4 Moms 35 Kids: a baker’s dozen for managing the food budget

See how the other 3 moms pinch a dollar til it squeals:

  • Headmistress (The Common Room): The Growing Family Beats the Incredible Shrinking Dollar
  • Connie (Smockity Frocks): Grocery Budgets
  • Kimberly (Raising Olives): Feeding Your Family on a Budget

  • According to our illustrious government, the average American household consists of 2.5 people, who spend $511/month on food.  That works out to just over $200/month for each person.  Granted, a fair portion of this (nearly 45%) is spent eating out rather than in, but there’s a lesson there: #1 way to save on groceries: Eat in.

    There are a lot of other ways that the more thrifty shoppers among us keep the food budget under control: some shop at 9 competing grocery stores; some stack coupons and deals obsessively, getting paid to shop during their best outings; some sing the merits of Angel Food Ministries; some grow enormous gardens or get free produce from the gardens and orchards of others.

    For one reason or another (do you really want to hear my long list of ready excuses?) none of these are good choices for us right now.  However, saving money is nearly always a good choice for a large family, and so we work to keep our food budget under control in other ways.

    I shared 10 basic tips to cut your grocery bill over on Frugal Hacks, but will give you the more chatty and less formal version here and now.

    I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what our household spends on groceries, since in addition to 11 people we’re also feeding 25 chickens, 2 dogs (plus 9 puppies right now!), and one very large cat.  Our “food budget” also includes paper products – mainly toilet paper, and a LOT of it –  personal hygiene, household items, clothes, and nearly anything that can be purchased at WalMart.

    With all those disclaimers in place, my “food budget” including all of the above is $900/month.  I would estimate that the actual vittles cost us $700-750/month.  This is not a barebones beans-n-rice diet.  We eat meat every night of the week, and we are hearty eaters.  We also eat produce by the wholesale case.  I usually buy over 100 lbs. of produce in a single trip.  Never mind about teenage boys; try feeding a herd of hungry Coghlans for a week.

    Over the years, we have developed some habits that keep the cost manageable.  Some are newer habits, while others are well-established.

    1. Have a list, a target price and some flexibility. I know what I’m willing to pay for the items on my list, and when I find a really good sale I stock up – even if it means going over budget this week.  I know I’ll save over the upcoming weeks.  If I can’t find a fair price, I revise my list.
    2. Do your homework: I try to make sure I know the regular prices of the items I buy so I don’t get fooled by “specials” in the weekly grocery flyer.
    3. No prepared or highly processed foods.  This year, we’ve even replaced our summertime breakfast cereals (always purchased at 10 cents/oz or less) with homemade granola.  We do still stoop to the occasional case of ramen noodles, but I hardly consider them food.  The kids often eat them uncooked, so they’re more like really cheap snack crackers in really fun shapes.
    4. Homemade bread, from fresh-ground whole wheat.  Not as cheap as white bread from the store, but much more filling and nutritious, so we get more for our money.
    5. Cook from scratch. It’s probably a no-brainer for most of us and it overlaps a lot with #3 above, but this one alone will take you a long way.  We cook our beans from scratch.  We don’t buy pancake mix, cocoa mix, enchilada sauce, mac-n-cheese, cornbread mix, cake mix, canned biscuits, etc.  All of these are better and cheaper made from scratch.  An added bonus to cooking from scratch: we generate far less trash and my grocery shopping is greatly simplified (i.e. my list is much shorter).
    6. Don’t use coupons. I won’t say they’re never worth it, but in our area coupons are invariably for overpriced name brands on products that I don’t buy.  “Save $1” doesn’t save me anything if it’s money I wouldn’t have spent in the first place.
    7. Shop wholesale. I make a trip downtown every few weeks to buy produce by the case from the local wholesale company that supplies many of the restaurants, hotels and even grocery stores in San Antonio.  Many moms swear by restaurant supply stores as well.  You may have similar options in your town.  Ask around.  Search via the web or the old fashioned yellow pages.
    8. Costco (or Sam’s Club).  Thanks to Costco, cheese is an inexpensive source of protein in our house.  We use a shocking amount.  This is also where we buy yeast, spices, real butter, flour, sugar, nuts, coffee, tortilla chips, and a few other staples.
    9. Eggs. Another inexpensive source of protein.  We have chickens now, and eat ~18-20 eggs/day.  We have to buy feed for our chickens to supplement our scraps and their foraging so the eggs aren’t entirely free, but they’re cheaper, fresher and better than store-bought.
    10. Avoid excessive sweets. Yes, even homemade sweets can add significantly to the budget.  Chocolate chips and butter, and other ingredients add up quickly and don’t provide a lot of nutrition.
    11. Buy the specials, especially meat. I never pay over $2/lb for meat (that’s for boneless, skinless, super lean and otherwise special stuff) and usually buy it for much less.  When I find a really great deal, I buy 50-100 lbs.   We eat a lot of chicken, pork and ground beef, with occasional ham, roasts, and sausages.
    12. Eat produce in season, and eat it abundantly. I used to think that produce was expensive, but I’ve learned that’s not necessarily true.  We buy what’s cheap, not just whatever sounds good or looks appetizing today.   This may occasionally mean our only fruit is bananas or but we have plenty of variety over the course of the year.  Our salads one week may have little more than greens and red cabbage, but the next week we will have a veggie tray every night because something came into season.
    13. Buy in bulk – but always with caution, watching the unit price so I don’t get fooled by a big package that ends up costing more per ounce than 4 small ones.

