Grocery Diaries

How a California Family of 4 with No Kitchen Spends $125 on a Weekly Grocery Haul

published Jun 22, 2023
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graphic collage of the author Jen and her family surrounded by items from their grocery list including watermelon, peaches, baby spinach, and elbow macaroni
Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Jen, Shutterstock; Design: The Kitchn

Name: Jen
Location: San Diego, California
Age: 37
Number of people in household: 4 (myself; my husband; our 5-year-old-daughter, Tilly; and our 3-year-old son, Charlie)
Occupation: Stay-at-home parent/former geographer; my husband is a computer security engineer
Salary: More accurate would be household income, which is $195k. Personal salary is $0 and I don’t get lunch breaks or sick days because toddlers are very unreasonable bosses.
Where you shopped: Vons, Trader Joe’s, Sprouts
Weekly food budget: $200ish
Amount spent: $261.84; $125.46 on groceries, $136.38 on eating out

Where did you shop?

What’s your grocery strategy?

We currently do not have a kitchen. We’re doing renovations (our kitchen was demolished March 13) and aren’t expected to have a kitchen until October or November. We’ve set up a temporary “kitchen” in our living room with a kettle, microwave, toaster oven, slow cooker, bread machine, fridge and freezer, and an induction cooker. But we can’t use all the appliances at once (I’ve started keeping a tally of how many times I’ve tripped the circuit; I’m up to 14), and all of the washing up is done in the bathroom sink. 

This has quite dramatically affected the kinds of things we eat and how frequently we eat out. (I’ve been keeping a record of every cent our family spends on food since 2019.)

Prior to construction, I cooked a lot from scratch; we got a CSA box with fresh fruit and vegetables delivered every week; I made my own chicken stock and cooked a lot of dried beans, and we had a monthly subscription to Pasturebird where we received pasture-raised chicken. Now, there are more slow cooker meals, more convenience and ready-to-eat things from Trader Joe’s and Vons, and more eating out.

Currently, I bulk buy our meat from Farm Foods Market, so we have ground beef and steak in the freezer from an order I made in February. I also bulk buy dried beans from Rancho Gordo, and joined its bean club in April. We buy frozen blueberries, frozen broccoli, and frozen Normandy vegetables from Costco, but those are not a weekly thing. 

We used to subscribe to a CSA box, but since we lost the kitchen we buy our fruit and veg from a combination of the farmers market, Vons, Trader Joe’s, and Sprouts. Milk we buy from Sprouts; that tends to be a purchase we do every three weeks, and we buy two gallons at a time (we buy Maple Hill Creamery whole milk and Sprouts is the only supermarket close to us that sells it). 

Apart from the purchases made every few weeks or every few months, I will also go to Vons and Trader Joe’s every few days for things we need, either for whatever I’ve planned for meals for the week, or for food for the kids’ school lunches. I rarely do a big weekly shop.

How do you meal plan? 

When I’m meal planning, I think about what we ate the previous week, what I need to use up in the fridge and freezer, and what I already have in the pantry. 

The kids get sandwiches in their lunch boxes on average three times a week, so I make bread about two or three times a week (the bread is used for toast in the mornings too). Lunch for me and my husband is a mixture of leftovers, sandwiches, and eating out. 

Each dinner is firstly considered in relation to the family schedule. On Mondays and Wednesdays Tilly has karate after school so she and I get home at 5 p.m. On those days, either I cook something in the slow cooker or my husband and Charlie pick up dinner so we can eat right when we get home. On Thursdays the kids have swimming lessons after school and we get home at 4 p.m., so dinner will be something easy to cook (like Rana ravioli) or another slow cooker meal. 

Once I know which days are eating out days and which days are cooking days, I build each dinner around a protein: Will I need to defrost meat? Will I need to cook a batch of beans? Will I need to pick up some tofu or eggs? I have a pretty limited repertoire of dishes right now because of the whole no kitchen thing, so there are about three meals I make in the slow cooker (spaghetti, chili, lentil minestrone), and some other things I’ve made in the toaster oven or on the induction cooker. I try to balance each week with about four dinners that I’ve cooked (or are leftovers), one that is an easy microwave/toaster oven meal, and one or two eating out dinners. 

