Grocery Diaries

How a Couple of Immunologists with 2 Kids Under the Age of 3 Feed Themselves on $75 a Week in Denver, CO

published Dec 18, 2019
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Name: Michele
Location: Denver, CO
Age: 32
Number of people in household: Michele, Brendan (32), Lucille (2.5), and Forest (8 months)
Occupation: Post Doctoral Fellows in Immunology (we met in grad school)
Household income: $100,000 before taxes
Weekly grocery budget: $75
Ingredients to use this week: Pizza dough, eggs, arborio rice, tomato sauce, organic milk
Grocery store of choice: King Soopers, Sprouts

Day 1: Sunday

Early morning grocery shopping: It’s 6:30 a.m and I head to King Soopers to grocery shop for the week. I loathe going to the grocery store on the weekends, but Brendan and I both work during the week. I’ve been waking up extra early since Daylight Saving Time, and the past couple of weekends I have slipped out on a Sunday morning before the kids and husband wake up to grocery shop in peace. It’s like a mini vacation, and there are actually empty parking spots at the grocery store.

Credit: Michele H.


I spend $43.88 on groceries for the week. However, I don’t buy shrimp because the frozen seafood section has been taken over by frozen turkeys. I look twice, and can’t find shrimp anywhere. Add that to my mental list.

Credit: Photos: Shutterstock; Design: Kitchn
Credit: Michele H.

Breakfast: Breakfast is leftover (homemade) blueberry donuts from the morning before, made by our 2-year-old. We heat them up in the oven, but my husband forgets about them and they burn. So, scrambled eggs and yogurt with berries for Lucille. I quickly start a loaf of bread using the dough hook on the KitchenAid mixer (Le Creuset Dutch Oven Bread; so good and so easy) so it can proof while we are out. The least burnt donuts are eaten by the adults as we head out to the local indoor pool with the whole family. 

Credit: Michele H.

Lunch: We have leftover homemade pizza dough from the night before (we used the dough recipe from Pizzeria Beddia and it is so good). Brendan and Lucille set out to make a small pizza with whatever we have in the fridge (leftover cheese, pepperoni, homemade tomato sauce from our garden) while I make risotto to split between the toddler and adults. Lucille and Forest attend a nanny share during the week and we provide a week’s worth of two different meals for the kids. This week it is Instant Pot risotto and banana/spinach muffins. We make Melissa Clark’s saffron risotto, using arborio rice and homemade chicken stock from the freezer. I rediscover a five-year-old small bottle of saffron in the spice cabinet and use a pinch of that. I also use a bag of frozen mixed veggies from the grocery haul to up the veggie count. Six minutes in the Instant Pot and it’s done! 

Credit: Michele H.

Snacks: Our friends and their children come over to watch football. We make a double batch of banana bread (no nuts and add flax seed and chia) using bananas from the week before that have seen better days. We don’t have buttermilk, so I just add a tablespoon of vinegar to regular milk. I add puréed spinach that I found in the freezer to half of the batter for the toddlers, and put out the popcorn I purchased that morning. Our friends bring beer and prosecco, as well as chips and guacamole. These snacks basically act as our lunch. 

Credit: Michele H.

Dinner: Our daughter requests a scrambled egg and banana. We try to limit the amount of eggs she eats in a day, but I also don’t want her to only eat popcorn for dinner. So, she and the baby eat some eggs and bananas. Lucille drinks 2% milk with all of her meals. After bedtime, we use the last of the homemade tomato sauce and dump it on top of some spinach gnocchi my husband made earlier in the week. We haven’t eaten a real meal all day. We eat some leftover cupcakes from a birthday party our daughter attended on Saturday. At 8:30 p.m. we go to bed.

Day 2: Monday

Breakfast: I have a Women in Leadership breakfast and seminar at 7:30 a.m. My husband and I are both scientists, and occasionally we have morning activities. I usually do kid drop-off and pick-up, but not today. On Mondays, we pack the risotto and banana/spinach muffins for the nanny share. The baby gets two bottles, some puffs, and sometimes a purée for the week. I didn’t purée anything for him this week. My husband makes Lucille oatmeal with blueberries. I nurse the baby and am out the door. At the seminar, they provide coffee and half a bacon, egg, and cheese bagel from the on-campus cafe. Neither my husband and I drink coffee regularly, but I will treat myself to it when it’s free.

Credit: Michele H.

Lunch: Brendan packed an apple and some leftover pizza for lunch for both of us. We had an early October snowstorm in Colorado this year, which meant we had to harvest all of the tomatoes and peppers from our garden early. Brendan made gallons of green chili and tomato sauce and froze it all, hence the heavy dependency on tomatoes and tomato sauce recently. This would have given me intense heartburn when I was pregnant. I usually pump and eat lunch at the same time, but today Brendan is giving a noon seminar. I go to support him, and bring my lunch. During his talk, the physician sitting next to me plays Pokemon Go for the entire hour and I am aghast. 

