Family Food: Seeking Balance Between Healthy, Sustainable, Affordable

Welcome to the July Carnival of Natural Parenting: Let’s talk about food

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have written about their struggles and successes with healthy eating. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


As a mama to a family of 5, I spend a fair bit of time thinking, planning, shopping for and preparing meals and snacks.  We rarely eat out (or get take out) due to the logistics of eating in a restaurant with three small kids, and because of my husband’s food allergies (dairy and beef –all things cow) which make eating out more challenging.  Lonnie works (and eats) from home 2-3 times a week, too, and also takes his lunch sometimes on the other days as well.sushi!
Making Sushi. Yum Yum!

We go through a LOT of food.  A little more than a year ago, when Elsie and Delia had just turned one and were ramping up their solid intake (eating anything we gave them, oh, I miss those days!) I was shocked to discover how huge our grocery budget had become.  It was amazingly high.  Lonnie and I both love to cook and are "foodies" by nature; while we don’t spend much at all on entertainment, travel and recreational activities, we definitely splurge on the types of food we buy, both for taste and convenience.  Not tons of processed foods (those are hard with the dairy allergy!) but things like storebought breads & cereals, crackers and other snack foods, special jarred sauces, fresh and dried herbs, imported ethnic ingredients. Tons of fruit. Some frozen prepared foods.  Quite a bit of meat & fish.  We don’t eat vegetarian much — maybe once a week. 

After my initial freakout over the the high grocery bills, I started trying to rein in our spending a bit.  Not all that successfully at first, but over time things got better.  I stopped buying breads, and mostly made our own with our bread machine.  I tried to buy less crackers and snack foods.  I started buying in bulk more, and stocking up  and working our menus around what I found on sale.  I started shopping at bargain food places like "Grocery Outlet".  I started meal planning.  I stopped trying to replace everything we ran out of, and just worked with what we had in our (very plentiful) pantry and extra freezer.  

muffin tin mealsThese things did help, though I know I could have taken it a lot further, too.  I could have been a better shopper and planner.  I could have clipped coupons.  We worked on being better about food waste, but it still happened.  We still ate somewhat extravagantly.   On the other hand, I was sometimes sacrificing things that I really wished I didn’t have to.  I stopped buying as much organic foods and "natural" brands, and bought more conventional ones.  The meats & dairy products we were buying in those super cheap "family packs" at the regular grocery store were not the nice free range, local, organic options I’d have liked my family to be eating.  But, oh, the prices were so good!    

A few months ago, Lonnie and I watched the movie, Food Inc.  I had known about it for awhile, and was kind of avoiding it (both the movie itself, and the big problems with our food system in general).  But, it was time.  After watching that movie, I made a commitment to shop and feed my family differently.  But how to do that, and also stay on budget???  It’s so unfortunate that there can be such a disparity in cost between "good" and "bad" foods (not only for our bodies, but our society, and the planet, as well).  

In the couple months since then, I have made some changes, gone back to my previous ways on others, and have more in mind to tackle. Here is a list of some of the things I do (or am hoping to do) to balance our desire for high quality, sustainable, healthy food while keeping our food bills from rocketing through the roof.  I will totally admit, we are not there yet!  

Fruits and Veggies

  • Delia eating peasBelonging to an organic CSA.  We’ve been doing this for a couple years now, and will continue.  I feel like it’s a pretty affordable way to get organic fruits and veggies and "buy local" (though I will admit our current one, which we love, does not grow all its own produce — we get some things from California, too, especially in the off-seasons).  With ours, I can edit or substitute what I want in our box online, to best fit our needs and make the most out of our money.
  • Growing our own!  We have two raised beds and a host of other little beds with tomatoes, beets, chard, lettuce, peas, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, apples, plums, artichokes and a ton of herbs.  We don’t always get enough harvest to feel like we are being super productive, but it’s something, and we know our own fruits and veggies are healthy for us….  
  • Buying local whenever I can.  Buying organic for the "dirty dozen" and conventional for the "clean 15".  All the others — it depends on the source and the price.  But, if conventional is the only option, I go for it — I figure conventional fruit & vegetables are better than no fruit & veggies, right?
  • Buying in bulk what is in season (and therefore inexpensive), either to flash freeze or to can (ha ha, we’ll see)
  • Buying canned or packaged frozen fruits & veggies in bulk or in deep discount, as sales happen 
  • Farmer’s markets.  Sadly, we don’t do this much, right now.  I want to!   It’s been hard, though, with three little ones that get bored pretty fast.  I think it should be doable, though, and could be a great outing for us — I just need to work on the timing and logistics.  

