The title for this post should really be, “How we ate off of $35 a week while feeding teenage boys once a week, but while also cheating a little…and why we could never go back.” But that seemed a little long. Now, I know there are plenty of people who have eaten more frugally, more strategically, and more healthfully. But this is just a post to share what we did, how it worked, and why we couldn’t do it now.
The Tricks and the Changes
There were no tricks. I didn’t coupon. I didn’t even really shop sales. We just cut back and ate cheaply. No desert, no beverages, no condiments, no recipes with lots of ingredients. The simpler the meals, the cheaper they seemed to be. We continued to eat on this budget, and these types of meals, until shortly after Lydia came home from the hospital. Due to some health issues, we started to cut out dairy. We had already cut back on meat to save money. At that point, we were given a book by Dr. Fuhrman. After reading the book (Disease Proof Your Child), we changed our diet pretty significantly. We eliminated dairy completely, cut out refined grains and sugar, and increased fruits, veggies, beans, seeds/nuts, and whole grains. After this change we found that we just couldn’t go back to eating the way we had before because we would literally get sick: stomach pain, sluggishness, vomiting, and increased colds were the result during our “backslides”. Since that change we have continued to totter back and forth between more healthful and less healthful, more expensive and less, trying to find the right balance for our family.
One way this meal plan worked is that we didn’t have to pay for lunches. At the time I was helping a family during the mornings and they fed me lunch. They probably never knew (until now) how significant those lunches were to us at the time. (Shoutout to Kelly! She has a blog too. You can read it here.) Dan skipped lunch entirely. So lunches were just out of the picture.
We also started shopping at a wonderful store called Joe Randazzo’s. It’s an indoor produce market with ridiculously low prices. I don’t know what we would do without good old Randazzo’s.
Breakfasts were very simple. Either we ate oatmeal with brown sugar, homemade bread with peanut butter, or eggs occasionally. And usually we added in a banana apiece.
Our breakfasts haven’t changed much since then. We often eat oatmeal, but now it’s topped with either honey, maple syrup, dates, fruit, or almond milk. And we still usually add in a banana each.
Mac and Cheese
Dan absolutely refused to stoop so low as to eat Ramen noodles. We did, however, enjoy mac and cheese (whole wheat, Kroger brand) once a week. It was our favorite and most expensive meal. Two boxes with two slices of American cheese melted on top, topped with garlic pepper. Served with a glass of milk and salad on the side.
Mac and cheese was the first meal that had to go when we changed our diet. I added up the saturated fat from that one meal and was horrified. When we have wanted to enjoy something reminiscent of this meal I have occasionally made Hurry Up Alfredo.
Dan and I spotted a deal for Hamburger Helper one week. Combined with coupons, I think we got 10 boxes for $8 or something like that. Realizing what a steal it was, we went back and bought ten more boxes with the same deal. Then I bought beef on sale and would cook half the suggested amount to go with the box meal.
Later I read the ingredient labels: tons of salt in a variety of forms, MSG, transfat, and (of course) plenty of dairy. So the hamburger helper had to go. I have learned, though, that many Hamburger Helper inspired meals can be sort of duplicated from scratch and even using lentils instead of meat for a cheaper and healthier meal, like lentil sloppy joes, and lentil tacos.
Whole wheat noodles. Store bought spaghetti sauce. A can of green beans. Oh, and don’t forget the Parmesan cheese. Dinner for under $3.
We still eat spaghetti, but now we add more nutritious ingredients: vegetables and sometimes beans. We replaced canned veggies with fresh or frozen and always serve a salad along side. And when we threw dairy out, the Parmesan had to go with it.
Beans and Rice
Bean and rice doesn’t have to be boring and it wasn’t for us. We topped our slow cooker refried beans with brown rice, sour cream, cheese (bought in bulk from GFS), salsa and tortilla chips. And we ate it twice a week, plus leftovers when we didn’t have anything else.
We still eat beans and rice, but without all the cheese and sour cream. We’ve added guacamole, lettuce and occasionally some tomatoes or sauteed bell peppers and onions.
What about those Teenage Boys?
We hosted a Bible study every Friday night and usually had 6-8 teenage to young twenty-something guys come over for dinner and discussion. This was often another meat night, but not always. Sometimes we had breakfast for dinner, sometimes soup, and sometimes a new casserole recipe. I just looked for recipes without many ingredients and that only had meat or cheese, but not both. Since the rest of the week was cheap, I usually got about $10 for this meal, which felt like a lot at the time.
I never planned meals for Saturday or Sunday. We scrounged. We ate leftovers. We once had to go to the store because there was nothing to eat. Often we were invited to a family’s house from church and they fed us. Weekends were the hardest, least predictable, and most disappointing days. I eventually learned that planning a meal for Sunday made coming home from church much more appealing, but at the time we just didn’t have any money left.
The Lord Provides
It is true that eating healthy costs more. Even when you do cut out meat and dairy, condiments and dessert. But we have observed that with each step toward healthier (and more expensive) eating, the Lord has provided additional income, a gift, gift card, or pay raise to provide everything we need to be good stewards with our time, health, finances, and nutrition.