On the Cheap

How I Cook Healthfully & on Budget for My Family of 5

March 19, 2018

With the hectic and activity-filled lives we all live, getting a healthy meal on the table every night can seem like a pretty tall order. Trust me, I am no exception. I’m a mother of three kids, ranging in age from 4 to 10, and right after they get shuffled off to school in the morning, I begin tackling my mile-long to-do list. But, in the blink of an eye it seems, they’re back home and then, it’s all about carpools, dance classes, YMCA, you name it. Suddenly I find myself inside that critical hour when everyone needs to be fed so that they can do homework before heading up to bed.

In addition to being the mom of three, I am a recipe tester and soon-to-be cookbook author; my day requires a lot of cooking. But even though I cook professionally, the most important meal of the day for me is dinner for my family.

I’ve got to admit, fast food and prepared meals do have some perks: They are quick and easy. But for my family, the cons outweigh the pros. And, in a lot of cases, the cost of the convenience can really add up at the register. I grew up in an Italian household, and my mother was never impressed with the packaged stuff. Even though she worked full-time, she made simple, healthful meals for us every night: the same meals she ate growing up on a farm in southern Italy.

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My mother taught me how to make meal-planning a priority, and it really helps keeps the trains running for us during the week. Believe it or not, it doesn’t take a lot of time; nor does it require much extra effort. When I focus on buying the right ingredients and taking the time to cook, I feel it in my health and my wallet. For me, that means spending on average $250 to $275 a week to feed my family of five. I love to entertain, so this amount might be higher than most people’s weekly budget.

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— Anna H.

Here are the steps I follow to make healthy eating on a budget possible:

1. Grocery shop with a plan and a purpose

Weekends usually allow for a little down time. For meals, heating up leftovers is always an option, but we’ll also order in or head out as a family for dinner. With the kids doing their activities or being on play dates on the weekends, I have some time to think about what I want to cook for the Monday through Friday grind, and then make a list of the items I’ll need to get those meals on the table. If I stick to a list, I won’t buy ingredients in excess and I also won’t find a bunch of extras in the cart that might rack up our food costs.

Now, that doesn’t mean the occasional treat is off limits. I tend to look for sale items, but also goodies that are responsibly made. Nowadays, there are so many organic, non-GMO bars, cookies, and even candies on the market; I’ve noticed for a lot of the newer brands, stores will run promotions to encourage you to try them out. Once and a while, I say, why not?

2. After food shopping, start prepping right away

As tempting it is to just throw everything in the fridge after shopping, there is a better, time-saving way! For example, if I know the beef stew I want to make on Tuesday requires three carrots, I'll peel and chop them, place them in a container, and store them in the fridge. Then, when I'm ready to cook, I'll be grateful at how a few minutes of organization saved me precious minutes at crunch time, when everyone is ravenous and yelling, “Geez, mom, is dinner ready yet?”

3. Look for recipes that don’t require obscure ingredients, a mile-long list, or too many out-of-season items

Following in my Italian mother’s footsteps, I buy in-season produce because it’s fresher, tastier, and often cheaper. In addition, as much as I love tackling a complicated recipe, I save those for weekends and special occasions. Monday through Friday, it’s all about minimal prep, a few healthy, seasonal ingredients, and maximum flavor results. “One-pot wonder” is my middle name. They are lifesavers and you don't have to scrub ten pots after dinner is done. Even cleanup is quick and easy. Once I get into a rhythm, I'm always pleasantly surprised at how many meals I can put together that don’t require many ingredients.

4. Always make a little bit more than needed

If I buy a few more potatoes, or an extra quarter pound of meat, I’ll have another meal for another day. Take that beef stew you made on Tuesday and pop it in your kid’s lunch Thermos. My kids love hot food for lunch and we all know stews taste better the second day. And in my mind, it beats the pizza and French fries they would inevitably buy otherwise in the school cafeteria. My mother always cooked for 10 to 12, even when only the four of us were eating!

