As a larger family, our grocery budget can be a little intense, especially as we have really tried to cut the crap out of our diet. I've written before about how we cut out hydrogenated oils and aspartame ("The first step") and how we really try to eat at home ("Dinnertime"). Over two years has passed since I wrote those blog posts and I wanted to do a follow up. How are we doing now that we have two busy toddlers, a homeschooling preschooler, and another on the way? And, since I wrote those original posts, we've moved twice ("Across town move" and "PCS to South Carolina") and my hubby started power school--a lot has changed since we decided to undertake a new family diet!
I'm happy to report that our family diet is going even better than we had anticipated! Not only have we cut out hydrogenated oils and aspartame, but we've also cut out food coloring and fast food. We stick to foods that have ingredients we can pronounce or that we know the origin/purpose of. For the processed foods we buy, we try to stick to under 10 ingredients, preferably under 5, bonus points if they are made out of ingredients we have in our own pantry (take, for instance, Cape Cod chips).
Getting to this point has required a significant shift in how we do things. I pack a lunch or snack almost every time I leave the house with the boys. This has many added bonuses. My husband would say that first and foremost this saves us money. I'm not driving through Chick Fil A to pick up 3 kids meals at just over $3 each plus my meal, equaling about $20 for one meal that won't even be finished by the kids. I like it because I can control what is in the lunches I pack for our boys. I can also pack more of what I know they'll eat (fruits and veggies) and pick a protein I know they'll like more than chicken nuggets (like yogurt or peanut butter). It has been a shift because it does require preparation before we leave the house. If we are going to be out of the house for a longer amount of time, I need lunch and a snack. If I think we'll only be out of the house for a short while, but home for lunch, I often pack a snack anyways that keeps well (apple slices and string cheese with an ice pack). This works great because if it takes me longer than expected to get home, I have something on hand and I'm not tempted to drive through anywhere on our way home. Plus, when we do get home the boys have something on their tummies so they aren't fussing and whining while I pull together lunch. In my blog post "Toddler twin must haves (2yo to 3yo)," I list what we use to pack the boys' lunches and my favorite lunch pail to use for me and the boys.
Packing lunches has also required that we have more food on hand at home which means staying on top of our grocery shopping. I miss how convenient it was for us to do online grocery shopping at Harris Teeter in North Carolina, but we live here in South Carolina now and don't have that luxury close by. Instead I do the bulk of our shopping at Costco and a real life grocery store. That has been another big shift for us because the entire time we lived in North Carolina, I did the bulk of our shopping online. Suddenly I find myself in South Carolina with a preschooler and toddler twins and I'm figuring out how to make grocery shopping work with our hoard! We are in the groove of it now. (Though it has really made me appreciate the convenience of online grocery shopping and made me miss our old Harris Teeter even more.) To accommodate our family and cut down on the frequency of our grocery trips, the extra side-by-side fridge/freezer in our garage has really come in handy. With the aid of our extra fridge/freezer, I can pretty much limit our grocery shopping to every 2 weeks. That means that when we run to Costco, I buy the 7.5 dozen box of eggs, 3-4 gallons of milk, and 2-3 cartons of heavy cream every 2 weeks. I missed my last Costco run so my hubby actually had to pick up a carton of 18 eggs at the commissary and we have been rationing them over the past couple days. (Yes, eggs are our favorite protein!)
Costco is an integral part in our family grocery shopping. There are so many things that I buy there that would cost a fortune buying in smaller portions at a grocery store, even the commissary, such as nuts, dried fruits, tubs of yogurt (we buy the large tubs and then portion out from there), eggs, milk, butter, organic ground beef, fancy cheeses, and a lot of the fresh produce we buy there. I wrote before about how Costco has a lot of great organic options for a better price than grocery stores, but, even there, a lot of times I still can't squeeze it into our family budget (read "Organics vs family budget"). I've found that the longer we stick with our family diet, the more we have been able to make room for things, like insisting on real maple syrup and not table syrup (we buy Costco's organic maple syrup).
And to make more room in our family grocery budget, I've started making a lot more things from scratch. I thought that I made a lot of things before, but we've really started incorporating homemade items into our regular day to day family life. This has been a slow shift because it puts a lot more on my plate that I've had to make room for. Yet, it all fits in, especially since we are homeschooling. We are home and I can talk to the boys while I make granola bars or have them help cook, especially our oldest who is very interested in the happenings of our kitchen. My husband and I love that we are controlling what goes into our food. Some things I started making homemade out of necessity. The cost of granola bars was becoming a substantial portion of our grocery budget. Because we cut so much of the junk out of our family diet, buying granola bars that made the grade was a much larger expense. If you read the back of the boxes of granola bars, most of them are essentially candy bars. My husband loves to bring a granola bar in his lunch for power school and I love having them as snacks for our boys or myself when I'm feeling like I need a boost (oh, the joys of pregnancy!). The granola bar recipe I used to make granola bars for the kids wasn't filling enough for my hubby and Clif Bars were becoming too expensive. I found this Hearty, Homemade Granola Bar Recipe posted by Men's Health that I modify based on what is my cupboard, usually switching up what nuts I use or the dried fruits I mix in, which also gives them variety.
