Q FROM A READER: How do you feed your large family? The older my son gets, the more he’s eating, and I’m realizing I need to get better at cooking more food for less money.
Yup, with 9 kiddos (8 of whom are sons!!), you know I understand! This is an ongoing point of analysis in our home.
To save as much as possible, I’ve taken kind of a multi-pronged approach in this area, and we adapt to wherever we live. So here are my best ideas:
#1- EVALUATE WHERE YOU SHOP
The biggest savings we’ve realized in groceries always come from changing where we shop.
In one place we lived, I made a “price notebook.” Essentially, I made a chart in a notebook that I kept with me for a solid month, and went to 4 different grocery stores, each week for a month, writing down the price per ounce (or pound or item or whatever) for the basic grocery items we buy month in, month out. Doing that revealed that one shop was FAR better prices than all the rest, and it was NOT the one I was expecting. (I’m kind of a cheapskate so it really surprised me that it was the “nicest” grocery store in that area.)
When we lived near Portland, OR, discount grocery stores made a big difference for us. I would do a big discount grocery run every 2-3 weeks, and fill in the in-between with staples like milk & eggs) from the local store.
When I find an “AMAZING” deal (like the Cheerios, pictured above), we stock up and store in out-of-the-way places in order to make our budget work over the long haul.
Stores like Aldi and Winco have also consistently provided great savings for our family, coming in at a significant margin less expensive than other grocery stores. I’ve also done the couponing thing when I’ve lived near stores that make that worthwhile use of my time.
#2- WHAT ABOUT BUYING IN BULK?
First, I would say– be careful about bulk stores! Costco has proven NOT to be a very big cost savings for us, except on a few key items (tortilla chips, laundry detergent, toilet paper, sour cream, flour, pinto beans, and their amazing roasted chickens). Those stores are nice for convenience-cooking, but when you actually evaluate their cost-per-item next to a grocery store, many many “deals” actually aren’t that inexpensive!
And when you get to the point of needing to feed a small army (or one or more teenage boys), convenience foods are not easy on the budget.
Buying beef in bulk from a friend’s dairy farm made a difference for us when we lived in the PNW. And buying chicken in bulk from Zaycon was awesome, until they went belly-up! Both of these options require extra freezer space (we had a fridge-sized freezer).
#3- ALWAYS GRAB CLEARANCE MEAT
Every time I run into stores like WalMart, Albertsons, or Safeway, even if it’s just for one thing (milk, typically), I breeze past the clearance sections on MEAT. That is one of the best ways to get wonderful meat inexpensively. Just wait for it to be marked down to 30-40-50% off, and then enjoy it that night or the next day. Shift the rest of the meals you have planned back, one slot.
#4- CHEAP &/OR FILLING MEAL IDEAS
Here are some of our favorite ideas.
- Egg Roll Rice: (this makes heaps of leftovers for us– I can usually get 3 full meals out of this one recipe — so you may want to halve it the first time you make it)
- Carnitas & pinto beans: (We have the carnitas the first night — pork tacos from pork shoulder meat — and then use the leftover broth to make pinto beans the next day… and have bean-and-cheese nachos — SO yummy!)
- Chicken Broccoli quiche— a tasty way to make a little bit of leftover chicken stretch farther
- MamaJo’s Chili– so easy and incredibly tasty (because of her secret ingredient!). We typically do one meal of chili & then one meal served over Fritos, with shredded cheese.
- Big Beautiful Muffins— simple and filling
- Chicken Teriyaki — served over rice
- Dill Potato Salad (I’m NOT a potato salad person and we all love this– it is a great warm-weather side item to have… it keeps for several days & we end up pairing it with about 3 meals as we use it up.
- Pizza Chicken Pasta — The kids love this & it’s easy to make.
- Dutch Puff — a french toasty sort of bread-and-egg dish. One of my sons learned how to make this when he was about 8/9 and he still makes it, many years later. It’s an easy meal solution for any time of day.
- Delicious Banana Bread — so moist and tasty. We love pairing this with fresh fruit.
- Our favorite way to eat chicken– simple and delicious, over rice.
