Let’s be real — if you buy in bulk and stick to a budget, it shouldn’t be hard to feed a family of four for a week, right? Right. Except that’s without considering any of the things life throws at you. I’m talking about picky toddlers, a packed schedule and those nights where the last thing you want to do is putter around in the kitchen soaking your own beans, despite your inherent love for culinary adventures. Or is that just me? Regardless, as a working mom with a husband who travels and two toddlers that would be content eating nothing but bread and cheese for the rest of their days, I decided to purge the fridge and cupboards to start fresh for a week. The goal? Feeding the entire family three nutritious meals a day (plus snacks) without breaking the bank. Here’s how it went.
The Overall Plan
Full disclosure: I love grocery shopping. There’s something calming about walking up and down the aisles and planning what I’m going to create next. Unfortunately, when you’re cooking on a budget, that doesn’t necessarily translate. Instead, I used a grocery app to determine the best deals of the week and then created a meal plan based on what was on sale. I started with dinners, because that’s where the bulk of my budget was going (we like leftovers, y’all) and then I went to a store that price-matched. We eat meat in our house, so I wanted to include some animal protein, but we also try to include plant-based dinners at least two to three nights a week.
The other thing I had to consider was stocking up on staples. I was in good shape for things like olive oil and nutritional yeast (more on that below) but I needed some basics like flour, rice and quinoa. In the end, I thought it was going to take hours gouging my eyes out with an Excel sheet, but it was actually pretty painless. I’d say 30 minutes of planning, tops.
Cost Savings Vs. Convenience
Sometimes I’ll buy pre-washed, boxed spinach or mixed greens, because I absolutely hate running salad greens one by one under the faucet and then drying them. Not hate, loathe. I loathe it. But I’m obsessed with doing it properly, because let’s just say I’ve had plenty of experience accidentally ingesting “extra protein” in the past. For this experiment, however, I got four times as much fresh spinach and lettuce for less than a box would have cost me. So I was OK with it.
Then there are the beans. Usually I’ll buy dried beans for less and stock the pantry, but because I wanted to prep once for the entire week, I didn’t want to pressure cook beans and then have them sit there for seven days. It was a lot easier (and not that much more expensive) to buy the canned stuff, so I splurged a bit in that department.
The Grocery List
You probably want to get to the goods, right? Without further ado, here’s everything I bought to stock up the fridge and pantry.
– Broccoli, $1.27
– Cauliflower, $1.99
– Bagged carrots, $1.49
– Bagged onions, $1.49
– Grape tomatoes, $2
– Bagged beets, $1.97
– 2 bunches spinach, $4
– 2 bunches red leaf lettuce, $3
– Garlic, $1.49
– 2 cucumbers, $4
– 6 bananas, $1.63
– Bag of apples, $4
– Strawberries, $2.5
– Bagged peppers, $2.98
– Bagged mandarins, $2.97
– Celery, $3
– Frozen peas, $0.99
Meat, Dairy and Deli
– Fresh olives, $5.12
– Bagged milk, $3.97
– Brick marble cheese, $3.97
– 18 eggs, $2.99
– Ground turkey, $2
– 2 fresh, whole chickens, $13.62
Pantry and Bakery
– Brown rice, $1.27
– Pasta (my daughter picked “little shells”), $0.88
– Yeast packets, $1.97
– Peanut butter, $3.77
– Flour, $3.99
– Quinoa, $3.47
– 2 cans salt-free chickpeas, $1.58
– 2 cans salt-free black beans, $1.58
– 2 cans diced tomatoes, $1.96
– Tomato paste, $0.59
If you love devoting an entire Sunday afternoon to meal-prepping, raise your hand. What, no one? I’m shocked. While meal-prepping often feels daunting, I’ve discovered several ways to make it less painful over the years. Sometimes I’ll get my kids to help out and we make it a family affair. Other times, I consider it “me time” and I’ll put on a TV show or listen to a podcast. The bottom line is that I consider it a necessary evil if I want to save time during the week and still eat healthy, so I try to find a positive spin.
My Meal-Prepping Included:
– Hard-boiling eight eggs
– Washing and drying lots of lettuce and spinach
– Cooking a batch of quinoa
– Roasting beets (to add to salads)
– “Ricing” cauliflower in a food processor
– Peeling and cutting carrots
– Washing and cutting celery
– Making a giant vat of homemade tomato sauce
– Roasting both chickens, cooling them and removing the meat
– Making stock from chicken bones (once this was simmering, it pretty much made itself over the course of the night).
Was this work? Very much so. But it saved me so much time during the week on lunch and dinner, as you’ll see below. I should also note that I added nutritional yeast (instead of Parmesan, which I didn’t buy) to the tomato sauce for an extra hit of cheesy, vegan fibre and protein. I also threw in an entire pepper and a few handfuls of spinach, before blending it up with my immersion blender so my kids would never know. I then froze half the sauce, which means sometime in the near future, I’ll have instant tomato sauce for pasta, lazy cabbage rolls or even pizza.
