Grocery Diaries

How a Couple Running a Start-Up Feed Themselves (and 3 Kids) on $80 a Week in Salt Lake City, Utah

published Feb 13, 2020
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Credit: Winco, Shutterstock

Name: Brooke
Location: Downtown Salt Lake City, Utah
Age: 34
Number of people in household: Brooke, Dave (35), Sid (5), Vince (2.5), and Gabbie (9 months)
Occupation: Dave and Brooke work together on their outdoor sporting goods start-up.
Household income: $0, our family spends about $46k a year to live. We are living off of savings while we get our business up and running. 
Weekly grocery budget: $118 on groceries per week (normally)
Ingredients to use this week: A big package of Earthbound Farm spring mix lettuce, carrots from our garden, rotisserie chicken, delicata squash
Grocery store of choice: Trader Joe’s, Costco, WinCo Foods

Day 1: Sunday

Breakfast: Sundays are lazy days for us. I started a tradition with our boys and let them eat Pop Tarts every Sunday morning. I don’t even toast the Pop Tarts and the boys are in heaven. After nursing baby Gabbie, she and I eat homemade Greek yogurt (thank you, Instant Pot!). I sometimes use Trader Joe’s Skyr yogurt for my starter and love the results. I add sliced almonds, bananas, and homemade blackberry jam to my bowl. My 2 1/2 year old calls our yogurt “ice cream,” and often asks for ice cream and granola in the morning. Dad skips breakfast so he won’t be late to some volunteer meetings at our local church. We all meet up with him later that morning.

Snack: The boys score Tootsie Pops while at church. 

Lunch: I’m normally opposed to being a short-order cook, but I make exceptions for lunch from time to time. Costco’s freezer section takes care of us today; Sid eats dino chicken nuggets with ketchup and mustard and Vince requests meatballs. Baby Gabbie sucks down an applesauce pouch, I nurse her again, and then put her down for a nap. In the spirit of being lazy, me and my husband eat Triscuits with sliced apples and cheddar cheese. Think Lunchables for adults.  

Dinner: A few times a month, we go over to my sister-in-law’s house for dinner. We bring a spring salad mix salad and avocados. Tonight’s menu is “pile ups”, a meal my mother-in-law made up and one of the best gifts she has given me. Pile ups are basically nachos without melting the cheese plus any extras one desires. Everyone grabs a pile of chips themselves and adds toppings. Yes, this counts as dinner! We eat fruit on the side and have Rice Krispies treats and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. From my plate, I feed baby Gabbie ground beef and bananas.

Day 2: Monday

Breakfast: I am not a morning person but my husband is. This can be difficult when I want to start talking his ear off at 10 p.m. or if he wants to get out to play outdoors with the family early in the morning. Generally though, I think our sleep preferences are a blessing. Every morning Dave eats breakfast with the boys while I lay in bed as long as I can. Baby Gabbie tends to wake up between 6:30 am – 7:30 a.m. If it’s on the early end, I’ll nurse her and put her back in bed so I can go back to bed. If she sleeps in, I nurse her then we both join the men for breakfast.

Today, the menfolk all eat Dave’s favorite cereal, Honey Bunches of Oats. I try giving Gabbie a hard boiled egg. She spits it out today. I add some salt. She spits it out again. I try to share some leftover pancakes with her and she spits that out too. In the end, I feed her homemade yogurt and I finish the leftover pancakes from Saturday. We drink milk in sippy cups if we are 5 and under. Adults drink milk from a cup. 

Credit: Courtesy of Brooke

Lunch: After picking Sid up from preschool, I make the kids peanut butter sandwiches with homemade blackberry jam on whole wheat bread. Our business’ manufacturing shop is nearby and Dave often runs home for a 15-minute lunch break. Today we eat a salad made from spring mix lettuce, chopped deli ham, hard-boiled eggs, blue cheese, and carrots we grew from our garden. We have a 10-foot-by-10-foot raised garden bed in the front yard. The only produce left to eat at this point in the year are our delicious carrots.

Dinner: Tonight is the perfect night for a warm bowl of soup. I have some tortellini and pork sausage on hand and I find a great recipe. I use spinach from the spring mix lettuce package I have instead of kale. I hold the onions, as my husband hates them. One time I blended sautéed onions in a dish to try to hide them and he caught me. Much to his chagrin, I have not banished onions from every meal, but tonight, the soup is onion free for him. Gabbie eats small bites of the cheesy tortellini. We all drink water (the perfect beverage for little kids to accidentally spill). 

Dessert: After the kids are bathed and put to bed, I work on pulling together a big presentation my husband and I are giving at the end of the week for our business. It’s getting late when my husband sneaks to my side with a ramekin filled with one peppermint chocolate cookie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s just enough to keep us going for a few more hours.