5. Keep a well-stocked pantry

I always look at my grocery store’s end-cap sales: Those are the sale items at the end of each aisle. While I always have my list handy, if I see a good deal, I try to figure how and when I can use up the bargain in a future meal. For example, if I see those chickpeas on sale? I'll grab them and make some hummus before the kids get home (my kids love a great snack before running off to soccer practice). And, speaking of snacks, if I'm feeling ambitious or want a fun weekend activity with the kids, we'll make some homemade. They are tastier, have less additives, and often end up being less expensive than any brand I can find. After my kids tried homemade granola bars, they really preferred it over store-bought. Here are two quick and easy snacks my kids love:

Remaining on a realistic, workable food budget, and providing healthy food for my family really go hand in hand. With a little planning, recipe gathering, and thoughtful food shopping, making dinner come together for us is easier than you might think. And, if you, like me, channel your loving mother and grandmother, you’ll often remember how their food always tasted better, even though they bargain shopped, clipped coupons, and avoided the short cuts.

What are your strategies for staying within your food budget? Please share your pearls of wisdom below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nick Meyer
    Nick Meyer
  • Terry
  • Anna Hawkins
    Anna Hawkins
  • Agnieszka Torres
    Agnieszka Torres
  • Anna Francese Gass
    Anna Francese Gass
Cookbook Author. Heirloom Kitchen.Food52 contributing editor & Recipe Tester.


Nick M. February 4, 2019
The reported average spending for an adult in the US on food weekly is $150. That seems high, but that's what "they" say... Varies slightly based on income ($125-175), but that's the average.
Terry March 26, 2018
I wonder to what extent the part of the country one lives in affects the grocery budget. We don't have kids or entertain much, but I spend as much on groceries for just the two of us as (it seems) most families with kids. I do buy many things (though not all) organic and make a point of seeking out free-range (not just cage-free) eggs, grass-fed meat and butter, and raw milk. These things are of course more expensive than conventional "value pack" items at most grocery-stores, but this could be because the producers of these foods are more the exception here in the South rather than the rule. Not much can be grown organically due to the fungus and bugs down here - and if I ask about organics at a produce stand, "We can't afford to do that" is the typical answer - so most organics have to be shipped in. I do prepare meatless dishes and otherwise try to stretch our meat (i.e., not many "meat+3" meals) and use everything up so that little is wasted. I also make everything from scratch, including whole-grain breads, but buying ingredients rather than "products" means that coupons are typically useless. Meal-planning, buying in bulk, keeping the pantry stocked (although I don't buy many canned goods), using in-season produce, making extra - these all apply, but eating "real" food on a daily basis takes up a significant portion of my monthly budget. What happened to the days when eating "healthy" was cheaper, as only the rich could afford things like red meat and sugar? Now eating cheap - beyond beans and rice - means eating pre-packaged, processed foods or produce laden with herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. I imagine it's easy to go organic and grass-fed in places like southern California, but being selective in other places can be challenging and expensive, not only for the climate but because the food culture flows in other directions. Thoughts?
Agnieszka T. March 27, 2018
Hi Terry! I totally agree with you. I meal plan and meal prep for only two humans ( like you!) and I also spent similar amount of money for food also being mindful of sales, in season produce etc. I have Chrons so eating certain way is a priority (meaning fresh, leafy and light vegetables 80 percent and rest is best quality small farm chicken and turkey) and fresh fish only. I usually shop in Whole Foods not because they are some holy grail of quality food, in fact I disagree with wide spread opinion that whatever you buy in Whole Foods is automatically great for you, but because I can source best quality of what I need most often. Some weeks even Whole Foods is a let down. And we live in Southern Fairfield County, Connecticut, very close to New York City and because of that prices of quality food unfortunately reflect the notion that eating organic, free range, fresh food is a sign of status in society. The whole winter when berries are not in season I release silent scream whenever I see “fit” people buying 10 dollar containers because they read somewhere those have antioxidants or whatever magic ingredient they like to believe will keep them beautiful forever ( meanwhile few min later the same people buy packaged animal crackers and sugar loaded yogurts and all sort of other quick junk food). That said - I think the access to quality of food unfortunately is getting withdrawn from locality or seasonality but reflects more wide spread fad trends and marketing ploys by food giants. Sad but true....
Anna H. March 25, 2018
We are a vaguely flexitarian family of 4 and write a menu plan each week. It helps to keep the balance between carnivore and vegetarian meals. any new recipes which get rave reviews (thank you Food52!) get printed off and saved in our Book of Food.
Anna F. March 28, 2018
Rotating in meat-free meals is a great tip! Not only does it give the wallet some relief, it's eco conscience and so incredibly healthy to do so. Thanks so much for making this point!