What did you buy?

Credit: Jen

Vons

  • 2 tins of crushed tomatoes, $7
  • Chobani whole-milk Greek yogurt, $6.49
  • Yellow onions, $2.99
  • 6 bananas, $1.40
  • 3 peaches, $3.28
  • Rana signature meal kit, $16.99

Total: $38.15

Credit: Jen

Trader Joe’s

  • Baby spinach, $1.69
  • Microwaveable organic brown rice, $4.49
  • Pasta macaroni, $0.99
  • Fuji apples, $2.99
  • Persian cucumbers, $2.49
  • 3 yellow peaches, $2.97
  • 2 yellow capsicum, $2.58
  • 3 red capsicum, $3.87
  • 6 bananas, $1.14
  • 12 pasture-raised eggs, $4.49
  • 4 count avocados, $3.99
  • Cut watermelon, $3.99
  • Cut rockmelon, $3.99
  • 2 containers pomegranate seeds, $9.58

Total: $49.25

Sprouts

  • Cut rockmelon, $5.99
  • 12 peaches, $6.91
  • Milk, $25.16

Total: $38.06

Grand Total: $125.46

Credit: Jen

Thursday : Quick-Cook Oats, Toast, Cereal, Bento-Style School Lunches, Leftovers, Scrambled Eggs, Takeout, Spaghetti, Salad Kit, Cucumber, and Fruit and Ice Cream 

5:45 a.m.: I begin the day with a bowl of quick-cook oats, which I eat with some blueberries from the farmers market, unsalted mixed nuts from Costco, and a cup of tea because the day doesn’t properly begin until the first cup of tea (Yorkshire, steeped for four minutes, with a splash of whole milk). 

Credit: Jen

6:30 a.m.: After I eat my breakfast and drink my tea, it’s time to pack the kids’ lunches for school. They both have bento-style lunch boxes; today they contain cucumbers, red capsicum (bell pepper), celery, carrots, rockmelon (cantaloupe), honeydew melon, watermelon, and half a sandwich each. The sandwich is made from homemade bread (made with half bread flour and half whole-wheat flour, with pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds), unsweetened sunflower seed butter from Sprouts, and low-sugar strawberry jam from Trader Joe’s. I also have to pack snacks in their lunch bags, and today they each get a mandarin and a Babybel cheese; Tilly also gets a banana and Charlie gets an apple. [Update: Charlie didn’t eat the apple and it came home in his lunch bag]

7 a.m.: Once the lunch bags are packed, everyone else wakes up. This morning, my husband has toast (using the aforementioned homemade bread) and tea. Tilly has quick-cook oats with cinnamon, wildflower honey, some banana, and a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt (she calls it the fancy salt, because who doesn’t want to start the day a little bit fancy?). Charlie has a bowl of dry Trader Joe’s Os (which he pours himself so ends up with way too many; I put what he doesn’t eat into a zip-top bag and send that to school too) and some of the unsalted mixed nuts. 

Credit: Jen

8:30 a.m.: The morning circus is done, and I’m back home after dropping the kids off at school. The breakfast dishes aren’t washed but before I get to that, I need to get dinner going in the slow cooker. Tonight’s dinner will be spaghetti, because the kids have swimming lessons after school and they are usually ravenous. Slow cooker meals are the best for the nights where I won’t have much time for meal prep or cooking, and right now without a kitchen, my repertoire is limited. I brown the meat and onions in the cast iron skillet on an induction cooker, and transfer that to the slow cooker. I add two tins of tomato sauce, three tins of drained diced tomatoes, some minced garlic (from a jar), basil, oregano, bay leaves, salt and pepper, and stir. Lid goes on, I turn the switch to low, and proceed to ignore it for eight hours.

11:30 a.m.: I make myself a cup of tea. The kitchen is clean, the laundry has been put away, I’ve come back from a run, I’ve spent some time texting with other parents about what the class end-of-year gift to the kids’ teachers should be, and now I have time to sit down and write.

