This Urban Family Shops for Groceries Using a Dutch Cargo Bike

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Assorted groceries lay on a kitchen table

Emily N. (used with permission)

This week's meal-prepping interview is living proof that you don't need a car to feed a growing family.

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 we head to snowy Winnipeg, a city on the Canadian Prairies, where a young family explores the art of fermentation and does most of their grocery shopping without a car. The answers are written by Emily.

Names: Emily (32), Tyler (34), Robin (3.5), Sophie (1)

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Employment: Emily and Tyler worked overseas in the international development field for several years in Laos, Southeast Asia. Their first daughter Robin was born there. Now that they have returned to Canada and are living in Winnipeg, as well as having a second child, Tyler continues to work in the development field, while Emily stays at home with their small children and manages various projects.

Weekly food budget: We spend between CAD $150-$200 (USD $112-$150) weekly on food, and between $60-$130 (USD $45-$100) on weekend outings. We try hard to eat seasonally, so there is some variation in the budget throughout the year. For the winter weekly food budget, it comprises a monthly trip to the farmer's market, a large shopping trip around every two weeks to the grocery store, and a monthly trip to Bulk Barn, as well as many small trips to top up at small shops close to our home.

We buy all of our bread at a small bakery down the street and get meat and some cheese at a little shop around the corner that has a meat counter and will wrap with butcher paper. We are trying to avoid plastic as much as possible. We order meat from a friend's parent's farm periodically, usually half a lamb every 6 months, and that meat will take us a long way.

In the summer the variation would be that we eat out less and get more of our vegetables from the garden. We also get to the local summer farmer's market every week.

Emily and family sitting by lake
Emily N. (used with permission)

1. What are 3 favorite or commonly prepared meals in your house?

We eat a lot of pasta! Emily likes to make pasta carbonara with a salad because it's so quick. We also make rice or rice noodle stir-fries with lots of veggies, and long-cooked stews with lamb and beans and crusty bread.

2. How would you describe your diet?

We try to keep it easy and have no absolutes. More and more our diet is locally-based and seasonal. We do not own a car and use bikes, including a Dutch cargo bike, to get our family around. This means that we have to be intentional about doing large shopping trips. In the winter we will sometimes rent a car and do all three (farmer's market, grocery store, Bulk Barn) all at once on a Saturday morning, and then coast along on that for a few weeks. We luckily have no food allergies and enjoy an omnivore's diet.

3. How often do you shop for groceries? Is there anything you absolutely have to buy every week?

I guess the only thing we can't do without is milk, for the kids and for Emily's coffee :) It's the only thing that will rush someone out of bed to go pick up at the corner store. Leafy greens and carrots are other things that will spur a run to the grocery store. And chocolate!

4. What does your grocery shopping routine look like?

First stop, farmer's market, and then the grocery store. I think it is Michael Pollan who talked about avoiding the center of the grocery store. That's what we do, start at the fish and meat counter, a workaround to the cheese and milk, and finish up at the fruits and vegetables. The only foray to the center is for frozen fruit juice and baking supplies.

5. Do you meal plan? If so, how often and how strictly do you stick to it?

Well, I would say that at the beginning of the week, I think of one or two dishes that I'd really like to eat, and then I let my enthusiasm wherever I am shopping carry me the rest of the way. After having gotten what I need for the first few meals, we make up the rest based on what is in the house. We keep it simple and flexible. As long as we keep the staples for a few basic meals in a pinch (veggies, eggs, tomato sauce, rice, pasta, cheese), we can get supper on the table.

6. How much time do you spend cooking each day?

It can vary widely. Some days only 15 minutes for lunch and an hour for supper. But if I am making yogurt, simmering stock, assembling soup, trying to make something for dinner and Robin wants muffins, it can be a full day. We have also been experimenting with fermented foods and beverages, after reading (again) Michael Pollan's Cooked and Sandor Ellix Katz's Wild Fermentation. Tyler has also been influenced by a book on herbal and healing beer-making. These projects can take a day to get started, and then we have the kimchi, or yogurt, or fermented vegetables for the next few weeks.

Emily's kimchi
Emily N. (used with permission)

7. How do you handle leftovers?

We usually don't have a lot, and what we do Tyler takes in his lunch or it gets heated up for Emily and the kids the next day.

8. How many dinners per week do you cook at home vs. eat out or take out?

During the week we eat at home, and sometimes Tyler will pick up a wrap or sandwich downtown. On the weekend we will eat out two or three times – breakfast at the park, followed by skating, or lunch at the bakery. Especially in the winter, it helps to get out and in that spirit, we rarely get takeout, although sometimes when the kids are asleep we get takeout cake. In the summer we do more picnics.

9. What are the biggest challenges in feeding yourself and/or your family?

I guess having and making enough snack foods to keep the kids (and parents) happy, avoiding plastic (wow! challenging!), and trying to eat locally in the winter.

10. Any other information you’d like to add?

Hospitality is very important to us, something we have both inherited from our parents and extended family. We host as often as we can, and sometimes the food is great, and sometimes it's not stellar. But I think sharing food is really important for having and building community, and a great expression of the respect for and interest you take in others. You can't put a price tag on that.