Day 3: Tuesday

Breakfast: Honey Bunches of Oats for the men again. Gabbie and I eat our homemade yogurt, mine with homemade granola. I look forward to the day when I can share this granola with Gabbie, but I make it with honey and that’s on the no list until she’s a year old. My granola recipe is handed down from my mother-in-law and it’s to die for. My father and sister-in-law both have Type 1 diabetes, which means the jam and granola recipes call for less sugar than is typical. I like the flavors much better, as does our whole family. 

Lunch: I am too busy wrapping up a project for work to make lunch before I have to run an errand. Sid takes it upon himself to make a triple decker peanut butter sandwich. He is so proud of the triple deckerness and, frankly, I’m impressed too. The only casualty is a glob of jam left in the peanut butter jar. I cut his sandwich into quarters and we share it. I feed Gabbie baby puffs and bits of crackers. 

Grocery shopping: Today’s trip brings us to WinCo as I have other errands nearby. I love Winco’s bulk section and its business model. WinCo is employee owned. Years ago I read a Forbes article about WinCo and its employees. I was impressed with how the company compensates their employees and helps them with retirement.   

Today I buy 50 pounds of flour (I was out and like to buy in bulk, since it is cheaper and we use a lot), cereal, tortilla chips, wagon wheel pasta circles from the bulk section, fruits and veggies, ice cream, marshmallows for future Rice Krispies treats, pita bread, feta cheese, rotisserie chicken, soy sauce, molasses (for the homemade granola), baby wipes, and one impulse-buy candy cane for Sid.

Credit: Winco, Shutterstock
Credit: Courtesy of Brooke

Dinner: It’s Mediterranean night! We have pita bread, spring mix lettuce, carrots from our garden, diced bell peppers, feta cheese, and homemade hummus (a staple in our home, great baby food, and a crowd pleaser). 

Dessert: Again, mom and dad share a moment alone and eat ice cream while all the kids sleep.

Credit: Courtesy of Brooke

Day 4: Wednesday

Breakfast: Dad eats Honey Bunches of Oats, the boys Golden Puffs, Gabbie dry Crispix cereal. I eat bran flakes. We all drink 1% milk. Before we got married, Dave bought 2% milk and I used skim. We compromised on 1% post-marriage. 

Lunch: The boys eat dino chicken nuggets. I finish the tortellini sausage soup from Monday and share some with Gabbie. I don’t see Dave at lunch, but he tells me he ran home, grabbed two Sunday-only Pop Tarts and ate them for lunch.  

Snack: Peanut M&Ms. Grandma must have sent the boys home with these treats. Once I found them, the boys and I all snacked on them.

Credit: Courtesy of Brooke

Dinner: Stir-fry night! We eat chicken stir-fry with leftover rotisserie chicken, cashews, broccoli, bell peppers, and carrots (again, from our garden). I serve a salad on the side using the spring mix lettuce, canned mandarin oranges, and Trader Joe’s Spicy Peanut Vinaigrette (yummy!). I also cook two parts brown rice and one part red rice in my rice cooker. Lastly, we eat potstickers. Vince likes to peel off the dumpling wrappers and only eat the fillings. I feed Baby G cut up dumpling wrappers, some of my dumpling fillings, and rice. 

Dessert: Dad and the boys share a scoop of ice cream. (Are you seeing a trend?) I feed Gabbie some yogurt to join in the fun. 

Before bed snack: The number one cause of thirst or hunger for my children is bedtime. Dave implemented a rule that if the boys eat their dinner, they can have a slice of un-toasted bread if they are still hungry right before bed. This is a great way to use up the heel of the loaf. Both boys eat a slice of bread. Once the kids are down, Dave and I share a cup of hot cider and I sneak a bit of homemade granola I just made. 

Day 5: Thursday

Breakfast: Dad eats Crispix and the boys eat Golden Puffs. Gabbie and I eat after I nurse her. We both have homemade yogurt and I add the homemade granola to mine. 

Credit: Courtesy of Brooke

Lunch: Dave comes home and makes nachos for us. Vince wants a peanut butter sandwich so I make one and share bits with Gabbie. We also eat carrots from our garden, some leftover hummus from Mediterranean night, and we share slices of an opal apple. 