But I've taken over making a lot of things from scratch, like pasta sauce. I have a food processor that I love (shout out to Cuisinart!) and make the Best Marinara Sauce Yet courtesy of AllRecipes.com. I've also been making our pie crusts more and more instead of using the Trader Joe frozen pie crust like I did almost the entire first 2-years of our twins' lives. Putting that food processor to use again, I've loved Pam's Pie Crust from the Pioneer Woman. We also love the Pioneer Woman's Applesauce Recipe, another food processor favorite. My family is absolutely crazed for Alton Brown's "Instant" Pancake Mix Recipe. We've used a variety of mix-ins for the pancake mix; we'll never be buying pancake mix from the store again with a recipe that tasty (and easy)! The Pioneer Woman has so many amazing recipes on her website that whipping something up from scratch isn't intimidating anymore. For instance, this is one of my favorite oh-crap-it-is-dinnertime recipes, her Bowtie Chicken Alfredo. The other night I threw a couple frozen chicken breasts in warm water for a few minutes before dicing the mostly frozen breasts and tossing them in pan for that recipe--easy and homemade in under half an hour. I cannot recommend her cookbooks or her 16-minute meals tab on her blog enough. Her cookbooks are totally worth the money and her 16-minute meals tab is well worth the time to peruse. I own The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl and The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from my Frontier. Tonight I made her Mini Meatball Sandwiches. However, I've made the recipe many times before and my pregnant self knew all I wanted was meatballs in sauce. I whipped up the meatballs in my Kitchen Aid mixer and made my marinara sauce in my food processor to pour over the top of them. We ate them with broccoli sprinkled with Parmesan. Hands down, my favorite Pioneer Woman recipe is her Comfort Meatballs. I don't know what it is about these meatballs that I just love.They really do just taste comforting. My husband's favorite recipe is her Chicken Pot Pie. We haven't bought store bought chicken pot pies or meatballs in over 3 years because of the Pioneer Woman.
We eat the majority of our meals at home. Much like packing lunches, this takes preparation as well. I freeze most of our meat. I stock up on meat at Costco and freeze it in portions that work for most of our recipes. It is so convenient having a well-stocked meat freezer. I can flip open my cookbook and decide what sounds good-- flank steak? pork chops? chicken? I try to cook portions that will last for a family dinner and lunch the next day, both for my husband and for myself and the kids. Right now for our family of five-- a 5-year old and 2 3-year olds-- that means cooking for 6-8 people. Because buying organic, free-range meat is so expensive, I try to do several meatless recipes a week or really cut down on the amount of meat in a recipe I cook. My family never notices when I almost cut the meat in half in a lot of our regular recipes. Another one of my favorite tricks from the Pioneer Woman is to cook a large portion of meat-- like a brisket-- and then break it up into several different dishes, like what she did on her "Bulk Buys" episode of The Pioneer Woman.
I also utilize tricks to make things quicker for me, especially breakfast. For instance, when we make pancakes, we make big batches that will have plenty of leftovers. The last batch of pancakes we made lasted us 2 days after we made them. I just microwaved pancakes in the morning. Most mornings we have eggs or oatmeal for breakfast. I make the eggs fresh each morning, throwing some toast in and giving the boys a banana while the eggs cook. Since we don't buy instant oatmeal, I give them a banana and a glass of milk while I cook their oatmeal. When I make oatmeal, I make a huge pot. I get the water boiling first thing when I wake up (well, second after my cup of coffee). I store the leftovers in a container in the fridge. The following mornings I scoop the boys' portions into their bowls, splash a little water on top, and microwave the bowls 1 or 2 at a time. I stir it up before mixing in their toppings. I either do a little sugar and milk or brown sugar and mashed banana. Sometimes I'll do strawberry spread with chopped nuts or granola on top. We also like doing "pizza toast." I toast some bread and spread yogurt on top. I chop up strawberries or bananas and lay them like "pepperonis" on the pizza. Sometimes I'll sprinkle some sort of spice on this, like ginger or cinnamon, or drizzle honey over the top. Sometimes I drop berries over the top of this. I buy the big tubs of plain Greek yogurt at Costco instead of individual cups; I use this for the yogurt I spread on their toast and to eat with mix-ins. Of all the fancy ways I mix up my yogurt, our kids prefer it drizzled with honey. And as much as they love fruit, they don't like when I drop fruit in their yogurt, just on the side of their bowls.
