13 Tips for feeding a family on a budget #SurviveOn35

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Here is my family in 1997. I was 12.5 years old in the picture. And this was either months before or just after my mom and dad’s divorce. (I forget the month/year it happened but I swear it was in 1997).   Family history in a nutshell: Mom married dad when I was 4, in 1988.  She struggled financially to stay home with us kids while he worked Pizza Hut/McDonalds/Grocery stores/taxi. He bounced from job to job, and as they had more kids, my mom started to work nights while he worked days.

They divorced when I was 12-13ish and mom worked full time as a CNA with 5 kids at home.  From the moment I was born until I was in high school, my  mom struggled to get off food stamps, but never refused the help when she needed it.

Bottom line: She was a pro at frugal, healthy living.

I had a ton of interest in hearing my mom’s story and tips. So she graciously agreed to share. These are only 13, she has a ton of other ideas. I might have to make her a regular contributor.

1. Never eat out – When I was raising my kids, it was expensive to feed everyone at a restaurant. You can save so much money and control the ingredients you use when you only eat at home.

2. Live by the penny on a budget – When you live paycheck to paycheck, you have to count every single penny. Not just every dime.  And when you can see where your money is going, you can make changes easier. No splurges, no cokes on the way home. Count every single penny. Use good money management.

3. Accept free produce from gardens and food pantries – I never said no. Ever. If someone at church had a garden I mentioned that if they had a surplus I’d be interested in taking it off their hands. No, don’t beg, but make friends that have gardens. I always had my “feelers” out – and always searched for places that had fresh vegetables for free or super duper cheap.

4. Never say no – I went to the Breadbasket (the food pantry Annie is trying to win the money for), church pantries, WIC, foodstamps, and anything else I heard about. I was always searching for ways to supplement my groceries with healthy options. I accepted the healthy options from the food pantries – bread, noodles, canned/frozen vegetables – and used my foodstamps for the fresh vegetables and fruits.

5. Shop at bread store  –  The Wonder bread store sold surplus bread at a super discounted rate. I loaded my 4 kids in the car – hot day or not – and shopped there in addition to the other stores. I was on foodstamps and I couldn’t afford not to. When you only have $300 to spend on food and the breadstore is there you have to go there and buy it. You have no choice.

6. Shopped at Aldi’s – I shopped at 2-3 different grocery stores, including Aldi’s.  I learned what stores sold the foods I needed at the lowest prices and shopped from store to store. Yes, it was emotionally exhausting taking my 4 kids to 3 different stores in a day – but I learned to be organized and shop at one a day.

7. Freeze milk, bread and other extras – I remember WIC gave me more milk than my family drank in one week. So I froze the milk we didn’t drink and saved it for the time when we would need it.  Same with bread and leftover meals.

8. Waste not want not – I never wasted food. It was a punishable offense to throw food away. I always used every single bit of leftovers in another casserole or dish. I kept as close an eye on my food as I did on my budget.

9. Make once-a-month meals and freeze them – This I did before the divorce. When I had 5 kids and worked full time I missed this money-saving activity.  My friends and I got together and spent all day in the kitchen making 30 days worth of meals and froze them. Then, all month, we only had to shop for perishables. This took extreme penny pinching to start off with since I had to buy the full month’s food up front. It was super tough. But it saved us so much money!

10. Grow your own food – After the divorce, I lived in a house with a yard. On my days off I was outside, working my garden. I might have grown more if I didn’t work so much, but those cucumbers and tomatoes were the most delicious things! And oh the Rhubarb! (Rhubarb is the easiest thing to grow in the world.) You can even grow tomatoes in your windowsill.

11. Take advantage of commodities – These are government surplus foods for low income people.  I remember getting real butter, cheese, beans & rice, and more.  The line for the commodities at the food pantry was super long during a super hot day, but worth every minute I waited.

12. Heartland Shares – CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) – Another program I found was a coop-type program I joined. For a fixed amount each month (and they didn’t take foodstamps so I went without a lot of things to afford this) you got fresh fruits, veggies, and different meats. You didn’t get a choice of what you got, but fresh was important to me.

13.  Get creative with homemade dinners – I made lots of fried Rice, homemade skillet dinners (I’d be creative and spice it up), homemade desserts with fresh apples & oatmeal.  Cooking from scratch is cheaper, fresher, doesn’t have additives, kept my kids healthier. You guys today have the internet and blogs – you can easily get information for creative, frugal, healthy meals.

Thank you Mom!! What do you think? Have anything to add to this list? And do you have any questions for her? She will answer them, I know it!

