For new readers, I’m challenging myself to only spend $400 a month on food–to feed 8. That’s $1.66 per person per day or about 50% of what we would be given from the government if we qualified for food stamps. We are doing this because a huge foundation repair on our home devoured our savings in the middle of a complete kitchen gut, unexpected medical bills, and vehicle repairs. We are squishing our budget as small as we can to dig out of our hole. We are debt free, except for our home, and fighting to stay that way. If you want to read about the other months in this series you can do that here, here, here, here, and here.
I’ll confess I didn’t write down all my receipts last month. I remember that I made a trip to Dirty Don’s the day I got my food money and stocked up on things like applesauce cups ($.25 for 8) and #10 cans of food (restaurant size.) I can get a #10 can of fruit like mandarin oranges or tropical fruit blend for $2.75. This is significantly cheaper than buying the smaller cans, even at Aldi. One huge can of fruit will last 2-3 meals.
One of the #10 cans I purchased was a pizza sauce can. We usually do jarred marinara for homemade pizza, but this cost less and was more authentic. I divided the sauce into single pizza size baggies and put them in the freezer.
I also made a run to Costco with my coupons in hand and used them to buy some things that are rare treats: chicken nuggets; goldfish crackers; and a big bag of veggie straws. When I got home I divided everything up into snack size baggies for the kids to grab and pack for school lunches. Their snack baskets hadn’t looked so inviting for awhile.
To make sure these special purchases lasted all month, I kept back half of them and replenished their baskets at the beginning of week 2. Also, everyone gets their own basket, and no fair stealing from someone else’s basket. If you eat all your food the first day, you alone will suffer.
But by week 2, I was down to $6 in my food budget. Wow! I was in shock. How does this happen? It was the special purchases that did it. I broke my own rule: ”Necessary food first, rare treats last.” This is not the first time I’ve done this.
I also noticed that I was depleting my pantry more than I thought. Even though we weren’t spending more than $400 a month, we were eating more, by using up the pantry food I already had on hand. The deal is, the kids are hungry. They are growing. I have a teenager, 2 tweens, and 3 other hungry kids. They are inhaling everything.
I racked my brain, how did I used to do it? This budget isn’t new to us. The kids are bigger and food prices are higher, but when Darren was out of work in 2009, our budget for 7 was $200. It felt as tight as this does now, but we never went hungry. So how did I do it? I baked whole grain bread to fill those little bodies up. I made tortillas, muffins, rolls, loaf bread, cinnamon rolls, cornbread, oat bread, pancakes…all of it. And for pennies a serving.
So I dusted off my flour grinder, grabbed a $25 pound sack of wheat berries from the freezer and started working a little harder to make sure we survive. And while I was in the freezer, I looked around to see what foods I had been avoiding and decided now was the time to use them up.
I had about a pound of ground turkey–not enough for 8 of us. So I soaked some old-fashioned oats in milk, until they fluffed up to match the texture of the meat, then kneaded it in with garlic, onion, salt and pepper and a dash of Worcestershire. Then I made mini meat patties and cooked them on the griddle.
I had 1 sweet potato, and some leftover baked potatoes that I cut up and toasted in the skillet with a small amount of oil. Yum! We added the last bit of lettuce and veggies from the fridge and chopped them into a salad.
Then I found an old beef roast wrapped in white butcher paper. I had been avoiding it because the last few roasts we had were tough and gristly and tasted like wild game. We were desperate though. I thawed it in the microwave and cut it into bite sized cubes, then sautéed it in a heavy bottomed stock pot with garlic and onion.
I added half a bag of slightly dried baby carrots (because someone didn’t’ seal the bag in the fridge), a jar of home canned green beans, a can of Italian stewed tomatoes from the fridge, a couple of green potatoes that I peeled to get the green off. Then I salted everything well and hoped for the best.
Oh my! It was so good.
Then I had the kids go look in the Christmas fruit box from the basement. I had forgotten it was down there (yes, I realize that was 3 months ago.) They came back with arms full of oranges and grapefruit with dry tough skin. Nobody could have eaten them without a very sharp knife. I sharpened my paring knife and started slicing and ended up with the most beautiful citrus salad (that lasted 3 days!)
Just to make sure there was enough stew to go around, I also baked a hearty oat loaf in a 9×13 pan.
The last meat packages in the freezer were Ox Tail…. what is that even? Oh look, it’s really the tail. And Sirloin Steaks. The steaks sounded promising. I planned to make a stir fry and slice them thin with whatever veggies I can find. And maybe some packs of ramen noodles or rice with a stir in of homemade peanut sauce.
But I opened those packages and they were all fat and bones. Maybe 6 oz of usable meat on the “sirloins.” I put my face in my hands, and the kids ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, twice. And DH and I warmed up leftover vegetable fried rice and said how good it tasted the second day. The meat sat on the counter for a few minutes while I gathered my wits. They looked terrible. I found some garlic salt, some sprouted onions out of the garage pantry, some Bragg’s liquid aminos (that stuff can take the game flavor out of almost anything.) And cooked it overnight on low.
I didn’t take pictures before the kids devoured it, but it was delicious. The meat fell right off the bones and it was easy to separate from the rest of the stuff. And the flavor! Oh the magic of Bragg’s Aminos.
So somehow we made it to the end. The kids couldn’t wait to taste milk again. Pancakes were dinner food, as was French toast, and brown rice with leftover veggies and eggs stirred in. This is the stuff that builds character and memories. The process somehow doesn’t feel as bad as it could, because we know we could always stop our plan and spend the money we are using to finish our kitchen on food. Nobody wants to do that.
The kids are learning to be grateful, the magic of budgeting (you can only spend money once), and I’m getting my business building tail in gear, because this situation needs to be TEMPORARY.
Speaking of which, I just added new services to my menu subscription site: A dinner only plan and a self-service click and drag menu planner (video tutorials here.) You get it all, including our Everything Meal Plan with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks 7 days a week. For $5 a month, it’s a crazy good deal.