Credit: Michele H.

Dinner: I pick the children up from the nanny and Lucille is hungry today. She asks for “macaroni” and we make a box of Hatch Green Chili Mac and Cheese from Sprouts, her favorite. We always have several of these boxes in our cabinets for emergencies. We steam some frozen peas in the microwave, and peel a clementine for her. I roast a sweet potato for Forest. Both children devour everything. After bedtime and bathtime, I head out to the gym for 20 minutes while Brendan cooks bacon in the oven. We make BLTs using our Dutch oven bread, the end of a head of romaine from the fridge, and tomatoes from the grocery haul. We find an aging avocado under all the apples, and make avocado mayo. We eat it with some leftover tortilla chips from our football party. I pour myself a glass of boxed red wine, and we head to the basement to watch the season finale of the newest season of Peaky Blinders. We’re in bed by 10 p.m. (although I’m wary of falling asleep right after watching that episode). 

Credit: Michele H.

Day 3: Tuesday

Breakfast: Everyone wakes up or is woken up at 7. I nurse the baby while Brendan gets Lucille ready. She requests scrambled eggs, so her breakfast this morning is two scrambled eggs, some leftover bacon from last night’s BLTs, and yogurt with berries. Forest munches on leftover avocado and sweet potato. He also takes a few bites of his sister’s eggs. Brendan fries an egg for each of the adults, and adds it on top of toast topped with the last of the avocado. I make Lucille a chocolate milk for the car and Forest his bottles and we are out the door for the day by 8:15. We try to be out the door by 8 a.m. most days, but potty training makes us chronically late to everything. I realize I forgot to give Lucille her chocolate milk at drop-off, and head back out to the car to retrieve it at work because I don’t want milk to sit in the hot car all day (it’s supposed to be 70 degrees today). I guess this is my chocolate milk now. I unapologetically drink it all. 

Credit: Michele H.

Lunch: I packed lunch for the adults this morning. We each have leftover risotto with an apple. I have another noon meeting, which means my pumping schedule is thrown off again. I completely forget my water bottle at several meetings and while pumping, which leads me to very ungraciously chug water at a water fountain. Since I’m breastfeeding I’m trying to drink at least 4 water bottles full of water at work, but it doesn’t often happen. You can’t bring water into the lab with you, which means I can’t drink water at my desk. I feel very dehydrated all day. 

Credit: Michele H.

Dinner: We make Melissa Clark’s Instant Pot chana masala! The Instant Pot is great at lots of things (beans, risotto, soup, yogurt), but I find everything we make in it tends to have the same texture. We don’t often make meat in it. We clearly aren’t vegetarian, but when I meal plan I try to only plan 2 meals with meat or chicken. We just don’t have the budget for more than that. I dream of the day that we can afford meat from happier animals or buy everything organic, but that day is not today.

Dinner isn’t ready until after the kid’s bedtime, so Lucille eats her leftovers from breakfast, with plain chickpeas sprinkled with cinnamon. Forest eats more sweet potato. Brendan really wants cilantro to put on the curry, so after bedtime I run across the street to our local Mexican bodega to buy cilantro. I don’t ever have cash on me, and they require a $5 minimum purchase for my debit card. So I also pick up a cucumber and three avocados since they are Forest’s favorite food. Somehow, avocados from the bodega are always perfectly ripe and delicious while grocery store avocados are hard as rocks and turn black instantly. I spend $6.35. Definitely not necessities; I should’ve scrounged up quarters from the car. We eat our warm meal, and watch an episode of Ugly Delicious (yes, we spend all of our free time cooking and/or watching TV shows about cooking) and go to sleep at 9:45 p.m.

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Day 4: Wednesday

Breakfast: I get up early to do a quick HIIT workout and do all the dishes. A dirty kitchen stresses me out. I wake the baby and nurse him while Brendan warms up oatmeal with chopped pears for Lucille. She’s not really into it, so he hides 5 chocolate chips in her oatmeal and suddenly she eats the whole thing. Forest partakes in his avocado bounty, and I pack the chana masala for lunch. I’m Peruvian, so when I make rice I make a lot of rice. I ate it almost every day when I was growing up. My dear husband is Irish and didn’t really eat rice until he met me. He made 2 single servings of rice last night — who does that? So, we are eating chana masala with tortillas for lunch today, as a sad naan substitute. I also pack us each an apple. I grab two slices of leftover banana bread for myself for breakfast, and head out the door. 

Credit: Michele H.

Lunch: The Association of International Researchers holds a cooking demo called “chickpeas around the world” as part of International Education week on campus. We learn recipes for hummus, falafel, and curry. They don’t provide lunch, but funnily enough I have exactly what they made in my bag. After the demo, I eat leftover chana masala with a tortilla and an apple while pumping. Perfect for this cold weather we are having! Not bad, but I wish I had rice. 