#5- KEEP ADDING BASIC COOKING SKILLS
I did not grow up cooking, so for me, learning to cook for a crowd has been a step-by-step process, and each year I’m adding ideas to my repertoire (still!). So some ways that I’ve grown, that you could consider learning or adding in if you are not doing them, are:
- Learning to make homemade bread. My favorite method has come from a book called Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. Following their basic recipe, I make one large batch, keep the dough in the fridge, and then can pull from it to bake whenever we want it over the course of the next 10-14 days.
- Pinto beans. I used to make them in a two-step process by soaking them overnight. Now I make them in the Instant Pot- no recipe for this. I just put the beans in, with 1/4 c. salt, some bacon fat, a few Tbsp of oregano, and a bay leaf. Depending on how much I put in, it can be a standalone meal (with sour cream & cheese), or we can serve it over nachos. Then I can use it as a side-item for tacos the next day.
- Homemade pizza dough has been a fun & easy family favorite. Jay’s Signature Pizza Dough is our favorite recipe (start about 2 hours ahead of dinner). And we actually just found a copy of Artisan Pizza & Flatbreads in 5 Minutes A Day book at a thrift store, so we’ll be adding more of those type meals soon.
- Keep adding to your meat-cooking skills. The more you can do with a wider variety of meats, and the less scared/wary you are of less processed cuts, the more money you can save.
- Some people say that canning is a wonderful way to save money. I think this depends on a few things– how much you spend on the jars, and what your access is to fresh fruits, veggies, meats, etc., and whether or not you own all the other necessary equipment (pressure cooker, etc), and have the space to store what you will need over time. You also have to have the skills to do it. I admit this is an area I have only done once, and don’t know much about.
#6- GET YOUR KIDS COOKING!
One great way to build skills over the long haul, AND save money, is to cook together. Teach your kids how to make basic things, and grow your skills together.
And in large families, keep in mind, your children do not all need to know how to make every dish. Let one kid get really great at making spaghetti, so much he could do it in his sleep. Let another be the dessert-maker. Someone else might know how to make great sweet tea, or get up and make the fresh coffee every morning.
One final thought I have is this:
#6- DON’T LET PEOPLE GUILT YOU INTO BUYING FOOD YOU CAN’T AFFORD.
This could be the organic/GMO thing. Or farmed-fish vs. fresh-caught. Honestly, friends, most of my life I have not been able to afford the meat sources I would most highly prefer. For me, this has been a battle of contentment with what we HAVE. We can’t afford the very best meat. We can’t afford meat and eggs that’s been raised in the very best ways. That’s OK.
God has given us what we have, and we do the best we can with the resources we have available.
It also applies to fads in dieting. You may not be able to afford the “must-have” new drink mix, vitamins, weight-loss-shake, special ingredients, non-carb, (OR WHATEVER) that your local crowd is currently “into.” That’s OK.
Focus on eating simple foods, thankfully, with your family.
WHAT I’M DOING RIGHT NOW
Right now, since we have moved and do not have a freezer, my best go-to tips that I’m currently using are:
1- I go to our clearance grocery (which is about 45 minutes away) as often as possible.
2- We almost never eat out.
3- I shop the clearance meat section at Walmart every time we run in.
4- I’m doing my closer shopping trips at Aldi since that’s the cheapest store close to us.
5- I’m raising chicks so that a few months from now, we will have a steady stream of nearly-free eggs. (I purposely chose chicks that are good foragers so that they will make the most of the plants and bugs available to them and use less feed.)
6- Since we have a little bit of land available to us in our current home, I’m researching how to raise meat chickens & possibly lamb. We’d have to buy a freezer, but it could be both economically and gastronomically great to have fresh grass-fed lamb in our freezer. We’ll see!
NO ONE CAN DO IT ALL
Every family is different. We won’t all do everything. But these are the things our family does to save money and feed a crowd without going broke.
What are YOUR favorite money-saving strategies for feeding a large family?
12 thoughts on “Cooking for a Crowd, on the Cheap”
I’ve been using your dutch puff recipe for years, and my 11 year old makes it by himself. We love it!! It is filling and feeds a crowd well. I think you’ve said before, tweak recipe sizes to feed your crew, and this had helped my mind wrap around making my favorite recipes grow as my children’s appetites have grown. I like having leftovers for my husband and I to take to work, and need enough for 4 kids, so I’ve started tripling our standard recipes to make that work. It’s just as easy to make more of the same thing and I’m not frustrated that there’s none left at the end of a meal.
