How a Family of 5 Eats for $200 a Week in Madison, Wisconsin

How a Family of 5 Eats for $200 a Week in Madison, Wisconsin

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Ariel Knutson
May 14, 2017
(Image credit: GettyImages)

Welcome to Kitchn's Food Budget Diaries series, where we show you how people around the country spend money on what they eat and drink. Each post will follow one person for one week and will chronicle everything that person consumed and how much it costs them.

Name: Emily
Location: Madison, Wisconsin
Age: 36
Number of people in family: 5 (my husband, myself, and our kids, a 5-year-old, 3-year-old, and 10-month-old)
Occupation: Stay-at-home mom; husband is a construction coordinator.
Household income: $54,000
Weekly food budget: $200 a week

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Day One: Saturday

6:30 a.m. Our kids wake up hungry. We're trying to get them in the habit of eating some fruit first thing. We're low on groceries, so this morning it's an apple and an orange, shared between all of us. The kids also each have a bowl of cereal with almond milk. Iris — who is 5 years old — has a peanut butter sandwich.

Mark and I each have a cup of coffee, two fried eggs, and half an English muffin. Mark also has a bowl of cereal.

11:00 a.m. Mark heads to the grocery store with the 3- and 5-year-old to shop for the week, while I stay home with the baby for his nap. We shop almost exclusively at our local employee-owned, super-economical, no-frills grocery store. He's armed with a complete list made from my menu plan for the week. At the store, he gets a cookie for Iris and Canaan to share.

Woodman's Market

Green chilies: $1.58
Cannellini beans: $2.77
Garbanzo beans: $1.77
Tortilla chips: $2.37
Sea salt: $2.09
Black tea: $6.47
Kraft mac and cheese: $.99
Olive oil mayonnaise: $3.99
Cheerios: $3.00
Honey nut Cherrios: $2.50
Oatmeal: $2.29
2 boxes tiny toast cereal: $3.00
Popcorn: $4.69
Dinosaur chicken nuggets: $4.99
Chicken breast: $11.78
Green pepper: $1.50
Mangoes: $.89
Zucchini: $3.80
Broccoli: $4.80
Grape tomatoes: $1.29
Salad mix: $2.69
California figs: $2.99
Lettuce: $2.00
Cilantro: $.79
Sweet potatoes: $2.46
Pink lady apples: $3.87
Bananas: $1.59
Avocados: $2.89
Clementines: $4.00
Seedless cucumber: $.99
Blueberries: $2.99
Blackberries: $2.78
Strawberries: $2.00
Red pears: $3.64
Milk: $3.19
Almond milk: $2.99
Dozen eggs: $1.69
Tortillas: $2.69
Frozen pizza: $5.69
Frozen peas and carrots: $2.58
Frozen carrots: $1.39
Frozen corn: $2.39
Blue Bunny ice cream: $5.39
Pancake mix: $3.69
2 loaves of bread: $5.68
Baguette: $3.99
Cookie: $.46

Total Cost: $144.06

12:30 p.m. For lunch, our 10-month-old, Silas, eats a handful of peas and carrots from the freezer and some blackberries. Mark put a pot of beans in the oven early this morning, so we have baked beans with a baguette for lunch, with a salad of mixed greens including half of a cucumber and blackberries. Mark and I each have a second cup of coffee.

1:30 p.m. After lunch, I take a rare nap with the baby. While I'm resting, my in-laws stop by to say hello. They are foodies and love to share. They regularly bring us gifts of food, which is always appreciated. Today they bring the fixings for a meal, which we won't get to today, but will come in handy later in the week.

3:00 p.m. Mark and the kids head out to meet their cousins for swimming at the athletic club. I relax with a cup of tea and a small bowl of ice cream, my favorite indulgence.

6:00 p.m. At dinnertime, we all meet back up at my brother-in-law's family farm in the country for pizza. It's free for us.

Day Two: Sunday

7:30 a.m. For breakfast this morning, we eat a pound of strawberries. The kids each have a bowl of cereal. Mark eats the remainder of last night's baguette with peanut butter.

I have a half English muffin and three eggs. We each have coffee, and then it's a mad dash to get to church by 10 a.m.