Credit: Michele H.

Dinner: It’s now snowing/sleeting (yes, it was 70 degrees yesterday). Lucille has cabin fever so she and Brendan go to the pool at the rec center since she can’t play outside. Forest eats some sweet potato and avocado. Brendan’s college friend was supposed to be visiting on Friday, but she’s arriving a day early. So I move the shrimp and orzo dish until tomorrow so we can share it with her. Forest gets a bath and a bottle, and goes to bed. Brendan and Lucille don’t get home until 8 p.m. Lucille eats leftover macaroni and cheese with peas, chana masala, and some potato wedges. Brendan tries to convince me to order ramen, but honestly, I don’t want to wait the 45 minutes for it to arrive. I make a Caesar salad and grilled cheese for myself. Brendan heats up some leftover pizza and also has a Caesar salad. We each have a small glass of wine. We watch another episode of Ugly Delicious and go to sleep. 

Day 5: Thursday

Breakfast: It’s snowy and icy, so I do a quick at-home workout before the kids wake up. Brendan makes French toast with the leftover banana bread while I wrangle the children. Lucille wants blueberry syrup, so he heats up some frozen blueberries with syrup he finds in the fridge until it’s a dark purple color. We all eat banana bread French toast with cut-up pears for breakfast and liberally use the blueberry syrup. It’s a hit with everyone.

Lunch: Brendan packs his own lunch to take to work (risotto, I think). Today I have a lab lunch with my coworkers to celebrate the end of one of the student rotations. I have an apple in my bag in case I get hungry beforehand. We go to the campus pub, and I order a gyro with a side of cottage cheese (weird, I know, but I love cottage cheese and not a lot of restaurants offer it as a side). I don’t drink soda or juice, so I stick with water. My boss pays. In the afternoon, I’m craving a treat after such a savory meal and grab a “healthy brownie” from the vending machine in our building ($1.45).

Credit: Michele H.

Dinner: We are all ready to make one of our favorite meals, Half Baked Harvest’s Cajun pepper shrimp with creamed corn orzo. Brendan calls me on the way home from work and tells me he’s craving soup. It’s below freezing outside and it’s been sleeting all day. He convinces me that we can use almost all of the same ingredients to make my mom’s famous Peruvian shrimp chowder, chupe de camarones. Her recipe is a secret, but it is similar to this one. He has to go to the grocery store to grab shrimp anyway, since I couldn’t find any on Sunday. I tell him he’s free to make it as long as he’s in charge. He grabs shrimp, potatoes, and frozen peas from the store and makes fish stock out of the shrimp carcasses ($17.34; Brendan was originally charged $19.34 but the shrimp was on sale. He noticed this on his way out, went to customer service, and got a $2 refund).

Our friend comes to visit, and she brings copious amounts of beer. We all drink a beer while getting the soup ready. Since this is not really a “weeknight easy” meal, I make Lucille a quick PB&J sandwich with a carrot salad (shredded carrots from our veggie drawer mixed with sesame dressing) and cut grapes. She proclaims her love of the salad, and eats mostly that for dinner. Kids love dips, dressings, and condiments. Forest isn’t eating much of anything tonight. We put the children to bed, and have a late dinner of chupe with the last of the homemade bread. It is so good and perfect for the weather. I steal a couple of Lucille’s coveted gummy worms gifted to her by my sister for dessert. She has no preference, so I eat mostly the red and orange worms and leave her the less favorable green and yellow worms. Brendan and his friend stay up chatting, and I secretly escape to our room to read a book and fall asleep by 10 p.m. 

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Day 6: Friday

Breakfast: Both children are still sleeping at 7:15 a.m. this morning! I wish this was the weekend so we could all sleep in. We slowly wake them and make a breakfast of 2 scrambled eggs, and yogurt topped with blueberries for Lucille. Forest eats some eggs and smushed blueberries as well. I have a biweekly tumor immunology seminar on Friday mornings and breakfast is provided, so I don’t eat at home. I pack chana masala and tortillas for lunch for the adults and make Forest’s bottles. We head out and listen to the “Friday Funk” on our local radio station. At work, I have a cup of free coffee. Today it’s bagels or muffins for breakfast, so I choose a sesame bagel with cream cheese and try to stay awake through the carbo-loading. Eating at work is sometimes cost- and time-effective, but I find that the food is mostly unhealthy and heavily processed. We used to have breakfast burritos and a fruit platter for this seminar, but I guess it changed. Again, I’m slightly disappointed in my choice. 

Lunch: I’ve somehow lost my water bottle between my lab and the lactation room, so I don’t drink as much water in the morning as usual. I find it in the lactation room, thankfully! I heat up my chana masala and have a very unglamorous date with myself and my Medela. While eating and pumping, I do some Christmas shopping. 