    There.  A baker’s dozen of tips for saving money in the kitchen.  Appropriate, don’t you think?  What would you add?

    Upcoming topics for 4 Moms 35 Kids

    • April 8 Menu planning/shopping
    • April 15 Cooking from scratch – what you make from scratch and how you get it all done
    • April 22 Recipe swap – We’ll all post a couple of our favorite, budget friendly, feed a crowd recipes and a Mr. Linky so that readers can participate by contributing their own recipes.  When you share your link on one of our blogs, it will show up on all 4!  How fun is that?!

    Past topics:

    • March 18 Live-blog day, in which all 4 of us live-blog a real day in our home.  Find out what we really do all day.  It’s our own reality show, just for you.  Who needs TV?
    • March 25 – Outings with only little ones.  Mom’s rules of order, and how not to become the poster family for birth control.


    1. This is great! Can you pass along your recipe for whole wheat bread? My ultimate goal is to semi-duplicate the big long loaves at Costco – I even found the long pans! – but my last 2 bread machines haven’t worked and I can’t find a good recipe. 😛

    2. Just wanted to add a couple of things (perhaps already mentioned on the other sites).

      We buy 90/10 ground beef at Sams by the case….80 lbs. The price varies from $1.50 ish to $1.90 a lb. Prices change every Wed. If a family doesn’t need 80 lbs., they can split it between a couple other families. There are 8 – 10 lb logs per case……so it’s easy to split up.

      My second tip is…at LEAST once a month, HEB sells split chicken breasts for $1 lb. Many people won’t buy split breasts because they don’t want to deal with the skin and bones. This is what we do: place six split breasts in a crockpot. Season well with salt, pepper, spices and herbs of choice. We also throw in a cut up onion, and sometimes, celery. Then pour 2-3 cups of water over chicken. Cook on high for four hours. When done, the bones will fall off the meat, and then just peel off skin. Not only do have tender, flavorful chicken breasts on hand for whatever, but we also now have homemade chicken stock. Simply strain the stock, let it cool, skim the fat and store in fridge or freezer.

    3. Margaret says:

      Great post. It’s encouraging to me that you can do this with so many children. I gave up long ago obsessive couponing and deal hunting. Maybe it’s personality but it did *not* work for me, led to more days out shoppoing, and ultimately as much or more money spent.

    4. Jennifer says:

      Bethany, don’t remind them about the book, they keep not posting things because they “want to get the books done”. I want to hear more blog-worthy stories! XD

    5. Kim C,
      Thanks for all the great advice. You all could write a book. *winks* I am loving this new 4 moms series! Thank you for taking a little bit of time from all your activities to educate your readers on the how-tos of big families. This is VERY useful, very helpful, very practical. This has been a blessing.