Meats, Dairy, Protein

  • Spending more money on high quality meats, but cooking less of it and doing more vegetarian meals to balance out the cost.  I need to work harder on the vegetarian stuff, for sure.    
  • Buying a large quantity (high quality/free range/sustainable/organic) meat share — half a hog, for us, since we don’t do beef.  For Seattlites, we bought from Thundering Hooves.  I am still looking for a good (and affordable) organic chicken source — for now, it’s organic chicken from Costco.  I also want to find a good, somewhat cost effective source of sustainable fish & seafood.  Any ideas, Seattlites?
  • We get our milk and eggs delivered to our doorstep, and while it’s not always cheaper than the store, it’s competitive enough for me to keep using it.  I like having a face-to-face connection to the person we buy from and our supporting (our milkman, Jerry).  This also means I don’t have to make unnecessary trips to the store (meaning fewer impulse buys) AND I know the milk is local and fresh off the cow.  I splurge for organic for the kids, conventional for me, though I toy with getting all organic. 
  • Someday (not now!) we want to raise chickens.  Lonnie also wants bees.  I, however, can’t handle caring for (and cleaning up after!) any more beings, right now.  This is definitely a future goal.    

Other Foods & Shopping

Pancake thief!
Pancake Thief!

  • Baking our own whole grain breads with the bread machine.  Making muffins,waffles, and pancakes in large batches and freezing them. 
  • Making more of our own snack foods, like granola and granola bars, popcorn, somewhat healthy (am I kidding myself?) cookies, cereal bars.   Easing back on buying as many packaged snacks such as crackers — and getting them on sale when I do. 
  • Drinking water instead of juice or other beverages (other than milk for the kids & me)
  • Buying in bulk (and doing the research to know for sure if it’s truly cheaper), buying sales, buying from discount stores.  
  • Sticking to the list in the store.  Oh, man, is this hard for me!  Especially because I can only get to the store once a week or so, sometimes, and just want to stock up.  Must stick to the list, unless I am truly on a bargain hunt and needing to fill the pantry.  
  • Using coupons?  I really don’t do this regularly.  Perhaps I should.  I know some folks swear by it!  Any pointers for a busy mama?

 Meal Planning

  • Planning ahead enough to shop and use food efficiently, but being flexible enough to work around great sales and fresh ingredients. 
  • Planning not just dinners but breakfast, snacks, and lunches too, so I don’t just grab what’s easy or in front of me without thinking it through
  • Budgeting time in the morning to pack snacks and lunches for outings with the kids, so we don’t resort to high-priced snacks or unhealthful fast food when we are out (the occasional treat, though, is still totally fine by me!)
  • Consciously using pantry foods instead of letting them sit. 
  • Looking up/creating (and writing down so we remember them!) new "budget friendly" meals that we all enjoy
  • Making double batches of meals, and freezing them, in large sizes for family dinners, or single serve portions for lunches. 
  • Incorporating leftovers into the meal plan, and using them more efficiently
  • Serving my kids smaller portions (with second helpings available, of course) and teaching them to self-serve their own portions effectively, so that there is less kid-related food waste. This is hard, and on one hand drives me NUTS, but on the other is really just a part of kids learning to estimate their appetite.   A very hard, but critical skill! 

I know we have quite a ways to go, and also that we are lucky to be able to afford what we are currently doing.   Also, I know that some of these things will become easier to follow as my kids get older (and hopefully less picky!).  What have I missed?  What are your thoughts or ideas about how to plan, budget, shop & cook in a way that is healthful for growing bodies and the planet, time efficient, and pleasing to the palate, as well?  

blueberry picking Blueberry picking
Picking Organic Blueberries at Finnriver Farm 


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be updated July 13 with all the carnival links.)

