but my daughters could be.)

I will tell you, though, all this cooking from scratch, and gardening on a large scale for a suburban lot with limited sunny spots, does take time. I spend a good part of each day procuring or preparing food for our family. That is a sizable portion of my "job" in the family. But it is a rewarding job. Knowing that I am doing my best for my family is satisfaction in itself. I serve the Lord, through serving my family. I feel God has provided well for us. I enlarged our garden this past spring, unaware that we would be needing more produce. But God knew, and he urged me to do this extra work. I can't take the credit, for being wise, or clever. I just follow His suggestions, as best as I can.

So, as I look at my supplies, budget, and menu plans, I am thinking that, yes, I can reduce our grocery spending, and still include all the foods that are important to us. But I won't know for sure, until I reach the first of 2014, and I see what's left on my pantry and freezer.

Sorry this was so long. If you made it this far, well, you deserve a medal for your perseverance!


  1. So I get a medal! I made it all of the way to the end which was not a chore at all. :) As I was reading, I wondered how much time you spend on average each day on food and cooking? Near the end you said that is a major part of each day. Does that mean one hour, three hours or six hours, etc.? I know that you consider getting food for your family as one of your jobs. You do it very well.

    Also, do I remember that you had a gluten sensitivity? How does that figure into things?

    1. Hi live and learn,
      Yep! You get the GOLD!

      My husband asked me just last night, how much time went into making dinner. My answer was about 4 to 5 hours, if you count planting and maintaining the garden, picking blackberries, baking the French bread, baking the zucchini bread, cleaning out the fridge for Interesting Soup, making the menus (which involves scouring the pantry and freezer), and making things like the raspberry vinegar. Some of these activities are enjoyable (like making the vinegar -- I like to decorate each bottle, minimally, yes, but it's sort of crafty, and helps me tell which bottle of vinegar is which flavor), and baking sweet treats. I think if I average it all out, I spend about 3 1/2 to 4 hours a day, on everything related to food/meals. It's been more this month, as I try to use garden produce exclusively. In winter, I'll be using both home frozen and store purchased frozen produce, which cuts my work time down by a lot. I always look forward to that aspect of winter. Just that little break helps me to gear back up to using the garden again.

      My food sensitivities have been a challenge. June and July were expensive months for us, because I had to eliminate almost everything except meat, fruit and veggies from my diet, to both heal my system and figure out my exact problem foods. I can't have barley, and that is in all-purpose white flour. That's a challenge. But it gives me more motivation to cook/bake from scratch. I can't eat things like bakery breads, cakes, donuts, cookies. I miss the donuts most. But I'm planning on making donut muffins this weekend, and maybe that will substitute. I have found that I can have small amounts of whole wheat (and tiny amounts of white flour added to give fluffiness). It's all in moderation. I typically have an egg, some veggies and fruit for breakfast, an open-faced sandwich for lunch, with soup or veggies/fruit, snack on fruit, veggies, nuts, peanut butter and popcorn, and eat what the family is eating, just having rice instead of whatever grain they're having

      .I also can't have any milk, with one exception, cheese aged for 12 months, like Asiago. I tried a pinch of cheddar a week ago -- not good. I had one piece of battered fish at the beach on Sunday, again, not good. So, my lactose intolerance has progressed. I can still have the Asiago, and make my own pizza with that, while the family has mozzarella. And I sub pureed or mashed tofu for soft cheeses in a lot of dishes, even "cheesecake".

      I guess it's really good thing that I like to cook. Sorry if this was way more than you asked! LOL! I can ramble, I know! And thanks for reading.

  2. Lili,
    I am impressed with your healthful diet regime. I can see how your family can eat for substantially less than the average American and just how much work/effort you are putting in to realize that goal.
    While I don't have food allergies to contend with, I agree that the more the cook does, the cheaper the meal is. Buy a roast and make your own stew beef cubes. Peel and cut your own fruit, etc.

    Great post, I also got the medal. ; )

    1. HI Carol,
      Another medal winner -- step up to the podium!

      You are right on, the more the home cook is willing to do, the more you can save. I am going to attempt learning how to cut apart whole chickens this winter. I'd really like to be able to cut up whole turkeys. I'd be more likely to cook turkey, if it was in smaller, more manageable pieces.

      This took me by surprise, a while back -- since when is stew meat more expensive than roasts? I remember when stew meat was the cheapest beef of the non-ground. And now, stew meat is sold at a premium at our local markets! Go figure!

      Thanks for your comments!

    2. My first high school job, I was a cashier for A & P, and we were unionized so I got to know that top butcher, who was the union steward at the time. I learned that when a customer asks for stew beef and he says, come back in a few minutes, I'll have it ready for you, he just grabbed a roast and cut it up charging double what the roast cost! Ground meat-just the scraps usually. So, yes, I do cut down a lot of my own meat. My uncle is also a butcher, and my Dad raised pigs, so there was a lot of education going on!

    3. Okay, I don't know if I should be upset that the butcher charged so much to cut the roast into stew chunks, or if I should be upset that a customer would be so silly as to pay the doubled amount instead of just doing a little work them self. I occasionally find a really good deal on a large roast, and I'll bring it home and cut it up into smaller roasts and steaks for us. Even if I don't do a terribly good job at cutting into steaks, it sure beats paying a couple more dollars per pound, just to get it cut.

  3. I just have to say that your family is sooooo lucky to have you! I think that's more home cooked food than I experienced in my entire childhood put together!

