The Growing Family Beats The Incredible Shrinking Dollar

culture-is-a-liarThis week   Kim, Connie, Kimberly and I are blogging about budgeting for groceries.


This is a subject dear to my heart because of our experience.  We have been so poor we literally had no food in the house except for two eggs and no money to buy more – and I dropped one and broke it.  We have been so poor that the most affordable lunch we had was a baked potato with butter on it every day for six months.  Sometimes we had cottage cheese with it, too, and often a glass of milk if WIC had been good to us that month (this was a long time ago, when we only had one child, and I personally chose not to do WIC again when our second child was small).  My children all think soaked oats- old fashioned oats in a bowl of milk, is a treat when they are young- Blynken and Nod think so too, now, although they didn’t really like oats much when they first started coming to stay with us.  I know what it is like to get up to the cash register and realize I have to put some of the groceries back because I miscalculated and simply do not have enough money.  Not too long after we got married both the HM and I lost our jobs, so we were very, very broke and had to learn to make our little bits of income really shriek as we stretched our pennies until they were transparent.

Before I get into specifics about budgeting for groceries, I thought it would be useful to get a sense of perspective.

One of the presents I got for my birthday is the book What the World Eats This is a project done by the same team who did the book Material World.  In Material World (you can see some photographs here), they traveled the world and took photographs of an average family in various countries with the family’s possessions. (affiliate links)

In What The World Eats, the photographer and journalist  went to 24 countries and photographed 30 families with one week’s worth of groceries, most of the families the same families who were in their first book.You can look at a short story about it with some of the photographs here.  You can see other photographs from the project here.   They include data about how much the food costs, how some of the food is prepared, recipes, and a list of the food.

The family from the refugee camp in Chad get 16 ounces of dried meat each week for their family of 6.  Their fruit and vegetable consumption in a week includes five small limes, 4.6 pounds of legumes, one pound of Red onions, 1/2 pound of garlic, a few ounces of okra, five ounces of dried tomatoes and chilies, each.  There are some other items- plenty of millet, for example, but not really all that much more.

Now, I am not one of those people who believes that we owe it to the rest of the world to feel guilty because we eat well and may people do not.  I am grateful for the blessings we have, and I am sorry for the blessings that others do not share, and we do have our favorite charities and various acts of service we do to try to help others.  But feeling guilty because I was born here instead of in Chad is an unproductive waste of time.  My point is not that we should all give up meat and  live on a dollar a day to show our solidarity and appease our guilt for not having been born in dire poverty.

What we do need, however, is a sense of perspective. It’s not the end of the world if you give up choice cuts of steak and eat beans and rice flavored with bits of chopped up meat from a tougher cut.  It’s not deprivation to eat oats (old fashioned, not quick oats) instead of pop tarts and boxed cereal, and you know, I like my sweet boxed cereals as much as the next gal, and probably more- but I don’t buy them unless I have incredible coupons and they are on sale, and then, in our house, cereal is considered a dessert, not a food.

Unfortunately, there is a long, long list of things our culture has taught us to feel like we deserve because our culture is a liar.   Those things, in fact,  are not an entitlement.  You really do not ‘deserve’ them.  It really will make a huge difference in your budget if you skip them, and you are not doing your family down because they eat beans and rice, home-made corn-bread, home-made cakes, french toast from a griddle and your own mix rather than from a box in the freezer, and soups and stews.

One of the features in the book What the World Eats is a list of some of the family’s favorite foods.  But for the Natomo Kouakourou family of Mali, Africa, we learn that the “Natomo family doesn’t think in terms of ‘favorites’.”  We might try that ourselves.

Bringing your grocery budget down to a level within your family’s means is really not that hard (usually, there are exceptions for extreme circumstances, such as joblessness, and believe me, we have been there).  But sometimes we think it is because we think too much about our favorites, about what we like instead of what we need, about what we ‘feel like having’ instead of what we have in our hands or what is in season, and we want what we want when we want it and feel sorry for ourselves when we can’t have it.  I am not, btw, immune to this. Not at all.  I’m so guilty.

Some of y’all are probably wondering why, when you came here to get a list of cheap meals and recipes and maybe a shopping list, I am just going all preachy on you.  Well, that’s because principles can be applied everywhere, but recipes may or not be frugal depending on where you live and even who you know.  The way to frugality and that cheap food budget is to start with your attitude, move on to your skills, and work on using what you have in your hand instead of what you feel like having.