If you have any questions about what #Surviveon35 is, you can read this post by the sponsor, Anytime Fitness.  Please follow me on twitter @MamaDweeb and cheer me on as I try to raise the money for the Manhattan KS Breadbasket. I will especially need you to comment and tell your friends to comment on my post on Wednesday. Thank you for your support!



Written by:: Annie

Annie Shultz has written 2054 post in this blog.

She is THE Mama Dweeb πŸ™‚ She created this blog back in 2009 and loves to inspire and connect with others through her writing. She also loves talking, dreaming, 90s pop and country music.


  1. says

    So glad to see you list the freeze and store a month ahead. It is so easy to fall into the eating out trap when you don’t have things on hand. Guilty as charged! This is such great info! I made sure to pin it for others. Thank you, Annie for all of this!

    • Annie @ Mama Dweeb says

      Thank you for pinning it Felicia! My mom is a wealth of knowledge. I remember eating out was a HUGE deal for us cause we never ever did it.

  2. says

    You’re a youngin! Maybe a post on how to use items in the grocery store that most people don’t anymore, like barley? I mean I know it’s in soups now and then, but can you use it for anything else? Simple meal ideas that dont’ take a million ingredients, ways to make casseroles more kid friendly (I guess ours is not too thrilled with them).. oh soups, too! I can’t get mine to eat chicken noodle for anything! (homemade, not store bought, blech!) I guess ways to circumvent picky eaters as to what they’ll eat in general not like just veggies.. texture or something? maybe it’s just my kid!

  3. says

    one thing my mom would do when we were grocery shopping and little is if we bought lunchmeat or sliced cheese (because seriously we always went shopping and ended up done RIGHT near lunch time), was she’d pass us back a little tidbit to tide us over until we got home (usually more than a 1/2 hour trip home!)

    • Annie @ Mama Dweeb says

      That is a really great idea with the cheese! And Jill I will pass your questions along to my mom πŸ™‚ Thanks!

  4. says

    Wow. I just want to give your mom a big hug. I know she probably did what any mother would do, but I know she had to have been scared at times.

    These are great tips for anyone. I know I need to start eating out less and cooking more.

    • Annie @ Mama Dweeb says

      Thank you Mandy. Yes, she was pretty stressed out. It wasn’t easy. Honestly? To this day she credits God with providing for us and giving her the peace and strength to make it through.

  5. donna says

    @Jll, I with 3 children 18 months apart, had to be on a strict schedule too… we would get up make beds… eat breakfast…. then do shopping….. before it got hot… or they got cranky…. then…. came home to noon meal… and then nap time for mama too….. awwwww nice….. 2-4 each day nap time…. for years nap time…. then supper time….. ….

  6. says

    Your Mom is awesome! Thank you for sharing this. You and your mom really embody what I think this challenge should have been about. Did I mention your Mom is awesome! You’re pretty cool too πŸ™‚ Thanks for having an open mind and an open heart for the people who really need it.

    • Annie @ Mama Dweeb says

      Thank you Sara!! Means the world to me that you stopped by and commented. You are a cool person for having an open mind with me too.

  7. says

    Oh, have I ever been in the same shoes as your Mom, except I only had 3 kids. I pinched pennies, took any free food I could get, and cooked at home. I never qualified for food stamps because I made too much money on my job but that money was never enough.

    • Annie @ Mama Dweeb says

      Karen – that in between – “too rich for foodstamps” – is almost worse than needing the foodstamps. It certainly can be super hard to feed your kids healthy when every other dime you make goes to bare minimum bills. I remember my mom being in that situation many times.

  8. Chels says

    It was just me and my mom growing up, but this post brought back so many memories, especially the Wonder Bread Store and never going out to eat! It was rough but doable. I was so happy to read how your mom bought fresh good for you food with her assistance. She is the reason I am glad we have food stamp like programs. I am now married with two kids and we are not on food stamps, but I know what it is like being on them. I have been absolutely disgusted my past few trips to the store and watching people (with children) with food stamps (ebt cards) buy ice cream, frozen foods, soda, candy ect. That is all–no fruit, no veggies…I actually saw a lady tell the cashier she didn’t was a bag of beans because she would rather have ice cream with her ebt card balance. I also over-heard a lady trying to sell her ebt balance for cash because she didn’t need food. I was thinking to myself….growing up those were my moms two rules: we pay rent (which included heat, water ect)…we buy food. We can survive without a car, new clothes, or the latest toy. RENT AND FOOD! SO that’s my rant….thumbs up to your mom for taking good care of her children and using the help for the reason it is given. I am all for helping people who want to help themselves!