    1. Hi Cat,
      I think I'll cut and paste into emails to all my family, your first sentence!

      But really, cooking from scratch has been a life saver for me. I grew up eating a lot of packaged and convenience foods. It was the 60s and 70s, homemakers jobs were simplified by boxes, cans and the fluffiest bread ever. Learning to cook from scratch has been an eye-opener to what's in processed stuff, and how far removed we are from what the earth was intended to provide for us. If I were still eating the way I used to eat, I'd be one sick little puppy. But that is something that you know for yourself, with your allergies!

  4. My eat what we have in the house meals usually revolve around: 1. Soup - anything and everything goes into the pot. Always have soup base on hand. 2. Chili, remarkably I have now made it with varying kind of dried beans, throw in things like rice, different meats and vegetarian. Chili powder makes everything taste good. I never follow a recipe. 3. Pizza (I realize you follow a gluten free diet but might work with non-wheat flours) we do a thin crust no yeast base, and I throw everything on from misc meats, a little cheese goes a long way. We tend to like loads of veggies on ours. 4. Casseroles with beans/rice/pasta. 5. Stir fry. One meat or fish plus many veggies plus pasta or rice or by itself. Always throw in some veggeis for roughage. You definitely are the Queen of living on less meal plans!

    1. Hi Cheapchick,
      Yes, soup and chili are always good use it all up meals. Sometimes my chili doesn't really resemble traditional chili, but if it tastes like chili, then that's what I call it.

      I should do more stir fries. I somehow got out of the habit. Thanks for the suggestion!

      I do eat some wheat, now, just in very limited amounts, and always homemade items, so that I know just how much white flour could be in it (all-purpose flour has barley in it, either as barley flour, malted barley or as "enzymes", and as it turns out, barley is my biggest grain problem). I can only tolerate tiny amounts of white flour. But if I make whole wheat pizza dough, I am okay. So, I do have pizza, now and then. Mine just doesn't look anything like Pizza Hut's pizza! It's the taste that counts, right? But do you know what I found is also good? A thin layer of rice, covered with sauce and all the regular pizza toppings.

      Thanks for your input!

  5. Wow, I'm very impressed :) You guys are eating amazingly well on such a small budget! I'm going to use some of these ideas for my own menu :)

    1. HI Economies,
      It's having a large garden. Someday, after grad school, when you have a place with your own yard, you'll have to put in a large garden, and raise chickens. You will save a small fortune, seeing as how your grocery costs are so high there. You could also think about putting in a fish "tub". I saw this woman on television years ago, who raised trout in a large galvanized tub, for food. She was a rather interesting woman, and was close to self-sufficient, back when I hadn't even heard of people living off the grid, or self-sufficiency.

  6. Everything sounds wonderful! Quite impressive.

  7. People are always amazed how little money you need to feed a family, but growing up in a family of 8 kids, gardening and cooking came naturally to me. My dad was a hog buyer for a processing plant, so money was not plentiful. I remember planting a large garden in the spring, but also 'asparagus hunting' (wild growing along old commercial fields), and 'gleaning' from fields that had befriended our family. Now don't think I was happy about doing all this 'work' as a child, but we always had food on the table... good food, not junk. I love that there are other people that are doing the same. One thing that might help which I found to be a money saver, and somewhat a timesaver in the long run is pressure canning. When you get whole chickens, turkey or beef(ground or stew), can them up in pints or quarts. With the chickens, I will roast about 4-5 depending how much my ovens will hold, remove the meat from the bones, start making broth out of the bones. skins, etc while canning up the meat, and then I can the broth. From those chickens, I can have a variety meals on hand... soups, casseroles, fajitas/burritos, etc. They are VERY tender and they sit at room temp. It is alot of work up front, but if you can in pints like I do, you can really monitor the amount of meat that goes into a dish... just pop the lid and use what you need. I could go into further detail, but I found this is truly a time saver especially on busy nights. Another good post Lili... have a great Wednesday! Lisa

    1. Hi Lisa,
      I love hearing stories like yours.

      What you said about not always being happy to be doing all this work, especially as a child (and probably wanting to be spending more time playing), is true for me, even as an adult. There are days when I wish I didn't "have" to be working at this, but I think there are probably rewards that will go unnoticed, such as good health. We notice when we're sick, but just take good health for granted. You probably ate super healthy, growing up.

      The experts are saying that today's generation of children may be the first generation to not exceed their parent's life span. And the first thing they point to is a poor diet. the second is lack of exercise. Gardening, foraging, gleaning are all active endeavors. A lot of kids could really benefit from a lifestyle you had/have.

      Thanks for the tips on pressure canning. That sounds very appealing! I haven't canned much, just pickles, jellies, condiments -- things high in vinegar or sugar. But I've been considering it this year, as a way to put up more, without needing more and more freezer space. So, thank you!

  8. Not a word of hyperbole, but that is inspirational! So balanced and healthy - it was so plentiful I was convinced you'd all be overweight, but you're not - and it figures too cause it's all so healthy. It hardly seems you're on a budget! There's so many things I read that inspired me to try harder and do better!

    1. Hi Sarah,
      Awww, thanks!
      For our family, the only times I've ever had a weight problem was when there was a lot of processed food around, or I was baking too many dessert-y items that didn't also contain fruit or whole grains. I find it very hard to become overweight on our current diet, high in fruit, veggies, whole grains and beans. There's just so much fiber.

      But the other great bonus is I have energy! I'm mid-life, and hormone swings can really drain a woman's body. Eating a nutrient-dense diet is one way to combat some of the fatigue associated with perimenopause.

      Thanks for reading!


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