Dinner: It’s our friend’s 30th birthday party today, so we have a baby sitter coming at 7 p.m. The nice thing about working on a medical campus is that there are students everywhere who are willing to babysit. We feed Lucille more leftover hatch green chili macaroni and cheese and a pear. Both children get baths and are in bed by 7. It’s easier for us if the kids are already in bed when the babysitter arrives, so once she gets to the house, we leave. We pack a jar of homemade green chili to gift to the birthday boy, and bring our Instax camera to take photos. At the party, there is a keg of beer. We drink beer and eat roast chicken, salad, stuffing, and sweet potatoes. There is pumpkin and apple pie as well as birthday cake. Brendan is firmly in the pie-is-the-best-dessert category, and I’ve always been in the cake-is-best category. So, he has pie and I have a big slice of birthday cake (funfetti!) for dessert. We also play a game of “salad bowl” — I’ve never heard of it but everyone else seems to know what’s going on. It’s really fun, and my team wins. We leave way too late for parents with small children, and I’m sure we will all be feeling it tomorrow. 

Day 7: Saturday

Breakfast: I get up early to plan the menu for the rest of the week, and the toddler nanny share menu for the upcoming week (my goal is to do it all under $150). Lucille wakes up and heads over to her learning stool in the kitchen. Brendan and Lucille make homemade applesauce from the bag of apples I bought on Sunday. They peel the apples, chop them up, and simmer them on the stove with a cinnamon stick. This is Lucille’s absolute favorite food. While simmering, Brendan packs up the rest of the chana masala to freeze for future dinners to make room for all the Thanksgiving-related groceries that will be invading our house. Lucille proceeds to eat handfuls of cold chana masala standing at the kitchen counter. So, we call that and the applesauce breakfast for her. We play outside and wait for our friend to wake up. She offers to grab all of us breakfast burritos from the Mexican restaurant across the street. Brendan and I both get jamon (ham) and eggs. Each burrito is $2.50. Our friend buys us breakfast, and even gets a burrito for Lucille! She leaves to make it home while it is still light out, and we have a lazy morning watching cartoons and eating burritos while Forest takes his first nap, around 11 a.m.

Dinner: We forget/run out of time to eat lunch before Lucille and Forest wake up from their naps. I swear, going to work full-time is easier than taking care of two kids. Lucille wakes up from her nap and requests to “do something fun.” It’s nice out today so we go on a quick bike ride when the kids wake up from their naps. When we get back, we have family dinner. Everyone eats chupe, even Forest. Family dinner was a priority for both me and Brendan when we were growing up, so we try to implement is as often as we can. I had also bought all of the ingredients to make one of our favorite dinners — Cookie and Kate’s roasted cauliflower and lentil tacos — but they get moved until tomorrow. Tonight, the easy meal wins out. After the children go to bed, Brendan and I are fried from doing all the things, so we watch an episode of Ugly Delicious and go to bed by 9 p.m.

Credit: Photos: Shutterstock; Design: Kitchn

1. How did you set your food budget?

I set the budget for everything else first and see what is left. Brendan and I only get paid once a month, so by the end of the month, money is always tight. Childcare in Denver for two children is not cheap, and neither is our mortgage. From our take-home pay, I subtract out childcare, the mortgage, and utilities. Then necessary expenses like dog food and diapers. Before children, our food budget was $50 a week. This became unattainable once Lucille started requiring real food (who knew organic milk was so expensive?), so I upped it to $75. I try to only go to the grocery store once and use what we have the remainder of the week. Brendan and I also allot ourselves “fun money,” which is what we typically use if we go out to a restaurant or on date night. We try not to go out to eat unless we are really craving something we can’t make ourselves and only go out on a date once a month. We go once a month to Sam’s Club to buy consumables like paper towels, dish soap, laundry detergent, etc. We also buy 20+ pound bags of flour, sugar, and rice twice a year. 

I’m also a big meal planner and meal prepper. On Saturdays, I usually plan out all the family dinners for the week. On a typical week, I plan 3 to 4 dinners plus 2 toddler-specific meals for our nanny share. I usually peruse two or three cookbooks looking for recipes that use up a lot of what we already have and are within our budget. I also love food blogs and get a lot of inspiration from them. I prep one Instant Pot recipe on Sundays that will make enough leftovers for a few lunches for Brendan and myself. We also try to make enough of all of our meals to have leftovers for lunch.

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

Dried legumes, eggs, flour, and frozen vegetables. I also couldn’t meal prep the way that I do without an Instant Pot, a KitchenAid mixer, and onion goggles. Oh, and a deep freezer. 

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

For us two adults, it’s red lentil soup with lemon. For the toddlers, it’s roasted honey cinnamon chickpeas. Lucille asks for these routinely.

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.