Credit: Jen

12 p.m.: My lunch is leftovers. A friend had made dal makhani a few days ago, and she had made a lot so offered to give us some (because she is lovely and kind, and also knows that we have no kitchen and that we like her cooking). I eat the last of that with rice (also from that friend), and also attempt to make scrambled eggs in the microwave. There isn’t much of the curry left, and the eggs have been in the fridge for probably longer than advised so I’ll use them up as long as they’re still good [I’m going to pause the writing here to heat up my lunch and attempt the scrambled eggs]. 

Lunch is complete, and the eggs are a success. I did drop a raw egg down the bathroom sink (I cracked it in the sink to try and avoid making a mess but cracked it a bit too hard), but they are cooked in the microwave without incident and tasted fine — not as good as stovetop scrambled eggs, but I’ll take what I can get. I also eat some raw capsicum, carrot, and celery sticks I cut up for the kids’ lunches (they didn’t fit in their lunch boxes), and the rest of the blueberries I washed this morning.

My husband has a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon so he picks up lunch for himself when he is out, and expenses it (he works from home for a tech start-up and one of his work compensation benefits is $300/month to spend on eating out/snacks for himself). 

4:30 p.m.: I start getting the last bits of dinner together. I put a pot of salted water on the induction cooktop and get that going for the spaghetti, wash and chop a cucumber to serve alongside, and crack open a salad kit for some veg. The noodles are cooked for seven minutes, then drained in a colander in the bathroom sink.

Credit: Jen

5 p.m.: Dinner is served. The cucumber sticks are placed in the center of the card table, still on the chopping board (because I’m being cool or because I’m getting really good at minimizing washing up? You get three guesses and the first two don’t count). The salad bowl stays on the counter because there isn’t enough room on the table. We all have a plate of spaghetti, eating commences, and everyone is happy. 

After the spaghetti is eaten, salad is put on those same plates, and after that Tilly decides she wants a banana. This is her third banana of the day. I guess she’s really hungry after swimming. Still not done after the banana, she has her eyes on more food so I wash some of the peaches that I bought yesterday and the kids and I eat those too.

7 p.m.: The kids are in bed and I am free! I eat a mandarin and decide it’s time to be done with eating for the day, so I can move onto my own bedtime routine.

8:30 p.m.: My husband has some ice cream that we already had in the freezer (from Baked Bear, a local ice cream sandwich shop, that was bought earlier on his work expense account) but I’ve already brushed my teeth so I skip it tonight.

Credit: Jen

Friday: More Quick-Cook Oats, Yogurt, Cereal, Leftover Spaghetti, Scrambled Eggs, Salad Kits, Fruit, Pasta Meal Kit, and Ice Cream

5:45 a.m.: Another morning that begins with tea, quick-cook oats, nuts, and blueberries, except this morning I use frozen blueberries because we’re all out of the fresh ones. 

6:30 a.m.: The kids’ lunches today are going to be leftover spaghetti (kept warm in their Thermoses), so the lunchboxes hold their snacks. Today there is orange capsicum, celery, cucumber, a mandarin, the same melon assortment as yesterday, and a Babybel cheese.

7 a.m.: The kids have the same breakfast as yesterday. My husband has tea, yogurt, nuts, and a banana that he shared with Tilly. 

11:15 a.m.: I cook the last three eggs in the microwave as a post-workout snack/second breakfast/first lunch. I’m not entirely sure what this meal is; my husband isn’t ready for lunch quite yet, I am hungry, and I don’t want the eggs to go to waste.

12:05 p.m.: Lunchtime! I cook more spaghetti noodles to go with the sauce left over from last night for my husband and me, and we also eat one of the salad kits from Vons. I round out my lunch with a mandarin, and he has the apple that Charlie didn’t eat yesterday.

12:50 p.m.: The dishes have been washed up from lunch so it’s time for a cuppa.

4:30 p.m.: The kids get home from school and as soon as they walk in Charlie asks for a peach (I’d told them on the way home that I’d bought more peaches this morning). They each have a peach as a pre-dinner snack.

Credit: Jen

5:10 p.m.: Dinner tonight is the Rana signature meal kit I bought this morning, with fettuccine, chicken, and Alfredo sauce. The packet says it serves six, but I don’t believe that — it barely fed the four of us, and we also supplemented it with a salad kit, fruit, and two small pieces of garlic naan I’d bought a few days ago. Tilly also came to the dinner table in a mood so dinner was a bit of feeding everyone and a bit of navigating emotional eggshells.