Related posts:

10 comments to Family Food: Seeking Balance Between Healthy, Sustainable, Affordable

  • Man, you have some EXCELLENT points and I’m going to pass this around.

    I’ve basically lived exactly what you’ve written about and I’ve gone back to the organic, local choices after trying to “go cheap” with the crappy stuff.

    To cut costs I joined a farm delivery service (sorta like a CSA, but a tad cheaper), and I only buy humanely-treated, local meats (from the same service).

    Eating less meat has helped with costs immensely, too. I can barely eat what they bring every two weeks, so I think I’m doing pretty well.

    Re: coupons, I’ve never seen a coupon for local, organic foods, or for boxed foods with less than 20 ingredients. They’re always for store-brand processed foods or conventional meats and produce… so I never use coupons.

    (PS: I almost couldn’t post this because the “simple math question” stumped me for a second hahaha)

  • It’s so funny that you put off watching Food Inc. We did exactly the same, knowing what we’d be reminded of the things we already knew but weren’t putting into practice. Sigh.

    I think you have so many great ideas here, and I respect any sort of shopping you manage with three littles! :) We love Thundering Hooves, too. I wish we could do a dairy delivery (do you use Smith Bros?), but they won’t deliver to secured buildings. For organic/local fish, we see lots of people fishing off the piers in West Seattle. 😉 I would love to have chickens someday, but no yard right now. I never thought of having bees. How cool!

    Your idea to work leftovers into the meal plan is where I stumble so often. If you figure out how to do that, let me know! I feel so wasteful when we let leftovers go bad.

    As for coupons, the only ones that have helped me are joining the PCC co-op. It’s really affordable, and it’s a lifetime membership ($60), and they send you a coupon for 10% off your order in the mail each month, so you can make back the membership cost really fast. I don’t know if you have a PCC near you, but maybe something similar? It’s cheapest there to buy bulk things (grains, beans, etc.), but a challenge when the littles want to “help” with the dispensing. We have just the one, and we pretty much always make a huge mess in that aisle. Sorry, PCC! Oh, also, every kid gets to choose a free piece of fruit to munch on while you shop.

  • Kristin

    Jessica — that is true that many of the coupons are for processed foods! I think there are some for staples that we would/could be better about finding and using, but for the most part, it feels like it takes more time than it would save money, for me.

    Lauren — Yes, we use Smith Bros! That is too bad they don’t deliver to apts like that. Bummer. I do like PCC & we are members! Its great for the dairy free things, for sure, but I spend to much there buying their other stuff –maybe I should stick to the bulk aisle. But then I still need to shop elsewhere for the rest of my groceries, which means two shopping trips instead of one.

    When I do go, the toddlers are definitely strapped into the stroller and/or carriers (they also don’t have double seater carts, boo!) because them in the bulk food aisle would be more than I could take! Ha!

  • Great tips and information! I love the the toddler food in the muffin pan. I do that with my toddler too :)

  • Love all these ideas, and beautiful pics too!

  • Sybil

    Are you on the WS Moms meet-up group? There is a mom I met there who is awesome at finding natural/organic deals. If I can find the note she wrote on FB about it I will send it along to yoy. One of my favorite things to use is Chinook books. My friend has about a dozen!

  • Kristin

    I’m not on the WS meetup group, Sybil, though I’d love to see her tips if you can find it! I have used chinook books in the past, but not very effectively (I was penny pinching less than, ha ha). Good idea!

  • Margaret Burman

    Love your blog! I too had a similar experience after watching Food, Inc. It’s a shocking movie. We wrote to each other awhile ago back when Google Wave or whatever that was came out. I’m also a Carleton alum (’01)and am married to Mike Burman. I have a blog too and have been borrowing a lot of your ideas (thanks!!). Anyway, my most recent post gives props to you, so thought you might like to see :)
    Here’s the link:
    Stay tuned for pics of our Music Wall! It’s a work in progress right now.

  • Great post. I have had many of the same struggles without even adding kids into the equation yet. I have been meaning to try one of those organic fruit and vegetable delivery services. Maybe it is time for me to actually do it!

    I have also been avoiding food inc. Supersize me was bad enough!

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