We had to think of our crowd and realize we are 2 adults sitting at the kid table, not several kids sitting at the adult table. By that I mean, I don’t make complicated meals I might like but no one else will eat. We stick with things that take those sitting at our table into account. Almost every week we have a taco night, a spaghetti or chili night and a baked chicken with veggies night, all because it’s simple and everyone at our table will eat it. When I spend lots of time on a dish and no one likes it.. who wins? So I plan the more time consuming things like homemade chicken pot pie or apple pie for special occasions, but know more often than not, we’ll eat easy and kid friendly foods.
That’s a really great point. It’s so easy to come across recipes that sound really delicious for us as adults, but you’re right — if nobody eats it, then it’s ultimately a loss.
One of the things that has surprised me, is when I have had a baby and people bring meals and food combinations that I would never try, and my kids love them. It gives me a chance to break out of the ruts that I’m normally in, without me being the one to risk it, ha ha.
But yeah that’s totally a great point.
Yes, simple recipes and budget friendly foods are a must. Even my hubby isn’t a complicated eater, so it’s better to have a collection of basic recipes than one of fancy-pants ones.
I agree about buying in bulk. Went to Costco last night and truly most of what I buy is less expensive at Winco or on sale if I watch for loss-leaders in the Safeway and Fred Meyer ads. There are some good deals for us at Costco (which is why we go, but only for those things and stick to my list so I’m not wooed by other enticements). And even tho the big bag of chocolate chips is cheaper at Costco, I know certain people in my house help themselves to a handful here and there and suddenly the bag has vanished. Much cheaper for me to buy the bags at the grocery store even tho they are a tad more per ounce.
Thanks for sharing some of your favorite recipe links. Sure wish you’d make a big ole bowl of your famous potato salad and come visit me. Miss you friend! So glad you’re writing on your blog again, it’s a beautiful thing.
P.S. I *think* we’re going to get a flock of chickens early next year. We keep talking about it, but just need to jump off the fence and do it.
You always come to mind now when I make dill potato salad. 🙂 Miss you friend, and your cheerful enthusiasm!
And– Get the chickens! They’re so precious & hilarious. I think they’re one of the best, inexpensive entertainment options to do over the long haul. Only thing in WA is – have enough room for them to truly range so that their coop doesn’t get smelly. The rain made that tough for us when we lived there, but you have more room than we did down in the city.
Love you friend.
Ahh, that is so sweet that you think of me when you make potato salad (one day I’ll have to just make it for myself, huh?). We have 10 acres so chickens could free range all day long and it would be a beautiful thing. Love you!
Very helpful, Jess! Thanks for this.
I know it’s been necessary for you to take breaks in blogging over the last couple of years, but I always am encouraged when you are able to write – so thank you!
Thanks for saying this. These little nudges from readers help my husband and I gauge what’s worthy of my attention, and he always encourages me back toward writing here once I have the bandwidth, especially because of comments like yours.
God bless you! I hope God sends exactly the encouragement you need along the way.
A favorite recipe of mine is this SUPER simple, pretty healthy, just 2-ingredient “whole wheat cream drop biscuits”
2 cups of flour (I use whole wheat) and 1.5 cups heavy whipping cream. Mix gently in a bowl, “drop” little mounds onto a cookie sheet (I use parchment paper for easy clean up) and bake for 10-12 minutes at 475. So good!
Sounds wayyyyyyy too simple, haha!
I’ll have to try it; thanks for sharing!
Another good option is restaurant supply stores for big families. The one nearest us is a small store, so great when energy supply is low! (New baby, health issues). We can feed our family for the same price per month as WinCo, with less number of items but bigger quantities of them. On the west coast they are Cash & Carry or Smart & Final. You can also order online and pick it up ready at the store if you have a larger order. Win, win!
Great suggestion. I’ve not ever really consistently tried one of these places. Good to know.
We only have two boys (ages 3 and 4) but are already joking that we will need to take out a second mortgage soon to keep up with their milk habit!! These are some great suggestions!!