7:15 p.m.: The kids are in bed, so we have a bit of the ice cream from Baked Bear and watch an episode of Would I Lie To You

Credit: Jen

Saturday: Quick-Cook Oats, Toast, Snacks, Leftover Spaghetti, Tater Tots, Salad Kit, Cucumber, Fruit, Cookies, Yogurt, and Dinner at My in-Laws’

7 a.m.: It’s the weekend, so my alarm is for 6:30 instead of 5:45, but I still only manage to get up half an hour before the kids. I make tea and toast before the kids get out of bed, but don’t have time for my solitary breakfast so we all eat together. Between myself, my husband, and Charlie we eat five pieces of toast with peanut butter and honey (the bread had to get used; it was a loaf I’d made three or four days earlier). Tilly has her usual quick-cook oats with honey, fancy salt, and banana. Charlie and I also have a handful of unsalted mixed nuts.

10 a.m.: We’re home from a “cars and coffee” meet-up. My husband is working in the garage and the kids are with him, so I come inside to wash up the breakfast dishes and have a cup of tea before I have to start putting lunch together. 

10:30 a.m.: The kids come inside and say they’re hungry, so they finish the packet of mini peanut butter crackers I had in the pantry, a few Annie’s cheddar square crackers, and some milk.

Credit: Jen

12:20 p.m.: Lunchtime. We finish the rest of the leftover spaghetti, I cook the rest of a bag of tater tots in the toaster oven, open another salad kit, and cut up two cucumbers. When the kids have eaten their fill of my planned lunch, Tilly eats a banana and a snack pack of two Oreos that she received in a birthday goody bag earlier this week. Charlie has two peaches and a strawberry Greek yogurt bar. And then he throws up into his undies as he sits on the potty, so that’s delightful. Don’t ever let anyone tell you parenting isn’t glamorous.

4:50 p.m.: We’re at my in-laws’ house and my kids are eating chunks of cheddar cheese as my mother-in-law is grating it in preparation for dinner. 

6:10 p.m.: Dinner time, and my in-laws have prepared a veritable feast. My mother-in-law made baked potatoes, and my father-in-law grilled salmon and steaks. There’s also Caesar salad, rice, green beans, and chocolate cake and strawberries for dessert. Another excellent and delicious meal from their kitchen. 

Credit: Jen

Sunday: Yogurt, Toast, Cereal, Lunch and Pastries in the Park, Snacks, Pizza Night, and Cannolis

6:45 a.m.: It’s Sunday, so another slow start. My breakfast this morning is tea, yogurt, frozen blueberries, and mixed nuts. My husband uses the heel of the bread to make a piece of toast with peanut butter and honey, leaving the last piece of bread for Charlie’s toast and supplementing his toast with a Costco protein bar.

7:45 a.m.: Absolutely shocking — the kids have slept in this morning. My husband uses the last piece of bread to make toast for Charlie, with peanut butter and honey, because that’s what he says he wants. When it’s presented to him he cries and says he wants bread, not toast. So in the end, Tilly eats the toast (she even says, “I’ll eat it so it doesn’t go to waste”), Charlie has dry Os and nuts, and they each have a glass of milk. 

Credit: Jen

8 a.m.: I get dried beans going in the slow cooker, so I can make minestrone for dinner tomorrow. I put a pound of Rancho Gordo beans in the slow cooker with an onion, a stalk of celery, a bay leaf, the last of my bacon fat, some salt, and water. Set it to low and they should be done in about nine hours.

11:45 a.m.: We have a playdate with a friend from school. We meet the other family at the local French bakery, buy our lunch, and take it to the park for a picnic. My husband has a turkey BLT on sourdough baguette, I have a grilled chicken salad, and for the kids I ordered two ham and cheese egg bites, and a ham and cheese croissant. Tilly eats most of the ham and cheese croissant and half an egg bite, and Charlie eats half an egg bite. I eat his other half of the egg bite at the park and we bring home the other half of Tilly’s egg bite. (The cost of lunch and pastries at the bakery was $52.41 but we had a $25 gift certificate which we used, so our out-of-pocket cost was considerably lower, at $27.41.)