Before you can really do a good job reducing your expenses, you just may need to examine what you have in your heart. Without a spirit of contentment, we can never truly achieve a gracious and cheerful frugality. Without that pleasure in economy as a fine art, we cannot expect to be able to see all the possibilities in those things we do have in our hands.
And without that strength of character that makes possible cheerful self-denial, all our attempts at frugality are more apt to be mean spirited and misery laden.
So work on having a good attitude about living within your means, and recognize that this may be far more possible than you think.  My family has lived on the coast of California, in Alaska, in the Puget Sound area, Colorado Springs and Japan, among other places, none of these are known for being especially frugal areas, but we always managed.  Sometimes it was a much more hand to mouth existence than others, but we always managed.  We have had people who made the same income we did (in the military you always know what everybody makes based on their rank) but with fewer kids come and tell us that it was just impossible to make it on one income, and my husband and I would look at each other and murmer that we thought maybe impossible wasn’t quite the word wanted…

In addition to changing your attitude and making sure you root out as much as possible of any sense of entitlement or a prima donna approach to what you will and will not eat, you need to learn how to cook from scratch. You pay a lot for convenience foods, much more than you realize.  People think, for instance, that it’s not that much of a savings to buy a can of ready made beans over a bag of dried beans.  But the bag of dried beans can make up to four times as much volume in cooked beans as that can contains, so unless its 1/4 the price of the dried beans, you’re spending anywhere from twice as much to four times as much as you need to. Biscuit and pancake mix is easy to make from scratch, and much cheaper than the store bought kind.  My husband works at a grocery store and he is astonished at how much pre-packages, ready made convenience food people buy every week.

Learning to use what you have is important, too- following the old saying ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.’  I can give you some specifics, but often, the answer to the ‘what’s in my hand’ question will vary greatly depending on very specific circumstances. In one place we lived, for example, what I had in my hand was just about all the free fresh-caught salmon our family could eat, a liberal supply of other free seafood (including crab legs) and blackberries and apples for the picking. That’s an unusually bountiful (and delicious) example of free, but not very applicable to most of the country. It would not be very helpful to a wide range of readers if I wrote about ‘what’s in my hand’ by sharing recipes for salmon and crab soup, although there was a time when that was a very frugal meal for us (we were friends with a man who did the accounting for some family fisheries, they gave him some of their catch, and his wife did not like seafood).
Learn to use up leftovers and odds and ends of what you have- in this post, I wrote about cleaning out my refrigerator and how I used things in a variety of different ways.  You can leave a comment here, too, if you have a question about something specific you have in your pantry or fridge that you want to use up.

Some other budgetary advice we have found to be useful:
Failure to plan means you’re planning on spending money you don’t have to.  Make a list, look at sales fliers, plan what you are going to make to eat, and follow your plan as much as is possible and compatible with common sense.  For instance, I don’t think it’s good advice to stick to your list at the store- what if you planned on fixing chocolate chip cookies but find a killer sale on peanut butter?  It would make more sense to buy the peanut butter and make peanut butter cookies instead.  You might have planned to make  a mushroom and olive pizza from scratch, but you find peppers are marked way down to clear them out- buy the peppers and make a pepper pizza instead.

Eating out should come from your grocery budget in my opinion.  And if you can only afford to eat out on pay day?  You can’t afford to eat out.

I do not have a grocery budget per se because we have so much company I can never tell how many people I will be feeding in a week.  Sometimes it’s just the 7 of us left at home (plus Blynken and Nod), but more often it’s at least half a dozen extra mouths in a week, more often more.  But what I do like to figure out is a ball park figure for how much I spend per person each day for food.  About ten years ago that amount was 1.50 a day per person.  That means our grocery bill for nine people was then around four hundred dollars a month.  Since our breakfasts were either oatmeal or crockpot grains, that meant that breakfast was about a 25 cent (or less) meal per person, so dinners could be more substantial. We are much more financially comfortable now than we were then (not rich, but better off), and we probably spend twice that now.  But keep in mind that the average daily expenditure on food in America is over 9 dollars a person!

Shop sales and stock up when an item is on sale (we freeze a lot of cheese and butter), and compare prices.  Sometimes buying in bulk is a great savings, other times, it’s actually more expensive.

Learn to drink water.  If you never give your kids juices, kool-ades, and cokes, they will develop a taste for water.