The Meal Planned Menu
Breakfast: I wanted to leave breakfasts fairly neutral, since my kids and husband are perfectly content with toast and fruit or eggs. On busier mornings, we’ll whip up peanut butter banana smoothies (with spinach thrown in there), which my kids can drink in the car. I also bought English muffins so that we could make egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwiches on Saturday morning before we all ran out the door to dance class and I planned for our lazier, traditional Sunday morning pancake breakfast, too.
Lunches: I figured a combination of leftovers, salads and sandwiches would do. The kids love peanut butter and jam sandwiches or a plate of cut up veggies, cheese and fruit, while my husband and I are happy to concoct a variety of salads with different proteins in them, like beans, a scoop of quinoa or hard-boiled eggs. Because I found chicken on sale, I also factored in leftover chicken to make a multitude of dishes.
Snacks: We’re trying to get away from sugar-laden and expensive pre-bought snacks, so that’s why I stocked up on apples, mandarins, carrots, celery, tomatoes and cucumber. I thought about making hummus with one of the cans of chickpeas (I have some tahini still in my cupboard), but ultimately passed because sometimes it’s so much easier to pair produce with a pre-bought healthy dip, peanut butter or even cheese. At least it is with my kids.
And that brings us to…
Sunday: Roasted Chicken and Broccoli With Rice
Because I was already roasting the chicken, I figured it would make for a good Sunday night family dinner. I paired that with steamed broccoli in the microwave, which my kids either love or hate depending on the day. This particular night, the dog seemed to eat more of it than the kids thanks to their scheming, but that’s why I feed the dog last. I also cooked a big batch of brown rice (factoring in leftovers) and both kids devoured that.
Monday: Cauliflower Fried Rice
We’re typically out the door by 5:30PM on Monday nights to make the kids’ activities, so I needed something simple. Enter cauliflower fried rice! While the “healthy” me would prefer to just have cauliflower, that’s not possible with kids. Instead, I masked the cauliflower rice by adding in actual leftover rice from the night before. I stir-fried it with onions, garlic, egg, soy sauce and mushroom oyster sauce, which I bought about six months ago at an Asian food store for a couple of bucks. I also added frozen peas, but I wish I hadn’t, because both kids basically threw them at each other. Everything else was eaten, so I’ll take that win.
Tuesday: Pasta With Ground Turkey
This quick dinner was super simple thanks to the pre-made sauce, and I could have made it vegetarian, except I found that amazing $2 deal on ground turkey. So I cooked that up quickly on the stove as the pasta boiled and then threw it all together for a veggie-filled dinner that my kids devoured. Yes, I did a devious happy dance and maybe even high-fived my husband as we did the dishes afterwards.
Wednesday: Grainy Salad
My daughter is a weirdo like me and she loves cold beans. My son hates beans, but likes the texture of quinoa, which my daughter doesn’t. So I succumbed to motherhood hack and gave her beans on the green plate and him quinoa on the blue plate, with some cut up peppers, cucumbers, cheese cubes and tomatoes. My husband and I essentially ate an adult version of this (quinoa with roasted beets, cucumbers and peppers) mixed together and dressed with a concoction of olive oil, garlic and balsamic vinegar. It would have been even better with feta cheese, but it was still pretty hearty and satisfying. And, thanks to the pre-made quinoa, the whole thing took about 10 minutes to whip up.
Thursday: Chicken Noodle Soup
Once again, my meal-prepping proved to be an amazing decision because I was able to throw chicken stock, carrots, celery, leftover chicken and leftover pasta shells into a pot, heat it up and dole it out into bowls. It was rich, low in sodium and perfect for that day’s colder weather, and there was only one bowl leftover at the end of the night. Oh and for those keeping track, my daughter ate the carrots, my son ate the chicken, they both ate the pasta and then they asked me for some cheese.
Friday: Pizza Night
Does anyone ever want to cook on a Friday night? There’s no better way to usher in the weekend than with pizza, which is why we tend to order them at least every other week. The thing is though, making homemade dough is super easy. I also happen to have pizza stones, which I find give the crust a nice crispiness. So I planned ahead to whip up the crust after work, then I used the leftover secret-veggie tomato sauce as a base and added olives as a topping, which both my kids freakishly love. There wasn’t a single slice left and I wasn’t out money on delivery.. Win, win.
Get the recipe for Roger Mooking’s Buffalo Mozzarella and Tomato Pizza
The best part about “cooking” all week was that I had ample food leftover for customized dinners on Saturday night. My husband wanted the soup, while the kids clamoured for pasta. Meanwhile, I was craving a lighter salad after the pizza the night before, which I was able to quickly cobble together with the remaining veggies and hard-boiled eggs in the fridge.
This entire experiment definitely required planning and a whole whack of prepping, but in the end, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. The kids ended up eating fairly well, and we didn’t turn to takeout pizza or chicken nuggets once, which is a serious feat for our household.
Would I do this every week? No. But, I’m definitely going to try and keep up when I can, because on those lazier weekends where we’re not running around trying to fit everything in, getting a jump on feeding the family turns out to be an amazing time- and money-saver… with only a small number of peas and broccoli on the floor.
Looking for more meal planning inspiration? Here’s how a nutritionist meal preps every Sunday.
Photos courtesy of Getty Images and Amber Dowling