This week's meal-prepping post features a frugal family that knows how to get creative with just a few healthy, simple ingredients.
Welcome to the latest post in TreeHugger's series, "How to feed a family." Every week we talk to a different person about how they approach the never-ending challenge of feeding themselves and other household members. We get the inside scoop on how they grocery shop, meal plan, and food prep to make it go more smoothly.
Parents work so hard to feed their children and themselves, to put healthy meals on the table, to avoid spending a fortune at the grocery store, and to fit it all around busy work and school schedules. It's a feat worthy of more praise than it commonly gets, which is why we want to highlight it – and hopefully learn from it in the process. This week's responses are written by Anna, who lives in a remote town in Idaho with access to only one grocery store, and yet manages to feed her family a nearly all organic, home-grown and wild game diet that's also close to being zero-waste and plastic-free. It sounds like the TreeHugger dream!Names: Anna (34), Cody (34), Owen (4), Angus (1)
Location: Our family lives in Salmon, Idaho, one of the most remote towns in the lower 48, population 3,300 residents.
Employment: Anna is a full-time stay-at-home mom and Cody owns a small construction company.
Weekly food budget: US$150 maximum weekly budget, with approximately $200 every two months or so at a bulk food store in Missoula, Montana, for essentials such as olive and coconut oil, flour, sugar, oatmeal, spices, dried fruit, nuts, beans, rice, etc.
1. What are 3 favorite or commonly prepared meals in your house?
Winter: During the winter an assortment of beans with meat; can be eaten over rice, in tacos, as nacho dip, with a fried egg, avocado and salsa, etc. Stews with meat and lots of vegetables, spaghetti-type dishes with meat; these may be served over noodles, over roasted chickpeas, or roasted veggies/squash. All our meals have a common 'base' with vegetable and fruit ingredients changing almost completely depending on the season. This keeps things simple yet fresh!
Spring/summer/fall: Sautéed vegetables with meat over rice, roasted chickpeas or quinoa with coconut aminos, fresh salad with grilled, meat/roasted beans, or fresh caught fish grilled with sautéed vegetables.
Breakfast is eggs, oatmeal, or homemade granola with yogurt and fresh fruit during the winter, and smoothies or egg toast during the summer. We also love dutch oven babies any time of the year! Lunch is leftovers or sandwiches.
2. How would you describe your diet?
Omnivore, local, seasonal, striving to be zero waste, frugal, organic
3. How often do you shop for groceries? Is there anything you absolutely have to buy every week?
I grocery shop once per week; necessities include fresh fruit and vegetables, one jar of organic pasta sauce, organic salsa, peanut butter, local honey, local fresh milk, cheese, local fresh eggs, local sourdough bread. We hunt in the fall, so usually have a freezer full of wild game, thus do not routinely buy meat.
4. What does your grocery shopping routine look like?
We try to shop early Monday morning when the local grocery store opens at 7. Early shopping when the store is not busy and my two boys are happy makes a huge difference. I’ve found it impossible to stick to my once-a-week grocery store trip and budget if the store is crowded or my boys are overtired.
I shop the perimeter of the store mainly, to avoid the heavily packaged/convenient and expensive/chemical laden food in the interior aisles. I usually start at the produce section. I am fastidious about organic food with a few exceptions: EWG’s list of foods with low or no detectable pesticide residue, such as citrus, bananas and avocados. I buy these items conventional in order to stay within my budget.
Next the small bulk section for a cloth bag of nuts (the cashiers have gotten used to my bulk bags now and are totally unfazed). Then off to the coffee aisle where I can purchase locally roasted organic, fresh grind coffee, also in a bulk cloth bag. (I usually let my oldest son pick out one organic protein bar at this point for a treat). Dairy and frozen come next; cheese and frozen blueberries are a must. (I look past the thick plastic packaging here due to the nutritional benefits of a package of organic blueberries during the winter.)
We also have a very small yet lovely health food store in town, where I purchase fresh local eggs, yogurt starter and supplements. We are very lucky to have available once per week grass-fed milk in beautiful glass gallon jars from a local lady with a milk cow. We pasteurize the milk and use it for a beverage as well as to make fresh yogurt.
5. Do you meal plan? If so, how often and how strictly do you stick to it?
I do meal plan, but I like to keep it loose to allow for (simple) creativity during the week. An example of this is ensuring I have adequate ingredients for a bean dish and a meat, veggie and pasta dish. I try to get at least two meals out of each; as I said earlier, beans can be beans and rice, tacos/burritos, nacho chip dip, in a bowl topped with a fried egg, sautéed vegetables, avocado and salsa...etc.
For the basic pasta sauce, I sauté and add whatever veggies I have on hand to the pre-made sauce, plus browned meat (pasture raised, natural, local or wild game). The first meal we might eat it over whole wheat pasta; the next over half a baked squash, or over roasted root vegetables; at the end of the week I might bake leftover pasta sauce, veggies and rice in halved bell peppers with grated cheese on top. We really enjoy seeing how creative and innovative we can be with just a few healthy, simple ingredients.
6. How much time do you spend cooking each day?
1.5 hours total (3 meals)
7. How do you handle leftovers?
Unless it’s something like leftover homemade pizza (which everyone loves as is!) I try to get creative and make something 'new.' It’s much easier to get creative with simple meals such as a big pot of beans; they can turn into anything!
8. How many dinners per week do you cook at home vs. eat out or take out?
We eat almost entirely at home, due to expense and quality. We eat out if we are traveling.
9. What are the biggest challenges in feeding yourself and/or your family?
Cost first, finding organic produce during the winter second. Although our town grocery store has a nice organic section in produce, they do not always stock things like organic cilantro, for example. I am also always in search of unpackaged or plastic free ingredients, and that can feel challenging when the beautiful organic broccoli is wrapped in plastic, but the conventional is package-free. During the spring, summer and fall we have an incredible farmers' market that provides very inexpensive, gorgeous organic vegetables and fruit.
10. Any other information you’d like to add?
Currently we are living in town and the only thing we are growing this winter is a somewhat continuous pot of window sill microgreens. This spring we plan to move out to a large piece of property north of town. At that point we will be raising meat (pigs, cattle and chickens) as well as our own fresh eggs. We plan to have a big garden and root cellar for storage. Raising our own vegetables and animals will further reduce our grocery bill and our carbon footprint, especially since our livestock will be pastured only, grain and soy free. This will also provide a structured, slow paced lifestyle in which to raise our boys.
Regardless of having a farm soon, I hope to inspire other parents to work toward feeding their families homemade, organic, nutritious meals no matter where they live. Plan your shopping trips, cook several 'base' meals per week that can be reinvented multiple times, stay creative, and and always use seasonal ingredients!