3 p.m.: I’d bought some pastries at the bakery and we eat them now as an afternoon snack. The kids each get a raisin scroll, and my husband and I share a Nutella brioche. I actually end up only eating about a bite of mine because there’s a bit of swapping going on — the kids also want the Nutella brioche so I swap for some of their raisin scrolls. I also eat the rest of Tilly’s egg bite.

After they finish their pastries, they’re still hungry so eating continues. Tilly eats a banana and a peach, and Charlie takes a few bites of an apple and a peach (the rest of the apple goes into the fridge). They each have a handful of Annie’s cheddar square crackers and an applesauce pouch — the last two that we had left over from Charlie’s birthday party in April. 

5:20 p.m.: I’m getting the beans out of the slow cooker as my husband and Charlie return home from picking up dinner. We live near a very good pizzeria, which is owned by an old Italian couple. They use family recipes that have been passed down for generations, make their sauces daily from fresh tomatoes, use Italian flour for the dough, and Italian ricotta for the cannolis. It’s the best pizza I’ve had in the area. Tonight, we try the pesto chicken pizza, and get the other as a half-and-half (one half Hawaiian for the kids, the other half as the deluxe with sausage, pepperoni, and capsicum), and some cannoli.

7:10 p.m.: The kids are in bed. I get the bread machine going and set it so that there will be fresh bread tomorrow at 5:50 a.m. 

Credit: Jen

Monday: Yogurt, Quick-Cook Oats, Toast, Bento-Style Lunches, Cereal Bars, Leftover Pizza, Snacks, Lentil Minestrone, Cereal, and Ice Cream

5:30 a.m.: Monday, and the week begins again. I wake up before my alarm this morning, and start prepping dinner — chopping the carrots, celery, and onion to put in the slow cooker for the minestrone. I also wash and chop the fruit and veg for lunch boxes (Babybel cheese, capsicum, cucumber, and two oranges I’ve had languishing in the fridge for longer than I care to admit. I eat some of the oranges to make sure they’re still fine before popping them into the lunch boxes. Still good. Apples and bananas are the snack fruits for today.)

Credit: Jen

5:50 a.m.: A beep! The bread machine is done, and bread comes out. I set it aside to cool and make my own breakfast — the usual tea, yogurt, blueberries, and nuts. 

6:45 a.m.: I continue gathering ingredients for the minestrone and throwing them into the slow cooker, and make sandwiches for the lunch boxes.

Credit: Jen

7 a.m.: My husband and the kids are up. My husband makes toast with the fresh bread, and has that with peanut butter and honey. Charlie has a fever and only eats a few nuts for breakfast. Tilly has quick-cook oats with honey, cinnamon, a banana, and some fancy salt. She also has some milk. She’s still hungry after this initial breakfast so eats some mixed nuts too before being rushed out the door. Charlie stays home today.

7:45 a.m.: The final ingredients are in the slow cooker for the minestrone, and it gets switched on.

Credit: Jen

10:30 a.m.: My husband, Charlie, and I were at a meeting with the designers about the kitchen renovations. We get home at 10:30 and I’m a bit peckish, so I eat the sandwich that I’d packed for Charlie for school.

10:45 a.m.: I take Charlie for a walk in the stroller and he eats two strawberry cereal bars. 

12 p.m.: I heat up leftover pizza for lunch, and open the last salad kit I have in the fridge. Cucumber and capsicum sticks that were cut up this morning round out lunch. 

1 p.m.: I cook the macaroni and stick it in the fridge for the minestrone tonight. Tilly has karate this afternoon and we get home at 5 p.m., and I like to have dinner ready the minute we get home, so it’s easier to have all the components prepped.

3 p.m.: I put the beans (cooked yesterday) into the slow cooker before leaving to pick up Tilly from school and take her to karate.

5:05 p.m.: Tilly and I get home from karate, and I pop in a bag of baby spinach in the slow cooker — the last step in making lentil minestrone.

Credit: Jen

5:15 p.m.: Dinner is served. Everyone eats lentil minestrone, but the kids also eat Os — Charlie’s been sick and hasn’t eaten much since yesterday’s breakfast, so when he wanted Os, he got Os. Then Tilly had to have some too.

