Then, two or three weeks went by, and the easy dinners disappeared. I was left wondering what to do next. How could I manage to grocery shop, cook, take care of a baby, and do it all on a smaller budget now that we were a single income family? Then I had to adjust again when I went back to work a year later.
I've now been doing all three jobs for three and a half years, and I've figured out a few things. First, let me share a little bit about our family.
We have two adults in the household, a 3.5 year old, and a voraciously hungry 21 month old. We prefer organic food, but prioritize fresh and unprocessed food. We usually buy organic meat, but eat a largely vegetarian diet. On top of that, I recently went on a gluten-free diet for personal health reasons (the rest of the family still loves and eats gluten). Our monthly grocery budget is $300, which includes a $60 milk share at a local farm. So, I spend about $60 a week on groceries.
Full disclosure: we raise some of our own food. We have 10 hens for eggs, and I didn't account for their feed as part of the grocery budget. In the spring, summer, and fall, we spent less than $60 a week on groceries because we have a garden. But, in the winter, we buy most of our food, still within that budget.
Here are a few things I've learned.
1. You have to prioritize.
Healthy food can be fast, easy, or cheap, but is rarely all three. If you have a higher grocery budget, you may be able to afford healthier convenience foods. If you are on a tight budget, you may end up making food from scratch which may be easy but time consuming. We ended up prioritizing organic meat over organic vegetables, when the budget makes us choose. If you have extra demands on your time, like a full time job outside of the home, you may make time a priority. When I was working, we designated one night a week for eating out or ordering in, to ease a little bit of the pressure to do it all. We also bought a rotisserie chicken once a week.
2. Weekly, or even monthly, meal planning is key.
Every Saturday or Sunday (depending on how busy of a weekend), I sit down with my calendar, and meal plan. I make note of any days that need to be fast meals or slow cooker meals (more on that in a minute). I think about common ingredients across meals, so I can use up fresh ingredients, like a bunch of cilantro. Recently, we even added breakfast and lunch planning into the equation. I'm a big foodie and I used to try new recipes all the time, but I've learned that we need to have a few favorites that we use regularly. I try not to do new recipes more than once a week. Flexibility has been a key part of menu planning. I'll schedule a night of either leftovers or stir fry. If we have leftovers, we use them up. If we don't, I make a stir fry with on-hand ingredients, like leftover vegetables, frozen vegetables, rice, and sauces that we keep on hand. Then, if we end up being out of the house for any reason, I didn't buy extra ingredients for a meal. When I worked full time, I sat down once a month and made a gigantic meal plan, with weekly grocery lists. We always planned on eating out/takeout the same night and eating rotisserie chicken on grocery store day. We also ate at my in-laws weekly (sadly we no longer live close enough to do so). Although it took a long time, especially in the beginning, it saved so much stress and time later that I though the effort was totally worth it. I'll throw a sample weekly plan at the end.
3. Learn to love your slow cooker and freezer
I mentioned making freezer meals when I was pregnant. Well, you really need freezer meals when you have two children under three with a tendency to get cranky just before dinner. I love to do batch cooking, although I don't do it every month. I'll gather up a list of slow cooker recipes and toss the ingredients into gallon bags in the freezer. Then, on cooking day, I just throw them into the slow cooker in the morning. I also have a rice cooker with a delayed start. Because of meal planning, I know which mornings I need to put something into the slow cooker. (Slow cookers are great time savers, but not if you are scrambling for dinner at the last minute!).