12:00 p.m. When we get home from church it's already noon, and everyone is famished. Pasta is our default Sunday lunch, almost every week. This week, the pasta of choice is a bag of frozen ravioli, topped with Mark's homemade marinara from the freezer. We also serve the other half of that cucumber, two apples, and half a bag of salad mix.

To keep everybody calm while that's cooking, we nosh on corn tortilla chips and dates. Mark and I each have a second cup of coffee.

3:00 p.m. We spend this Sunday afternoon just relaxing at home. The kids were up past bedtime and everyone needs a nap. This means videos for the kids while mom and dad pretend to be unconscious. And snacks — specifically popcorn.

6:00 p.m. On Sunday evenings, we don't cook. Instead, we scavenge whatever leftovers can be found from the previous week's meals. Sometimes we make popcorn and have smoothies. Tonight we fill tortillas with refried beans, leftover brown rice, and cheese.

8:00 p.m. And after the kids are finally in bed — you guessed it — ice cream all around. Blue Bunny is our favorite choice.

Day Three: Monday

6:30 a.m. Breakfast on weekdays is haphazard and chaotic. Mark skips the coffee and drinks the free stuff at work. He downs a clementine and two slices of toast, and is out the door by 7:30 a.m.

The kids and I eat our ration of fruit: two clementines (two bags for $4 this week!), a package of blackberries, and half an apple. We each have a bowl of cereal, and I also eat half an English muffin and drink a cup of coffee.

8:15 a.m. We're in the van to get Iris to kindergarten a few blocks away. This morning is rainy or we'd be walking.

10:30 a.m. After dropping Iris off, the boys and I spend the morning at home catching up on laundry and fort-building. I get hungry and have a small bowl of cereal with whole-milk yogurt, and a glass of homemade kombucha.

I've been learning to make my own kombucha, and so far it's going really well. I've spent next to nothing using supplies I already had, and a scoby from a friend. The only cost is sugar and black tea, which I buy in bulk. It's pennies per cup.

Get the recipe: How To Make Kombucha Tea at Home

11:30 a.m. At lunchtime I give in to my 3-year-old's demands for Star Wars macaroni and cheese. I spruce it up with a can of tuna and some frozen peas. I finish off some leftover curry that was in the fridge from Friday's dinner, and a leftover apple from breakfast. Mark took the container of baked beans from yesterday to work with him for his lunch. Our daughter's elementary school serves free lunch to all the students. Some days, when the meal is heavy on cheese, she takes a cold lunch. But today they're having French toast — her favorite!

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

1:15 p.m. Before heading out the door to grab Iris, I make a peanut butter sandwich (the old standby — we eat a lot of peanut butter, have you noticed?) because I'm hungry. (Breastfeeding is brutal!) We stop at the library for an hour before coming home.

2:30 p.m. By the time we get back, the kids are ready for their afternoon snack. I cut up another apple and mix up a container of popcorn, Cheerios, Chex, and raisins. That should last the rest of the week.

5:30 p.m. I make a lot of one-pot meals and soups, especially during colder weather. And soup might be my all-time favorite food. For dinner tonight, I'm trying a recipe I found on Kitchn: white rotisserie chicken chili.

Instead of rotisserie chicken, I use the not-as-good frozen breasts from my freezer. It's served with an avocado, tortilla chips, and a container of cherry tomatoes on the side. This is good soup, but next time I'll make it with good dark thigh meat. The kids didn't each much beside the chips and cherry tomatoes. But that's pretty typical for them. Silas loved the avocado!

Get the recipe: White Rotisserie Chicken Chili

8:30 p.m. I'm afraid I'm in the bad habit of bedtime ice cream. Luckily, we don't buy it often. Better eat it quick and be done with it!

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Day Four: Tuesday

7:00 a.m. Everyone oversleeps this morning due to thunderstorms last night. We're groggy and behind. Mark has two bowls of cereal and runs out to catch a meeting. (Yes, we also eat a lot of cereal. I would love to break this habit. But you can't beat the convenience.)

The kids and I eat a pint of strawberries. Last night at Iris' request, I cooked up a batch of hard-boiled eggs, so she and Canaan each have one with a slice of peanut butter toast and a bowl of cereal. I usually don't even get a chance to sit at breakfast, so as usual I quickly down my coffee and half an English muffin before running off to school.

