How Do You Feed a Family?

open referigator with food
A view of the Smith family's fridge.

Sarah Smith (used with permission)

In the first installment of our new series on feeding households, meet Sarah Smith, kindergarten teacher and busy mom of two who "reads the flyers like a magazine subscription."

When I sent out a general message to a number of friends, asking how they feed their hungry families on a budget, I wasn't expecting to get such a flood of detailed responses. I quickly realized I'd touched a nerve – in a good way. 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 we give it, which is why we at TreeHugger have decided that a new series profiling different households' grocery shopping, meal-planning, and food-prepping strategies would be both interesting and helpful to our readers. Introducing our first featured family... the Smiths!

Smith family
Sarah Smith (used with permission)

Name: Sarah Smith and husband Matt with children

Location: Ontario, Canada

Employment status: Both parents work full-time outside the home

Diet: Omnivore, 2 meatless meals per week

Weekly food budget: CDN $200

Favorite meals: Spaghetti sauce, roasted chicken with potatoes and vegetables, fried rice with steamed cauliflower, macaroni cheese

In Sarah's words (edited for brevity):

I love grocery shopping and making my list every week. I love flyer surfing and comparing prices. While others can spend hours trying on clothes or shopping for home decor, my love for shopping comes in the form of food. Here is what feeding my family looks like.

1. I always have a list on the go.

I have a yellow pad of paper that is strictly for groceries and household items. It is kept on the kitchen counter and my husband and I add to it as we run out of things or as we get low. I refuse to pay full price for certain things (toilet paper, dish soap, laundry detergent, cheese, meat, etc.) so I write them down as I see those items getting low in case they are on sale in the week to come.

2. I read the flyers each week like a magazine subscription

Flyers are released on Wednesdays, so that's when I begin thinking about our meals for the following week. I use an app called FLIPP that lets me download all the flyers that are local to my area. I go through the flyers and compare my list to what is on sale at the local stores.

While shopping, I can use the app to price match certain items that are not on sale at the store I am at but are at another store (e.g. I price match at No Frills. If yogurt is on sale at Zehrs, No Frills will honor the price for the same brand.) All you have to do is show the item in the flyer (or FLIPP app) and the cashier will adjust the price.

3. I shop once a week and we make it last.

I shop once a week to save money. I used to pick things up as we needed them but found I was picking up unnecessary items and going over budget. My husband likes to pick up milk as needed but that’s it. If we run out, then we go without. The fridge and cupboards look pretty bare by Thursday but I find we also throw out less food if we have less food. When I grocery shop, I will sometimes go to two or three stores to make sure I get all the items on my list at the best price.

4. I stay focused.

I always shop alone (no kids), on a full stomach (shopping hungry = impulse buys), and I put my phone on airplane mode until it is time to check out and I need FLIPP (no distractions). I usually shop on Thursday or Friday nights. It is not busy, the stores are stocked with the sale items, and there is less chance of running into familiar faces. Time is precious as a working mom and I value the silence of grocery shopping.

Sarah Smith selfie
Getting ready to settle in with her flyers on Wednesday night, perhaps?. Sarah Smith (used with permission)

5. Food prepping is a must.

I wash, cut, and store all my fruit and veggies either after the groceries are put away or the next day. This is something I do EVERY week. In order to eat healthy, fresh fruit and veggies are always available as a snack for my family. My kids would love to eat crackers and granola at every snack, but if the fruit and veggies are cut and ready, they will gravitate towards those. Stacked containers of colorful fruit and veggies look like a delicious rainbow in the fridge. Who can resist that?

It also makes packing lunches at night quick and easy, as I don't have to cut, wash, and peel every night. I always have a few hardboiled eggs and cooked chicken in the fridge. I cut and portion any veggies needed for suppers into separate containers and use a dry erase marker to write what dinner they are for and what else needs to be added to complete the supper.

6. We do not eat big meals every night.

I usually try and plan 2-3 'big meals' a week and then we eat leftovers or 'easy suppers; the rest of the week. If I make a spaghetti supper, then it is spaghetti in lunches the next day and we’ll use the leftover as a side dish with another meal. Same with a roasted chicken. The bones are turned into a broth, which is made into soup and the leftover chicken becomes sandwiches for lunches or tossed with some pasta and veggies for a quick supper the next night.

Eating big sit down suppers every night is not sustainable for our family. We sit down and eat together about 5-6 nights a week, but sometimes we are all eating different things based on what's in the fridge. Sometimes it's cheese, baguette, and apple slices. If rushing home from work and making supper is more stressful than it is enjoyable to eat, then it is not worth it.

7. Pack it up and keep it organized.

I know at all times exactly what is in my fridge. There are no containers of mystery food lurking at the back. Leftovers are immediately portioned into lunches for the next day and into clear glass containers for meals later on. If I know for sure that something is not going to get used during the current week, it is frozen for a later date (spaghetti sauce, soup, broth, overripe bananas). I wipe out my crisper drawers and shelves every week as I put away my groceries. The bottom shelf is for prepped fruit and veggies, the middle shelf is for cooked meat and leftovers, and the top shelf is for lunch bags, water bottles, and milk containers.

8. I stick to my meal menus.

I love looking on Pinterest for meal ideas, but I do not go out and buy all ingredients to try a new recipe mid-week; I either work it into my list or search for recipes that I already have ingredients for. I save new recipes for the weekend when there's less pressure to get everyone fed on time. My husband and kids tell me what they want so I know the food will get eaten. I do not buy prepackaged meals, lunches, or salads, as they are far too expensive and full of unnecessary ingredients.

It takes some work at the start to keep it organized and learn to go without if we run out mid-week, but after a while, it becomes an enjoyable habit. I know my family is well-fed, I stay on budget, and our kitchen is kept organized.