Friday, 3 March 2017
I recently mentioned on my Facebook page that I feed my family of three—myself and kids ages 7 and 5—for less than $600 per month.
Many of my online friends were shocked that the number was so low, especially since I live in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the country. I was a surprised by this reaction, since we are far from extreme in any of our eating habits. On one hand, I cook nearly all the meals we eat from scratch—a full, hot breakfast every morning and sack lunches for the kids at school. I work from home, and usually have a salad or leftovers at noon.
Though we eat very healthy, we're hardly extreme. My kitchen is home to plenty of sweets, carbs, wheat, red meat, seafood, and alcohol, and I enjoy hosting dinner parties. I do buy pricier organic options when I can, especially dairy. But it turns out that ,according to the United States Department of Agriculture, my family's food budget is actually below the national average. So how am I doing this?
Don't just focus on the monetary cost
One of the main reasons busy parents don't prepare meals for their family is because they're often crunched for time. I feel their pain, and have found myself picking up a pizza when I'm exhausted and driving the kids home from swim practice. To avoid this temptation, I often cook up double or triple batches of food.
Stews, pasta sauces, and roasted meats are especially conducive to this tactic. We eat a third of it for dinner, pack the another third in everyone's lunches the next day, and freeze the final third for a quick reheat on those days when everyone is coming home late, grumpy, and hungry—and you're tempted to order expensive Thai food. Bulk cooking always saves time and money. You should also stock your cupboards and freezer with items you can cook in 20 minutes or less. Fish fillets, pork chops, and chicken breasts can be thawed in the fridge during the day, and frozen veggies can be boiled quickly. Other sides like dinner rolls, rice, or corn muffins can be whipped up in minutes.
Once or twice per month, my kids and I will cook a giant batch of healthy muffins (usually when a pile of black bananas collect in the fruit bowl), freeze them in a plastic freezer bags, and reheat them in the microwave for breakfast with fruit or a cup of yogurt—and enjoy them for weeks. Costco is my BFF. I hit this wholesale store once per month and stock up on all the basics, and my goal is to go to the market only for fresh fruits and veggies until my next Costco run. This saves me hours in dreaded grocery shopping and forces me to eat through my food inventory every month—which keeps expenses in check.
Remember—being healthy saves money. Eating healthy now, of course, will likely save you money long-term in medical expenses and productivity. But a healthy diet also fills you up now and leaves you with fewer cravings that make you vulnerable to spending money on junk food.
Wasted food is your worst enemy
I owe my scrappy habits from my Depression-era grandma, a farm wife and mom of four who is a wiz at using every last morsel of food in the house. Even if cooking isn't exactly your passion, master a few basic recipes that can accommodate leftover bits of meat, grains, and produce, like stew (basically the same as pasta sauce), stir-fry, salads, and smoothies I make it my own private game to find creative ways to create tasty meals and snacks out products before they go bad—and when you throw away bad food in the trash, you're throwing away money.
Cut the meat
I love delicious braised short ribs and seared salmon as much as the next carnivore, but meat can be expensive. When cooking one of my many beloved stews and sauces, I often use just half the typical bacon, sausage, or ground beef and add a can or two of healthy beans or lentils instead. As my kids will happily sing to you, "Beans, beans, they're good for the heart!"
Ask guests to contribute
Even if you're on a budget, you can still enjoy entertaining. I ask my guests to bring wine, beer, or a dessert. Booze is expensive, and since sweets are my least-favorite thing to cook and take time, I am more inclined to head to the bakery at the last minute and pick up a gorgeous (but pricey), fruit tart. Don't be afraid to make this request—people are usually thrilled to be relieved of guessing what to bring. Other affordable dinner party ideas include a hosting a potluck dinner, or a cocktail hour with appetizers.
One of the reasons I was surprised by the Facebook reaction to my grocery bill was because I never feel like I'm skimping on food. My kids love shrimp-and-broccoli from our local Chinese joint and ramen from the noodle shop down the street, so we'll splurge once in a while.
I adore pine nuts and anchovies, and I'll occasionally dress up a dish with one of those expensive ingredients. And once a year, my brother and sister-in-law will join us for a big lobster boil. But every time we have a treat, I point out to my kids that it is indeed a treat—and a reminder to all of us to be grateful for our food.
Turn food into an event
Sometimes my family and I create fun experiences with food, and have special food events that don't cost extra money. Every Friday evening at our house is our beloved Movie Night, when we watch family-friendly Netflix and prepare tasty snacks. I make kiddie cocktails in crystal-stemmed glasses out of orange juice, seltzer, a maraschino cherry and a lemon slice—plus a beer for me. My daughter cooks bacon-wrapped dates, I sear kielbasa chunks, and we munch on healthy stove—cooked popcorn and apple slices. It's quick, fun, healthy, and costs less than $2 per person—even in New York City.
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