9:30 a.m. My scant breakfast catches up to me, so I have a hard-boiled egg and some homemade kombucha to keep me going.

11: 15 a.m. Canaan is in a hurry for lunch today, since he gets to spend the afternoon at Grandma's. He and I both have leftovers. We share an orange, and Silas has a pear.

Today when he left, Mark grabbed a homemade burrito from the freezer, and an apple.

12:15 p.m. Shortly after noon, we get in the van and I drive Canaan the 15 minutes to Grandma's house, where he'll spend the afternoon. I'm sure Canaan eats numerous snacks. But what happens at Grandma's stays at Grandma's, right?

I'm glad for the quiet, since I've been a little under the weather this week. The baby is asleep when we get home, so I put him in the bedroom, ignore the laundry (and dishes, and everything else), and hit the couch for some much-needed rest.

I confess to eating a bowl of cereal at some point. (These are starting to add up.)

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

2:30 p.m. Silas and I head out again to pick up Iris, then back to Grandma's. We spend some time catching up with her. The kids raid her candy bowl, as usual, and happily suck their Blow-Pops all the way home. By the time we get back, about 4:45, Mark is already home. He eats a few dried figs from the package in the cupboard.

5:30 p.m. Tonight I'm trying a vegetable pancake recipe I found on Kitchn. They come together pretty quickly. I serve it with salad mix from Costco and a sliced-up mango to share. The kids are impressed! I like the concept, but not sure I got the proportions of batter to vegetables right. I plan to tinker with this one and try it again another time. It's definitely a cheap meal. We are all full with plenty left over.

Get the recipe: Savory Carrot & Zucchini Pancakes

8:00 p.m. After bedtime, Mark and I each have a bowl of cereal. I think we need to expand our horizons and try something different, huh?

Day Five: Wednesday

6:30 a.m. The hard-boiled eggs for breakfast were a big hit. So they are immediately requested again this morning. Yay for protein! Along with toast, the kids also finish off a pint of blueberries, and each have a bowl of cereal. Mark eats two pieces of toast with peanut butter and his mom's awesome homemade strawberry jam. With my coffee, I eat a leftover vegetable pancake from last night's supper, a clementine the kids ignored, and an apple.

I pack Iris' lunch bag this morning with half an apple and a sandwich. When we get back from dropping her off, Canaan eats the other half of the apple. The bag of Pink Lady's we bought on Saturday is disappearing quickly.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

9:45 a.m. On Wednesday mornings I take the boys to a Play and Learn program across town. So after cleaning up breakfast, I have a shower and we leave. I grab a second cup of coffee to go and half a peanut butter sandwich to hold me over. At Play and Learn, the children serve and cleanup a small snack. Today it's bananas and Goldfish crackers.

12:30 p.m. We get home late and I'm so hungry. I definitely need to eat better! I quickly fry up three eggs over-easy for myself. I also share a pear with Silas, and down the last of the Costco salad from my in-laws. It's so good, I'm planning to make a homemade version myself.

Today Canaan gets a sandwich and a pickle before running outside to play in the sunshine. It's cold so that doesn't last long. When we gets back in, he wants a banana.

2:30 p.m. After-school snack is the popcorn mix I put together yesterday and a shared apple. I have a bowl of popcorn myself.

5:00 p.m. We eat a little early on Wednesdays since it's a church night. I planned for goulash, but didn't check to make sure I had all the right ingredients. So I end up improvising a little and add a can of pizza sauce instead of tomato sauce. I don't remember where my goulash recipe came from, but it's very simple. The kid's announce tonight, "This is my favorite meal!" So that's encouraging.

I have at least one meal with ground beef every week. Can't live without it! Served with a side of steamed broccoli.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

8:00 p.m. After bedtime, in order to avoid typing the words "I had a bowl of cereal," I melt cheese in a tortilla and roll it up.

Day Six: Thursday

6:30 a.m. With the week winding down, we get progressively less creative with our eating. This morning it's cold, so the kids each have a bowl of instant oatmeal (steel-cut) with a dollop of Grandma's jam and a banana. Mark eats a bowl of cereal and a clementine. I have peanut butter toast and cereal with my coffee.

With nothing pressing on the agenda today, the boys and I spend the morning at home. I bottle a batch of kombucha and brew tea to start the next batch.