For us, eating healthy is not about a calorie count; it is about balance. We eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. I use my Pampered Chef Apple Wedger almost everyday. We snack on fruits and veggies; we eat them raw with breakfast and lunch everyday. I actually cut them up for dinner a lot too, especially if the one dish meal I made isn't heavy in veggies. I care much more about the ingredients list than the calories to fat. We believe in moderation, portion size, and a healthy, active lifestyle. We spend a lot of time playing outside-- a lot of time. We like going to the park, taking walks, and playing around our house. When I say our family diet is much more a lifestyle, I really mean that it seeps into all aspects of our life. We don't believe in a life dependent on technology for ourselves or our kids (read "Toddler technology"). Our kids are often bored and we like it that way. Today while they were bored, our oldest took it upon himself to pull out our large coloring sheets and teach his brothers their colors. They spent 45 minutes coloring together and working together as a team; they also spent a large portion of the day playing on our back patio in costumes and doing various imaginative play throughout our house. We read them books-- real life, bound books. We try to make the best choices that we can for our family.
Part of that has also been shifting to making our household cleaners (read "Homemade household cleaners"). This has also been one of those decisions that has really been a blessing both to our lifestyle and our family budget. I love being able to mix up refill cleaners in my laundry room instead of having to make a trip to the store. I love that they are non-toxic. My husband absolutely loves how affordable they are. Our kids can help us clean house without worry about the chemicals they are handling.
We are really happy with the changes we have made as a family. When we first made this shift, I never would have believed all the things that slowly would have made their way onto my plate, like making household cleaners or all these different things from scratch all the time. There are other staples in our family diet that I would like to shift to homemade, like our bread. I have a bread maker, but every time I make bread in there, my son calls it "ugly bread." I think I may try having the bread maker knead it up and let it rise, then pour it into a bread pan and bake it in the oven. Maybe that will help make it more attractive. I'd love to get rid of store bought bread. We consume so much bread and there are so many ingredients in store bought bread that I would like to cut out.
Something that I touched on in my blog post "Organics vs family budget" is that sometimes what we want to buy doesn't always line up with what we can afford to buy each month. I feel that we are taking steps in the right direction and that we are much further towards that right direction than I would have expected us to be when we originally started down this path. I would love for us to buy all organic, free-range meat, but that doesn't mean that we can suddenly afford that. So we buy the next best thing. I would love if we could afford to buy all organic dairy products, but, man, we cannot afford that. I would love if we could afford organic eggs again, but we are buying the 7.5 dozen box practically every 2 weeks. We would either need to cut down drastically on our egg consumption or start a special egg savings account. I do my best to avoid GMOs, but, honestly, my attempt is spotty at best. I have found that trying to buy products with recognizable ingredients has cut out a lot of the red-flag GMO products (bye-bye processed cereal!).
When I look at where we are now compared with when I wrote my first blog post on our family diet in October 2011, it is night and day. In another 2 years, where will be then? My mom called me the other day and told me that someone gave her a bunch of eggs from the chickens they raise. She said it reminded her of me. I would seriously love if we had fresh eggs-- not sure how military housing at each of our duty stations would feel about us throwing a chicken coup out back. (Maybe when my hubby retires...) Tonight my hubby and I were looking up peanut butter recipes for our food processor. My love of cooking has grown. I love that my husband loves the granola bars I make him and that my kids get excited when I tell them what I'm making for dinner. I love when I've had a really stressful day and I make Clodagh McKenna's risotto to unwind. I cannot even begin to describe how much I love watching our oldest help his daddy make pancakes for breakfast; they are such an adorable pair! We absolutely love when our kids get excited over "real" food. We like the direction this is going in. We like the food we've been making. We like turning raw ingredients into something delicious and we love gathering together as a family to enjoy them. It was a scary first step to take, but we haven't ever looked back.
I do want to make a note here that we have made a very conscious effort to not be confrontational about any of our changes in our family diet. We never turn down what is offered us when we go to dinner somewhere. We do not judge other people's choices for their family diets. We do not expect our families to conform to our diet or buy anything special for us. We have eaten the candy given to us at holidays and never make it a big deal to our kids; we even have a sweets bin in our pantry. We have tried to be very practical about these changes. I wish that it was more mainstream to eat this way; I'm totally on board with Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. But we understand that not everyone feels this way or eats this way and so we have been very careful and thoughtful in our friendships and day to day life to make sure we don't isolate people with our diet changes. I'm writing this blog post on something that has been a big shift for us as a family and how we made those steps.