    • Annie @ Mama Dweeb says

      Thank you for sharing this Chels. This story is part of the reason I want my mom to post here more often. I want people to learn how to eat healthy. Nowadays with the internet and Google being so accessible I wonder why people buy ice cream instead of carrots. It is sad…..really heartbreaking…..

  9. says

    My older sister was also 4 when my mom married my dad, and they had 4 more too! My dad made plenty of money, but my mom always cooked & shopped with her Depression memories in her head so she was a lot like your mom. She’d say, “If it doesn’t make you healthier, why should I buy it?” good question!

    • Annie @ Mama Dweeb says

      I love your mom’s question! Good stuff. I wish more people shopped with that in mind. Sure is a lot of waste out there that could be prevented and health that could be improved with that rule.

  10. donna says

    Thank you ladies for all the compliments. I really don’t deserve them. It was hard and yes scarry… i caried when i read that someone understood it was scarry raising 5 small children alone. i am so proud of all of them today. Very proud of annie!!!!! and Bethany!!!!! and matt and Gloria and Bekah….
    Please ladies if any of you have any questions let me know if i can help i will help…. i have been there done own the t shirt so to speak….
    and you can all call me Miss Donna ok…. :

  11. says

    Hi Miss Donna! You have great tips. I really want to try and cook-and-freeze a month’s worth of meals, but I don’t even know where to start! Could you share ideas of what freezes well, etc.? Thanks!

  12. says

    This is such a useful post! People often tell me that they can’t afford to eat healthy and I always tell them that eating healthy can be cheaper than they think (and cheaper than junk food)–this post is definitely proof of that.

    • Annie @ Mama Dweeb says

      Thank you Kiersten! One thing my mom always did was surround herself with people that could help. If you are isolated, it can be scary and much harder to eat healthy. So everyone should find a group – church, mom’s group – something!

  13. donna cukjati says

    @anna i would yes surround myself with people…. i would join a group of women that would get together and pull our resources and cook once a week together at each others houses,. There are cook books out there once a month cooking that you can use too. Have fun.

  14. says

    If you freeze milk, you might want to pour a little out beforehand. It’s possible for the milk to expand and bust out of the plastic carton, and then you have a mess!

    I’ve also stretched fresh milk by making powdered milk and adding it to the fresh stuff. And my husband taught me his mom’s trick to stretch ground meat by adding oats or potato flakes to it.

    Our local farmer’s market has a table set up for WIC checks… just sign in and you get a check to use right there for fresh veggies. I’m not on WIC, so I don’t know exactly how it works, but I think it’s pretty cool that it’s right there at the market.

  15. Christy Maurer says

    I am bookmarking this to read over and over! It is so hard to not eat out or get fast food these days! I know we RARELY ate out when I was growing up, and it was a treat. Now it’s just so common place that it’s not a treat at all. And I love shopping at the bread stores. I need to make myself do more of these because we need a new car and are going to have to find money in the budget to pay for it! Food is a HUGE part of that.

  16. Patricia Graefe says

    There are ideas on here that I have done, am doing and now know that I can do πŸ™‚ Thanks for this. Trying to feed 5 on a very limited budget is so hard, so this post was awesome for us. Thanks.

  17. says

    These are great tips! You are so lucky to have a mom that made it a priority to feed you and your siblings fresh, healthy foods…what a strong and smart woman:)

  18. Jennifer says

    I started this and LOVE it. Monthly cooking didn’t really work for me. Now, I make meals on Saturday or Sunday to eat all week long. I may fry up a dozen eggs, fry a pound of sausage and make a batch of biscuits….we have breakfast sandwiches for the week. Did you know pizza reheats well? πŸ™‚ Who doesn’t love leftover pizza? I make a pizza, cut into pieces and then reheat during the week. Make salads in tupperware containers and have ready to grab each morning. Prep a lasagna but put in the fridge to cook a couple days later. Keeps us from eating lunch or dinner out.

    • Annie @ Mama Dweeb says

      I love these tips, Jennifer! I need to put salad in containers, that would save us so much money. I currently use just the plastic bags they come in, but that makes them go to waste faster.

      Leftover Pizza and ready-to-make lasagna are fantastic ideas! I am like you, I cannot cook just once a month πŸ˜‰

  19. says

    I super agree with #13. We all have the internet to helps us cook healthier but it seems like so few people actually utilize this useful tool.

    • says

      Thank you, so much. The internet is super available – libraries have free labs, but I don’t know very many people in the USA who are not online in some way. Coupons, how-to-budget, all free info and very valuable if you utilize it.


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