11:30 a.m. For lunch I make Canaan dinosaur chicken nuggets and carrots, shared by Silas. Leftover goulash for me. Mark's lunch was a frozen burrito and a clementine.

2:30 p.m. After lunch, the sun is shining, so we walk to the neighborhood park to play for awhile. When we get back, Canaan eats an apple, and it's naptime. I snack on tortilla chips with cheese. After picking up Iris this afternoon, the kids finish off the container of snack mix and each have a banana.

6:00 p.m. For dinner tonight we're having one of my most reliable standbys: salmon patties. I stretch the can of salmon with a can of tuna, and serve with brown rice and a bag of frozen peas and carrots because I'm running behind.

Mark is helping a family friend move tonight and isn't home for dinner. He has pizza with the friend. So we have more leftovers than usual, which will stretch this meal out a little further.

Day Seven: Friday

6:30 a.m. It's Friday, and we are low on everything. So breakfast this morning consists of clementines, cereal, toast, and eggs for everyone.

8:30 a.m. After dropping off Iris, we get the morning chores done and head off to Walmart. It often happens that at the end of the week I find a hole in my meal plan, and I need to pick up a few things. With two small children in tow, Walmart is the solution. I can get several errands done in one stop.

When we reach the check-out aisle, I let Canaan grab a Kit-Kat from the candy stand as a special treat to share. I buy coffee, ground beef, almond milk, eggs, some fruit, and a few other things to hold us over until I manage a larger shopping trip.

Walmart

Coffee: $5.44
Ground beef: $3.98
Almond milk: $2.97
Eggs: $2.57
Cheese: $4.97
Mango spears: $4.78
Blueberries: $3.56
Kit-Kat bar: $.78

Total Cost: $29.05

11:30 a.m. For lunch Canaan and I both have leftovers. Canaan also eats the last pickle from the jar. At work, Mark has a frozen burrito and two clementines.

3:00 p.m. It's an uneventful afternoon at home. We're all looking forward to the weekend. After picking up Iris from school, a snack is the first thing on the to-do list. Today, I scavenge some graham crackers from the pantry and the kids finish off the clementines. I'm partial to popcorn. When Mark gets home from work, he eats a handful of figs.

5:30 p.m. Tonight, I'm falling back on my most reliable meal. The one that everybody likes, is effortless, relatively healthy, and can be thrown together in 30 minutes flat. That's the holy grail of dinner, you guys: taco night! I stretch the pound of ground beef with a can of black beans, and use my homemade taco seasoning mix.

9:00 p.m. Bedtime snacks: I nosh on tortilla chips, and Mark has cereal.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)
(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

1. How did you set your food budget?

We determined our current food budget through trial and error. Right now, our monthly budget is $700. Basically, we kept cutting it until we got to the point that we were going over budget because it was too low. We adjusted until it was just right. Sometimes we do blow it. But our goal for a week is to stay under $200, which as you can see, we had no trouble doing during the week I did for this diary.

Other weeks are not so easy — especially if we decide spontaneously to have family over for a meal, or eat with friends after church. We use the You Need a Budget software, which we love. It fits perfectly with our personal budgeting goals and philosophy.

2. What are the kitchen ingredients you can't live without?

These are the kitchen ingredients I can't live without — every one of these is essential!

  • Coconut oil (my favorite cooking oil)
  • Canned diced tomatoes
  • Beans of all kinds
  • Rice (mostly brown)
  • Ground beef
  • Frozen chicken breasts
  • Eggs
  • Dried pasta
  • Frozen vegetables (peas, corn, edamame)
  • Taco seasoning
  • Peanut butter
  • Tortillas
  • Minced garlic
  • Tube of ginger paste
  • Shredded cheese

3. What's the budget recipe you always rely on?

Besides the tacos I mentioned in my diary, another budget recipe I rely on is Sloppy Joe Sweet Potatoes. It's essentially cubed sweet potatoes with sloppy joe mix. It's gluten-free and can be easily stretched to accommodate as many people as you've got. Add a salad and you're golden. We've served this with great success to a crowd.

At Kitchn we believe setting a food budget for you and your family is an essential part in getting your financial life in order. Don't know where to start? We have a guide for that. Want to share your food budget diary with Kitchn? See how here.

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