4. Find ways to make grocery shopping easier as a parent.
We've tried a couple different strategies for grocery shopping over the past few years. We've tried going as a family, but that always ends up putting us over budget. I've tried going by myself, especially after bedtime, but I'm often exhausted. We discovered something amazing. Harris Teeter Home Shop. I order my groceries online (really easy with meal planning!), and pick them up at the store. I don't even have to get out of my car. They do a great job selecting produce. It's also saved me money. I've eliminated impulse buys, it's easy to price compare and shop sales, and if a sale item is out of stock, they give you the more expensive option for the sale price. They left something out of my order once, and drove the ten miles to my house to deliver the item...after their regular hours. Many grocery stores have similar options, but I can't speak to the quality of any other store. I do pay a fee, but I choose to pay it annually, and it comes out to less than $2 per week. It's also unlimited, which means that I can do an order for a single item if I need to (I don't usually). Harris Teeter is the most expensive grocery store in town, but I feel like the savings of time and money of shopping online are worth it. I live out in the country, ten miles from the grocery stores, and it's great to be able to pick up groceries on the way home from an outing, even if the kids are asleep in the car.
When I do need to go into the store, I look for the fun carts. They are bulky and unwieldy (my husband calls them embarrassing) but the kids enjoy driving the "racecar" enough that it keeps them entertained and a little bit distracted. When my son was younger, I usually wore him in a baby carrier in the grocery store. (Safety reminder: never put a baby seat on the child seat portion of the cart--they are not meant to click in and it can damage the car seat or the seat can fall off).
5. Babywearing is your friend.
With a tiny infant, babywearing is really helpful for grocery shopping and some food preparation. Just be cautious about using the stove, and definitely avoid cooking foods that might splatter. You can definitely make yourself a smoothie, at the least. It also means you can eat!
With older babies and clingy toddlers, you can put baby on your back. I've cooked many meals with a child on my back, and often put on upbeat music so that we dance around the kitchen. It's super helpful during the evening "witching hour."
6. Use toddlers and older children as helpers
My kids are often underfoot when I'm trying to get dinner on the table. I've learned to let go a little bit, and will ask them (even the 21 month old) to set the table. Or the three year old to wash vegetables or chop them with a crinkle cutter. It does take a little longer but it can soothe frazzled moods and make things go more smoothly.
7. Ask for help.
About a month after returning to work full time as an elementary school teacher, I had a complete and utter meltdown about the adjustment. I posted an emotional outburst on Facebook (very atypical for me), and wonderful advice came pouring in, including some of the above ideas. We were also fortunate at the time, as I mentioned, to be able to have weekly meals with the in-laws. On top of that, when I asked for help, a dear friend did bring me a dinner. Certainly, that wasn't going to be a regular solution to the problem, but it helped me get my head above water. If possible, ask your partner for help. Until recently, my husband had a lengthy commute and wasn't home for dinner three nights a week, and got home just in time to eat the other two. But on weekends, I asked him to entertain the kids or grab things for me. And there are some meals that he likes to cook, like chili and tacos, so he makes those a couple of times per month.
8. Use Pinterest wisely.
This is my last tip. I love my cookbooks, dearly, and have several that I use regularly. But with my new adjustment to eating gluten free, Pinterest has been an amazing resource. It's also a great place to look for freezer meals because often you can find whole collections complete with grocery lists. But, don't get sucked into Pinterest Ambitionitis, where you think you have to do amazing lunch boxes and beautiful dinners every day (unless that brings you joy).
Breakfast: Fried Eggs
Lunch: Frozen Pizza or Mac 'n' Cheese from a box (we have a babysitter on Mondays)
Dinner: Healthy Black Bean Casserole
Lunch: Egg Salad
Dinner: Slow Cooker Buttered Chickpeas
Breakfast: Cereal and Smoothies
Lunch: Tuna Salad
Dinner: Salmon Teriyaki (homemade teriyaki sauce made with gluten-free soy sauce, frozen salmon from Costco)
Breakfast: Yogurt and Frozen Fruit
Lunch: Sandwiches (leftovers for mom)
Dinner: White Bean Salsa Verde
Lunch: Cheese, crackers, and fruit
Dinner: Stir Fry or Leftovers
Breakfast: Pancakes (Gluten Free Oatmeal Pancakes for Mom)
Lunch: Leftovers or rice and steamed veggies
Dinner: Beef and Black Bean Tacos in Corn Tortillas
Breakfast: Rice Flour Dutch Baby
Lunch: Hard boiled eggs and fruit
Dinner: Roasted chicken with roasted vegetables