No picky children– alright, yes, if your child has special issues, this is a lot more complicated.  But for an otherwise normal child with no special issues, I consider being a picky eater a character issue.  I am totally sincere about that.  Being a picky eater displays a certain self centeredness, a focus on self and bodily comforts that I think hampers maturity as well as the ability to be content.  Being a picky eater demonstrates a certain sort of ingratitude toward those who cook and provide food for the table.

We do have a child who is allergic to wheat, corn, and eggs, and we have a child who, because she did not join the family until she was nearly 4, has a harder time with more foods than the rest of us do.  But we could simply not afford to accommodate pickiness, and my love language is not acts of service so I did not feel special or gratified when children tried to treat my meals as though they were at a restaurant and I was the short order cook.  This just does not work for a large family- at least not my large family.  So everybody could have one food they did not have to eat, but only one, and they had to eat what we served for dinner otherwise.  Now, again, the parent has to play fair, too.  When serving a dish such as liver, that I know isn’t really popular I do serve a liberal helping of side dishes so they can fill up on that.

They only have to have the tiniest taste of everything I serve, but they do have to have it.  At times that tiny taste has been so small you needed a magnifying glass to find it, but it is a firmly fixed principle in my home.  My father was a gourmet cook, among other hobbies, and he loathed it when people wouldn’t even try something he’d made. He thought a refusal to try new foods was a mark of small minded ignorance.

In addition to making this rule about only being allowed one food you could turn down, we also said that one food you did not eat could not be legumes.  We just couldn’t afford to have kids who turned up their noses at beans.
In case you’re wondering, some of the foods individual Progeny have on their list:
tortillas (Pip)
beets (the HG)
fish, (the equuschick)
sweet potatoes (teh FYG)
mushrooms (Jenny)
The Cherub eats everything but pickles and the stuff she is allergic to.
Squash (the Boy).
Brussel Sprouts, me (I have discovered I like them roasted)
Lentils, the HM (he only put lentils on his list after many years)

Taste buds change about every month or so, so if children are encouraged to have just a mere schmeer taste of foods you serve, chances are  very good that your children will develop a liking for some foods they thought they hated.
There are a couple of exceptions.  I never make anybody taste my guacamole, because I really do not want the children to like it so there will be more for me.=)  This has not worked, in case you are wondering.  All but a couple of them are guacamole fiends.  Read more on this here.

I found this at Less is Enough, and thought it good food for thought:

In terms of trying to show people that eating “differently” can be done “practically and without much effort or money,” there’s an interesting article from the Tightwad Gazette called “The Not-So-Simple Life,” where Amy Dacyczyn discusses the paradoxes inherent in the “voluntary simplicity” movement. It’s on page 768 of The Complete Tightwad Gazette and is worth reading.
Basically she talks about how living a more “simple” life isn’t always that simple, and how many of the strategies required for transitioning to a simple life can be rather complex. She said that many people she talked to are frustrated by this:

“People are attracted to simple answers because they want to skip crucial steps that require brainwork. But real brainwork is required to become an excellent shopper and do-it-yourselfer.”

It takes time and practice, so do not give up too early.

I’ve written a lot more on this topic over the five years we’ve been blogging, so rather than repeat myself further, I am going to share some links that might be useful to somebody looking into how to reduce their food budget.

Here’s Kimberly’s post. Like her, we also make our own laundry soap and use cloth napkins.  Here’s a Q and A post I did about the laundry soap.

Here’s Kim’s.  I love her idea about buying produce in bulk.  We don’t have a produce warehouse nearby that I know of.  However, did you know you can ask your produce manager at your local grocery store if you can buy produce in bulk, and the answer just might be yes?  We can get a case of apples (which our family finishes in a week), for ten percent off.

Here’s Connie’s.   A freezer is, indeed, a huge help.  We usually have deer meat and locally grown pork and beef in ours- a farmer friend gives us a pig around Christmas time, and my husband’s boss usually gives us a deer for letting him hunt on our property.

Frugalities with the grocery budget

Foods that really are NOT cheap: Spam, Velveeta, Hamburger Helper

Cooking from scratch for a large family

Being Poor ( the story of having only two eggs and breaking one of them)

Debt greases the rungs on the ladder of life.

Frugal eats for road trips

Calculating Costs and Living Within Your Means

Some people have been trying a two dollar a day challenge– all family food for two dollars a day.

You may also enjoy this post I wrote for Frugal Hacks on using up leftovers, even some you might think you need to toss.

And.. Thanks to the blogger at Mommy Earth for the very kind link!

Previously at The Common Room:
live blog
food budget

This entry was posted in cookery, cooking for a crowd, Four Moms, frugalities. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

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