Credit: Jen

7 p.m.:​​ The kids are in bed so I have my second dinner — I eat the capsicum, cucumber, and orange that I’d packed in Charlie’s lunch box today, and one of the Greek yogurt bars.

8 p.m.: I’ve taken the bins out and done the end-of-day tidy-up, so my husband and I watch an episode of Would I Lie To You and eat some of the Baked Bear ice cream.

Credit: Jen

Tuesday: Quick-Cook Oats, Toast, Leftover Minestrone, Snacks, Sandwiches, More Leftover Minestrone, Pizzas and Lunch Box Snacks, Plus Fruit and Cheese

5:45 a.m.: Breakfast for me this morning is tea and quick-cook oats with honey, mixed nuts, and a banana. For the kids’ lunches today I pack capsicum and cucumber from yesterday, and add raisins, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and a mandarin. Charlie also gets lentil minestrone in his Thermos, and Tilly gets a banana as a snack. 

Credit: Jen

7 a.m.: The rest of the household wakes up, and this morning my husband and Charlie both have toast with peanut butter and honey, and Tilly has quick-cook oats with banana, honey, cinnamon, and a sprinkle of salt.

10:10 a.m.: My husband and I have gone to the school to watch Tilly’s end-of-year performance, and we have to be back an hour later to take her to the dentist. In that awkward time gap, we go to a nearby cafe for coffee (on the expense account).

12 p.m.: After Tilly is done at the dentist, we take her back to school with a sandwich (half of a turkey and cheddar on sourdough) from a local sandwich shop. My husband buys himself a sandwich too (another work expense), and we eat lunch at home — I eat Tilly’s other sandwich half along with some leftover minestrone. My husband also eats an apple alongside his sandwich.

Credit: Jen

5 p.m.: Dinner is just my husband, me, and Charlie — Tilly is at her grandparents’ house for Tilly Tuesday. I have no idea what she eats. The rest of us finish the leftover pizza, eat a bit of the lentil minestrone, and eat the food I’d packed in Tilly’s lunch box that she didn’t eat (capsicum, cucumber, raisins, seeds, mandarin).

7 p.m.: I’m a bit peckish, so I eat an apple, a Babybel cheese, and a mandarin.

Credit: Jen

Wednesday: Toast, Quick-Cook Oats, Fruit, Traffic-Light Lunches, Leftover Minestrone, Vietnamese Takeout, More Fruit, and Yogurt

5:45 a.m.: It’s toast for breakfast this morning because the bread is three days old and needs to get used up. So I have toast with peanut butter and honey and a cup of tea. 

6:30 a.m.: I pack the kids’ lunch boxes, and today they get traffic lights: red capsicum, yellow capsicum, and cucumber in the three small compartments of their lunch boxes, and rockmelon and watermelon in the larger compartments. I pack leftover minestrone in their Thermoses as the main lunch, and Tilly also gets a banana.

Credit: Jen

7 a.m.: Everyone else is up. My husband and Charlie also have toast with peanut butter and honey for breakfast. Tilly has “same as yesterday” — quick-cook oats, honey, cinnamon, fancy salt, banana. She’s on a banana kick these days and would eat three a day if I let her (I have let her once in the past week, but three bananas a day doesn’t seem like the best idea as a regular thing. Something about moderation?). 

12 p.m.: My husband and I finish the last of the lentil minestrone for lunch, and also use up the last of the bread for toast. I munch on some of the capsicum I’d cut for the kids’ lunches this morning but that didn’t fit in their lunch boxes. 

Credit: Jen

5 p.m.: We’re home from karate and my husband brings home dinner from a Vietnamese restaurant. We order three of the combination plates with two proteins, so we end up with two servings of rice, one of vermicelli noodles, three lots of salad, two lots of spring rolls, one portion of tofu, and one portion each of grilled pork, grilled beef, and grilled chicken. This is enough for the four of us with a tiny bit left over. 

After dinner, the kids share the last peach, we finish the watermelon, and Tilly eats a few cherries that she’d brought home from grandma’s house on Tuesday night. Then the kids and I each have a strawberry yogurt bar and that rounds out our food for the day (and for the week).

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