      I want to add that if you live in the Midwest (particularly MO, IN, or OH) you can probably find an Amish bulk foods store. I buy almost everything from the nearby store. Just, steer clear of the baked breads and cookies, as they mark those up terribly! I do not have my own mill, so I buy flour for $15/50 pounds. I can also get 50 pounds of rolled oats for $14. Of course, these are MO prices, and everything is cheaper in MO.

      Another way to buy bulk is to join a co-op. They often have organic stuff too… for those who can actually afford it ; )

      Now – when are you going to post the puppy pictures?!

      Bethany W in mid-MO

    6. I am trying to do more making things from scratch. I didn’t realize enchilada sauce could be made from scratch. For next week’s thing can you include the recipe for that? Thanks!

    7. Geraldine,
      Great point – everyone should do the math for their area and find out what the best buys are.
      Eggs are cheaper here ($1.50/18 = $1/dozen), while ground beef is hard to find on sale so usually costs $1.60 for the very cheapest grade with a high fat content so it cooks down to much less than a pound.
      Our homegrown eggs are even cheaper. 🙂

    8. Oh wow, this series is right up my alley! We do about everything as you except for the bulk produce. We garden in it’s place and shop at our local produce stand. Hmmm, something to add… for a few years we bought a whole butchered cow at $2.25/ #. Yes, it’s more expensive than our usual $2 criteria but we got a lot of steak and good cuts of meat we normally wouldn’t indulge in. We make our own laundry detergent, shop at Aldi along with Sam’s club, and drink a lot of water, sweet tea and coffee…cheap!
      I always have a menu in place whenever I shop…would be lost without one first. If I find an extra good deal while shopping, I pencil in a change on our menu. I am also thinking of blogging my menu and shopping choice this month as well. I just did our big grocery shop for our family of nine today. I look forward to reading this series. : )


    9. Geraldine says:

      You listed eggs as a cheap source of protein, and I had always believed it to be as well, until I sat down to figure out how it compares to ground beef. In our area, at least, ground beef is definitely cheaper.
      Eggs give you 6 grams protein each, or 72 grams for a dozen. A dozen usually costs me $2. A pound of lean ground beef, (about 25grams protein per 4oz portion) would give you 100 grams of protein, and costs me between $1.50 (on sale) or $2 (regular price)

    10. I shop with a menu plan but I use the same menu every few weeks. This usually includes bean & rice (which I buy in bulk) twice a week, soups and homemade bread of some kind, and a lentil and rice casserole. The rest of the week I allow to be different recipes for variety. I don’t usually have to buy alot of these ingredients because we buy these in bulk through a local organic produce co-op. (I am also in the process of changing the way I plan my menus and do my shopping. I would like to get my shopping to once a month except for produce which I get through an organic co-op or the farmer’s market.)

      We eat alot of organic because my children have either true food allergies or food sensitivities. Like Kim, we we buy very little processed foods. I must also add that we have food allergies and sensitivities to chemicals and such so when eat alot of organic.

      Kim, this was great to read. Although I do alot like you I was still able to glean some wisdom from you. I am in the process of trying to train my older dd to do a bit of the cooking to help me out in the kitchen. i have 5 weeks left until my baby is due and I slowly down quickly. I need her help alot right now.

    11. Fantastic advice that sounds very similar to how we shop/eat.

    12. We also don’t use coupons (my co-op keeps them at the register and posts if they have a coupon for an item with the item), but still so much of what I buy isn’t with a coupon. My co-op also posts a monthly sales flyer so I make my list based on that. If I can combine a coupon with a sale for an item I am buying its a bonus.
      I am trying a CSA this year workshare (so just time and gas costs for produce).
      I also try to buy what is local and in season. If you are buying in bulk (even for a small family if you can properly store it) approach the owner about your bulk purchase.
      We purchased 50 lbs of pasture beef for $3.60/lb this year and this was Ground Beef, Short Ribs, Stew Beef and Roasts. The original package also had a couple of steaks, but we opted out of them for more stew beef and this year I will opt out of the short ribs for more stew beef or ground beef. We ended up getting 60lbs of meat because of our swap out.

