Feeding the Frugal Family

One of our most popular forums on Mothering.com is called Frugality and Finances. The forum hosts literally hundreds of threads, such as “Torn between frugality and organics when grocery shopping,” and “When to apply for food assistance.” “If Groceries are a priority where do you cut back?”

When it comes to groceries, there are ways to be frugal without sacrificing quality. Food is one of the top items in our budgets and it’s easy to spend too much. As a new mom, I lived in the country and went grocery shopping only once a week, a habit I’ve continued to this day. I believe that shopping less frequently helps to save money.

I prepare for shopping by looking at what I have in the refrigerator and in the cupboards and making a brief list of these items. Then I sit down and write a list of five to seven main meal menus. I review my meals to make sure that the meals I’ve planned will not exceed my weekly budget. I sometimes take a calculator to the store to add up how much I sm spending and stay on budget. From these menus I make a list of items I need for the meals I’ve planned. I also add some items for breakfast and lunch but try to plan meals like soup, beans and chicken that can be used for lunch as well.

I make the list by looking through cookbooks or food magazines for ideas or thinking of dishes I’ve had at restaurants. Sometimes I use categories of meals to help inspire me: soup or stew, braise, stir fry, pasta, casserole, quiche or pie, beans, skillet, meal in a salad, hodgepodge. I try to use as many items I already have on hand as possible and to plan my meals according to the season. Planning menus for the week also helps me during each day because I know in the morning what I am having for dinner that night and this saves me from trying to figure that out at the end of the day when I’m tired.

I take the list to the store where I hope to go quickly through the aisle. I read somewhere that the more time you spend in the store, the more money you spend. I find that when I run into people I know in the store and stop to chat, I tend to lose focus and buy something impulsively. So, it’s important not to dawdle at the store, to get what’s on the list and get out. Easier said than done.

I try to be careful about venturing into the center aisles of the stores, where the more expensive packaged items are. I save money and eat better when I buy mostly from the outer aisles where the fresh produce, dairy and perishable foods are.

Buying things in their most natural state, that is their least processed state, is a good way to eat healthy and save money. And, it’s more healthy and less expensive to eat locally produced food. Interestingly enough, the definition of local varies. I understand that Whole Foods considers anything grown within 800 miles to be local. Our  food co-op defines local as anything that is grown within 400 miles. I tend to think local is somewhere I can drive to and back in the same day. It makes sense that food will be fresher if it doesn’t spend a lot of time in a truck and be less expensive the closer your access is to the farmer.

I’m lucky to live in a town where we have one of the top 10 Farmer’s Markets in the country. This year I joined Beneficial Farms, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). I pay a lump sum up front and get a weekly distribution of $25 each week until it runs out, then I pay another lump sum. I can pay whatever amount I can up front and stop at any time. My CSA is unusual in that it distributes produce from other farms along with its own farm products. This week I got cheese, fingerling potatoes, shallots, beets, frisee, and peaches

I also get vegetables and eggs from a friend and today I bought cucumbers, green and yellow squash, celery, scallions, kale, chard and eggplant for $23. Now with some stables of beans, seeds, rice, onions, potatoes, flour, tortillas, pasta, cheese, and yogurt on hand, I can make some good meals without spending too much money. If I have more to spend, I can add fish and meat or use it as a condiment rather than the center of the meal like in a soup or curry or in a side dish.

Tonight for dinner, I had brown rice topped with pan roasted sunflower seeds and chopped scallions; steamed zucchini, yellow squash, and tomato with butter; and a small portion of grilled fish in a sauce of soy, butter and lemon. Tofu would have been a good substitute for the fish. Plus a big bowl of peaches for dessert.

Here are some other tasty and money saving menu ideas:

Cheese and onion enchiladas with red chili sauce

Pinto beans


Guacamole salad or sliced avocadoes



Tomato sauce with chopped zucchini, mushroom, onion, and basil.

Bibb lettuce salad with shallot vinaigrette (see below)

Garlic Toast


Roast Chicken (or Stuffed Peppers)

Baked Potatoes

Green Beans or veggie in season


Chicken Vegetable Soup (from leftover chicken and carcass) or

Hearty Vegetable Soup with parmesan rind and garlic broth

Cole Slaw

Biscuits (see below)


Stir-fry with seasonal vegetables, nuts, and tofu

Rice or rice noodles

Cucumber salad


Save money by making your own salad dressings, soups, beans, spaghetti sauce and biscuits. Make the soup and bean meals on the days you have the most time.

Shallot Vinaigrette

2/3 cup olive oil or oil of your choice

1/3 cup apple cider or red wine vinegar

1 shallot, peeled and sliced finely

1/8 tsp. Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

Refrigerate and shake well before serving



Preheat oven to 450 degrees and position rack in center of oven.

Mix together in a large bowl:

2 cups flour*

2 tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

2 TBL sugar or other dry sweetener ( if using wet sweetener, add with the buttermilk)

Cut 5 TBL cold, unsalted butter into bits and blend butter into the dry mixture with your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal.

Add 1-cup well-shaken buttermilk and stir until a soft, sticky dough forms. Drop dough in 12 rounds on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes.

*Pamela’s Gluten Free Pancake and Baking mix can be substituted for the flour.


Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded Mothering.com in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.

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6 thoughts on “Feeding the Frugal Family”

  1. “…the more time you spend in the store, the more money you spend…” It’s true, unfortunately. I’ve made the same mistake several times before when I go to the grocery unprepared. Taking the time to list what’s needed and what meals to prepare does wonders. Saves time and money! Thanks for sharing how you go through your shopping and also some sample meals.
    .-= Sheila´s last blog ..CNA Certification =-.

  2. Your information about whole foods is incorrect. Our policy (I’m a teammember) concerning local products is that 250 mile radius is considered local.

  3. Great article, but you left out one of the biggest money savers of all: growing your own garden! Even though I live in a trailer park, I estimate that I’ll have grown somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds of produce, all organically grown of course, on my lot this year through creative space-saving gardening techniques. Before we moved here, I did pretty well with container gardening to stretch the family food dollars. I must be doing something right since we only spend about $171 a month (what we get on our food stamps) to feed our family of 5 (6 when my oldest is here and not at his dad’s house)!
    .-= Chris K.´s last blog ..Top 10 Things I’ve Learned About Canning This Year =-.

  4. The policy at Whole Foods will vary by region as to what the distance is (taken from their website):

    Local produce is by definition seasonal. In spring in California, that means artichokes; summer in Michigan means blueberries and autumn in Washington means apples. We value this natural diversity, and each of our 11 regions has its own firm guidelines for using the term “local” in our stores. While only products that have traveled less than a day (7 or fewer hours by car or truck) can even be considered for “local” designation, most stores have established even shorter maximum distances. Ask a team member for your store’s definition of “local.”

  5. We save a boatload of grocery money by planning ahead in our budgeting and then buying bushels of produce in season. We freeze corn, cauliflower, broccoli, peas, onions, squash and more. We also can – potatoes, string beans, V8 juice, spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, relishes, pickles and soup.

    An amazing $$ saver is to mix (not cook) a huge batch of vegetable soup and can it (using a pressure canner) in quart jars. Meat can be added or not.

    We also make our own convenience foods by canning beans, freezing homemade cookies, and keeping a supply of pastured eggs whipped and frozen in ice cube trays for those ‘down times’ in the winter.

    Our favorite grocery store is the local Amish-owned scratch and dent store. We can buy a week’s worth of groceries (including a few treats) for about $25.00.

    We welcome your readers to check out our free online e-zine to see the frugal recipe of the week.


    Rosalyn at RosalynPricenglish.com

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