Feeding a Big Family on a Budget

When I say I have four boys, I almost always get one of two responses:

“Wow. You’ve got your hands full!” or “How in the world do you feed them?”

Carefully. I feed them very carefully.

I’m not here to argue that boys eat more than girls or make any kind of assumptions about the sexes. My part-time, non-homeschool-mama job is as a group fitness instructor and personal trainer, so in order to keep up my high activity level, I have to eat a LOT. I still eat a heck of a lot more than my children, but the days are getting close when the “hungry teenage boys” I’ve heard so much about will be taking over my kitchen.

As such, I’ve come up with a way to feed this big ol’ hungry family on a budget.

During sports seasons I am totally that mom rolling up to the ball park with a picnic dinner, not because I am a “Pinterest mom” or because I want to show off how amazing my homemaking skills are, but because it is a heck of a lot cheaper than the drive through. Chick-fil-A for a family of six is easily $30. Even the McDonald’s dollar menu is going to cost at least $12 and won’t come close to filling our active crew up until the next meal.

Shall we do a little math?

I typically budget $160 a week for groceries. That’s 21 meals and seven snacks for six people. I’ll even go easy on you and throw out the snacks.

$160/21 = $7.62 per meal. Let that sink in. $30 at Chick-fil-A (and I love me some CFA), $12 at McD’s, or $7 at home with a little prep work.

There was a time, not so long ago, when my in-laws lived a mere five minutes away and I could leave my little darlings with Nana for the day and hit several grocery stores to get all the best buys (moment of silence, please, for when life was that awesome). I’d shop sale ads, clip coupons, use the iBotta app, and make grocery-gathering a half-day adventure. Now that we are three hours away from our free babysitters loving grandparents, grocery shopping has to happen fast, either because I am hauling four boys along with me or because I’ve got to fit it in when the hubs gets home from work.

Hands-down, the easiest way to do this is by using Walmart Grocery Pickup.

I go online, fill my virtual shopping cart, choose a pick-up time, and a little angel brings all those groceries right out to my car. There’s no extra charge for the service as long as you order at least $10 in items, and you can get $10 off your first order (click here to try it out!). I have been beyond pleased with everything down to the meat and produce selections, and especially when we’re in the middle of cold and flu season, not having to germ-swap with a bunch of strangers in the grocery store is quite nice.

However, when shopping for six people with a limited amount of money, every penny counts. Unless one of us is sick or we have an unusually busy week, I hit up Aldi.

Aldi is the single greatest thing to ever happen to a mom of four boys. While I absolutely love not having to actually do my grocery shopping, Walmart still cannot beat Aldi’s prices. Desperate to avoid a grocery trip, I took my Aldi shopping list and filled my virtual shopping cart with the same items from Walmart and there was just no comparison. Aldi is nearly half the price of other grocery stores. Half. The. Price.

So, here’s how it all works:

Right now, Friday evening when the hubs gets home from work is when I go grocery shopping. Friday afternoon, when the baby goes down for nap, the preschooler has something to keep him occupied for longer than five minutes, and the older two are reading or building Legos, I sit down with my planner. I look at our week to see how many lunches will need to be packed to eat on-the-go, how many dinners will need to be a crock-pot-in-the-morning situation, and how many classes I’m teaching (more workouts means a need for extra protein). I check to see if we have plans for nights out (that is SUPER rare) or if we’ve got several early mornings that will require make-ahead breakfasts.

Then I check the Aldi sale ad. You can pull it up online for your nearest Aldi, and check out their meat and produce specials. From there, I start building my meal plan. I usually start with dinners because they are the biggest, most expensive meals and are best planned around the meat and produce specials. Lunches are typically fairly easy — whatever fruit is on sale, sandwiches, and some nuts or pretzels — and then snacks. Breakfast is the one I’m struggling with right now. Eggs are cheap at Aldi — often they’re only $0.59 a dozen — but usually require making them right before eating and don’t leave open the possibility of super hungry boys who may or may not want seconds. There are a few breakfast casseroles that are prepped ahead and don’t taste like rubber when frozen and heated up in the microwave, and this week I’ve been eating these Make-Ahead Hearty Breakfast Bowls. I’ll also plan for a little cereal on the weekends, toast with spread, and banana or chocolate chip muffins.

The key here — and this is a big one — is very, VERY little prepackaged food. Not only is prepackaged stuff generally not healthy, but with this many bellies to fill, it’s not practical. A box of cereal may last us two days. Cups of yogurt? Six people eating one a day adds up to 42 yogurts. Chips, cookies, Capri Sun…nope, nope, nope. It doesn’t last, it doesn’t fill us up, and I leave it only for special treats.

So here’s your checklist:

  • Check your calendar and see what your week looks like. Spring break means more meals at home, while a week out-and-about will require brown-bagging it.
  • Look up the Aldi sale ad (or your preferred market) and make a note of what items are on sale that you are likely to use.
  • Check Pinterest or your stack of cookbooks for recipes using what is on sale. I’ve actually found some great recipes this way; search “pork roast recipes” or “what should I do with Brussel sprouts” and you might find something new and yummy!
  • Write out your list, making sure to include staples like flour, milk, and coffee. Lots of coffee. Also plan for freezing meals, packing ahead, and dividing up fruits into individual containers. We often use plastic storage bags, but reusable containers work great!
  • Head to the store WITH YOUR LIST. Don’t buy anything not on the list. Take cash and leave your credit card in the car if you have to. There is a fabulous shopper app that will allow you to plug in prices and even figure the tax for you. PLAN your spending.
  • Portion, plan, and cook ahead anything you can.

Since I go to the store on Friday night, I just come home, unload, put all the groceries away, and get a good night’s sleep. Grocery shopping is exhausting, amiright? Saturday afternoon is when I go to town getting everything ready for the week. I wash all fruits and veggies and portion them into bags. Lunch meat is divided into bags because I have one lanky 10-year-old who will plow through a pound of ham in 48 hours. I hard-boil eggs, freeze berries for smoothies, place chicken and sauces into freezer bags to toss in the crock pot on the fly, bake muffins, and cook and assemble any make-ahead breakfast.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. No, I don’t do this every week. When I do, though, it is so worth it. Not only do I not have to think about what six people are going to eat four times a day when it’s all planned and portioned, but I’m not eating junk because it’s all I can think to grab. Decision fatigue is an actual thing, so eliminating twenty-four additional decisions each day is pretty fantastic. I’m also teaching my kids about portion sizes. No, child, a pound of ham or an entire box of pre-cooked bacon is not a “serving.”

Child eating actual “servings” of food (i.e., not the entire package).

I’m telling you, a couple hours of planning and prep work makes for a much smoother week and a happier family…not to mention a smaller waistline and fatter wallet.

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