    13. I wouldn’t add anything because this is how we shop.
      Here’s a question: Does anyone food shop with a menu plan and save money? It costs me more if I do that because my “menu” may not be on sale when I go shopping. I have to buy the staples and be creative with them.

    14. If you were to add in our dairy goats and jersey cow, your list would look just like ours does : )

      Except that our monthly cost is not as low as yours. Having 6 adults to feed, 3 of which are hard working adult males, makes a h.u.g.e. difference in our food spending.

    15. Hi, I hope to read this post later, but want to say now that I’ve really been enjoying this series and learning some as well. I’ve linked to you and look forward to learning more. Thanks!

    16. Great tips! One thing I’ve learned is to ask my husband if he likes stuff. I was buying an expensive product for his lunches because it was healthy and I thought he really liked it. Turns out he didn’t like it after the 2nd time, and he was throwing it away!

    17. I also buy my chocolate chips at Costco as we just can not go with out some form of sweets or baked goods in the house. However, most of the time when the kids ask for a snack the answer is, “We have cheese and fruit.” My husband is a career Costco man so Costco is where I purchase almost everything. When farmer’s markets are in season, though, I will purchase as much produce as possible from local farmers or get it from our own garden.

    18. I don’t do coupons either! Basically for the same reason as you…we cook from scratch, though I have girls who love to bake in this house, and do need to watch this area.

      We also include all our tp, feminine products, cleaners, dog food etc in that budget. For our family of 7 at home we spend about $800 a month. Far less that the average which is about $1500 per month for a family our size!

      Thanks for sharing…off to read the other gals tips!

    19. We have very similar views on food shopping. One thing I started doing back in our college and seminary days is buying reduced meat. Kroger reduces meat, milk and produce regularly and unless we are just out completely I don’t buy meat unless it is reduced. Recently I purchased half shank hams for 69 cents a pound. I was able to get 5-6 and freeze them. I buy as many packages of ground chuck as I can when I find it reduced to less than 1.50. I also buy chicken reduced. Check the dates though!! I can think of only one time that I had to throw any meat away because is was spoiled. I check the sales paper for meat prices and don’t purchase anything over 2.00 a pound and usually I don’t get anything over 1.50 a pound. A few weeks ago I was looking for reduced milk at Kroger, but didn’t see any. The milk man was loading the shelves, so I asked him if he had any to reduce today. He asked me what kind I usually purchased and then started reducing for me. I wound up stopping at 10 gallons of milk because I knew my freezer space was limited. He reduced it to less than half price at 1.50 per gallon and the sell by date was still 5 days away!! We have also put in a large order with Walton Feed for beans and grains. We ordered with several other families to keep our shipping costs down. My dh likes to see a big stock of food in the house because of the current economic climate, so we are stocking up BIGTIME! I does save money in the long run to have a good stock because you don’t have to shop as frequently.

    20. We’re a family of four, but we still eat tons of cheese. Thank God for Costco!! 😀

    21. I would love to know how you found that local bulk distributer. I “only” have three atm but planning more by His grace:)

    22. Hi, great tips!! I only have 5 kids…but they eat a ton!

      I don’t have much to add…but I do use some coupons. I also work outside the home full time and while I love to make things from scratch, sometimes time is a huge factor.

      Here’s a post on my weekly trip:


    23. Once again amazed at the similarities in our advice, despite how different our personalities.

      Great tips, thanks.

      • Kimberly,
        I agree, but my husband has a theory about why our advice sounds so similar. I used to be very much like you – my day was well-scheduled, and my schedules actually *worked*. Now we fly by the seat of our pants and most of us think it’s pretty fun, most of the time.
        My husband’s theory: He thinks you and I are so different now because we have different husbands. 🙂

    24. Really great idea. Thanks for sharing.


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