Credit: Courtesy of Brooke

Dinner: We eat German pancakes, also known in my home as Popeye pancakes since the batter pops up. This is the first meal I learned to bake on my own when I was in elementary school. When I left for college, my mom made me a little family-favorites cookbook and this is the first recipe. This recipe is memorized and I tend to triple it. My husband has also added German pancakes as one of his go-to recipes. When we make them, we serve whatever fruit we have on hand or make a smoothie from frozen berries to pair with the pancakes. Tonight we eat bananas, mangos, and kiwis. I like my pancakes with maple syrup. Dave likes his with powdered sugar or a cinnamon-sugar mix. The boys like theirs with all three and Gabbie is willing to eat the buttery pancake plain. 

Before bed snack: Mom is still hungry when everyone is going to bed so I eat a cup of leftover stir-fry and rice. I blame nursing a baby all day for my constant hunger.

Day 6: Friday

Breakfast: Another cold cereal day for the men and homemade yogurt day for the women. Again, I add homemade granola to my bowl.

Lunch: Mom, Dad, and Sid share apple slices, cheese, and crackers for lunch. Vince and Gabbie share a peanut butter blackberry jam sandwich. 

Snack: I eat an RX Bar (Chocolate Sea Salt) and some tortilla chips. The boys eat mini M&Ms that they got from a party, who knows how long ago. A neighbor drops off some homemade cinnamon rolls. Dave, the boys, Gabbie, and I can’t resist a taste of the gooey, frosted baked goods. 

Dinner: For dinner we have Delicata squash and black bean enchiladas (loosely using this recipe). I add a can of diced green chilis and the green color really grosses out the boys. They just dip tortilla chips in the saucy, cheesy mess they make on their plates. Gabbie happily eats everything I feed her from the enchiladas. I serve a salad with avocados and balsamic vinaigrette on the side. I also eat Trader Joe’s Hot & Sweet Jalapeños with the enchiladas. How this tasty jar of jalapeños doesn’t make it onto every Internet’s top Trader Joe’s list baffles me. I am absolutely enamored with those tasty, spicy peppers.   

Day 7: Saturday

Breakfast: Another round of cold cereal. The mess kids can make with cold cereal is truly astounding.

Credit: Courtesy of Brooke

Lunch adventure: Dave and I plan a trip to the mountains to take the kids skiing on a sledding hill. Sid is getting the hang of skiing without us but Vince is just learning. We pack lots of peanut butter sandwiches with blackberry jam, cheddar cheese sliced up, apple slices, Ritz crackers, and plenty of water bottles. Dave and I feel that the key to getting our kids to love snow sports as much as we do is to keep them warm and well fed. We also use Swedish fish and German chocolate to bribe them into trying one more time on their skis. When we are done skiing, we enjoy hot chocolate. 

Credit: Courtesy of Brooke

Dinner: About two or three times a year we get together with Dave’s large extended family. Tonight’s dinner is a potluck. All of Dave’s aunts and uncles bring soup to share while the cousins bring a salad or dessert. I use up the last bit of our spring mix lettuce to make a salad. I add carrots (again from our garden), avocados, and tomatoes. The soups at the party are all delicious: taco soup, noodles de pollo, pasta faolo soup, copycat zuppa Toscana soup, broccoli cheese soup, and chili. I attempt to eat a little bit of all of them while my niece, nephew, and sister-in-law chase and feed my sons. Dave and I take turns feeding Gabbie small sips of soup.

After dinner, I catch my boys downing chocolate chip cookies. Dave’s aunt from California is famous for her desserts and is an expert in dark, European chocolate. In fact, Dave and I asked her to cater desserts for our wedding. I help myself to her flourless chocolate torte and chocolate chip cookies.     

Credit: Kitchn

1. How did you set your food budget?

Since we are starting a new business and don’t have an income, I couldn’t set a budget based on a percentage of our income. That is why I turned to USDA’s Official Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home. They have four different levels: thrifty plan, low-cost plan, moderate-cost plan, and liberal plan and the data is updated every month.

A monthly thrifty budget for my family using this data is $625.67. I then compared that number to what I normally spend (using Mint). Before I moved to Salt Lake City, I lived in the Bay Area and Boston. I know our food costs are lower here than in other parts of the country so I subtracted $100 more dollars to set our monthly grocery budget. We spend around $520 a month (but that figure includes diapers). To save money, we don’t eat out very often. Over the last 12 months, we’ve averaged $35 a month eating out. 

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

I love being thrifty, but two things that I do not skimp on are good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. There is a We Olive nearby and their oils and vinegars are a taste of heaven. Other must-haves are milk, cold cereal, bread, peanut butter, jam, eggs, avocados (great for baby food or making any dish feel fancier), frozen vegetables, rice, and spaghetti. 

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

German pancakes! I make this meal when dinner needs to be fast and I don’t feel like cooking. The recipe only requires eggs, milk, flour, butter, and a bit of salt. Simple, tasty, and quick. 

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 Grocery Diary with Kitchn? See how here.